Accessible Art History
Five Amazing Archaeology Discoveries in 2020
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! How is it already the end of 2020? This year has certainly been a wild ride, to say the very least. As a part of my end of the year wrap up, I’ve decided to write about five amazing archaeological discoveries. Despite the obstacles, there were some incredible finds this year! It’s important to note that I only chose five out of the dozens that occurred. I found a great list here, so make sure to check it out after you read this post! So, to learn more about these particular discoveries, keep on reading!
Discovery 1: The Saqqara Mummy Cache
Saqqara was one of the most important sites in Ancient Egypt. It served as the necropolis, or City of the Dead, for the capital city of Memphis. In addition, Saqqara is also the location of the first pyramid. It was constructed in a stepped shape for Pharaoh Djoser by the architect Imhotep. This was during the Old Kingdom period in approximately 2600 BCE! Saqqara was used continuously through the Greco-Roman period for about 3000 years total.
This year an area, known as the Area of Sacred Animals, yielded over 100 wooden sarcophagi! They are brilliantly painted and still sealed. This is extremely unusual, as grave robbing was a common occurrence. Egyptologists estimate that they are from the 26th Dynasty, around 688–525 BCE.
In addition to the sarcophagi, dozens of statues of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris and a bronze sculpture of the lotus-flower god Nefertum were also found! This find is incredibly rich and will teach historians and archaeologists a vast amount of information about a time long ago!
Discovery 2 - Carbon Dating Pottery
This next discovery isn’t linked to one specific site, but I thought that it was so important that I just had to include it. For decades, it has been the wish of archaeologists everywhere to be able to carbon date pottery. Pot sherds are some of the most common items found during a dig, so they are useful for gleaning information about time periods, local diets, artistic traditions etc. But, science hadn’t caught up to this idea until very recently.
Traditionally, pot sherds are dated using surrounding evidence that can be concretely dated. But now, thanks to biogeochemist Richard Evershed of the University of Bristol, they can be used to date themselves! He developed a technique where organic material left on the pots (such as animal fat) can be removed and then tested using radiocarbon techniques! This has absolutely changed the game as pot sherds are found all around the world. It has the potential to teach us so much about ancient cultures!
Discovery 3 - Amazon Rainforest Prehistoric Paintings
Another amazing find that shook the archaeological field this year occurred in the Amazon rainforest. It is in a section located in Colombia and is difficult to reach. But, the trek was well worth it. Archaeologists found thousands of rock paintings! Stretching for over 8 miles, the tens of thousands works have been heralded as the “Sistine Chapel of the Amazon” by the press. Painted of red ocher are images of hands, geometric designs, and long extinct animals. Some of them are so high, they can only be studied with drones.
This find has the potential to teach us about prehistoric cultures of the Amazon. Preliminary dating is at about 12,500 years ago, based on the animals featured. Mammoths and giant sloths have been found in the fossil record up until that point. The global pandemic has temporarily stopped research, but maybe next year’s post will have an update!
Discover 4 - Stonehenge Sarsen Stones
Stonehenge is, in my opinion, archaeology’s greatest source for conspiracy theories. How did prehistoric people move those massive stones? Well, I’m sorry to say that mystery hasn’t been 100% solved yet, but this year, archaeologists did make some headway. They discovered that 50 of the 52 sarsen stones came from a site about 15 miles away in the West Woods, on the edge of modern-day Marlborough.
A core of one of the stones, taken in the 1950’s, was examined using destructive methods. This allowed geologists and archaeologists to compare it to other stones in the area. They were shocked to find an exact match in the stones in the West Woods. On average, these stones weigh 44,000 pounds and stand at 23 feet tall. This would have taken a tremendous amount of effort to move across the landscape. This points to the importance of Stonehenge as the prehistoric people who built it were willing to deplete calories to construct it.
Discovery 5 - Oldest Work of Art found in East Asia
This year, archaeologists discovered this petite statue of a bird. It measures only half an inch high and three-quarters of an inch long and was found at the Lingjing site in China. This adorable sculpture has been dated to around 13,500 years ago, making it the oldest work of art discovered in East Asia!
Closer examination has led archaeologists to believe that this represents one of the numerous species of songbirds that inhabit China to this day. The beak and tail are carved carefully, speaking to the level of craftsmanship that existed in ancient Chinese society. These details are what led this statue to be classified as a work of art, a subjective label.
Each of these five finds helped us to better understand our past. I tried to pick sites from all over the world to represent how humans have always felt the need to create and understand the world around them. Make sure to check out the longer list of finds linked at the top! I can’t wait to see what next year holds!
Saqqara Step Pyramid: CC 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Archaeologist with Pots: CC. 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Amazon Rock Paintings: Copyright Marie-Claire Thomas/Wild Blue Media
Stonehenge: CC 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Chinese Bird Sculpture: © Luc Doyon and Francesco d’Errico (my crop)