2012 in Review: 9 Important Archaeological (and Paleontological!) Discoveries

Great things happen every year, but it never fails that by the time we reach the holiday season, most of them have been forgotten to all but a few die-hard news junkies and history buffs. In case you weren’t obsessively poring over the details of this year’s archaeological news, here’s a year-end round-up.

1. January: 190-Million-Year-Old Dinosaur Eggs

Image: Artistic rendering by Heidi Richter / Photograph by Diane Scott, University of Toronto at Mississauga

In 1976 a team of researchers working in South Africa found several clutches of dinosaur eggs. Lacking technology to investigate much further, those eggs were identified, put on display and left untouched until this year, when we put those fossilized eggs under high-powered microscopes. The images that emerged are astounding: Fully preserved sauropod embryos, 190-million-years-old, still curled awkwardly in their eggs. What a way to start the year; the Massospondylus embryos are the oldest embryonic examples of any land-dwelling vertebrate we’ve seen yet. They are on display at the Royal Ontario Museum. [Editor’s note: Strictly speaking, this is not an archaeological find. But it was too cool to leave off of this list, so there you have it.]

2. February: A New Colossus of Amenhotep III

Head of colossus discovered in Kom-el-Hettan. Photo: MSA Photo Bank

Though the Colossi of Memnon are well-known to anyone interested in Egyptian history or archaeology in general, it was not even suspected until this year that another pair of the twin statues existed in Amenhotep’s temple. But that’s what Armenian archaeologist Gurik Suruzyan found while excavating the temple in Luxor this February. Though the statues in Memnon are carved of sandstone (and one contains a differently-sourced sandstone section, indicative of Roman-era repairs), the newly uncovered statue is alabaster; also in contrast to the still-standing monuments at Menmon, the Luxor statues (one is still unexcavated) were toppled in an earthquake around 1200 BC, which left them rather well-preserved under Nile alluvium. Dr. Zahi Hawass describes the head of the first statue as “a masterpiece of royal portraiture.” The head alone measures 1.2 meters in height. Read more about the discovery at Kom-el-Hettan.

3. March: The World’s Oldest Preserved Honey

The honey found in the Georgian tomb is 2000 years older than that discovered with King Tut. [Photo: Wikimedia Commons]

Once upon a time in the country of Georgia, a very rich woman was entombed with necessities for the afterlife — including several containers of honey. The 5,500-year-old evidence suggests that the woman was a honey harvester by trade, as three varieties were discovered inside vessels remaining after many tomb raiders took the (presumably) more valuable objects. Because this find predates the formerly-oldest honey by about 2000 years, it also suggests that Georgians practiced honey harvesting (and possibly beekeeping) in more specialized ways and much earlier than the Egyptians did. Two years ago, the world’s oldest shoe — dubbed “the Ur Sneaker” — was discovered in a nearby dig site.

4. May: An Ancient, Tsunami-Ravaged Irish Settlement

One of the oldest habitations in Ireland was confirmed this year by radiocarbon dating evidence from a shellfish midden — the area where pre-agricultural humans would collect and cook seafood — that suggest the people lived there, at least part-time, over 6000 years ago. But the truly interesting feature of the site is that it is buried under a thick layer of as-yet unidentified black organic matter, which dissolves rapidly when introduced to water. The current working theory is that this materiel was deposited by a tsunami, which would explain 1) how such a dense deposit could be laid down all at once, and 2) what happened to the hunter-gatherers who inhabited the area.

5. June: The Curtain Theatre

Archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology recently excavated the site of the 16th-century Curtain Theatre, where Shakespeare staged some of his plays. AP file photo

Before William Shakespeare and Lord Chamberlain’s Men decided to stage their work at the Globe Theater, they spent some time at The Curtain Theater in Shoreditch. Sadly, the building disappears completely from the historical record in the year 1622, despite having been the original venue for Romeo & Juliet and Henry V, and the sole stage for Shakespeare’s work from 1597 to 1599 and many other Elizabethan era works. In June, a team excavated the remains of The Curtain Theater during planned reconstruction of historical areas in the city. The find is particularly impressive, as The Curtain was England’s second-ever playhouse and plays an important historical role in the life and work of Shakespeare. As the building is well-preserved, future plans include possibly opening the theater for public tour and rebuilding the surrounding area to cater to tourists by including new restaurants, shops and homes. Read more at the Museum of London Archaeology.

6. June: A Massive Hoard of Gold and Silver Coins

Image: Jersey Archive

Around 50,000 to 70,000 Iron Age coins were discovered in a treasure trove excavated in a field in the Bailiwick of Jersey, each worth between £100 and £200. The Grouville Hoard of Roman and Celtic coinage dates from the 1st Century BC, but beyond being of extraordinary value in terms of money, the find will help archaeologists understand more about the people who used them. (It is currently believed that the coins’ original owners were a tribe fleeing Julius Cesar’s army.) While modern ownership of the find is still unclear, it is hoped that the final possessor allows them to be displayed at the Jersey Museum or kept in the Archive.

7. July: The SS Terra Nova, a Ship that Carried Explorers to the South Pole

Captain Scott and the SS Terra Nova set sail for Antarctica, 1910.

The SS Terra Nova served three years as the ship for the British National Antarctic Expedition, led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott. In 1909, Scott bought the ship for £12,500 and set sail with his team for Ross Island, where they gathered some of the earliest notes on biology, geology, meteorology and geophysics information in Antarctica. Though they aimed to be the first expedition to reach the South Pole, they arrived to find that Roald Amundsen’s team had arrived there thirty-four days earlier. Captain Scott and his expedition died on the return journey, but the Terra Nova was recovered and used until 1942; during its final journey, it began to capsize. Rescue crews retrieved those aboard, set the ship on fire, and on a return visit, sank the burning hulk by gunfire. In July, the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s ship RV Falkor discovered the wreckage. Read full details of the discovery and watch exploratory video from the RV Falkor’s underwater cameras.

8. September: A King Buried Under a Parking Lot

Richard III only reigned as King of England from 1483 until his death in battle in 1485, which effectively ended the famed War of the Roses and  heralded the end of the Middle Ages in England. His body was entombed in the Greyfriars Church in Leicester (but not before being exposed nude for public witness). The church was a Franciscan monastery established in 1255 but lost to record in 1536, and presumably destroyed along with the burial tomb of King Richard III. But in September, walls of the friary were discovered during a planned excavation by a team at Leicester University. The friary, along with a skeleton that is likely that of King Richard III, were discovered under the parking lot of a Leicester council office. Though DNA testing will probably take another twelve years to complete, the body’s location within the church (in the choir) and physical evidence (including scoliosis, a major head wound and an arrowhead lodged between vertebrae) all indicate that this is in fact the lost King.

9. December: Largest Ever Egyptian Sarcophagus Identified

Entombed together like Russian nesting boxes, a series of four sarcophagi from the Valley of the Kings have been under reconstruction for a number of years. But as the team moved outward to the largest Egyptian sarcophagus ever discovered — a full 13 feet long and more than 8 feet tall — archaeologists have uncovered the identity of its resident mummy. Merneptah was a warrior king in Egypt around 3200 years ago, known for his numerous military assaults on neighboring areas, including Libya, a group called “Sea People,” and the first recorded mention of Israelis. His nested sarcophagi are highly unusual, and the reason for Merneptah’s (seemingly overzealous) entombment has yet to be determined. But now that reconstruction is underway, clues about why this pharaoh in particular might desire a huge sarcophagus are emerging: a series of repeated motifs depicting portions of the Book of Gates show that it’s “as though they’re trying to enclose the [king’s] body with these magical shells that have power of resurrection.”

Geeks are Sexy needs YOUR help. Learn more about how YOU can support us here.