Top 10 Archaeological Discoveries of 2016: From Lost Cities to Ancient Tombs, Shrines, Maps and Unknown Species
This year has provided an array of exciting, and sometimes puzzling, discoveries for archaeologists and ancient history enthusiasts. Looking back to our most ancient ancestors, a few of the fascinating finds highlighted the fact that Denisovans and Neanderthals were more sophisticated than previously believed, and showed us that the early human family tree is still missing some branches. In 2016, archaeologists used modern technology to digitally unwrap scrolls, faced down terrorists to unearth a Bronze Age city, proved once again that there is more to North America’s ancient past than just Clovis points, revealed Dublin Hellfire club secrets, and discovered what may be the oldest map in the world. If that’s not enough, a teenager also gave them all a run for their money by pinpointing the location of a lost Mayan city.
You’ve shown us which of these amazing finds delighted and amazed you the most. So, here are the Top Ten Archaeological Discoveries that you chose to view and share time and again.
A University of Kentucky professor and his team further deciphered the writings in the ancient En-Gedi scroll - the first severely damaged, ink-based scroll to be unrolled and identified noninvasively. Through virtual unwrapping, they revealed it to be the earliest copy of a Pentateuchal book - Leviticus - ever found in a Holy Ark. They discovered and restored text on five complete wraps of the animal skin scroll, an object that likely will never be physically opened for inspection.
"This work opens a new window through which we can look back through time by reading materials that were thought lost through damage and decay," Professor Brent Seales said, "There are so many other unique and exciting materials that may yet give up their secrets - we are only beginning to discover what they may hold.”
A November announcement showed that a dark chunk of blazing rock exposed in the hollow of the curious hill behind the Hellfire Club in Dublin served as a convenient border to many bonfires over the centuries. It passed thousands of years unnoticed. However, a team of archaeologists found that the mound was the remains of an ancient tomb, and that the ordinary looking dark stone was carved with symbols and designs that are over 5,000 years old. Although nobody can be sure at this moment if more stones of the same archaeological significance and art are now lying under a road through the mountains, archaeologist Neil Jackman calls this find “a tantalizing glimpse of what the original tomb may have looked like,” and remains optimistic about future findings.
Reports of archaeological discoveries are also pouring in lately from Scandinavia. In one intriguing find, a puzzling stone was uncovered in a ditch on Bornholm, a Danish island in the Baltic Sea. It could be one of the earliest maps in human history. The recent find, however, was not complete. It is made up of two pieces and one is still missing. The stone was discovered during archaeological excavations at the Neolithic shrine Vasagård, where scientists have previously unearthed similar ancient stones inscribed with rectangular patterns filled with different rows of lines and shading.
Archaeologist Flemming Kaul acknowledges that the interpretation of the map stones could be somewhat controversial, and expects to find more in the near future that will give us a better idea of their role and significance. As Kaul said, "About 20 years ago, after the first solar stones were found, I wrote about it for Skalk – and even the editor of the magazine didn't believe it. Now, after 20 years, we have found more than 200 solar stones, and they are one the most important things from Bornholm; so let's wait a couple of years to see if there are more map stones to come."
Archaeologists believe they have found a shrine dedicated to the Viking king Olaf Haraldsson in Trondheim, Norway. The team discovered the foundations of a wooden church where the body of the Viking king may have been enshrined after he was declared a saint. Preliminary dating indicates the structure was built in the 11th century.
During the excavation, the archaeologists uncovered a small rectangular stone-built platform at the building’s east end which may be the alter where St. Olaf’s coffin was placed in 1031. A small well was also found which could be a holy well associated with the saint. As the excavation’s director Anna Petersén concluded, “This is a unique site in Norwegian history in terms of religion, culture and politics. Much of the Norwegian national identity has been established on the cult of sainthood surrounding St. Olaf, and it was here it all began!”
May 2016 brought an unusual archaeological discovery to light. Researchers say circular arrangements of 176,000-year-old stalagmites in a cave in France show Neanderthals were carrying out some kind of cultural or geometric representations tens of thousands of years before modern Homo sapiens entered Europe. These structures are unlike anything else.
The stalagmites and burnt bones were found in Bruniquel Cave in France’s Averyron region. Neanderthals carried out tasks to arrange the circles, which the researchers claim points to social organization. The elaborateness of the circles, plus the fact that the stalagmites are partially calibrated (deliberately sized), plus the heated zones, indicate a level of social organization that researchers did not think Neanderthals were capable of.
An international team of archaeologists announced the unearthing of a very important city in Northern Iraq in November 2016. Many historians and experts agree that the ancient city belonged to the Akkadian Empire. The settlement was founded almost 5000 years ago and flourished for more than 1,200 years. The team also discovered pieces of Assyrian cuneiform tablets going back to 1300 BC which indicate the existence of a temple dedicated to the Mesopotamian weather god Adad at the site.
Although the site is only 28 miles (45 km) from territory controlled by the IS, the archaeologists said that it was possible to conduct their work without any disturbances. They are optimistic for the future and hope to return to the area and continue their excavations during the summer of 2017. As Professor Peter Pfälzner said, “The area around Bassetki is proving to be an unexpectedly rich cultural region, which was located at the crossroads of communication ways between the Mesopotamian, Syrian and Anatolian cultures during the Bronze Age. We’re therefore planning to establish a long-term archaeological research project in the region in conjunction with our Kurdish colleagues.”
A sensational discovery was made in Denisova Cave of an artifact that is at least 50,000-years-old BUT wasn't made by Homo sapiens. The 7-centimeter (2 3/4 inch) needle was made and used by our long extinct Denisovan ancestors. Scientists found the sewing implement - complete with a hole for thread - during the annual summer archaeological dig at an Altai Mountains cave widely believed to hold the secrets of man's origins. It appears to be still useable.
Professor Mikhail Shunkov, head of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography in Novosibirsk, said: “It is the most unique find of this season, which can even be called sensational. It is a needle made of bone. As of today it is the most ancient needle in the word. It is about 50,000 years old.” The needle is seen as proof that the long-gone Denisovans - named after the cave - were more sophisticated than previously believed.
A study of the genomes of Australasians revealed sections of DNA that do not match any known hominin species. The dramatic findings mean that a mystery species bred with ancient humans in the distant past and that our family tree is much more complex than previously believed. The unknown species bred with early human ancestors when they migrated from Africa to Australasia.
One theory is that the mystery species was Homo erectus, which was present in Asia between about 1.8 million and 33,000 years ago. However, there is no DNA from Homo erectus with which to compare the samples from current Australasian populations. To add more mystery, Alan Cooper of the University of Adelaide, Australia, has also raised the possibility that multiple unknown hominin species may have contributed to the unidentifiable DNA segments.
Archaeologists in Texas found a set of 16,700-year-old tools which are among the oldest discovered in the West. Until now, it was believed that the culture that represented the continent’s first inhabitants was Clovis. However, the discovery of the ancient tools now challenges that theory, providing evidence that human occupation precedes the arrival of the Clovis people by thousands of years.
The site contained more than 90 stone tools and some human remains. Many aspects of the technology of this mysterious tribe, like how they made biface blades, were very similar to the Clovis. It seems that the blade technology did not change a lot, the Clovis only improved it.
The diversity of artifacts uncovered at the Gault site shows that the continent’s earliest peoples were not a static or monolithic group. Moreover, they shed light on the history of human migration. The discovery proved that the first peoples in the Americas were more similar to modern people than most believe. As one researcher stated, they were “intelligent, inventive, creative — and they found ways to adapt to a rapidly changing world.”
William Gadoury, a 15-year-old Canadian from Quebec, revolutionized the academic world by using ingenious reasoning to discover a previously unknown Mayan city. Based on his own theory - that the Maya chose the location of their cities following constellations - he realized that there must be another undiscovered city in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.
No other scientist had noticed the correlation between the stars and the location of the different Maya sites. William discovered that there had to be another Mayan city, the 118th, in a remote and inaccessible part of the Yucatan Peninsula ... and it seems he’s right: analysis and studies of the area using satellite images by the various international space agencies have confirmed the existence of a pyramid and at least thirty buildings in the place he indicated. He has decided to call the site K’àak’ Chi’ which means “the fire mouth”.
Not only has William discovered the strong possibility of a new city, but it also may be one of the largest Maya sites so far. After presenting his research to two Mexican archaeologists, they promised that he will accompany them in their next expedition to the newly discovered site, which nobody has seen in person yet.