It’s always exciting when news comes out of a newly discovered dinosaur species or a forgotten empire or a lost city. Historical discoveries paint a picture of the past and give us new scientific knowledge, while also presenting us a proverbial road-map for the future (i.e. what not to do to fail as a society). Granted, we haven’t been following our ancestor’s examples very well up til this point, but it’s never too late to start (or is it? I’m looking at you, melting glaciers).
It can also be disconcerting to learn awful truths from discoveries that may have just been better off left unearthed, such as those 800 dead babies recently found in that Irish septic tank/mass grave. Truly tragic. But even as those kinds of discoveries disgust us, history is the better for it. (Don’t worry, that story isn’t on this list, seeing as that it wasn’t exactly an archaeological discovery.) Here are ten of the most fascinating archaeological discoveries of the past two years.
10 Roman Port City of Ostia
In April 2014, archaeologists unearthed a huge section of the ancient Roman port city of Ostia, shedding new light on the city’s significance in history. Although Ostia was already discovered, the new dig greatly extended the Ostia city limits. Massive warehouses the size of football fields were found, as well as a new idea that countered the previous belief that the Tiber River was Ostia’s northern border. The excavation shows that Ostia’s land continued on the other side of the river.
Ostia was situated just 20 miles outside of Rome, and supplying nearly all of Rome’s food and goods to the western part of the empire for the first 200 years of the millennium. As the empire transformed and the commercial hub was moved to Constantinople, Ostia was abandoned by the 5th century, eventually being buried under dirt and sand. Ostia is a mirror of Rome, and is a great example of what Rome was like, having a longer story arch because it was not destroyed, just abandoned.
9 Colonial Cannibals in Jamestown
During the harsh winter of 1609-1610, mass starvation ensued among 300 settlers of the first permanent English colony in America. Reportedly, the settlers were reserved to cannibalism, as noted by the former Jamestown president George Percy. William Kelso, an archaeologist excavating Jamestown since 1994, doubted the horrific reports... until this last spring, when his team found the skull of a 14-year old girl buried in a trash pit with the remains of horses and dogs.
Jane, as the girl is now known, was an upper-class settler who likely died during the winter. Four butchery marks were found on her skull, constituting the first physical evidence of cannibalism at any American colony.
8 Tomb of Wari Noblewomen
In northern Peru, at the heart of Castillo de Huarmey burial complex, Milosz Giersz and a team of archaeologists recently unearthed chambers containing three royal women from the Wari Empire, accompanied by 40 sitting noblewomen, seven sacrificed individuals, and over 1,300 artifacts including ear ornaments, and gold and silver weaving tools.
This huge discovery marked the first find of a tomb full of prestige goods belonging to Wari women. The tomb dates back to 750 AD. Burials of royal men had been discovered before, but never in a chamber of this size, and never women. This discovery helps to reshape our understanding of women’s roles and hierarchy in Wari society.
7 World’s Oldest Port and Oldest Papyrus
During an excavation of an underground storage system at Wadi el-Jarf in Egypt, near the Red Sea, archaeologists found boat, rope, and pottery fragments. Many artifacts are inscribed with the name of King Kufu, or Cheops, the 4th Dynasty Egyptian ruler and builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza, who ruled from 2551 BC to 2528 BC.
Limestone anchors were found from numerous large ships, attesting the claim that Wadi el-Jarf was a port for exporting copper and stones from the Sinai Peninsula to the Nile Valley. The port predates any known structure of its kind by over 1,000 years at 4,500-years-old. Also found were well-preserved papyrus fragments, providing an account for every day working conditions by an Old Kingdom official involved in the building of the Great Pyramid.
6 Oldest Bog Body
A bog body was recently found by a peat cutter in the middle of Ireland’s Cashel Bog. “Cashel Man,” as he was aptly dubbed, turned out to be the oldest fleshed bog body in Europe after radiocarbon dating results came back, predating the former titleholder by over 600 years.
Cashel Man lived in the Early Bronze Age, around 2000 BC, and faced a violent death with a shattered spine, a broken arm, and multiple ax-wounds in the back. Archaeologist Eamonn Kelly believes that Cashel Man was a result of human sacrifice, based on his injuries and the place where he was buried. This ritual, connected with kingship from the Iron Age (500 BC to 400 AD) is 1,500 years older than previously thought.
5 Huge Roman Structure in Gabii
In the ancient city of Gabii, 11 miles east of Rome, archaeologists uncovered a monumental building complex in late 2013. The enormous structure enveloped a space of over 22,000 square feet, and dates back to the fourth or third century BC (predating most of Rome’s grand monuments). The design features patterned floors, wall paintings, colonnades, and a staircase.
The structure is unprecedented within Roman Republic archaeology, and rejects the former notion that the Romans of this period disliked or rejected grand buildings and opulent structures. If the complex is a private residence, it would outsize any contemporary Roman house in Italy.
4 Largest Dinosaur to Walk the Earth
In May 2014, the biggest dinosaur ever discovered was unearthed by Dr. Jose Luis Carballido and Dr. Diego Pol. The 150 bones found - all in remarkable condition - create the partial skeleton of what scientists believe is a new species of titanosaur, an enormous herbivore dating back to the Cretaceous period.
Judging by the huge thigh bones, the four-legged, long-necked titanosaur was 130ft long, 65ft tall, and weighed in at 77 tonnes (as heavy as 14 African elephants), making it seven tonnes heavier than the previous record holder, Argentinosaurus. Some scientists claim that the “biggest dinosaur” claim is just conjecture, because there is no complete skeleton, the specimens are fragmentary, and the methods for calculating dinosaur weight vary. Either way, researchers at the site believe they’ve found “the big one.”
3 1.8 Million-Year-Old Homo Erectus Skull
A recent discovery of a 1.8 million year-old found at Dmanisi in Georgia could recategorize the entire ancient hominin species. The skull is the fifth to be found within a 100-square-foot area, and, compared together, are believed to provide a snapshot of the first human species to migrate from Africa. The fact that the five skulls differ so widely in shape and size, and that they were found at the same site, shows that Homo erectus individuals were much more diverse in appearance than previously thought.
If the skulls were found in fragments, or in different sites, they would have been assigned two different species. Now, paleoanthropologist Christoph Zollikofer believes that any Homo fossils dating between 1.8 to 1.5 million years ago were likely a single human species. That means that any African fossils of that period attributed to Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis, and Homo ergaster, should be considered part of the species Homo erectus.
2 Early Jewish Mansion Might Connect Us With Jesus
2013 excavations of Jerusalem’s Mount Zion have revealed well-preserved lower levels of an Early Roman period mansion (first century AD), that might have belonged to a Jewish ruling priest. If the mansion proves to be an elite priestly residence, the undisturbed nature of the ruin might yield significant domestic details concerning the rulers of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus.
A bathroom was discovered in a buried vaulted chamber, significant because bathrooms were only found in palaces of the time before this discovery. Other indicators that this was a ruler’s house: It is located in the shadow, very close to a huge palace of Herod the Great where an identical bathroom was previously found.
James Tabor, co-director of the dig, says this: “If this turns out to be a priestly residence of a wealthy first century Jewish family, it immediately connects not just to the elite of Jerusalem... but to Jesus himself. These are the families who had Jesus arrested and crucified, so for us to know more about them would really fill in some key history.”
1 Skeleton of King Richard III
The most publicized find of the last few years has been about the find of King Richard III’s bones, discovered under a parking lot. After extensive radiocarbon dating, stable isotope analysis, and osteological examinations, it was concluded that the results were consistent with historical accounts and genetic comparisons of Richard III.
The remains discovered in Leicester City of the last Plantagenet King, who died in 1485, had the scoliosis (curvature of the spine) that was so talked about by historians and Shakespeare alike. Archaeologists also pinpointed the precise location in Bosworth Field where the king met his end, a mile away from where he was originally believed to have met his end in battle.