18. For centuries, nobody could read Ancient Egyptian writings
Beginning with Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt in 332 BC, Greek became the language of the ruling elite. Native Egyptian writing, whether colorfully picturesque hieroglyphs found on the walls of temples and monuments, or the simpler demotic script, went into a steady decline. Hieroglyphs continued to be used by priests, and demotic continued to be used by commoners, as century succeeded century with Egypt ruled by outsiders, who used a foreign official language, native Egyptian writing waned.
The spread of Christianity centuries later eventually killed off the ancient Egyptian religion, and as the old gods’ priests vanished into history, so did their knowledge of hieroglyphs. Centuries later, the arrival of Islam, Arabs, and the Arabic language, killed off the Egyptian demotic language and script as well. Eventually, the day arrived when knowledge of Ancient Egyptian writing vanished. Egypt became a country teeming with ancient monuments, covered with colorful and intriguing texts and symbols that nobody could make head or tails of.
17. The stunning find and feat that opened the door to hieroglyphics
On August 21st, 1799, Pierre Bouchard, a French army captain who had accompanied Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, was supervising the restoration of an old fort near the town of Rosetta. When the French captain’s men uncovered a block of basalt measuring 3ft 9in high by 2ft 4in wide, and inscribed with three different types of writing, Bouchard immediately grasped its significance. He promptly alerted the team of French scholars who had accompanied Napoleon to Egypt.
The discovery, which came to be known as the Rosetta Stone, contained Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Egyptian demotic scripts. Nobody knew how to read hieroglyphs or demotic, but scholars could read Greek, and the Greek text informed archaeologists that the stoned honored 2nd century BC king Ptolemy V. More importantly, the Greek text declared that the three scripts contained the identical message. The artifact thus held the key to solving the riddle of ancient Egyptian writing, which had been dead for over a millennium. Several scholars made initial progress in cracking the hieroglyphs, until French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion conclusively cracked the code in 1822. From then on, the language, history, and culture of ancient Egypt was opened to scholars as never before.
16. The library of Ashurbanipal contained over 30,000 tablets from Ancient Mesopotamia
Ashurbanipal (reigned 668 – circa 627 BC) was the last great ruler of the Neo Assyrian Empire. The empire, founded in Mesopotamia in the 10th century BC, became the world’s biggest state until that date, and dominated much of the Middle East until its collapse in 609 BC. Ashurbanipal was a great military commander, but combined that with an intellectual bent that was rare for that era. In addition to being literate and mastering multiple languages, Ashurbanipal was a passionate collector of tablets and texts. He hired scribes to copy texts, sent others across the empire to find more, seized texts from defeated enemies as booty, and was not above using military threats to convince neighbors to send him texts from their countries.
In 1849, British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard hit the jackpot when he discovered Ashurbanipal’s library in Ninveh, in today’s Iraq. In it were over 30,000 tablets and writing boards – many of them severely fragmented, but many still recoverable and legible. They included laws, diplomatic correspondence, financial and religious documents, plus texts on medicine, astronomy, and literature. One of the most significant finds in the library was The Epic of Gilgamesh, a masterpiece of ancient Babylonian poetry dating to the third millennium BC, considered to be humanity’s oldest literary work.
15. The accidental discovery of the greatest surviving Inca Site
Hiram Bingham was born in 1875 to American missionary parents in Hawaii. As a child, he wanted to follow in his parents’ footsteps, but he as grew up, it became evident that he was not cut out for a life of spreading the Word: he enjoyed playing football and outdoors activities far more than reading Bible. He ended up going to Yale, then studied for a PhD in Harvard. He hit the jackpot when he met, wooed, and married, the heiress to the Tiffany Jewelry fortune – to her parents’ dismay. His wife’s money afforded him the opportunity to indulge his passion for traveling and exploring, and he took full advantage of that.
Bingham was fascinated by the history of the Inca Empire, and in 1911, he led an expedition in Peru, seeking the lost city of Vilcabamba, the last refuge of Inca Manco Capac, who resisted the Spaniards into the 1530s. While exploring ruins near Cuzco, he ran into a local farmer who told him there were more ruins atop a nearby mountain. Bingham and his team walked and rode mules to the top of the mountain, where they discovered Machu Picchu, which had remained largely untouched during Peru’s Spanish colonial period. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world – so popular, that a limit had to be put on the number of tourists allowed to visit.
14. The grand monument of China’s most megalomaniacal ruler
Qin Shi Huangdi (259 – 210 BC) ruled the Chinese kingdom of Qin during the Warring States Period. He ascended the throne as a child, and in his teens, wrested power from the regents who had governed during his minority. He then consolidated his power by massacring palace plotters who sought to usurp his prerogatives. Shi Huangdi then went on the warpath: he pushed back the northern barbarians, conquered all neighboring Chinese states and consolidated them under his rule, and declared himself the first emperor of a united China.
With unchecked power and the resources of an entire empire to draw upon, Shi Huangdi, grew megalomaniacal. He launched huge projects with massive amounts of forced labor, such as 700,000 laborers working on his tomb for 30 years. Millions more labored to dig canals, level hills, make roads, and build over 700 palaces. The biggest project of all was the Great Wall of China, which did double duty: keeping the northern barbarians out, and Chinese seeking to flee Qin Shi Huang’s heavy taxation and oppressive rule, in. His empire collapsed soon after his death, and as the centuries passed, it became less and less clear if the extent of his projects belonged more to the realm of myth or to that of history. Then his tomb was discovered in 1974.
13. Discovering Qin She Huang’s Tom revolutionized our understanding of Ancient China
On March 29th, 1974, some Chinese farmers were digging a well near the old Chinese city of Xianyang, in a region full of underground springs and watercourses. The workers found some strange figures, and advised the authorities. Chinese archaeologists visited the site, and soon discovered that the farmers had stumbled across one of the greatest archaeological sites of the world: Qin Shi Huangid’s burial complex. Huge pits housed thousands of life-sized statues of warriors, each with unique facial expressions, dressed and positioned according to rank. Behind them were horses and chariots, the entire force presumable placed there to guard the emperor in the afterlife.
The Terracotta Warriors, as they came to be known, are mostly gray today, but they had originally been painted in bright colors. Further excavations have revealed swords, arrows, spears, and other weapons, many in pristine conditions, that shed light on ancient Chinese warfare. The pits, four of which have been excavated so far, are now open to tourism. Astonishingly, the thousands of Terracotta Warriors are just a fraction of Qin Shi Huangdi’s gigantic tomb complex: the bulk his grand burial monument has yet to be excavated.
12. The catastrophe that proved a Godsend for Archaeology
On August 24th, 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius blew its top with a force 100,000 times greater than that of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs. The eruption tossed deadly debris, mixed with a cloud of poisonous gasses, over 20 miles up into the air. As Vesuvius spewed into the air, lava and hot pumice poured out of the volcano’s mouth at a rate of 1.5 million tons per second. The mixture raced down Vesuvius’ side to devastate the surrounding region and destroy nearby towns, of which Pompeii and Herculaneum are the best known.
In preceding days, there had been tremors, but they were not unusual. Then, around noon on August 24th, a cloud appeared atop Vesuvius, and about an hour later, the volcano erupted and ash began to fall on Pompeii, 6 miles away. By 2PM, olcanic debris, begin to fall with the ash, and by 5PM sunlight had been completely blocked and roofs in Pompeii began collapsing under the accumulating weight of ash and pumice. Panicked townspeople rushed to the harbor seeking any ship that would take them away.
11. The rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum revolutionized our understanding our understanding of Ancient Roman life
Vesuvius’ lava did not reach Pompeii or Herculaneum, but it sent heat waves of more than 550 degrees Fahrenheit into those towns, turning them into ovens and killing any who had not already suffocated from the fine ash. About 1500 bodies were found in Pompeii and Herculaneum when they were unearthed centuries later, from just a small area impacted by the volcano’s eruption. Extrapolating to the surrounding regions, total casualties are estimated to have been in the tens of thousands.
The towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, whose populations at the time numbered about 20,000, were buried beneath up to 20 feet of volcanic ash and pumice. Tragic and terrifying as that was, the ash deposits did a remarkably effective job of preserving those towns nearly entire. In 1738, laborers digging foundations for a palace rediscovered Herculaneum, and further excavations unearthed Pompeii in 1748. The archaeological finds afforded historians an unrivaled snapshot of 1st century AD Roman architecture, city planning, urban infrastructure, and town life in general.
10. The controversial find that shaped early Hominid studies for decades
In 1912, an amateur archaeologist, Charles Dawson, announced the discovery of human-like fossils in Piltdown, East Sussex, consisting of fossilized fragments of a cranium, jawbone, and other parts. Britain’s premier paleontologist pronounced the fossils evidence of a hitherto unknown proto-human species. Further excavations were made nearby in 1913 and 1914, unearthing stone tools, plus teeth and additional skull fragments. So were animal remains, and a mysterious carved bone resembling a cricket bat. The excitement mounted with each new find. At the time, there was a growing, and as it ultimately turned out, correct, scientific belief that human evolution had occurred in Africa. It was there that fossils of homo erectus, an early hominid, had been discovered.
The notion that they were ultimately African was too jarring for many Europeans, including many in the British scientific community. Piltdown Man offered a feasible alternative, and thus a convenient out, from the challenge posed to the racist theories of the day by humanity’s African origins. Moreover, if the “missing link” discovered in England was accurate, it would mean that Britain had played a prominent role in human evolution. It would also buttress the belief that Europeans – or at least the British – had evolved separately, and were not of African origins.
In actuality, Piltdown Man was a crude hoax. However, because of a combination of ineptness, nationalism, and racism, the discovery was strongly embraced and defended by much of the British scientific establishment. It took four decades before Piltdown Man was debunked, making it one of history’s most successful scientific hoaxes. It was also one of history’s most damaging hoaxes: during those decades, few resources were directed at studying human evolution in Africa, where the actual missing links were ultimately discovered.
Despite the poor funding for African archaeological exploration, more proto-humans were discovered in Africa in the 1930s. Those finds, coupled with additional Neanderthal finds, left Piltdown Man as an odd outlier in human evolution. Nonetheless, the hoax had its powerful defenders, and it was not until 1953-1954 that the fossils were subjected to rigorous scientific reexamination. They turned out to be fragments of a modern human skull, only 600 years old, the jaw and teeth of an orangutan, and the tooth of a chimpanzee. Chemical testing showed that the bones had been stained to make them look older, and the ape teeth filed down to look more human-like. As to the perpetrator, it turned out to be a disgruntled museum employee getting back at his boss, Britain’s chief paleontologist, who had denied him a pay raise.
In 1965, Chinese archaeologists working a tomb in Hubei, discovered a 2600 year old bronze sword of a type known as the jian. Found sheathed in a wooden scabbard, the blade when unsheathed turned out to be wholly untarnished, and was remarkable for how well preserved and sharp it was, despite its age. A test showed that the blade could effortlessly cut through a stack of twenty sheets of paper. Inscribed on the blade were characters stating: “The king of Yue made this sword for his personal use“. As a result, it was named the Goujian Sword, after a historic king of Yue named Goujian, famous for his perseverance in the face of adversity.
The sword’s excellent condition was astonishing. Not only because it was millennia old, but also because of the condition of the tomb in which it was found: the sword had lain in underground water for about 2000 years. Chinese jian swords are straight and double edged, and typically feature a guard in the shape of a stingray. Their grips are usually made of fluted wood or covered in ray skin, and their handles feature a pommel for balance, for trapping or striking an opponent, and to prevent slipping through the user’s hand. Jians have been in use for at least 2600 years, and the Goujian Sword is one of the earliest examples of the type.
7. The Goujian Sword shed light on Ancient Chinese Bronze working and preservation techniques
The Goujian Sword features significant distal taper, or decreased thickness, with the edge being only half as thick as the base of the blade near the handle. That is combined with subtle profile taper, or decreasing width, from blade base to tip. Like other jian swords, its blade is comprised of three sections: the tip, middle, and root. Jian tips typically curve smoothly to a point, and they are used for thrusting, slashing, or quick cuts. The middle is for deflection, or for drawing and cleaving cuts. The root, closest to the handle, is utilized mainly for defense.
By the 6th century BC, Chinese bronze sword production techniques had reached an advanced stage, and laminated bronze jians with copper sulphide and chromium oxide coatings to resist correction became common. The Goujian Sword was a perfect example of the effectiveness of such anti corrosive techniques. Although tomb and sword had been soaked in underground water for over 2000 years, the Goujian Sword had resisted tarnish, without any trace of rust, and still retained its sharp edge. Today, China regards the Goujian Sword as one of its greatest national treasures, and it is as legendary to the Chinese public as King Arthur’s Excalibur is in western culture. With the difference being that the Goujian Sword is real. These days, visitors can view the sword on display at the Hubei Provincial Museum.
In 2013, a treasure trove of fossilized hominid skeletons was discovered in a South African cave, 30 miles from Johannesburg. About 1550 skeletal pieces from 15 individuals were unearthed. The fossils combined anatomical features from an early hominid species known as Australopithecus, such as a small braincase volume, with the skull shape of the more advanced early Homo. That combination of features led scientists to assume that the fossils came from an early hominid species about 2 million years old.
It was a reasonable ballpark initial guess, since hominids with those types of anatomical features were known to have existed around that time. However, by 2017, the fossils had been more accurately dated to between 335,000 to 236,000 years ago. They were thus not part of the lineage leading to modern humans, but an extinct and more primitive hominid that coexisted with more modern Homos. The new species was dubbed Homo naledi.
5. Discovering that early Hominids buried their dead hundreds of thousands of years ago
The excitement about the newly discovered Homo naledi was not limited to the sheer number of bones, however. The condition and placement of those bones also upended preexisting assumptions about the behavior of primitive hominids. The bones lacked gnaw marks indicating that they had been dragged into the cave by carnivores. Between that and their placement deep in a shaft that they were unlikely to have ended up in by accident, it became clear that the bones had been deliberately placed in the cave by other Homo naledi individuals. I.e.; they were buried.
It was not the earliest known burial, as 28 skeletons dating to about 430,000 had been discovered years earlier in a Spanish cave. However, the Spanish skeletons came from a big brained Homo species that looked and behaved much like modern humans. Homo naledi on the other hand had a brain half the size of ours, and could not have been mistaken for a modern human. However, its burial practices demonstrated that its individuals understood mortality and the concept of something after death. That squashed the hitherto prevailing notion that such understanding and behavior required big brains, and forced a reexamination of early hominids’ culture and intelligence.
The small island of Antikythera, between the Peloponnesus and Crete, lies roughly halfway along the sea lanes used by ships plying the waters between Asia Minor and Italy. In antiquity as well as now, Antikythera’s jagged coastline was a hazard to ships, that could easily be dashed to destruction on its unforgiving rocks. That was the fate of an unfortunate ship we now call the Antikythera Wreck, that sank off the island around 87 BC. The wreck lay forgotten at the sea bottom until 1900, when fishermen diving for sponges spotted a bronze hand sticking out of the sediment. They told the Greek authorities, who then directed a search around the shipwreck. The following year, divers recovered over 200 amphorae, some of them intact, finely worked vases, other high end goods, and some of the era’s most prized works of art.
Among the items recovered was an intriguing bronze object, about 20 cm high, that began disintegrating as soon as it was removed from the water. Scrupulously preserved in an Athenian museum, scientists figured out that it was an instrument for astronomical data. However, just how did the instrument, named the Antikythera Mechanism, work? Scientists could see its surface, but the object’s advanced corrosion prevented them from examining its interior and inner workings.
It was not until the twenty first century that modern scanning tools finally enabled scientists to penetrate the corrosion and take a look at the insides of the Antikythera Mechanism in 3D. Scanning revealed a set of interlocking gears, similar to those of a clock, as well inscriptions engraved on the inside of the machine, as a kind of instruction manual. Turns out the Antikythera Artifact was an analog machine, or computer, that predated Jesus.
The device enabled users to tell how the skies would look for decades to come, including the positions of the sun and moon, lunar phases, the paths of planets such as Venus, and even eclipses. Several writers from Antiquity, including Cicero, had mentioned the existence of such devices, but the Antikythera Mechanism is the only one ever recovered. Unfortunately, the technology was lost during the Roman era, and the only known sample we know of ended up at the bottom of the sea, its secrets forgotten for over two millennia.
In November of 1922, after more than a decade searching, Egyptologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of pharaoh Tutankhamen, in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. He sent a telegram to the chief financier of his archaeological expeditions, George Herbert, 5th Lord of Carnarvon, urging him to hurry to Egypt to witness the opening of the tomb in person. After his patron arrived later that month, Carter proceeded to carefully excavate the site, and on November 29th, 1922, the tomb was opened. After making his way through a tunnel, Carter reached the main burial chamber. There, he made a hole in a sealed door, then thrust a candle inside. After a pause, an eager Lord Carnarvon asked him “can you see anything?” He received the reply “Yes, wonderful things!”
As Carter described it later: “as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold“. The following day, the dramatic discovery was announced to the press, catapulting Carter and Tutankhamen to global fame. The burial chamber was dominated by four shrines, surrounding the pharaoh’s granite sarcophagus. Within were three coffins, nestled inside one another, with the outer two being made of gilded wood, while the innermost one was composed of about 250 pounds of solid gold. It contained the mummified body of Tutankhamen, adorned with a funerary gold mask that weighed about 25 pounds. That death mask, with features simultaneously so familiar and yet so exotic, became the best known symbol of Ancient Egypt.
1. King Tut triggered and Egyptomania that continues to this day
All in all, Howard Carter found about 5400 items in Tutankhamen’s tomb. They included a throne, wine jars, statues of various gods and of the king, and even two fetuses that subsequent DNA examination revealed to have been the stillborn offspring of Tutankhamen. It would take Carter nearly a decade before he could finish cataloguing them them all. Amazingly, the rich haul was what was left over after ancient robbers had twice tunneled their way into the tomb. Both times, the robbery was discovered, and the tunnels filled in.
The find triggered a wave of Egyptomania. Tutankhamen came to be known as “King Tut” – a name that was soon appropriated by businesses to brand various products. Ancient Egyptian references made their way into popular culture, and musical hits such as “Old King Tut” became all the rage. Even US president Herbert Hoover caught the Tutankhamen bug, and named his pet dog King Tut.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading