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Close up image on the face of a Terracotta Warrior statue

6 greatest ancient archaeological finds in history

Image: Lukas Hlavac /

1. Pompeii

The hapless residents of Pompeii had been enjoying celebrations for Augustus, the Roman emperor/god, on the noon of 24th August 79AD when Mount Vesuvius exploded. In addition to asphyxiation and flying debris, most of the residents, approximately 2,000, died instantly of extreme heat. Pyroclastic gas and ash flows, travelling as fast as 50 miles an hour at temperatures of 1300°F, enveloped the city in a matter of hours.

Pompeii simply disappeared under seven metres of rubble and a moment in time was encased. The community was re-discovered in 1709 when scenes of ordinary life, stopped in an instant, were revealed. Following a period of haphazard, often unregulated, digging (that partially ended in 1860 when Italian archaeologist, Giuseppe Fiorelli, devised what would become a blueprint for future excavations) Pompeii slowly gave up her fascinating secrets.

2. Dead Sea Scrolls and the Rosetta Stone

Not all of the greatest archaeological finds involve architecture or subterranean curiosities. Two of the most profound archaeological finds are similar, comparatively small and discovered relatively recently. The first, the Rosetta Stone, was found in the Nile Delta in 1799. This 44-inch-tall slab of granodiorite from 196 BC enabled scholars to decipher ancient Egyptian, thereby completely transforming our understanding of this ancient civilization.

The Dead Sea Scrolls consist of 15,000 leather and papyrus sheets adorned with text that represents about 800 to 900 manuscripts. Discovered at the Qumram Caves in former Palestine between 1946 and 1956, they were likely written between 100 BC and 68 AD. They provide an insight into ancient Jewish belief and practice before, during and after the time of Jesus Christ. In addition, they also consolidate some supposed factual aspects of the bible, unsurprisingly, they remain controversial and are still a hot topic of debate today.

3. Terracotta Army

In 1974, citizens of Haanxi Province in northwest China were digging a well when they unearthed a curious clay statue, about five feet tall high. On further inspection, this was just one of 8,000 figures, in addition to 150 life-size cavalry horses and a further 520 horses drawing 130 chariots.

The army was a mile from the resting place of Emperor Qin, who died in 210 BC, and among the statues were replica government officials, even entertainers, presumably to accompany the Emperor in the afterlife. Incredibly, every soldier is physically different and it's estimated it took a team of about 700,000 people many years to complete.

It’s also worth considering that while the army is in remarkable condition for its age, every figure would have been painted and finished to look as lifelike as possible, right before the entire lot was buried out of sight.

4. Tutankhamun’s Tomb

In 1922, British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered a crypt under the Egyptian desert and, for the following two years, began to unearth the story within. In one room inside the tomb, lined with paintings and hieroglyphs, lay a coffin. Inside this were two more coffins, the final was made of gold, and here lay King Tut, elaborately masked and in a state of mummified preservation. Up until this moment in time, nothing was known about the boy Pharaoh who mysteriously died at age eighteen.

As a result of the discovery, we learned he became pharaoh of Egypt in 1332 B.C. aged nine when Egypt was at war with the kingdom of Nubia. Perhaps most astonishing is that, because he had no heir, King Tut was buried and pretty much forgotten about by his successors. Indeed, 300 years after he died, the location of his tomb wasn’t just forgotten, it had been completely built over.

5. Knossos

Our contemporary understanding of European and eastern Mediterranean prehistory is pretty much down to renowned scholar and archaeologist, Sir Arthur Evans. Following extensive excavations that began in 1900, Evans discovered what is believed to be Europe’s oldest city.

Knossos, Crete, was the spiritual home to the legendary King Minos, the son of Zeus, who married Pasiphae and fathered, among others, Phaedra, the mother of the Minotaur. In reality, the city was occupied by a sophisticated bronze-age civilisation, the Minoan, from around 7000 BC, one of the earliest examples of the Aegean civilisations.

At its heart lies Knossos Palace, built between 2000–1580 BC, rebuilt around 1720 BC after an earthquake flattened the city, and then abandoned in 1375 BC, most probably through a battle that also saw off the Minoan civilization. The Minoans were familiar with bronze, pottery, textiles and even invented a hieroglyphic script that allowed them to trade with the Egyptians.

6. The Cave of Altamira

‘Look Papa, oxen!’ - The immortal words of eight-year-old Maria Sanz de Sautuola, the daughter of Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, a local who, in 1879, had just begun to excavate the floor of Altamira cave. Located 19 miles west of Santander, Spain, the caves were excavated 11 years after they’d been discovered by a passing hunter. Maria had just noticed the ochre and charcoal paintings on the cave wall. On further investigation, there were also figurative and abstract paintings depicting a variety of native animals alongside engravings of, predominantly, red deer.

By the end of the century, some of the paintings were believed to be as much as 21,000 years old with some of the more recent examples dating back 11,000 years, but only after being temporarily written off as sagacious fakes. For thousands of years, the entrance to the cave had been sealed by a rock fall. Over time the opening to the undulating cave at 970 feet long was exposed, and it’s now believed to have been home to two Palaeolithic groups, the Solutrean and the Magdalenian. The quality of the artwork, even by contemporary standards, is astonishing.