Subscribe to Archaeology

Top 10

Golden City

Luxor, Egypt


Friday, December 03, 2021

Top Ten Egypt Aten Zigzag WallsA settlement that was buried beneath the sand for thousands of years—and eluded archaeologists for centuries—is believed to be one of the largest ancient Egyptian cities ever unearthed. The site was discovered by a stroke of good luck when archaeologists began searching for the mortuary temple of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun (r. ca. 1336–1327 B.C.) along the west bank of the Nile in Luxor. What they found instead was a well-preserved urban settlement filled with houses, streets, and walls, some of which still stand 10 feet tall. Hieroglyphic inscriptions indicate the city was called tehn Aten, or “dazzling” Aten, and that it was founded by Tutankhamun’s grandfather Amenhotep III (r. ca. 1390–1352 B.C.). “I call this the ‘Golden City’ because it dates to the reign of Amenhotep III, which was the golden age of ancient Egypt,” says project director Zahi Hawass.


Top Ten Egypt Aten Vessel FragmentAten was Egypt’s main administrative and industrial center. The city’s remarkable state of preservation is providing researchers with an unprecedented view of life there more than 3,000 years ago. Although only about one-third of the site has been excavated thus far, archaeologists have uncovered houses containing everyday objects including ceramic vessels, children’s dolls, and limestone gaming pieces. They have also identified bakeries, kitchens, and other areas associated with food production, as well as a vessel containing more than 20 pounds of dried meat prepped by a butcher named Luwy. There are also workshops that produced mudbricks and decorative amulets, and a residential and administrative neighborhood that was encircled by distinctive zigzag walls. Scholars do not yet understand why Aten fell into decline, but it may have been abandoned when Amenhotep III’s son, Akhenaten (r. ca. 1349–1336 B.C.), moved the Egyptian capital from Luxor to Amarna, 250 miles away.

World’s First Artists

Quesang Hot Spring, Tibet


Friday, December 03, 2021

Top Ten Tibet Handprints Footprints ComboThe world’s earliest rock art may have been made by two creative children who lived in Tibet between 226,000 and 169,000 years ago. The young artists, probably either Neanderthals or members of the related Denisovan species, left a series of closely grouped handprints and footprints on an outcrop of a type of limestone called travertine. Travertine, which builds up around mineral springs, is initially soft enough to hold impressions. These can eventually harden after the spring changes course. Other ancient prints have been found preserved in travertine near the hot spring where the children’s prints were discovered, says Guangzhou University geologist and environmental archaeologist David Zhang. “The local people associate them with the Buddha,” he says, “but they were puzzled by these prints because they are so small.”


Zhang and his colleagues used uranium series dating, which examines trace amounts of uranium and thorium in calcium carbonate deposits such as travertine, to determine when the prints were left on the outcropping’s surface. Since uranium decays to thorium at a known rate, the researchers were able to calculate the age of the travertine from the ratio of the two elements. “I was shocked by the date,” says Zhang. “They are so early and there is no utilitarian explanation for how they are grouped together. They had to have been deliberately composed.” Zhang acknowledges that some might consider the prints childish doodles rather than true art. “What is play and what is art?” he asks. “We think these prints are both.”

The First Americans

White Sands, New Mexico


Friday, December 03, 2021

Top Ten New Mexico FootprintsOver the past two decades, archaeologists have discovered a number of sites that show that people first arrived in the Americas as early as 16,000 years ago. Some scholars have explored sites that have yielded even earlier dates, but other researchers have questioned the legitimacy of these discoveries, arguing that artifacts recovered from them are not unambiguously the work of human hands. Now, radiocarbon dating of material associated with fossilized human footprints at White Sands National Park has shown that people were living in North America up to 23,000 years ago.


The prints are part of hundreds of fossilized human trackways archaeologists have found at the park that were left in what were once muddy surfaces surrounding an extinct lake. A team including Cornell University archaeologist Tommy Urban identified a series of such trackways, left mainly by teenagers and younger children, that were superimposed on top of each other over the course of millennia. Radiocarbon dating of aquatic plant seeds found below and above six of these trackways shows they were created between 23,000 and 21,000 years ago. “Scholars can question whether a stone or bone artifact was actually shaped by humans,” says Urban, “but there’s no mistaking who made a human footprint.”

Earliest Leatherworkers

Contrebandiers Cave, Morocco


Friday, December 03, 2021

Top Ten Morocco Contrebandiers CaveTop Ten Morocco Bone ToolWhile sorting through some 12,000 bone fragments excavated from Contrebandiers Cave near the Atlantic coast of Morocco, archaeologist Emily Hallett of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History noticed that some were smooth and shiny, as if they had been intentionally shaped by human hands. Upon consultation with colleagues, she determined that 62 of the fragments are bone tools dating to between 120,000 and 90,000 years ago. These include a number of tools made from animal rib bones of a type well known for its use in fur and leatherworking. “Once you have an animal skin, there are a lot of steps that have to be taken to process it so it’s supple, smooth, and ready to wear,” says Hallett. “These tools remove the connective tissues and fats from the skin without piercing and damaging it.”


Amid the assemblage, Hallett also identified bones of carnivores such as sand foxes, golden jackals, and wildcats that had marks indicating they had been skinned for their hides or fur. Together, the carnivore bones and bone tools appear to provide the earliest known evidence of people making clothes. This fits well with previous genetic studies of clothing lice that suggested clothing was first worn by humans in Africa up to 170,000 years ago. Hallett says it’s also possible that people at Contrebandiers Cave produced leather to string small beads together to make symbolic personal ornaments. Pierced shells from the snail genus Nassarius dating to around the same time as the bones have also been found in the cave.

Oldest Animal Art

Northern Saudi Arabia


Friday, December 03, 2021

Top Ten Saudi Arabia Camel CarvingTwelve panels depicting images of camels and wild donkeys are now known to be the oldest life-size animal reliefs in the world. By using techniques such as analyzing tool marks and erosion, as well as radiocarbon dating associated artifacts, researchers have dated the reliefs at what is known as the Camel Site to the middle of the sixth millennium B.C.—some 5,000 years earlier than they had originally thought. During the Neolithic period (ca. 8000–3000 B.C.), northern Arabia was much wetter than it is now, and nomads herded sheep, cattle, and goats and hunted abundant wildlife. Animals would have had a crucial role in the herders’ existence, which may help explain why they created the massive reliefs.


Archaeologist Maria Guagnin of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History explains that the site was clearly used for centuries, and possibly even millennia, and new reliefs were periodically added or old ones re-carved when details began to fade. “I wonder if the site was visited regularly, but reliefs were only added on special occasions,” she says. “Or was it only visited for special occasions, when new reliefs were added or existing ones repaired?” Guagnin has no question, however, regarding the mastery displayed by the Neolithic artists, who worked high atop cliffs where they would never have been able to see the entire animal while carving it. “The level of naturalism and detail is astonishing,” she says, “and the technical skill and community effort involved in the creation of these reliefs is evidence of the importance of rock art in the social and symbolic life of the Neolithic herders of northern Arabia.”


Top Ten Saudi Arabia Donkey Carving





Recent Issues