Is there anything left to discover? Have the most important
temples, tombs, pyramids, cities, and civilizations been found?
After centuries of archaeological finds, it’s a common sentiment that little remains to be discovered. “I was born too soon to explore the cosmos and too late to explore the Earth,” is a popular refrain on the Internet.
I would argue that the greatest age of discovery is happening right now. And the real fun is just about to begin.
Machu Picchu was not known to the outside world until 1911, but what lost cities are awaiting discovery today? An archaeologist in Kurdistan has announced that Musasir might have finally been located. This near-mythical city is thought to be the origin of the temple design made famous by Athens’ Parthenon and copied on courthouses and state buildings around the world, including the U.S. Capitol.
On the other side of the world, three ancient Mayan cities were recently discovered and researchers say they think there are more are in the surrounding area.
Decades of underwater research have provided us with a good understanding of our maritime past. But there has been one looming gap: ancient warships.
Epic tales of naval engagements fill the ancient histories, but evidence has been elusive. No battle site has ever been located and only three full-sized warship rams have been found in the entire Mediterranean. That is, until now.
After years of searching, the site of the Battle of the Egadi Islands was discovered off the coast of Sicily, the Soprintendenza del Mare and RPM Nautical Foundation announced in May. The site has yielded eleven warship rams, as well as armament and amphoras that were meant to resupply Hamilcar Barca’s forces, Hannibal’s father.
Actual warship remains are re-writing everything scholars assumed about ancient naval warfare. How important was this battle? It was the decisive climax to the First Punic War and it is no stretch to say this victory was the first step on Rome’s path to becoming an empire. This is not simply among the great underwater discoveries of our time; it is one of the most significant archaeological finds of all time.
A small village in Greece might be home to the greatest discovery of the new century. If you haven’t been watching for news from Amphipolis, you should be. The largest ancient tomb ever found in Greece has been dated to the period of Alexander the Great.
A 16-foot lion statue sits atop the tomb and two sphinxes guard an entrance bricked up with granite blocks weighing a ton each. As the excavation progresses, archaeologists have uncovered two incredible female caryatid statues, mosaic floors and three chambers.
Who is buried inside? No one knows, but everyone has a theory as archaeologists dig further inside every day.
The list from the last few years goes on and on and includes Lawrence of Arabia’s desert camp; perfectly preserved Black Sea and Baltic shipwrecks, some with masts still standing; Captain Kidd’s and Blackbeard’s shipwrecks; and a Gate to Hell in Turkey complete with animals that died from getting too close.
Pavlopetri was not identified as the world’s oldest sunken city until 2008. Seventeen new pyramids were discovered in Egypt in 2011 alone, using infrared satellite technology, while a previously unknown pharaoh named Woseribre Senebkay and the necropolis of his dynasty were found earlier this year.
These are not minor discoveries, but finds that are rewriting what we know of history.
What sorts of things might we discover in the near future? A brief list might include a Viking ship in North America, the lost Roanoke colony in Virginia or the tomb of Alexander the Great. Remember, while the terracotta army has been excavated, the tomb of China’s First Emperor has yet to be touched.
These are things we can imagine because we know about them from historical texts. But the most amazing discoveries will likely be ones we cannot even consider because they predate writing.
Written history covers less than a percent of human time on Earth. Even from well-documented periods, such as the Roman Empire, we know very little about the Illyrians or Celtic Britain. These prominent cultures stood up to Rome, but are incorrectly assumed to be minor because we lack their histories.
We have history-based bias, but there are many unrecorded conquerors, battles and Romeo and Juliets in the vastness of prehistory whose stories are waiting to be told. Prehistoric finds like Hoyo Negro’s earliest American (found 2010), the Hobbit-like species Homo floresiensis (found 2003), and insight into the first artists (2013) suggest the best stories may await discovery.
New technologies are revolutionizing how archaeologists search for sites. Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) are plying the oceans, while satellites and drones are sweeping the Earth’s surface. Archaeologists are using elemental and molecular means, even marine biology, to locate sites. Crowd-sourcing platforms like MicroPasts are engaging the multitudes on the Internet to conduct research. Advances in technology are allowing us to search wider and more effectively, bring new and unexpected discoveries.
From Mayan cities in the jungle to warships on the seafloor, today’s discoveries are groundbreaking. The world may be mapped and labeled, but there is a lot left to explore. There is every reason to think that people in the future will label this the Greatest Age of Discovery.
Undersea Archaeological Sites Hold Crucial Clues To Early Humans
by Mark Strauss
During the ice ages of the last one million years, sea levels dropped as much as 400 ft., increasing the land area of Europe by 40%. That terrain, once home to early humans, is again underwater, and archaeologists have identified artifacts at 2,500 sites. But all of it is threatened by erosion and offshore projects.
The sites, ranging in age from 5,000 to 300,000 years old, have been found in the coastal waters and open sea basins around Europe. The range of dates and artifacts reflect the cyclical changes in climate. There were at least six large glaciations in the last million years, each lasting about 125,000 years and creating ice caps many miles thick on the major northern continents. (The last one was at its maximum 20,000 years ago, when the Baltic region and most of the British Isles were permanently covered by ice.)
Our human precursors lived 125 miles inland from the coast of the Black Sea more than 1.5 million years ago; in northern Spain more than one million years ago, and on the British coast of the North Sea at least 800,000 years ago. Early tribes migrated from Africa through the Middle East, and then along the Mediterranean shore, as well as through central Europe, occupying northern territories when the ice melted and retreating southward when the ice expanded. These migrations across continental shelves, including the abandonment and re-occupation of ancient coastal plains, took place many times. The slowly melting glaciers also created vast areas of wetland and marshes that became densely populated habitats.
In light of this, a new report written by European researchers, titled Land Beneath the Waves, says there’s a treasure trove of objects waiting to be discovered:
Immediately questions arise: Who or what lived on the new land? Was it inhabitable by people or animals? At what dates or periods in the past was the land exposed? How did the enlarged geography of Europe affect migrations into the continent from Africa and the Middle East? How did people respond to falling sea levels, and how did they preserve their basis of subsistence when the land was inundated again? How did they react to continuous climate change? When did humans, or our hominin precursors, first learn to exploit fishing and shellfish, and where and when did they build the first rafts or boats? What unique configurations of fauna, vegetation and people existed during those climatically unique times on the exposed shelves producing the antecedents of the more recent marine provinces, especially from the mid-Holocene?
These questions have intrigued archaeologists for many decades — and the answers lie beneath the sea in the mud and sediments of the continental shelf.
Many people are surprised to learn that fragile artifacts and the remains of humans, animals and plants can survive underwater for such extended periods of time. But a number of factors contribute to their preservation, including inundation by mud, peat, wind-blown sand and — for objects in caves — accumulated debris from collapsing rocks. Local topography, such as indentations, estuaries and lagoons, can also shelter and safeguard prehistoric objects.
As the European researchers note:
Already we know that some prehistoric material on the sea floor can survive for more than 10,000 years….Amongst the thousands of sites that diving archaeologists and geoscientists have already found are submerged Mesolithic villages in the Baltic, a cave with its only entrance at 40m below sea level and painting on the rock walls inside above sea level, flint fragments and worked tools from a site buried in sediments in the North Sea about 300,000 years old, a fragment of a Neanderthal skull from the North Sea, and early Neolithic villages at a depth of 15m in the sea off the coast of Israel, complete with fresh water wells, cooking hearths, organics, and hut foundations. The human remains at Atlit off the coast of Israel are well-preserved so that the population age structure and mortality rates can be derived.
In fact, well-preserved artifacts made of organic material — like tools made from antler, wood or bone — are found more frequently underwater than on dry-land sites of the same age. Notably, many submerged sites include those that demonstrate the earliest stages of seafaring and fishing. Archaeologists have found canoes, paddles, rope, string, charcoal, and fish-traps thousands of years old.
Undersea sites also offer clues to the prehistoric landscape:
Vegetation remains, pollen, peat, river valleys, terrestrial landforms, shoreline features, cliffs, caves, deltas, and other environmental indicators can and do survive on some parts of the continental shelf.
Prehistoric peoples roamed over large areas to hunt for food and may have followed migrating herds of animals and changed their focus of activity with the season. The whole terrain and landscape, including rivers, springs, caves, coastal lagoons, and the feeding grounds of large mammals needs to be understood if we are to recreate the way of life on the drowned continental shelf.
Unfortunately, the growing excitement among archaeologists comes at a time when demand for offshore real estate is at an all-time high. Human activities such as fishing, aquaculture, drilling, pipe and cable laying, dredging and offshore wind farms are all competing for limited space. For the maritime archaeology community, these activities represent a double-edged sword. On the one hand they can damage and destroy culturally valuable sites and artifacts; on the other, they often alert researchers to the existence of sites that might otherwise have remained undiscovered.
Coastal erosion also presents a threat, as it often leads to the exposure of prehistoric artifacts that have been embedded waterlogged layers for thousands of years. Once uncovered, they can easily be attacked and destroyed in a few years by migrating shipworms, piddocks and other species.
Right now, the infrastructure isn’t in place to catalogue and excavate these sites before they’re damaged. To that end, the European report offers several recommendations. For starters, progress will move much more quickly if there is greater cooperation among scientists from multiple disciplines. It will require the combined skills of archaeologists, paleontologists, oceanographers, marine geologists and experts in climate change to decipher the clues on the ocean floor.
New codes of conduct are proposed for industries, to establish protocols for reporting finds and leaving artifacts in situ until they can be investigated. And, recognizing that the money required for such an effort is likely more than individual countries are able and willing to provide, the researchers are looking to drum up funding from international organizations and European Union agencies.
The alternative is to watch prehistoric history literally get washed away.