50 of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time
50 of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time
More than a century ago, Albert Einstein developed his famous theory of relativity. The idea that space and time are linked together means that time travel might be possible … one day, once physicists figure out how it works.
However, travelers and archeologists have known for centuries that the opportunity to step back in time already exists. Yes, really. By visiting archeological sites around the world, you can see how the city of Pompeii worked right before it was covered in volcanic ash, the lost Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, incredible cave drawings in Brazil and Spain, and even the wealthy trading hub of Petra—no flux capacitor required. Even just learning about archeological findings from home, like the Rosetta Stone and its captivating code or a 44,000-year-old pictorial story from Sulawesi, Indonesia, offers a deeper appreciation for collective ancestors and a humbling reminder of our place in the universe.
When it comes to archeological discoveries, you’ve got a seemingly infinite array of options to read and learn about. So which ones have made the biggest impact on scientists’ understanding of humankind? To find out, Stacker took a look at 50 of the greatest archeological findings of all time, based on reports in news outlets (like National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, BBC News, and The Guardian), UNESCO World Heritage site listings, articles from archeology magazines, and other publications. The list includes important discoveries from around the world, ranging from the Americas to Asia, and even Antarctica.
While we’re all stuck at home, there’s no better way to transport yourself to a different time and place than by learning about fascinating archeological sites and discoveries across the globe. Click through to see 50 of the greatest archeological discoveries made throughout history—and don’t be surprised if they inspire future travel plans, once it’s safe to explore the world again.
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Oldest-known human footprints in North America
In 2018, Live Science reported on a remarkable discovery made by anthropologists in British Columbia: the oldest-known human footprints in North America. The 29 track marks are reportedly 13,000 years old, further supporting the idea that people were living in western Canada at the conclusion of the last ice age.
Egyptologist Howard Carter unearthed the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun as he was working on the excavation of the Valley of the Kings in 1922. The densely packed archeological find took eight years to document and empty due to it being left in disarray after multiple robberies.
Locals in Indonesia led the British ruler of Java, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, to the site of Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple, in 1814. The roughly 1,200-year-old temple features 72 openwork stupas, each of which holds a statue of the Buddha. Still a place for Buddhist pilgrimage, the archeological site reflects a combination of indigenous Indonesian scenes with an Indian influence.
The Lost City of Tenea
Greek archeologist Eleni Korka finally found the Lost City of Tenea in 2018, marking the end of a 34-year search for the Trojan-founded city, per Artnet. Archeologists have since found a whopping 200 coins on the site, demonstrating the city’s incredible wealth, which had been discussed in ancient texts.
When Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79, it preserved the Roman city of Pompeii (along with the final moments of its fated residents) under a roughly 20-foot layer of pumice stone and ash. The archeological site, which includes fresco-covered homes, was discovered more than 1,400 years later by architect Domenico Fontana. Now a popular tourist site, the archeological site of Pompeii offers an understanding of cultural, religious, and political life in this ancient city.
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China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, was buried in a tomb protected by an army of 8,000 life-size clay soldiers—each with unique hairstyles, postures, and facial features—when he died in 210 B.C. Farmers discovered the terracotta warriors in 1974, and since then, investigations have led archeologists to believe that the emperor’s tomb is a massive replica of the city of Xi’an.
Soldiers in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army accidentally discovered the remarkable Rosetta Stone while working on a fort in the Nile Delta, according to the British Museum. The artifact, which dates back to 196 B.C., is inscribed with “a royal decree issued by priests on behalf of Ptolemy V, then ruler of the Ptolemaic Empire in Egypt,” in three distinct scripts: Egyptian demotic script and hieroglyphs, along with ancient Greek. The message was deciphered by Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion in 1822, which allowed other ancient texts to be translated.
Dubbed Europe’s oldest city, Knossos is an archeological site on Crete that dates back to the Bronze Age. It was discovered by amateur archeologist Minos Kalokairinos in 1878. The palace complex contains around 1,300 intricately decorated rooms, along with baked clay slabs with inscriptions in an unknown language.
Archeologists got a vivid glimpse at the medieval world when the excavation of Sutton Hoo, in Suffolk, England, began in 1939. The largely in-tact ship burial held Anglo-Saxon grave goods, including Byzantine artifacts, weaponry, and a now-famous helmet.
In 2019, researchers in the Philippines discovered evidence of an ancient human species that scientists were previously unaware of. Dubbed Homo luzonensis, the small hominin is believed to have lived on Luzon island between 50,000 and 67,000 years ago, National Geographic reported. It was identified after archeologists found seven teeth and half a dozen small bones.
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The “lost city” of Petra had been referenced in historical documents for quite some time, but it wasn’t until 1812 that the site had finally been found by Swiss explorer Jean-Louis Burckhardt. The impeccably intact Nabataean Aramaic archeological site, which was first inhabited in 7000 B.C., showcases what life was like in a trading city focused on wealth.
Explorer Hiram Bingham rediscovered the “lost” Inca citadel of Machu Picchu in Peru in 1911. The well-preserved archeological site, which was constructed in the mid-1400s, gives historians a sense of the technological capabilities held by the Inca Empire when it was at its most powerful. The cave cemeteries and terraced platforms also offer a glimpse at how everyday people lived in this area.
Cave of Altamira
The Cave of Altamira, a Paleolithic cave in Northern Spain, contains particularly well-preserved polychrome paintings and charcoal drawings of human hands and animals. The amazing archeological site was found by Modesto Cubillas in 1868. UNESCO said the artwork showcases “outstanding illustrations of a significant stage in human history."
A man named Terry Herbert was using a metal detector over farmland in Staffordshire, England, in 2009 when he stumbled across a substantial archeological finding: gold artifacts. He reported the treasure to the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which scheduled a weeks-long archeological dig. They uncovered thousands of other items—the “largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver treasure ever found”—earning the haul the name Staffordshire Hoard.
A drought in Spain’s Extremadura region allowed archeologists to finally see the long-submerged Dolmen de Guadalperal, in 2019. Also known as Spanish Stonehenge, the 7,000-year-old site contains 100 monolithic stones, some of which are 6 feet tall. Locals believe it may have been a trading hub with a religious element.
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The Lost Leaders of Jamestown
In 2015, a team of researchers identified four skeletons found in the historic 1608 church of Jamestown (where John Rolfe and Pocahontas were wed) as the remains of the “founders of the first permanent British settlement in America,” National Geographic reported. The forensic researchers used the teeth of the skeletons to figure out how long the “Lost Leaders of Jamestown” spent at the settlement.
Dead Sea Scrolls
While tending to his flock in 1947, a young Bedouin shepherd in the Judean Desert made one of the greatest archeological discoveries ever: the Dead Sea Scrolls. Held in large clay jars, the old scrolls contained Hebrew manuscripts written more than 1,000 years earlier than any existing Biblical text, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Fly above Peru’s Nazca Desert, and you’ll see huge geoglyphs that resemble animals and plants. Dubbed the Nazca Lines, the archeological finding dates back to between 1,500 and 2,500 years old. American historian Paul Kosok is credited as the first researcher to conduct an in-depth study of the Nazca Lines, the purpose of which is still a mystery.
Ayahuasca from the Bolivian Andes
In 2019, researchers discovered that a millennium-old leather bundle found in a cave in the Andes of Bolivia contained the active compounds for ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic tea, the University of California Berkeley reported. The artifact is the first evidence that South Americans have been using hallucinogenic substances for at least 1,000 years.
As they were building a water tank foundation in 2020, people in Tamaulipas, Mexico, found one of the first complete skeletons of a pre-Hispanic man. Researchers believe the remains, which had been untouched for more than a millennium, belonged to a man who was between 21 and 35 years old at the time of death.
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In 2020, a research team from Australia’s Griffith University and London’s Natural History Museum took a closer look at a skull discovered in modern-day Zambia nearly 100 years earlier. They discovered that it was 299,000 years old, not 500,000 years old, as previously speculated. However, the more accurate dating suggests that multiple human species lived in the area at the same time, per Nature.
Tombs of pyramid builders in Egypt
It’s been long speculated that the Great Pyramids of Giza were built by slaves. However, a 2010 discovery of ancient tombs, reported to be more than 4,000 years old, with skeletons of pyramid-builders indicates that they were paid laborers, according to The Guardian.
Painted shell from Neanderthals
Researchers unearthed a painted fossil marine shell from a cave in Northern Italy that was collected by Neanderthals, according to a 2013 article in PLOS ONE. While Neanderthals are often thought of as primitive cavemen, the decorated artifact suggests that they may have collected artwork and thus been more sophisticated than once believed.
Starting in 2005, scientists spent eight years researching the features of a 1.8-million-year-old skull unearthed in the country of Georgia. Their research suggests that the early Homo species (a predecessor to humans) may have had a much simpler evolution than previously thought, per The New York Times.
The earliest story told in pictures
A 2019 report in Nature found that a panel of elaborate rock art from Sulawesi, Indonesia, is believed to be the world’s earliest figurative artwork and “oldest pictorial record of storytelling.” The rare archeological finding depicts a hunting scene with dwarf bovids and wild pigs and is estimated to be nearly 44,000 years old.
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Library of Alexandria
A team of researchers from Poland and Egypt excavated what appeared to be the Library of Alexandria in 2004. The library contained “works by the greatest thinkers and writers of the ancient world,” including Plato and Socrates. The excavation was the first time that a complex of Greco-Roman lecture halls was found in the Mediterranean.
Hidden Japanese settlement in British Columbia
Archeology professor Robert Muckle heard about a site tucked deep in the forest of the North Shore Mountains of British Columbia in 2004. While he thought it might be a historic logging camp, he spent the next 14 years excavating the area and finding signs of a long-lost Japanese settlement, Smithsonian Magazine reported. Researchers have since dug up more than 1,000 artifacts, as well as evidence of a Japanese bathhouse at the site.
Recording of long-lost Beatles performance
Not all archeological finds are thousands of years old. Case in point: the discovery of a recording of a performance of “Paperback Writer” by the Beatles on “Top of the Pops” in 1966. The BBC didn’t record the show at the time, and fans had long believed that it was lost, according to Smithsonian Magazine. However, fan David Chandler captured the performance with a personal camera and stored the recording in his attic for decades, only to rediscover it again in 2019.
Chichén Itzá, a massive pre-Columbian city created by the Maya in Yucatán State, Mexico, garnered worldwide attention after explorer John Lloyd Stephens wrote about it in 1843, but it wasn’t until the early 20th century that archeologists from the Carnegie Institution would begin conducting archeological research. The site is considered to be among the mythical great cities and offers researchers the chance to study a myriad of architectural styles.
Excavations of Tikal, the ruins of an ancient pre-Columbian Maya city in modern-day Guatemala, were started by the University of Pennsylvania in 1956. Since then, it has become one of the best sources of understanding of the lowland Maya cities and features a range of temples, monuments, and palaces.
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Helmets made from children’s skulls
In 2019, archeologists working on an excavation site in Salango, Ecuador, published their discovery of two infants who were buried wearing helmets made from the skulls of other children in Latin American Antiquity. The burial mounds are believed to have been created in the year 100 B.C. The findings offer clues about the unique infant mortuary rituals of the Guangala culture.
The first recorded excavation of Stonehenge, a prehistoric monument consisting of a ring of 13-foot-high stones in Wiltshire, England, was started by the Duke of Buckingham in the 1620s. The monument, which dates back about 5,000 years, has helped researchers learn more about the ceremonial practices of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages.
Sir Ernest Shackleton’s whisky
Researchers retrieved whisky bottles that once belonged to explorer Ernest Shackleton that were tucked beneath his hut in the ice of Antarctica in 2010. The bottles were abandoned when Shackleton ended his expedition to reach the South Pole nearly 100 years earlier. At the time of the discovery, Whyte & Mackay's, which now owns that brand of whisky Shackleton drank, planned to extract small samples of the alcohol to see if they could recreate the recipe.
Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum
Construction workers accidentally discovered a Neolithic subterranean structure in Paola, Malta, when they were cutting cisterns in 1902. Now known as the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum, the finding contained grave goods, human remains, and a multilevel structure with interconnected chambers. It has given researchers more insight into the Maltese culture of building temples.
Göbekli Tepe in Turkey contains the oldest-known megaliths in the world. The ancient site, thought to be of ritual or social importance between the 10th and 8th millennium B.C.E., features more than 200 pillars. The archeological site was first surveyed in 1963 by a research team from Istanbul University and the University of Chicago.
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Hidden Palace of Ramesses II
While researching a royal temple, archeologists from New York found an ancient Egyptian palace that’s connected to the Temple of Ramses II in Abydos, reported Newsweek in 2019. The discovery gives researchers more clues about temples of the period and even prompted the first change to the temple’s floor plan in around 160 years.
Lucy, the first Australopithecus afarensis skeleton
Paleontologist Donald C. Johanson discovered the first Australopithecus afarensis skeleton ever unearthed in Hadar, Ethiopia, in 1974. “Lucy,” as the 3.2-million-year-old ape has come to be called, was thought to be the earliest-known ancestor species to humans for the next 20 years, according to National Geographic.
Frozen bodies of children sacrificed by Inca
Researchers learned more about Inca child sacrifice from the frozen bodies of two boys (age 4–5 years old) and a 13-year-old girl, found in a tomb near Volcán Llullaillaco, Argentina, according to a 2013 paper published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Data extracted from the scalp hair of the remains implies that the children ingested coca and alcohol, and may have been overall treated differently than other children before they were sacrificed.
Medieval female scribe
In 2019, a multidisciplinary research team discovered “an abundance of ultramarine particles” in the dental remains of a woman who was laid to rest at a German monastery in the 11th or 12th century, according to Archaeology magazine. Because the brilliant blue pigment was extremely expensive and rare at the time, researchers believe that the woman served as a scribe who used ultramarine when creating sacred manuscripts. It may eventually lead to the discovery of more female scribes from the early medieval period.
Ancient human jawbone outside of Africa
A fossil found on Israel’s Mount Carmel by a university freshman in 2002 would later be determined to be the oldest human jawbone unearthed outside of Africa nearly two decades later, per Artnet. It was evidence that humans traveled outside of Africa around 50,000 years sooner than what experts previously believed.
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The writings of French naturalist Henri Mouhot in the mid-19th century prompted waves of archeologists to visit Cambodia and learn more about the once-sprawling city of Angkor Wat, per the BBC. The massive Buddhist temple complex is considered to be one of the world’s largest religious monuments and is a source of Cambodian national pride.
Frozen Siberian mummies
Archeologists found the remains of more than 40 people, including a slain warrior, in southern Siberia in 2003. The mummified bodies belonged to a class of warrior-nomads known as the Scythians. The findings have given researchers more details about the lives of ancient people in the region, including some of the earliest-known battlefield surgeries, Discover magazine reported in 2008.
A severe storm in Scotland stripped the earth of a knoll and revealed the outline of the long-abandoned village of Skara Brae in 1850. Some 5,000 years old, Skara Brae is considered to be among the best-preserved Neolithic sites on the continent. Researchers are still trying to figure out why the residents abandoned the area, reported National Geographic in 2019.
Ġgantija megalithic temple complex
While travelers and explorers had long known about the megalithic temple complex of Ġgantija in Malta, excavations didn’t begin until 1827, with more extensive digs occurring in the mid-20th century. Believed to have been erected as early as 3600 B.C., the Ġgantija temples are one of the oldest existing religious structures created by humans and have since earned designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Acropolis of Athens
While Greece brims with fascinating archeological sites, none are quite as famous as the Acropolis of Athens. The site was constructed over thousands of years, starting as early as the Bronze Age. Researchers began restoring and preserving the site around the turn of the 20th century. The Acropolis of Athens is now considered to be a universal symbol “of the classical spirit and civilization,” notes UNESCO.
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Senegambian stone circles
Built over a period of 1,500 years, the Senegambian stone circles are part of a sacred landscape spanning more than 11,500 square miles in The Gambia and Senegal. Excavations on the megalithic circles occurred in 1964 and 1965. The concentration of the 1,000-plus monuments offers insight into a “prosperous, highly organized and lasting society,” UNESCO says.
Among the most famous archeological findings in Ethiopia are the country’s monolithic churches, believed to have been built as early as the seventh century. They are of significant religious importance for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and feature an extensive drainage system and ceremonial passageways.
Medieval cities in Cambodia
Laser-scanning technology helped researchers uncover several medieval cities buried in the Cambodian jungle in 2015, The Guardian said. The never-before-seen cities are believed to have comprised “the world’s largest empire in the 12th century.”
Serra da Capivara National Park
Scattered throughout the rock shelters of Brazil’s Serra da Capivara National Park are cave paintings, some of which date back more than 25,000 years. They were created by one of South America’s oldest human communities, per UNESCO.
Thingvellir, established by the Vikings in the year 930 A.D., is the site of the world's oldest parliament, in regular use until the 19th century. Not only did it play an important role in antiquity, it also served as a symbol in the Icelandic independence movement. It’s now considered one of the country’s “holiest” sites, according to Iceland magazine.
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