In a year marked by momentous change and loss, from the outbreak of violence in Israel and Gaza to record-breaking extreme weather, archaeological and cultural news offered a mostly welcome distraction. Spanning disciplines, historical eras, geographic locations and cultures, some of the 117 artifacts highlighted below were first unearthed years ago but only documented now, while others were identified more recently. From a floating speakeasy that sank under suspicious circumstances to a 4,000-year-old site dubbed “Dutch Stonehenge,” these were the most fascinating finds of 2023, as covered by Smithsonian magazine.

Missing masterpieces

For as long as humans have been making art, natural disasters, the ravages of time, theft and iconoclasm have threatened their creations’ survival. But while countless masterpieces have vanished over the millennia, many others remain hidden, tucked away in attics, basements and even thrift stores.

One of the most sensational art-related headlines of 2023 was the recovery of a Vincent van Gogh painting stolen from a Dutch museum in March 2020. An anonymous tipster left the 1884 work outside art crime investigator Arthur Brand’s apartment, wrapping the canvas in bubble wrap before placing it in a blue Ikea bag. Following the van Gogh canvas’ much-publicized return, a different “mysterious man” delivered six stolen paintings to Brand’s doorstep. Taken from a government building in the Dutch town of Medemblik in September, the works, most of which are portraits of Dutch royals, are worth an estimated €100,000.

Brand with painting
Arthur Brand poses with The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring, painted by Vincent van Gogh in 1884. Courtesy of Arthur Brand via Twitter

Luck played a key role in the discovery of multiple missing masterpieces unveiled this year. In York, England, contractors renovating a couple’s apartment stumbled onto a set of 17th-century murals depicting scenes from a 1635 poetry book. “I knew we lived in an old building … on an old street (circa Roman era) within the city walls of an ancient city, so it is not totally unprecedented,” said data analyst Luke Budworth in a statement, “but to have history like that inside the flat was a massive shock.”

Elsewhere in England, curators at Hampton Court Palace identified a biblical scene by Artemisia Gentileschi that had spent some 200 years in a storeroom, its significance overlooked due to discoloration and overpainting by later artists. In Essex, the widow of the late chairman of Foyles bookstore spotted an original Winnie-the-Pooh sketch wrapped in a tea towel at the back of a cellar drawer. Featuring the beloved bear walking into the sunset with his friend Piglet, the drawing dates to 1958.

Conservator Adelaide Izat works on Susanna and the Elders​​​​​​​, a painting newly reattributed to Artemisia Gentileschi.
Conservator Adelaide Izat works on Susanna and the Elders, a painting newly reattributed to Artemisia Gentileschi. Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023

Other lucky art finds revealed in 2023 include a lost 19th-century painting by French Realist Gustave Courbet, initially discovered in the basement of the University of Pennsylvania’s dental school in 2016, and a pair of portraits painted by Rembrandt in 1635. The sitters’ family sold the works in 1824, and the buyer’s descendants didn’t realize the portraits’ illustrious background until an auctioneer reviewed their collection during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the world of popular culture, a model of an X-wing starfighter used in the first Star Wars movie resurfaced in the garage of Greg Jein, a late visual effects artist who collected media memorabilia. Historian Gene Kozicki said that the model was “something of a mythical ‘white whale,’” believed to have vanished when George Lucas’ studio moved to a new location in 1978. Another white whale of sorts—the identity of the man on the cover of Led Zeppelin IV—also surfaced in 2023. The 1971 album famously features a photograph of a man carrying a bundle of twigs on his back, but members of the band didn’t know the snapshot’s backstory. Then historian Brian Edwards discovered an original copy of the image while browsing a Victorian photo album up for auction. Working with the Wiltshire Museum, Edwards identified the man as Lot Long, a roof thatcher born in 1823.

Secondhand stores proved to be a surprising source of missing masterpieces. This year, thrifters turned a profit by selling items found hiding in plain sight. A $3.99 vase bought at Goodwill turned out to be a rare Carlo Scarpa glasswork that went under the hammer for $107,100. A pair of ceramic jars purchased at a London charity shop for £20 fetched £59,800 after experts authenticated them as 18th-century Qing Dynasty porcelain. Finally, a 1939 illustration by N.C. Wyeth, acquired for $4 at a New Hampshire thrift store, went up for auction for $191,000, though the winning bidder ultimately failed to pay.

Carlo Scarpa Vase
A woman bought this 13.5-inch-tall Carlo Scarpa vase for just $3.99. Wright Auction House

While some artworks emerged by chance, others materialized through technological analysis and scholarship. Advanced imaging tools and conservation uncovered hidden scenes in famous paintings, including a demon lurking in the shadows of a Joshua Reynolds canvas, a small dog with a red bow in a Pablo Picasso city scene and a lost portrait painted over by René Magritte when the Belgian Surrealist created his 1943 work The Fifth Season.

Ancient art

Today, the names of the artists who crafted these ancient works are unknown. But their creations live on, offering enduring glimpses into now-lost civilizations, from the Roman Empire to Mesopotamia.

A recently unearthed fresco at a house in Pompeii shows a flatbread that could have been a precursor to pizza. Archaeological Park of Pompeii

In Italy, excavations unearthed such artistic treasures as a fresco of a pizza-like delicacy, painted on the wall of a house in Pompeii some 2,000 years ago, and a life-size marble statue of a Roman emperor, possibly Decius, dressed as Hercules. Elsewhere in Europe, graphic designer Tormod Fjeld uncovered Bronze Age rock paintings of an animal, a boat with oarsmen and several human figures while hiking in southeastern Norway. Fjeld found his first petroglyph in 2016, and he’s been tracking down carvings in his free time ever since.

Other examples of ancient art discovered in 2023 include 1,400-year-old murals of two-faced men in Peru, a smiling sphinx statue that may depict the Roman Emperor Claudius, rock carvings exposed by drought in Brazil and an enormous bull man (or lamassu) sculpted by the Assyrians some 2,700 years ago. Authorities initially uncovered the statue in the early 1990s but later reburied it to safeguard against looters. Now, archaeologists have recovered the hybrid deity as part of a project examining warfare’s effects on the ancient city of Dur-Sharrukin in northern Iraq.

The newly re-excavated 2,700-year-old lamassu—a winged bull with a human head—at the site of the ancent city of Dur-Sharrukin in northern Iraq Zaid Al-Obeidi / AFP via Getty Images

Objects of war

Military conflicts tend to leave their mark on the landscape, dotting battlefields with weapons, armor and other traces of bloodshed. This year, archaeological reminders of armed conflicts spanned the Bronze Age to World War II. Swords were common finds, with researchers unveiling a 3,000-year-old blade with a rare octagonal bronze hilt in Germany, a 1,000-year-old iron weapon in Finland and a pair of 1,800-year-old Roman cavalry swords in England. Similarly ancient discoveries included wooden spikes that stopped Gallic warriors from sneaking up on Julius Caesar’s military camps, the outlines of three temporary Roman camps in the Jordanian desert and a Roman fortlet in Scotland.

Fast-forwarding nearly 2,000 years to 19th-century finds, workers at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, recovered a time capsule, dated to around 1828, that was hidden in the base of a statue. Though the box initially appeared to be empty, an archaeologist sifting through the sediment inside of it later spotted six silver coins, as well as an Erie Canal commemorative medal.

A 3,000-year-old sword with an octagonal bronze hilt
A 3,000-year-old sword with an octagonal bronze hilt Archäologie-Büro Dr. Woidich / Sergiu Tifui

In Pennsylvania, officials at the Gettysburg National Military Park called in the Army after an archaeologist uncovered an unexploded artillery shell believed to have been fired by the Confederates on the second day of the July 1863 battle. The man “laid it gently on the ground, took a picture of it and ran for the hills,” a park spokesman said. Thankfully, ordnance specialists managed to safely detonate the shell. In South Carolina, a separate unexploded ordnance had to undergo a similar detonation. Linked to the Union occupation of Columbia, South Carolina, in February 1865, the shell was one of multiple Civil War weapons recovered from the Congaree River. Among other items, the trove contained grapeshot, canister shots, ten-inch artillery shells and a sword.

Discoveries dating to World War II included the wreckage of a P-39 Bell Airacobra piloted by Frank Moody, a 22-year-old Tuskegee Airman. Moody’s plane crashed into Lake Huron during a training exercise gone wrong in 1944. Over the years, divers have recovered more than 600 artifacts from the crash site, but it was only in 2023 that they managed to bring the plane’s 1,200-pound engine back to shore. Farther afield in the South China Sea, underwater searchers located the remains of the Montevideo Maru, a Japanese merchant ship torpedoed by an American submarine on July 1, 1942. The submarine’s crew didn’t realize the ship was carrying around 1,000 Allied prisoners, most of whom were Australians who died when the vessel sank. The incident is the worst maritime disaster in Australian history.

Black and white photo of freighter ship
An American submarine sank the Montevideo Maru in 1942, causing Australia's largest loss of life at sea. Australian War Memorial

Prehistoric peoples

Broadly defined as the period between humans’ invention of stone tools about 2.6 million years ago and the development of writing systems in the fourth millennium B.C.E., prehistory can be difficult to parse given the lack of documentation available. But physical evidence of people who lived many millennia ago helps illustrate the realities of prehistoric life, underscoring surprising parallels with modern society.

Consider, for instance, a trio of discoveries that speak to prehistoric humans’ architectural aspirations. In Zambia, archaeologists found the world’s oldest known wooden structure, a pair of interlocking logs connected by a notch some 476,000 years ago. More complex than previous wooden objects from this period, the logs indicate that pre-Homo sapiens built structures out of wood. A nearly 8,000-year-old village built on stilts above a lake in the Balkans similarly underscores human ingenuity, demonstrating how early settlers established a village supported by a mixture of agriculture and hunting and gathering.

Remains of 8,000-year-old stilts and tens of thousands of wooden spikes
Researchers in Albania found the remains of 8,000-year-old stilts and tens of thousands of wooden spikes. Nikolas Linke, University of Bern, EXPLO Project

Rounding out the finds are a series of 7,000- to 8,000-year-old stone engravings that testify to Stone Age people’s ability to visualize abstract objects. Deemed the oldest known blueprints, the diagrams accurately mirror desert kites, or structures that helped hunters capture animals by funneling them into enclosures, in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. “It’s mind-blowing to know and to show that [early humans] were able to have this mental conceptualization of very large spaces and to put that on a smaller surface,” said archaeologist Rémy Crassard.

Examples of prehistoric peoples’ artistic inclinations abound, from a 42,000-year-old phallic-shaped pendant unearthed in Mongolia to flutes made out of bird bones in Israel some 12,000 years ago to 100 cave art paintings believed to be at least 24,000 years old. Tools also offer evidence of early craftsmanship: In England, archaeologists discovered 300,000-year-old giant hand axes used to kill animals or cut meat, as well as a polishing stone used to sharpen Neolithic axes.

Polishing stone
This polishing stone is more than 5,000 years old and was once used to sharpen ax heads. Historic England Archive

Other miscellaneous finds dating to prehistory included 25 monumental, 8,000-year-old pits that offer clues to life in Mesolithic Britain and a 5,000-year-old tavern in Iraq, complete with a clay refrigerator, benches, storage containers and even traces of food.

Royal treasures

The monarchs who commanded ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire, medieval England and other realms wield much fascination for historians and the public alike. This year’s royal-related finds span continents and millennia, beginning 5,000 years ago with Queen Meret-Neith of Egypt, whose tomb yielded hundreds of wine jars, many of them still sealed, and continuing in China, where archaeologists excavating the mausoleum of Emperor Wen of Han identified a fully intact, 2,000-year-old panda skeleton. The animal was likely sacrificed around the time of Han’s death in 157 B.C.E., serving as a symbol of the emperor’s status and perhaps accompanying him to the imperial gardens in the afterlife.

Some 200 years later, in the first century C.E., Roman Emperor Nero ordered the construction of a lavish theater “large enough to satisfy even [his] desire to sing before a full house,” in the words of historian Pliny the Elder. But its ruins remained undiscovered until recently, when archaeologists conducting excavations ahead of construction of a new hotel in Rome found walls adorned with gold leaf, African marble columns, cooking pots, bronze amulets and fragments of musical instruments. It’s too early to say if the site once housed Nero’s infamous theater, but researchers will know the telltale sign if they encounter it: “If they continue digging, and we find the seats, then we’ll be certain,” said archaeologist Alessandro Viscogliosi.

An aerial view of the excavation site, where archaeologists found what they think are the ruins of Emperor Nero's theater Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

2023 produced an array of finds linked to history’s most famous royals: England’s Tudor dynasty. The year started off strong with the debut of a rare gold pendant created to mark the marriage of Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Unearthed with a metal detector in a field in Warwickshire, the jewelry features the entwined initials “H” and “K” (referencing an alternative spelling of Catherine’s name), as well as a red-and-white Tudor rose and a pomegranate bush. Though experts at the British Museum initially thought the object was a 19th-century fake, subsequent iconographical analysis dated it to around 1521. “Its quality is such that it was certainly either commissioned by or somehow related to a member of the higher nobility or a high-ranking courtier,” curator Rachel King said.

A similarly rare Tudor artifact resurfaced at the University of Cambridge, where it had been overlooked for centuries. Curators at Hever Castle identified the 16th-century Book of Hours as the same one that appears in Hans Holbein’s famous 1532-1533 painting of statesman Thomas Cromwell, making it the only object from any Tudor portrait known to survive today.

Gold chain with pendant associated with Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, circa 1521
Gold chain with pendant associated with Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, circa 1521 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Skipping ahead to the next generation of Tudors, researchers uncovered censored passages in the first official account of Elizabeth I’s reign, revealing that the author modified his biography to present the queen’s successor, James VI of Scotland and I of England, in a more favorable light.

A separate team of code breakers discovered and deciphered 57 encrypted letters sent by Elizabeth’s cousin and James’ mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, during her years as a prisoner in England. “We were not looking specifically for ciphers from Mary,” computer scientist and cryptographer George Lasry told Smithsonian. “We were just looking for ciphers … and when we find such ciphers, we take great pleasure in cracking them.”

Religious history

Fascinating finds related to religious history tell a story of diverse, competing yet sometimes complementary worldviews, from the polytheism of the ancient Greeks and Romans to Buddhism to Christianity. In the Netherlands, researchers suggested that mounds of soil at a 4,000-year-old site nicknamed “Dutch Stonehenge” helped Bronze Age priests and priestesses track the solstices. Around this same time, Canaanites constructed an arch and stairway in what is now Israel, only to cover them up shortly thereafter. This backfilling preserved the structures for modern archaeologists, who suspect the arch was used for rituals and perhaps even animal sacrifices.

Also in Israel, excavations uncovered four 1,900-year-old Roman swords hidden in a cave near the Dead Sea. Scholars theorize that Jewish rebels seized the weapons during the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132 to 135 C.E. “Obviously, [they] did not want to be caught by the Roman authorities carrying these weapons,” said archaeologist Eitan Klein in a statement. The rebels made the right decision by hiding the blades: Their uprising was unsuccessful, and the Roman Empire responded by brutally persecuting Jerusalem’s Jews. Researchers in Rome, meanwhile, discovered a fourth-century golden glass depiction of Roma, a deity who personified the ancient Roman state. Perhaps used as the bottom of a drinking glass, the fragile artifact features a gold leaf design encased by clear glass on both sides.

Another centuries-old object—a two-foot-tall Buddha statue found in the ancient Egyptian port city of Berenike—is the first of its kind ever found west of Afghanistan. Likely created in Alexandria around the second century C.E., the sculpture underscores the extensive trade networks that connected the ancient world. It originated in Roman-controlled Egypt and may have been bound for India.

Buddha statue
Researchers uncovered the two-foot-tall Buddha statue in Berenike. Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities

In England, excavations at Exeter Cathedral revealed the original foundations of the church’s 12th-century high altar, a medieval crypt and the empty tombs of two bishops. Per a statement, the finds marked “the most exciting archaeological discovery ever made” at the site. In France, researchers restoring Notre-Dame in the aftermath of a devastating 2019 fire realized the original builders used large iron staples to reinforce the cathedral’s stone blocks. The material helped workers “construct a large, sturdy structure that appears to be slender and delicate,” Smithsonian noted.

Indigenous history

Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), the government agency responsible for preserving the country’s rich cultural heritage, shared a slew of impressive finds this year. The Zapotec civilization, a pre-Columbian group that settled in the Oaxaca Valley around the sixth century B.C.E., left behind an underground labyrinth of tunnels around an earthen cavity, which they believed led to the underworld. In the 17th century, Spanish missionaries exploring the passages “ordered this infernal gate to be thoroughly closed with masonry,” according to Dominican chronicler Francisco Burgoa. The entrance remained hidden beneath the Church of San Pablo in Mitla until this year, when archaeologists used geophysical scanning technologies to create a 3D model of the labyrinth of tunnels.

INAH also unveiled a housing complex for elite residents of the Maya city of Chichén Itzá, the remains of a centuries-old Maya settlement dubbed Ocumtún (“stone column” in Yucatec Mayan) and a nearly 500-year-old Aztec snakehead sculpture still covered in vibrant pigments.

Aztec snakehead
The Aztec snakehead was discovered beneath a law school in Mexico City after an earthquake. INAH / LANCIC / UNAM

On Rapa Nui—also known as Easter Island—archaeologists found a previously unknown moai statue while examining a dry lake bed. The towering figure is one of almost 1,000 created by the island’s Indigenous inhabitants. Representing their creators’ ancestors, the sculptures can stand up to 33 feet tall and weigh up to 80 tons.


Sunken ships open portholes to centuries past, presenting eerily preserved glimpses of vessels at the moment they met their demise. The wreck of the Gribshunden, a warship that sank off the coast of Sweden in 1495, for instance, contains a “substantially complete royal medieval pantry,” per a paper published in the journal PLOS One. Archaeologists found spices like ginger, clove, mustard, saffron and caraway, as well as the remains of raspberries, blackberries, cucumbers and grapes. Almonds and hazelnuts were also present.

European shipwrecks revealed in 2023 included a 16th-century vessel that likely sailed through the English Channel on trading trips, an ancient Roman ship loaded with thousands of pieces of “perfectly preserved” glassware, and a third- or fourth-century ship that may have been abandoned or evacuated during an invasion of the Roman city of Viminacium (now part of Serbia). Around this same time, a merchant ship carrying marble columns sank in the Mediterranean Sea, its location lost until this spring, when a diver stumbled upon the vessel’s 1,800-year-old cargo. The columns were probably bound for a “large-scale, majestic public building,” said archaeologist Koby Sharvit in a statement.

Pile of glass artifacts
Archaeologists recovered a collection of blown-glass tableware in excellent condition. © Manuel Añò/ ProdAqua

In the Great Lakes, where more than 6,000 shipwrecks have claimed an estimated 30,000 lives, marine archaeologists uncovered the wreckage of a 140-foot-long schooner that sank in 1881, a schooner barge that collided with another vessel before sinking to the bottom of Lake Huron’s “Shipwreck Alley” in 1894 and a cargo steamship that vanished on a stormy night in 1895. Researchers also found more recent wrecks, such as a steel bulk freighter called the Huronton, which sank 100 years ago after a collision with another ship tore a hole in its side, and the Keuka, a lumber barge-turned-floating speakeasy.

“The Keuka represented the drinking and gambling habits of the residents of the area: shopkeepers, laborers, merchants and the common people, as opposed to the upscale casinos” frequented by rich out-of-towners who spent their summers in the region, historian Richard Wiles told Smithsonian. The pleasure barge sank under suspicious circumstances in 1932, perhaps sabotaged by members of the local temperance movement.

The bow of the Africa shipwreck
The Africa disappeared on Lake Huron in October 1895. Inspired Planet Productions

Elsewhere in the U.S., a drought in Texas exposed the wreckage of several World War I ships operated by the Emergency Fleet Corporation, which oversaw merchant vessels that brought American soldiers and supplies to France. In Florida, construction crews digging beneath a road were surprised to find a 19th-century shipwreck. Experts think the fishing boat sank unexpectedly and was covered in silt over time, inadvertently preserving it.

Off the coast of Seattle, divers found the wreckage of the S.S. Dix, a small wooden ship that sank while ferrying passengers around Puget Sound in 1906. At least 42 people died.

Finally, researchers in Australia located the site of the wreck of the M.V. Blythe Star, a coastal freighter that sank in 1973. The crew’s disappearance sparked the largest maritime search effort conducted in the country up to that point, but it proved unsuccessful. Two weeks after the accident, nine of the ten crew members turned up alive, sharing a harrowing story of their survival at sea on an inflatable lifeboat.

Black and white image of small ferry
The S.S. Dix was part of the "Mosquito Fleet" of vessels that ferried passengers around Puget Sound. Northwest Shipwreck Alliance

Amateur archaeologists

Every so often, amateur archaeologists—defined here as individuals without (or currently working toward) graduate degrees in the field—happen upon stunning historical treasures. Sometimes, these individuals deliberately set out to unearth rare artifacts, aided by metal detectors and other treasure-hunting tools; in other instances, the discoveries take place purely by chance.

Examples of the first category abound. Searchers wielding metal detectors found a cache of Bronze Age jewelry in a carrot field in Switzerland, 1,000-year-old gold earrings and silver coins in the Netherlands, and a trove of sixth-century gold objects in Norway. “This is the gold find of the century in Norway,” said Ole Madsen, director of the Museum of Archaeology at the University of Stavanger, in a statement. “To find so much gold at the same time is extremely unusual.” Erlend Bore, the man who made the find, picked up metal detecting as a hobby just a few months earlier. Unsurprisingly, he plans to continue searching for treasures, adding, “I haven’t found a silver coin [yet].”

A cache of silver coins and gold earrings discovered by a metal detectorist in the Netherlands
A cache of silver coins and gold earrings discovered by a metal detectorist in the Netherlands © Archaeology West-Friesland / Fleur Schinning

In the realm of luck-driven finds, standouts included 2,500-year-old gold necklaces unearthed by a water supply company employee in Spain and two Viking brooches dug up by a family searching for a lost earring in their yard in Norway. Schoolchildren made spectacular discoveries, too: In Norway, an 8-year-old girl spotted what she thought was a small rock at a local playground. The object turned out to be a five-inch-long flint dagger dated to the Neolithic era. In Germany, an 8-year-old boy playing in the sandbox at his school uncovered a silver coin minted 1,800 years ago. The denarius dates to the reign of Marcus Aurelius, who led the Roman Empire between 161 and 180 C.E.

Older students also proved their treasure-hunting mettle this year, with undergraduates and graduates at Michigan State University identifying the site of the campus’ first observatory, which was torn down in the 1920s. The building was “used at a time when [the school] was a radically different institution with only a handful of professors and a relatively small student body,” said campus archaeologist Ben Akey in a statement.

Eight-year-old Elise found the dagger tucked in a pile of stones in the school yard. Vestland County Municipality

Magic, the macabre and the mysterious

From a 19th-century quarantine hospital used to house yellow fever patients in Florida to 2,000 mummified ram skulls likely left as offerings at the tomb of Egypt’s Ramses II, 2023 was filled with unsettling, mystifying finds.

In the realm of ritual and superstition, discoveries included strands of hair laced with hallucinogens, suggesting Bronze Age Europeans ingested naturally occurring alkaloids during religious ceremonies, and a 3,000-year-old wishing well filled with bronze clothing pins, ceramics, beads, traces of plants and other prized objects. Archaeologists think the area’s Bronze Age residents buried their possessions in the well as sacrifices designed to secure a good harvest.

3,000-year-old ceramics found in a Bronze Age wishing well in Germany
3,000-year-old ceramics found in a Bronze Age wishing well in Germany Marcus Guckenbiehl / City of Germering

A treasure hunter wielding a metal detector in Belgium unearthed a fragment of a 12-sided object known as a dodecahedron. Dated to more than 1,600 years ago, the item may have been used to predict the future and practice sorcery. More mundane explanations suggest dodecahedrons functioned as measuring devices, calendars, weapons or tools. A more explicitly magical find revealed this year was a burial chamber in the Egyptian pyramid complex Abúsír. A royal scribe named Djehutyemhat requested that his tomb be filled with spells to ward off snakes. “Such a strong emphasis on snake spells was probably the consequence of a personal choice of the tomb owner,” said Egyptologist Miroslav Bárta. “No similar case with such excessive attention to these spells is known.”

Some finds revealed this year raised more questions than answers. Though archaeologists conducting excavations in Israel’s Negev desert initially thought they’d stumbled onto a typical Bronze Age burial, they soon realized it “was not something so common, but something from a later period and much larger,” according to dig leader Martin David Pasternak. The 2,500-year-old skeletons, uncovered in two burial chambers separated by a courtyard, aren’t linked to a specific settlement. Instead, their tomb stands at the crossroads of two trading routes, perhaps indicating the deceased were foreign-born enslaved women who were trafficked to Arabia.

Tombs in the Negev desert
Archaeologists found more than 50 skeletons at a unique burial site in Israel's Negev desert. Emil Aladjem / Israel Antiquities Authority

Also in Israel, a 3,500-year-old tomb produced a surprising sight: a skull that had undergone brain surgery. Based on the lack of postoperative bone growth, the patient likely died during the procedure or shortly thereafter. But many questions remain, Smithsonian noted: “Was the patient administered some anesthesia or a mind-altering substance? Or was he left to experience the operation in excruciating pain? And what desperate straits or last-ditch hopes led to such an extreme step?”

Elsewhere in the Middle East, officials in Egypt announced the discovery of a hidden corridor in the Great Pyramid of Giza. Its purpose is unclear, but some experts believe the chamber’s inclusion was a logistical choice, helping distribute weight within the enormous stone structure.

Death and taxes

As Benjamin Franklin once said, “In this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” Archaeological finds bear out the statesman’s words, testifying to how different civilizations viewed these universal experiences.

Oftentimes, ancient burials offer evidence of funerary rituals designed to benefit the dead in the afterlife. Near the Japanese city of Nara, for example, a 7.5-foot-long iron sword was deposited in a burial mound to protect against evil after death. Featuring an undulating blade evocative of a snake, the weapon dates to the Kofun Period, which spanned roughly 300 to 710 C.E. In Paris, meanwhile, scholars discovered a 2,000-year-old necropolis used by the Parisii, a Gallic tribe that fought against Julius Caesar. Less than half of the graves held funerary goods such as ceramic and glass vessels. One skeleton was buried with a coin in its mouth, likely intended as payment for passage across the River Styx in the Underworld.

Japanese sword
The dako sword found at Tomio Maruyama AsPJT via Wikimedia Commons under CC0 1.0 Universal

Similarly, a 40-year-old woman who lived during the second century C.E. was buried in a limestone sarcophagus in what is now Reims, France, with four oil lamps, a mirror, an amber ring, a comb and two glass vessels that may have once held scented oils. The rich selection of items suggests the woman was an elite, much like the individuals who would have been buried in a Roman mausoleum in London. Archaeologists didn’t find any coffins at the site, but the coins, pottery fragments and assorted artifacts present at the mausoleum spoke to its owners’ wealth. In Gaza, a separate cemetery containing two lead sarcophagi and at least 125 tombs probably held the remains of Roman aristocrats, some of whom were found with coins in their mouths.

Burials also reveal the range of ways in which humans lay their dead to rest. On the Shetland Islands, Bronze Age people seemingly cremated their dead, then placed their bones in a cemetery dotted with boulders and white quartz rocks. Another Bronze Age cemetery located ten miles from Stonehenge features 20 barrows, or circular mounds, some of which show signs of cremation.

Overhead view of burial mounds in England
Archaeologists in England found Bronze Age skeletal remains, cremation burials and artifacts. Cotswold Archaeology

Mummification was another popular burial method, with archaeologists uncovering the 4,300-year-old mummy of a man named Hekashepes, who was buried in the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis with layers of gold encasing his remains, and a 1,000-year-old mummy in Peru with incredibly well-preserved brown hair.

Some death-related discoveries stood out for surprising reasons. In Maryland, the 400-year-old skeleton of a teenage boy turned out to be one of the oldest burials of a colonist ever found in that state. The young man probably arrived from England in the 1630s as a cabin boy or an indentured servant. Rewinding 1,500 years to the Iron Age, a comb crafted from a human skull may have served as an amulet, perhaps one carved from the bones of an important member of the wearer’s society.

A comb carved out of a human skull
A comb carved out of a human skull Museum of London Archaeology

Taxes, as represented more generally by currency, proved to be a constant across time. Among the oldest coins unearthed this year dated to the Iron Age, specifically the first century B.C.E. Found by metal detectorists in Wales, the 15 coins depict the god Apollo on one side and a horse surrounded by symbols on the other. In Italy, divers off the coast of Sardinia recovered tens of thousands of bronze coins, many of which bear the image of Constantine I, a Roman emperor who ruled between 306 and 337 C.E.

Two caches found this year connected the phenomena of death and taxes. In Scotland, archaeologists uncovered 36 coins that were likely buried beneath a fireplace either just before or during the 1692 Glencoe Massacre, in which the government killed around 30 members of the MacDonald clan after they failed to pledge their loyalty to the new king and queen. Another coin trove surfaced in Kentucky, where an anonymous man found more than 700 gold coins dated to between 1840 and 1863. The money’s owner probably hid the stash as an insurance policy amid the chaos of the Civil War. By the time the conflict ended in 1865, the individual may have died or forgotten exactly where the hoard was buried.

The Great Kentucky Hoard
The 700-plus gold coins, found in a cornfield in Kentucky, date to between 1840 and 1863.

Everything else

Some fascinating finds revealed in 2023 didn’t fit neatly into the aforementioned categories but still ranked among the most intriguing of the year. The Roman Empire yielded an eclectic mix of discoveries, including gemstones lost by bathers near Hadrian’s Wall, the remains of a chihuahua-sized dog that was likely a beloved pet in Roman Britain and a bakery in Pompeii where enslaved individuals toiled under horrific conditions. Also in Pompeii, archaeologists uncovered an inscription urging readers to vote for Aulus Rustius, a candidate for public office.

Two of the gemstones discovered at a Roman bathhouse
Two of the gemstones discovered at a Roman bathhouse in Carlisle, England Anna Giecco

Similarly ancient artifacts uncovered in 2023 ran the gamut from a leather shoe worn by a child in what is now Austria 2,000 years ago to a 3,000-year-old bakery in Armenia to a stone carving believed to be “the oldest datable runestone in the world.” In Spain, a 3,000-year-old stone slab is rewriting historians’ understanding of gender roles in Iberian society. The stela shows an individual wearing a headdress and necklace, items usually associated with women, while wielding a pair of swords. The figure has male genitalia. Per a statement, the find “shows that prior interpretations [of funerary slabs] actually relate more to our modern binary conceptions of gender than to those of prehistoric societies.”

Rounding out the incredible finds announced this year were a Viking hall in Denmark and a prosthetic hand used by a 30- to 50-year-old man who died between 1450 and 1620. Crafted out of iron and nonferrous metal, the prosthetic was relatively simple, not featuring any mechanical components.

Very old leather shoe
The shoe still has a piece of flax or linen attached, which may have once served as a shoelace. German Mining Museum Bochum

Photo credit for top image: Illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos via Flanders Heritage Agency, Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, © The Trustees of the British Museum, Bremen Culture Department, University of Pennsylvania Art Collection / Gift of Thomas W. Evans, Anna Giecco, Zaid Al-Obeidi / AFP via Getty Images, Heritage Auctions, Wright Auction House, Christie’s, Canton of Thurgau, Numismatic Guaranty Company, Archäologie-Büro Dr. Woidich / Sergiu Tifui, Archaeological Museum of Asturias and Roberto Gualtieri

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