24. The Twentieth Century’s Greatest Archaeological Find
Tutankhamun, who reigned circa 1333 to 1323 BC, is Ancient Egypt’s best known pharaoh, and the discovery of his tomb in 1922 was a major archaeological event. Relics from his tomb are among the most travelled artifacts in the world, and a 1970s exhibition, known as the Treasures of Tutankhamun Tour, was viewed by millions around the world. Many of them having waited in line for hours. That he became so famous thousands of years after his death is ironic: Ancient Egyptians saw Tutankhamun – to the extent they even remembered that he had existed – as one of their least significant or memorable rulers.
The discovery of his tomb occurred in of 1922. After a search that had lasted for over a decade, Egyptologist Howard Carter found it 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, that urged him to hurry to Egypt to be at hand in person when the tomb was opened. After his patron arrived later that month, Howard Carter proceeded to carefully excavate the site, and on November 29th, 1922, the tomb was opened. What was found inside revolutionized Egyptology.
After he wended his way through a tunnel, Howard Carter reached the main burial chamber, 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 next day, the dramatic archaeological discovery was announced to the press, and Carter and Tutankhamun were catapulted to global fame.
The burial chamber was dominated by four shrines that surrounded the pharaoh’s granite sarcophagus. Within were three coffins, nestled one inside another. The outer two were made of gilded wood, while the innermost one was composed of about 250 pounds of solid gold. It contained the mummified body of Tutankhamun, 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.
22. An Archaeological Find That Kicked Off Egyptomania Around the World
Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus and mummy were not the only things in the tomb: there were about 5,400 other items in there as well. 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 Tutankhamun. It took Carter almost a decade before he managed to finish an archaeological catalogue of the tomb’s contents. Astonishingly, the rich archaeological 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 were filled in.
Carter’s find triggered a wave of Egyptomania. Tutankhamun 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 Tutankhamun bug, and named his pet dog King Tut. Although Tutankhamun is undoubtedly the most famous Egyptian pharaoh today, he was one of the least significant pharaohs back in Ancient Egypt.
21. An Ancient Egyptian Religious Struggle Between Pharaohs and Priests
From roughly 2100 BC until the death of Cleopatra in 30 BC, the Temple of the gods at Karnak, near Luxor, was Ancient Egypt’s religious center. A vast complex that covered hundreds of acres, it was dedicated to the worship of a pantheon of gods, chief among them the main deity Amun-Ra. Over time, the priests of Karnak grew so powerful that they alarmed the pharaohs. One of them, Amenhotep III (reigned 1388 – 1351 BC), in an attempt to check them, appointed his own relatives to serve in the temple in order to guarantee the priests’ loyalty.
His successor Akhenaten (reigned 1351 – 1334 BC) had a more radical solution: he invented a new religion, and built a new temple complex to rival and replace Karnak. Akhenaten and his wife-sister (Egyptian pharaohs often kept it in the family) Nefertiti set up the world’s first monotheistic religion, centered around the worship of the sun deity, Aten. At first, Akhenaten added an extension to the Karnak Temple, dedicated to his god Aten. When he encountered resistance from the established priesthood, however, he turned to radical and wholesale reforms. The pharaoh began to dismantle his realm’s traditional religious pantheon, and replaced its many gods with a single one: Aten.
20. A Religious Tiff That Roiled and Bankrupted Ancient Egypt
As happens often with recent converts, Pharaoh Akhenaten became a zealot, and radically altered the way in which worship was to be conducted. Until then and for centuries prior, priests were the conduit between Egyptians and their gods, and they acted as middlemen between mortals and deities. Akhenaten displaced the priesthood, and made himself and his sister-wife, Nefertiti, the main conduit through which divine blessings could flow. When the priests objected, the royal couple closed Karnak’s temple, fired its priests, and seized its treasury. They then moved their entire court about 300 miles to the north, and built a new city and temple complex at Amarna, dedicated to Aten.
Egypt, whose religion and religious establishment were overturned and displaced seemingly overnight, was plunged into spiritual and political turmoil. By the time Akhenaten finally died after a seventeen year reign, Egypt was bankrupt. His sister-wife, Nefertiti, tried to continue on his path. She acted as regent for her stepson and nephew, Akhenaten’s seven-year-old son with another sister: King Tut. However, she lost a political struggle at court, and power went instead to a Grand Vizier named Ay, who became the child pharaoh’s chief adviser.
19. An Insignificant Pharaoh, Despite the Archaeological Riches in His Tomb
The new ruler had been named Tutankhaten at birth, which means “Living Image of Aten” – after the Sun god whom his father Akhenaten had ordered worshipped instead of Amun. When he ascended the throne as a child, he changed his name – or had it changed for him by his advisers – to Tutankhamun, which means “Living Image of Amun”. It heralded a rejection of his father’s religious revolution, and a counter revolution that restored Egypt’s old gods and traditional ways of worship. The new authority figures’ first step was to abandon Akhenaten’s religious center at Amarna. Eventually, they destroyed it.
For all his fabled wealth, as implied by the archaeological treasures found in his tomb, Tutankhamun was a fairly insignificant pharaoh. Not only had he been a child king for most of his reign, with real power wielded by his advisors, he was also physically disabled and sickly. A product of generations of incest, Tutankhamun’s corpse exhibited many congenital defects caused by inbreeding. Among his ailments, he had a clubbed foot, and needed a cane to walk. He also had a cleft palate, and scoliosis – a deformation of the spine that caused it to deviate from its normal position. On top of that, he suffered frequent bouts of malaria, which ultimately killed him.
18. Many Archaeological Images and Items in King Tut’s Tomb Were Not His
The death of Pharaoh Tutankhamun after a ten year reign was a gift to Ancient Egypt’s traditional priesthood. It afforded them the perfect opportunity to obliterate all traces of the deceased pharaoh’s hated father Akhenaten and his sister-wife Nefertiti, as well as the entire Amarna period. For example, Tutankhamun’s throne depicts him and his sister-wife Ankhesenamun together. However recent examination has revealed that the depictions had been retouched, and that the images were altered and repurposed. The throne had originally depicted the despised Akhenaten and Nefertiti, figures whom the priests did not wish to see remembered or honored.
So they performed the Ancient Egyptian version of Photoshop, and repurposed the images to honor another couple. Similarly, recent research has revealed that Ancient Egypt’s most famous archaeological artifact, Tutankhamun’s burial mask, had not been made for him. Giveaways include conspicuously pierced earlobes for earrings, even though Egyptian males, especially male pharaohs, did not wear earrings beyond childhood. Additionally, the gold of the face turns out to be different from the gold of the rest of the mask, and evidence of later soldering is clearly visible.
17. King Tut’s Contemporaries Held Him in Low Esteem
The face that stares at us from the golden mask of Pharaoh Tutankhamun is actually not the face of the famous King Tut. Most likely, it is that of his father’s sister-wife, Nefertiti. It is now estimated that roughly four fifths of the archaeological finds discovered in Tutankhamen’s tomb had originally belonged to Nefertiti. When King Tut died childless, the last member of a dynasty loathed by Egypt’s priests, they simply raided the tombs of the hated Akhenaten and his equally hated wife, Nefertiti, and ransacked them for items to dump into Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Even the sarcophagus in which King Tut’s mummified body was placed had been made for somebody else. Masons simply carved over and amended its original inscriptions, and repurposed them for Tutankhamun. It was a demonstration that Egypt was fully restored to its official state religion, centered on the worship of Amun, that the Temple of Karnak was back in business, and that the traditional priesthood had regained its power. As to King Tut, as seen below, the relative disdain in which contemporaries held him inadvertently protected his tomb far more than the tombs of more respected and honored pharaohs.
16. One of History’s Greatest Archaeological Finds Owes a Debt of Gratitude to the Low Regard in Which Ancient Egyptians Held King Tut
Ancient Egyptian royal architects were constantly on the lookout for spots in the Valley of the Kings that were suitable for new tombs. When architects of later eras excavated new burial tombs for other pharaohs higher up the hill where Tutankhamun was buried, they simply dumped the debris and detritus downhill. Fortuitously, the debris piled up at the entrance to Tutankhamun’s tomb, and eventually covered it completely. The teenaged pharaoh was apparently so little regarded that nobody bothered to clear the rubble from in front of his tomb, and it simply sat there until his burial site was forgotten.
In due course and over the centuries, the tombs of the more important and respected pharaohs were looted by robbers. That of Tutankhamun, forgotten and its entrance concealed by mounds of rubble, remained hidden until it was rediscovered intact millennia later in one of the greatest archaeological finds, ever. Sheer luck made Tutankhamun world famous thousands of years later, despite the dearth of his accomplishments, while far more accomplished pharaohs were relegated to relative oblivion. As one Egyptologist put it: “The pharaoh who in life was one of the least esteemed of Egypt’s Pharoahs has become in death the most renowned“.
15. An Archaeological Treasure Trove in a South African Cave
In 2013, an archaeological treasure trove of fossilized hominid skeletons was discovered in a South African cave, located roughly thirty miles from Johannesburg. About 1550 skeletal pieces from fifteen 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 two 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 that led to modern humans, but an extinct and more primitive hominid that coexisted with more modern Homos. The new species was dubbed Homo naledi. As seen below, the excitement about the newly discovered species was not limited to the sheer number of bones.
14. A Discovery That Changed Assumptions About Primitive Hominids’ Intelligence
The condition and placement of the Homo naledi bones overturned long held assumptions about the behavior of primitive hominids. The bones lacked the kinds of gnaw marks by a wild beast that would indicate that they had been dragged into the cave by carnivores. They were also located deep in a shaft, where they were unlikely to have ended up by accident. As such, it became clear that the bones had been deliberately placed in the cave by other Homo naledi individuals. In other words, they were buried.
It was not the earliest known burial: an archaeological find of twenty eight skeletons, roughly 430,000 years old, 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 notion, widespread until then, that such notions and behavior required big brains, and forced a reexamination of early hominids’ culture and intelligence.
The Iliad, Homer’s epic poem, is set in and around Troy, and recounts the final year of the Trojan War, which was fought sometime in the thirteenth century BC. As told by Homer, the city of Troy was subjected to a ten year siege by a Greek coalition led by Mycenae’s High King Agamemnon. Their goal was to recover Helen, the wife of Sparta’s king and Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus, after she had been seduced by Paris, the son of Troy’s King Priam.
The epic poem features plenty of rollicking adventures, a surfeit of graphic and gory combat, and numerous plot twists and turns from humans and gods. In the end, the city falls when the wily Odysseus tricks the Trojans and gets them to let in a huge wooden horse, hollow on the inside and packed with Greek warriors. As a story, the Iliad was awesome. As history, however, Troy and the Trojan War were dismissed for centuries as pure myth. Then came an archaeological find that overturned those assumptions.
German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann (1822 – 1890) was convinced that there was actual truth in the Iliad, and set out to prove it. From 1870 to 1890, he conducted archaeological excavations at a site in the northwest of the Anatolian Peninsula – the Asian part of modern Turkey. He made some initial finds of gold and silver, that convinced him that he had found Homer’s Troy. As it turned out, Schliemann had excavated the right city, but the wrong period: his initial finds dated from about 1000 years before the Trojan War.
The site of Schliemann’s archaeological digs actually held the remains of nine different Troys, that were built one atop another. Excavations continued after Schliemann’s death in 1890, and today his finds are labeled Troy I through IX. Troy VI is the likeliest candidate for Homer’s Troy. The discovery of Troy was a magnificent archaeological accomplishment, but it was not the only one by Heinrich Schliemann who, as seen below, might have been the most fortunate archaeologist to have ever lived.
11. The Man Who Twice Captured Archaeological Lightning in a Bottle
After he excavated and proved the existence of ancient Troy, Heinrich Schliemann captured archaeological lightning in a bottle once more. This time it was in mainland Greece, where he found what came to be known as the Mask of Agamemnon – the High King of Mycenae who led the Greeks against Troy. It happened in 1876, when Schliemann conducted excavations in the royal cemetery near the Lion Gate, the entrance to the citadel of Mycenae in southern Greece. In one of the graves, he found a funeral mask covered in gold, which he attributed to the legendary king from the Iliad.
As Schliemann put it in a telegram that announced the discovery: “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon“. However, as with his finds in Troy, Schliemann got the broad outlines right, but jumped the gun when it came to the details. Later research proved that the mask did, indeed, belong to a Mycenaean king. However, it was a king who had died circa 1580 to 1550 BC – two and a half to three centuries before the events of the Trojan War. The name stuck, however, and the artifact is still commonly referred to as the Mask of Agamemnon.
10. One of History’s Most Mysterious Archaeological Finds
In the ancient world, the Mediterranean Sea was not a barrier between the civilizations that bordered its shores. Instead, it was a convenient watery highway that facilitated trade and exchanges between the Mediterranean’s peoples. In the eastern part of that sea is the small island of Antikythera, between the Peloponnesus and Crete. It lies roughly halfway along the sea lanes used by ships that ply the waters between Asia Minor and Italy. In antiquity as well as now, Antikythera’s jagged coastline was hazardous, and ships were frequently dashed to destruction on its rocks.
That was the fate of an unfortunate vessel that was en route to the western Mediterranean sometime around 65 BC, when it and its cargo of commercial goods, which included luxury items, sank off the island. The wreck lay forgotten at the sea bottom until 1900. That spring, fishermen who often dove for sponges off Antikythera spotted a bronze hand that stuck out of the sediment, at a depth of about 150 feet. They informed Greek officials, who then directed an archaeological search around what was identified as a sunken ship. It came to be known as the Antikythera Wreck, and as seen below, its contents yielded one of history’s most mysterious archaeological finds.
The Antikythera Wreck was an archaeological treasure trove, and in 1901 divers recovered marble and bronze statues, coins, jewelry, glass artifacts, and over 200 amphorae, some of them intact. They also brought up some finely worked vases, other high end goods, and some of the era’s most prized works of art. Among the objects recovered was a wooden box 13.4 inches high, 7.1 inches wide, and 3.4 inches in depth. Inside was a severely corroded lump of bronze that began to disintegrate as soon as it was removed from the water. All items from the Antikythera Wreck were taken to a museum in Athens. There, the wooden box and its contents were initially ignored, while archaeologists focused on the restoration of more identifiable treasures, such as the statues, jewels, and coins.
A year later, however, an archaeologist named Valerios Stais took a closer look at the wooden box’s contents, and was surprised to discover what he identified as a gear. The corroded lump of bronze, which initially consisted of four main lump fragments, was subjected to further examination. As researchers painstakingly cleared the corrosion and encrustation, the four main lumps became 82 distinct pieces, and included among them were many more gears. All in all, the box contained about 30 meshing bronze gears, the largest of which measured about 5.5 inches in diameter, and had 223 teeth.
When they worked together, the mysterious box’s contents amounted to a complex clockwork mechanism. Valerios Stais reasoned that it must have been some kind of astronomical calculation device. However, most scholars at the time pushed back against that notion. They argued that the device, which came to be known as the Antikythera Mechanism, was too complex to have been manufactured in the first century BC. Instead, they concluded that it must have been made centuries later, then been lost at sea, and came to rest by mere coincidence atop the earlier archaeological debris of the Antikythera Wreck.
The upshot was that further research into the Antikythera Mechanism was abandoned for decades. It did not resume until the 1950s, when a Yale professor who specialized in the history of science, Derek John de Solla Price, took an interest in the device. Over the next two decades, he conducted intensive research into the mechanism, and used gamma-rays and x-rays to examine its innards, before he published a seventy-page paper on his findings in 1974. In it, Price demonstrated that the device did, indeed, date to the first century BC, and that as Valerios Stais had guessed seven decades earlier, the mechanism was an astronomical clock.
7. An Archaeological Find That Turned Out to be an Analog Computer Older Than Jesus
After he carefully examined the Antikythera Mechanism’s gears, Professor Price figured out the device’s purpose. It had been used to predict where the planets and stars would be positioned in the sky on any given calendar month. It worked through the movement of the biggest gear, which represented the calendar year. That gear, in turn, moved other, smaller gears, that represented the motions of the sun, the moon, plus those of several planets. From the way it was made and the manner in which it worked, the device was effectively the earliest known analogue computer – manufactured over 2100 years ago.
However, the mechanism’s very existence, and the complexity of its design and manufacture, argued that it must have had earlier predecessors before things reached the high quality of the discovered device. So the world’s earliest analog computer could well have been made centuries before the 65 BC shipwreck. Once it was demonstrated that the archaeological find was an analog computer older than Jesus, researchers tried to pin down its purpose and how it was used. Professor Price’s paper had pointed the way, but when it was published in 1974, and for many years afterwards, his findings were persuasive to many, but not quite conclusive.
6. A Millennia-Old Device That Allowed People to Make Astronomical Predictions Decades in Advance
When researchers were able to take a good look at the Antikythera Mechanism and its innards, it became clear that the mysterious archaeological find had to be some kind of calculation device. However, whether it worked the way that Professor Price had reasoned was still up in the air. We now know that the device enabled users to tell how the skies would look for decades to come. That included the positions of the Sun and Moon, lunar phases, the paths of planets, and even eclipses. Cicero was one of several writers from antiquity who had mentioned the existence of such devices, but the Antikythera Mechanism is the only one ever recovered.
Unfortunately, the technology was lost in the Roman era, and the only known sample we know of ended up at the bottom of the sea, its secrets forgotten for two millennia. Current researchers have benefited greatly from the leaps and bounds that scanning technology has taken in recent years. In the first few decades after the Antikythera Mechanism’s discovery, the device’s advanced state of corrosion made it difficult for scholars to properly tell just what was inside the box, let alone decipher its significance. Observers could see that some of the mechanism’s fragments contained what seemed to be Greek letters and words, but they were so obscured by corrosion that they were indecipherable.
5. Technological Advances Finally Allowed Archaeologists to Read Text Inscribed on the Mysterious Mechanism
As one scholar stated about the Antikythera Mechanism: “Before, we could make out isolated words, but there was a lot of noise âletters that were being misread or gaps in the text â¦ Now, we have something that you can actually read as ancient Greek. We can tell what these texts were saying to an ancient observer“. That is thanks to new imaging techniques such as 3-D X-ray scans. They finally enabled researchers to legibly read about 3,400 characters that were inscribed on those parts of the device that were recovered. That is a lot, but it is only a fraction of the roughly 20,000 characters that scholars estimate had been inscribed on the archaeological find when it was whole.
The scanned texts of what was essentially a user’s guide helped unravel the final mysteries of the Antikythera Mechanism. As it turned out, much of what was written amounted to an ancient version of a user’s manual. For example, text inscribed on the device’s back is an inventory of all of its dials, and a description of what they are for and what they signify. It is from that text that we now know that the mechanism’s front had once contained a display of the planets as they moved through the zodiac.
The Antikythera Mechanism contained pointers with small spheres that represented the Sun, the Moon, plus Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. All were arranged in a manner that replicated their orbit around the earth. That display did not survive the ravages of time and 2000 years’ worth of salt water corrosion. Some scholars had speculated that there might have been something along those lines in the device, but those were simply educated guesses, without any hard physical proof to back them up. It was not until the device’s text was finally revealed via modern scans that the guesses were transformed into concrete facts.
Other recovered texts from the archaeological find describe the risings and settings of various constellations, on different dates throughout the year. Researchers were thus able to confirm that the device’s maker – or at least the person who commissioned its manufacture – was an astronomer. Researchers were also able to make out handwritten text from at least two different people. That suggests that the mechanism was not made by a single person, such as the astronomer who had recorded the sightings. Instead, it had most likely been commissioned by an astronomer, who contracted a workshop to make the device in accordance with set specifications.
The dates of celestial sightings described in the Antikythera Mechanism’s text allowed scholars to identify the location of the astronomer who owned it: somewhere around latitude 35 degrees north. That is too far north for the astronomer to have been in Egypt, and too far south for him to have been in northern Greece. However, 35 degrees is a near perfect match for somebody who made observations from the Aegean island of Rhodes, just off the southwestern coast of modern Turkey. Knowledge of where the device was made (Rhodes), and where the vessel that carried it sank (off Antikythera), allows an educated guess that it had been destined for a buyer in northwestern Greece.
The mystery of the hitherto mysterious archaeological find has thus, by and large, been solved. However, there is no certainty yet about just what the device was for. As described by a scholar: “We know what it did now pretty well, but why would someone want to have something like this made? For my part, I think this is something that is very likely to have been made as an educational device, something that was not for research but for teaching people about cosmology and all sorts of time-related things about our world“. Others argue that it was intended for use in astrology: to predict the movement of the stars and constellations, in an attempt to predict the future. That is still up for debate.
After Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC, it became a Hellenized kingdom ruled by the Macedonian Ptolemaic Dynasty, and Greek became the language of the rulers and the elites. Native Egyptian writing, whether colorfully picturesque hieroglyphs found on the walls of temples and monuments, or the simpler Demotic script used in everyday life, went into a steady decline. Hieroglyphs continued to be used by priests, and Demotic continued to be used by commoners. However, 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. 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 altogether. Egypt became a country that teemed with ancient monuments, covered with colorful and intriguing texts and symbols that nobody could make head or tails of. That finally changed in the nineteenth century.
1. An Archaeological Discovery That Finally Gave Us a Window to Ancient Egypt
Pierre Bouchard was a French army captain who had accompanied Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt. On August 21st, 1799, he was in charge of the restoration of an old fort near the town of Rosetta. When his men uncovered a block of basalt that measured 3 feet 9 inches high by 2 feet 4 inches wide, and inscribed with three different types of writing, Bouchard immediately grasped its significance. He promptly alerted a team of French scholars who had accompanied Napoleon to Egypt. The archaeological find, 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. The Greek text informed archaeologists that the stone honored the second 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.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading