Here is an excerpt from an article by Jesse Greenspan for the HISTORY website.
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Credit: Danita Delimont/Getty Images
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Despite the best efforts of amateur and professional archeologists, the ancient world has retained many of its secrets.
Ancient history is flush with unsolved mysteries, some of which, from lost burial sites to sunken cities, have captivated the public imagination for centuries.
“People are fascinated by origins, people are fascinated by mysteries,” says Andrea M. Berlin, a professor of archeology at Boston University. “We’re very curious about what we can’t see, about what came before.”
And though some mysteries will likely never be solved, others are being chipped away at with the help of new technologies. As Berlin points out, a present-day archeologist who finds a clay pellet may use an atomic reactor, among other tools, to deduce its chemical composition, whereas a 19th-century archeologist would have relied on a mere pickaxe and wheelbarrow.
“Every single new technology that has been made available to archeologists, beginning with carbon-14 dating in the 1950s, has radically pushed the field,” Berlin says. “We can see deeper and smaller and finer, and so there are many more questions we can ask and answer.”
She adds: “We have learned a lot about how sophisticated many ancient sites were.”
In Berlin’s experience, professional archeologists tend to eschew the role of popular sleuth, especially as it pertains to things like Noah’s Ark and treasure-laden tombs. Nevertheless, she recognizes the sense of wonder such mysteries inspire.
“We’re a present- and future-oriented society these days,” Berlin says, “so from my point of view, anyone who cares at all, even a little bit, about the past, that’s great.”
1. Nazca Lines
Roughly 2,000 years ago, a pre-Inca civilization etched a series of enormous drawings into the dry coastal plain of Peru. Known as the Nazca Lines, these geoglyphs (pictured at top) remained largely unknown until aircraft began flying over the area in the 1930s. To date, well over 1,000 designs have been located: Most are straight lines, stretching up to 30 miles, or geometric shapes, from trapezoids to spirals, while others depict animals and plants, including a spider, a hummingbird, a monkey, a whale, a two-headed snake, a dog, and a humanoid figure nicknamed “The Astronaut.”
As recently as 2022, 168 new geoglyphs were discovered, yet researchers still don’t understand their purpose. One prominent hypothesis associates them with water rituals, though other guesses abound as well.
An Egyptian port city on the Mediterranean Sea, Thonis-Heracleion served as a major trading hub prior to the founding of nearby Alexandria around 331 B.C. Mythical hero Heracles and Helen of Troy both supposedly spent time there. Around the second century B.C., however, the city center collapsed due to soil liquification, possibly triggered by earthquakes, tsunamis, or floods. Eventually, all of Thonis-Heracleion sank underwater, where it remained lost to time until being rediscovered in the early 2000s by marine archeologists. Since then, large statues, animal sarcophagi, temple ruins, pottery shards, jewelry, coins, and even 2,400-year-old fruit baskets have been pulled from the waves, thus shining new light on this real-life Atlantis.
3. Plain of Jars
Thousands of lichen-covered stone jars from the Iron Age, some standing close to 10 feet tall and weighing several tons, dot the mountainous landscape of northern Laos. Carved largely from sandstone and found in groups ranging from just one to 400, legend holds that giants used them as wine glasses. Many archeologists, on the other hand, believe they served as funerary urns, though much remains unknown about their purpose, about how they were moved into place, and about the civilization that produced them. Recent research dates at least some of the stone jars to as early as 1240 B.C., which would make them far older than the human remains buried nearby. Complicating matters is that many of the jars stand in fields of unexploded munitions, the vestige of a massive U.S. bombing campaign during the Vietnam War, and therefore cannot be safely studied.
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Jesse Greenspan is a Bay Area-based freelance journalist who writes about history and the environment.
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