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20 mysterious wonders discovered by archaeologists

by Martin Morin

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Forget Indiana Jones! Some of the most important archaeological discoveries in history are more fascinating than fiction. Here are 20 incredible finds that continue to inspire a sense of wonder and sometimes even outlandish theories. Who knows when the next major discovery will be made!

Knossos, Crete

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The enormous palace of Knossos dating to about 1950 BCE was discovered in 1900. Its 1,300 rooms, many of which feature walls decorated with colourful frescoes, make it an astounding discovery. But it is the thousands of clay tablets, ordinary at first glance, which are the true find. The tablets are inscribed with previously unknown languages — including the earliest known form of Greek — which took about 50 years to be deciphered.

Machu Picchu, Peru

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This enormous citadel, built in the 15th century on a mountain ridge in the middle of the Peruvian jungle, is a testament to the power of the Inca Empire, where roughly 750 people lived long ago. The arrival of conquistador Francisco Pizarro and his modern weapons quickly rang the death knell for this South American civilization, which was subsequently abandoned. It wasn’t until 1911 that professor Hiram Bingham III discovered the site that has amazed millions of tourists ever since. Mass tourism has unfortunately led to the site’s slow erosion due to trampling.

The Oseberg Ship, Norway

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In 1903 a farmer in Oseberg, a village about 70 kilometres (43 miles) from Oslo, brought some timber remains to the university museum that he had unearthed from a six-metre-high (20-foot-high) mound on his land. A subsequent visit to the site led to a spectacular discovery: a complete Viking ship, impeccably preserved by the blue-clay subsoil, containing numerous artifacts. Measuring 21.5 metres (70 feet) long and 5.1 metres (17 feet) wide, the ship (circa 820) was an incredible treasure to discover, with its rich carved wooden ornaments. The skeletal remains of two women were also found on board, one of which may have been a notable figure from the Norse sagas!

The Tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, China

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Nearly 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots pulled by over 500 horses, as well as 150 cavalry horses, acrobats, and musicians, all life-size and made of terra cotta, were found in the extraordinary mausoleum of the first Qin emperor, Qin Shi Huang (259 to 210 BCE), discovered by chance by local farmers in 1974. The site was soon added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. While tourists cannot visit the mausoleum itself, they can view the sculptures elsewhere.

The Rosetta Stone, Egypt

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Discoveries made by chance are often the most important, such as the mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. It is also thanks to chance that one of the most significant finds for the study of languages was discovered: the Rosetta Stone, found in 1799 by a group of French soldiers in the port city of Rashid (Rosetta), in Egypt. What makes the stone so special is that the Pharaonic decree inscribed on it, dating from 196 BCE, appears in three different scripts: Egyptian hieroglyphics, ancient Greek, and Egyptian demotic. Twenty-three years after it was found, Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion managed to decipher the Egyptian language, solving a mystery that had remained a secret to that day.

King Tut’s Tomb, Egypt

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Tutankhamun’s tomb is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular — and most renowned — discoveries of modern archaeology. Despite his young age and short reign (Tutankhamun became king at age 9 and only reigned for about 10 years), his tomb is incredibly lavish, containing an inner coffin made of solid gold with inlay of enamel and semi-precious stones. While tomb raiders have always been active in Egypt, Tutankhamun’s tomb was only discovered in 1922 by Egyptologist Howard Carter, who, to protect its treasures, perpetuated the myth that anyone who entered the tomb would be cursed.

The Lost City of Troy, Greece

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Homer’s Iliad, dating between 850 and 750 BCE, is an ancient Greek epic poem that has captivated the imagination of many. Historians remained divided on whether the Trojan War as described in the poem actually took place and whether Troy was a real city — until the discovery by archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann toward the end of the 19th century, at the Hisarlik site in Turkey. Is it really the lost city of Troy? Perhaps. What is known is that more than a dozen cities were built in the same location, one on top of the other, and they were inhabited between 3000 and 1500 BCE. As for the Trojan horse? That remains a myth.

The City of Pompeii, Italy

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It was 16th-century architect Domenico Fontana who discovered this Italian city buried since 79 CE under the volcanic debris left by the massive eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which quickly engulfed the city and transformed its inhabitants into statues. Six to seven metres (20 to 23 feet) of volcanic ash and stone covered the area, protecting it from the elements and looting for centuries to come. Today, tourists can view the remains and imagine the shock and terror the people of Pompeii must have experienced.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, the West Bank

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In 1947, while looking for a stray goat near the Qumran site in the West Bank, a young shepherd discovered a set of seven scrolls dating between the last three centuries BCE and the first century CE. Hundreds of other manuscripts were eventually found in nearby cellars. The scrolls contain biblical texts (including copies of Genesis, Exodus, and Deuteronomy) as well as psalms, calendars, and hymns, making them the oldest-known parts of the Hebrew Bible. The texts are mainly written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

The Cave of Altamira, Spain

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Lascaux Cave may be the most famous, but the discovery of the exceptional Cave of Altamira in 1879 — by an amateur archaeologist and his young daughter — led to the discovery of Paleolithic drawings, made with natural earth pigments and charcoal. Horses, deer, bison, and aurochs (an extinct species of wild cattle), as well as the outlines of human hands, adorn the walls of the cave. Early analyses date this prehistoric art to about 18,000 years ago, but recent studies suggest they were actually created about 35,600 years ago, at a time when humans were beginning to spread across northern Europe.

Easter Island, off the coast of Chile

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Who hasn’t dreamed of visiting the island that is home to the giant head statues (or moai), whose origins are still the subject of speculation, as are the techniques used to move these multi-ton rocks. Nearly 1,000 of these carvings are spread across Rapa Nui (the island’s true name), built between the 11th and 17th centuries, and measuring up to nine metres (30 feet) in height. Hard to find a discovery more spectacular than these. Or a location more cut off from the world: the island is located off the coast of Chile, more than 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) from the nearest inhabited land. Rapa Nui was visited in 1722 by Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, which he named Easter Island because he landed there on Easter.

The Geoglyphs of Nazca, Peru

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The Nazca Lines — or geoglyphs — that make up these huge drawings that cannot be seen from the ground were scratched into the earth or created with rocks. Dating to 500 BCE, they were never really “discovered” as they can be seen from the nearby hills and local inhabitants of this Peruvian plateau likely knew of their existence all along. It was not until the 1940s, however, that American historian Paul Kosok began to seriously study them. How did the “artists” achieve this feat, reproducing not only complex drawings, but also monkeys, birds, llamas, and other geometric shapes, over an area spanning nearly 450 square kilometres (170 square miles)? These magnificent works of art — which are being destroyed little by little by human activity — continue to inspire new theories as to how they were made.

Underwater Caves, Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico

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In January 2018, a major discovery was made in the underground caves of Yucatán, Mexico: two of the largest flooded cavern systems are connected, making them the world’s largest flooded cave network. “This immense cave represents the most important submerged archaeological site in the world,” according to National Geographic explorer Guillermo de Anda. And for good reason: so far, skeletons of gomphotheres (prehistoric elephant-like herbivores) and giant sloths from 15,000 years ago have been found, in addition to 120 artefact sites, some of which are 12,000 years old, and a 9,000-year-old human skull covered in limestone. And more discoveries are still being found!

Göbekli Tepe, Turkey

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Could it be the world’s first temple? Some archaeologists and historians believe it is, which makes this ordinary-looking site extraordinary. To put it in context, it would predate Stonehenge by 6,000 years and the Great Pyramid of Giza by 7,500 years. Presumed to be about 12,000 years old, it is undoubtedly one of the first urban centres in the world. Initially examined by academics and anthropologists in the 1960s, it was quickly dismissed as medieval ruins of little interest before a new team investigated the site in 1994, attesting to its importance. When people lived here, woolly mammoth was still on the menu…

Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania

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It could be the oldest evidence of human evolution, proof of Darwinism. That’s how important this African site is, where paleontologists discovered hundreds of fossilized bones and stone tools. Their conclusion? Humans evolved in Africa. Husband and wife paleontologists Louis and Mary Leakey made the first discoveries in the 1930s. Political instability in Kenya, neighbouring Tanzania, delayed their research, but they returned in the 1950s to make their greatest discovery: skull fragments from a new category of hominin, dating back 1.75 million years!

The Temple of Angkor Wat, Cambodia

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One of the earliest handwritten records of the huge complex of stone-built temples in Angkor comes from Marcelo Ribandeyro, a Spaniard who stumbled upon the site while exploring the Cambodian jungle. Ribandeyro didn’t know what to make of it, and the site remained forgotten. It was the travel diaries of Henri Mouhot, a French naturalist and explorer, who, in the middle of the 19th century, alerted the West to the existence of this mystical-looking place. The Temple of Angkor Wat, which symbolizes the soul of the Khmers, was originally dedicated to the deity Vishnu before it became a Buddhist temple in the 12th century. Protected by UNESCO, the temple is one of Cambodia’s top tourist destinations.

The Gate to Hell, Turkey

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Pluto’s Gate, or the Gate to Hell for the not so faint of heart, is a stone monument dedicated to the god of the same name, built in the second century BCE in Hierapolis, Turkey. The gate is aptly named as deadly vapours waft out of the cavern on which the “gate” was built. Discovered in 1965, the site revealed two more discoveries in 2012. A team of researchers found two unique marble statues which served as guardians to the mysterious and deadly cave. One of them represents Cerberus, the monstrous three-headed dog, guardian of the underworld; the other a snake, an iconic symbol of hell. Clearly, they got the name of the gate right.

The Antikythera Mechanism

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This 2,000-year-old mechanism, found in a shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera in the early 20th century and then forgotten until the 1950s, is the first known computer in history. To be exact, it’s the first scientific calculator, with an intricate system of gears that can calculate with incredible precision — remember, it was built circa 200 BCE — the position of the sun, moon, and planets by entering the date. It’s a remarkable discovery of ancient engineering. Fun fact: there’s also a Lego version.

The Grave of Richard III, England

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This spectacular discovery made headlines and excited historians and Shakespeare lovers alike. The tomb of Richard III, the King of England who died in battle in 1485 and the “hero” of Shakespeare’s play of the same name, was finally found in 2012 — under the parking lot next to Greyfriars Church in Leicester. Not exactly the funeral celebrations one might have expected. Three years later, the king was reburied, this time in a marble tomb next to the altar in Leicester Cathedral.

The Mysterious Voynich Manuscript

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An elaborate hoax or the real deal? Either way, this 234-page book (with 13 missing folios) of unknown origin was purchased by Polish book collector and seller Wilfrid Voynich in 1912. Only 33 pages contain text — the rest are illustrated with simple drawings and illuminations. The book is allegedly 600 years old and is thought to come from Central Europe. The problem is that the writing is completely unintelligible. The manuscript could be one of the most elaborate hoaxes in history, a mystery that has kept people guessing since the Middle Ages or the Renaissance. Or it could be an indecipherable treasure.

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