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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