10 Amazing Archaeological Finds Discovered by Ordinary People (and One Badger)

iStock.com/keni1
iStock.com/keni1

It's not always archaeologists who make the greatest archaeological discoveries. Sometimes it's regular people going about their business who inadvertently stumble on history-making finds. Sometimes it's a badger.

1. FRENCH LABORER SHOVELS UP CHILDERIC'S TREASURE.

On May 27, 1653, laborer Adrien Quinquin was working on the church of Saint-Brice in Tournai when, instead of dirt, he suddenly shoveled up gold coins. Further shoveling revealed an ancient tomb packed with wonders: a hundred more coins, gold and garnet-ornamented swords, horse fittings and buckles, a solid gold torc, a gold bull's head, 300 gold bees and a gold signet ring. The signet ring was tellingly inscribed CHILDERICI REGIS.

Monsieur Quinquin had found the tomb of Childeric I, king of the Salian Franks, who was buried in his capital of Tournai after his death in 481 or 482 CE. Two centuries after it was found, the treasure of Childeric was stolen from the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. The thieves melted down almost all of it, leaving only two coins, two bees and the sword fittings for police to fish out of leather bags immersed in the Seine.

2. FRENCH SOLDIERS FIND THE ROSETTA STONE.

French soldiers who were demolishing ancient walls to strengthen Fort Julien just outside of the Egyptian city of Rosetta in July 1799 uncovered an inscribed black slab that had been recycled in antiquity as building material. The soldiers' superior officers realized it could be a significant artifact, so they alerted Napoleon's scientists at the Institut d'Égypte, who dated the slab to the 2nd century BCE. The inscription—a decree establishing the divine cult of King Ptolemy V—was written in Greek, Demotic, and hieroglyphics. Because the same decree was written in three scripts, the Rosetta Stone gave researchers the chance to finally decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. It took 20 years, but scholar Jean-François Champollion eventually cracked the code.

3. SPONGE DIVERS FIND THE WORLD'S OLDEST ANALOG COMPUTER.

The Antikythera Mechanism is a clockwork device of at least 30 interlocking gears made in Greece in the 2nd or 3rd century BCE. Used to calculate celestial events and the cycles for the Panhellenic Games (such as the Olympics), the mechanism is also considered the oldest-known analog computer. In the 1st century BCE, the Romans packed it on a ship full of luxury objects they'd looted from around Greece (experts don't know exactly where the mechanism came from).

The ship sank off the island of Antikythera, only to be rediscovered by sponge divers almost 2000 years later, in 1900. They retrieved the mechanism—now corroded into an unidentifiable lump of metal and wood—with no idea of what they'd found. It took seven decades and numerous X-rays for archaeologists to begin to figure it out.

4. DEMOLITION CREW FINDS THE MOST IMPORTANT COLLECTION OF ELIZABETHAN AND JACOBEAN JEWELRY EVER DISCOVERED.

Workers were demolishing the Wakefield House in Cheapside, London, in 1912 when a pickaxe through the cellar floor hit a wooden box filled with jewels. The box held more than 400 pieces of late-16th and early-17th century jewelry, among them a Swiss watch set in a solid Columbian emerald, a gold, diamond, and emerald salamander, and a Byzantine gemstone cameo.

Wakefield House was on a street known as Goldsmith's Row when those jewels were accumulated, so the stash was probably a goldsmith's working stock hidden under the floor during the English Civil War. The construction workers stuffed the treasures in their pockets, boots, and caps, and sold them to a local pawn shop owner who turned out to be the head of acquisitions for the London Museum. The Museum of London remains today the proud owner of the Cheapside Hoard.

5. BANANA PLANTATION WORKERS DISCOVER THE STONE SPHERES OF COSTA RICA.

When United Fruit Company workers cleared the jungle in the DiquÌs Delta of Costa Rica in the 1930s to make way for banana plantations, they found their bulldozers blocked by large stone spheres—some of them weighing tons. The local laborers had heard tales of great spheres filled with gold, so they did their utmost to get to the center of the stones, even to the point of dynamiting them. They found no gold, and many of the spheres were damaged by attempts to move or open them, but eventually the government intervened to preserve the artifacts.

Later studies determined the spheres were created by the DiquÌs culture starting in 600 CE and continuing well into the second millennium, stopping before the arrival of the Spanish. They range in size from a few inches in diameter to over six feet, and nobody knows what their purpose was. Approximately 300 of them survive today, as Costa Rican national icons whose massive roundness has inspired alien conspiracies and classic Indiana Jones moments alike.

6. FRENCH TEENAGERS DISCOVER LASCAUX CAVE PAINTINGS.

Eighteen-year-old apprentice garage mechanic Marcel Ravidat was walking in the woods outside his home village of Montignac, southwestern France, in September of 1940 when he came across the entrance to a cave. Some say his dog chased a rabbit into the entrance. Some say Marcel found it himself. Either way, he returned with three friends and explored the cave. Inside they found a riot of painted figures of bulls, horses, stags, rhinos, felines, and people on the walls, the paint still brilliant. They made a pact to keep their find secret, but only managed to hold on for a week before telling a teacher who was a local expert on prehistoric art.

The cave opened to the public after the war in 1948, but closed just 15 years later when the various miasmas and effluvia humans breathe and secrete caused a rapid decline in the caves' condition, introducing lichen, fungi, and mold to the previously pristine space. Now would-be visitors have to content themselves with a replica, Lascaux II, or take virtual tours.

7. SHEPHERD BOYS FIND THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS.

In 1947, three Bedouin shepherds followed a lost goat into a cave near the ancient site of Qumran, a mile from the Dead Sea, and found clay jars containing seven papyrus scrolls. They sold the papyri to an antiquities dealer in Bethlehem for a pittance. When scholars caught wind of the find, they tried to locate the cave. In 1949 they were successful, and over the next decade multiple excavations in multiple caves discovered 981 texts—books of the canonical Hebrew Bible, Second Temple apocrypha, the beliefs of one or more Jewish sectarian groups—written from the 4th century BCE to the 1st century CE. The Qumran scrolls beat the then-oldest known manuscript of the Hebrew Bible by more than a thousand years.

8. FARMERS DIGGING A WELL FIND THE TERRACOTTA ARMY OF EMPEROR QIN SHI HUANG.

On March 29, 1974, seven farmers digging a well outside Xian, China, struck the head of a life-size clay statue. They informed the local authorities, who called in archaeologists to excavate the find. The statue proved to be one of an estimated 8,000 terracotta soldiers, each with unique combinations of facial features, hair styles, postures, and armature. The clay soldiers, officers, archers, charioteers, and cavalrymen were aligned in trenches underground, a vast force arrayed to protect Emperor Qin Shi Huang (who died in 209 BCE and was buried in an unexcavated mausoleum behind them) in the afterlife. The pits have yet to be fully excavated, so these icons of funerary lavishness could well be even more numerous and complex than we know.

9. BADGER FINDS GRAVES OF MEDIEVAL SLAVIC CHIEFTAINS.

A badger spent five years digging his den on a farm in Stolpe, northeastern Germany, only to leave in 2012 after unearthing the pelvic bone of a previous (human) tenant. A subsequent archaeological excavation discovered eight 12th-century graves, two of which were of Slavic chieftains buried with bronze bowls at their feet. Other grave goods found included a double-edged sword three feet long, an arrowhead, a belt buckle with snake heads on each end, and a coin in the mouth of one of the skeletons—evidence of pre-Christian funerary rituals. Since the area was thoroughly Christianized by the 12th century, the badger discovered one of the last pagan burials in Brandenburg.

10. GERMAN TOURISTS FIND 5300-YEAR-OLD MUMMY FROZEN IN THE ALPS.

Helmut and Erika Simon were hiking in the Ötztal Alps on September 19, 1991, when they saw an upper body jutting out of the ice of the glacier. Thinking he was a climber who had recently met a deadly end, the couple reported their find to a gendarme. His attempt to extract the body using ice picks and a pneumatic drill, a much-lamented choice in hindsight, was successful on September 22, and within days a University of Innsbruck archaeologist identified the figure (from artifacts found with him) as a Bronze Age man.

Since then, Ötzi, named after the mountains where he was found, has been an immense boon to archaeology thanks to his outstanding state of preservation. Researchers have sequenced his genome, discovered he likely had Lyme disease and was lactose intolerant, studied his final days and cause of death, and identified 19 modern men from South Tyrol who are genetically related to him. Scientists have also found the oldest human blood yet discovered—red blood cells trapped in tissue by one of Ötzi's wounds. He is the 5300-year-old mummy who keeps on giving.

Mapping Technology Reveals 'Lost Cities' on National Geographic

Lin uses his iPad to visualize scanning data of a crusaders' fortress at the lagoon in Acre, Israel.
Lin uses his iPad to visualize scanning data of a crusaders' fortress at the lagoon in Acre, Israel.
Blakeway Productions/National Geographic

Imagine what Pompeii looked like before the lava hit, or Mayan pyramids before the jungle took over. In the past decade, scientists have been able to explore human settlements long since abandoned by using a new wave of accessible technology. Instead of needing an expensive plane and crew to fly aerial sensors, for example, explorers can mount them on cheaper drones and pilot them into previously unreachable areas. The resulting data can tell us more about the past, and the future, than ever before.

That’s the premise of Lost Cities with Albert Lin, a new TV series premiering on National Geographic on Sunday, October 20.

Lin, an engineer and National Geographic Explorer, uses cutting-edge tools to shed light on centuries-old cities in the most beautiful places on Earth. Ground-penetrating radar reveals buried structures without disturbing the landscape. A drone-mounted remote sensing method called LIDAR—short for "Light Detection and Ranging"—shoots lasers at objects to generate data, which Lin visualizes with 3D mapping software. The results suggest what the ruins probably looked like when they were new.

Albert Lin and crew in Peru
Thomas Hardy, Adan Choqque Arce, Joseph Steel, Duncan Lees, Albert Lin, and Alonso Arroyo launch the LIDAR drone at Wat'a in Peru.
National Geographic

“It’s like a window into a world that we’ve never had before,” Lin tells Mental Floss. “It’s shooting millions of laser pulses per second through a distance of air. By digitally removing the top layer of everything above the ground—trees, brush, cacti—you’re washing away the past. All of the sudden you’re left with these fingerprints—experiments in how we organized ourselves through time.”

For the six-episode series, Lin and the expert storytelling team were dispatched to the South Pacific, the Middle East, the Andes, the Arctic, and other destinations. Lin explains that while most of the sites are known to archaeologists, they’ve never been so precisely mapped in three-dimensional detail.

In the first episode, Lin travels to Nan Madol, an enigmatic complex of temples and other structures on the Micronesian island of Pohnpei. With the help of local researchers and indigenous leaders, Lin and the team scan the ruins and digitally erase trees, water, and forest undergrowth to unveil the complex's former grandeur.

“Technology and innovation have always been that gateway to go beyond the threshold, and see what’s around the corner,” Lin says. “Seeing these worlds for the first time since they were left, it’s almost like reversing the burning of the library of Alexandria. We can take the synthesis of knowledge of all these watershed moments of our human journey, and imagine a better future.”

Lost Cities With Albert Lin premieres Sunday, October 20 at 10/9c and resumes on Monday, October 21 at 10/9c on National Geographic.

A ‘Lost’ Viking Graveyard Was Discovered in Norway

LMGPhotos/iStock via Getty Images
LMGPhotos/iStock via Getty Images

Contrary to popular belief, Scandinavian Vikings didn't send their dead out to sea on flaming ships. When someone died, they buried the body in the ground just as people have been doing across cultures for centuries. A recent discovery sheds new light on the Vikings' version of the practice. As Atlas Obscura reports, an entire Viking graveyard has been unearthed by archaeologists in Norway.

A survey leading up to a highway expansion revealed the site in Vinjeøra, a town located next to an ancient Viking farm. The graveyard contains several boat burials. While there's no evidence of Vikings ever conducting burials at sea in Scandinavia, they did sometimes load their cadavers onto boats—the boats just happened stay on land and act as coffins rather than watery graves. This may have contributed to the modern Viking funeral myth.

Among the boats, the dig team also found the remains of 20 burial mounds, including one that was especially noteworthy. The mound—which had been leveled by centuries of agriculture—once covered a mortuary house where a body was laid to rest. Archaeologists say the size and elaborate nature of the grave indicate that someone important, such as a chieftain or war hero, was buried there.

The house itself is no longer around for researchers to study, but it did leave behind a rectangular footprint, and a few foundational stones as evidence of its existence. By studying the grave mounds and boats, the archaeologists hope to learn more about a group of people that disappeared without leaving behind any written records of their lives.

Viking grave sites don't just tell us who the Vikings revered and how they treated their dead—they can also tell us what they did for fun. Ancient burial boats have revealed that some Vikings were buried with board games.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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