April Holloway | Ancient Origins | December 29, 2013
This year has seen some incredible discoveries in the field of archaeology – from ancient myths proven true, to evidence of ancient technology, and findings that have solved enduring mysteries, such as the death of Tutankhamun.
Archaeologists uncovered the incredible remains of a complete Thracian carriage and two horses that appear to have been buried upright. The horses and carriage were found in a Thracian tomb along with other artefacts in the village of Svestari in north-east Bulgaria. The carriage, complete with two wheels, seat and boot, has been dated to 2,500-years-old and is thought to have belonged to Thracian nobility, judging by the imported goods found in nearby graves. Sadly, it appears that the chariot was placed in a narrow hole with a sloping side to allow horses, decorated with elaborate harnesses, to pull it into its final resting place, after which they were killed. Experts reached this conclusion after noticing that the horses were still attached to their harnesses and to the carriage. The Thracians were a group of Indo-European tribes inhabiting a large area in Central and Southeastern Europe who were known to be fierce warriors and horse-breeders who established a powerful kingdom in the fifth century BC.
In March of this year, a group of archaeologists in Turkey made a spectacular discovery – the ‘Gate to Hell’, also known as Pluto’s Gate, which was known in Greco-Roman mythology and tradition as the portal to the underworld. Now archaeologists have recovered two unique marble statues which acted as guardians for a deadly cave. One depicts a snake, a clear symbol of the underworld, the other shows Kerberos, or Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog of hell in the Greek mythology. The ‘Gate to Hell’ which marked the entrance to a cave in the ancient Phrygian city of Hierapolis was, according to ancient accounts, “full of a vapour so misty and dense that one can scarcely see the ground. Any animal that passes inside meets instant death,” wrote the Greek geographer Strabo (64 BC – 24 AD). According to Francesco D’Andria, professor of classic archaeology, who led the team that made the discovery back in March, these descriptions were accurate. D’Andria threw some sparrows into the cave and they “immediately breathed their last breath and fell”. The cave was described in historic sources as filled with lethal mephitic vapours and this appears to be true. It is no wonder the cave was provided with guardians to warn off any unsuspecting visitors.
A group of scientists and historians made an incredible discovery relating to some writings made on parchments that were produced in medieval times. Using cutting-edge technology, the researchers found that the parchment had once contained ancient philosophical writings that had later been washed off and over-written. Using multispectral imaging, scientists were able to recover the original text, shedding new light on the history of philosophical education in the late antiquity. The uppermost layer of text dates to the thirteenth century and comprises the Prophetic Books of the Greek Old Testament. However, through an amazing stroke of luck, it was discovered that beneath this text there had originally been some writing by the well-known ancient Greek writer, Euripides, and an unknown ancient commentary on Aristotle, which dated back to the fifth century. “The discovery of this work is of inestimable value for the history of philosophical education in the late antiquity”, said the discoverer of the manuscript, Dr. Chiara Faraggiana di Sarzana from Bologna University. The research being undertaken, named the Palamedes Project, aims to create a critical edition of the two important manuscripts featuring the newly discovered and unexplored Greek texts, made readable using the latest forms of technology.
King Antiochus 1, ruler of Commagene from 70 BC to 36BC, an ancient Armenian kingdom, was a most unusual king. He claimed descent from Greek conqueror Alexander the Great on his mother’s side, and from the Persian King Darius the Great on his father’s side. But what was particularly salient about this king was his unerring pride and his over-extended ego. Antiochus 1 claimed he had a special relationship with the gods and instituted a royal cult with the clear intention of being worshipped as a god after his death. He commissioned the construction of a magnificent religious sanctuary on Mount Nemrut (Nemrud Dagi), a 2,100 metre high mountain where people could come and pray to him. Antiochus wanted his sanctuary to be in a high and holy place, close to the gods in order to be in rank with them, and high enough that the whole kingdom could see it and remember him. At the peak of the Mount, workers constructed a pyramid-like tomb where King Antiochus requested to be preserved for all eternity. An inscription refers to the summit as a sacred resting place where Antiochus, the ‘god king’ would be laid to rest and his soul would join those of other deities in the celestial realm. Little had been recovered or excavated from the great mound atop Mount Nemrut until recently when a group of archaeologists used ground-penetrating radar to examine the site. They discovered a pyramidal-shaped chamber with a box-like object (about 6 foot long) in the centre. Could this be the sarcophagus and final resting place of Antiochus the god king? It seems highly likely. Archaeologists are now waiting in anticipation for permission from Turkish authorities to excavate the site.
The translation of a 500-year-old document has answered one of the greatest mysteries surrounding the Forbidden City in Beijing, China – how the ancient people managed to transport stones weighing more than 330 tonnes over 70 kilometres. Until now it was believed that they were transported on wheels, however, the ancient document has shown that this was not the case at all. The Forbidden City is the imperial palace that was once home to the emperors of China during the final two imperial dynasties, the Ming Dynasty and the Qing Dynasty. Built in 1406 to 1420, the complex consists of 980 buildings and covers 720,000 m2. Vast numbers of huge stones were mined and transported there for its construction, the heaviest of which weigh more than 220 tonnes and would have weighed more than 330 tonnes before they fragmented. The ancient text revealed that the giant stones were slid from a quarry 70 kilometres away on specially constructed sledges, dragged over slippery paths of wet ice by a team of men over 28 days. The workers dug wells every 500 metres to get water to pour on the ice to lubricate it, which made it easier to slide the rocks.
Archaeologists uncovered thousands of Stone Age underground tunnels, stretching across Europe, perplexing researchers as to their original purpose. German archaeologist Dr Heinrich Kusch, in his book ‘Secrets of the Underground Door to an Ancient World’ revealed that tunnels were dug under literally hundreds of Neolithic settlements all over Europe and the fact that so many tunnels have survived 12,000 years indicates that the original network must have been huge. Across Europe there were thousands of them – from the north in Scotland down to the Mediterranean. The tunnels are quite small, measuring only 70cm in width, which is just enough for a person to crawl through. In some places there are small rooms, storage chambers and seating areas. The discovery of a vast network of tunnels indicates that Stone Age humans were not just spending their days hunting and gathering. However, the real purpose of the tunnels is still a matter of speculation. Some experts believe they were a way of protecting man from predators while others believe they were a way for people to travel safely, sheltered from harsh weather conditions or even wars and violence. However, at this stage scientists are only able to guess, as the tunnels have not yet revealed all their secrets of the past.
The mystery surrounding a 1,600-year-old jade-green Roman chalice and why it appears red when lit from behind has been solved by scientists who discovered that it appears to contain nanoparticles of silver and gold. The Lycurgus Cup, as it is known due to its depiction of a scene involving King Lycurgus of Thrace, baffled scientists ever since the glass chalice was acquired by the British Museum in the 1950s. They could not work out why the cup appeared jade green when lit from the front but blood red when lit from behind. The mystery was solved when researchers in England scrutinized broken fragments under a microscope and discovered that the Roman artisans were nanotechnology pioneers: They’d impregnated the glass with particles of silver and gold, ground down until they were as small as 50 nanometres in diameter, less than one-thousandth the size of a grain of table salt. The exact mixture of the previous metals suggests that the Romans had perfected the use of nanoparticles. Now it seems that the super-sensitive technology used by the Romans might help diagnose human disease or pinpoint biohazards at security checkpoints.
Utilising the latest cutting-edge technology, archaeologists studying Angkor Wat in northwestern Cambodia made some surprising new findings, most significantly that the ancient Khmer Empire capital was much larger than previously thought. Angkor, the famous capital of southeast Asia’s largest ancient empire, has been intensively studied by archaeologists over the decades, so much so that it was not thought that there was much left to find. But latest research has shown that the ancient city had many more secrets to reveal. A research team applied high-tech LiDAR scanning to gain a visual representation of the landscape of Angkor Wat below the heavily forested areas. What they found was remarkable. They discovered that the city extends for 35 square kilometres, rather than the 9 kilometres that had previously been mapped from the ground, and they found that Angkor was an incredibly well thought out city . The streets ran in a grid exactly east/west or north/south. Each city block was measured exactly 100 meters by 100 meters, with 4 dwellings and 4 rectangular ponds, each pond located north-east of each dwelling. The dwellings, elevated on earthen mounds, were higher than the surrounding rice fields, presumably so they wouldn’t flood during the rainy season. The roads were likewise elevated. Other peculiar findings include a series of features which appear to be embankments, but layered out in a spiral pattern. At this stage it is unclear exactly what they were used for.
In what will become one of the most significant discoveries in Nepal in decades, archaeologists have found the birthplace of Buddha and therefore the origins of Buddhism. This is the first ever archaeological finding directly linked to the life of Buddha. The ground-breaking discovery was made following excavations within the sacred Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini, a UNESCO World Heritage site, which has long been believed to be the birthplace of Buddha. Under a series of brick temples, the research team found a 6th century BC timber structure with an open space in the centre, which links to the nativity story of Buddha. Even more surprising was evidence of tree roots and a tree shrine, which supports Buddhist ‘mythology’ that the birth took place under a tree. Buddhist tradition maintained that Queen Maya Devi, the mother of Buddha, gave birth to him while holding on to the branch of a tree within the Lumbini Garden. Now researchers firmly believe that the open space in the centre of the timber structure contained the very tree that Queen Maya Devi clung onto as Guatama Buddha entered the world.
After More than 3,000 Years It is one of the greatest mysteries of the ancient world – how the Egyptian boy pharaoh Tutankhamun died. Theories have ranged from a violent murder to leprosy and even a snake bite. But now, 91 years after his discovery and 3,336 years since his death, a surprising new analysis on Tutankhamun’s remains revealed just what it was that killed the boy king, the 11th pharaoh of the 18th dynasty of Egypt. The remarkable new analysis revealed substantial evidence that suggests the pharaoh died after being struck by a speeding chariot, and that a hasty embalming process caused his mummified body to spontaneously combust in his sarcophagus. Tests revealed that Tutankhamun’s flesh had been burnt and chemical tests revealed that this occurred while he was sealed inside his coffin. Researchers discovered that embalming oils combined with oxygen and linen caused a chemical reaction which “cooked” the king’s body at temperatures of more than 200C. Dr Chris Naunton said: “The charring and possibility that a botched mummification led the body spontaneously combusting shortly after burial was entirely unexpected, something of a revelation.”