It’s one thing to read about history, or even to see photographs of it in history books, or videos in documentaries. It’s another thing to be in the place where history happened, to be so close to an important historical artifact that you could almost reach out and touch it.
Fortunately, museums all over the world have preserved much of our history, keeping amazing artifacts alive and accessible to the public, so that you can get so close to some of these amazing finds that you could touch them—though you shouldn’t, because they’re usually quite fragile, and often protected by glass.
Here are eight of the most incredible historical objects from throughout our past and around the world that you can view today—and where you can find them, from Paris to Cairo, Mexico to China, and beyond.
“The Law Code of Hammurabi"
The Louvre, Paris
One of the oldest deciphered writings of any significant length, the so-called “Law Code of Hammurabi” also represents one of the oldest examples we have of a legal code. Recorded on a stone stele—a vertical monument—the Law Code stands a little over seven feet in height and is inscribed with 282 laws, written in the Akkadian language using cuneiform script. The most famous of these laws is one that everyone is familiar with even today: “An eye for an eye.” First discovered in 1901, the stele dates back to around 1750 BCE and can be seen today at the Louvre in Paris.
The Egyptian Museum, Cairo
Almost everyone in the world has seen the mask of the pharaoh Tutankhamun, even if they’ve never seen it in person. First discovered by Howard Carter in 1925, as part of the famous excavation of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber—known more popularly as “King Tut’s Tomb”—the mask is one of the most recognizable works of art in human history, thanks to the massive fame of the dig and the subsequent exhibitions of the artifacts taken from the tomb. Today, the gold funerary mask is on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, Xian
Not discovered until 1974, this incredible archaeological find represents more than 8,000 life-size warriors made from terracotta, left as funerary art for the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, sometime around 210 BCE. Though there are so many of the statues, no two of them are alike. As you can imagine, with the warriors being so numerous, the find could not easily be moved to a museum, and so a museum was essentially constructed around it. Many of the terracotta warriors remain where they were found, in pits covered by a massive museum complex that also houses the mausoleum of the emperor.
Book of Kells
Trinity College, Dublin
This ninth-century, four-volume copy of the Gospels has been called “Ireland’s pre-eminent treasure.” This is only partly due to its historical significance, however. This illuminated manuscript is one of the most famous of its kind ever recovered, and each page is heavily decorated with incredible calligraphy and drawings of everything from Celtic knots to mythical beasts to more humdrum scenes of people and animals. At Ireland’s oldest university, you can see open pages of two of the four volumes, while the rest are available for viewing digitally. Still, there’s nothing quite like seeing them in person…
Aztec Sun Stone
National Anthropology Museum, Mexico City
Measuring some 12 feet across and more than three feet thick, this massive basalt carving is one of the largest items that you’ll find on this list, and one of the most significant pieces of art from Central America before the Spanish conquest. The exact function and purpose of the sun stone remains unknown, but it was probably carved sometime in the early 1500s, during the reign of the Aztec ruler Moctezuma II. Following the conquest of the region by Spanish colonizers, the sun stone was buried in the main square of Mexico City, and was not rediscovered until 1790, when it was unearthed during repairs to the Mexico City Cathedral. Today, you can see it in the city’s National Anthropology Museum.
Museo Galileo, Florence
While Galileo contributed some of the most famous breakthroughs in our understanding of the solar system, only two of his telescopes are known to exist today. Both are housed in the Museo Galileo in Florence, Italy, right near the famous Uffizi Gallery. There, you can see a variety of globes and other instruments dedicated to Italy’s contributions to astronomy, physics, chemistry, and electricity, as well as the two telescopes, including the lenses through which Galileo discovered Jupiter’s rings in 1609.
Cuirass holed by cannonball
The Army Museum, Paris
A video of this armor, which was worn by a Napoleonic soldier at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, went viral on Twitter in 2022. You can see the armor for yourself if you’re traveling to the Army Museum in Paris, where the cuirass is on display. Worn by a member of Napoleon’s heavy cavalry, the armor is noteworthy not merely for its attachment to one of the most famous battles in history, but because it has been entirely pierced by a cannonball, which left a massive hole through the front and back of the cuirass, and left viewers to speculate on the horrible fate of the person who was wearing it at the time.
The Spirit of St. Louis
National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C.
Many people know that Charles Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St. Louis in the first successful solo transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in 1927. What fewer people may know is that the one-of-a-kind plane itself is still intact, and on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Part of the world-famous Smithsonian Institution, there’s plenty more to see at the museum while you’re there to bask in the history of aviation, too.