Ten Amazing Artifacts from the Ancient World
There are undoubtedly millions of amazing artifacts from the ancient world that have served to shed light on the lives of our ancestors from many millennia ago. But some stand out for their uniqueness, their intrigue, or their ability to expand our knowledge about previously unknown aspects of our history. Here we feature ten such artifacts. We have intentionally chosen not to feature well-known artifacts such as the Antikythera Mechanism, Baghdad Battery, Viking Sunstone and many other famous relics. Rather, we wished to highlight some lesser known but equally incredible artifacts from the ancient world.
Thor’s Hammer (c 900 AD, Denmark)
The discovery of a 10th century Viking artifact resembling the Hammer of Thor has solved a long-running mystery surrounding more than 1,000 ancient amulets found across Northern Europe. The relics, known as the Mjöllnir amulets, appear to depict hammers, which historians have linked to the Norse god Thor. However, this could not be concluded with certainty as their shapes were not conclusive, and none of them contained inscriptions revealing their identity. But earlier this year, another similar pendant was found in Købelev, on the Danish island of Lolland, which contained the runic inscription “this is a hammer”. Cast in bronze, and likely plated with silver, tin and gold, the 1,100-year-old pendant shows that Thor’s myth deeply influenced Viking jewellery.
According to Norse mythology, Thor is a hammer-wielding god associated with thunder, lightning, storms, oak trees, strength, the protection of mankind, and also hallowing, healing and fertility. Thor is a prominently mentioned god throughout the recorded history of the Germanic peoples, from the Roman occupation of regions of Germania, to the tribal expansions of the Migration Period, to his high popularity during the Viking Age, when, in the face of the process of the Christianization of Scandinavia, the Mjölnir amulets were worn in defiance and Norse pagan personal names containing the name of the god bear witness to his popularity.
The Quipu of Caral (3,000 BC, Peru)
The Sacred City of Caral is a 5,000-year-old metropolis which represents the oldest known civilization in the Americas, known as the Norte Chico. Among the many incredible artifacts recovered at the site, archaeologists found a segment of knotted strings known as a quipu. Quipus, sometimes called ‘talking knots’, were recording devices that consisted of coloured, spun, and plied thread or strings from llama or alpaca hair, or made of cotton cords. It is known that by the time of the Inca, the system aided in collecting data and keeping records, ranging from monitoring tax obligations, properly collecting census records, calendrical information, and military organization. The cords contained numeric and other values encoded by knots in a base ten positional system. Together, the type of wool, the colours, the knots and the joins held both statistical and narrative information that was once readable by several South American societies. In some villages, quipus were important items for the local community, and took on ritual rather than recording use. Until the discovery of the quipu in Caral, no other examples had been found that dated back earlier than 650 AD. So the significance of this finding was that it was now apparent that inhabitants of Andean South America were using this complex recording system thousands of years earlier than they initially thought.
Terracotta baby bottle, toy, and rattle, all in one (400 BC, Italy)
Last year, archaeologists in Italy found a 2,400-year-old terracotta baby’s bottle, which doubled as a pig-shaped toy. The unique artefact is one of several rare objects found last in Manduria, when construction work exposed a Messapian tomb. The relic is known as a guttus, which is a vessel with a narrow mouth or neck from which liquids were poured. They were used for wine and other drinks, but in this case, the guttus was used for feeding a baby or young child. Uniquely, this guttus was also shaped like a pig with pointy ears and human-like eyes. It also featured terracotta rattles in its tummy. The vessel dates back about 2,400 years when the southeast area of Italy was inhabited by the Messapian people, a tribal group who migrated from Illyria (a region in the western part of the Balkan Peninsula) around 1000 B.C. The Messapians died out after the Roman Republic conquered the region and assimilated the inhabitants.
The Nebra Sky Disk (c 1,600 BC, Germany)
The Nebra Sky Disc is a 3,600-year-old bronze disc which is such an extraordinary piece that it was initially believed to be an archaeological forgery. However, detailed scientific analysis revealed that it is indeed authentic and the precious artefact is now included in UNESCO’s ‘Memory of the World’ register. The Nebra Sky Disc was discovered in Ziegelroda Forest, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany. It had been ritually buried in a prehistoric enclosure atop a hill (the Mittelberg), along with two precious swords, two axes, two spiral arm-rings and one bronze chisel. The disc measures approximately 30 cm in diameter, weighs 2.2 kg, and is decorated with a blue-green patina and inlaid with gold symbols. These are interpreted generally as a sun or full moon, a lunar crescent, and stars (including a cluster interpreted as the Pleiades). Two golden arcs along the sides were added later. The two arcs span an angle of 82°, correctly indicating the angle between the positions of sunset at summer and winter solstice at the latitude of the Mittelberg (51°N). A final addition was another arc at the bottom surrounded with multiple strokes of uncertain meaning, variously interpreted as a Solar Barge (“the sun boat”) with numerous oars, or as the Milky Way. While much older earthworks and megalithic astronomical complexes such as the Goseck circle or Stonehenge had already been used to mark the solstices, the disc is the oldest known "portable instrument" to allow such measurements.
Gold-encrusted dagger of Stonehenge’s Bush Barrow (2,000 BC, England)
In 1808, William Cunnington, one of Britain's earliest professional archaeologists, discovered what has become known as the crown jewels of the 'King of Stonehenge'. They were found within a large Bronze Age burial mound just ½ mile from Stonehenge, known today as Bush Barrow. Within the 4,000-year-old barrow, Cunnington found ornate jewellery, a gold lozenge that fastened his cloak, and an intricately decorated dagger. The dagger was originally adorned with up to 140,000 tiny gold studs just a third of a millimetre wide. To create the studs, the craftsman had to first create an extremely fine gold wire, just a little thicker than a human hair. The end of the wire was then flattened to create a stud-head, and cut with a very sharp flint or obsidian razor, just a millimetre below the head. This delicate procedure was then repeated literarily tens of thousands of times. Thousands of tiny holes were then made in the dagger handle and a thin layer of tree resin was rubbed over the surface as an adhesive to keep the studs in place. Each stud was then carefully placed into its miniscule hole. It has been estimated that the entire process – wire manufacture, stud-making, hole-making, resin pasting and stud positioning – would have taken at least 2500 hours to complete.
The Trundholm Sun Chariot (c. 1700-500 BC, Denmark)
The Trundholm Sun ‘Chariot’ is a bronze and gold artefact pulled out of a bog on the Danish island of Sjælland in 1902. Even though this artefact is said to belong to the Nordic Bronze Age (c. 1700-500 B.C.), its exact age is still uncertain. The ‘chariot’ consists of a bronze horse, a bronze disc with a thin sheet of gold pressed into one side, and 6 four-spoke wheels made also of bronze. Apart from being a ritual object, it has also been suggested that the Trundholm Sun ‘Chariot’ may have functioned as a calendar. This theory was proposed by Klaus Randsborg, a professor of Archaeology at the University of Copenhagen, who explained that the golden day-side has dimensions associated with one third of a Solar year, while the night-side of the large central concentric circle has dimensions linked to six lunar months. He therefore concluded that “the reference is to the Sun-calendar on the day-side, and to the Moon-calendar on the night-side of the Sun Chariot, which seems the perfect calculation.”
The James Ossuary (1 st century AD, Israel)
The James Ossuary is believed by some to be one of the most precious Biblical artifacts of all time, as the limestone box which is said to have held the bones of the purported brother of Jesus and if proven correct, would be the first physical link to Jesus. The first century AD burial box contains an Aramaic inscription that reads "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." The box was carved from a single piece of limestone, which was typical of burial boxes used by Jews of first-century Palestine. In those days, bodies were left in a cave for a year before the bones were collected and put in a box. The limestone box has been at the centre of the most controversial forgery cases in decades. The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) tried to prove in court that the items were forged by antiquities collector Oded Golan, but they failed in their ruling and subsequently tried, unsuccessfully, to gain ownership of the item. It is also alleged, that the item was vandalized by the Israeli government before being returned to its owner.
The Divje Babe flute (58,000 – 43,000 BC, Slovenia)
The oldest musical instrument ever discovered is believed to be the Divje Babe flute, discovered in a cave in Slovenia in 1995. The item is a fragment of the femur of a cave bear, which has been dated at 60,000-43,000 years old, which had been pierced with spaced holes. Scientists who could not accept the possibility that Neanderthals were playing music rejected the claim and said that the perfectly spaced and neatly carved holes are in fact the result of the bone fragment having been chewed by an animal. However, a general consensus that the Divje Babe flute is actually a musical instrument has been growing as the view of the Neanderthals from primitive, uncultured brutes to more sophisticated humans is finally changing.
The Ubaid Lizard (c 5,000 BC, Iraq)
In the early 20 th century, archaeologists were excavating at the Tell Al’Ubaid archaeological site in Iraq when they made an unusual discovery – numerous 7,000-year-old artifacts depicting humanoid figures with lizard-like characteristics, including long heads, almond shaped eyes, long tapered faces and a lizard-type nose. Some appear to be wearing a helmet and have some kind of padding on the shoulders. Other figurines were found to hold a staff or sceptre, possibly as a symbol of justice and ruling. Male and female figurines were found in different postures, but the strangest of all are the female figurines holding babies suckling milk, with the child also represented with lizard-like features.
The Ubaidian culture is a prehistoric culture in Mesopotamia that dates between 5,500 and 4,000 BC. As with the Sumerians, the origins of the Ubaidian people is unknown. They lived in large village settlements in mud-brick houses and they had developed architecture, agriculture and farmed the land using irrigation.
The Venus Figurines (30,000 – 10,000 BC, Europe)
The Venus figurines is a term given to a collection of prehistoric statuettes of women made during the Paleolithic Period, mostly found in Europe, but with finds as far as Siberia. To date, more than 200 of the figurines have been found, dating back to between 30,000 and 10,000 BC, all of whom are portrayed with similar physical attributes, including curvaceous bodies with large breasts, bottoms, abdomen, hips, and thighs, and usually tapered at the top and bottom. The heads are often of relatively small size and devoid of detail, and most are missing hands and feet. Some appear to represent pregnant women, while others show no such signs. The figurines were carved from all manner of different materials, ranging from soft stone (such as steatite, calcite, or limestone) to bone, ivory, or clay. The latter type are among the earliest ceramic works yet discovered.
The term ‘Venus figurines’ is controversial in itself. Inspired by Venus, the ancient Greek goddess of love, it assumes that the figures represent a goddess. Of course, this is one possible explanation, but it is just one of many interpretations that have been proposed. A considerable diversity of opinion exists in the archaeological and paleoanthropological literature regarding the possible functions and significance of these objects. Some of the different theories put forward include: fertility symbols, self-portraits, Stone Age dolls, realistic depictions of actual women, ideal representations of female beauty, religious icons, representations of a mother goddess, or even the equivalent of pornographic imagery.