Over the centuries people have found, and continue to find, interesting and important objects from long-vanished civilizations. Whether they are discovered through intense searching or merely stumbled upon—which often seems the case—these finds can convey key details about the cultures that created them, including their ritual practices, artisanal skills, societal values, and daily life.
The Rosetta Stone, for instance, helped scholars crack the code of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, while the Suontaka Grave pays homage to a gender-nonbinary individual.
Below is a look at 10 of the world’s most important archaeological treasures, offering intimate glimpses into the cultures that left them behind.
The Moai Statues
On Chile’s Easter Island (Rapa Nui to natives) in the southeastern Pacific Ocean sits a collection of some 1,000 monolithic statues. Carved by skilled craftspeople primarily from volcanic tuff, these upright, humanlike figures have large heads and stylized, angular faces, with prominent noses, ears, and lips. It is believed that they would have had their eye sockets filled with white coral and red stones during special ceremonies. The moai range in height from 6 to 30 feet and weigh up to 80 tons; many of them were never finished.
While much is still unknown about the moai statues, scholars think they were built between 400 and 1500 CE to honor native ancestors. Nearly all the statues face inland watching over and protecting the island’s inhabitants. Seven, however, face outward toward the ocean; these, according to legend, represent a group of islanders who watched for incoming ships.
Rapa Nui National Park, where the statues are located, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. Recently a volcanic eruption led to a fire that seriously charred some of the Moai; officials are still assessing the damage.
The Rosetta Stone
This remarkable 2,200-year-old stele is a broken-off piece of a larger slab bearing a decree passed by a council of priests in 196 BCE; it supports the reigning 13-year-old king, Ptolemy V, on the first anniversary of his coronation. Though the Rosetta Stone is only one copy of the decree, it is inscribed with hieroglyphs, cursive Egyptian script, and ancient Greek. The inclusion of all three languages allowed scholars to decipher the hieroglyphs, based on their knowledge of the other two.
The stone, made of granodiorite (a relative of granite), was uncovered in 1799 by soldiers in Napoleon’s army while digging the foundations of a fort near the town of Rashid, or Rosetta, on the Nile River delta in northern Egypt. The Rosetta Stone was acquired by the British Museum in 1802 from France under a treaty signed during the Napoleonic Wars. While it is among the museum’s most notable artifacts, there have been ongoing efforts to have the stone returned to Egypt.
The Benin Bronzes
The Benin Bronzes are a group of objects plundered in 1897 from the Kingdom of Benin, in present-day Nigeria. There are believed to be more than 5,000 objects, which include figurines, tusks, sculptures of Benin’s rulers, and an ivory mask.
Following a dispute, the unarmed British explorer James Phillips, along with several on his mission and 200 African porters, were killed in 1897. To avenge their deaths, the British empire sent troops to steal artifacts from the kingdom. Thousands of priceless objects were given on loan to the British Museum, sold to British and German institutions and private dealers, and kept by those who participated in the military operation.
There has been much controversy over the return of the objects. Most recently, a comprehensive online database called Digital Benin was launched; it identifies the location of more than 5,000 of the African objects, scattered across 131 institutions in 20 countries.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
The Dead Sea Scrolls, found in the Qumran Caves along the northern shore of the Dead Sea, are ancient Jewish religious manuscripts dating from the third century BCE to the first century CE. They comprise more than 800 documents made from animal skin, papyrus, and forged copper. Initially uncovered in 1946–47 by Bedouin shepherds who found the scrolls tucked away in jars, they include the oldest surviving manuscripts of entire books later included in the Christian biblical canon. Within their pages, written mostly in Hebrew but also Aramaic and ancient Greek, the scrolls preserve evidence of diversity in religious thought and provide a greater understanding of Judaism and early Christianity.
The scrolls also contain a collection of previously unknown hymns, prayers, commentaries, and the earliest version of the Ten Commandments. The question of who wrote the scrolls is still a mystery. While many scholars believe members of a Jewish sect called the Essenes were responsible, others say additional sects may also have contributed. The Dead Sea Scrolls can be found at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, though given their fragility they are not always on view.
The Anglo-Saxon Ship Burial at Sutton Hoo
Inside a medieval burial mound at Sutton Hoo, Edith Pretty’s private estate in Suffolk, England, archaeologist Basil Brown in 1939 unearthed an 86-foot-long ship well over 1,000 years old. Within the vessel, a burial chamber was packed with Anglo-Saxon artifacts, including Byzantine silverware, gold jewelry, a feasting set, luxurious textiles, and gold dress accessories set with garnets. Human remains had probably been there at one time, but they would not have survived a millennium in the highly acidic soil.
Two recovered items of particular note are a cloisonné purse lid and an ornate iron helmet. The geometric purse lid, used to cover a leather purse holding gold coins, depicts a man flanked by two wolves on the outside and an eagle swooping down on its prey on the inside. While the symbolism is unclear, the object certainly telegraphs power. The iron helmet, wrapped in cloth, includes a vaulted cap and deep cheek pieces. On its surface, depictions of flighting and dancing warriors feature alongside fierce creatures. The helmet’s face mask bears the image of a dragon whose wings make up the eyebrows (lined with garnets) and whose tail forms a mustache.
While it is unknown who was buried at the site, experts think it was the final resting place of someone who died in the early seventh century CE, predating the establishment of England. Given the scale of the burial, it is believed that the person would have been of monumental importance, perhaps even a king. Artifacts from the burial are among the British Museum’s holdings in London.
The Gold Mask at Sanxingdui
While the Bronze Age archaeological site at Sanxingdui, in China’s Sichuan province, has yielded thousands of important artifacts since its discovery by a farmer in 1927, a gold mask found within a sacrificial pit in 2021 is perhaps the most extraordinary piece in the hoard. It is estimated to be made of 84 percent gold, weighs just over half a pound, and may have been worn over an individual’s face during certain sacrificial rituals. It is estimated to be 3,000 years old.
Artifacts in ivory, jade, and gold, as well as an unopened wooden box and several bronze vessels, were unearthed with the mask. Studies of the artifact and excavations at the site are still being conducted. The objects are believed to have been used for ritual practices by the ancient Shu Han kingdom, which ruled over the Sichuan basin until 316 BCE.
The Staffordshire Hoard
Containing almost 4,600 fragments of Anglo-Saxon metalwork in gold and silver, the Staffordshire hoard is the largest of its kind. Discovered in a field near the village of Hammerwich in Staffordshire, England, in 2009, the hoard includes decorative precious-metal fittings removed from the possessions of Anglo-Saxon kings and princes, primarily war gear from the sixth and seventh centuries. Recent research has revealed that up to one-third of the fragments in the hoard are from one high-status helmet—an incredibly rare find of which there are only five others known.
Though small, the objects include an incredible amount of detail. Both Christian and pagan symbolism appear on the pieces and show influences from different periods and locations. The stylized animals and intricate geometric patterns would have carried coded meanings of personal importance to their owners. Many pieces are also decorated with cloisonné. The Staffordshire Hoard is on view at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent.
While it is unclear who buried the Staffordshire Hoard, the objects would have been worn by elite, top-ranking warriors. They were taken apart using metalsmiths’ tools and, given their variety, must have come from numerous sources. The hoard was buried in the mid-seventh century following King Penda of Mercia’s defeat and death in battle, marking the end of pagan leadership in England.
In 1922 the tomb of the young pharaoh Tutankhamun was discovered by Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. Found inside were more than 5,000 objects, ranging from a granary and fruit to chariots and chairs to sandals and a cheetah-skin shield, as well as the bodies of the pharaoh’s two stillborn daughters. Among the ancient masterpieces is the 3,300-year-old mask in which King Tut was buried.
The death mask depicting the king’s face is made of gold, sourced from either Egypt’s eastern desert or Nubia, and lapis lazuli—used to demarcate the eyes and eyebrows—from the mountains of Badakhshan in Afghanistan. One corner of the mask’s headdress appears to have been damaged, and the vulture at the top of the mask appears to be missing its eyes, a loss believed to have happened in antiquity. To remove the mask from the remains of the king’s head, Carter used heated knives to melt the ceremonial resin; to free the mask from the inside of the coffin, he subsequently hung the coffin upside down over paraffin lamps. In so doing, he loosened many of the mask’s inlays and had to piece them back together.
Recent analysis of the mask’s construction by Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves suggests that the face of the mask replaced an earlier one. It’s possible that it had once belonged to Queen Nefertiti. Scans of cartouches in the burial chamber, also conducted by Reeves, show that the tomb itself may have originally belonged to Nefertiti, whose burial chambers may still exist in unexcavated portions of the tomb. Those wishing to see the mask can find it at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum.
The Aztec Calendar Stone
The Aztec Calendar Stone, or Piedra del Sol, is an enormous disk etched in hieroglyphic carvings of calendar signs and Aztec creation myths. Created between 1502 and 1520, the basalt sculpture measures 12 feet in diameter and 3 feet thick and weighs roughly 50,000 pounds. Despite its name, it would have been used not as a calendar but as a sacrificial altar.
The stone depicts the Aztec solar year, which contained 18 months with 20 days each, plus 5 extra days, divided into “centuries” of 52 years. The calendar reflected the Aztec belief that the universe had passed through four world creations, all of which had been destroyed. The stone was later used as a national symbol during the unification of the Mexican states.
The calendar stone was originally dedicated to Aztec emperor Moctezuma II shortly before the Spanish conquest of 1521. A few decades later, the stone was buried beneath the main plaza in present-day Mexico City. In 1790 it was accidentally discovered during construction and mounted on the city’s Catedral Metropolitana until 1885. Today it is housed in the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City.
The Suontaka Grave
In 1968 the Suontaka grave was discovered during water pipe construction in Suontaka Vesitorninmäki, Hattula, Finland. The nearly 1,000-year-old grave contained human remains, a sword with a bronze handle, a hiltless sword, and women’s jewelry. Until recently it was thought to be either a double burial of a man and a woman or that of a female warrior. Studies conducted within the past year, however, have revealed that it was the grave of an individual who had been laid on a feather blanket, wearing furs and feminine clothing, with the hiltless sword on the left hip.
DNA analysis conducted at the University of Helsinki found evidence of Klinefelter syndrome, in which a person carries XXY sex chromosomes (rather than the usual XX for females or XY for males). Judging from the objects found at the site, experts believe this person, an individual whose identity existed outside the gender binary, was a valued and respected member of the community.