One of the funniest aspects of the Indiana Jones movies is how Indy will talk to his class of students and tell them to let go of dreams of finding treasure and “X marks the spot” and how archeology is all study and hard work. He then goes out and embarks on a series of wild adventures involving the finds of artifacts of great power. More than one student has been inspired by those movies only to find real archeology is hardly the stuff of great adventure. But it remains intriguing by being able to look up the history of our world and see how far we’ve come. To realize our origins is key to understanding the world today and while much of the world has been explored, there are still secrets to find.
That’s true for some ancient spots as time has allowed temples or even entire cities to be literally buried from sight for centuries or longer. More than one person has found actual treasure with just a metal detector while some folks need to build up years of study to find the right places. It’s remarkable to see how many great finds were made not by a professional scholar but pure amateurs with no idea of what they had truly uncovered at first. Their history is amazing and has often granted incredible insight into the past. Here are 25 of the greatest archeological finds to show what inspired Indiana Jones and how the real deal has plenty of excitement of its own.
24 Baghdad Battery
Here’s a case of a find that’s straight out of the Indiana Jones movies. They were found in modern Iraq in the 1930s and studied by Wilhelm König. The vases date to the Sasanian Empire, which reigned from 224 to 650 AD. Most assumed they were just used to carry scrolls. However, Konig had another, wilder theory: That properly utilized, these urns could create a battery, even capable of transforming lead into gold. While some aren’t sure about the latter part, the battery idea actually carries some weight with experiments utilizing replicas proving it actually is possible (even Mythbusters was forced to admit it could work).
23 Nazca Lines
In 1940, Paul Kozok charted an airplane to fly over the area to get a better view of its irrigation systems. He was astounded to see what appeared to be the image of a gigantic bird in the desert. He returned with German mathematician Maia Reiche and found more strange symbols carved on the ground. There are hundreds of such symbols from animal carvings to odd circles with stakes found showing how the Nazca tribes created them. Exactly what their purpose was is still debated.
The center of the Minoan civilization, Knossos is the oldest surviving city in Europe. It dates back to 2000 BC and once had a population of 100,000 people. It is most famous for inspiring the Greek myth of the Labyrinth with the Minotaur. In 1878, the Greek merchant Minos Kalokairinos discovered the site He found several of the buildings still standing and began explorations to find various artifacts from coins to documents to weapons. Beginning in 1900, a series of excavations began to explore the city and reveal more of it to the world. Sadly, a few of the explorers were grave robbers.
21 Lascaux Cave Paintings
Cave drawings were the first proof to archeologists of how our civilization developed and grew over the millennia. In 1940, a group of teenagers were playing near an abandoned mine shaft in Lascaux, France. Marcel Ravida entered a side shaft to discover a cavern system packed with slews of astounding cave paintings. Obviously, the German invasion of France put off further exploration so it wasn’t until 1948 that Ravida was finally able to get some scholars to join him on a journey back. In 1948, it was opened to the public but sadly, the locals didn’t realize how the humidity and added heat of several thousand visitors a year would cause damage to the caves. They were shut down until 1963 when an air-conditioning system could help.
20 The Stone Spheres of Costa Rica
Locally known as Las Bolas (literally “the Balls”), it’s believed these spheres were created by the now extinct Diquis tribe somewhere around 600. That tribe was wiped out in part thanks to the mass colonization of the Europeans thanks to Columbus finding the area. The Stones were buried, having been long overtaken by the jungle until the 1930s when a fruit company clearing ground for a new plant came across them. Sadly, the workmen were not professionals and thus not only did they damage some stones with their bulldozers but also tried dynamiting them under the mistaken belief there was gold hidden inside. Thankfully, the authorities stepped in fast.
19 The Wakefield Treasure Find
Wakefield is a small city in Yorkshire, England, its population just under 100,000 people and its origins dating back to the 16th century. It’s a classic British place, mixing modern tech with tradition. In 2016, more history was made as within two months of each other, a pair of local villagers found some Roman gold buried in their backyards. All told, the discoveries included gold and copper rings, coins, bracelets, buckles and other materials dating to about the 2nd century AD.
18 Childeric’s Treasure
In 1653, Adrien Quinquin was doing some yard work on the church of Saint-Brice when his shovel struck something. He was astounded to discover a set of gold coins which he reported. Soon, diggers found an incredible trove of gold treasures dating back to Childeric’s rule with a leather purse, a bulls-head and the signet ring proving this was his burial spot. This kicked off a rather nasty battle for control that took a very long time to settle. Sadly, much of the treasure was stolen by thieves in the 19th century and more lost in the chaos of the Paris Commune.
For millennia, Neapolis was considered one of the toughest sites to find in all of the old Roman empire. The reason for that is because it’s pretty hard to find a place that’s been lost to the sea. In the 4th century, a massive tsunami hit the coast of what is now Tunisia, causing damage as far as Alexandria and Crete. It also completely destroyed Neapolis and buried it in the sea. In late 2017, after a long search, a group finally discovered the remains of the city off the coast, a few hundred feet underwater. Excavations are underway to find artifacts and statues and showcase its history as a trading area. It took a long time but at last, this city’s history is finally resurfacing.
16 Machu Picchu
It’s rare to say “stumbled onto a find” and actually have it be literal. In 1911, American historian Hiram Bingham was doing some exploring in Peru, hoping to find some ancient Inca ruins. He ended up getting lost and found by a local farmer. The farmer-led Bingham to a fantastic deserted city atop a mountain located nearly 8000 feet above sea level. While it was hinted a few explorers may have seen it before, Bingham was the first to understand its significance and do a full-on inspection. He figured it was a royal estate dating back to the 15th century and abandoned when the Spanish conquered the area. It housed no more than 800 people, mostly support staff for the king who would visit and its breathtaking views of the jungle far below no doubt added to its appeal.
15 The Voynich manuscript
Most would think that code-breaking can be easy today thanks to advanced computers. However, there is one book that’s resisted every attempt to properly decipher. It is believed to have been written during the Renaissance. But with pages missing, there’s no key to figuring out what it’s saying. The first known owner was Wilfrid Vonyich, a Polish book dealer who acquired the book during a trip to Italy in 1911. He kept it for years before his death, after which it bounced from one owner to another. It currently rests in Yale University and has become legendary.
Back in the 17th century, evolution theories were pretty much non-existent and religious fervor still overcame scientific study. Thus, when Robert Plot found a very large and misshapen bone discovered in a limestone quarry in Oxfordshire, he assumed it had to be human. But Plot realized it was just too massive and odd and thus speculated it was part of some previously unknown animal. He speculated it was a “Roman elephant” and wrote it up with the name of a “megalosaurus.” Plot had no idea he had basically named the first found dinosaur. It took a while for scholars to realize it.
13 Kilwa Coin
For centuries, every Australian believed that the country had no contact with the outside world until a Dutch ship found it in 1606. In 2013, a report cast a lot of that history in doubt. During World War II, an Aussie radar operator named Maurie Isenberg found a set of coins on the beach. He tried to sell them to no success so kept them until his death when his family gave them to a museum. Ian McIntosh, an anthropologist, did a study to discover these were coins dating back 900 years to what is now Tanzania. Meaning that almost 300 years before those Dutch ships, there was trading between Africa and Australia.
For centuries, the legend of Pompeii had become nearly myth in Roman history. Once a key city, it was home to thousands, a major center for shipping, merchants and gladiator games. In late August 79 AD, the volcano Vesuvius exploded in one of the most violent volcanic eruptions ever recorded. In a single day, Pompeii was buried under a mountain of ash, wiped from the face of the Earth. An early rediscovery was made by a construction group in 1599 that dug up parts of old buildings. It remained quiet for another 150 years before a French group did a much more in-depth excavation. Over the centuries, much of the city has been uncovered with bathhouses, homes and some stores. It’s now a very popular tourist site, notably for the remains of its people, transformed into ashen statues.
11 Olduvai Gorge
In 1951, the husband-wife team of Louis and Mary Leakey began a major study of Olduvai Gorge, an area in northern Tanzania. The area had been found forty years earlier and Louis had been part of a 1930s expedition which found the remains of some ancient people. While Louis was sick, Mary found the skull of an ancient human Australopithecus boisei. The duo was soon uncovering more skeletons, many nearly 2 million years old. Their finds also included ancient tools and homes.
Maurice Taieb had no idea how much history he was going to make when he began work on the Hadar Formation in Ethiopia in 1974. He began various excavations alongside American archeologist Donald Johanson. It was Johanson who found a skull resting within a rock structure. It took a few years to carefully dig and find a nearly complete female skeleton. They figured it would be old but were astounded by the scans that determined Lucy was over three million years old, making it the oldest human remains ever discovered. The original fossils are back their home country.
9 Gobekli Tepe
Here’s a case where the first discoverers didn’t quite know what they had found. In 1963, a construction crew in Turkey found what looked like an old city of some sort. An American archeologist took some looks and decided it was an old Byzantine cemetery with buildings grown over it. It faded out of view until 1994 when Klaus Schmidt took another look at the place. Using recent discoveries to boost his knowledge, Schmidt figured out the site was actually prehistoric in nature. He got crews to soon excavate a set of pillars, indicating this was used as a gathering site for the various tribes of the 10th or 8th millennium BCE.
8 The Staffordshire Hoard
The next time someone mocks you for using a metal detector in hopes of finding treasure, bring this up. In 2009, Terry Herbert was using a detector on a recently plowed field in Staffordshire, England, having heard legends of gold buried there. As it happened, he came across some beeping and soon dug up several gold pieces. He dug more to find over 200 pieces before calling up the authorities. By the time they went public, the Birmingham Museum had found over 35,000 gold pieces, the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver ever discovered. It’s not huge, amounting to about 12 pounds of gold total.
7 Terracotta Warriors
One of the more recent finds on this list, a group of farmers in China were digging for a well in 1974 when they found a tunnel. Digging further, they came on an exquisitely carved stone statue of an ancient Chinese soldier. The authorities uncovered a massive “graveyard” containing thousands of such soldiers, 130 chariots, and over 600 horses. The entire area is now one of the most visited in all of China, the main necropolis almost 38 miles wide.
6 Antikythera Mechanism
In 1900, a group of Greek divers accidentally came across the remains of several ancient ships that had been lost for millennia. Despite the lack of technology at the time, more dives were made to find coins and other artifacts. In 1902, Valerios Stais was diving with the men when he found what he assumed was some sort of ancient clock. But when he got it to the surface, he found it was much more than it seemed. In essence, Stais had found the world’s first computer, created back in 70 BC. The gears and markings are able to predict astronomical figures and even the four-year cycle of the Olympic Games.
5 Sutton Hoo
In 1939, wealthy widow Edith Pretty was trying to build a new manor when the diggers hit something odd. She called in scholar Basil Brown who began to uncover an entire ship buried underground. Even when officials from the British Museum told him to stop, Brown kept digging which may have saved the site from treasure hunters. World War II halted further study but after the war ended, it was revived with further excavations. They found the ship loaded with slews of artifacts from the 7th century from armor to weapons and even artifacts from Sweden like Viking shields.
4 The Dead Sea Scrolls
In 1946, a pair of sheepherders were scoping out new lands as the influx of Jews from post-War Europe was shaking up the area of the West Bank. They found a cave containing some ancient scrolls which they took back to their camp. It took a few years for the reports of these to reach John C. Trevor, a British archeologist. Traveling there, he first talked to the sheepherders then followed them to the cave area to find more scrolls. Over the next several years, he led excavations of the Qumran caves, discovering slews of ancient writings from legal documents to original passages of the Bible. That’s not to mention slews of pottery and other artifacts, a priceless discovery to finding out more of ancient cultures in the region.
3 The Library of Ashurbanipal
While the Library of Alexandria is famous, another collection of ancient tablets was key to understanding the land we now know as Iraq. Ashurbanipal was an educated king and proud of showing his understanding of writing and mathematics. He crafted numerous tablets during his reign in the 7th century B.C. which were later buried after the fall of his kingdom. Sir Austen Henry Layard was a Scottish scholar already famous for excavating some ancient cities. He managed to uncover the library in 1849, finding nearly 50,000 clay tablets and artifacts. The highlight was the Epic of Gilgamesh, telling the famous story of the ancient hero.
2 The Rosetta Stone
Napoleon can be credited with sparking interest in Egypt among Europeans thanks to his campaigns in the area. In 1799, a group of French soldiers were fortifying a fortress near the Nile River. They discovered a slab covered with writings that were sent to Paris to study with the realization it was carved in 186 B.C. It turned out one-third of the slab was in Egyptian while the lower third was in ancient Greek. The stone was taken by the British following the defeat of Napoleon and it took twenty years to translate.
1 King Tut’s Tomb
In 1915, George Herbert hired Edward Carter to try and find Tut’s tomb. It took seven years but at last, in 1922, Carter uncovered it. The prize was Tut’s body, still mummified and intact and surrounded by riches. For years, excavations would be made on the area, to uncover more treasures. However, mysterious fates began to befall Carter and others, giving the idea there was a curse upon the place. Despite that, Tut’s remains have been featured in museums.
Sources: National Geographic.com, History.com