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The World’s Incredible Ancient Archaeological Wonders

Written by Nicholas Suarez

Introduction

The past – the time where all the interesting things happened. What better way to learn about the past than by digging it out of the ground? And so the discipline of archaeology was born.

Archaeology, specifically, is the study of human activity through physical objects. These objects can range from a small carved statue to entire ruined cities, but it’s all archaeology. For that reason, archaeology is one of the more diverse historical disciplines, and as a result, one of the more interesting to read about; it’s never quite certain what you might find. And sometimes, you can find something truly breathtaking. Here’s just a few of those archaeological wonders that have been found over the years.

Lascaux Cave

https://flic.kr/p/dbRCoz

In 1940, in the French region of Dordogne, an 18 year old named Marcel Ravidat was hiking with his dog, Robot. Suddenly, his dog fell into a hole, only emerging sometime later, unscathed. Ravidat was intrigued, though; the next day, he returned with some friends to the hole, intent on going inside. They did just that, dropping down a hole that was more than 15 meters (50 feet) deep, believing that they had perhaps found a secret passage into a nearby manor.

But that wasn’t what they had found. Instead, they discovered that the interior of the cave was decorated with paintings – hundreds of them. They depicted abstract patterns, but also humans and animals. And curiously, some of the animals depicted were, by that point, extinct. This included creatures such as the Megaloceros, an extinct species of deer that reached sizes of up to two meters tall at the shoulders, and a European wooly rhinoceros.

It was clear that Ravidat and his friends had found something truly special. It’s not clear what they did next, exactly; some sources say that they camped outside the cave for a year, to protect it. Others say that they told their teacher. Whatever the case, the cave remained something of a secret for several years, as World War II came and went. But following the war’s end, responsibility for the cave was taken up by the newly established French Fourth Republic, who opened the cave to the public in 1948. This was also when serious research began.

Here’s the overall summary: the Lascaux cave paintings were at least 17,000 years old, placing them near the beginning of the Magdalenian cultures, so named for another archaeological site called La Madeleine, also in the Dordogne region. These peoples lived in Europe while it was still under the ice age, when most of northern Europe was covered by massive sheets of glaciers. It was an extreme environment, cold and lacking in vegetation, on the very fringes of where life was possible.

But it was still possible, as the paintings in Lascaux show. Aside from the giant deer and furry rhinos, the most abundant depictions on the cave walls show horses, with over 300 of the more than 900 animal paintings being equestrians of some kind. In second place is deer, at 90 paintings, which are believed to have been one of the primary food sources for these societies. And lastly, there are paintings of cattle and bison, including the now-extinct aurochs, the apparent ancestor of today’s cows and bulls.

What’s more impressive about these paintings, however, is that they exist at all. The hundreds of artworks are located deep within the cave, where natural light didn’t penetrate. This would’ve required some kind of light source, probably a lamp lit with animal fat. Some paintings are located high up, even on the ceilings of the cave, which would’ve required special means to reach that high in order to paint – scaffolding, or a ladder of some kind. A supreme amount of effort, beyond what normally goes into creating art, was put into making these paintings, indicating that it was supremely important in some manner.

What manner was it? We don’t know; most likely, we never will. Were they practical guides for the outside world, depicting animals that a person could expect to find? Was there some kind of ritual motivation behind them, a means of prayer or honoring some long-forgotten god? Or was it just the intrinsic value of art, and seeking to make a dull cave that countless days were spent in just a little bit nicer?

All we can say for sure about the Lascaux paintings is that they are there. Well, we have to asterisk that statement; in 1963, the cave was closed to the public, as the many visitors who came to see the paintings was filling the cave with moisture and carbon dioxide from simply breathing. This encouraged the growth of cave molds and lichens, which damaged several of the paintings.

Today, Lascaux remains closed, but a painstaking recreation was made in the form of Lascaux II, which is open to visitors, and Lascaux IV, a museum built in the same village which does much the same. It’s not the original, but it can be agreed that it’s for the best. Meanwhile, researchers have made successful attempts to restore the original paintings, and to further decode the artworks that they haven’t yet identified, trying to glean all they can from what’s left of lives long since ended, from people that many of us are long descended from.

Göbekli Tepe

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:G%C3%B6beklitepe.jpg

There’s a lot of things that predate history, such as, to pick an example completely at random, religion. It’s a surprisingly consistent theme throughout humanity that societies come to believe in beings that are all-powerful in some manner or another, that created, influenced, or otherwise affected the world around them in some way.

For something so widespread, it’s therefore no surprise that religion is also very old. With that, let’s head to the Middle East, in an area that is today located in southern Turkey. Unlike the Lascaux Cave and others like it, the human societies that formed in these spaces ten thousand years ago lived in permanent settlements, rather than temporary living spaces that were inhabited for some time before moving on. This was facilitated by the Agricultural Revolution, when people started to drop nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyles in favor of sedentary lifestyles, although it should be noted there’s a bit of a “chicken and the egg” scenario going on in terms of whether agriculture or settlements came first.

Whatever the case, humans stopped moving and started farming. And with permanent human settlement comes many different things, such as trade, writing, and of course, religion. In this place, somewhere in the ballpark of 10,000 years ago, these first settled humans created what is, as far as we know, the first human temple – the Göbekli Tepe, a pilgrimage destination for groups of nomads who hadn’t yet settled down.

Well, that’s one interpretation of it, at least, and it’s probably wrong. Yes, we just spent three paragraphs baiting you out. Sorry, archaeologists who were tearing their hair out listening to it.

If you’re at all familiar with the Göbekli Tepe, you’ve probably heard it described as the “world’s first temple”. But in the time since that interpretation was made, more research has been done, and archaeologists have uncovered evidence that points to a permanent population near the site, and even rudimentary methods of collecting and utilizing rainwater for agriculture.

Indeed, many of the original interpretations have been revised or abandoned over the years, and there’s a good reason for that, as the people working on this have, literally, barely scratched the surface. Less than 5% of the site was fully excavated in 2021, meaning that the findings – and the conclusions – could be wildly different even a few years from now. Isn’t that exciting?

So what do we know for sure about this site, and what’s interesting about it? You know, aside from it being one of the oldest structures in the world? Well, for one thing, the site is located a good distance away from any sources of fresh water, which explains the aforementioned harvesting of rainwater. This was also one of the reasons for the original “nomad temple” interpretation.

The other main reasons for believing the site was supposed to be a temple had to do with what remained of it. The most salient parts of the ruins are “special buildings”, of which all that remains are pillars with elaborate carvings on them. These consists of, big surprise, animals, including cattle, dogs, cats (possibly), foxes, and more besides.

This is another example of the same problem facing cave art, like in Lascaux – what did these carvings mean? Were they ritualistic, practical, or did they just look nice? We don’t know. But in this case, there is at least a chance for additional context to help us form a more complete picture, both in the form of further research and, possibly, with context from later civilizations filling in the gaps. That’s a big, big “if” on the second one; the First Babylonian Empire, to pick a random example, was in its heyday around 1700 BCE. Remember, the Göbekli Tepe is estimated to have been built around 10000 BCE, making this site more ancient to ancient Babylon than ancient Babylon is to us.

So, there’s a decent chance that there’s a limited amount that we can ultimately learn from the Göbekli Tepe, just as there’s a limit on what we can learn from Lascaux. Again, the broadest, and perhaps best takeaway that can come from this site is that, these people were here, and they left their works behind.

Monte Albán

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Monte_alban.jpg

For the last entry that we talk about today, we’re going to Mesoamerica. The regions of what is today central Mexico have been continuously occupied by various cultures for thousands of years, and as a result, they are absolutely littered with ruins and archaeological sites. Many of these are incredibly well-preserved, either through luck or conservation.

One of the peoples that lived in this region was the Zapotecs, who are estimated to have first originated around 700 BCE, and lasting all the way through to the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521. That’s quite a long time to leave a mark on the region, and Zapotec ruins are among the most numerous of Mexico’s pre-Columbian cultural sites.

Which brings us to a hill in the area of Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán, a small municipality a short distance away from the city of Oaxaca. Here, in 500 BCE, on a ridge overlooking the Valley of Oaxaca, the Zapotecs flattened out the land and built a city, one of the oldest known settlements in Mesoamerica. The building didn’t happen all at once; instead, it occurred in phases, with the first phase lasting a hundred years to 400 BCE, and the second lasting three hundred years to 100 BCE. The end result was a functioning city, with a population of what’s estimated to have been over 17,000 people. This would make it also one of the largest Mesoamerican cities for its time, before the comparative mega-cities like Tenochtitlan even existed.

From this settlement, the Zapotec rulers projected power far and wide, extending their influence to reach into the surrounding valleys and across much of Oaxaca. There’s even evidence to suggest that the Zapotecs had regular contact with the city-states of the Valley of Mexico, such as the city of Teotihuacan. Teotihuacan is another incredible archaeological site, but honestly, it deserves its own post. Maybe you should subscribe for when we put that one out?

The city declined in relevance as time went on, and it was eclipsed by larger, more powerful neighbors. It was fully abandoned by around 1200 CE, a little over three centuries before the Spanish arrived. But it remained relatively well preserved through the era of conquest and colonialism, attracting both local and European visitors. Which brings us to another point: you may have noticed that “Monte Albán” is not a very Mesoamerican-sounding name. The original Zapotec name for the city is not known, and, surprise, it’s not clear if we ever will; the city was abandoned before the earliest indigenous sources available to historians were even written, meaning that, for now, the original name is lost to history. But the city itself remains in good condition for its age, and it stands as one of the best-preserved remnants of Zapotec culture.

Past, Present, Future

It’s possible that, as time goes on, the descriptions of the sites mentioned here will change, perhaps considerably. Until then, this was only a short list of the many, many archaeological sites that we could’ve examined for you. There’s many more that didn’t get mentioned, such as the Tomb of the First Emperor in China, site of the famous Terracotta Army (we did a post about that already, go check it out), or anything from ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt, Persia, etc. That list practically never ends, but this post must.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_burial_site_at_theTomb_of_the_First_Emperor_Qin_Shi_Huang_Di,_Xi%27an,_China_-_panoramio.jpg

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