Digging It Up: 7 of the Biggest and Best Archaeological Finds of the 20th Century
Digging It Up: 7 of the Biggest and Best Archaeological Finds of the 20th Century

Digging It Up: 7 of the Biggest and Best Archaeological Finds of the 20th Century

Michelle Powell-Smith - October 1, 2016

The 20th century saw the discovery of a number of significant archaeological finds, ranging from Machu Picchu to Chauvet Cave. These were, of course, not the only big finds of the century, and in some cases, these spaces hadn’t been lost to locals at all, but they were unknown to the world of art and archaeology.

Digging It Up: 7 of the Biggest and Best Archaeological Finds of the 20th Century

The Palace of Knossos, 1900

Work on excavations in Knossos, Crete began in 1900, headed by English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans. The name Knossos was already associated with the site, both on the basis of very early historical documents and Roman-era coins; however, it was only a mound called Kephala when Evans began his work. The site itself was discovered somewhat earlier, by Cretan Minos Kalokairos in 1878.

The archaeological excavations at the mound of Kephala discovered far more than just a site—they discovered an entire culture. Evans named this culture Minoan, after the legendary King Minos, most often connected to the story of the minotaur in Greek mythology. The buildings, artwork, and even linguistic finds at the site helped to reassess the development of Bronze Age culture in the Mediterranean.

Knossos is a large palace complex that served as both a ceremonial and political center. The building included a wide variety of spaces, including workshops and workrooms, living spaces, storerooms, and a large central square or plaza. Many of the interior and exterior walls were decorated with finely painted murals, and a number of other artifacts were also recovered, including seals, sculptures, and pottery.

The palace at Knossos revealed an astonishingly advanced civilization, with a city numbering some 100,000 people around 1700 BCE. The surviving portions of the palace date to between 1700 and 1400 BCE. Examples of the technological abilities of the Minoan peoples include the five-story structure, a flushing toilet, aqueducts for providing clean water, and a drainage system to handle rainwater and wastewater.

Sometime between 1380 and 1100 BCE, the last population to inhabit Knossos left the city entirely behind. Based on the linguistic evidence found—administrative records in the Mycenaean written language Linear B—the last people to live in the palace of Knossos were Mycenaean, from mainland Greece. The surrounding urban area remained in use for significantly longer.

Digging It Up: 7 of the Biggest and Best Archaeological Finds of the 20th Century
By Jerry Daykin from Cambridge, United Kingdom (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Machu Picchu, 1911

On July 24, 1911, Harvard-educated American scholar Hiram Bingham re-discovered the lost city of Machu Picchu. While the city had not been excavated, locals had, of course, been aware of its existence, and some European explorers had likely reached the city, but not begun any scientific excavation. Bingham shared the city with the world, with, at least in the beginning, the support of the Peruvian government.

Bingham had a strong interest in exploration, and funded by his wife’s money, set out to explore Peru in search of old ruins, specifically the city of Vilcabamba. Vilcabamba was, according to Spanish records, the last refuge of the Inca, and is sometimes called the “lost city of the Inca”.

His Peruvian guide told him of Machu Picchu, meaning “old mountain”. Bingham, his guide, and an interpreter set out on the climb to Machu Picchu, recruiting a young boy from a local village to show them the way. The boy led them first to the terraces, and then to the city of Machu Picchu. Bingham believed, both then and until the end of his life, that he had found Vilcabamba. He had not.

The city of Machu Picchu, located about 70 miles from modern-day Cuzco, was built in the middle of the 15th century, at the height of Inca power and prestige. The city can be divided into an upper and lower city; the upper was urban, and the lower, agricultural. Both the upper and lower city show evidence of typical Inca dry-stone construction techniques, in which carved stone pieces are expertly fitted together without any sort of mortar.

The upper city includes three key buildings, all ceremonial in purpose. These are the Temple of the Sun, the Room with Three Windows, and the Inti Watana. All three were dedicated to the primary Inca deity, the sun god, Inti.

The city of Machu Picchu is one of the best-preserved monuments to the Inca civilization, not only because of its fine construction, but because it was never pillaged by the Spanish. The city was deserted after the arrival of the Spanish, most likely as the result of a smallpox epidemic.

Digging It Up: 7 of the Biggest and Best Archaeological Finds of the 20th Century
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The Tomb of Tutankhamun, 1922

In 1914, English Egyptologist Howard Carter began his search for the tomb of one of Egypt’s young kings, Tutankhamun. He searched in the Valley of the Kings each year for seven seasons, and was unsuccessful. Most Egyptologists, by that time, believed that all of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings had already been discovered.

By the digging season of 1922, his patron in England, Lord Carnarvon, had indicated that this would be the last season. In November, 1922, at long last, Carter’s team of Egyptian diggers found a door. By November 26, 1922, Carter and Carnarvon had reached the second door into the tomb. When the second door was opened and Carter peered inside, when asked what he saw, he said, “wonderful things.”

Over the next two and one-half months, they excavated the antechamber and annex, but had not yet found the tomb of Tutankhamun. The team opened the door to the burial chamber on February 16, 1915.

While most of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings had been looted centuries earlier, the tomb of Tutankhamun was largely intact, and provided some of the richest artifacts of the New Kingdom found to this date, including some nearly 5,400 individual items, ranging from a solid gold sarcophagus and face mask to linen underwear. Many of these artifacts, including wood and textiles, were remarkably well-preserved by the sealed tomb and dry climate of Egypt, and today, the artifacts of ancient Egypt found in Tutankhamun’s tomb are the most-exhibited of all objects from ancient Egypt.

Digging It Up: 7 of the Biggest and Best Archaeological Finds of the 20th Century

The Royal Tombs of Ur, 1926

Sir Leonard Woolley was not responsible for the initial excavations in the Sumerian city of Ur, in modern Iraq, but was responsible for one of the most significant finds in the city of Ur, the Royal Tombs. Woolley headed the excavations at Ur from 1922 to 1934 and pioneered a number of modern, scientific archaeological techniques..

The cemetery of Ur was found in 1926, some four years after Woolley took over the excavations. The city of Ur had been abandoned more than 2000 years prior, when the Euphrates River changed its course, leaving the city in the desert, and the location identified in the 19th century. In total, Woolley found more than 2100 graves, ranging from rich to poor.

The so-called royal tombs, including the tomb of Queen Puabi, are a rich source of art and artifacts from ancient Ur, and the world of ancient Sumeria. The dead of Sumeria were buried with a variety of grave goods, including beads and seals, pottery, musical instruments, and sculptures. In addition, the fine mosaic Standard of Ur was found in the cemetery of Ur. The placement of bodies suggests that some form of human sacrifice was practiced, providing attendants for the wealthy after death. Documentary sources from Ur describe extensive funerary proceedings.

The tombs of the elite also provide key information on the social hierarchy in the city of Ur. The city had a clear royal and elite class, but also shows evidence of the presence of a class of tradespeople, and of lower classes, buried with only minimal grave goods.

Digging It Up: 7 of the Biggest and Best Archaeological Finds of the 20th Century

The Dead Sea Scrolls, 1947

Most of the archaeological discoveries discussed here involved the work of amateur or professional archaeologists; however, one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century was found accidentally. In the spring of 1947, a young Bedouin shepherd was looking for a stray sheep. He tossed a stone into a cave and heard the sound of breaking pottery. When he entered the cave to investigate, he found a number of large clay jars. Some were empty and others still had the lids. The jars contained old scrolls wrapped in linen cloth.

The young shepherd eventually found seven scrolls in the cave, and sold them to antiquities dealers in Bethlehem. By 1948, four of the scrolls were at St. Mark’s Monastery, and Hebrew University Professor Eliezer Lipa Sukenik had published portions of another three scrolls. By 1954, all seven scrolls were in the possession of the state of Israel. Between 1947 and 1956, a number of other scrolls were located in caves near the original find.

The entirely of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the Qumran caves, near an Essene settlement. The Essenes were a sect of Second Temple Judaism that flourished from the second century BCE to the first century CE. The Essenes lived communally, both in and out of cities, and practiced mysticism and asceticism.

The Dead Sea Scrolls contain a number of Hebrew texts, including the full text of the book of Isaiah, as well as sectarian texts related to the community of Essenes, dating to between 250 BCE and 68 CE. The official published edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls was not released until 2001, after extensive work by international scholars. Working conditions for many of these years, including exposure to bright light and indoor contaminants has significantly damaged the scrolls.

Today, a conservation lab and facility exists solely to preserve the Dead Sea Scrolls. These documents have provided the oldest known copies of nearly all of the Hebrew bible, with the exception of the Book of Esther, as well as a wide range of other secular and religious texts.

Digging It Up: 7 of the Biggest and Best Archaeological Finds of the 20th Century
By Maros M r a z (Maros) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2704700

The Terracotta Warriors, 1974

In 1974, a group of farmers near the ancient city of Chang’an were trying to dig a well. They did not find water, but found something far more valuable. Near the unexcavated tomb of Qin Shi Huang, who proclaimed himself the first emperor of China in 221 BCE, the farmers discovered the Terracotta Warriors, today, one of the most famous groups of artifacts from ancient China.

The Terracotta Army consists of more than 6,000 individual figures, including soldiers, archers and horses. Each has a unique face, and was arranged in military formation in several large pits, separated by rammed earth walls. The statues were originally brightly painted. Three of the pits are fully accessible to tourists today; however, the Terracotta Army is not yet fully excavated.

The Terracotta Army was only one part of the massive funerary complex or necropolis created for Qin Shi Huangdi. Since the discovery of the Terracotta Army, Chinese archaeologists have uncovered terracotta musicians, civil servants and even acrobats. These terracotta figures likely took the place of human sacrifices, providing the staff the emperor would require in the afterlife.

Excavations continue at the site; however, the tomb of the emperor has not been excavated and there are, at this time, no plans to do so. Archaeological techniques, even the most careful ones, are by their very nature destructive, so it is possible that by leaving the tomb intact, information can be preserved for the future. In addition, historical sources suggest that there may be mercury in the tomb itself, creating a potential health and environmental risk.

Digging It Up: 7 of the Biggest and Best Archaeological Finds of the 20th Century

Chauvet Cave, 1994

In December 1994, three cave explorers moved aside a number of stones in the Ardeche Valley of southern France to make one of the greatest discoveries of prehistoric art in the history of archaeology. The cave is massive, totalling some 400 meters in length, with several distinct chambers.

The cave was in use as a ritual space and decorated during two different periods of time, but there is some conflict in the results of radiocarbon dating. The most recent radiocarbon dating results suggest that the cave was first in use between 37,000 and 35,000 years ago, and again between 31,000 and 28,000 years ago. The main entrance has been blocked since that time, preserving the art of Chauvet Cave. In addition, preservation efforts began immediately after the discovery of the cave and its artwork.

Artistically, these can be divided into two sections or significant parts. The first part of the cave consists of negative images of hands; paint was blown around the artist’s hands to create handprints on the cave walls. The deeper chamber of the cave contains a number of remarkable works of art, including many predatory animals and two partial human figures in the furthest parts of the cave. Both are unusual; most prehistoric cave paintings illustrate herbivores and prey animals, rather than predatory animals.

The two partial human figures are especially unusual. The lower body of a female figure is the subject of the gaze of a male figure, with human lower body and the upper body of a bison. The male figure is typically referred to as the sorcerer.

Since the cave itself is a protected space to prevent ongoing damage to the art, a massive replica of Chauvet Cave has been built. The reconstruction of the cave replicates the most important parts, including the cave paintings, for the public.