In a year marked by momentous change and loss, from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, to the death of long-reigning British queen Elizabeth II, to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, archaeological and cultural news offered a mostly welcome distraction. Spanning disciplines, historical eras, geographic locations and cultures, some of the 96 objects highlighted below were first unearthed years ago but only documented now, while others were identified more recently. From the earliest known images of two biblical heroines, to a 4,300-foot tunnel beneath an Egyptian temple, to the oldest known film footage of New Orleans, these were the most fascinating finds of 2022, as covered by Smithsonian magazine.
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 away, tucked in attics and basements, awaiting the day that their genius will once again be recognized.
One such welcome find came to light in May, when an oil-on-canvas of Mary and Jesus sold at auction for around $320,000. Likely painted by a follower of Renaissance artist Filippino Lippi, the artwork had spent years hanging in an elderly woman’s London bedroom. That’s where Siobhan Tyrrell, head valuer at Dawsons Auctioneers’ London office, spotted it while conducting a routine valuation. “I was utterly shocked when I saw this early religious painting hanging above her bed,” said Tyrrell in a statement. “It literally glowed with quality.” Proceeds from the sale helped cover medical bills for the painting’s owner, a 90-year-old Italian woman who’d inherited the work from her father more than 30 years prior.
Other long-lost art found hiding in plain sight included a 17th-century still life painted by a Dutch prodigy (it had “gathered dust” at the Woodford Academy in Australia for the past 150 years, according to reporter Antonia Mufarech); a Qing Dynasty vase that was kept in a kitchen before selling at auction for $1.8 million; and a previously unknown sculpture by 20th-century British Modernist Henry Moore, which spent decades sitting on the mantel of an English farmhouse.
Luck played a considerable role in the rediscovery of multiple missing masterpieces revealed this year. In 2017, mechanic Jared Whipple rescued hundreds of canvases from a dumpster at an abandoned farmhouse. He initially planned to use them as Halloween decorations at his indoor skatepark, but after realizing they were the work of Abstract Expressionist Francis Hines, he shifted gears, planning a major showcase—and sale—of the fabric-wrapped art this past spring. A less dramatic but equally fortuitous cultural find centered on a musical recording owned by journalist Paul Salsini. One day, Salsini was reorganizing his office when he noticed a gap on his bookshelf. The missing object, which had fallen onto the shelf below, turned out to be a CD featuring tracks from Phinney’s Rainbow, one of Stephen Sondheim’s first musicals. Prior to Salsini’s discovery, few had heard the full soundtrack, which Sondheim co-wrote when he was a college sophomore in 1948. To ensure the musical’s preservation, Salsini donated the disc to the Sondheim Research Collection in Milwaukee, where it will be available for public listening. A tape featuring vocals from a young Lou Reed and a recording of the lost Queen song “Face It Alone” similarly resurfaced in large part due to luck.
While some artworks emerged by chance, others materialized through technological analysis and scholarship. Advanced imaging tools uncovered hidden scenes in famous artworks, from a Paul Cézanne portrait beneath a still life of bread and eggs to a Vincent van Gogh self-portrait on the back of the Impressionist’s Head of a Peasant Woman (1885). Close inspections and restorations led scholars to reattribute a portrait of 17th-century ruler Isabella Clara Eugenia to Anthony van Dyck rather than his workshop and an oil sketch of Jesus on the cross—previously derided as a “crude imitation” of the work of Rembrandt van Rijn—to the Dutch master himself. Another authentication success story revolved around a 1979 wax sculpture by Surrealist Salvador Dalí, which was kept in a Plexiglas box by a close friend of the artist for more than 40 years.
Scholars also value millennia-old artworks crafted by anonymous artists who inadvertently offered enduring glimpses into ancient cultures.
In Egypt, archaeologists unearthed traces of a civilization whose history spans more than 3,000 years, including two limestone sphinxes depicting Amenhotep III, grandfather of King Tutankhamun, and a cache of inscribed ostraca, or pottery shards that essentially served as notepads. Found in the city of Athribis, the 2,000-year-old fragments contain a mix of writing and art, from drawings of scorpions and swallows to geometric designs.
Sculptures also helped open portals to the past, showing contemporary viewers the faces of ancient rulers, mythical figures, everyday people and beloved animals. Archaeological work in Greece yielded at least two separate statues of the demigod hero Hercules, one a fragmented likeness from the city of Philippi and the other a marble head recovered from the 2,000-year-old Antikythera shipwreck.
Meanwhile, experts in Italy found 24 perfectly preserved sculptures of Greco-Roman gods and Tuscan citizens (“the largest deposit of bronze statues of the Etruscan and Roman age ever discovered in Italy and one of the most significant in the whole Mediterranean,” according to excavation leader Jacopo Tabolli); two gigantic statues of boxers in a Sardinian necropolis; and a terra-cotta dog likely created as a decorative fixture or gift.
Other ancient artworks found during recent excavations include an eighth- or ninth-century B.C.E. stone panel that speaks to the melding of Assyrian and Aramean culture under the Neo-Assyrian Empire; eight marble slabs dated to the reign of Assyrian ruler Sennacherib (705 to 681 B.C.E.); and stunningly intricate mosaics in London, Syria and Gaza.
Military conflicts tend to leave their mark on the landscape, dotting battlefields with weapons, armor and other traces of bloodshed. Reminders of warfare unearthed this year included two helmets found abandoned near a temple to the Greek goddess of war Athena, a Roman watchtower in Morocco likely dated to the reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius (138 to 161 C.E.), an unexploded Civil War shell from the 1864 Atlanta Campaign and a sunken World War II barge exposed by a drought in Italy.
Finding individual human remains is rarer during archaeological excavations, as most fallen soldiers have, historically, been buried in mass graves, cremated or transferred to cemeteries beyond the battlefield. In July, researchers with the Waterloo Uncovered nonprofit announced that they’d unearthed a complete skeleton in a ditch near a field hospital for the Battle of Waterloo, which took place in what is now Belgium in June 1815. Only the second full human skeleton discovered by the team, the remains were interred alongside ammunition, medical waste and amputated bones, suggesting they were “quickly buried in a desperate attempt to contain the spread of disease around the hospital,” said Véronique Moulaert, an archaeologist from the Wallonia Heritage Agency, in a statement.
Also this summer, a team in New Jersey unexpectedly stumbled onto a mass grave from the Battle of Red Bank, an October 1777 clash between American troops and British and Hessian ones. “It was stunning. It was exciting. And it was sad at the same time,” said excavation leader Jennifer Janofsky in a statement. “We didn’t anticipate exhuming human remains. That was not a goal of this [dig]. There are maps that indicate burial spots. This is not one of them.” Ultimately, the researchers recovered the remains of 13 soldiers, whom they identified as Hessian based on artifacts found alongside the bones.
In a twist on these historic finds, Ukrainian soldiers digging a trench in Odesa this spring came across a series of tall, bottle-necked jars. Dated to the fourth or fifth century C.E., when Odesa was a Roman settlement known as Odessus, the vessels—perhaps used to store wine—served as a poignant reminder of the Ukrainian cultural treasures at risk during the ongoing Russian invasion.
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 4,000-year-old stone board game found in the Qumayrah Valley, in modern-day Oman, or a 5,000-year-old chalk drum that was buried alongside three children in what is now East Yorkshire, England, as a funerary offering or talisman. The former testifies to humans’ competitive instinct—a tendency represented by the array of millennia-old board games known to archaeologists—while the latter speaks to the development of rich traditions surrounding death and mourning. Similarly advanced rituals likely played a role in the creation of a 4,800-year-old stone circle in Cornwall, England. Though the mysterious henge monument no longer survives, scientists using ground-penetrating radar at Castilly Henge spotted seven pits where its stones once stood tall.
Rewinding the clock even further, prehistoric finds unveiled in 2022 included a 5,300-year-old skull that offers the earliest known evidence of ear surgery, roughly 8,500-year-old buildings in the United Arab Emirates, a 9,000-year-old shrine in the Jordanian desert and footprints left by people in what is now Utah around 12,000 years ago.
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. Several discoveries made this year point to the blending of local traditions with new faiths introduced by invading empires. In Egypt, archaeologists excavated a temple honoring the hybrid deity Zeus Kasios, whose name blends the king of the Greek gods and Mount Kasios, on the Syrian-Turkish border. In the Netherlands, close to the northern border of the Roman Empire, another team unearthed a roughly 2,000-year-old temple complex dedicated to Greek god Mercury and Romano-Germanic deities Hercules Magusanus and Jupiter Serapis. (For an example of religions clashing rather than fusing, look to a subterranean city in Turkey that was constructed specifically as a refuge for Christians escaping Roman persecution in the second century C.E.)
To the east, in the kingdom of Gandhara—“a trade crossroads and cultural meeting place between India, Central Asia and the Middle East,” per Encyclopedia Britannica—a 2,000-year-old Buddhist temple also testifies to the multiculturalism of the ancient world. In the first millennium B.C.E., Hindu, Buddhist and Indo-Greek rulers traded control of Gandhara, which spanned present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Israel, a nation with historic ties to Christianity, Islam and Judaism, yielded its fair share of archaeological finds in 2022. In June, experts excavated one of the oldest known mosques, a 1,200-year-old structure in the Negev Desert. The mosque’s presence indicates that “Islam came very, very early in the northern Negev and began to live alongside the Christian settlement,” excavation director Elena Kogan-Zehavi told the Times of Israel. In July, specialists in Israel’s Lower Galilee identified the earliest known images of two biblical heroines, Deborah and Jael. Finally, in October, the Israel Antiquities Authority revealed a cache of coins stashed in a wall in the Golan Heights during the seventh century C.E., probably by someone hiding their fortune ahead of an anticipated invasion by Muslim armies.
Around the same time as the Muslim conquest, a woman in Britain was buried in an ornate, 30-piece necklace featuring Roman coins, gold, garnets, painted glass and semiprecious stones. A cross pendant sat at the center of the necklace; a second cross, adorned with silver casts of human faces, was tucked nearby. According to experts from the Museum of London Archaeology, the grave is “the most significant female burial from the era ever discovered in Britain.” The heavy religious imagery suggests the anonymous woman was an early Christian leader, perhaps an abbess.
Another early modern abbess, likely one Eadburg of Minster-in-Thanet, left behind a legacy of a different kind: her name and assorted doodles of humanoid figures, inscribed on the pages of an eighth-century Christian manuscript now housed at the University of Oxford. Also in Oxford, archaeologists conducting excavations ahead of construction of new student apartments revealed the limestone foundations of St. Mary’s College, which was shut down during Tudor monarch Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the mid-16th century.
Indigenous North American history
Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (known by the Spanish abbreviation INAH), the government agency responsible for preserving the country’s rich cultural heritage, shared an array of impressive finds this year. In Mexico City, an 800-year-old dwelling spanning more than 4,300 square feet, a trove of starfish deposited as an offering to the war god Huītzilōpōchtli and the graves of four children buried in accordance with pre-Columbian practices following the Spanish Conquest shed light on the region’s Aztec history. The ruins of Tenochtitlán, the former Aztec capital, lie beneath Mexico City; in recent years, INAH researchers excavating in the city have unearthed a 14th-century steam bath, a tower constructed out of human skulls and a 600-year-old golden eagle sculpture.
Further afield in Mexico, finds ran the gamut from a 1,300-year-old stucco statue of the Maya maize god Hun Hunahpu to the locations of sacred Maya cacao groves to the skeleton of a sacrificial monkey given to the Aztec from the Maya some 1,700 years ago. Elsewhere in North America, archaeologists revealed hundreds of gigantic mud glyphs created by Native American artists between 660 and 949 C.E., a 3,000-year-old dugout canoe dredged from the bottom of Lake Mendota in Wisconsin, and an almost mile-long canal built in Alabama some 1,400 years ago. “One of the things that [this discovery] underscores is the incredibly engineered landscape that exists among the Native peoples of the Gulf Coast,” said archaeologist Victor Thompson. “They were able to engineer these landscapes that allowed them to flourish for millennia.”
Sunken ships open portholes to centuries past, presenting eerily preserved glimpses of vessels at the moment they met their demise. The wreck of the HMS Gloucester, for instance, contains clothing, shoes, wine bottles (some unopened), navigational tools, ceramics, naval equipment and personal possessions, all of which were abandoned when the royal ship sank off the North Sea in May 1682. Discovered in 2007 but kept under wraps until experts could secure the site, the vessel played a key role in the life of one passenger, the future James II of England, who was accused of placing the safety of his pet dogs ahead of that of fellow passengers and crew. In total, an estimated 130 to 250 people died as a result of the sinking, which helped cement James’ unpopularity at a time of deep political and religious division.
Other European shipwrecks revealed in 2022 included a 700-year-old “clinker-built” boat at the bottom of Norway’s largest lake, the long-lost sister ship of the 17th-century Swedish warship Vasa, and timbers from a Manila galleon that sank off the coast of Oregon in 1693 or 1694. More recent finds ranged from a 19th-century shipping vessel exposed by hurricanes in Florida to a World War II destroyer deemed the deepest shipwreck discovered to date.
In the Great Lakes, where more than 6,000 shipwrecks have claimed an estimated 30,000 lives, marine archaeologists uncovered the wrecks of the Atlanta, a schooner barge that sank in Lake Superior in May 1891 after a towline connecting it to a companion vessel snapped, and an iron-ore-laden steamer that sank under similar circumstances, also in Lake Superior, in October 1902.
Two major historical wrecks revealed this year were the S.S. Mesaba, a British merchant ship whose crew attempted to warn the RMS Titanic about icebergs in the vicinity, and Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance, which sank in the Weddell Sea, east of the Antarctic Peninsula, in 1915. Identified with the help of two submersible crafts, the Endurance wreck “is upright, well proud of the seabed, intact, and in a brilliant state of preservation,” expedition director Mensun Bound told BBC News in March. “You can see a porthole that is Shackleton’s cabin. At that moment, you really do feel the breath of the great man upon the back of your neck.”
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 treasure-hunting tools; in other instances, the discoveries take place purely by chance.
Examples of the first category abound. Searchers wielding metal detectors found one of England’s earliest gold coins, a 14th-century leopard florin believed to be one of just five known to survive today and a cache of around 1,300 fourth-century C.E. Roman coins. Another uncovered a medieval wedding ring in near-perfect condition—a gold and diamond ring with two intertwining outer bands, the 14th-century jewelry bears a French inscription that translates to “I hold your faith, hold mine.”
In the realm of luck-driven finds, standouts included a Palestinian farmer who stumbled onto a 4,500-year-old sculpture of the Canaanite deity Anat, an English couple who found rare gold coins during home renovations, a graphic designer who spotted a 5,000-year-old femur during a morning row on the banks of the River Thames and a hungry badger that dug up a trove of Roman coins in Spain. The animal is far from the first to make a helpful archaeological discovery: Last year, burrowing bunnies on a Welsh island dug up Stone Age tools and Bronze Age pottery shards.
The macabre and the mysterious
From dozens of mysterious giant jars in India (possibly used in burial rituals) to a pair of sarcophagi buried beneath the nave of Notre-Dame, the year was filled with unsettling finds. In the realm of ritual and superstition, researchers unveiled 600 animal knucklebones used for divination (the practice of discovering the will of the gods) during Israel’s Hellenistic period, as well as the mummified remains of eight children who may have been sacrificed to join a pre-Inca nobleman in the afterlife. Dated to between 800 and 1200 C.E., the children’s bodies were “placed in the tomb’s entrance so that they could accompany [the nobleman] in the path of the dead, toward the final destination,” archaeologist Pieter Van Dalen Luna told Reuters.
Other reminders of mortality revealed in 2022 included an 8,000-year-old human skull found by kayakers in Minnesota, hundreds of colorful coffins at the Saqqara necropolis in Egypt, the sarcophagus of Ramses II’s chief treasurer, an early medieval burial ground in England, and 65 graves that likely hold the remains of kings and queens who ruled over western Britain and Ireland in the fifth to seventh centuries C.E.
Some finds raised more questions than answers. Back in March, archaeologists and the general public puzzled over two lead sarcophagi excavated during restoration efforts at Notre-Dame, with some observers urging experts to leave the coffins untouched. Just this month, the French team revealed the results of its investigation, identifying the sarcophagi’s occupants as Antoine de la Porte, an 83-year-old high priest who died in 1710, and an unknown man between the ages of 25 and 40 who likely lived long before de la Porte. Contrary to social media users’ fears, the coffins’ opening released neither curses nor long-eradicated diseases.
A similarly headline-making discovery was a 6.5-foot-tall, 4,300-foot-long tunnel beneath Taposiris Magna, a temple dedicated to the Egyptian god Osiris. Kathleen Martinez, the archaeologist who made the find, believes that Cleopatra and her lover Mark Antony are buried somewhere nearby, but other scholars disagree, citing the likelihood of the tomb’s destruction by grave robbers or coastal erosion.
Some fascinating finds revealed in 2022 didn’t fit neatly into the aforementioned categories but still ranked among the most intriguing of the year. In China, a trove of 13,000 artifacts, among them a bronze sacrificial altar, a giant bronze mask and jade treasures, offered insights on the mysterious Sanxingdui culture, which vanished abruptly around 1100 or 1200 B.C.E. In Sweden, a smaller yet similarly significant cache of Viking Age jewelry pointed to early medieval Scandinavians’ far-ranging trade networks.
Among the eclectic discoveries announced in 2022 were a fourth-century C.E. gladiator arena that may be the last ever built; a worn-out leather sandal discarded by an ancient traveler in Norway’s Horse Ice Patch; a 2,000-year-old, yearbook-like tablet that celebrates a group of graduates in Athens; and traces of olives, nuts, meats, cherries, grapes, figs and other treats enjoyed by spectators at the Colosseum some 1,900 years ago.
More recent finds ranged from the oldest known map of the stars, hidden in the pages of a medieval manuscript analyzed with advanced imaging tools, to a perfectly preserved 19th-century cobalt mine in Cheshire, England. “This mine hasn’t been disturbed by later mining, it’s not been broken into by kids in the 1960s, it’s not been filled with bottles or other rubbish,” Jamie Lund, a National Trust archaeologist, told the Guardian. “It literally is a time capsule in terms of giving a glimpse into the environment that these miners, who were extracting cobalt, encountered.” Experts are unsure why workers abandoned the mine but say it likely shuttered around 1810, during the Napoleonic Wars.
In the United States, an 1898 film of a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans that also happens to be the oldest known footage of the Louisiana city surfaced at the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam after decades of fruitless searching by Mardi Gras guide publisher Arthur Hardy.
Also in the American South, renovations at a Texas school uncovered a 63-year-old purse. Tucked inside the light pink clutch were notes, a handkerchief, a nail file, pencils, photographs, a miniature diary and a calendar dated to April 1959. Through some detective work, staff at the Clear Creek Independent School District identified the purse’s owner as Andrea Beverly Williams. Though Williams died in 2016, school district officials managed to contact one of her children, daughter Deborah Hicks.
“It was great to see how outgoing she was as a teen,” Hicks told CNN. “She went to dances, had a lot of friends. … It was funny to see how she was at 13 was how she would be later in life with nine children.”