Every time we think we have history figured out, a new discovery comes along that upends everything we thought we knew. Though our understanding of the ancient world is ever expanding, there are still vastly more questions than answers. These 10 archaeological discoveries changed our entire understanding of human history, from our earliest ancestors to what the ancient world might have looked like and much more besides.
The Cave of Altamira
Few single discoveries changed as much about our ideas of early human life as this Spanish cave, which contained the earliest examples of human-made art ever discovered when it was found in 1880. The cave was decorated with paintings of mammals—frequently the kinds that early humans would have hunted—as well as human hands and other figures, all dating back as much as 20,000 years ago. The discovery painted (no pun intended) a very different picture of the lives of early humans, who did far more than merely survive, but set aside time to create art to adorn their surroundings.
There are still a lot of unanswered questions when it comes to human evolution and how our early ancestors became what you and I are today. But many of the answers that we do have come from one place: a 30-mile stretch of Tanzania’s Rift Valley, which features bones of prehuman ancestors dating back as far as 1.9 million years. Because these fossil records extend back unbroken for so many centuries, we can see developments in pre-human socialization and tool use, as well as the early stages of our current species.
The Rosetta Stone
It’s difficult to imagine a language ever dying out completely, with written records existing that no one in the world can read. Yet that was the case with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, until such time as some of Napoleon’s soldiers discovered the Rosetta Stone in 1799, while strengthening the defenses of a fort. The stone contained a similar decree written in three languages—Ancient Greek, the Egyptian Demotic script, and Egyptian hieroglyphics. Because scholars at the time still knew how to read Ancient Greek, and the three decrees were nearly identical, the stone became the key to deciphering the unknown hieroglyphic script, allowing us to read much of the writing left behind by the ancient Egyptian dynasties.
Pompeii and Akrotiri
Much of our history concerns kings and generals. The lives of the common people are less likely to be preserved in history books. Hence, glimpses into what everyday life was like in eras gone by are always extremely valuable to archaeologists, which makes sites like Pompeii and the less famous Akrotiri treasure troves of daily minutiae. Both cities were destroyed by volcanic eruptions, which buried them in ash and preserved them largely as they were at the moment of their destruction. By studying these ruins, archeologists can get a much clearer picture of what life was like for the everyday people who once lived here, before tragedy overtook them.
The Antikythera Mechanism
First discovered by sponge divers off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera, this device is believed to be the oldest known example of what is called an “analog computer.” Essentially, this hand-powered mechanism was a way to model the positions of celestial bodies, including predicting the irregular orbit of the moon, among other phenomena. What makes the device so fascinating is its age. The shipwreck in which it was found dated to 70 to 60 BCE, while scientists have estimated that the device itself might be as old as 204 BCE, changing completely how we think of ancient technology.
One of China’s oldest and largest archaeological sites, the ruins of the ancient city of Yin were once the capital of the Shang dynasty, which existed from roughly 1600 BCE until 1045 BCE. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ruins contributed the earliest known examples of Chinese writing, mostly in the form of pieces of ox scapula and turtle plastron that are known as oracle bones. These bones were believed to be used for divination and contain the earliest known examples of Chinese script that have yet been recovered.
The idea that marble statues were marble colored is something that is so tied up with our notions of classical antiquity that it can be found in pretty much every depiction of ancient Greece and Rome that has ever been done, from movies to books to legendary works of art. The thing is, we now know that it wasn’t always the case. The classical statues that we have left today may look marble white now, but they were once painted in an array of colors, as scientists began to prove in the early 21st century using spectroscopic analysis.
The Staffordshire Hoard
In 2009, a metal detectorist in Staffordshire, England got much more than he bargained for when his detector began to beep. What he had found was not just a few old coins. He had uncovered the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon metalwork ever discovered. In fact, the hoard of more than 3,500 items, which has been described as “radical” in its importance to Anglo-Saxon archaeology, accounts for roughly 60% of all the Anglo-Saxon artifacts that have ever been recovered, meaning that our understanding of Anglo-Saxon culture and history has changed considerably since its discovery in 2009.
For hundreds of years, the Kilwa Sultanate ruled much of the Swahili Coast, centered in what is now modern-day Tanzania. During World War II, coins minted by this sultanate were found as far away as Australia’s Northern Territory, suggesting that Aboriginal Australian peoples may have traded with distant empires long before the earliest known contact with the continent by explorers such as Willem Janszoon and James Cook. Subsequent archaeological work has uncovered cave art which seems to depict Europeans, including what appears to be a steamship, suggesting that contact between Australia and other continents began earlier—and was more frequent—than previously believed.
For a long time, there was an assumption that, among early humans, men did most of the hunting and women did most of the gathering. Closer analysis of burial sites across North and South America in recent years has led to a massive rethinking of that assumption. “Female participation in early big game hunting was likely nontrivial,” wrote the authors of a study which examined bones from 27 burial sites across both continents, finding that 40% of those buried with weapons and tools for skinning animals were female.