The last decade witnessed major archaeological discoveries, from the 10-month excavation of a Bronze Age settlement in England to what could be the world’s oldest figurative artwork, which was found in Indonesia last year. Which of these finds was most important? To hear more, ARTnews asked nine archaeologists and scholars. Their selections—which span several continents and multiple millennia—follow below.
Curator emeritus, department of Egyptian art, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Among numerous other significant discoveries of the past decade in Egypt, one find earns distinction. In 2013, a French mission [led by] Pierre Tallet discovered in a cave on the Red Sea coast in the Wadi El-Jarf remains of a logbook of a boat captain who had—before his assignment at the Red Sea—shipped building blocks to the pyramid of Kheops (Khufu) at Giza (2580 B.C.E.). By itself, such transports were not new to us, but the daily entries in the logbook connect us vividly with one of mankind’s most admired building projects.
Lecturer in the history of slavery, University of Glasgow
In 2017, the domicile room of Sally Hemings at Thomas Jefferson’s historic Virginia mansion, Monticello, was discovered. Hemings, an enslaved woman, is believed by many to have given birth to several children of one of America’s beloved Founding Fathers. (The theory is supported by DNA evidence.) This discovery once again puts a focus on the entangled roles of enslaved people in the founding of the United States and, more importantly, on the private life of the man who famously wrote “All men are created equal,” and yet, over the course of his life, was a slaveholder of hundreds of Black lives.
Associate professor of European archaeology, Australian National University
There have been many spectacular finds over the last decade. But, the one I personally consider most significant is the (beautifully excavated) waterlogged, burnt-down Bronze Age village at Must Farm [in Whittlesey, England]. The combination of conflagration and waterlogging means that organic preservation is unbelievable, offering a richly textured, tangible vision of daily life 3,000 years ago. Usually, our stories of the Bronze Age concern chiefs, swords, gold, and war; but Must Farm’s data lets us explore sewing, cooking, carpentry, and the sort of day-to-day existence that would have been familiar to most Bronze Age people.
Associate professor of Western Asian archaeology and history, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University
This archaeological discovery is—I guess—little-known to the public. It took place in a remote region of western Asia, considered peripheral by archaeologists, at the margins of the Anatolian Plateau, of Mesopotamia, and of the Iranian Plateau, foci of ancient civilizations. At Başur Höyük, Sirt (southeastern Turkey), the team lead by Haluk Sağlamtimur (of Ege University Izmir) uncovered 17 unlooted tombs dating 3,100–2,900 B.C.E., with an incredibly rich inventory of metal objects (weapons, cultic vessels, standards), jewelry, and other grave goods. Ceramic vessels, beads, and mosaics are indicative of direct connection with the distant southern Mesopotamian urban civilizations. Burying wealth in the form of metal objects is considered a common trait of ancient civilizations, but in western Asia the tombs of Başur Höyük represent the earliest example of this practice. The study of the bones showed evidence for human sacrifice in these tombs. Their discovery shows the first example, and possibly the provenance, of a different concept of wealth and value associated with a new warlord society. This new worldview spread to the west and helps understanding the royal tomb of Arslantepe, Alaca Höyük, and Troy, but also wealth and value in the spectacular royal burials of Ur may derive from a new world first represented in the tombs of Başur Höyük.
Senior lecturer in Egyptology, University of Liverpool
For me, the most remarkable archaeological discovery of this decade was the finding of the oldest known inscribed papyri at the ancient port of Wadi el-Jarf on the Red Sea. Almost 4,600 years old, they are the administrative archive of one of the officials who controlled the gangs who quarried and ferried stone for the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It’s amazing to have even a fragmentary glimpse of the day-by-day records of the work of the pyramid builders.
Sofia Samper Carro
Lecturer in archaeology, Australian National University
During the last decade, several findings have shaken up our previous knowledge or assumption in palaeoanthropology and prehistoric archaeology disciplines. I reckon the most significant discovery has been the evidence that there were more hominins sharing the world at the same time, such as Denisovans or the recently found H. luzonensis. This makes research in prehistoric archaeology much more complex and exciting than what it was previously, pushing for more systematic and scientifically-based interpretations of human evolution paths.
Professor of art history and chair in Aegean prehistory, University of Toronto
Archaeological discoveries in the Aegean world continue to astonish. Burials from Pylos, a Bronze Age site in the Peloponnese, have attracted a lot of attention, and deservedly so. One could argue, though, that rich Bronze Age burials from mainland Greece are nothing new, however breathtaking some of the new finds are, particularly from the Griffin Warrior tomb. What I would highlight instead are discoveries in unexpected places, particularly two small, seemingly isolated islands off the south coast of Crete. On Gavdos, many periods of occupation have recently been identified, stretching back to the Neolithic and even the Lower Palaeolithic. And on Chryssi, a much smaller and now uninhabited island, there was a Bronze Age occupation focused on the purple dye economy—and producing remarkably rich finds of late. In my view, discoveries in these two island locales really give us pause for thought and force us to reconsider our preconceptions around marginality in the ancient Aegean world, one in which maritime connections were so significant.
Associate professor of archaeology, Griffith University
One of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the past decade was the revelation that Indonesia, not Europe, harbors some of the world’s oldest rock art. In 2014, dating of rock art from Sulawesi yielded an age of 39,900 years ago for a hand stencil, challenging the notion that Europe was the birthplace of modern creativity. Further dating efforts showed that prehistoric artworks on Borneo are also at least 40,000 years old. And in 2019, it was announced that an even earlier Sulawesi cave painting portrays a spectacular hunting scene with spiritual connotations. Created at least 44,000 years ago, this image may represent the earliest pictorial record of storytelling.
Professor of anthropology and geography, Colorado State University; founder, the Earth Archive
Archaeology is undergoing a paradigm shift associated with the adoption of high-resolution three-dimensional scanning to digitally document artifacts, sites, and, most importantly, entire landscapes. The most important of these is airborne light detection and ranging (LiDAR) which, when applied to archaeological sites and regions, is forcing us to reconsider sequences of cultural development globally, and will be responsible for many upcoming significant advances. This revolution is not for archaeology alone. Along with several colleagues, we have started the Earth Archive which is designed to scan the entire land area of the planet starting with areas that are most threatened. We hope to create a digital earth that we can pass on to future generations who will inherit a greatly transformed planet.