The World’s Most Incredible Archaeological Restorations


The archeological community has conflicting views when it comes to the restoration and protection of valuable archaeological discoveries. Historical artifacts and ancient structures are incredibly delicate; they can never be reconstructed after they have been disturbed and can never be replaced after they have been lost. 

Numerous archeological restorations have taken place over the past few decades, often times restoring the former glory of a specific site in a spectacular fashion, however, given the infinite harm caused by faulty and ignorant restorations conducted in the last century, archeologists today try their best to conserve new and important sites as they are found – restoring them with minimal interference – giving us a peek into our history and our shared human heritage.

10. The Pyramid of Djoser (Egypt)

Believed to be Egypt’s first stone pyramid, the Pyramid of Djoser was only recently reopened to the public after a meticulous and painstaking restoration that took more than 14 years and $6.6 million to complete. Legends say that the architect Imhotep planned and supervised the construction of the 197-foot structure nearly 4,700 years ago – as the very first perpendicular tomb for the Pharaoh Djoser. Although the pyramid seems like a compact mountain of stone from the outside, the inside is actually a vacuous network of walkways over three miles long, assembled with over 11,6 million cubic feet of stone and clay.

It was in fact the complicated interior that inescapably endangered its structural integrity as time went by, while its foundation was almost decimated by the earthquake that hit Cairo in 1992. In order to guarantee structural safety during the restoration, airbags developed by structural engineers were placed across the most vulnerable sections of the pyramid. In addition, steel rods were ran through its steps like rebars to perpetually reaffirm its shape. These distinct approaches to its fortification permitted the restoration teams to repair the corridors and ceilings while introducing a new framework for the interior lighting as well as one or two modern updates to make the structure more accessible for people with disabilities.

9. Somnath Temple (India)

The 12 Jyotirlingas, or Jyotirlingam, are the places where Lord Shiva is said to have manifested as a pillar of fire. The Somnath Temple in Gujarat, India, is renowned for hosting one of the twelve, as such, it is a significant tourism and sacred religious site. Throughout history, the temple was reconstructed and restored repeatedly due to its destruction by numerous invaders and their subsequent rule. The present temple was reconstructed again after being pulled down in October 1950, in order to be relocated to a new site a few miles away.

India’s temples have a long history of devastation and restoration. The restoration of the Somnath Temple was hailed as a prominent example of India’s excellence when it came to the power of restoration over the power of devastation. Political leaders saw its restoration as an act that restored the nation’s pride as it took place shortly after India gained its independence from Britain.

8. The Petra Complex (Jordan)

The ruins of Petra have been popularized by films such as Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Abandoned in the 6th century, Petra was developed in a seismic zone, making it susceptible to damage from floods and earthquakes. The site was also under considerable threat due to the continuous influx of tourists at the end of the 20th century. 

During the 1990s, Petra was included on the World Monuments Fund’s Watch List in an attempt to address its tourism management issues. The WMF, the Jordanian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, as well as the Petra National Trust, joined forces and developed a long-term site plan. In addition to studies on the future impacts of climate change, a number of projects came to be that led to the restoration of the magnificent Great Temple, several of the columns, the entrance gorge, and the Byzantine Church, as well as the reconstruction of the site’s ancient water canals.

7. Temple of Borobudur (Indonesia)

Built from the 8th to the 9th century CE, the Borobudur complex was abandoned seemingly overnight in the 1500s. There are three historical sites within the Borobudur Complex: the Borobudur Temple as well as two smaller temples, built on a horizontal plane to Borobudur, to the east. The two small temples are known as the Pawon Temple and the Mendut Temple. 

Over the years, the site was covered with ash due to volcanic activity, and Java’s plant life eventually covered the historic ruins. Thomas Stamford Raffles, the then-English Governor began operations to locate and reclaim the site in 1814. It took his teams over two months to finally uncover the temples.

In 1972, UNESCO launched an international campaign to restore the illustrious Buddhist temple to its former glory. The restoration work was completed after 11 years, in 1983. Historians made use of the site’s existing materials to reconstruct the temple in 2 stages during the 20th century. Almost all of the site’s existing materials were used with only minor additions to strengthen and reinforce the structure and allow adequate water runoff, which did not have any effect on the site’s integrity and value.

6. The Sistine Chapel Frescoes (Vatican City)

The building of the Vatican’s iconic Sistine Chapel, located just north of St. Peter’s Basilica, was authorized by Pope Sixtus IV and finalized around 1481. The chapel is internationally known for the number of invaluable masterpieces of artworks contained within. In fact, several famous artists, among the most illustrious Renaissance artists of all time, including Botticelli and Perugino, contributed significantly to the artworks that can be found on the walls inside the chapel. Pope Julius II asked Michelangelo to beautify the ceiling, keeping the artist busy from 1508 to 1512. The glorious portrait of the Last Judgment by Michelangelo, painted in 1541, was sanctioned by Pope Clement VII.

Michelangelo’s artworks are revered as some of the most remarkable works of Western art ever to be brought into existence. The artworks of the Sistine Chapel and, more specifically, the ceiling and the concomitant apertures by Michelangelo have undergone several restorations over the eons, of which the most recent took place between 1980 and 1994. Its most recent restoration had a significant impact on both art lovers and art historians, as colors and details never seen before were revealed. Many have argued that as a direct consequence, every single book ever written about Michelangelo’s techniques will have to be revised. In short, it means the reevaluation of his style, use of color, and artform as a whole, probably leading to a new vision of the brilliance of the High Renaissance, arguably the single best period in Western art.

5. Karnak Temple Complex (Egypt)

The ancient Karnak temple precinct covers an area of more than 1,000,000 square meters, or 10763910.4 square feet, and was located at the eastern bank of the Nile River in Thebes (known as Luxor today). The building at the site began over 4,000 years ago and it continued non-stop until the Romans besieged Egypt and took over rule, roughly 2,000 years ago. What makes Karnak stand out from the other temple sites located in Egypt is the amount of time it was in use and actively being developed. Evidence points to at least thirty pharaohs’ contributions at the site, allowing it to obtain size, sophistication, and variability that can not be found anywhere else.

Over the last 100 years, rising water tables and chemical deterioration directly related to intensified agricultural irrigation applications in the area have created a plethora of new preservation concerns. As most of the building facades and other surfaces contain hieroglyphs and relief carvings, this form of degradation causes particularly serious damages to the historical evidence, endangering the stability of the site and compromises the ability of historians to grasp the context and often messaging of these adornments. Several ground-breaking techniques, including the use of lime mortar, have been used to restore many of the temples, pillars, walkways, and statues on the site over the last few decades, most notable among these were the restoration of Luxor Temple and the Precinct of Amun-Re, the painted chapels in the Temple of Khonsu, and the ongoing restoration of the 29 ram statues in the first courtyard. 

4. The Parthenon (Greece)

The Parthenon is the perfect embodiment of Greek architecture and is regarded as one of the most important surviving buildings of ancient Greece. Apart from being the central hub of when it came to religion in Athens, its sculptures, statues, and other works of art have never been replicated and continue to stand as some of the most superior examples of Greek sophistication and refinement. Built around 500 BC, the Parthenon was a symbol of wealth, power, and success and continues to be one of the most widely recognized structures in the world to this day.

The Acropolis Restoration Project was born in the 1970s when the Greek government chose to take significant action to restore the rapidly deteriorating structures. The committee carefully mapped out each and every artifact and remnant in the rubble and used 3D mapping techniques to identify its original position. Although this restoration is still currently underway, the restoration team is planning to augment original Parthenon objects with exciting new components where possible to maintain the integrity of the site whilst also staying water and corrosion-resistant. They will also be using new marble from the original quarry site, if necessary, to finalize the restoration in order to stay true to the building’s original look and feel. However, it will not be completely restored. Instead, it will remain a partial ruin in order to display its unique features, reflecting its notable history.

3. The Vasa (Sweden)

To rescue and exhibit any historically significant shipwreck to the general public in this day and age is no minor undertaking. Yet one of the most exemplary examples can be found at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, one of the best tourist destinations in Sweden. The Vasa was King Gustav Adolphus’s custom warship, that sank in 1628 on its maiden voyage only 1,300 meters (4,265 feet) into its journey after a gust of wind toppled the ship on its side. As it flooded, the ship sank into the shallow waters of Stockholm’s harbor and lay there until its rediscovery in 1956, 328 years later

The battered ship was salvaged over a period of two years, from 1959 to 1961, and was sent to a storage facility. Over the next 29 years, the Vasa went through a meticulous and extensive cleaning process and was slowly restored to its former glory. The museum in honor of the grand Swedish icon was opened in 1990.

2. The Terracotta Army (China)

Although most of us have heard of or know of the impressive Terracotta Warriors that were unveiled in China in 1974, few realize that they were actually not discovered intact. Figures on the total number of terracotta warriors differ as the site is still being excavated and new discoveries are being made to this day-but only one of the nearly 8,000 warriors we know of has been discovered in one piece.

To date, archaeologists at the site have discovered more than 600 pits across the network of large underground caverns. Although most remain unexcavated for now, three very large pits were enclosed within the Terracotta Army Museum, today forming one of China’s most popular tourist attractions. Each exposed pit on display is quite unique. In one, you can find the perfectly reassembled warriors standing in formation, while a second pit will show you how the warriors appeared when they were first discovered, toppled and cracked. The third pit is the smallest and represents the command post.

1. The Archaeological Park of Pompeii (Italy)

Although Pompeii’s restorations probably deserve a list on their own, we thought we could highlight some of the restoration work done to date. The tombs, rich dwellings, and public spaces of Pompeii have been ransacked by robbers since coordinated archaeological digs commenced in the 18th century, and in some early cases “restored” so ferociously as to ruin the original remains. In 2008, the Italian officially announced a year-long state of emergency for Pompeii. After a massive influx of negative publicity, the European Commission also came on board and approved funding to the tune of  EUR 105 million (about $116 million) to secure the site.

Among the first key recommendations was to safeguard everything that had already been excavated. (A third of the archeological site remains underground to this day.) Laborers put every effort into stabilizing the ancient buildings and stone walls, frescoes were restored, and new stormwater runoff systems were installed to redirect rainwater. Numerous surveillance cameras were also put in place across the ancient city to stand guard over Pompeii’s hundreds of daily visitors. In all, the project paved the way for more than 130,000 square feet of the archaeological site to be restored and launched (in some cases reopened) to tourists, which include Julia Felix’s estate and over 36 other structures.

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