Archaeologists are always finding fascinating things from the past. Here are some of the discoveries they made in 2022: An engraving on a lice comb is the oldest writing known; two lead sarcophagi reveal who was entombed at Notre Dame Cathedral; and researchers found remains of food that might have been eaten by Roman spectators at the Colosseum.
Discoveries In 2022
In a year that saw many headline-making events, from the Russian invasion of Ukraine to the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the world of archaeology was filled with discoveries spanning disciplines, historical eras and geographic locations. Here, Live Science takes a look back at 10 of the biggest finds of 2022.
A 2,000-year-old mummy portrait of a dead Egyptian nobleman, a 4,300-foot tunnel discovered beneath an ancient temple and a treasure trove of Roman coins unearthed at the site of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s archaeology news foray are among the discoveries that made news this year. The list also includes evidence of prehistoric animations, a 5,300-year-old skull that offers the oldest known evidence of ear surgery and footprints that were left by humans in what’s now Utah around 12,000 years ago.
One of the most interesting finds of 2022 was a 2,700-year-old tomb in Spain that may contain the remains of a powerful woman who ruled an area of what’s now Spain and Portugal. The mummy of the Palmahim Beach Tomb was found intact, and archaeologists hope to learn more about the life of this wealthy person and what was important to her during her time as a ruler by studying the items she was buried with.
Among the lucky discoveries of 2022 was a 4,500-year-old sculpture of a deity that a Palestinian farmer stumbled upon while harvesting his fields, and a mass grave that was uncovered at the site of a 1777 battle in New Jersey that included Hessian troops fighting American forces. Other lucky finds include a 4,000-year-old skull from a Bronze Age cemetery in Greece, a collection of Roman coins unearthed by a couple during home renovations and the remains of a shipwreck that’s providing clues to a lost trading route.
A 31,000-Year-Old Leg Amputation
The skeleton of a hunter-gatherer buried in a limestone cave in Indonesia has revealed what is believed to be the earliest evidence of surgery. The remains, dated to about 31,000 years ago, show that the lower left leg was surgically removed, likely as a child, researchers say in the journal Nature. The clean stump and lack of signs of injury, such as crushed bones, point to a deliberate amputation rather than an accident or animal attack, the authors say. They estimate the person survived for six to nine years as an amputee.
The finding rewrites human history, challenging the long-held belief that advanced medical techniques came late in society, when people moved from foraging to farming societies, the scientists report. “It’s very important that this amputation is successful because it shows that ancient people knew about the muscular and vascular system of the limb, and they could manipulate it,” says Tim Maloney, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Australia who led the study.
It’s difficult to determine the exact methods used to cut and remove the limb, but the “scalpel” was probably a sharp handheld piece of stone, perhaps something like obsidian, said Renaud Joannes-Boyau, an archaeologist and geochemist at Southern Cross University in Australia who dated the tooth enamel. Such a blade would have required considerable skill, “requiring careful control of the bleeding and to expose the tendons,” said palaeopathologist Kate Domett of James Cook University in Australia, who wasn’t involved with the research.
The team is going back to Liang Tebo to excavate more skeletons in the hope of finding even earlier evidence of medical procedures. They’re also investigating another grave in the same area to see if it contains other skeletons with healed bone fractures.
New Research Into Ancient Poop
Archaeology isn’t all about digging in the dirt — sometimes it requires sifting through the evidence without disturbing the ground. A team of researchers, including National Geographic Emerging Explorer Albert Yu-Min Lin, has used satellite technology to locate the tomb of Genghis Khan in Mongolia without even having to go there.
They used an approach called “shotgun metagenomics” to analyze DNA tidbits — or fecal markers — from the sediment that covered the body of the mummy, which dates back more than 1,000 years. The researchers identified the microbes in the mummy’s stomach, which provided clues to what he ate and drank.
The results suggest that the mummy likely lived in a society that relied heavily on plant-based diets, rather than animal-based diets. This could explain why the mummy didn’t suffer from conditions like diabetes, which are more common in modern societies. Previous research has linked a greater diversity in the gut microbiome to lower rates of chronic diseases.
But the most exciting discovery from this research may have nothing to do with ancient food choices. Using coproID, which distinguishes between meat and plant proteins in millennia-old poop, the scientists were able to identify traces of beer left behind by Iron Age miners who visited the site. The feces contained fungus called Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which is often found in beer made through fermentation.
By analyzing the traces of beer, the researchers were able to determine that the miner was drinking a darker variety, which isn’t as sensitive to storage temperatures as lagers are. The team was also able to eliminate other possibilities, such as wine and nonalcoholic beverages, by examining the presence of different types of yeast.
A Shipwreck In The Mediterranean
The discovery of well-preserved organic artifacts—wood and bone—from shipwrecks is one of archaeology’s greatest gifts. It can tell us about the lives and cultures of ancient civilizations that otherwise would have been lost to time and history. It can also help us understand how people hunted, fished, and lived their lives.
An international team of researchers is working to uncover three shipwrecks resting in the treacherous Mediterranean Sea off Tunisia’s coast. The archaeologists—from Algeria, Croatia, Egypt, France, Italy, Greece, Morocco, and Spain—set sail last year on the French research vessel Alfred Merlin to examine shipwrecks that have been sitting in the sea for centuries.
The scientists scrutinized two shipwrecks from the ancient Phoenician period, one dating to 100 BCE and another from the turn of the 20th century CE, and a Roman cargo ship from the 1st century CE. All three ships were buried in a sand layer on the bottom of the Skerki Bank. The researchers were able to find the wrecks using multibeam sonar technology, which created a high-resolution photogrammetric map of the seafloor.
Their research suggests that a spike in shipwrecks around 100 BCE coincided with an expansion of maritime traffic and trade after the collapse of early Greek civilizations. They also uncovered evidence of a pronounced decline in shipwrecks between 400 and 900 CE, with a resumption of trading activity around the 16th or 17th century CE.
The work of these archaeologists is just the latest chapter in a rich and fascinating story of ancient Mediterranean shipping and culture. The names of the many individuals who have contributed to this field are too numerous to list here—Howard Carter unearthed the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922; Leonard Woolley spent years excavating what turned out to be the ancient city of Ur in Mesopotamia; Heinrich Schliemann discovered the legendary site of Troy; and Sir Arthur Evans developed the concept of Minoan Civilization.
A 3,700-Year-Old Tomb In Spain
The work of archaeologists often involves digging, but the bulk of the job is examining and analyzing artifacts found underground. For every day spent digging, archaeologists spend weeks or months in labs, counting, weighing, and categorizing their finds. The process is time consuming and tedious, but it yields invaluable information about the lives of people in the past.
For example, the discovery of a 3,700-year-old tomb in Spain uncovered some interesting clues about a prehistoric woman’s life. Her remains were buried with jewelry and personal belongings, including a silver diadem or crown. In order to understand what the objects meant, researchers analyzed her skull. They discovered that she had suffered from a degenerative disease. In addition, she had a small hole in her head that likely resulted from a blow to the temple.
Another find of interest was a bronze hand from the grave of a Visigothic king. The 2-meter long piece was found at the Roman necropolis of Los Villaricos in Murcia. It was decorated with geometric patterns and framed by ivy leaves, which indicate that the sarcophagus belongs to the 6th century.
During the Notre Dame cathedral’s lengthy renovation process in 2019, two lead sarcophagi were uncovered. While the identities of those entombed are still unknown, one of the sarcophagi was believed to contain a wealthy canon. Its inscription, however, was written in an alphabet virtually unknown to historians.
In the world of archaeology, exciting discoveries continue to shed light on our ancient past. Through diligent research and exploration, archaeologists have unearthed fascinating artifacts, ancient civilizations, and clues to understand the complexities of human history. These ongoing efforts serve as a testament to the enduring significance of archaeology in shaping our understanding of the world’s rich cultural heritage.
- What is archaeology? Archaeology is a scientific discipline that involves the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation and analysis of artifacts, structures, and other physical remains. It aims to reconstruct and understand past societies, cultures, and behaviors to provide insights into our ancestors’ way of life.
- What are some recent notable archaeological discoveries? As of my last update in September 2021, some notable discoveries include the ancient city of Thonis-Heracleion submerged in the Mediterranean Sea, the unearthing of a unique burial site near the Pyramids of Giza, and the identification of a previously unknown prehistoric group of people known as the “Yarrabubba Impact Crater” in Western Australia. Keep in mind that archaeology is a continuously evolving field, and there may be more recent discoveries beyond my knowledge cutoff date.