The Most Important Archaeological Discoveries of 2021, From Unknown Dead Sea Scrolls to Middle Eastern Cattle Cults
These discoveries have forced us to reevaluate what we think we know about the history of humankind.
Every year, we delve back through our coverage to find the most fascinating archaeological discoveries of the year, whether by a complete amateur, or as the result of years of careful study by a team of experts.
As always, archaeology news takes us around the globe and throughout the ages, from the earliest days of human history through to the contemporary era. Here are our picks for the 2021 archaeological stories worth revisiting.
The ancient circle of stone monoliths on the U.K.’s Salisbury Plain is one of history’s most enduring mysteries. But while we may never fully understand this ancient structure, experts are learning more and more about it each year.
Thanks in no small part to the late Robert Phillips, a diamond cutter who made repairs to a fallen stone at the site in 1958, we now know that the massive monoliths are made from a nearly indestructible matrix of interlocking quartz crystals—which is why the monument has stood for millennia. Phillips drilled a three-and-a-half foot core sample during his work, which he was allowed to keep as a souvenir. He returned it in 2019, allowing scientists to conduct valuable testing on the stones, which are now protected under English heritage law and cannot be sampled.
This year also saw archaeologists discover a former stone circle in Wales that closely matches the dimensions of Stonehenge’s inner ring. That suggests that the site’s inner stone circle was originally erected 175 miles away and moved to Salisbury Plain—and carbon dating shows it was built 400 years before Stonehenge proper. If this all seems too unbelievable to be true, just wait: it perfectly matches a Stonehenge legend that Merlin stole the monument and moved it to England.
Startling New Evidence Suggests Stonehenge’s Inner Stone Circle Was Originally Erected 175 Miles Away, in Wales
Scientists Have Conducted Tests That Reveal Stonehenge Is Made From a Nearly Indestructible Ancient Material
Original Flavor Pompeii—and a New Version in Egypt
Do the discoveries ever seem to stop in Pompeii? A newly excavated thermopolium, a kind of Roman fast food restaurant, began welcoming visitors this summer. Archaeologists were able to identify the space in part because it was decorated with frescoes featuring some popular ingredients in Pompeii cuisine, such as roosters.
Other Pompeii finds this year included an intact chariot, slaves’ quarters, and evidence of thriving Greek theater scene.
But Pompeii isn’t the only ancient city found nearly intact. In fact, a smaller “mini” Pompeii was found hidden beneath vines in Verona by construction workers. And in Egypt, another wellspring of ancient treasures, 2021 saw what’s being hailed as the nation’s most significant discovery since Howard Carter uncovered King Tut’s golden tomb nearly a century ago: the abandoned city of Luxor.
The city was a royal metropolis outside the city of Thebes built by Tutankhamun’s grandfather, King Amenhotep III. His son, Akhenaten, appears to have abandoned the city when he started a new religion worshipping only the sun god, Aten.
An Ancient Fast Food Restaurant in Pompeii That Served Honey-Roasted Rodents Is Now Open to the Public
Pompeii Archaeologists Have Unearthed the ‘Lamborghini’ of Chariots, Used to Chauffeur the Elite During Ancient Festivals
The Discovery of Slaves’ Quarters in Pompeii Provides a Rare Insight Into Life in Roman Times
Archaeologists Discovered a Partially Mummified Skeleton That Proves Greek Theater Was Thriving in Roman Pompeii
‘A Unique Find, Without Any Precedent’: Construction Workers Discover a ‘Miniature Pompeii’ Buried in Verona
Archaeologists Have Discovered the Lost Pleasure City of Luxor, Long Fabled as the ‘Egyptian Pompeii,’ Stunningly Preserved in Time
The Dead Sea Scroll Reveal Their Secrets
A Bedouin shepherd found the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. The earliest known Hebrew biblical texts, they are considered among the most significant archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. This year, scholars found new Dead Sea Scroll fragments for the first time in 60 years at a site called the Cave of Horrors.
The site was first excavated in the 1950s, and received its dark name because of what archaeologists first saw—the skeletons of Jewish men, women, and children the Romans killed during the Bar Kokhba Rebellion.
We also learned more about the scrolls thanks to science, when researchers examined the 24-foot-long Great Isiah scroll in microscopic detail. To the naked eye, the writing all looks identical, but AI pattern recognition technology was able to detect undeniable differences, demonstrating it was written by two `different scribes.
In a Remarkable Find, Archaeologists Exploring the ‘Cave of Horror’ in Israel Have Discovered a New Dead Sea Scroll
Researchers Have Uncovered Yet Another Secret of the Dead Sea Scrolls, This Time Using Artificial Intelligence
Art and Civilization Outside Europe
While archaeologists continue to learn more about some of the world’s most famous historic sites and artifacts, Asia, Africa, and North America have also yielded important discoveries that are helping shift our Eurocentric preconceptions about prehistory and early civilizations.
Archaeologists have never found human remains in Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa, but ancient humans appear to have lived there an astounding two million years ago, which would make it the world’s oldest home. Experts tested different rock laters to determine when humans entering the cave would have tracked in bedrock sediment.
The world’s oldest figurative art, meanwhile, appears to have been found on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, where a cave painting of three wild pigs is now believed to be 45,500 years old. Made with red ochre pigment, the images are shockingly well-preserved. Scientists determined its age by testing a calcite mineral crust that had formed atop the artwork using uranium-series dating.
And then there are, Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) mapping tools, which have once again proved a powerful force for archaeological discovery, this time in Cambodia. The laser’s topographical readings of the area surrounding the Angkor Wat complex suggests that what is now jungle was once filled with homes built from organic materials on low-lying mounds. At its height in the 13th century, the region was likely home to nearly one million people, which would mean it was one of the world’s largest pre-modern cities.
Perhaps most intriguingly, in the Americas, our entire accepted theory about human arrival on the hemisphere looks to be in danger of being upturned thanks to human footprints discovered on a dry lake-shore in New Mexico’s White Sands National Park. Radiocarbon on the grass seeds left behind in the tracks determined that the footprints were made between 22,800 and 21,130 years ago—the oldest ever found in North America.
The find is especially significant because historians have long held that humans first made their way to North America from Asia across the Bering Land Bridge at the end of the Ice Age, around 13,500 to 13,000 years ago. But the “Clovis First” theory, the name given to those believed to be the continent’s first settlers, is now in jeopardy of being completely overturned: White Sands’ footprints are the most convincing of a number of potentially pre-Clovis discoveries that could completely change what we know about prehistory.
Early Humans Lived in This South African Cave 2 Million Years Ago, Making It the World’s Oldest Home, Archaeologists Say
Archaeologists Have Discovered a Pristine 45,000-Year-Old Cave Painting of a Pig That May Be the Oldest Artwork in the World
The Ancient City of Angkor Wat Had a Population Larger Than Modern-Day Boston, According to New Archaeological Research
The Oldest Human Footprints in North America Could Redefine Prehistory as We Know It—and It’s All Thanks to These Tiny Seeds
Redefining Gender Roles Throughout the Ages
There were several discoveries this year that prove we still have much to learn about the role of gender roles throughout human history—and how they differ from contemporary norms.
A Finnish grave had long puzzled archaeologists. The person was laid to rest with a warrior’s sword, but also with women’s jewelry. Now, genetic testing on the physical remains, dating to 1050 to 1300 A.D., has revealed that the deceased was a nonbinary person with an extra X chromosome. What makes the discovery all the more intriguing is that the burial suggests that this was a high-status person, and that their embrace of a non-standard gender identity was accepted in society.
Other discoveries this year have identified powerful women throughout the ages. Queen Cynethryth ruled Mercia alongside her husband, with none other than Charlemagne addressing them jointly in a letter. Archaeologists have now found the remains of the 8th-century Anglo-Saxon monastery where she lived out her later years as a royal abbess.
And in Spain, women may have been in leadership positions way back in the Bronze Age. Archaeologists have been excavating burials at a site called La Almoloya that dates to about 2200 to 1550 B.C. The different types of artifacts buried with men compared to those found with women’s remains suggest that while men had military control, it may have been the women, who came of age earlier and wore elaborate silver diadems, who held political power in society.
Archaeologists Have Discovered That a Nonbinary Iron Age Warrior Likely Occupies This Mysterious Finnish Grave
Archaeologists in England Unearthed a Long-Lost Monastery Presided Over by a Powerful Anglo-Saxon Queen
A Newly Discovered Ancient Grave Site in Spain Suggests That Women May Have Been Bronze-Age Political Rulers
Holy Cows: Cattle Cult and Prophesied Bison
In December 2019, Canada’s Wanuskewin Heritage Park began reintroducing bison, hunted nearly to extinction over a century ago. This fulfilled a long-held wish of the local Indigenous people, the Wahpeton Dakota, who prophesied the animals would bring good fortune. Eight months later, the park archaeologist realized the bison were taking their dust baths amid 1,000-year-old petroglyphs, including a 550-pound boulder carved to depict bison ribs—called a “ribstone”—as well as other carvings, and a stone knife that may have been used to carve them.
Cattle also made archaeological headlines in Saudi Arabia, where archaeologists dated the ancient monuments known as mustatils to 8,500 to 4,800 years ago. By comparison, Stonehenge and the oldest Egyptian pyramids are 5,000 years old or less. We now know there are over 1,000 mustatils across 77,000 square miles of desert. They range from low rock walls forming long rectangles (and take their name from the Arabic word for the shapes) to more elaborate constructions with pillar, chambers, and interior walls.
And where the does cattle come in? The mustatils may have been built for religious rituals, praying for rainfall to support their cattle farming during droughts, as the region at the time would have been an unrecognizably verdant landscape.
Archaeologists Say a Mystifying Group of Ancient Monuments in Saudi Arabia Suggests the Existence of a Prehistoric Cattle Cult
Holy Cow! Bison Have Uncovered an Ancient Rock-Art Trove In Canada, Just as an Indigenous Prophecy Once Predicted
Anything Found With a Metal Detector
It turns out that metal detecting is a pretty pandemic-safe hobby, so the world has seen an explosion of very discoveries made by backyard amateurs, like the man in Denmark who found a stunning cache of 6th century gold jewelry his first time using a metal detector. (At first, he was convinced he had dug up the lid of a herring can.)
The U.K. has proven particularly fertile ground, with one woman alone unearthing two separate hoards of Viking treasure on the Isle of Man. The nation’s other finds include a gold and enamel Medieval skull ring in Wales, the largest-ever haul of Anglo-Saxon gold coins, and a tiny gold book from the 15th century.
See the Stunning Trove of Iron Age Gold Discovered by a Rookie Metal Detectorist Now on View in a Danish Museum
A Metal Detectorist Has Found What Is Now Declared the Largest-Ever Hoard of Gold Anglo-Saxon Coins in His Backyard
An Amateur Metal Detectorist Has Unearthed a Rare Stash of 1,000-Year-Old Viking Jewelry on the Isle of Man
This Superstar Amateur Metal Detectorist Just Found Her Second Cache of Viking Coins on the Isle of Man in Less Than a Year
A Metal Detectorist Discovered a Tiny Gold Book From the 15th Century That Might Have Belonged to King Richard III’s Wife
Amateur Metal Detectorists Found This Completely Creepy Medieval Skull Ring in Wales Buried With a Cache of Rare Treasures
Can’t get enough? Here are other art-world discoveries we covered this year:
A Perfectly Preserved 900-Year-Old Crusader Knight’s Sword Was Discovered by a Scuba Diver Off the Israeli Coast
The Cerne Abbas Giant, the 180-Foot Naked Figure Carved Into the English Countryside, May Have Originally Been Wearing Pants
Archaeologists Have Identified the Only Known Example of a Pregnant Mummy
Archeologists Find the Hidden Original Form of Arthur’s Stone, an Ancient Structure That Inspired the ‘Chronicles of Narnia’
Archaeologists in Russia Have Uncovered the Copper Age Tomb of an ‘Amber Man’ Painted in Ocher Upon His Death
Marine Archaeologists Have Uncovered an Ancient Shipwreck Filled With Treasures Off the Coast of Greece
Archaeologists Have Uncovered a Terrifying Relic Suggesting That Ancient Romans Fed Their Captives to Lions All Over Europe
New Archaeological Find in Utah Suggests Humans Have Been Using Tobacco Since the Ice Age
Best Friends Forever: Archaeologists Have Exhumed Two Hugging Skeletons at an Ancient Burial Site in China
U.K. Archaeologists Make a ‘Once-in-a-Lifetime’ Discovery: Three Well-Preserved Roman Busts Buried Along a Future Railway
In the Underwater Egyptian City of Thônis-Heracleion, Divers Have Discovered an Ancient Warcraft
After a Decades-Long Search, Archaeologists Have Uncovered the Childhood Home of Underground Railroad Leader Harriet Tubman
The Extraordinary Discovery of a 1,000-Year-Old Chinese Coin in the UK May Give Proof of a Global Medieval Trade Route
A Modest Stone Relic Has Led Archeologists to the Tomb of a Depraved Ancient Chinese Emperor Famed for His Cruelty and Enormous Harem
A Stunning Archaeological Discovery Suggests the Maya Had Direct Contact With Another Civilization More Than 800 Miles Away
Archaeologists Have Discovered a Temple to an Ancient Queen and 50 Stunning Sarcophagi in an Egyptian Necropolis—See Images Here
Archaeologists Have Discovered 110 Tombs From Three Different Eras of Ancient Egyptian History in the Nile Delta
Archaeologists Have Discovered What May Be the World’s Oldest Brewery, Built for Ancient Egyptian Kings
Archaeologists Have Unearthed 2,000-Year-Old Mummies With Gold Tongues at an Ancient Temple in Egypt
Archaeologists Have Discovered Ancient Textiles in Israel Colored With a Purple Sea-Snail Dye That Was Once More Valuable Than Gold
Thousands of Years Before the Pyramids, Neolithic Peoples Were Carving Camels Into Saudi Arabia’s Rocky Desert
Archaeologists Have Discovered the Lost Ruins of Maryland’s Earliest Colonial Settlement
Scientists Say an Intricately Carved 51,000-Year-Old Deer Bone Is the Earliest Example of Neanderthals’ Artistic Abilities
Archaeologists Have Uncovered Cave Art That’s Way Older Than Any on Record—and It Was Made by Children
Archaeologists Say a Massive 4,500-Year-Old Syrian Burial Ground May Be the Oldest War Monument in the World
Archaeological Excavations Near Stonehenge Have Turned Up Ancient Graves and Scores of Other Fascinating Discoveries
‘The Largest Prehistoric Structure Found in Britain’: Neolithic Humans Created a Massive Ring of Pits Near Stonehenge, Scientists Find
‘You Just Don’t Find This’: U.K. Archaeologists Have Unearthed the Full Remains of a Roman Crucifixion Victim
Archaeologists Just Discovered the World’s Oldest Jewelry: This Set of 150,000-Year-Old Snail-Shell Beads in Morocco
Archaeologists Have Unearthed a 2,000-Year-Old Roman Basilica in Israel That May Have Been Built by Herod the Great
In an Astounding Discovery, Archaeologists in Alaska Have Uncovered Italian Glass That Came to America Decades Before Columbus
Just in Time for Easter, a Family of Burrowing Bunnies Accidentally Made a Major Archeological Discovery on a Welsh Island
Archaeological Excavations Near Stonehenge Have Turned Up Ancient Graves and Scores of Other Fascinating Discoveries
Scientists Just Realized This Incredible Painting of a Kangaroo Is 17,500 Years Old, Making It Australia’s Oldest Known Rock Art
Archaeologists Have Unearthed an Ancient Egyptian Pet Cemetery Where Cats Were Buried in Fancy Beaded Necklaces
The World’s Earliest Known Wooden Statue Is More Than Twice as Old as Stonehenge, New Research Suggests
Rainstorms in Greece Helped Archaeologists Uncover a 3,000-Year-Old Bronze Idol of a Bull That May Have Been an Offering to Zeus
Archaeologists Have Discovered a 3,200-Year-Old Mural of a Knife-Wielding Spider God in Peru
An Amateur Anthropologist Found a 17th-Century Coin That May Solve the Mystery of an Infamous Pirate Heist
Archaeologists Have Found the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s Palatial Breakfast Chamber, Where He Dined Before Servants on a Marble Throne
Archaeologists Have Unearthed a Rare Cache of 6th-Century Coins Hidden in the Ancient Greek City of Phanagoria
Machu Picchu Is Even Older Than Previously Thought, New Radiocarbon Dating Shows
Archaeologists Have Found Traces of Beeswax in Ancient African Pots, Suggesting It Was Used as a Sweetener 3,500 Years Ago
Archaeologists Have Discovered Ancient Bronze Age Homes at Germany’s ‘Stonehenge’
Archaeologists Believe They Have Discovered a Lost Sun Temple Buried Under One Built By a Fifth Dynasty Pharaoh
Ancient Egyptians Were Embalming Their Dead Dignitaries a Millennium Earlier Than Previously Known, Experts Find
Boo Who? The World’s Oldest Ghost Drawing May Have Been Found on an Ancient Babylonian Tablet at the British Museum
The Discovery of an Ancient Canine Tooth Reveals Dogs Were Domesticated in the Americas at Least 13,100 Years Ago
Neanderthals, the Original Gardeners, Intentionally Altered the Landscape as Much as 125,000 Years Ago, a Study Finds
Isle of Wo-Man? Two 1,000-Year-Old Brooches Discovered on the U.K. Island Suggest the Presence of Female Vikings
The Incas Believed They Controlled the Water. New Evidence Uncovered by Archaeologists Shows How They Wielded It in Ceremonies
Christmas Comes Early in Scotland, Where Researchers Unwrap a Rare Rock Crystal Jar From the Viking-Era Galloway Hoard
Israeli Divers Have Discovered a Trove of Antiquities From Not One But Two Ancient Shipwrecks Off the Coast of Caesarea
Follow Artnet News on Facebook:
Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.