Learning about our ancestors and history fascinates us to no end, especially when you consider some of the most important archaeological discoveries in history. Whenever a new discovery is made, it stays in the headlines for days if not weeks and is quickly passed around. Luckily, archaeology serves as a strong conduit for us to discover new things about our past and decipher how we used to live and what we used to do. Though many see it as a dry, boring field (besides Indiana Jones, maybe), archaeology is still a very dynamic and robust area of study. As will be reinforced by this list, magnificent discoveries are still frequently made. Whether it’s the world’s first computer or ancient civilizations we are still unable to trace, we have made some pretty phenomenal archaeological discoveries in the past few hundred years. Whether they be temples, burial grounds, or entire underground cities, the archaeological discoveries on this list shaped and often rewrote history as we know it (some of which turned out to be really controversial such as these 25 archaeological controversies that divided the scientific community). Dig in (archaeologist joke) to the fascinating remnants of our past in this list of the 25 most important archaeological discoveries in history.
One of the best discoveries in human history, Ashurbanipal’s library at Nineveh (modern-day Mosul, Iraq) was a center for learning. King Ashurbanipal ordered the collection of all written works in Mesopotamia, ending up with a library boasting over 30,000 inscribed clay tablets. The discovery revolutionized our understanding of multiple societies including the Assyrians, Sumerians, Akkadians, and Babylonians. (Nineveh may even be the location of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.)
An enormous temple complex found on Malta (an island between Italy and Tunisia in the Mediterranean Sea), Ħaġar Qim is one of the oldest religious sites on Earth. Demonstrating the ancients’ intricate knowledge of the heavens, during sunrise on the Summer Solstice a small ray of light passes through an elliptical hole in the stone to illuminate a slab in the chamber.
Olmec Colossal Heads
The Olmec colossal heads are some of the most unique archaeological discoveries yet found. Massive carved boulders, these heads which likely represented local rulers are up to 11.2 feet (3.4) tall and weigh up to 50 tons – that’s eight adult elephants! The heads are carved with flat noses, fleshy cheeks, and adorned with individualized headdresses. Such markings may reinforce their roles as leaders of the Olmec people who lived in Mexico’s southeastern parts up to 3,000 years ago.
Terra Cotta warriors
Protecting the tomb of China’s first emperor, the Terra Cotta Army is one of the best known archaeological discoveries of all time. Much as the Ancient Egyptians wanted to set their dead pharoahs up for a successful afterlife, Emperor Qin Shi was surrounded by thousands of clay soldiers, each sporting individual facial expressions and designs. Though excavations at the site are on hold, the tomb of Qin Shi has yet to be found. Up to 8,000 clay soldiers, horses, chariots, dancers, and musicians have been found around the site.
Subterranean city in central Turkey
One of the most thrilling recent discoveries in archaeology is a subterranean city complex in Cappadocia, central Turkey. Likely able to house well-over 20,000 people, initial excavations have found a massive underground city complete with water channels, air shafts, wineries, chapels, kitchens, bedrooms, and more. Still under exploration, this tunneled city helped its inhabitants escape from danger on the surface level. Initial findings estimate the massive spaces could go down to 371 feet (113 m), spaces tourists may be able to visit once the Anatolian government opens them to tourism.