One of archaeology’s most exciting aspects is that it’s an ever-changing landscape that continually forces us to question our most strongly held assumptions about the past and the people who inhabited it. We’ve covered a lot of archaeological topics, from the greatest archaeologists of our times to the most important archaeological sites.
However, not all archaeological sites were created equal. While some sites continue to leave us breathless with each new find – just think Valley of the Kings or Pompeii – others are of such a massive scale that they encompass several interrelated digs and excavation sites that their value can not be overemphasized. Here are the largest archaeological sites on every continent (and under the sea)…
8. Europe: The Valley Of The Temples (13 sq km/5 sq miles)
The Valley of the Temples, situated just outside the city of Agrigento in Sicily, has always been a stunning example of Greek architecture and art. This magnificent archaeological park, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, consists of several magnificent temples as well as a variety of other equally important archaeological remains. The beautiful temples – built from around 430 BC – include the Temple of Hera, the Temple of Heracles, the Temple of Concord, the Temple of Castor and Pollux, the Temple of Zeus, the Temple of Hephaestus, and the Temple of Asclepius.
Horticulture lovers can also once again visit the Kolymbethra Garden, which is located between the Temple of Vulcano and the Temple of Castor and Pollux. The Fondo Ambiente Italiano (the Italian National Trust) returned the five-hectare garden back to its former, lush beauty after several years of neglect. A tremendous assortment of flora including lentisk, broom, terebinth, myrtle, white and willow poplar trees, ancient lemon, orange, and mandarin trees, mulberry bushes, almond, and even ancient Saracen olive trees can be found inside the garden. Contemporary Agrigento was once the Greek town of Akragas, a small community of migrants mostly from Crete and Rhodes who wanted to migrate west after originally settling in Gela, mainly in an effort to curb Selinunte’s ambitious advances and partly because the land in the area was ideal for growing olives and grapes. Unfortunately, Akagras was thrown into the First Punic War on the side of the Carthaginians after a relatively peaceful (if undistinguished period), and defeated by the Romans in 210 BC.
7. North America: Mesa Verde National Park (210 sq km/81 sq miles)
Established in 1906 in order to conserve the famous prehistoric cliff dwellings, Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado was declared a World Heritage site in 1978. It contains hundreds of pueblo ruins that are up to 13 centuries old, occupying a high tableland area. Mesa Verde presently has over 4,700 archaeological sites, with several more that have yet to be revealed. The most striking being the multi-storied apartments that can be found under the overhanging cliffs.
At around 550 CE the immediate ancestors of the subsequent Ancestral Pueblo or Anasazi cultures of the region migrated into the Mesa Verde region. Archaeologists have found several pottery remains from this era and also discovered that maize, beans, and squash were cultivated during this time period. Although the first houses were built mostly underground, surface dwellings, consisting of houses with flat roofs and vertical walls became the norm around 750 CE Between 1150 and 1200 – homes moved from the mesas to the passageways in the canyon walls, where the building of the cliff houses, with rooms varying in size from six to eight feet (1.8 to 2.4 meters) started. Crops continued to be grown on the mesa tops with the assistance of dry-farming techniques. Cliff Palace is the biggest cliff dwelling in the park, holding up to 250 people in its 217 rooms and 23 kivas during the civilization’s peak. The second biggest cliff dwelling, Long House, has 21 kivas and 150 rooms and housed around 150 people.
6. Africa: Olduvai Gorge (552 sq km/212 sq miles)
Olduvai or Oldupai Gorge in Tanzania is one of the most significant paleoanthropological sites in the world. The site is without comparison and has greatly contributed to the advancement of our understanding and common knowledge of early human evolution. Situated in Tanzania’s Rift Valley, the 30 miles (48 kilometers) long site is located in the Serengeti Plains of Arusha, not far from Laetoli, another important early human occupation archeological site. The research, exploration, and continued excavation efforts by its chief archeologists, Mary and Louis Leakey, have brought about major developments in human knowledge, and the pair eventually became world-renowned for their research efforts.
Deposits uncovered on the gorge’s walls represent a timeframe from around 2.1 million years ago to as little as 15,000 years ago. The deposits have already surrendered the fossil remains of over 60 hominins (which encompasses the species that are regarded as human, ancestral to humans, or very closely related to humans), offering the longest documented archaeological record of the development of stone-tool industries, as well as the most continuous known record of human evolution over the past two million years. In 1979, Olduvai Gorge was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
5. South America: Tikal National Park (575 sq km/220 sq miles)
Tikal National Park can be found in Guatemala and is home to thousands of ancient ruins constructed by the Maya civilization. Among the most notable of the Maya cities and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the ancient city of Tikal which used to be one of Pre-Columbia’s major political, economic, and military hubs. The Tikal site is approximately six square miles (16 square kilometers) in size and includes over 3,000 buildings. The key monumental architecture and monuments, which include temples, ceremonial platforms, palaces, small and medium-sized homes, ball game courts, large and small squares, terraces, and roads, form part of an ancient inner urban area of about 400 hectares. Several of the remaining monuments have retained their painted surfaces, and include stone carvings and beautifully inscribed mural paintings, depicting the city’s dynastic history and its relationships with many other urban centers.
More than 25 linked secondary sites are also part of Tikal’s enormous peripheral zone, traditionally used as checkpoints for commercial and defensive purposes. The peripheral areas also played a vital role in the development of agriculture in the heavily populated hub. In 2018, using lidar equipment, an even further network of more than 60,000 ancient Mayan ruins was uncovered in the terrain enveloping Tikal, drawing attention to the fact that the Mayan city of Tikal was only a small portion of a largely hidden metropolis. It is believed that the area, surrounding several well-known ancient Mayan cities, was home to several million more people than any other research had previously claimed.
4. Antarctica: Seymour Island (5,425,000 sq km/2,095,000 sq miles)
The narratives of Antarctica‘s history have been characterized by epic accounts of polar explorations and mysterious disappearances that led to a widespread perception of a largely remote wilderness inaccessible by humans. The first archaeological excavations started in the late 1970s and were mostly concentrated on the preservation of the huts left behind during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration expeditions whereas archaeological research in the South Shetland Islands area was concentrated on specific topics that also included sealing/whaling expeditions.
When they actually got around to digging on Seymour Island, however, archaeologists were completely flabbergasted. Discoveries at a wide range of archeological sites on the island were so surprising that the island at one point became known as the ‘Rosetta Stone’ of paleobiology of the Southern Hemisphere since the tiny island supported Antarctica’s most comprehensive and abundantly fossiliferous Late Cretaceous-Paleogene sequence. The finds, in particular, highlighted and assisted archaeologists and scientists in reconstructing the history of life in Antarctica. Paleontologists discovered fragments of a frog’s hip bone and skull in 2019, providing novel insights into the continent’s ancient environment. A subsequent find also discovered a massive prehistoric reptile called an archosaur in 40 million-year-old sediment, part of the same class of animals that would eventually comprise crocodilians, dinosaurs, and pterosaurs. The partial skeleton of the reptile – dated from 250 million years ago – pointed archaeologists and scientists alike to a time when Antarctica was overflowing with animals and plant life.
3. Asia: Plain of Jars (15,000 sq km/5,791 sq miles)
A mysterious plain of jars is spread over 15,000 square km of rice paddies, rolling hills, and forests of Xieng Khouang Province in Laos. The Xiangkhoang Plateau is located at the northern end of the Annamese Cordillera, one of Indochina’s principal mountain ranges. The jars are positioned in groups that range from one/two to clusters of several hundred. One explanation why so few major studies of the Plain of Jars have been undertaken in recent decades is that there were a multitude of unexploded bombs and mines in the region after the Vietnam War.
Many archaeologists suspect that the jars were prehistoric burial sites for an unknown ancient civilization that possibly migrated along an ancient trading route between the Gulf of Tonkin and the Mekong River because of the jars’ sizes and several discoveries of human bones found in close proximity to the clusters. Prior to being transported to a crematorium or secondary burial site, bodies would be placed inside the jar or urn and left to decompose. The remains would then be returned to the jar after the corpse had completely decayed, and another corpse would replace it, turning it into a repeated cycle. The detection of burial goods and ceramics around the jars in more recent years by Lao and Japanese archaeologists during excavations have supported this theory. The Plain of Jars dates to the Iron Age (500 BC to 500 CE) and is one of Asia’s most significant prehistoric sites.
2. Australia: Kakadu National Park (19,804 sq km/7,646 sq miles)
Kakadu is internationally recognized as one of the greatest rock art provinces in the world. Universally acknowledged through UNESCO for both its natural and cultural heritage, Kakadu is home to the greatest concentration of rock art sites in Australia. The unique reserve has been inhabited for over 50,000 years, and the rock carvings, cave paintings, and countless archaeological sites within the park are a testimony to this fact. The ancient art managed to document the abilities and lifestyles of the inhabitants of the land, from the prehistoric hunter-gatherers to the Aboriginal groups still living there to this day.
Kakadu’s rock art also offers a glimpse into human culture in the years before the last ice age. The hunting-and-gathering tradition as observed in the art and historical record is a living anthropological heritage that persists unabated, which is unusual for hunting-and-gathering cultures worldwide. The extensive artworks also offer insight into the social structures and ceremonial rituals from the Pleistocene era to the present. Although these sites show great diversity, both in space and over time, the overriding image is still one of continuous cultural growth. Wide areas of Kakadu are practically inaccessible to individuals other than the traditional indigenous owners and park managers. Therefore, heritage sites are largely protected from human disturbances. In partnership with the national park managers, the Indigenous community has established a variety of programs to manage any potential threats to art, archaeological and anthropological sites from weathering and/or destruction.
1. Submerged: Thonis-Herakleion (165 sq km/63 sq miles)
Thonis and Herakleion is a city with two names – one Egyptian and one Greek – that was lost between myth and reality for hundreds of years. The city had known glorious spans of time as the required port of entry into Egypt for all ships sailing from the Greek world long before the establishment of Alexandria in 331 BC. It was also of religious importance because of the glorious temple of Amun, which played an important role in the continuity of the Egyptian dynasty. The city was presumably established around the 8th century BC. But, it was doomed to undergo a series of natural disasters, and ultimately sank into the Mediterranean in the 8th century AD.
No evidence of Thonis-Herakleion had ever been uncovered before its discovery in 2000 by a team from the European Institute of Underwater Archaeology. In fact, its existence was almost totally eradicated from the world’s history, retained only in archaic ancient literature and a few rare inscriptions uncovered during archeological digs. In partnership with the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, the team from IEASM was able to identify, map and explore sections of the city, which lies 6.5 kilometers (4.03 miles) off the Egyptian coastline, using a truly unique survey-based approach (and some very advanced technological equipment). The city was discovered in the western part of Aboukir Bay within an overall research area of 11 by 15 kilometers and a depth of around 10 meters. The mapping of the whole research area took over four years to complete. The multitude of artifacts that have been retrieved during the excavation work to date demonstrates the elegance and prestige of the city, the splendor of its grand temples, and has uncovered a multitude of historical evidence that include colossal sculptures, inscriptions, ceramics, jewelry, coins, and ceremonial objects. It is literally a city that was frozen in time. With only 5% of the city uncovered to date, underwater archaeological research at the site of Thonis-Herakleion continues to this day.