Archaeological Finds That Rewrote Our Understanding of History

Archaeological Finds That Rewrote Our Understanding of History

Khalid Elhassan - January 9, 2024

Archaeological finds and discoveries occur all the time all over the world. Dramatic archaeological finds that shape or alter our understanding of history, though? Those are few and far in between. Take the recent discovery of the location of the Bible’s most famous dance – one in which a femme fatale seduced a king to execute a prophet. Or the nineteenth century discovery of an ancient library that contained tens of thousands of documents. Below are twenty five things about those and other fascinating archaeological finds.

Archaeological Finds That Rewrote Our Understanding of History
Salome’s dance before Herod Antipater. K-Pics

History’s Most Influential Dance?

What are the likeliest responses if you ask people what they think is the most famous dance from history? Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk? Fred and Ginger? The final scene from Dirty Dancing? Nowadays, those might be among the first dances that come to mind. For centuries, however, the most famous – and certainly most influential – dance that sprang to mind was one recounted in, of all places, the Bible. It was a deadly dance that cost John the Baptist his life. Per the New Testament, this John anticipated the arrival of a messiah, and had baptized Jesus. He had followers, and some of Christ’s disciples started off as John’s disciples. He came to a bloody end after he criticized Herod Antipas because he divorced his wife, then unlawfully wed Herodias, his brother’s spouse.

Archaeological Finds That Rewrote Our Understanding of History
Salome Receives the Head of John the Baptist, by Onorio Marinari, 1670s. Wikimedia

John the Baptist pretty much called Herodias a whore. That, understandably, upset both her and her daughter, Salome. They wanted John’s head, but Herod declined. So Salome seduced her stepfather with a dance at his birthday party. Sources do not reveal the dance’s details, but she performed it so well, that Herod was enchanted. He offered to reward her spectacular performance with anything she wanted, up to half his kingdom. Salome wanted the head of John the Baptist. Trapped by his promise, a reluctant Herod had John beheaded. It is a fascinating tale that titillated Bible readers for centuries, as they imagined just what kind of dance Salome performed for Herod. Recently, as seen below, a new twist was added to the story: an archaeological find of the dance floor upon which Salome enchanted her stepdad.

Archaeological Finds That Rewrote Our Understanding of History
Two columns that held up the roof above the courtyard and floor on which Salome danced. Gyozo Voros

The Dance Floor Where Salome Performed for Herod

Herod Antipas was a son of Herod the Great – the king who, per the New Testament, ordered the execution of all male babies near Bethlehem when Jesus was born. Herod Antipas inherited part of his father’s kingdom, which he ruled as a client king of the Roman Empire. He set up shop atop a hilltop desert frontier fortress, Machaerus. It was there, in 29 AD, that Salome’s dance and John the Baptist’s execution reportedly took place. Nearly two thousand years later, a Hungarian excavation team announced a dramatic archaeological: they had found the pavilion and courtyard where Salome danced for Herod.

Archaeological Finds That Rewrote Our Understanding of History
Niche that reportedly contained the throne upon which Herod Antipas sat as he watched Salome dance. Patterns of Evidence

The Bible and ancient accounts do not name the location of Salome’s dance. However, Machaerus was the only royal citadel and palace that Herod Antipas inherited from his father. It thus would have been the logical place for his birthday bash. The Hungarian archaeological dig’s director, Gyozo Voros, announced the discovery beside a courtyard at Machaerus of a semi-circular niche that would have housed a throne. There is archaeological evidence that stairs led to an elevated platform by that niche. It is likely that Herod would have sat there as he watched Salome dance for him.

Archaeological Finds That Rewrote Our Understanding of History
Ashurbanipal. British Museum

An Archaeological Find that Unearthed an Ancient Library

Ashurbanipal (reigned 668 – circa 627 BC) was Assyria’s last great ruler. Founded in Mesopotamia in the tenth century BC, the Neo Assyrian Empire became the world’s biggest state until then, and dominated the Middle East before it collapsed in 609 BC. Ashurbanipal was not just a great military commander, but also an intellectual, which was rare for rulers back then. He was literate, mastered multiple languages, and passionately collected texts and tablets. Ashurbanipal hired scribes to copy writings, and sent others across the empire to find more. He seized texts from defeated enemies as booty, and used military threats to convince neighbors to send him writings from their countries.

Archaeological Finds That Rewrote Our Understanding of History
Part of Ashurbanipal’s library collection. K-Pics

British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard hit an archaeological jackpot in 1849 when he discovered Ashurbanipal’s library in Nineveh, in today’s Iraq. It contained more than 30,000 tablets and writing boards. Many were severely fragmented, but many were still recoverable and legible. They included diplomatic correspondence, laws, financial and religious documents, plus texts on literature, medicine, and astronomy. The greatest archaeological find in the library was The Epic of Gilgamesh. A masterpiece of ancient Babylonian poetry, it dates to the third millennium BC, and is considered to be humanity’s oldest known literary work.

Archaeological Finds That Rewrote Our Understanding of History
Cat fossils from Quanhucun, China. PNAS

An Archaeological Discovery That Shed Light on the Domestication of Cats

The earliest known evidence for the domestication of wild cats into the common household cat, until recently, dated to Ancient Egypt, about 4000 years ago. That changed with new archaeological discoveries that indicate that cats were probably first domesticated in China. Feline bones unearthed in the Chinese agricultural village of Quanhucun, in Shaanxi, reveal that cats lived there alongside humans, about 5300 years ago. Archaeological evidence unearthed in Quanhucun and surrounding villages indicates that the domestication of cats began when farmers’ grains attracted rodents.

There is a twist to the tale: wild cats lived alongside and amidst humans for thousands of years, before they were domesticated. DNA analysis shows that throughout those millennia of coexistence that preceded domestication, there was very little alteration in the wild cats’ genes. Attracted by the relative abundance of rodents in and around human agricultural communities, wild cats deliberately sought out human communities and the tasty rodents therein. It was only after thousands of years wild cats living alongside humans and preying upon the rodents that infested human crops, that they changed. Eventually, there was enough genetic variation between wild cats that lived alongside humans and those still out in the wild, that we ended up with the common tabby.

Archaeological Finds That Rewrote Our Understanding of History
The Dmanisi skulls. Science News

A Find that Simplified Our Understanding of Human Lineage

In 1991, an archaeological dig unearthed traces of human habitation in a cave near Dmanisi, Georgia. In subsequent years, five early Homo erectus hominid skulls, whose owners lived about 1.75 million years ago, were dug up. The last of them, unearthed in 2005 and known as Skull 5, is the world’s most completely preserved skull of an adult hominid discovered to date. It is not just a well preserved fossil, however: Skull 5 and its companions from the Dmanisi cave could well overturn and rewrite the accepted evolutionary lineage of mankind.

Hominids have long been classified into a variety of species, such as Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and Homo rudolfensis, based on variations in their features, as seen in their fossils. Those different species mean that the evolutionary lineage of modern humans is relatively complex, with a family tree that contains various branches and sub branches. Some lead to us, while other branches went extinct. However, what if those different species were not actually different species at all, but simply members of the same species?

Archaeological Finds That Rewrote Our Understanding of History
Various Homo lineages. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

The Fascinating Dmanisi Skulls

The archaeological discovery in Dmanisi proved highly significant. The five skulls are sufficiently different from one another that, if they had been discovered in different locations, they would have been classified as ones from different species. However, scientists know from the context and surroundings in which they were discovered, that the five Dmanisi skulls belonged to members of the same species. The conclusion drawn from those differences and variations, seen within members of the same hominid species, might radically upend our understanding of hominid lineages.

The Dmanisi skulls demonstrate that early hominids had variations in appearance between members of the same species, just as modern humans have differences in appearance between each other. That casts doubt on the grounds for the classification of early hominids into different species such as Homo erectus, Homo habilis, and Homo rudolfensis, based on variations in their fossils. What if those skulls do not belong to different species? What if they belong to a single species whose individuals, as with the Dmanisi skulls or as with modern humans, simply have a variety of appearances?

Archaeological Finds That Rewrote Our Understanding of History
An ancient Egyptian cat statue, with a mummified cat inside. NBC News

The Archaeological Significance of Ancient Egyptian Cat Mummies

Cats are the animal most commonly associated with ancient Egypt. For good reason: there are thousands of cat statutes all over the place, and millions of cat mummies. Indeed, mummified cats were so common that archaeologists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries recorded that Egyptian farmers routinely crushed and used them as fertilizers. So it was assumed that ancient Egyptians must have really loved cats and treated them as pampered pets. That assumption turned out to be untrue. Recent archaeological discoveries and research indicate that while cats were popular in ancient Egypt, they were not popular for the same reasons as in the modern era.

Ancient Egyptians did not see cats like we do today, as cute fur ball pets and companions. Instead, they saw them as religious sacrifices to be killed in order to please one of their gods. Those millions of mummified cats? They were not dear pets, lovingly preserved by their distraught owners after their sad demise. Instead, they were bred by the millions near temples. As soon as they got big enough – usually around five or six months old, but sometimes as young as two to four-month-old kittens – they were sold to the faithful to sacrifice at the temple. So while ancient Egyptians liked cats, it was a different kind of “like” than that exhibited by cat owners today towards their cuddly felines.

Archaeological Finds That Rewrote Our Understanding of History
The Antikythera wreck. Why Athens

One of History’s Most Mysterious Archaeological Finds

The small Greek island of Antikythera lies roughly halfway along the sea lanes used by ships that sailed the waters between Asia Minor and Italy. In antiquity as well as today, Antikythera’s jagged coastline was hazardous, and often dashed ships 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 an underwater archaeological search around the shipwreck. 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.

The recovered items included an intriguing bronze object, about 20 centimeters high. It began to disintegrate 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 the examination of 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 see the Antikythera Mechanism’s insides. 3D scans revealed interlocking gears, similar to a clock, as well as inscriptions engraved inside the machine, as a kind of instruction manual.

Archaeological Finds That Rewrote Our Understanding of History
The Antikythera Mechanism. Vox

An Analog Computer Older than Jesus

Turns out the Antikythera Artifact was an analog machine, or computer, that predated Jesus. It allowed users to predict how the skies would look for decades to come. That included the positions of the Sun and Moon, lunar phases, the paths of planets such as Venus, and even eclipses. The device 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. Several ancient writers, such as Cicero, had mentioned the existence of such devices, but the Antikythera Mechanism is the only one ever recovered. The technology was lost in the Roman era, and the only known sample ended up at the bottom of the sea. There it lay, its secrets forgotten for over two millennia, until an archaeological search brought it back to the surface.

Archaeological Finds That Rewrote Our Understanding of History
Text on the back of the Antikythera Mechanism, revealed by modern scanning. Smithsonian Magazine

The device’s celestial display did not survive the ravages of time and two millennia of salt water corrosion. Some scholars had speculated about celestial observation uses of the device, but those were simply educated guesses, without any solid support. It was not until the device’s text was finally revealed via modern scans that the educated guesses became 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.

Archaeological Finds That Rewrote Our Understanding of History
Reconstruction of the Antikythera Mechanism. Live Science

Solving an Archaeological Mystery

The different handwritings on the Antikythera Mechanism suggest that it 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 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 modern Turkey’s southwestern coast. Thus we know where the device was made (Rhodes), and where the vessel that carried it sank (off Antikythera).

That 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.

Archaeological Finds That Rewrote Our Understanding of History
The tomb where the Goujian Sword was found. YouTube

An Archaeological Surprise in a Millennia-Old Tomb

In 1965, an archaeological dig at a tomb in in Hubei, China, 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 untarnished, and was remarkable for how well preserved and sharp it was, despite its age. A test conducted by archaeologists showed that the blade could effortlessly cut through a stack of twenty sheets of paper. Inscribed on the blade were characters that stated: “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 astonished observers. 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 immersed 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. Their handles feature a pommel for balance, to trap or strike an opponent, and to prevent slippage 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.

Archaeological Finds That Rewrote Our Understanding of History
The Goujian Sword. My Modern Met

A Surprisingly Well-Preserved Sword

The Goujian Sword features significant distal taper, or decreasing thickness. The edge is 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 to thrust, slash, or make quick cuts. The middle is for deflection, or for drawing and cleaving cuts. The root, closest to the handle, is mainly for defense. By the sixth 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. The tomb and sword had been soaked in underground water for over 2000 years. Nonetheless, the Goujian Sword had resisted tarnish, without any trace of rust, and still retained its sharp edge. Today, the Goujian Sword is regarded by China as one of the country’s greatest archaeological discoveries and greatest national treasures. It is as legendary to the Chinese public as King Arthur’s Excalibur is in western culture. With the key difference being that the Goujian Sword is not mythical, but real. These days, visitors can view the sword on display at the Hubei Provincial Museum in Hubei, China.

Archaeological Finds That Rewrote Our Understanding of History
The Lion of Chaeronea. Wikimedia

The Archaeological Discovery of a Memorial to the Sacred Band of Thebes

The date of the Sacred Band’s formation is unclear, but it was probably sometime around 379 BC. There was logic behind the use of gay couples to form an elite unit. Its members, devoted to each other, would fiercely fight to protect their lovers, and avoid cowardice and dishonor in their presence. They were spread out along the phalanx’s front ranks, or concentrated into a shock unit. The Sacred Band lived up to expectations, and spearheaded a series of Theban victories that shattered Sparta’s power and the myth of Spartan invincibility. For decades, Thebes’ gay warriors were acknowledged as ancient Greece’s most elite fighters. Their run of success finally ended at the Battle of Chaeronea, in 338 BC. There, Thebes was decisively defeated by Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander.

True to its hardcore reputation, the Sacred Band refused to surrender, and fought to the last man until all its members were killed. The Thebans eventually erected a statue of a huge lion, nearly 13 feet tall, at Chaeronea to honor those killed in the battle. Its presence was attested to by various ancient historians, but then it vanished. It was finally rediscovered in the nineteenth century, broken and buried near the village of Chaeronea. Further archaeological excavations revealed that the monument stood at the edge of an enclosure, in which were buried the bodies of 254 men, laid out neatly in seven rows. They were the remains of Thebes’ Sacred Band. The statue was eventually pieced back together in 1902, and today, the Lion of Chaeronea can be seen near the site of the Sacred Band’s heroic last stand.

Archaeological Finds That Rewrote Our Understanding of History
The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Wikimedia

An Archaeological Find Unearths the Real Life Sodom

Sodom and Gomorrah have long been cautionary examples of divine punishment. In the Book of Genesis, the Lord informs Abraham that Sodom and the nearby city of Gomorrah are to be destroyed for their wickedness. Abraham pleads for the lives of righteous inhabitants, especially his nephew Lot and his family. God agrees to spare the cities if fifty good people could be found in them – a figure that Abraham bargains down to ten. Two angels disguised as men are sent to Lot in Sodom, only for a depraved mob to demand that he hand over his guests so they could slake their lusts upon them. Lot’s pleas are met with deaf ears by the horny mob. So the angels blind the crowd, tell their host to immediately flee the city with his family, and not look back.

As God rains down fiery destruction upon Sodom, Lot’s family flees and is spared the heavenly wrath. Except for Lot’s wife, who looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt. All in all, a great story packed with action and drama. Does it have any factual basis, though? An archaeological discovery indicates that there just might be. Not the angels and wives turned into pillars of salt bits, but the fiery destruction rained down upon a city from the heavens part. The inhabitants of a Bronze Age city a few miles northeast of the Dead Sea went about their daily business one fateful day, circa 1650 BC, blissfully ignorant of the doom headed their way. Unbeknownst to the residents of what is now known as Tell el-Hammam, an unseen icy space rock was headed their way at 38,000 miles per hour.

Archaeological Finds That Rewrote Our Understanding of History
Tell el-Hammam. Wikimedia

Devastation from the Heavens

As it ripped through the atmosphere, the small asteroid left a fiery trail in its wake, before it burst two and a half miles above the ancient city. The blast was 1000 times more powerful than the nuclear bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Those unfortunates whose eyes had been focused on the plunging space rock when it exploded up were instantly blinded. In a minor mercy, they did not have long to contemplate their loss of sight. Tell el-Hammam was instantly transformed into an inferno. Wood and clothes burst into flames. Pottery, bricks, swords, spears, and metal began to melt as air temperatures spiked about 3600 degrees Fahrenheit. Then the shockwave arrived.

Winds whose speed exceeded 740 miles per hour tore through the city and destroyed all in their path. They sheared the top of the ruler’s four-story palace, and blew the wreckage into the next valley over. Everybody in Tel el-Hammam, around 8000 people, and every animal, perished, mangled, ripped apart, their bones broken, and their bodies incinerated. The shockwave continued on. A minute later, it slammed into biblical Jericho about fourteen miles away, and brought down its walls. As seen below, scholars believe that this ancient catastrophe gave rise to folklore that eventually morphed into the biblical narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Archaeological Finds That Rewrote Our Understanding of History
What an air burst similar to the 1908 Tunguska one would have done to Tell el-Hammam. Science News

The Probable Archaeological Basis for an Old Testament Tale

Tell el-Hammam underwent an archaeological excavation for a decade and a half. The findings were examined by dozens of scientists in the US, Canada, and the Czech Republic. One thing that jumped out was a five-foot-thick layer from around 1650 BC, comprised of charcoal and ash, intermingled with melted pottery, melted bricks, and melted metal. There was also shocked quartz, generated at pressures of 725,000 psi or more, and diamonids, wood and plant particles turned tough as diamonds under great heat and pressure. It was evidence of an intense firestorm, but not one caused by ancient warfare, an earthquake, or volcano: they don’t generate enough heat to melt metal, pottery, or bricks. The only known culprits that could inflict such damage are nuclear blasts, and asteroid airbursts. Nuclear weapons were unknown 3650 years ago, so that narrowed it down.

The explosion vaporized and deposited so much Dead Sea salt water in the area, that it became impossible to grow crops. For centuries after the disaster, Tell el-Hammam and its environs were abandoned. It took about 600 years before rainfall washed out enough salt to render the soil sufficiently productive for habitation to resume. Accounts of the ancient city’s obliteration became part of local mythology, handed down over the generations. A version of such folk accounts probably made it into the Old Testament as the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Similarities about cities near the Dead Sea destroyed by fire and rocks from the sky make it plausible – even likely – that the biblical narrative can be traced to the air burst that demolished Tell el-Hammam.

Archaeological Finds That Rewrote Our Understanding of History
Homo naledi. Jenman African Safaris

A Discovery That Revolutionized Our Assumptions About Primitive Hominids

In 2013, a treasure trove of fossilized hominid skeletons was discovered in a South African cave, 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 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. The excitement about the newly discovered species 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.

Archaeological Finds That Rewrote Our Understanding of History
Homo naledi buried their dead. National Geographic

When Humans First Began to Bury Their Dead

The bones in the South African cave 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. In other words, 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. Its burial practices demonstrated that individuals understood mortality and the concept of something after death. That squashed a hitherto prevalent notion that such understanding and behavior required big brains, and forced a reexamination of early hominids’ culture and intelligence.

Archaeological Finds That Rewrote Our Understanding of History
The Last Day of Pompeii, by Karl Brulov. Google Art Project

The Ancient World’s Most Famous Natural Disaster

On August 24th, 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted with a force 100,000 times greater than that of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs. The blast tossed deadly debris, mixed with a cloud of poisonous gasses, over twenty miles high. 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 the mountainside to devastate the surrounding region and destroy nearby towns, of which Pompeii and Herculaneum are the best known.

There had been tremors for days, but they were not unusual. Then, around noon on August 24th, a cloud appeared atop Vesuvius. About an hour later, the volcano erupted and ash began to fall on Pompeii, six miles away. By 2 PM, volcanic debris, begin to fall with the ash. By 5 PM, sunlight had been completely blocked and roofs in Pompeii began to collapse under the accumulating weight of ash and pumice. Panicked townspeople rushed to the harbor to seek any ship that would take them away.

Archaeological Finds That Rewrote Our Understanding of History
The ruins of Pompeii, with Mount Vesuvius in the background. Pinterest

A Great Tragedy that Led to Archaeological Discoveries

Vesuvius’ lava did not reach Pompeii or Herculaneum. However, it sent heat waves of more than 550 degrees Fahrenheit into those towns. It turned them into ovens, and killed 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. That was from just a small area impacted by the volcano’s eruption. If we extrapolate to entire region, 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 twenty 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. Further excavations unearthed Pompeii in 1748. The archaeological finds afforded historians an unrivaled snapshot of first century AD Roman architecture, city planning, urban infrastructure, and town life in general.

Archaeological Finds That Rewrote Our Understanding of History
Photo of Machu Picchu, taken by Hiram Bingham in 1912. National Geographic Society

The Discovery of Machu Picchu

Hiram Bingham was born in 1875 to American missionary parents in Hawaii. As a child, he wanted to follow in his parents’ footsteps. However, as he grew up, it became clear that he was not cut out for the cloth or to spread the Word. Hiram liked to play football and engage in outdoors activities far more than he liked to read the 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 travel and exploration, and he took full advantage of that.

Bingham was fascinated by the history of the Inca Empire, and in 1911, he led an archaeological expedition in Peru. He wanted to find the lost city of Vilcabamba, the last refuge of Inca Manco Capac, who resisted the Spaniards into the 1530s. As he explored ruins near Cuzco, Bingham ran into a local farmer who told him there were more ruins atop a nearby mountain. He and his team walked and rode mules to the top of the mountain. There, 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.

Archaeological Finds That Rewrote Our Understanding of History
Sargon of Akkad. Pinterest

History’s First Emperor

Ancient Mesopotamian ruler Sargon of Akkad (reigned circa 2334 – 2279 BC) was history’s first powerful conqueror and de facto emperor. As a young officer, he led a revolt that toppled the king of Kish. Next, he marched north, conquered cities and recruited an army, then turned south against ancient Sumer’s city states. He crushed their combined forces in a decisive battle. A brilliant military commander, Sargon seized all of southern Mesopotamia, as well as parts of Syria, Anatolia in modern Turkey, and Elam, in what is now western Iran. The Akkadian Empire he cobbled together is history’s first multi-national empire.

Archaeological Finds That Rewrote Our Understanding of History
Sargon’s empire. K-Pics

Sargon’s realm was the first ever political entity administered efficiently through the use of bureaucracy on a large scale. His model was copied by future rulers and kingdoms. Sargon was also a propaganda innovator. He came up with a radically different origin story to gather support, and to justify his right to rule. Before Sargon, Sumerian rulers believed in an ancient version of the divine right of kings. To set themselves apart from the commoners and elevate themselves above the masses, Sumer’s kings asserted that they were chosen by the gods to rule. As seen below, Sargon, as capable a politician as he was a brilliant military leader, ditched that narrative.

Archaeological Finds That Rewrote Our Understanding of History
The Mask of Sargon of Akkad. Wikimedia

An Archaeological Find That Allowed Us to See the Face of History’s First Empire Builder

We might know what Sargon looked like. A 1931 archaeological discovery in Nineveh, Iraq, found a mask of what is believed to be his likeness. In Sargon’s era, there was a great and growing wealth gap between powerful aristocrats, who controlled three fourths of the land, and the commoners who eked a living from what was left. Aware that the commoners resented the exploitative nobility, Sargon presented himself as a fellow commoner of humble origins. Per The Legend of Sargon of Akkad, recounted in an ancient stele from circa 2300 BC, Sargon presented himself as an orphan. He was an illegitimate child of a temple priestess, or holy prostitute. As he put it at the start of the narrative: “Sargon, the mighty king, king of Akkad, am I. My mother was a changeling, my father I knew not“.

A millennium before the Old Testament’s Moses story, Sargon recounted that as a baby his mother had placed him in a basket, and set him adrift on the Euphrates River. He was found by a kind gardener of a Sumerian city’s king, who raised him as his own. Later, when he began his rise, Sargon presented himself as a man of the people. That earned him the support of the commoners. Unfortunately, Sargon seems to have screwed over the commoners once he secured power with their help. His reign was not always popular with the masses, and he spent much of it putting down revolts. Still, he established a powerful empire – history’s first – that lasted for nearly two centuries. Not bad for an illegitimate orphan abandoned on a river by his mother.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 85, No. 1 (Jan., 1981) – The Annihilation of the Sacred Band at Chaeronea

Ancient Origins – Goujian: The Ancient Sword That Defied Time

Archaeologist – The Sword That Defied Time

Beard, Mary – Pompeii: Life of a Roman Town (2008)

Butterworth, Alex, and Laurence, Ray – Pompeii: The Living City (2006)

Coniglio, Alessandro, et al.Holy Land Archaeology on Either Side (2020)

Daily Beast – Have Archaeologists Found History’s Deadliest Dance Floor?

Daily Beast – The Victorious Gay Greek Army That Got Cancelled by History

Encyclopedia Britannica – Sir Austen Henry Layard

Encyclopedia Britannica – Sodom and Gomorrah

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe: Volumes 1 – 7, From the Big Bang to Alexander the Great (1990)

History Collection – Life in the Ancient Mayan Empire Was Unbelievably Strange

History Today, Volume 44, Issue 11, November 1994 – An Army of Lovers: The Sacred Band of Thebes

Live Science, April 11th, 2012 – Mummified Kitten Served as Egyptian Offering

Live Science, June 23rd, 2016 – Ancient Greek ‘Computer’ Came With a User Guide

National Geographic, October 19th, 2013 – Beautiful Skull Spurs Debate on Human History

National Geographic, June 19th, 2017 – Cats Domesticated Themselves, Ancient DNA Shows

New Scientist, September 10th, 2015 – New Species of Extinct Human Found in Cave May Rewrite History

New York Time, October 18th, 2013 – Skull Fossil Suggests Simpler Human Lineage

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, January 7th, 2014 – Earliest Evidence For Commensal Processes of Cat Domestication

Scientific American – The Evolution of House Cats

Smithsonian Magazine, February, 2015 – Decoding the Antikythera Mechanism, the First Computer

Smithsonian Magazine, June 8th, 2016 – The World’s First Computer May Have Been Used to Tell Fortunes

World History Encyclopedia – Sargon of Akkad

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