We discover new things about the ancient world every day and yet, many of these antediluvian civilizations remain a mystery to us. Oftentimes, studying these cultures is like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing. We try to make the image as clear as possible by adding a new piece every now and then but, ultimately, there will always be gaps.
On the other hand, this enigmatic allure is what makes studying the ancient world so fascinating. The ruins left behind by these cultures often serve to raise more questions than provide answers.
The Mitanni are one of the most mysterious civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia. We know very little of them and what we do know generally comes from second-hand sources like the Egyptians and the Assyrians.
Here are some of the basic facts we uncovered about the Mitanni. They were active for about two centuries between 1500 and 1300 BC. They spoke an extinct language called Hurrian and their capital was in Washukanni whose location remains a secret. At the height of their power, they were a major rival to the Egyptians, although they also allied at one point to fight off the Hittites. Their last known king was probably Shattuara II who went to war and lost against King Shalmaneser I of Assyria and, thus, Mittani became an Assyrian province.
Hopefully, our knowledge of this elusive kingdom will increase in the near future by studying the ruins of Kemune where a Mittani palace once stood. Archaeologists actually discovered the ancient site back in 2010, but couldn’t study it until last year for a simple reason – Kemune is underwater, in the Mosul Dam in Iraq. It wasn’t until the drought of 2018 that waters receded enough that Kemune became accessible, allowing researchers to try and unlock the secrets of the ruins.
9. The Longyou Caves
For centuries, even millennia, the villagers of Shiyan Beicun in Longyou County, in the Chinese province of Zhejiang, maintained that the multiple ponds that were situated nearby were bottomless. In 1992, a few locals finally decided to put the legend to the test. They pooled their money together and bought a water pump and drained one of the ponds.
What they discovered was that the ponds weren’t ponds at all. In fact, they were all man-made sandstone caverns that had been flooded. Moreover, they found more artificial caves nearby as they kept looking. There were 24 in all, covering a massive area over 320,000 square feet. The Longyou Caves, as they are now known, are over 2,000 years old, but have only served to deepen the mystery of the area instead of elucidating it.
There is zero mention in the historical record of the origins or the purpose behind this undertaking which, at the time, would have been a massive engineering project. Experts estimate that over 35,000,000 cubic feet of rock had to be excavated to create these caves. Moreover, the walls are uniformly covered in parallel chisel marks which would have been far more labor-intensive than using a more blunt tool like a pickaxe. All this effort and we have no idea who did it and why.
8. The Taulas of Menorca
You’ve all heard of Stonehenge, a megalithic monument which has become one of the most iconic landmarks of ancient times. What you might not know is that the Spanish island of Menorca located in the Mediterranean Sea has its own collection of similar stone monuments called taulas which are just as mysterious, if not more so.
They were built by the Talayots, the prehistoric inhabitants of the island who lived there from the second millennium BC until they were conquered by the Romans in 123 BC. When they were discovered in modern times, only the vertical stones sitting atop the taulas were still protruding above ground. They were often used by locals for sitting or placing things on them, hence the name “taula” which means “table” in Catalan.
The purpose of the monoliths eludes scholars, but there are ideas. They could have served as religious sites. Although plausible and even likely, we know nothing of the Talayotic religion to confirm. Or they could represent one of the most intricate and well-preserved archaeoastronomical sites on the planet. Some believe they were built to mimic the Centaurus constellation. One hypothesis put forward by German archaeologist Waldemar Fenn claims that the taulas could be used to track the cycles of the Moon. For the moment, the true motive behind these stone behemoths remains a mystery.
7. The Khatt Shebib
Stretching across 93 miles across the south of Jordan lie the ruins of an ancient wall named Khatt Shebib.
Although it was first documented in 1948, only in recent years has it been properly mapped using aerial photography. Researchers observed that there were variations in the structure of the wall. In some sections, smaller walls branched off the main line, while in others there were double walls running side by side. The Khatt Shebib wasn’t very tall, only 3 to 5 feet at the time of construction, and was crudely built simply by heaping stones one atop another. However, given the enormous length of it, building it would still have been a monumental task so there had to have been a clear purpose behind it.
What that purpose was, well, that is still unclear. For decades, it was believed that the Khatt Shebib was built in Roman times, perhaps to serve as a defensive wall. Both of these notions have been dismissed. Remnants of ancient pottery found at the site predate the Romans and suggest that the wall may come from the Nabatean Period. Moreover, most scholars believe that the wall was too small, poorly-built, and had too many gaps to work as a defensive barrier. It’s more likely, they opine, that it served simply as a border which marked distinct areas such as a region for farming and one for herding.
Even so, they are quick to specify that these are merely educated guesses. The Khatt Shebib, one of the “Works of the Old Men,” as the Bedouins call it, has still to yield its secrets.
6. The Underwater Cairn of Galilee
There is something ancient and mysterious lurking under the waters of the Sea of Galilee – a giant, circular stone structure measuring almost 230 feet in diameter. It is a cairn – a man-made pile of stones which, in this case, is composed of countless basalt rocks arranged in a cone shape. All in all, it weighs around 60,000 tons.
It was first discovered in 2003 by complete accident when a group of scientists surveying the bottom of the lake found it using sonar. Since then, we have learned little about it. Researchers aren’t sure how old it is, how it was constructed or what it was used for.
Best guesses say the underwater cairn is at least 2,000 years old but, more likely, over 4,000 years old based on other megalithic structures in the area. Some think that the edifice was originally built underwater and served as an ancient fishery while others believe that it was constructed on land and maybe used for ceremonial purposes or as a mass burial site. Definitive answers will only come when and if researchers are able to excavate the cairn. In the meantime, we are left wondering what other ancient structures are still sitting silent underwater, waiting to be discovered.
5. The Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni
Malta might be a small island nation in the Mediterranean Sea, but it has a rich history that goes back almost 8,000 years. Moreover, it still has many ruins and remnants of the ancient civilizations that once inhabited this land and, perhaps, none are more intriguing and bewildering than the Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni.
Just three miles from the Maltese capital of Valetta sits an underground network of passages, corridors, and alcoves which had been carved into limestone around 6,000 years ago. From then on, the hypogeum continued to be excavated and extended to include a temple and a funerary hall and remained in use for thousands of years.
Strictly speaking, a hypogeum is simply an underground tomb and the one in Malta certainly fulfills that role. Following decades of excavations, archaeologists have found the remains of over 7,000 people. However, the true highlight of the hypogeum is the so-called Oracle Room. It is an oblong chamber only 16 feet long which has specially-carved niches in the walls that give it an incredible resonance. Any vocalizations made inside this chamber are greatly amplified and echoed throughout the structure. Because of these unique characteristics, scholars believe that this room may have once been home to an oracle who offered prognostications much like the Oracle at Delphi.
Some researchers believe that the Oracle Room had an even more powerful effect on humans. One archaeologist said that a deep, male voice chanting inside the Oracle Room could echo for up to 8 seconds and would be so powerful that you would literally feel it in your bones and even begin experiencing illusions. In ancient times, such an episode while praying over the remains of loved ones would surely have created an otherworldly sensation.
4. Huaca Limón de Úcupe
Before the Inca Empire claimed the land known today as Peru, it was home to an enigmatic civilization called the Moche. They established themselves around 2,000 years ago and lasted until the early 8th century. What exactly caused their society to collapse is still unknown. Many believe that the Moche were victims of a super El Niño which caused decades of flooding followed by decades of drought. Others say that a massive earthquake was the culprit, or invaders, or societal changes that caused the culture to implode.
The Moche are steeped in mystery as they left behind no written record. While we can still admire their mastery of craftsmanship when it came to ceramics and gold work, we know almost nothing of the events that occurred in Moche society.
A testament to their skill as builders are the huacas – stone monuments that were built thousands of years ago and are still standing. And, as researchers found out in 2018, they still have secrets to share.
While excavating the area around the Huaca Limón de Úcupe monument, Peruvian archaeologists unearthed the ruins of two ceremonial banquet halls. One room featured two thrones facing each other, where it is likely that the leader dined with his most important guest.
Obviously, these chambers were used for feasts, but they may have also served a much more sinister purpose. Among the artifacts, archaeologists also found human remains. From previous burial sites and iconography, it is clear that the Moche were fans of human sacrifice and it appears that these ruined ceremonial halls were the site where many of their victims met their end.
3. The Danish Labyrinth
A few years ago, Danish archaeologists made an interesting discovery in Stevns, about 40 miles from Copenhagen – the remnants of a staked fence called a palisade which covered 60,000 sq ft. They were even more surprised when they realized that their find was thousands of years old and they were downright bewildered when they concluded that the ancient structure may have formed some sort of labyrinth.
So far, parts of five separate rows of fences have been uncovered, arranged in an oval shape. Researchers estimate that the ruins are almost 5,000 years old based on artifacts recovered from the site and may have been created by the Funnelbeaker culture, a Neolithic people active in North and Central Europe.
What has really puzzled archaeologists is the odd arrangement of the fences. Generally, palisades were used for defense, but that would not have been the case here. The poles were placed pretty far apart so people would have been able to squeeze between them. More bizarre, though, was that the entryways for each row were offset compared to one another. Their size and number were also irregular and archaeologists are convinced that this was an intentional design choice. Based on the evidence, they opine that this ancient structure could have functioned as some sort of labyrinth. Why exactly the Neolithic people needed one, that still remains a mystery.
2. The Hardknott Fort
Sitting on a hill on one side of the Hardknott Pass in the English county of Cumbria are the ruins of a Roman fort. Built sometime during the reign of Hadrian, this is just one of several forts in the region constructed for Roman garrisons.
In its time, this defensive structure was known as Mediobogdum. It was square shaped with a gate on each side, measured 125 yards in length, and had ramparts that were almost 6 ft thick. It stayed in use for over 250 years before being completely abandoned.
That being said, at first it seemed like Mediobogdum was a regular fort just like any other. It wasn’t until a few years ago that a physics professor discovered something curious in its design – the gates were built to align with the Sun. Specifically, they were in line with the rising and setting of the Sun for the summer and winter solstices.
Of course, the million dollar question is “Why?” Was it for religious purposes? This wasn’t a common practice for Roman forts, so what made the one at Hardknott Pass special? These are questions still awaiting answers.
1. Göbekli Tepe
Just a few miles northeast of the Turkish city of Urfa sits one of the most ancient and most puzzling archaeological sites in the world – Göbekli Tepe. It is an artificial mound called a tell which reaches 50 ft in height and almost 1,000 ft in diameter and contains stone-carved ruins that have been layered one on top of another for thousands of years.
The oldest layers date all the way back to the 10th millennium BC. They contain pillars carved and polished with skill by Neolithic people who lacked some of the most basic elements of civilization such as metalworking, pottery, agriculture, and even cities. When, in other places around the world, people began building the great pyramids, or Stonehenge, or any of the other entries on this list, Göbekli Tepe was already ancient.
Suffice to say that scholars consider Göbekli Tepe a “game-changer,” one that forced us to rethink what we thought we knew about the origins of human society. Klaus Schmidt, the German archaeologist who studied this site more than anyone else, believes that it could represent the oldest temple in the world. Tribes of hunter-gatherers would meet at this complex and take part in religious ceremonies.
A couple of years ago, archaeologists found fragments of skulls that showed signs of being preserved and carved after death. They now believe that these skulls were put on display at Göbekli Tepe, as part of the cult of the dead that seemingly occurred at the site.
The fact is that Göbekli Tepe might be even older than we think. Schmidt argues that ancient nomadic people must have gathered at this spot for a long time before they actually began building at the site. It needed to already have a special significance in order to prompt primitive tribes to start moving around giant limestone blocks that weighed between 10 and 20 tons. Clearly, we have so much more to learn.