Archaeologists have helped us to understand the lives of our ancestors and in many cases have added to our knowledge of what it is to be human. And they’ve also added to our sense of wonder at the sometimes weird, sometimes gruesome and occasionally amusing habits of our predecessors. Whether it’s thousands of life-size statues of Chinese soldiers, hobbit-like humanoids or the shocking mummified child sacrifices of the Aztecs, archaeology seldom ceases to amaze and surprise.
20. Piri Reis Map
German Gustav Adolf Deissmann discovered the Piri Reis map in 1929. It was secreted in a dusty bundle of papers in the library at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey. The Turkish admiral and cartographer Piri Reis created the map in 1513. This 16th-century map is remarkable because it is the only one we know of from that century that gives a reasonably accurate depiction of the relative positions of South America and Africa.
19. The Mount Owen Moa Foot
This peculiar-looking foot belonged to an upland moa, a New Zealand bird that became extinct about 1500. It was a flightless bird that stood about three feet tall and could weigh up to 70 pounds. Larger moa species could be as tall as 12 feet and weigh more than 500 pounds. It only took the Polynesians a couple of hundred years from their arrival in New Zealand in about 1300 to wipe out these birds. Unluckily for the moas, it seems they were good to eat.
18. Antikythera Mechanism
This truly amazing ancient Greek artifact, some 2,000 years old, can fairly lay claim to be the world’s first analog computer. It’s actually an astronomical and calendar instrument and it was found on a shipwreck in 1902. This highly sophisticated mechanism includes 37 gears which would have allowed it to follow the cycles of the moon and the sun. The science underpinning the Antikythera mechanism was lost and nothing as advanced was made again until the 14th century.
17. Alien Skulls
Archaeologists discovered the skeleton of a boy aged between 18 months and two years at a site in Crimea. The site is Sarmatian, from a civilization that lasted for some 900 years from the 5th century BC. What was remarkable about the remains was the bizarre elongation of the skull, giving it an alien appearance. In fact, this was a common Sarmatian custom and suggests that this boy, buried in the second century AD, was destined to be a warrior. The Sarmatians apparently elongated the skull by artificial means in the belief that it would encourage warrior-like qualities.
16. Nazca Lines
The intriguing Nazca Lines, best seen from the air, are in the Nazca Desert of southern Peru. Experts believe these massive groundworks, up to 1,200 feet long, were created over a 1,000-year period between 500 BC and 500 AD. As well as geometric patterns, the works include representations of birds, monkeys, llamas and jaguars. Researchers have not found a conclusive explanation of the purpose of the lines, but theories include the idea that they were made to be seen by the gods in the sky or that they are related to astronomy.
15. Otzi the Iceman
Otzi the Iceman’s astonishingly well-preserved body was found on the icy slopes of the Alps near the border between Austria and Italy. Tourists stumbled across his body at an altitude of more than 10,000 feet. At first, they thought the grisly find was a modern-day hiker’s corpse. But, in fact, Otzi had died between 5,400 and 5,700 years ago, making him the oldest naturally mummified corpse ever found in Europe.
14. Ness of Brodgar
Archaeologists have discovered that the remote Orkney Islands, an archipelago about 10 miles north of the Scottish mainland, housed a thriving center of Neolithic civilization. They have discovered a variety of intriguing sites featuring stone-built structures. One of the most fascinating is the Ness of Brodgar. Digging continues at the site, parts of which date back to 3300 BC. The purpose of the sophisticated buildings at the Ness of Brodgar may have been a temple or cathedral.
13. Chariots of Zhou
Excavations at the city of Luoyang in central China uncovered an extraordinary grave, dating back some 2,800 years to the period of the Zhou dynasty. The find included four pits each with complete wooden chariots and the remains of the horses that would have pulled them. Other finds at the site include bronze and ceramic artifacts, and it’s believed that the grave would have held a middle-ranking government official.
12. Inca Child Mummies
These three bizarre mummies, known as the “Children of Llullaillaco,” were discovered by a team of archaeologists in 1999. The frozen mummified children were located near the 22,110-foot summit of the Llullaillaco mountain, which lies on the Chile-Argentina border in the Andes. The children were ritually sacrificed by the Incas about 1500. It’s believed they would have been drugged and left to perish in the freezing temperatures of the high Andes.
11. Plain of Jars
The Plain of Jars is a mysterious archaeological site in Laos located on the Xiangkhoang Plateau. About 90 jar locations have been documented with each site including anywhere from one to hundreds of these large stone vessels set into the ground. It has been theorized that the jars, which date back some 2,500 years, may have been used in burial ceremonies, with bodies being left to decompose in them before a later cremation. However, there is still a high degree of uncertainty over the precise purpose of these amazing artifacts.
10. The Headless Vikings of Dorset
Road workers discovered a mass grave in 2009 while they were working near the town of Weymouth in Dorset, England. Archaeologists examined this gruesome find and discovered that there were 51 male skeletons piled in the grave, and that each one had been beheaded. This obvious evidence of a massacre turned out to involve Viking warriors who’d been killed by Anglo Saxons about 1,000 years ago.
9. Terracotta Army
The Terracotta Army is a massive collection of astonishingly life-like – and life-size – statues of Chinese soldiers from the army of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. The army was interred with the emperor when he died more than 2,000 years ago. As well as some 8,000 soldiers, there are 130 chariots and 670 horses. Not all the buried statues were soldiers, with other figures including musicians, acrobats and strongmen.
8. Human Hand Pits
Archaeologists found a stash of severed human hands in four pits at the ancient Egyptian city of Avaris. There were 16 of the skeletal hands, all right hands, dating back some 3,600 years. At that time, a people called the Hyksos occupied this part of Egypt, and it’s believed that soldiers presented the hands of enemies to a leader. The leader would have rewarded the soldiers with gold.
7. Tunnels at Baiae
Baiae overlooks the Bay of Naples in Italy, and it was a favored seaside spot and spa 2,000 years ago in Roman times. In the 1950s, an Italian archaeologist, Amedeo Maiuri, discovered the entrance to a lost cave, hidden beneath a vineyard. A narrow passageway led into the rocky hillside. Other researchers then uncovered a network of tunnels which led to a warm underground stream heavy with sulfur. The purpose of this complex of underground passages remains a mystery to this day.
6. Dead Roman Babies
A Roman villa in countryside near the River Thames in England yielded a gruesome find – the bones of no less than 97 infants, all of whom died just before or just after birth. One theory posits that there may have been a brothel at the site and the dead babies were unwanted pregnancies or births that were subjected to infanticide. Some researchers disagree about the brothel theory, suggesting instead that this was a Roman method of routine family planning.
5. Gobekli Tepe
This ancient site in southeastern Turkey dates back some 11,000 years and it features some stunning stone megaliths. The largest of these are 20 feet tall and weigh as much as 20 tons, and many of the stone columns feature sophisticated carvings of scorpions, spiders and lions. One of the architects who played a major role in excavating the site, Klaus Schmidt, was in no doubt about its purpose, believing that it was “the first human-built holy place.”
4. Vampire Graves
Professor Nikolai Ovcharov, apparently nicknamed “Bulgaria’s Indiana Jones,” discovered a remarkable set of human remains in the Thracian city of Perperikon. Perperikon, which dates back some 7,000 years, is located in the south of modern Bulgaria. What’s remarkable about this male skeleton, dating from medieval times, is the stake driven through its heart, vampire style. Consequently, Professor Ovcharov told the Daily Telegraph that he was in no doubt this was “an anti-vampire ritual.”
3. The Screaming Mummy
It was in 1886 that Gaston Maspero, Egyptian Antiquities Service boss, made this horrifying discovery of a mummy that appears to be screaming in a death agony. This mummified man, who died more than 3,000 years ago, was found near the Valley of the Kings and this was one of a group of 40 mummies that had been discovered together. Contemporary investigations using modern forensic techniques have suggested that the mummy may be Prince Pentewere, who was involved in a plot to kill his father, Pharaoh Rameses III. So Pentewere may have been executed by poisoning, explaining the death rictus.
2. Homo Floresiensis – The Hobbit
Bone specimens of Homo floresiensis, a humanoid species dating as far back as 190,000 years, were discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003. Reconstruction of the species showed that they were about 3 feet 6 inches tall, chinless and tiny-brained. And these features led to Homo floresiensis being nicknamed “hobbits.” However, despite their diminutive size, it seems they were able to take on formidable animals such as elephants and Komodo dragons.
1. Copper Dead Sea Scroll
The obvious difference between this Dead Sea scroll and others is that it’s engraved on copper plate instead of being written on papyrus or parchment. In fact, this scroll is also unique in that it documents the sites of hidden treasure, gold and silver. Discovered in 1952 in a cave at the Qumran archaeological site on the West Bank, the scroll is about 2,000 years old.