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10 Ancient Places That Still Reveal Surprises
Places like the Dead Sea and the Parthenon are well-trodden. This makes discoveries at famous sites like these, and even at old archaeological digs, a special event. In recent years, a few unique finds in this category came to light, including the discovery of a mythical temple in Mexico and proof of a bizarre voting event in Athens.
10 The Dead Sea Swords
Recently, archaeologists visited a cave that overlooks the Dead Sea. Their goal was to photograph an ancient inscription inside the cave. The latter was near-inaccessible, but their perseverance paid off when they discovered something unexpected. While huddled inside the cramped cave, the team noticed an old bundle of “books.” However, the books turned out to be a stack of ancient swords still in their scabbards.
The four weapons were 1,900-year-old Roman swords, which dovetailed with the history of the area. About 2,000 years ago, locals resisted the Roman Empire. Since the swords were hidden in a difficult-to-reach location, Jewish rebels likely gathered the weapons from a battlefield and hid them in the cave for later use. Since nobody retrieved them, there’s a chance that the rebels met an unfortunate fate, or perhaps they simply abandoned the swords.
9 A Unique Mayan Canoe
In Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, there’s an archaeological site called San Andrés. Located near Chichen Itza, an ancient Mayan city, the area has massive water-filled sinkholes called cenotes. Archaeologists explore these underground caverns for historical treasures. During one expedition in 2021, divers found a sunken Mayan canoe in the San Andrés sinkhole.
Although bits and pieces of Mayan canoes have been previously found, this one was special. It was the first to be found intact and measured about 5 feet (1.6 m) long. Estimated to be over a thousand years old, the pristine vessel was built during a time when Chichen Itza was a bustling city.
It’s believed that the boat was used to offer gifts to the Mayan gods, or it might’ve had a more practical purpose, like ferrying water out of the sinkhole, before it was accidentally lost.
8 The Pantheon Sinkhole
During the 2020 pandemic, tourism wasn’t flourishing in Italy (understandably). But on April 27, the lack of foot traffic in one city square, the Piazza della Rotunda, was a good thing. In the afternoon, a sinkhole suddenly opened, and a part of the square collapsed inward. Luckily, the area was virtually empty, and nobody was hurt.
The sinkhole appeared right outside the iconic Pantheon. It covered an area of about 10 square feet (0.92 sq m) and had a depth of 8 feet (2.4 m). When officials peered inside the chamber, they saw ancient Roman paving stones.
The seven slabs were forged of travertine, a sedimentary rock. Dating back to 27 and 25 BC, they were likely placed there as paving by Marcus Agrippa. The latter was a statesman and deputy to the first Roman Emperor Augustus, and he was also tasked with completing the construction of the Pantheon.
7 A Hidden Art Gallery
In eastern Spain, local residents and spelunkers are familiar with a massive cave called Cova Dones. But despite being a well-known and often explored site, nobody noticed that the cave was decorated with a lot of Paleolithic rock art.
More surprisingly, the first image was located a mere 0.24 miles (400 m) from the cave’s entrance. Depicting a now-extinct cow called the auroch, it was first discovered by researchers in 2021. The deeper they went, the more they found. The hidden gallery contained over 110 paintings and engravings. Created over 24,000 years ago, it depicted wildlife and other scenes from the artists’ Stone Age world.
The art was valuable for several reasons. Besides the gallery’s noteworthy age, the region is also not known for such an abundance and variety of ancient art. The paintings themselves were also unusual. Some were created with techniques rare or unheard of in eastern Spain, including the use of red clay as paint.
6 Monkey Reveals Unknown Diplomatic Ties
Teotihuacan in Mexico is probably the most impressive city in Mesoamerica. It’s unclear who built the complex, but it was not the Maya. Indeed, the Maya were believed to have lived in the city only as migrant communities. Then, a monkey changed all that.
In 2015, a team of anthropologists and archaeologists began to excavate the city. Then, in 2022, they discovered that interactions between the Maya and Teotihuacan weren’t limited to migrant civilians. Instead, the powerful leaders of both nations were trading and engaging in diplomatic gifting.
This revelation came in the form of a 1,700-year-old spider monkey skeleton. During its lifetime, the animal was an exotic species in Mexico, and analysis showed the female monkey, given to Teotihuacan leaders by their Maya counterparts, was kept in captivity in Teotihuacan for at least two years.
The monkey was undoubtedly a wonderful curiosity, but this might have led to her demise. There is evidence that she was sacrificed along with other potent animals, including several rattlesnakes and a golden eagle.
5 Bushfires Expanded This Ancient Site
Southeastern Australia is home to an ancient eel farm. Older than both Stonehenge and the Giza pyramids, the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape is about 6,600 years old and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Gunditjmara people devised this ingenious system to trap eels for food and trade. They carved channels from volcanic rock with such expertise that some sections still work today. Currently, it’s also recognized as one of the largest and oldest aquaculture networks in the world.
In 2020, bushfires swept through the area. The flames cleared a lot of undergrowth and revealed a previously unknown section of the farm. It was a smaller system, with one channel running about 82 feet (25 m) long.
The discovery hinted that the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape might still not be fully mapped. Future studies could reveal more channels and insights into what is already one of Australia’s greatest archeological marvels.
4 An Ancient Imitation
Near the historical Egyptian city of Alexandria lies another ancient site. The temple of Taposiris Magna is believed to hide the tombs of Cleopatra and her lover, Mark Anthony. For this reason, archaeologists have been excavating the site for years, but while there’s no trace of the famous queen, the site did give up an unusual secret.
In 2022, Egyptian authorities announced that a tunnel had been found under the temple, roughly 43 feet (13 m) down. The ceiling was pointed like an inverted V, reaching about 6.5 feet (1.9 m) high. It ran for 4,300 feet (1.3 km), but at one point, the tunnel was submerged under water and rubble, possibly from earthquakes that hit the area between AD 320 and 1303.
The design was hailed as a “geometric miracle,” but the tunnel was surprising in another way, too. It was an exact replica of the Eupalinos Tunnel in Greece, a landmark in ancient engineering. The Eupalinos Tunnel served as an aqueduct for over a millennia, suggesting that the Egyptian replica also ferried water, or perhaps it had another unknown purpose.
3 Rare Pottery Ballots
The Greek city of Athens has been continuously inhabited since the Neolithic Period (roughly 3,000 BC). Democracy also started in Athens, but voting someone into power wasn’t the only way citizens could wield that power. They could also vote to banish an unpopular politician from the city for ten years. This event was called an ostracophoria, and 6,000 votes were needed to kick someone out of Athens.
During the 1960s, archaeologists found broken pottery in one of the city’s landfills. The shards were extremely rare artifacts called ostraca. They were the equivalent of modern voting ballot papers, but they were specifically used for ostracophoria.
The 8,500 ballots were created by intentionally smashing pots and roof tiles. They were then handed out to citizens during a vote held in 471 BC. People carved the name of the person they wanted to banish on the shard, and in this case, the unlucky statesman was a man called Megakles.
2 Colorful Parthenon Sculptures
The Parthenon in Athens, Greece, is a magnificent monument known for realistic sculptures. In 1816, some of these marble marvels made their way to the British Museum in London. This collection is called the Elgin Marbles, and countless visitors view the beautiful figures every year.
In 2023, a study of the Elgin Marbles discovered a surprise. The 2,500-year-old sculptures had always been spotlessly white and unpainted—or so everyone thought. After all, marble is not the perfect surface for paint to adhere to. But when the team scanned the marbles using luminescent imaging, a technique that makes paint chemicals glow, the statues lit up with color.
The researchers found four colors. There was blue made from an Ancient Egyptian recipe and two whites—one made from bone ash and another that likely contained the mineral gypsum. There was also a mysterious purple. During this time, purple mainly came from shellfish, but the paint on the Parthenon sculptures did not. How it was made—or who made it—remains unknown.
1 A Mysterious Labyrinth
Some discoveries are not unexpected—but they’re still surprising. In Mexico, a legend told of an enigmatic underground building called the Lyobaa, or “the place of rest.” It was supposedly built a thousand years ago by the Zaptecs, who used it as a religious temple until the late 15th century.
There was even an ancient record supporting the existence of the Lyobaa. In 1674, Spanish missionaries documented and described the labyrinth before they apparently sealed off the entrance and built a church over it.
While it’s well known that the Spanish raised a church on the site, called Mitla, there was no evidence that the story of a sunken temple was real. In 2023, researchers decided to test the myth once and for all and used different imaging techniques to scan the area for underground spaces.
The results were amazing. They found a labyrinth of passageways and chambers under the church. Most likely, the temple represented the underworld, something the Zapotec strongly believed in. The study produced a comprehensive map of the labyrinth, including what appears to be several tombs, large chambers, corridors, and an entrance beneath the altar of the church.