Life on this planet doesn’t last forever. So before too long, you may want to consider putting together a bucket list of the archaeological sites you have always wanted to see, and take steps to see them. Here is Popular Archaeology’s pick of the best of the best, the top 25 must-see archaeological wonders of the world (in no particular order of significance):
1. The Giza Necropolis
Who hasn’t heard of this one? Located on the Giza Plateau on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt, this world-famous site consists of a monumental complex of three pyramid complexes known as the Great Pyramids, the Great Sphinx, several cemeteries, remains of a workers’ village and an associated industrial complex. The complex has seen uncounted tourists and visitors ranging from ancient times to the present, and remains the iconic symbol of ancient Egypt. One would think that this site has been completely picked over by archaeologists and historians over the centuries, but actually there is likely more to learn and discover at this site, and archaeologists and scholars will continue to study and investigate the area for years to come. In terms of grandeur and wonder, perhaps no other archaeological site in the world can exceed this one.
Map plan of the Giza Necropolis complex. Messer Woland, Wikimedia Commons
The Great Sphinx, as if you didn’t know. Usuario Barcex, Wikimedia Commons
2. The Karnak Temple Complex
This one is huge. Like the Great Pyramids in terms of size and grandeur, looking at it makes anyone wonder what a boatload of blood, sweat and tears it must have taken to construct this.
Located close to the Nile river in Egypt near the modern village of el-Karnak just 2.5 miles north of Luxor, it is considered the largest religious complex in the world and is reported to be the second most visited site in Egypt (next to the Giza Necropolis, of course). Part of the monumental city of Thebes, Egypt’s greatest ancient city, it consists of a number of temples, pylons, chapels and other buildings. Nothing can project the massive nature of this site more than the famous Hypostyle Hall, which consists of a hall area of 50,000 square feet and 134 massive columns in 16 rows. Some of the columns are 21 meters in height and three meters in diameter. The architraves atop these columns alone weigh about 70 tons. You will find yourself looking up a lot. (Photo: Karnak Temple, Kurohito, Wikimedia Commons)
Plan of the Karnak Temple Complex. Wikimedia Commons
Panoramic view of the Karnak Temple in the precinct of Amun-Re. Wikimedia Commons
3. The Khufu Ship
Although this can be seen at the Giza Necropolis area, it deserves separate attention as it is truly one of the most remarkably well-preserved ships of antiquity, its current appearance belying its age of over 4,500 years. Located in the Solar Boat Museum at the foot of the Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops), it was first discovered as one of two ships in 1954 by Kamal el-Mallakh. It laid undisturbed, sealed in its deconstructed parts in a pit carved out of the Giza bedrock. It took years to carefully reconstruct the ship. Thought to have been buried near Khufu’s resting place to assist him in navigating the afterlife, it has been said that it could sail today if put back into commission. (Left, Khufu ship as seen in the museum, Berthold Werner, Wikimedia Commons; Right, Well preserved Khufu ship cordage, Jon Bodsworth, Wikimedia Commons)
No place presents a finer example of ancient desert architecture than this one. Located in southwestern Jordan, it is best known for its famous rock-cut architecture and water conduit system. Established perhaps by 312 B.C., it has been identified as the capital of the ancient Nabataeans and the center of their caravan trade. Enclosed by natural towering rock formations and fed by a perennial stream, Petra flourished as it controlled the main commercial routes passing through it to Gaza in the west, to Damascus in the north, to Aqaba on the Red Sea, and routes that traversed the desert to the Persian Gulf. Today, it is the most-visited site in Jordan, and continues to be the subject of archaeological excavation and research. No less impressive is its context of stone formations, reminiscent of similar formations found in the American southwest. (Photo: Façade of Al Khazneh (the Treasury), Petra, Jordan. Bernard Gagnon, Wikimedia Commons)
Map of the Petra archaeological sites. Clearly there is much to see at this site. Wikimedia Commons
The Monastery, or Al Dier, Petra, Jordan. Dennis Jarvis, Wikimedia Commons
5. The Jerusalem Archaeological Park and the Dead Sea Scrolls
The ancient center of three global religions and a crossroads of most of the Old World’s great ancient civilizations, no other city offers as much with this combination. The Jerusalem Archaeological Park lies at the center of where it all happened in this sense, containing architectural and artifact remains that cross 5,000 years and numerous civilizations. Much of it is open-air, so the important places and features can be seen by visitors on a walk-through or walk-around basis. The Davidson Center, however, is in-doors on several levels and this is where one can see many of the smaller finds. Otherwise, you know the places — the remains of the Second Temple complex walls, Robinson’s Arch, massive stones and pavement remains from Herod’s Second Temple area, the Siloam Pool, Hezekiah’s Tunnel, Warren’s Shaft, the remains of walls and structures related to Jerusalem before King David as well as after — to name but a few. While in Jerusalem, a must-see are the Dead Sea Scrolls, currently housed in the Shrine of the Book as part of the Israel Musuem. A collection of 972 texts discovered between 1946 and 1956, they are the earliest known surviving manuscripts of works in the Hebrew Bible canon, along with extra-biblical manuscripts which reflect the diversity of religious thought in the Jerusalem area during the 1st century B.C and 1st century AD. (Photo of part of the Archaeological Park by Alinazienowicz, Wikimedia Commons)
Detail of the Temple Scroll, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls that can be seen in the Shrine of the Book. Wikimedia Commons
With ancient pyramids massive enough to rival the pyramids of Egypt, Teotihuacán was a pre-Columbian Mesoamerican city located about 30 miles northeast of modern day Mexico City. In addition to the pyramids, Teotihuacán also features complex, multi-family residential compounds, the Avenue of the Dead, and murals that have been exceptionally well-preserved.
Archaeologists suggest the city was established around 100 BC and continued to be built until about 250 AD, although the city is thought to have been in use up until sometime between the 7th and 8th centuries AD. At its zenith in the first half of the 1st millennium AD, Teotihuacan was among the largest cities in the world, with a population of at least 125,000. Its culture is thought to have had great influence on other Mesoamerican peoples throughout Central America, including the ancient Maya. (Photo: View of the Avenue of the Dead and the Pyramid of the Sun, from Pyramid of the Moon (Pyramide de la Luna) Kack Hynes, Wikimedia Commons)
Above: Teotihuacán City Plan Wikimedia Commons
Teotihuacán mask, Classic period. John Bourne collection. Walters Art Museum, Wikimedia Commons
Tikal, as one of the largest archaeological sites of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization, is also arguably its best known to the modern public. Located in the archaeological region of the Petén Basin in what is now northern Guatemala, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
Tikal became one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya. Featuring monumental architecture rivaled by only few of the other ancient Maya centers, it reached its zenith during the Classic Period, ca. 200 to 900 AD. It was during this period that Tikal reigned supreme politically, economically, and militarily over much of the Maya region. There is evidence that the city interacted with the great center of Teotihuacán in present-day Mexico to its north, having been conquered by the latter in the 4th century AD. Evidence also indicates that the city declined at the end of the Maya Late Classic period, with the elite palaces burned and a gradual population decline. The site was abandonment by the end of the 10th century.
Tikal has been the subject of archaeological research for decades. Its long list of rulers have attracted the attention of scholars focusing on uncovering the tombs, monuments, temples and palaces that represented their power in the region. (Photo: Tikal (Guatemala), temple 1 Raymond Ostertag, Wikimedia Commons)
Above: Map of the site core of Tikal, showing the major structures of the Maya site. Simon Burchell, Wikimedia Commons
North Acropolis in Tikal, Guatemala Peter Andersen, Wikimedia Commons
One of the jewels of the Maya civilization, the site of Palenque, although comparatively smaller than Tikal, represents the Classic Maya at their artistic and architectural best. Considered the Maya equivalent of Italy’s Florence of the European Renaissance, Palenque features temples, palaces, and an aray of carvings, skulpture and inscriptions that have been the subject of the most famous, early scholars of the Maya civilization.
Much is still unknown about the Early Classic history of this city, and archaeologists still have much work to do. The structures visitors see today represent a rebuilding effort by one of the best-known Maya Ajaw (kings), K’inich Janaab’ Pakal (Pacal the Great), who ruled from 603 to 683 AD. His significance was discovered through his funerary monument, called the Temple of the Inscriptions, so-named because of the long text preserved within the temple. At the time the tomb was excavated, it was considered the richest and best preserved burial of ancient America. (Photo: Temple of the Inscriptions as seen from the edge of a palace terrace. Ricraider, Wikimedia Commons)
Stone carving of Pacal the Great, one of the main figures responsible for the city’s art and architecture. Tato Grasso, Wikimedia Commons
9. Machu Picchu
Perched high atop a mountain ridge about 50 miles northwest of Cusco, Peru, rests what most archaeologists and members of the public consider to be the ancient iconic site of Inca civilization, Machu Picchu, popularly referred to as the “Lost City of the Incas”. Built around 1450 AD on sloping terrain 7,970 feet above sea level, it is thought to have been an estate of the Inca emperor Pachacuti. It was, however, abandoned only a century after its construction during the Spanish Conquest.
Since then, the site had been lost to most of the world until American historian Hiram Bingham rediscovered it and brought it to the world’s attention in 1911. Today, it is one of the world’s best known archaeological tourist attractions, and is one of South America’s most visited sites. At least 30 percent of the site’s structures have been restored, and preservationists continue to work on the site to this day. Its most prominent restored structures include the Intihuatana (Hitching Post of the Sun), the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows. These are located in what is called the Sacred District of Machu Picchu.
It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was voted one of the new Seven Wonders of the World in a worldwide Internet poll. Put this one on your list, even if you can only select a few of the sites for your lifetime. Most visitors have never regretted their visit to this place! (Photo: Macchu Picchu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site near Cusco in Peru, at twilight. Martin St.-Amant, Wikimedia Commons)
Temple of the Sun (also named “the watch tower”). The stones of its dry-stone walls built by the Incas can move slightly and resettle without the walls collapsing. Author: Fabricio Guzmán, Wikimedia Commons
10. Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat, or “City of Temples”, is the largest religious monument in the world, and certainly the most impressive and visited archaeological wonder of Cambodia. It stands as a symbol of Cambodia, but more significantly as the quintessential example of the height of the great Khmer Empire that dominated most of Southeast Asia from 802 to 1431 AD.
The temple was built by King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as his state temple, eventually becoming his mausoleum. Dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, it is considered the best-preserved temple at the site, and has remained a significant religious center since its inception, beginning first as a Hindu temple and then as a Buddhist temple.
It is designed to represent the sacred Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology. Within a massive outer moat and outer wall are three rectangular galleries, each raised successively higher than the other. At the center of the temple is a quincunx of towers. The temple is best known for its grandeur and harmony of architecture, bas-reliefs, and numerous devatas carved along its walls.
One can easily spend an entire day exploring this site. (Photo Above: Angkor Wat, by Chris, Wikimedia Commons)
Angkor Wat with moat, as viewed from above. Charles J. Sharp, Wikimedia Commons
Perhaps the best-known of all prehistoric monuments, Stonehenge is located in England about 2 miles west of Amesbury and 8 miles north of Salisbury. It is a ring of massive standing stones with surrounding earthworks. Many people do not know that Stonehenge does not exist in isolation. It rests within a much larger complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments, including many burial mounds.
Currently, archaeologists generally estimate that it was built between 3000 BC and 2000 BC, and recent radiocarbon dating indicates that the first stones were set in place between 2400 and 2200 BC. Some archaeologists, however, suggest that stones were raised at the site around 3000 BC.
The Stonehenge Riverside Project in 2008 uncovered evidence that indicates that Stonehenge may have actually been a sacred burial ground, with dating of cremated remains from deposits showing bones as old as 3000 BC, when they theorize the ditch and bank were first created.
Relatively little is known about who the responsible builders were, how they lived and what they believed, but the site is considered by archaeologists and some groups as a place of religious significance and pilgrimage. (Photo, Above Left: Stonehenge, by Gareth Wiscombe, Wikimedia Commons)
Computer Model of Stonehenge Wikimedia Commons
12. The Acropolis of Athens
No site in the world exemplifies the ancient Greek ideal more than this one. Situated conspicuously on a high rocky outcrop overlooking the city of Athens, Greece, the Acropolis of Athens consists of four of ancient Greece’s most iconic architectural structures: the Propylaia, the Erechtheion, the temple of Athena Nike, and, the most famous of all, the Parthenon.
Archaeologists have uncovered evidence that the hill (acropolis) was inhabited as long ago as the fourth millennium BC, but it wasn’t until the fifth century BC that Pericles (c. 495 – 429 BC) masterminded the construction of the site’s most important buildings previously mentioned. The Parthenon is widely rearded as the the most important example of Classical Greek architecture, the culmination of the the Doric order, and its decorative sculptures are considered among the finest examples of the height of ancient Greek art. The structures of the Acropolis were significantly damaged during the 1687 siege by the Venetians during the Morean War. It was during this time that the Parthenon was being used for gunpowder storage and was hit by a cannonball. (Photo of the Acropolis by Christophe Meneboeuf, Wikimedia Commons)
13. The Roman Colosseum
The largest amphitheatre of the ancient Roman Empire, the Colosseum, also known anciently as the Flavian Amphitheatre, graces central Rome and is considered one of the best examples of the grandeur of Roman architecture.
Construction began under Emperor Vespasian in 70 AD, and it was completed in 80 AD under Titus, but additional modifications were made during Domitian‘s reign in 81–96 AD, all members of the Flavian Dynasty. Hence the theatre’s original name, Amphitheatrum Flavium.
The Colosseum had an estimated capacity of between 50,000 and 80,000 people (outside of those participating in the spectacles performed there). It was used for gladiatorial combat and other spectacles, such as mock sea battles, executions, battle re-enactments, dramatic performances and animal hunts, until the early medieval era. Before its conversion as a tourist venue, it was used for centuries variously as a place of housing, workshops, a fortress, and a Christian shrine and other purposes. (Photo by Diliff, Wikimedia Commons)
Map showing location of Colosseum in central ancient Rome, top right.
There is no place where one can really get “up close and personal” with a cataclysmic and tragic end like that of ancient Pompeii. Located near modern Naples in Campania, Italy, Pompeii, like nearby Herculaneum and other villas, was destroyed and buried under 13 to 20 feet of ash and pumice during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. At the time of its destruction, the population is estimated to have been about 20,000 people, and the city featured an amphitheatre, gymnasium, port, numerous shops, villas for the wealthy, and a complex water system.
The city was lost for 1500 years until its rediscovery in 1599. It has been the subject of numerous investigations, excavations and restorations since work began there by Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre in 1748. Because of the nature of its rapid and massive burial by ash and pumice, artifacts and structures have been exceptionaly well preserved for thousands of years, providing detailed insight into the life of Roman citizens during the Pax Romana. A unique aspect of the excavations at Pompeii involved filling in the voids of the hardened ash left by human bodies with plaster, providing an extraordinary view of a disastrous moment in time, a physical record of the moment when hundreds if not thousands of people died.
Today, Pompeii is among the most visited sites of Italy. Bring your tissue. (Photo: Casts of bodies of Pompeii’s victims of the eruption of Vesuvius. Lance Vortex, Wikimedia Commons)
A Pompeii street/waterway.
15. Leptis Magna
Leptis Magna, located in Khoms, Libya, on the coast, was a major city of the Roman Empire and today clearly ranks among the most spectacular Roman ruins in the world. Founded by Phoenician colonists around 1000 BC, it became prominent beginning with the reign of Emperor Tiberius when it was made a part of the Empire’s African province. It grew to become one of the leading cities of the Empire and, because of its location, a major center of trade.
Its greatest prominence, however, was not achieved until its native son, Septimus Severus, became emperor in 193 AD. Under his reign, Leptis was enriched with new building projects and material wealth, making it a city to rival other cities in North Africa, such as Carthage and Alexandria. In 205, he and the imperial family visited the city and received great honors.
The site consists of the remains of a number of impressive monumental structures, including the Arch of Septimius Severus, the Severan Basilica, a forum, walls, baths, marketplace, and a massive theatre complex. (Photo: Severan Basilica, 2nd century AD, Sasha Coachman, Wikimedia Commons)
Map of Leptis Magna
The Arch of Septimius Severus
16. Mesa Verde and Cliff Palace
Mesa Verde, the largest archaeological preserve in the U.S., is located in the Four Corners area of the American Southwest. Most identify Mesa Verde with a single archaeological site popularly known as the “Cliff Palace”, an impressive adobe construction of the ancient Puebloan people (the Anasazi) among cliffs in southwestern Colorado (pictured). However, Mesa Verde is actually much more, a National Park consisting of numerous remains of Anasazi homes and villages, currently totalling over 4,000 archaeological sites that include over 600 cliff dwellings.
The Anasazi inhabited the region between 600 to 1300 AD, and evidence suggests their habitations were largely abandoned by the 15th century AD. Primarily subsistence farmers, they grew crops, the most significant crop being corn, on mesas. Their adobe villages were built atop the mesas, but during the later stages of their development they also built cliff dwellings, the Cliff Palace being the most impressive example. Artifacts of the Anasazi, such as their elegant baskets and pottery, have been highly prized by both archaeologists and collectors over the years. Unlike the ancient Maya and Aztecs, little is known about the details of their lives, important members, and events, as they did not keep written records.
No person interested in the archaeology of North America should pass this up. (Photo: Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde, Andreas F. Borchert, Wikimedia Commons)
A kiva, or underground room used for religious rituals. This one is located at the Cliff Palace. Wikimedia Commons
17. The Cradle of Humankind
The “Cradle of Humankind”, a 180-square-mile area about 31 miles northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa, features a complex of limestone caves where scientists have discovered many of the earliest hominin (pre-modern human) fossils and artifacts. Few areas in the world have a concentration of hominin fossil and artifact finds like this one, and it figures prominently in past and current exploration and study of the human evolutionary past. The two most famous caves, Sterkfontein and Swartkrans, contained finds that have had pivotal effects on the science of human evolution. It is said that Sterkfontein alone has produced more than a third of all early hominid fossils ever found. It was also here where the famous discovery of the 2.3-million-year-old fossil, Australopithecus africanus (nicknamed “Mrs. Ples”) was discovered by Robert Broom and John Robinson. This find helped to provide key support for the historic 1924 discovery (at the time very controversial) of the Australopithecus africanus skull, or the “Taung Child”, by Raymond Dart.
The Cradle of Humankind was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. Excavations still continue in the caves, so stay tuned for more to come. (Photo: The Sterkfontein Cave Wikimedia Commons)
The original complete skull (without upper teeth and mandible) of the Australopithecus africanus specimen called “Mrs. Ples“. Below, the Maropeng Visitor Center, where many of the fossils and other finds from the area can be viewed. (Above, Jose Braga; Didier Discouens, Wikimedia Commons, Below, Wikimedia Commons)
Herodium, located south of Jerusalem on the edge of the Judean Desert, is arguably, next to Jerusalem, one of the most fascinating archaeological sites in the Middel East. It was built as a combined palace and fortress by King Herod the Great between 23 and 15 BCE. So important was this site to Herod, in fact, it was the only location to which he attached his name. The complex was surrounded by a double wall 63 meters in diameter and seven stories high, within which Herod built a palace that included halls, courtyards and opulent bathhouses.
Above: View into Herodium. Deror Avi, Wikimedia Commons
Detail of King Herod’s tomb. Deror Avi, Wikimedia Commons
19. The Terracotta Army
Buried in 210-209 BC in three massive pits near the tomb of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, are an estimated 8,000 life-size terracotta sculptures of soldiers, as well as sculptures of 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses. A monumental ancient undertaking with few precedents and none to rival ever since, only a fraction of this, what is popularly referred to as “The Terracotta Army”, has been excavated by archaeologists. That fraction, however, has been the archaeological wonder of China for visitors worldwide, second only to the Great Wall.
They are thought by scholars to be a form of funerary art, buried with the emperor to protect the emperor in his afterlife.
The figures vary in height according to their roles, with the tallest being the generals. Other non-military figures were found in additional pits, including government officials, acrobats, strongmen and musicians. Paint residue has been identified on some of the figures, evidence that they were fully painted in at least several colors in antiquity, giving researchers a clue as to how they actually appeared when first made.
In addition to the “Terracotta Army”, an entire necropolis for the Emperor has also been found around the first Emperor’s tomb mound. The mound, an earthen pyramid, is located at the foot of Mount Li , with the necropolis complex constructed as a microcosm of his imperial palace or compound. Located beneath the mound, the tomb itself is said to be as large as a football field, and it remains unexcavated. Sima Qian, a chinese historian, described the tomb as including replicas of palaces and scenic towers, “rare utensils and wonderful objects”, 100 rivers made with mercury, representations of “the heavenly bodies“, and crossbows set to target anyone who attempted to break in.
Recent research at the site found high levels of mercury in the soil of the tomb mound, lending possible credence to Sima Qian’s description of the tomb. (Photo: The Terracotta Army, by Maros M. Raz, Wikimedia Commons)
Close-up view of an individual terracotta warrior. Tor Svensson, Wikimedia Commons
Detail of terracotta warrior showing paint residue. Wikimedia Commons
20. The Great Wall of China
Contrary to popular perception, the Great Wall of China was not built as a single wall. It is actually a series of fortifications made of stone, brick, tamped earth, wood, and other materials, extending along an east/west line across the historical northern borders of China. It was built in part to protect the Chinese Empire against intrusions and attacks by outside forces.
Some walls were built as early as the 7th century BC. Most notable is the wall that was built between 220–206 BC by the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, although very little of that wall has survived the centuries. Since the time of the first emperor, the wall has undergone many changes, inlcuding rebuilding and enhancement. Most of the wall that can be seen today was constructed during the Ming Dynasty.
An archaeological survey has determined that the Ming walls measure 5,500 miles in length, stretching from Shanhaiguan in the east, to Lop Lake in the west, in rough conformity with the southern edge of Inner Mongolia. It is not all wall construction. It includes 3,889 miles of actual wall, 223 miles of trenches, and 1,387 miles of natural defensive barriers such as hills and rivers. Another survey concluded that the entire wall, including all of its additional branches, measure 13,171 miles in length when pieced together in a straight line. These measurements make the Great Wall the longest wall in the world. (Photo: Great Wall of China, by Jakub Halun, Wikimedia Commons)
Map showing the Great Wall, marked in red. The border of Mongolia is marked in yellow. Wikimedia Commons
If you have read any of the pages of the Hebrew Bible, you have heard or know about Babylon. It was a city founded in 1894 BC by an Amorite dynasty of ancient Mesopotamia. Some of its ancient remains can be seen near present-day Hillah, Iraq, about 53 miles south of Baghdad between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. A large mound marks the spot of the original city, featuring what is left of mud-brick buildings and debris, but the total site consists of a number of north-south oriented mounds.
Several of the mounds are more prominent. They include:
— Homera – a mound that contains most of the Hellenistic remains; and
— Babil – A mound about 22 meters in height which contained a palace built by Nebuchadnezzar.
Babylon is perhaps best known as the abode of Nebuchadnezzar (604-561 BC), whose father Nabopolassar, a Chaldean king, freed the city from Assyrian rule through an alliance with the Persians, Scythians and Cimmerians. Babylon then became the capital of the Neo-Babylonian Empire.
What is most visible today came with the recovery of Babylonian independence under Nebuchadnezzar II (604–561 BC), who engineered a new architectural renaissance, making Babylon one of the wonders of the ancient world. He executed the complete reconstruction of the imperial grounds, including rebuilding the Etemenanki ziggurat and the construction of the Ishtar Gate – the most spectacular of eight gates that ringed the perimeter of Babylon. Although not on site at Babylon, the reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate is located in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Only the foundation and some scattered bricks of the original gate have been found. Also worth mentioning although unfortunately not viewable are the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world), also credited to Nebuchadnezzar. Thus far, no clear archaeological evidence has been uncovered to offer proof of its existence. (Photo: Reconstructed wall of Babylon. Radomil, Wikimedia Commons)
Reconstructed Babylon Jim Gordon, Wikimeda Commons
Excavated remains of Babylon. Wikimedia Commons
Knossos, known in Greek mythology as the residence of King Minos and archaeologically and historically as the political and ceremonial center of the Minoan civilization, is located not far inland from the city of Heraklion and the northern coast of Crete. Knossos became famous in literature as the place where King Minos, son of the Greek gods Zeus and Europa, made King Aegeus pick seven young boys and seven young girls to be sent to his palace labyrinth to be eaten by the Minotaur.
Archaeological investigations have shown that the palace itself was built over a Neolithic town, but during the Bronze Age, when Knossos had reached its height, the city surrounded the hill atop which the palace was built. The palace was excavated and partly restored in the early 20th century by Arthur Evans, who also discovered the two ancient scripts known as Linear A and Linear B during the excavations. The excavated palace featured a maze of workrooms, living spaces, and storerooms near a central courtyard, or square. Restorations of the palace’s indoor and outdoor murals, as well as the decorative motifs of the pottery, provided insights to Cretan life during the Bronze Age (3650 – 1170 BCE). The largest Bronze Age site on Crete, the total archaeological site is now considered to be Europe’s oldest city.
It is thought that the palace was abandoned some time between 1380–1100 BC. (Photo: View of palace at Knossos. yqqy, Wikimedia Commons)
View of palace at Knossos, detail. yqqy, Wikimedia Commons
Artist’s reconstructive depiction of central Knossos. Mmoyaq, Wikimedia Commons
23. Homer’s World: Mycenae and Troy
Cheating a little, we count here two cities in one, as they figure so prominently in the age and events that were popularized by Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
The ancient site of Mycenae is located about 90 km southwest of Athens, Greece. In the second millennium BC, Mycenae became one of the major centers of Greek civilization. As a military fortress and stronghold that dominated much of southern Greece for a time, its name derivative, Mycenaean, became the name attributed to Greek history between 1600 BC to 1100 BC.
Beginning in about 1350 BC, the fortifications on the site’s acropolis and other surrounding hills, today the best known and most visible remains, were rebuilt in a style known as cyclopean because the blocks of stone in their construction are so massive that they were noted in later literature to be the work of one-eyed giants known as the cyclopes. Within the walls, successive monumental palaces were built. The palace, the remains of which are now visible on the acropolis, dates to around 1300 BC or slightly before.
The main entrance through the wall of the fortress or city is perhaps the best known feature of Mycenae, the Lion Gate.
The remains of Troy, the fortified city made legendary through Homer’s epic poem about the Trojan war, the Iliad, are located in what is today Turkey, south of the southwest end of the Dardanelles /Hellespont and northwest of Mount Ida.
In 1865, English archaeologist Frank Calvert excavated trenches in a field near the village of Hisarlık, followed by Heinrich Schlieman in 1868. The excavations revealed several cities that were built successively atop the remains of the former through time. Modern archaeologists associate Homeric Troy with archaeological Troy VII, which has been identified with the Hittite Wilusa, the probable origin of the Greek term for Troy, Ἴλιον.
In November 2001, geological investigations by geologists John C. Kraft from the University of Delaware and John V. Luce from Trinity College, Dublin that began in 1977 confirmed that the present geology of the area matched the landscapes and coastal features described in the Iliad and other classical sources, including the location of Schliemann’s Troy and other locations such as the Greek camp and accounts of the battle in the Iliad. (Photo: The excavated walls of Homer’s Troy. Wikimedia Commons)
The ruins of Troy. Dennis Jarvis, Wikimedia Commons
The Lions Gate at Mycenae. Andreas Trepte, Wikimedia Commons
Aerial view of Mycenae. Qwqchris, Wikimedia Commons
24. The Temples of Malta
The Megalithic Temples of Malta, located in the Mediterranean island country of Malta south of Sicily, consist of eleven prehistoric monuments. Seven of them are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of human activity in the islands since the Early Neolithic Period (ca. 5000 BC), based on the discovery of pottery shards, charred remains of fires and bones. The monumental Neololithic stone structures were built during three distinct time periods between about 5000 BC and 700 BC, with the Temple Period, from c. 4100 BC to roughly 2500 BC, producing the most notable monumental remains. They are among the oldest free-standing structures on Earth. Archaeologists believe that the megalithic complexes indicate a local cultural evolution resulting in innovations in art and architecture in each succeeding period, beginning with the building of several temples of the Ġgantija phase (3600-3000 BC) and culminating in the large Tarxien temple complex, which was in use until about 2500 BC. (Photo: The Ggantija Temple at Gozo, Malta. Hamelin de Guettelet, Wikimedia Commons)
The Tarxian Temple. Berthold Werner, Wikimedia Commons
25. Göbekli Tepe
Göbekli Tepe is an early Neolithic sanctuary located at the top of a mountain ridge in southeastern Turkey, northeast of the town of Şanlıurfa. Dated to about 11,000 years ago, it features massive stones carved about 11,000 years ago by hunter-gatherers, a people who had not yet developed agriculture or metal tools.
Beginning in 1995, Klaus Schmidt of the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut began excavating there in collaboration with the Şanlıurfa Museum and uncovered T-shaped pillars within circular compounds consisting of walls of unworked stone from 10 to 30 meters in diameter. Many of the pillars were carved with abstract pictograms and carved animal reliefs. These structures and finds later gave way to the construction of smaller rectangular rooms. The ancient site showed signs of having been deliberately backfilled sometime after 8000 BCE.
In Schmidt’s view, Göbekli Tepe is interpreted as a stone-age sanctuary. Radiocarbon dating and stylistic analysis indicate that it is the oldest religious site yet found, and Schmidt theorizes that it was possibly a pilgrimage destination attracting worshipers up to 100 miles away. Large numbers of butchered bones of deer, gazelle, pigs, and geese have been found at the site, indicative of food that was hunted and prepared, he suggests, for attending worshipers.
Göbekli Tepe is important in that it challenges previous notions about the early development of human society. David Lewis-Williams, professor of archaeology at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, said, “Göbekli Tepe is the most important archaeological site in the world,” as it testifies to the capabilities, mindset and culture of hunter-gatherers who constructed monumental complexes long before sedentary farming communities and early urbanites were thought to have built the first monumental structures.
Göbekli Tepe, detail of example of stone carving. Klaus Peter Simon, Wikimedia Commons
Göbekli Tepe, T-shaped pillar with animal carving. Wikimedia Commons