There’s something inherently mystical about wandering among ruins of ancient places that held significant value to our ancestors. Places where they built, worshipped, traded, and slept before ultimately fading away. Numerous religious and cultural sites across the globe remain standing as iconic monuments for the curious and those that have the misfortune of being blessed with wanderlust.
But while these and other remarkable archaeological finds can be observed in so many parts of the globe, certain archaeological sites stand out in importance due to their singularity and the important changes they wrought in our understanding of human history. Whether they were discovered and excavated or merely withstood the test of time, we’ve put together our pick for the 10 most important archaeological sites in the world.
10. Olduvai Gorge
One of the most significant archaeological sites in the world is a rugged canyon in Tanzania’s Great Rift Valley. Called Olduvai Gorge, it contains evidence of our oldest human ancestors and is tied to much of what we’ve learned about the unfolding of hominins and the subsequent development of the modern human race. In fact, the discoveries made at this site confirmed that the very first humans emerged in Africa.
In the 1930s, Louis and Mary Leakey, a husband and wife team of paleoanthropologists found 25 million-year-old stone tools in the Gorge and, in 1959, 1.75 million-year-old skull remains of a Proconsul primate called Paranthropus boisei, at that time the oldest hominin ever to be discovered. However, in 1968, a man named Peter Nzube also uncovered a 1.8 million-year-old Homo habilis skull at the site, taking that figure back another 50,000 years.
9. Theopetra Cave
The oldest known man-made structure in the world was uncovered in Theopetra Cave, located in Thessaly, Greece. Evidence of more than 130,000 years of uninterrupted human activities at this site, ranging from the Middle Palaeolithic or Old Stone Age to the end of the Neolithic period, when our first farming communities were being established has been uncovered. The now-famous structure, a timeworn stone wall that was built to partially cover the cave’s entrance, is over 23,000 years old and is universally believed to have been built to shield the cave’s inhabitants from the cold.
To prove that the cave was continuously inhabited over the ages, scientists utilized soil tests throughout the layers of the cave and in this process also discovered that its population fluctuated in response to seasonal temperature shifts. Numerous footprints, left behind by Neanderthal children living in the cave during the Middle Palaeolithic period, were also discovered. The discoveries in Theopetra Cave and the subsequent studies have given scientists and archaeologists a better understanding of the progression from Palaeolithic to Neolithic life in Central Europe.
8. Sutton Hoo
In 1939, the landowner of the Sutton Hoo estate in England asked amateur archaeologist Basil Brown to explore a large burial mound on her property. Little did they know that they were about to make the discovery of a lifetime. Upon excavation of the site, they found that it was not only the richest intact early medieval grave ever uncovered in Europe, it was also a magnificent funeral shrine on an epic scale. Encased in the soil was an 8.6-foot longship with a burial chamber full of sparkling treasures.
During the excavation, numerous fine food and drink vessels of gold and silver, elegant cups, Byzantium silverware, luxury textiles, gold jewelry decorated with Sri Lankan garnets, and a legendary helmet with a human mask were discovered, many of which can be seen on display in the British Museum today. Archaeologists claim that the funeral shrine belonged to Raedwald, a king that ruled the territory of East Anglia in the early 7th century.
7. Cave of El Castillo
If you want to marvel at the world’s oldest known cave art, book a flight to Spain. El Castillo is among the most renowned rock art shrines in the world and rests at the foot of a ridge just a few miles to the west of Bilbao. The primordial works of art which can be found in many caves throughout the region are so impressive that on his visit to the area, Picasso concluded that the human race had learned nothing new in 12,000 years. Unlike France, which forbids the public from visiting its most impressive cave art sites, Chauvet and Lascaux, the Spanish Ministry of Culture has made El Castillo available to the public and accepts up to 260 visitors a day.
Upon entering the 980-foot cave, over a hundred depictions of deer can be seen alongside the quintessential bison, prehistoric cows, horned ibex, and even dogs. However, deep inside the cave lies an exceptional work of calcite-encrusted ochre paint described as the “Gallery of the Hands.” It consists of a panel covered with a significant number of hand stencils and disks that were produced by spraying paint onto the surface of the rock through some kind of tube. Known to be at least 40,800 years old, it is indeed a rarity that can be found nowhere else in the world.
6. The Tomb of China’s First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang
We would be remiss not to discuss one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the 20th century: China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang’s terracotta army. The terracotta soldiers, along with their weapons, horses, and chariots were intricately crafted and buried close to the tomb of the emperor in order to protect him even after his death. Other terracotta statues that include a variety of performers such as musicians, dancers, and acrobats were also discovered during excavations. However, the emperor’s tomb itself has never been excavated due to health concerns.
The palatial tomb is believed to be massive. Radar and sonar studies have shown a 38 square-mile recreation of the city of Xi’an, equipped with a complex waterway system and even topographical features, such as hills and mountains. From the almost 2000-year-old descriptions of the tomb, archeologists and researchers have ascertained that the false rivers and streams within the tomb were filled with toxic mercury after the emperor’s death. These descriptions seem to be 100% accurate due to the unnaturally high mercury concentration in the soil around the tomb.
5. Cooper’s Ferry
Although archaeological discoveries throughout the United States have been nothing but spectacular and awe-inspiring, one of its oldest was only recently discovered during 2019 in western Idaho. Radiocarbon dating at Cooper’s Ferry has revealed that people were making and developing tools and had the necessary instruments to slaughter animals between 15,000 and 16,000 years ago, making the site a remarkable and significant addition to a select few archaeological sites that are completely obliterating the traditional doctrine surrounding the first Americans.
Until very recently, Clovis stone tools (that are about 13,000 years old) were believed to be the very first human tools created in the Americas. As part of the “Clovis-first” argument, most researchers claimed that the individuals who first developed these tools reached North America by foot from Asia, crossing via Beringia, and heading south through an ancient ice-free corridor that opened up when the ice sheets started to retreat around 14,000 years ago. As such, the discovery of sites like Cooper’s Ferry, are poking holes in the lifelong beliefs of many archaeologists.
4. The Palace of Knossos
Knossos emerged as an important archaeological site at the beginning of the 20th century, when the famous archaeologist Arthur Evans led a team of specialists in the exploration and reconstruction of the grand and flamboyant ancient site. These excavations continued from 1900-1905 and led to the discovery of a massive Middle Bronze Age palace compound with over 1,300 rooms, most of whom were adorned with vibrant frescoes, depicting mythological beings, marine animals such as dolphins, ceremonial scenes, and even bull-leaping athletes. The site further produced a wide variety of different types of Minoan ceramics and pottery, several of which are exhibited in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum.
However, the most significant finding ever made at the site seemed to be quite mundane when the archaeologists first uncovered it. The team happened upon thousands of slabs of baked clay. These tablets displayed engravings in a language never before seen, named Linear B. Not a single archaeologist or historian could read the bygone words. It would in fact take another 50 years for Michael Ventris to crack the code, rendering Linear B the oldest decrypted language throughout Europe.
3. The Old City of Jerusalem
Jerusalem, the most popular tourist location in Israel, has been inhabited continuously for the past 5,000 years. As such, it is hardly surprising that big archaeological discoveries from the excavations here make headlines on an almost monthly basis. While significant discoveries have also been made outside the Old City – for example, the 2018 discoveries underneath the Jerusalem International Convention Center – the most prominent sites are within the vicinity of the Old City and shine a light on its inhabitants’ daily lives from 1,000 BC (during the First Temple era) right through to the Crusader period (around 1290 CE).
To name but a few, recently advanced micro-archaeology techniques have been employed to accurately date the development of Wilson’s Arch. The well-known Western Wall or Kotel, a famous place of worship, is a 230-foot portion of one of the massive retaining walls of Herod the Great’s extended complex, constructed about 20 BC and demolished by the Romans in 70 CE. To this very day, archaeologists still uncover incredible treasures and tantalizing mysteries in the passages behind the wall. The ancient Church of the Holy Sepulchre can also be found on what is believed to be the historical site of Jesus ‘ crucifixion and burial.
2. Tutankhamun’s Tomb
The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb has been one of the most astounding archaeological finds to date. The magnificent tomb of the young Egyptian Pharaoh was uncovered in 1922 by a group of archaeologists led by the renowned Egyptologist Howard Carter. Tutankhamun (or King Tut) became Pharaoh around 1332 BC when he was a mere nine years old and died nine years later. Many believe that his sudden death at that young age could explain why his tomb seemed to have been finished in a hurry. Microbes found on the walls indicate that the paint used throughout his burial chamber was still wet when his tomb was sealed.
When the team found themselves inside King Tut’s tomb for the very first time, they realized that they had uncovered the treasure of the century. The tomb was discovered completely intact and included priceless black statues of the Pharaoh as well as multiple gold-covered settees crafted to look like exotic animals. In fact, the treasures contained within the tomb were so magnificent that Carter and his team helped to shield them from would-be treasure hunters by spreading rumors that anyone who visited the tomb would suffer the death of the Pharaoh’s curse.
1. Acropolis of Athens
Many believe the Acropolis of Athens to be the penultimate architectural accomplishment of Greece’s legendary Gold Age. It is a magnificent sight, even in ruins as it stands today, and its historical importance is simply unquantifiable. Consisting of 21 archaeological attractions that include the Parthenon, Theater of Dionysus, Propylaia, Temple of Athena, Erechtheum, and numerous others — the Acropolis was developed under the direction of Pericles, a Greek diplomat, general and classical aesthete. It was constructed on a rocky ridge roughly 500 feet high. The Acropolis went through several construction cycles that started around the second half of the 5th century BC.
Over the ages, all of the Acropolis’s structures and buildings deteriorated due to natural disasters, degradation, incorrect repairs, pollution, and of course, wars. During the Morean War, in 1687, the Parthenon was used as a storage location for gunpowder and got struck by an artillery shell. The damage was severe. The 19th century saw the Acropolis besieged yet again during the Greek War of Independence. At present, portions of the Acropolis, especially the Parthenon, are undergoing tremendous reconstruction efforts, which will most probably continue for several years and we hope, into the future.