12 Greatest Archaeological Artifacts
These precious objects have enhanced our knowledge of civilization
Many great archaeological artifacts have been found over the decades and centuries. This list provides what could be some of the more significant ones; in fact, a couple could be considered the most priceless objects in the world; many could also be considered icons of civilization.
Please keep in mind this compilation is not in any particular order and is meant to be more fun than anything else. So, all you enthusiasts of archaeology, let’s peruse the list and compare notes at the end:
1. Babylonian Map of the World
Created in the sixth century B.C.E., (Before the Common Era), during the so-called Neo-Babylonian Empire or early Achaemenid period of the Persian Empire, this Babylonian Map of the World shows Mesopotamia and its surrounding cities, bodies of water, mountains and regions – a total of 22 locations, most of which described in some way. The city of Babylon is #13 and seems to have the Euphrates River running through it from north to south. The labels inside the circle are written in Cuneiform script. This ancient clay tablet can be found in the British Museum at the Bloomsbury area of London in the UK.
2. Sarcophagus of Pakal the Great
Pakal the Great was a seventh century Mayan ruler who, during a long, 68-year reign (he was 80 when he passed), is notable for building many inscriptions and much of the monumental architecture at Palenque, one of the finest Mayan city-states. When Pakal died in 683 C.E., he was buried in a tomb beneath a stunning Mayan pyramid known to archaeologists as the Temple of Inscriptions. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Pakal’s burial is the lid to his sarcophagus, which seems to show Pakal as he operates some fantastic machine. Enthusiasts of ancient astronauts such as Eric von Daniken claim Pakal was a space man who journeyed to earth to teach earthlings the finer points of civilization. Others associate Pakal with the legendary Quetzalcoatl. At any rate, Pakal was certainly great!
3. Bust of Queen Nefertiti
Queen Nefertiti goes way back – 3,300 years or so. Married to Pharaoh Akhenaton, one of the first proponents of monotheistic religion, Nefertiti, which means “the beautiful one has come,” is considered one of the greatest women of antiquity and has become an icon of Egyptian culture in particular and femininity in general. The bust is comprised of painted limestone and was created in 1345 B.C.E. by the sculptor Thutmose during the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt, maybe the most well-known of all Egyptian dynasties. The bust was rediscovered in Egypt in 1912 and then passed around in parts of Germany, where it now resides. But the Egyptian government wants it back! Who would want to be separated from Queen Nefertiti for long?
4. Antikythera mechanism
At times artifacts are discovered that don’t equate what we think we know about the development of science and technology. Found on the Antikythera shipwreck about 1900 off the southern coast of Greece, the Antikythera mechanism is perhaps the quintessential anachronistic device. Made about 100 B.C.E., the mechanism’s use of differential gearing, advanced workmanship and complexity, wasn’t produced with regularity until the fourteenth century! The device was used to compute astronomical positions and is often considered the world’s first analog computer. Some experts think the mechanism may have been produced by Archimedes of Syracuse, one of the greatest scientists and engineers of late antiquity. Professor Michael Edmunds calls the Antikythera mechanism more valuable than the Mona Lisa.
5. Mask of Agamemnon
When Heinrich Schliemann excavated the site of Mycenae in 1876, he discovered a number of artifacts, perhaps the most prominent of which was the so-called Mask of Agamemnon. Schliemann found the mask covering the face of a body in a burial shaft. Nobody knows for certain whom this exquisite golden mask represents. Scientists speculate it could depict Agamemnon, a Mycenaean king who ruled during the mythical Trojan War. But the artifact has been dated to about 1500 B.C.E., which is before the time of Agamemnon, roughly 1200 to 1300 B.C.E. Interestingly, Agamemnon is mentioned in both the Odyssey and Iliad, the two great epic poems of ancient Greece. As the tale goes, hoping to recover Helen of Sparta, who'd been kidnapped by Paris, Prince of Troy, Agamemnon led military forces to the city of Troy in Turkey, another site excavated by Schliemann. Even if it may not be the Mask of Agamemnon, archaeologists can still dream!
6. Golden Ram Figurine at Ur
In what could be one of the greatest archaeological expeditions of all time, Sir Leonard Woolley excavated the Royal Cemetery at Ur in southern Iraq in 1928 and 1929. And certainly one of Woolley’s greatest finds is the Golden Ram Figurine, which dates from 2400 to 2600 B.C.E., a time when Ur was a major city-state in Sumer, one of earth’s first grand civilizations. Woolley called the figurine the “Ram in a Thicket,” a label relating to the Book of Genesis, when Abraham attempts to sacrifice his son Isaac but stops when he sees a ram in a thicket. Interestingly, Ur is reputedly the birthplace of Abraham and is also the site of the best preserved Mesopotamian ziggurat in the world. As for the ram figurine, the value of this fabulous artifact would be nearly impossible to calculate!
7. Mural of the Decapitator
The Moche culture flourished in Peru from 100 to 800 C.E. Near what is now the city of Trujillo, a Moche pyramid-shaped monument known as the Huaca de la Luna shows a colorful, ceramic mural depicting a fearsome deity known as the Decapitator. Spider-like or octopus-like in appearance, take your pick, and with the head of a man, the Decapitator could have been a major inspirational aspect of the human sacrifice practiced by the Moche. Lending credence to this interpretation, the skeletons of numerous sacrificial victims have been found at or near the site. But why is the deity called the Decapitator? In some depictions, one of the Decapitator’s arms holds the severed head of an apparent sacrificial victim. Seemingly, the Moche wanted a hideous, angry god who would scare away enemies. One would think the Decapitator fit the bill!
8. Intihuatana stone at Machu Picchu
Not all priceless artifacts are covered with paint, gold or jewels, and the Intihuatana stone at Machu Picchu certainly qualifies as one of those. Built about 1450 as a remote estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti, Machu Picchu is a marvel of Inca engineering, particularly the drainage at the site, which is still impressive. Lost for centuries, Machu Picchu was rediscovered by American historian Hiram Bingham in 1911. As for the Intihuatana itself, the Spanish called it the “hitching post of the sun,” an apt name because the stone was used for astronomical alignments, particularly the sun at the winter solstice. It may have also been used as a clock or calendar. The Inca believed the stone held the sun in place as it passed through the sky. Admittedly, the Intihuatana stone is but a small aspect of perhaps the most impressive lost city in the world!
9. Nebra Sky Disk
Found in contemporary Germany, near Nebra Saxony-Anhalt, the Nebra Sky Disk, made of bronze with gold symbols and 12 inches in diameter, has been dated by archaeologists who, according to additional artifacts found with the disk, seem certain it was created and then buried in the ground about 1,600 B.C.E. This sky map shows astronomical objects, including the Sun, a crescent Moon, two opposing arcs showing the setting or rising Sun and at least one notable group of stars - the Pleiades, commonly known as the Seven Sisters. It is considered the world’s oldest depiction of the cosmos and one of the greatest archaeological finds of the twentieth century. Found by looters who went to jail for their crime, the Nebra Sky Disk is widely considered to be authentic, though some skeptics think it’s an elaborate fake.
10. Pompeii’s Erotic Frescoes
Most people have heard of Pompeii, the Roman city destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E. Pompeii was essentially forgotten by the world for 1700 years until rediscovered in 1748. This marvelous place is loaded with artifacts, of course, but maybe the most artistic are its many frescoes which cover the interior walls of businesses, homes and brothels. Many of these frescoes are erotic in nature – dare we call them frisky frescoes? In fact, some have been labeled as pornographic, particularly the depiction of Priapus, the Roman god of sex and fertility, who had a decidedly large male member. Certainly many of these frescoes are pleasing to the eye, as many art lovers would probably attest. It seems the ancient Romans were as fascinated with sex as modern folks!
11. Euphronios Krater
The ancient Greeks are certainly known for producing some of the finest terra cotta pottery of antiquity and perhaps the greatest example of such is the spectacular Euphronios Krater. Created in 515 B.C.E. by the famous Greek potter Euphronios, the krater, which was used to mix water with wine, is the only completely intact example of Euphronios’ pottery. The krater stands 18 inches high and can hold up to 12 gallons of liquid. The style of the vase is red-figure pottery, which utilizes a black background with unpainted terra cotta figures and objects. The artwork shows scenes from the Trojan War, Athenian life and the death of Sarpedon, son of Zeus and Laodamia. If one were going to mix water with wine, using this krater would certainly be the way to go!
12. Death Mask of Pharaoh Tutankhamun
Nearly everybody has heard of King Tut, whose tomb was discovered by archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922. The tomb was filled with wonderful artifacts, almost certainly the most valuable ones ever found in one place in the world. Absolutely the best of the bunch is King Tut’s death mask, crafted of gold, lapis lazuli, carnelian and other semiprecious stones. King Tutankhamun was a short-lived pharaoh during the previously mentioned Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt. King Tut’s mummy has probably been probed more than any other in history. DNA evidence yielded from Tut’s body has proven he was the son of Akhenaton - Nefertiti’s husband, you may recall. Astonishingly, the artifacts found in Tut’s tomb have been seen by perhaps billions of people. If there’s a more valuable object in the world than King Tut’s death mask, what would it be?
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© 2012 Kelley Marks