Ten Unsolved Ancient Archaeological Mysteries
Over the years, Ancient Origins has reported on thousands of archaeological mysteries that have not yet been solved. Here we have chosen to highlight just ten of these ancient enigmas, from lost labyrinths to enormous geoglyphs, stone masonry with exceptional precision, mysterious figurines, and giant spheres. Perhaps one day we will find the answers to some of the questions posed by these intriguing sites.
“This I have actually seen, a work beyond words. For if anyone put together the buildings of the Greeks and display of their labours, they would seem lesser in both effort and expense to this labyrinth… Even the pyramids are beyond words, and each was equal to many and mighty works of the Greeks. Yet the labyrinth surpasses even the pyramids.”
These are the words of ancient Greek historian Herodotus written in the 5th century BC (‘Histories’, Book, II, 148), describing a colossal temple said to contain 3,000 rooms full of hieroglyphs and paintings. It was named ‘Labyrinth’ by the Greeks after the complex maze of corridors designed by Daedalus for King Minos of Crete, where the legendary Minotaur dwelt. Yet today, nothing remains of this supposedly grand temple complex – at least not on the surface.
Although the words of Herodotus have frequently been drawn into question, the detailed and consistent descriptions of the labyrinth from multiple sources indicate that it is a place that did indeed exist in the ancient past. In fact, in the last century, great gains have been made in identifying its location, culminating in the latest Mataha expedition, which has used the highest level of technology to finally unlock the secrets of the lost labyrinth. The researchers have faced numerous obstacles, but it is hoped that excavations can be launched in future in order to potentially shed light on one of the greatest mysteries of antiquity.
One of the great mysteries of antiquity, is the final burial place of Alexander the Great. Ancient historian Diodorus wrote that Alexander’s body was mummified and placed in a golden sarcophagus, which was then placed in another golden casket and transported on a wagon to his burial site, which was said to be the Temple of Amun at Siwa in Egypt. However, Ptolemy, a close friend of Alexander’s and a general in his army, is reported to have met the cortege on its route from Persia to Egypt and proposed to bury Alexander in Alexandria instead of Siwa. But is this really what happened all those years ago? To this day, the burial site of Alexander the Great has never been found. If and when it is, it is anticipated to be among the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time.
Located in the arid Peruvian coastal plain, some 400 km south of Lima, the geoglyphs of Nazca cover an incredible 450 km 2. They are among archaeology's greatest enigmas because of their quantity, nature, size and continuity. The geoglyphs depict living creatures, stylized plants and imaginary beings, as well as geometric figures several kilometres long. The startling feature of the Nazca geoglyphs is that they can only really be appreciated from the air, raising questions about how and why they were created.
Extensive underground networks and even entire cities have been found all over the world. Derinkuyu in Cappadocia in Turkey is probably the largest underground city that has been discovered to date. It spans more than 8 levels going as deep as 80 meters with more than 600 entrances to the surface. In Egypt, the Giza Plateau has an enormous underground system that is a combination of manmade caverns and tunnels as well as subterranean rivers and passages. In Guatemala, 800 kilometres worth of tunnels have been mapped underneath the Mayan pyramid complex at Tikal. In 1992, 24 man-made caves were discovered in China, displaying incredible craftsmanship that would have involved the excavation of 36,000 cubic meters of stone. Archaeologists have uncovered thousands of Stone Age underground tunnels, stretching across Europe, perplexing researchers as to their original purpose.
Legends of vast underground cities being built to be protected by events on the surface appear in the myths and legends of multiple different continents from Egypt to America to China. Could that be the explanation for the thousands of tunnels, caves and underground cities around the world? Further research and exploration is needed to uncover just what these underground networks for used for, why they were built and by whom. Until then, their existence remains a mystery.
The Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni in Malta is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which is believed to be the oldest prehistoric underground temple in the world. The subterranean structure is shrouded in mystery, from the discovery of elongated skulls to stories of paranormal phenomena. But the characteristic that has been attracting experts from around the globe is the unique acoustic properties found within the underground chambers of the Hypogeum. Although not known for certain, it is believed that the hypogeum was originally used as a sanctuary, possibly for an oracle. It is for this reason that a unique chamber carved out of solid limestone and demonstrating incredible acoustic properties has been called ‘the Oracle Chamber’. According to William Arthur Griffiths, who wrote ‘Malta and its Recently Discovered Prehistoric Temples’, a word spoken in the Oracle room is “magnified a hundredfold and is audible throughout the entire structure.” It is said that standing in the Hypogeum is like being inside a giant bell. At certain pitches, one feels the sound vibrating in bone and tissue as much as hearing it in the ear. The questions remain – was it intentional? Was the Hypogeum actually designed to enhance amplification? If so, why? Is it possible that the designers of these spaces knew something that modern scientists are just rediscovering?
Around the world, we can find numerous examples of ancient stone-cutting so precise that they rival creations of the modern day produced with advanced machinery. But one of the most impressive examples can be found at Puma Punku, an ancient archaeological site in Bolivia – dated by some historians to be 17,000-years-old – that contains such incredible stonework that it looks as if the stones were cut using a diamond tool. Enormous blocks weighing up to 800 tons, consist of perfectly straight edges that lock perfectly into each other and contain no chisel marks. Attempts to replicate the precision of the stonework have failed and archaeologists, as well as stone masons, are at a loss to explain how they accomplished such precise cuts without advanced technology.
The Plain of Jars in the Xieng Khouang plain of Laos is one of the most enigmatic sights on Earth. The unusual site of thousands of megalithic stone jars scattered across nearly one hundred sites deep in the mountains of northern Laos has fascinated archaeologists and scientists ever since their discovery in the 1930s. The unusual site known as the Plain of Jars is dated to the Iron Age (500 BC to 500 AD) and is made up of at least 3,000 giant stone jars up to 3 metres tall and weighing several tonnes. Most are made of sandstone but there are others made of much harder granite and limestone. The jars appear to have been manufactured with a degree of knowledge of what materials and techniques were suitable. It is assumed that Plain of Jars’ people used iron chisels to manufacture them although no conclusive evidence for this exists. Little is known of the people who carved the huge containers and the jars themselves give little clue as to their origins or purpose.
Many will be familiar with the opening scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” where a giant stone sphere nearly crushes Indiana Jones to death. While everyone recognises the movie as a work of fiction, the giant ancient stone spheres are not. While clearing the jungle for banana plantations in 1940 in Costa Rica's Diquis Delta region, employees of the United Fruit Company uncovered numerous large stone spheres partly buried in the forest floor. Around 300 spheres are known to exist, with the largest weighing 16 tonnes and measuring eight feet in diameter, and the smallest being no bigger than a basketball. Almost all of them are made of granodiorite, a hard, igneous stone. Since their discovery the true purpose of the spheres, which still eludes experts, has been the subject of speculation ranging from theories about the balls being navigational aids, to relics related to Stonehenge, the product of an unknown ancient civilization or visits from extraterrestrials. Part of the mystery surrounds the way in which they were created as the near-perfect spheres appear to have come from a quarry that was more than 50 miles away and they were created in a time in which metal tools had apparently not been invented yet. However, the biggest mystery remains what they were used for. The people who made them didn't leave any written record and there no myths or legends or other stories that are told by the indigenous people of Costa Rica about why the spheres were made.
In Western Bolivia, thousands and thousands of perfectly straight paths are etched into the ground, creating an amazing sight. These line were etched into the ground over a period of 3,000 years by indigenous people living near the volcano Sajama. It is unknown exactly when or why they were constructed, but they remain a mystery, as it is hard to imagine how the construction of something of such magnitude could pre-date modern technology.
The Sajama lines cover an area of approximately 22,525 square kilometres (8,700 square miles), with the longest lines measuring 20 kilometers (12 miles) in length. Despite the rugged topography and natural obstacles, they are remarkably straight, formed into a web or network.
Some believe that the indigenous people used the lines as a navigational tool during sacred pilgrimages. However, there is no firm evidence yet to confirm this hypothesis, so for now, the true purpose of these magnificent geoglyphs remain a mystery.
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, 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. There have been many different interpretations of the figurines, but none based on any kind of solid evidence.
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 archeological 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. Like many prehistoric artifacts, the cultural meaning may never be known.