The Top Archaeological Discoveries of 2021

While many of us remained locked down in apartments, houses, and home offices across the world, thousands of archaeologists worked tirelessly to continue to excavate, to explore, to publish, and to keep the field alive across the globe. With thanks to aid from archaeologists Steven Ellis, Morag Kersel, and Vivian Laughlin for their suggestions, we present just a few of the ancient finds that came to light in a rather dark year.

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1. Digital Unwrapping, Egypt

Hundreds of new discoveries were made in connection to ancient Egypt last year. At the end of December, it was announced that Egyptologists had virtually unwrapped a mummy of Amenhotep I (c. 1525–1504 BCE) using computed tomography (CT) scans. Sahar N. Saleem and her team on the faculty of medicine at the University of Cairo published the article in the journal Frontiers in Medicine.

CT scans of Amenhotep I’s mummy (courtesy Sahar Saleem and Zahi Hawass)

The perfection of non-invasive techniques for studying human remains and other types of material culture means that things like mummies don’t have to be dismantled or disturbed in order to be studied by researchers. Within Egypt, new research centers, such as the National Center for Documentation of Cultural and Natural Heritage, continue to document Egypt’s cultural heritage and to use digital tools to protect the Egyptian landscape from looting — while also working to demand repatriation of stolen antiquity.

2. Digital Maps, Mexico

Archaeologists work in both digital and physical realms in order to explore the past. Nowhere was this more clear than in the 3D maps published in the journal Natural Human Behavior last year. Takeshi Inomata, Juan Carlos Fernandez-Diaz, and numerous other archaeologists on the research team used digital mapping to uncover ancient cosmological connections between hundreds of sites. The maps cover 30,000 square miles of precolonial settlements in what is today modern Mexico. The 478 Olmec and Maya sites they studied date to 1050–400 BCE. When viewed collectively on Lidar maps, they revealed interconnected cosmological beliefs and spatial patterns connected to the ancient Mesoamerican calendar. They also provide strong evidence for new interregional connections. 

Digital image taken with “LIDAR” technology (through laser) of the Mayan city of Aguada Fénix, in the municipality of Balancán, Tabasco state, Mexico (image by Alfonsobouchot courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

3. Royal Purple, Israel

In January of 2021, archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority published the remnants of textiles dyed in “royal purple” made from the glands of sea snails. They were found at a site called “Slave’s Hill,” once an Iron Age copper smelting camp in present-day Israel’s Timna Valley. Radiocarbon dating puts the site at the 11th–10th centuries BCE. As Naama Sukenik and the archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Bureau note, the context of these textile fragments is important:

… in a marginal region inhabited by semi-nomadic tribes, and within debris of copper smelting activities — sheds new light on the society that operated the mines [there] at the turn of the first millennium BCE, with implications for our understanding of trade and economy in the broader Southern Levantine region during this period.

Excavations in the 1930s mislabeled the copper smelters there as “slaves.” Dietary evidence gained from wet sieving and from these purple textiles now indicate the workers there had high social status and likely purchased the expensive textiles.

4. Ancient Ghosts, Iraq

For proof that discoveries can happen in the museum as well as within the excavation unit, one need only look to the announcement that a curator at the British Museum may have discovered the earliest evidence for the depiction of a ghost. Curator Irving Finkel argues that a Babylonian tablet from 1500 BCE held at the museum depicts a bearded male ghost being led to the underworld by a woman.

5 & 6 Footprints, Tanzania and the United States

Footprints were important pieces of evidence last year. In an article in the journal Nature, biological anthropologist and biochemist Ellison McNutt and her team reviewed bipedal trackways originally discovered in 1976 at Laetoli site A and revisited the more famed ones discovered at site G in 1978. Site G’s finds are dated to 3.66 million years ago and often cited as the oldest “evidence of obligate bipedalism in the human lineage.” The contemporary ones discovered at site A had previously been viewed as bear footprints, but McNutt went back with her team in 2019. They made new models of site A using 3D photogrammetry and laser scanning, and discovered that the footprints indicate a bipedal hominin. This means there were two hominin taxa with different feet and gaits that coexisted at Laetoli.

Laetoli location and site rediscovery: a, model of site A generated using photogrammetry showing the five hominin footprints; b, corresponding contour map of the site generated from a 3D surface scan with scale bar; c, map of Laetoli localities 7 and 8, indicating the positions of bipedal trackways A, G and S (redrawn from ref. 49); d, e, topographical maps of the two best preserved A footprints, A2 (d) and A3 (e) (image courtesy Nature journal)

Meanwhile, footprints at White Sands National Park in New Mexico drew international attention in September. In a study in the journal Science, archaeologists and researchers dated the footprints to 21,000 and 23,000 years ago. This redates the arrival of humans on the continent to thousands of years earlier than was previously established — and now places them living in North America during the height of the ice age called the Last Glacial Maximum (26500–19000 BCE).

7. Spilling the Tea, China

​​In August, a new article in Scientific Reports by Jianrong Jiang, Guoquan Lu, Qing Wang, and Shuya Wei looked at the earliest material evidence for tea in residue left on a bowl within an early Warring State period (475–221 BCE) tomb in Shandong province.

Within China this year, there were also new sacrificial pits found at the Sanxingdui Ruins in Sichuan province, as well as a mint for creating coinage discovered in Henan province, which may be evidence that coins were made in China in 640–550 BCE. This is about a century prior to the oldest known mint site in modern Turkey.

Screenshot of map which shows: (a) tomb No. 1 at Xigang; (b) burial objects in the ware box; (c) the unearthed bowl; (d) residues which poured out from the bowl; (e) the sample CST take from the residues (image courtesy and via Scientific Reports)

8. Boar-ing Fakes, United States

In an epic Twitter thread, archaeologist Dan Diffendale revealed that the famed meme known as “Boar Vessel (600–500 BCE), Etruscan, ceramic ” from the Cleveland Museum of Art is likely a modern fake. The CMA performed the thermoluminescence analysis that suggests the fakery. Remember to raise a glass to the memory of this beautiful ceramic boar, but then also remember to toast to the precision of ceramicists and archaeologists who are constantly reviewing, redating, and inspecting antiquities for authenticity.

9. Pompeii Wonders, Italy

The treasures from the towns around Mount Vesuvius on the Bay of Naples have yet to cease appearing, and last year is no different. A huge difference in terms of public notification is Pompeii’s official Instagram and Twitter accounts, which often reveal finds within hours or days of their discovery. Social media has allowed millions to view discoveries alongside Pompeian archaeologists themselves. The discovery of a ceremonial chariot and a room which likely housed enslaved persons were both discoveries of note last year, as well as mummified remains found at the necropolis of Porta Sarno. We should also remark on the return of six stolen frescoes, all from nearby towns.

10. Surviving a Pandemic, the Whole World

It was a year of archaeological wonders that demonstrate the vibrancy and necessity of the field of archaeology. But for this to continue, these projects need ethical funding and popular support. The archaeologists of the future are trained in labs, in classrooms, and in field schools that desperately need financial support. Many of these excavation projects struggled to stay afloat in the midst of budget cuts and a global pandemic. As Pompeii archaeologist Steven Ellis noted in comments to Hyperallergic, “I truly believe one of the top ‘finds’ could be the collective survival of archaeological fieldwork and research projects (and not least of individuals) through such a difficult time.”


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