One of the most exciting things about archaeology is that it is an ever-changing landscape, constantly causing us to reconsider our most firmly-held beliefs about the past and the people who populated it. But every so often a truly spectacular discovery emerges that changes the way we think about a civilisation forever. in no particular order, here are 7 game-changing finds that captured the archaeological imagination.
1. Knossos, Crete
Arthur Evans’ excavations in 1900-1905 uncovered a vast Middle Bronze Age (c.1900-1450 BC) palace complex boasting some 1,300 rooms, many decorated with colourful frescoes of dolphins, griffins, and athletes engaged in bull-leaping. The most important discovery, however, was at first glance more mundane: thousands of slabs of baked clay. These tablets bore inscriptions in a never-before seen language, dubbed Linear B. No one could read the ancient writings, and it was another 50 years before Michael Ventris cracked the code, making Linear B the oldest deciphered language in Europe.
2. Tutankhamun’s tomb, Egypt
Arguably one of the most famous – and spectacular – archaeological discoveries of all time, Howard Carter’s excavation at the Valley of the Kings in 1922 propelled a short-lived and perhaps rather politically unimportant pharaoh into the history books. Tutankhamun may have died while still in his teens but his tomb had been packed with beautiful objects befitting his royal status – and, unusually, had escaped detection by robbers. Howard Carter had discovered a treasure trove of ‘wonderful things’.
Tutankhamun came to the throne in a time of political turmoil. For more information about his controversial father, the heretic king Akhenaten, why not read about another great discovery: his city, Amarna.
3. Machu Picchu Peru
‘Rediscovered’ by Hiram Bingham in 1911, this monumental ‘lost’ Inca citadel was built in the mid-15th century on a dramatic mountain top. Its stunning natural surroundings and awe-inspiring standing remains make this a truly remarkable site – a vivid reminder of the technological capabilities and power of the Inca Empire at its peak. Its terraced platforms and cave cemeteries allowed a fascinating insight into the lives of the 1000 or so people who had once lived here.
4. Sutton Hoo, England
A token British find to please our friends over at Current Archaeology. When Basic Brown excavated a group of low grassy mounds in Suffolk he uncovered something amazing: a huge in tact ship burial, containing the richest haul of Anglo Saxon grave goods in archaeological history. Imported Byzantine objects, enigmatic religious symbols, recreational objects and weaponry – including the world-famous helmet – allowed vivid insights into the Anglo-Saxon world.
If you like ship burials, why not read about the most spectacular Viking find of this type: Norway’s Oseberg ship.
5. The Rosetta Stone, Egypt
This is the find that provided the key to our understanding of hieroglyphs, more than 1,000 years after knowledge of how to read the ancient Egyptian symbols had faded from memory. Found by Napoleon’s army during the construction of a fort, this slab has a trilingual inscription written in Greek, Demotic and hieroglyphs. The Greek writing was a way in for French schoolteacher Jean-François Champollion, and in 1822 he published a full translation.
6. The tomb of the First Emperor, China
Standing to attention in neat rows, some 8,000 soldiers stand guard to protect the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, unifier and first Emperor of China. They are accompanied by 130 chariots pulled by over 500 horses, as well as 150 cavalry horses and civilian officials, acrobats and musicians. Discovered by farmers in 1974, the pits in which they are arranged are a World Heritage Site. They are a fantastic symbol of the power and creativity of the rulers of ancient China, even in its earliest days.
7. Akrotiri, Greece
Although not as well-known as the Roman ruins at Pompeii, this remarkably well-preserved Bronze Age city on the Greek island of Santorini gives an equally vivid insight into the lives of its inhabitants. Recently re-opened to the public, Akrotiri was once a prosperous trading centre, abandoned after a volcanic eruption buried the site in ash. Its houses – many preserved up to two or three stories high, along with furniture and pottery – lay undisturbed for 3,500 years until the site was excavated by Spyridon Marianatos in 1967.