This year has been a year of spectacular discoveries in archaeology, from 4,000-year-old sunken ships, to enormous megalithic stones, mysterious man-made ditches, the oldest known examples of cave art in the world, a monumental tomb in Greece, and even a newly revealed pharaoh of Egypt.
Advances in technology also enabled the discovery of hidden Maya temples in the jungles of Mexico, hundreds more structures in the Stonehenge landscape, and new understandings of the human genome.
It is almost impossible to narrow down one year of magnificent findings to ten, so we have chosen to feature ten discoveries of 2014 that revealed striking new information about our ancient past.
An excavation at the port of Urla underwater archaeological site in Turkey revealed a sunken ship that is believed to date back 4,000 years. The surprising discovery is the oldest known shipwreck ever found in the Mediterranean, and is also among the oldest known shipwrecks worldwide.
The port of Urla, which served the ancient Greek settlement of Klazomenai, sunk following a natural disaster, probably an earthquake, in the 8th century BC, making the area popular for underwater research.
Numerous sunken ships have already been found in Urla, ranging from the 2nd century BC to the Ottoman period. Uncovering a ship that is believed to date back to around 2,000 BC, is incredibly rare and significant and an important milestone for archaeology.
A study published in October 2014, in the journal Nature, revealed that more than 100 ancient paintings of hands and animals found within seven limestone caves on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia, are as old as famous prehistoric art in Europe.
The research showed that humans were producing rock art by 40,000 years ago at opposite ends of the Pleistocene Eurasian world.
Maxime Aubert, study lead and archaeologist and geochemist of Australia’s Griffith University, explained that before this discovery, experts had a Europe-centric view of how, when, and where humans started making cave paintings and other forms of figurative art.
However, the fact that people in Sulawesi were also producing art at the same time suggests that either human creativity emerged independently at about the same time around the world, or when humans left Africa they already had the capacity and inclination for art.
A study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year revealed that a series of mysterious lines and geometric shapes carved into the Amazonian landscape were created thousands of years ago before the rainforest even existed.
The purpose of the massive earthworks and who created them remains unknown, and scientists are beginning to realise just how much there still is to learn about the prehistoric cultures of the Amazon and life before the arrival of Europeans.
The unusual earthworks, which include square, straight, and ring-like ditches, were first uncovered in 1999, after large areas of pristine forest was cleared for cattle grazing. Since then, hundreds of the earthen foundations have been found in a region more than 150 miles across, covering northern Bolivia and Brazil’s Amazonas state.
Until recently, it was believed that the earthworks dated back to around 200 AD. However, the latest study has revealed that they are, in fact, much older. Study author John Francis Carson, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, explained that sediment cores had been taken from two lakes near the major earthwork sites.
These sediment cores hold ancient pollen grains and charcoal from long-ago fires, and can reveal information about the climate and ecosystem that existed when the sediment was laid down as far back as 6,000 years ago.
The results revealed that the oldest sediments did not come from a rainforest ecosystem at all. Rather, they showed that the landscape, before about 2,000 to 3,000 years ago, looked more like the savannahs of Africa than today’s lush rainforest.
The earthworks predate the shift from savannah to rainforest, which reveals that the creators of these ditches carved them before the forest moved in around them.
A new analysis conducted by the German Archaeological Institute at the ancient stone quarry of Baalbek/Ancient Heliopolis, in Lebanon, calculated the size and weight of an enormous monolith, and concluded that it is the largest known stone block ever carved by human hands.
Located at an altitude of approximately 1,170 meters in the Beqaa valley, Baalbek is known to have been settled from at least 7,000 BC, with almost continual settlement of the Tell under the Temple of Jupiter, which was a temple since the pre-Hellenistic era.
During the period of Roman rule, Baalbek was known as Heliopolis (“City of the Sun”), and housed one of the largest and grandest sanctuaries in the empire. One of the most awe-inspiring features of Baalbek are the incredible megalithic foundations of the Temple of Jupiter.
The temple was built on platform of stones that are among the largest building blocks seen in the whole world. How they were cut so finely and moved into place has defied explanation, particularly considering the blocks are known to have weighed over 1000 tons.
The gigantic blocks used in the foundations of the Temple of Jupiter came from a nearby quarry located around 800 meters (2,600 ft) from the temple.
The limestone quarry houses two massive building blocks that never made it to the temple – one weighing about 1,240 tons, and the other, known as the “Hajjar al-Hibla,” or The Stone of the Pregnant Woman, weighs about 1000 tons.
But the German archaeological team found a third building block next to the Hajjar al-Hibla stone and underneath it. Still partially buried, the monolith measures measures 19.6 meters (64 feet) in length, 6 meters (19.6 feet) in width, and at least 5.5 meters (18 feet) in height. Its weight has been estimated at 1,650 tons, making it the largest known stone block from antiquity.
Research conducted on a mollusk shell, dated to between 430,000 and 540,000 years, found over a century ago on the Indonesian island of Java, revealed that it contains the oldest engraving ever found and that it was almost certainly etched by a Homo erectus, an early human ancestor that emerged around 1.9 million years ago and became extinct around 150,000 years ago.
The discovery challenged preconceived notions about human ancestors, showing that, like Homo sapiens, they produced abstract design or perhaps even an early form of written communication.
Josephine Joordens, a post-doctoral researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands, and colleagues, published a paper in December 2014 in the journal Nature, revealing that the discovery provides evidence for symbolic activity and shows that “engraving abstract patterns was in the realm of Asian Homo erectus cognition and neuromotor control.”
While to many this may seem unsurprising, the finding challenges conventional perspectives about the evolution of human behaviour.
A study published in the journal Nature in October 2014 revealed the DNA results from a 45,000-year-old leg bone from Siberia, producing the oldest genome sequence ever carried out for Homo sapiens – nearly twice the age of the next-oldest known complete modern human genome.
The results have helped pinpoint when Homo sapiens first interbred with Neanderthals, and adds more pieces to the puzzle of ancient human migration across the world.
The ancient leg bone was found in 2008 on the left bank of the river Irtysh near the settlement of Ust’-Ishim in western Siberia. The human femur was sent to the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, where testing was conducted.
The results revealed that the DNA of the “Ust’-Ishim Man” contained 2% DNA from Neanderthals, roughly the same proportion that can be found in modern Europeans today. This reveals that interbreeding between Neanderthals and modern humans must have occurred prior to the age of the Ust’-Ishim Man.
While previous estimates suggested the interbreeding may have occurred as early as 36,000 years ago, scientists have now revised their estimates to between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago.
The research team also compared the genetic sequence of Ust’-Ishim man with the genomes of 50 different groups of modern humans, Neanderthals, and Denisovans. The results indicated that this man was equally closely related to present-day Asians and to early Europeans.
This suggests that the population to which Ust’-Ishim man belonged diverged from the ancestors of present-day Europeans and Asians before, or around the same time, that these two groups separated from each other.
In January, 2014, archaeologists in Egypt discovered the burial place and the remains of a previously unknown pharaoh who reigned more than 3600 years ago.
The skeleton of King Seneb kay (also written Senebkey) were uncovered at South Abydos in Sohag province, about 500 kilometres south of Cairo, by a University of Pennsylvania expedition working with the government.
Never before heard of in ancient Egyptian history, King Seneb kay’s name was found inscribed in hieroglyphics written inside a royal cartouche – an oval with a horizontal line at one end signalling a royal name. King Saneb kay was found in a wooden sarcophagus inside a badly damaged stone tomb with no roof.
He was originally mummified but his body was destroyed by ancient tomb robbers and only his skeleton remained. No funerary goods were found in the tomb, which confirms it had been looted in ancient times.
“This was the first time in history to discover the king,” said Ali Asfar, Head of Antiquities for the Egyptian government.
In an amazing discovery in the jungles of Mexico, archaeologists uncovered two ancient Mayan cities, including ruined pyramid temples, palace remains, a monster mouth gateway, a ball court, altars, and other stone monuments. One of the cities had been found decades ago but all attempts to relocate it had failed.
The other city was previously unknown and is a brand new discovery, shedding new light on the ancient Mayan civilization. Expedition leader Ivan Sprajc, of the Research Center of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts (ZRC SAZU), explained that the finding was aided by aerial photographs of the tropical forest of central Yucatan in the state of Campeche, Mexico.
Some anomalies were noticed among the thick vegetation of the forest and so a team was sent in to investigate further. Archaeologists were stunned to discover an entire city in an area between the Rio Bec and Chenes regions, extending some 1,800 miles, which are characterised by their Classic architecture dating to around 600 to 1,000 AD.
Sprajc explained that both cities “open new questions about the diversity of Maya culture, the role of that largely unexplored area in the lowland Maya history, and its relations with other polities.”
Archaeologists excavated a spectacular Macedonian tomb in Kasta Hill, Amphipolis, dating to the period of Alexander the Great (4th century BC), resulting in the discovery of human remains which are currently undergoing testing.
Kasta Hill lies in what was once the ancient city of Amphipolis, conquered by Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, in 357 BC.
Experts have known about the existence of the burial mound in Amphipolis, located about 100km northeast of Thessaloniki, since the 1960s, but work only began in earnest there in 2012, when archaeologists discovered that Kasta Hill had been surrounded by a nearly 500-meter wall made from marble.
Several months ago, archaeologists discovered a path and 13 steps leading down from the surrounding wall. It was then that they uncovered a limestone wall protecting and concealing the entrance of the tomb of Amphipolis.
Behind the wall, archaeologists revealed two marble sphinxes, both headless and missing their wings, but these were recovered during excavations.
Bit by bit, the grand tomb began revealing the secrets that had lain hidden for 2,300 years, including two magnificent caryatid statues, a detailed mosaic depicting the Abduction of Persephone, and a secret vault containing a limestone sarcophagus with human remains. Archaeologists are due to announce the discovery of the tomb’s occupant in one month’s time.
In a groundbreaking news release in September 2014, archaeologists revealed the results of a four-year-long project to map the hidden landscape beneath the surface of the Stonehenge environs, and what they found was nothing short of amazing.
Through their high-tech devices they could see a landscape teeming with burial mounds, chapels, shrines, pits, and other structures, which had never been seen before.
The biggest surprise was a 330 metre long line of up to 60 buried stone pillars, inside the bank of a large, bowl-shaped feature called Durrington Walls, Britain’s largest henge, which sits beside the River Avon.
The discovery dramatically alters the prevailing view of Stonehenge as the primary site in the landscape. Instead it presents the Salisbury Plain as a an active religious centre with more than 60 key locations where ancient peoples could carry out sacred rituals and fulfil their religious obligations.
“This is not just another find,” said Professor Vince Gaffney of the University of Birmingham. “It’s going to change how we understand Stonehenge.”
By April Holloway, Ancient Origins;
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