Ten Discoveries That Rewrote History

tendiscoveries.jpgHere are a few facts to know about the adven­tur­ous Patrick Hunt. He’s a Stan­ford archae­ol­o­gist who has spent more than a decade try­ing to unrav­el the mys­tery of how Han­ni­bal, the great ancient mil­i­tary leader, crossed the Alps in 218 BCE with 25,000 men and 37 ele­phants. (Lis­ten on iTunes to the course he gave on this adven­ture, and get more info below). He has bro­ken more than 20 bones while doing field­work, fought off kid­nap­pers, and twice sur­vived sun­stroke-induced blind­ness. And now he has just pub­lished an excit­ing new book called Ten Dis­cov­er­ies That Rewrote His­to­ry. It’s pub­lished by Penguin/Plume and starts ship­ping tomor­row. I asked Patrick what makes these dis­cov­er­ies rang­ing from the Roset­ta Stone to the Dead Sea Scrolls to Machu Pic­chu so impor­tant. Below he gives us a brief glimpse into what makes each dis­cov­ery his­tor­i­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant and fas­ci­nat­ing. Read on, and check out his cap­ti­vat­ing new book for the fuller pic­ture.

Patrick Hunt: “First I should say that not every archae­ol­o­gist would agree that these are the ten most impor­tant dis­cov­er­ies of all time. On the oth­er hand, the ten sto­ries retold in this book are often regard­ed as among the most excit­ing archae­o­log­i­cal dis­cov­er­ies of the mod­ern era (since 1750). And no one would deny that these ten vital dis­cov­er­ies have for­ev­er changed the world of archae­ol­o­gy, trans­form­ing how and what we know about ancient his­to­ry. Let me tell you a lit­tle about them.

1) Roset­ta Stone: This excit­ing dis­cov­ery in 1799 was the key to deci­pher­ing Egypt­ian hiero­glyphs and unlock­ing the his­to­ry of the ancient world texts. It pro­vides a win­dow into the real his­to­ry of Egypt rather than an imag­i­nary one; all oth­er deci­pher­ings of ancient lan­guages since the Roset­ta Stone’s ini­tial decod­ing in 1822 are based on its prece­dents. (See pho­to here.)

2) Troy: Its dis­cov­ery and exca­va­tion begin­ning in 1870 proved once and for all that Troy was not just a myth based on Homer; Troy was a his­tor­i­cal site where real peo­ple lived and fought. Its ear­li­est exca­va­tor, the oft-maligned and often-uneth­i­cal Hein­rich Schlie­mann has been most­ly cred­it­ed right or wrong as being the “Father of Archae­ol­o­gy” and his tech­niques became the foun­da­tion of archae­o­log­i­cal research, how­ev­er great­ly improved, after­ward.

3) Nin­eveh and the Roy­al Assyr­i­an Library: This riv­et­ing find begin­ning in 1849 by Austen Hen­ry Layard, a sleuth of antiq­ui­ty, even­tu­al­ly unearthed a whole lost library of cuneiform texts, includ­ing ones not only from ancient Assyr­ia but also from far old­er Sumer, Akkad, Baby­lon and oth­er great civ­i­liza­tions. This had a very sig­nif­i­cant impact on world lit­er­a­ture, intro­duc­ing such sem­i­nal works as the Epic of Gil­gamesh.

4) King Tut’s Tomb: The dra­mat­ic open­ing of this roy­al tomb in 1922 sought for years by a deter­mined Howard Carter was the first time in mil­len­nia a pharao­h’s tomb had actu­al­ly been found intact; its trea­sure gave the world a unique oppor­tu­ni­ty to actu­al­ly account for stag­ger­ing Egypt­ian roy­al wealth. [Dan’s note: Nation­al Geo­graph­ic has a nice web site on this archae­o­log­i­cal find.]

5) Machu Pic­chu: The remark­able high jun­gle moun­tain dis­cov­ery in 1911 of the remote Lost City of the Inca by Hiram Bing­ham made it pos­si­ble for the world to final­ly see an undis­turbed Inca roy­al city mys­te­ri­ous­ly aban­doned on a moun­tain­top but nei­ther con­quered nor changed by the colo­nial world. (See pho­to here.)

6) Pom­peii: Pre­served by the erup­tion of Vesu­vius in AD 79 and not dug out for almost two mil­len­nia, Pom­peii (prob­a­bly acci­den­tal­ly found by a farmer dig­ging a well) is the sin­gle most impor­tant Roman site in the world; its arti­facts offer the largest and fullest record of life in a Roman city. Pom­pei­i’s mis­for­tune is our great for­tune. It pre­serves a city with thou­sands of objects vir­tu­al­ly unchanged. (See images here.)

7) Dead Sea Scrolls: Since 1947, when two Bedouin boys in the desert stum­bled upon the first cave at Qum­ran, these hid­den desert texts have rev­o­lu­tion­ized our per­cep­tions of ear­ly Jew­ish and Chris­t­ian reli­gion; their find­ing has pushed back our knowl­edge of bib­li­cal man­u­scripts by a thou­sand years. This dis­cov­ery and the off-and-on secre­cy of the finds reads like spy fic­tion but is real instead. (See pho­to here.)

8) Akrotiri on Thera: Archae­ol­o­gist Spyri­don Mar­i­natos had been laughed at by his peers for his the­o­ries and was final­ly vin­di­cat­ed 30 years lat­er (cir­ca 1967). Like Pom­peii, ash from the vol­canic erup­tion in 1620 BC pre­served a whole Aegean city that might have been the source of the Atlantis myths but was cer­tain­ly a wealthy city with fab­u­lous wall paint­ings depict­ing Bronze Age life. It gives us for the first time a whole new body of Minoan art and under­stand­ing of Mediter­ranean sea trade. (Images here.)

9) Oldu­vai Gorge: Since the 1920’s, the Leakey fam­i­ly dogged­ly per­sist­ed search­ing in East Africa for the most ancient human ori­gins; dra­mat­ic unearthing of bones and tools in 1959 from Oldu­vai and oth­er sites in Great Rift Africa for­ev­er showed the world how long at least a mil­lion years antecedents to human life have per­sist­ed, final­ly pro­vid­ing proof of Dar­win­ian evo­lu­tion from ear­li­er pri­mate and hominid finds.

10) Tomb of 10,000 War­riors: This stag­ger­ing tomb from around 220–210 BC, spread­ing over hun­dreds of acres, sin­gle-hand­ed­ly awak­ened West­ern inter­est in Chi­nese his­to­ry and revi­tal­ized Chi­nese archae­ol­o­gy. The opu­lence and grandeur of an emper­or’s tomb aston­ished the world. Archeo­tourism in Chi­na has prof­it­ed immense­ly from the acci­den­tal 1974 find of a pre-Han tomb where lies the author­i­tar­i­an emper­or who forcibly unit­ed and rewrote Chi­nese cul­ture in many ways that still sur­vive today.”

Relat­ed Con­tent: Above, I men­tioned that you can lis­ten to Patrick Hunt’s Stan­ford course on Han­ni­bal on iTunes. The course is going to be rolled out in install­ments over the next sev­er­al weeks. Sep­a­rate­ly you can lis­ten to a stand­alone lec­ture that he gave on Han­ni­bal short­ly before the start of the course. (Lis­ten on iTunes here.) This lec­ture gets ref­er­enced in the course at sev­er­al points. Patrick­’s work on Han­ni­bal is spon­sored by Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Soci­ety.

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