Can you believe it's been nine years since the last Indiana Jones film came out? As much as we might wish to forget Shia LaBeouf swinging from vines amidst a family of monkeys, the reality is that Harrison Ford’s scruffy-faced adventurer made archaeology cool for generations of young boys and girls. Now, a similarly exciting first look at the rebooted Tomb Raider franchise proves Alicia Vikander’s Lara Croft is set to become Jones’ worthy successor.
But while the actual practice of excavating and restoring ancient artifacts may not be full of deranged Nazis and supernatural curses, for Dr. Deborah Gangloff, president and CEO of the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in southwestern Colorado, as well as vice president for outreach and education at the Archaeological Institute of America, it's always been exciting.
Looking toward the future, not just the past
Gangloff is a New World archaeologist, which means her expertise is primarily in North America. For Gangloff, archaeology is not just about digging up the past, but looking toward the future.
“There are many reasons why archaeology is relevant today, and we need to do a better job of communicating those reasons to the public and decision makers,” she says. “Archaeological findings can give politicians, planners, and the general public a significant, deep-time perspective on key issues (changing environments, economic and demographic trends, etc.) and quite possibly point the way towards solutions for the future.”
Since we last saw Indiana Jones raiding the Crystal Skull onscreen, there have been many exciting archaeological discoveries in the real world. Each one has pushed the field forward and taught us something about the past we didn’t know before. With that in mind, here are five of the most important discoveries made in the last decade:
1. The Lovers of Valdaro
We've heard of “’Til death do us part," but a 2007 discovery near Mantua, Italy, takes that concept to an entirely new level. Two skeletons from over 6,000 years ago were excavated, discovered in an embrace. Their legs were intertwined and their arms were wrapped around one another. Immediately, speculation about who these two people were and how they could have died ran rampant. It didn’t help that Mantua was where Shakespeare's Romeo was exiled after killing Tybalt and where he learned of his darling Juliet's death.
Scholars are still divided on what may have happened to the lovers. Tests have concluded that the skeletons are definitely a woman and a man, between 18 and 20 years old. But, were they killed? Did they die holding each other on a frozen Italian night? Or were they placed in their intriguing position after their deaths? The world may never know, but it's fun to speculate.
2. The Nesting Pyramids of Chichén Itzá
Even if you've never been to Chichén Itzá on Mexico's Yucatán peninsula, chances are you've seen the iconic El Castillo pyramid in photos. Constructed between 950 and 1000 A.D., the ancient Mayan structure rises 100 feet into the sky and is 180 feet wide at its base. On each side, a set of 91 steps rise to the top. When added together with the one it takes to enter the structure, the total number of steps comes to 365—one calendar year.
What you might not know, however, is that El Castillo actually has two other pyramids inside it. The first has been known for awhile; it was discovered in the 1930s and is believed to have been built sometime between 850-900 A.D. But as recently as November 2016, scientists were still making discoveries at the site.
Archaeologists used electrical resistivity to find a third, even smaller pyramid hidden within the first two. This one was constructed sometime between 600 and 800 A.D. As the oldest of the three, this third structure is thought to be more purely Mayan. Archaeologists believe it can reveal a lot about the beginnings of the settlement, as well as the Mayan’s earliest cultural influences.
This recent discovery will surely increase tourism to the Yucatán peninsula, which Gangloff says is a big benefit of the field. "[Archaeology]...helps increase visitation to cultural and historic sites that brings more people to tour archaeological sites, and that makes them more knowledgeable about what we do and helps support local economies through tourism,” she says.
3. The Youngest Known Mummy
In the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, sits a small cedar coffin that was unearthed in 1907. The coffin dates back almost 2,500 years, from the Egyptian Late Period, between 664 and 525 B.C. Until last year, museum curators believed the coffin was too small to hold anything but the mummified organs of a deceased individual.
That is, until a micro CT scan showed a much more interesting find: a mummified fetus, believed to be only 16-18 weeks old when it died from a probable miscarriage. This makes the fetus the youngest mummy ever found. The scan shows two hands with five fingers each, and the fetus' arms are crossed over its chest. This remarkable find proves what recent advances in technology enables archaeologists to do.
In a press release, Dr. Tom Turmezei, who collaborated with the museum on the find, said, "CT imaging has been used successfully by the museum for several projects in recent years, but this is our most successful find so far. The ability of CT to show the inner workings of such artefacts without causing any structural damage proved even more invaluable in this case, allowing us to review the foetus for abnormalities and attempt to age it as accurately as possible."
Julie Dawson, head of conservation at the Fitzwilliam Museum, added in a statement: “This ground-breaking find educates us further still in our conception of just how precious the unborn child was in Ancient Egyptian society. The care taken in the preparation of this burial clearly demonstrates the value placed on life even in the first weeks of its inception.”
4. New Dead Sea Scrolls
It was the archaeological find of the century. For 10 years, between 1946 and 1956, 11 caverns in the Qumran caves near the Dead Sea in Israel and Palestine yielded thousands of fragments of parchment paper buried in earthen jars. The scrolls contained portions of text included in the Hebrew Biblical canon.
For a while, scholars believed all the scrolls had been found, but the last two years have revealed this isn’t the case.
Earlier this year, archaeologists found another cave in the Judean cliffs with more jars. The find debunks a 60-year-old myth that the Qumran caves are the sole sites of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The one scroll excavated so far has no writing on it, but a hidden tunnel soon offered three more broken storage jars with the lids intact. Scholars believe looters ransacked the area in the 1950s, but there are hundreds more caves still to explore.
The find came just four months after another discovery in October 2016, when more than 25 unpublished fragments of Dead Sea Scrolls turned up on the antiquities market. Although there is some doubt about their authenticity, if proven legitimate, one fragment would be the first scroll found containing text from the ancient book of Nehemiah.
5. Greece’s Largest Tomb
The Hill of Kasta was almost discovered first in the 1970s, when an archaeologist speculated that the site, near the ancient Greek city of Amphipolis, hid a large tomb under the earth. His work took him elsewhere, and archaeologists were unable to revisit the site until four decades later. As expected, the tomb was waiting for them.
The tomb, the largest of its kind in Greece, dates from the 4th century B.C., is guarded by two large marble sphinxes, and contains three separate chambers.
What’s more, archaeologists discovered the skeletons of five people: a woman over 60 years old, two males between 35 and 45, a newborn, and a third male whose age is difficult to determine. Initial reports that it was the tomb of Alexander the Great were later dismissed.
More likely, the tomb belonged to a member of an ancient royal family or a wealthy citizen. Inscriptions within the tomb apparently link the tomb to that of Hephaestion, a nobleman and a general in Alexander’s army.
The Accumulation of Research
So does Gangloff have a find she's been a part of that excites her most? For her, it’s not about any one discovery, but the sum total of research that provides insight into the past.
"It’s not the individual artifacts we find that are the most interesting, it’s the accumulation of research findings that help give us a more complete picture of a society of the past," she says. "For instance, in the southwest of the US, we now have a better view of how people lived 700 years ago and when and why this area of the Four Corners was nearly totally abandoned in the late 13th century."
To the layperson, that may sound less interesting than cracking bullwhips and fighting off villains, but Gangloff doesn’t mind the way her field is portrayed in the media. In, fact, she says, it can do some good: “While I can’t speak for the entire profession, the popular cultural interpretations of archaeology and archaeologists, while they amuse professionals with their sensationalism, do result in an up-tick in interest in archaeology and in enrollment in college courses."
So I guess Shia LaBeouf's monkey swing isn’t all bad.