Despite its many difficulties, 2020 gave us some incredible discoveries.
Shortly after scientists confirmed that the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, owned Dead Sea Scroll forgeries, putting the authenticity of some 70 other known fragments in question, the University of Manchester realized that parchment scraps believed to be blank and worthless were actually part of a cache of ancient manuscripts.
Of course, 2020 reminded us that discoveries can be a bit of a bummer: museum visitors might be destroying The Scream, and a possible new Leonardo da Vinci drawing might prove the record-setting $450 million Salvator Mundi isn’t the Renaissance master’s painting. And this year also proved the groundbreaking discovery of the oldest example of the written Basque language to be a hoax.
And though some discoveries prompt skepticism, others can be earth-shattering, such as the largest, oldest Maya monument ever found. Other times, even the most minor details can become crucial, as when researchers discovered that Johannes Vermeer’s Girl With the Pearl Earring once had eyelashes.
All are fascinating. Here’s a roundup of what we learned.
There Are More Mummies and Painted Sarcophagi to Be Found in Egypt
Egyptian Minister of Antiquities and Tourism Khaled El Anany. Photo: Mohammed Fouad/dpa via Getty Images.
As always, Egypt was fruitful ground for archaeologists, with the discovery of the first ancient Egyptian funeral parlor, the world’s oldest Illustrated book, and a mummy buried with a secret painting gallery, among other finds.
But the biggest news in Egyptian archaeology this year was undoubtedly the excavation of over 100 painted sarcophagi in Saqqara, an ancient burial ground south of Cairo.
The Builders of Stonehenge Carried Its Giant Monoliths From Miles Away—and It Was Probably Built to Amplify Sound
Stonehenge. Photo courtesy of English Heritage.
Stonehenge made this list last year after archaeologists discovered that the smaller “bluestone” dolerite rocks in its central circle came from the Carn Goedog and Craig Rhos-y-felin quarries in the Preseli Hills in Wales, some 143 miles away.
Now, thanks to a core sample drilled during a mid-century repair job—the 90-year-old who did the job recently returned it to the UK—experts have determined that the ancient monument’s outer ring of sarsens, which weigh as much as 30 tons, come from chalk hills of Marlborough Downs, 15 miles away.
And while Stonehenge remains ever-mysterious, acoustics engineers at the University of Salford in Manchester made a 1:12 scale model to demonstrate its acoustic properties—which may have been integral to its use.
There’s an Adorable Cat Carved Into the Hills of Peru
A feline figure has appeared in Peru’s Nazca Lines, according to the Culture Ministry.
A new geoglyph was discovered in the Nazca Desert, and it’s the oldest one in the region, dating to 200 BC to 100 BC. The feline figure measures 120 feet across, and is currently undergoing conservation.
There Were Ancient Women Warriors in Russia. And Mongolia. Oh, and Woman Hunters in Peru
A reconstruction of a Wilamaya Patjxa vicuña hunt by artist Matthew Verdolivo, UC Davis IET Academic Technology Services. Courtesy Randall Haas.
There were quite a few unexpected discoveries about women this year. In northern Mongolia, the discovery of the skeletons of two 1,500-year-old warrior women is new evidence as to the possible origins of the Chinese Mulan myth, popularized in the West by Disney.
A 4th-century BC dig-site in Russia revealed four women buried with their weapons. They would have been part of the matriarchal Scythian society that are said to have served as the inspiration for such strong female characters as Xena and Wonder Woman.
And going back even further, a 9,000-year-old Peruvian grave contained a woman in her late teens, laid to rest aside her hunting tools—suggesting its time to reconsider assumptions that men were the exclusive hunters in prehistoric society.
There Are Stunning Rock Paintings in the Amazon
The pre-Columbian rock art at Cerro Azul in Guaviare state, Colombia dates back around 12,000 years. Photo by Marie-Claire Thomas, courtesy Channel 4.
These stunningly beautiful Ice Age rock paintings of wild animals and humans discovered in the Columbian Amazon were created 12,500 years ago, but getting to them today was a challenge.
Archaeologists first discovered the massive cache of ancient artworks—there are tens of thousands of paintings—via satellite imagery, but had to get permission from the rebel dissidents who control the area to actually visit the sites in person.
This Tiny, Unassuming Bird Figurine Is the Oldest Chinese Sculpture in the World
A miniature bird figurine discovered at Lingjing (Henan Province, China), dated to 13,500 years ago, is now the oldest-known example of Chinese art. Photo courtesy of Francesco d’Errico and Luc Doyon.
This Paleolithic bird figurine, carved from a blackened bone, may not look particularly impressive, but it dates from 13,500 years ago, making it the oldest example of 3-D art from East Asia.
And its surfaces show evidence of the use of different types of tools, indicating the artist was using well-established carving techniques. It is also unique in that the bird is perched on a pedestal, suggesting it is part of a previously unknown artistic tradition.
An Alaskan Volcano May Have Been the Downfall of the Roman Republic
Detailed records of past explosive volcanic eruptions are archived in the Greenland ice sheet and accessed through deep-drilling operations. Photo by Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, paleoclimatology professor and researcher at the Centre for Ice and Climate at the Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen in Denmark.
The assassination of Julius Caesar in the year 44 BC may not be to blame for the fall of the Roman Republic.
The culprit, a recent study suggests, might actually have been 6,000 miles away, where the Okmok volcano exploded on Alaska’s Aleutian Islands the year before, unleashing clouds of ash that triggered a famine that contributed to the social unrest that followed.
Climate scientists made the breakthrough through samples of six arctic ice cores, which can be dated like tree rings, comparing the volcanic tephra in the ice to the rock chemistry of volcanos around the world, definitively matching it to Okmok.
Ancient Viking Artifacts Emerged Beneath Melting Ice (Thanks, Climate Change)
Members of the Secrets of the Ice team surveying the Lendbreen pass. Photo by Johan Wildhagen, Palookaville.
After ice caps and glaciers melted in Norway, archaeologists found a trove of some 800 Viking artifacts that had been frozen for up to a thousand years.
The discovery—the first of its kind in Northern Europe—suggests that the mountains were a well-used travel route, rather than a physical barrier.
This Ice Age Structure Made From the Bones of 60 Wooly Mammoths Is Baffling
A 25,000-year-old structure of mammoth bones discovered in Russia. Photo: A.E. Dudin.
What’s 25,000 years old and made entirely of mammoth bones? A mysterious Ice Age structure built in Paleolithic Russia.
Under excavation since 2014, the site measures 40 feet across and features bones from 60 mammoths. Archaeologists still don’t know why or how it was built, or what it was used for.
A Medical Student Finally Found the Fabled Forrest Fenn Treasure
Forrest Fenn’s treasure was allegedly buried in an ornate, Romanesque box filled with gold nuggets, gold coins and other gems. Courtesy of Forrest Fenn.
Over the course of the last decade, as many as 300,000 people may have tried to uncover the bronze chest full of gold, precious gems, and other valuables said to be worth $2 million that the eccentric New Mexico art dealer Forrest Fenn hid somewhere in the Rocky Mountains.
This year, shortly before Fenn died at age 90, someone finally succeeded in that occasionally deadly quest. Due to pending litigation, the finder revealed his identity only at the end of the year, but is keeping the location of the discovery a secret—although some treasure hunters believe the hoard’s hiding place was in Yellowstone National Park.
Can’t get enough? Here are the other art-world discoveries covered on Artnet News this year:
Did Ancient Hebrews Get High During Temple? A New Archaeological Discovery Suggests They Did
Why Does This Rock Art Look So Trippy? Because Native Californians Were Literally Taking Hallucinogens When They Made It, a Study Says
A 500-Year-Old Aztec Tower of Human Skulls Is Even More Terrifyingly Humongous Than Previously Thought, Archaeologists Find
In an Extraordinary Discovery, Archaeologists May Have Just Located the Tomb of Romulus, the Legendary Founder of Rome
The Statue of Liberty’s Most Iconic Feature Was Originally Supposed to Look Very Different, Newly Discovered Drawings Reveal
There Are 8,000 Known Terracotta Warriors. But Archaeologists in China Just Found More Than 200 Others
The Riddles on a Mysterious Viking Monument Long Proved Baffling. Now Scholars Say They May Be Dire Warnings of Climate Change
Astounded Scholars Just Found What Appears to Be a Previously Unknown Work by Albrecht Dürer in a Church’s Gift Shop
Experts Conclude That This Odd Self-Portrait of Vincent van Gogh Giving the Side Eye Really Is by the Dutch Master
Archaeologists May Have Uncovered the Secret Ingredient Behind Australia’s Mysteriously Precise Cave Paintings: Beeswax
It’s a Christmas Miracle! An Archaeologist May Have Just Found Jesus’s Childhood Home in Nazareth
The Venus of Willendorf and Other Voluptuous Ancient Figures May Have Been ‘Ideological Tools’ to Shape Body-Image Norms
New York City Has Salvaged John F. Kennedy’s Lost Navy Patrol Boat From a Cove Off the Coast of Manhattan
Archeologists Just Discovered the UK’s Largest Ceremonial Site Buried Right Next to Stonehenge. Call It ‘Holehenge’
Archaeologists Just Discovered That Neanderthals Made String 50,000 Years Ago, Suggesting They Were Waaay Smarter Than We Thought
Archaeologists Have Uncovered Ancient Tools in Gabon That May Rewrite Our Understanding of Humankind’s History in Central Africa
How Snail Shells Taught Scientists That a Famous Land Art Formation Was Thousands of Years Younger Than Believed
Two Teens Volunteering on an Archaeological Dig in Israel Uncovered Solid-Gold Treasure Buried More Than 1,000 Years Ago
An Oxford Museum May Have Accidentally Kept a Rembrandt Painting Languishing in Its Basement for 40 Years, New Tests Suggest
Art Historians Have Discovered an Exceptional Work by a Famed Flemish Old Master Hiding in Plain Sight in a Brussels Town Hall
Baffling Archaeologists, This Ancient Depiction of the Cosmos Could Be 1,000 Years Younger Than Previously Thought
Archaeologists Have Discovered a Secret Crypt Beneath a Polish Chapel. It May Lead Them to the Holy Grail
A Hidden Drawing Lies Beneath the ‘Mona Lisa,’ New Ultra-High-Resolution Images Reveal
Archaeologists Have Discovered an Extraordinary New Style of Aboriginal Rock Art That Honors the Human-Animal Bond
Two Amateur Metal-Detector Enthusiasts Have Discovered the Remains of an Ancient Pagan Warlord
A Trove of Steamy Duncan Grant Drawings Were Thought to Have Been Destroyed. Turns Out, They Were Just Hidden Under a Bed
An Eagle-Eyed Art Lover Rediscovered a Long-Lost Jacob Lawrence Painting After Recognizing It in a Friend’s Apartment
Scientists Claim This New Paint Is the Whitest White Ever Made—and It Could It Help Combat Global Warming
Archaeologists May Have Finally Solved the Mystery of the Disappearance of Roanoke’s Lost Colony
A Wedding Photographer Took an Online Archaeology Class During Lockdown—and May Have Discovered a Lost Stonehenge-Like Structure
Bored Archeologists on Lockdown Have Discovered Dozens of Hidden Roman Sites in England’s Backyard
Researchers Just Found Hundreds of Medieval Objects in a Centuries-Old Cesspit Discovered Beneath the Courtauld Gallery
Archaeologists Have Discovered a 7,000-Year-Old Wooden Well That Reveals Neolithic Craftsmanship Were Surprisingly Advanced
A Small Pennsylvania Museum Just Discovered It Has Owned a Rembrandt for 70 Years Without Knowing It
Experts Discover a ‘Shrine’ of 15,000-Year-Old Animal Carvings and Mysterious Symbols in a Spanish Cave
A 19-Year-Old Intern Unearthed a Rare, 2,000-Year-Old Roman Dagger in a Tiny German Town
A Doctoral Student Just Discovered a Tiny 5,000-Year-Old Sword—One of the Oldest Weapons in the World—in an Italian Monastery
A Groundbreaking Discovery of Early Stone Age Tools Shows How the Human Race Once Survived a Prehistoric Volcanic Super-Eruption
These Tiny 20,000-Year-Old Artworks From Indonesia Prove That Europe Wasn’t the Only Place Art Was Being Made During the Last Ice Age
Archeologists Have Discovered a Trove of 300-Year-Old Silver Coins Hidden Beneath the Floor of a Renaissance Church in Slovakia
A High-Tech Investigation Has Finally Figured Out the Brilliant Trick Renaissance Architects Used to Make Their Domed Churches
Stunned Conservators Just Found a Ghostly Picasso Hidden Beneath One of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Most Treasured Paintings
An Archaeologist Discovered a Trove of Ancient Catholic Relics Under the Floorboards of a Tudor Manor in England
A Volunteer Archaeologist Just Discovered the Oldest Example of Religious Graffiti Ever Found in Britain
Archaeologists Have Uncovered an Astounding Ancient Burial Site in Norway. Here’s What It Tells Us About the Prehistoric One Percent
Tourists Pass This Enigmatic Portrait in Florence Every Day. Now a Scholar Says It Was Probably Carved by Michelangelo Himself
Archaeologists at Pompeii Have Discovered the Bones of Two More Men Killed by the Eruption of Vesuvius
Did the Ancient Pompeiians Invent Recycling? New Research Suggests They Used Trash to Build City Walls (and Much More)
High-Tech Radar May Have Just Led Researchers to Discover Nefertiti’s Secret Burial Chamber in King Tut’s Tomb
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