The young man was buried in a vertical pit in a 8,500-year-old cemetery, one of the oldest ever found in Europe.
Sept. 12, 2011 --
In the search for buried history, archaeologists pour their resources into uncovering the remnants of the distant past. With know-how, persistence and a little luck, archaeologists can push aside dirt and rock and find an artifact of historical significance. Although chance plays a big role in unearthing history, archaeological treasures have been stumbled upon purely by accident, often by those outside the scientific community. In these photos, explore several particularly serendipitous finds of unique artifacts, some of which reach as far back as prehistory.
On Sept. 12, 1940, four teenagers followed their wayward dog into a cave complex near the village of Montignac in southwestern France. To their surprise, the caves hosted something remarkable: nearly 2,000 paintings and etchings of animals, humans and abstract shapes on the walls dating back between 15,000 and 25,000 years. Known as the Lascaux caves, the complex features figures depicted in surprising detail given the age of the illustrations. Animals portrayed on the cave walls included horses, stags, bison and felines. Archaeologists believed the caves were used for ritualistic purposes. Some parts of the illustrations even appear to construct a narrative, but what they mean exactly has yet to be deciphered. The caves were open to the public in 1948, but closed in 1963 in order to preserve the site from damage.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of over 800 biblical texts made of animal skin and papyrus. Dating to around 2,000 years ago, between the years 200 B.C. and 70 A.D., the scrolls could well be the oldest such documents in existence and have deepened historians' understanding of religious history. These documents may have been lost to history had a Bedouin shepherd named Muhammed edh-Dhib and his cousin not stumbled upon the first manuscripts along the northern shore of the Dead Sea at a remote site known as Qumran in 1947. The last fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls collection was uncovered in the mid-1950s. Although the scrolls have been extensively studied and translated, one big mystery remains: Who exactly wrote them?
As Napoleon Bonaparte's army marched through north Africa during his campaign in Egypt, they stumbled upon what would become known as the Rosetta Stone, after the town where it was discovered. Within Bonaparte's army was a squadron of scholars called Institute of Egypt, also known as the Scientific and Artistic Commission. As the military settled around the Nile Delta, the Institute explored local ruins and artifacts. After the discovery of the stone in 1799, several copies of the inscriptions on its face were made, since no one could read them at the time. By 1802, the Greek and Demotic portions of the stone had been deciphered by scholars. The hieroglyphics posed a different challenge all together, however, and it would take 20 years before French scholar Jean-François Champollion announced that he had cracked the code. By deciphering the hieroglyphs, Champollion opened a whole new door to understanding the civilization of ancient Egypt. The Rosetta Stone is currently kept in the British Museum.
In case you don't know what a geoglyph is, ancient Peruvians went through the trouble of leaving a picture-perfect definition. Known as the Nazca Lines, these giant carvings into the Earth were only discovered by airplane in the 1930s. Located in the Nazva desert in southern Peru around 250 miles (400 kilometers) south of Lima, the geoglyphs resemble a number of animals including a spider (as seen here), a condor, a monkey, a tree, as well as human figures and geometric patterns. Why exactly indigenous tribes living in the area between 100 B.C. and 650 A.D. felt compelled to produce these works remains a mystery, though archaeologists agree that it is likely tied to religious customs.
In 1991, German tourists stumbled upon a frozen body in a glacier on the Ötztal Alps between Italy and Austria. Although they originally thought the corpse to be the result of a recent death, the iceman mummy, named Ötzi, in fact dated back 5,300 years. Since Ötzi's discovery, the mummy has been extensively studied. Scientists have learned everything from his last meal to his cause of death to his possible occupation and they have even made reconstructions of his face. Ötzi died in the spring as a result of an arrowhead striking his left clavicle artery. He likely received a ceremonial burial and was found beside tools and other personal items.
Over the years, metal detector enthusiasts, particularly those in the United Kingdom, have uncovered archaeological treasures buried beneath the Earth. In 2009, 30-year-old Nick Davies hauled in 10,000 ancient Roman coins that he had found inside a clay pot buried in Shropshire, U.K. That same year, a trove of 1,500 gold and silver pieces dating back to the Dark Ages were found on a farmer's field in the western region of Staffordshire, England. Last year, 63-year-old David Crisp uncovered 52,000 ancient Roman coins, later given a value of around $1 million, in a clay pot in southwestern England.
Ministero per i Beni e le Attivita Culturali,
In 1986, divers stumbled upon a nearly 2,000-year-old Roman shipwreck some six miles off the coast of the town of Grado, Italy. Measuring 55 feet long and 16 feet wide, the small trade vessel was stocked with 600 amphorae, or vases, packed with sardines and other fish. Further study of the shipwreck revealed that the ancient Roman engineers also had built in a hydraulic system that allowed the ship to carry an aquarium with live fish.
A Mesolithic site in Germany has revealed the 7,000-year-old remains of a young man buried there in a strange upright position.
Placed in a vertical pit, the body was fixed upright by filling the grave with sand up to the knees. The upper body was left to decay and was likely picked at by scavengers.
The unique burial was found near the village of Groß Fredenwalde, on top of a rocky hill in northeastern Germany, about 50 miles north of Berlin.
Dating back 8,500 years, the site belongs to the Mesolithic era when Europe was inhabited by hunter-gatherers who rarely stayed in one place.
Nine skeletons have been excavated so far, including five children younger than 6 years and the 8,400-year-old skeleton of a 6-month-old infant, with arms still folded across the chest.
According to Thomas Terberger, the excavation director at the Lower Saxony Department of Historic Preservation, the site was one of the first true cemeteries in Europe, used by native central European hunter-gatherers and fisherman from about 6400 B.C. to 500 B.C.
“It is evidence for a more stable way of life some 8,000 years ago,” Terberger said.
Detailing their findings in the journal Quaternary, Terberger and colleagues describe the skeleton buried upright as “without any parallel in central Europe.”
From the arrangement of the bones, the researchers speculate the young man was put — probably dead — into a 5 foot vertical pit.
Leaning with its back against the wall of the grave, the body was fixed in standing position by filling the pit with sands to a level above the knees.
“The pit was then left open or was preliminarily covered and subsequently carnivores were able to get at the corpse and gnaw on some of the arm bones,” the researchers wrote.
After decay, the upper body fell apart. The grave was then filled and sealed with a fire lit on top of the tomb.
“The burial is unique in central Europe and therefore it is difficult to find a specific reasons for such treatment,” Terberger told Discovery News.
“The young man also received grave goods and this is indicating an unusual, but honorable treatment of the body,” he added. “On this background, I see no good argument to interpret the burial as a kind of punishment.”
The outstanding preservation of the nine skeletons will allow researchers to carry out scientific analyses, such as ancient DNA tests and isotope studies.
“We will be able to better characterize the native population at that time, before and after the first farmers immigrated to Central Europe from Southeast-Europe about 7,500 years ago,” Terberger said.