Sept. 12, 2011 --
In the search for buried history, archaeologists pour their resources into uncovering the remnants of the distant past. With know-how, persistence and a little luck, archaeologists can push aside dirt and rock and find an artifact of historical significance. Although chance plays a big role in unearthing history, archaeological treasures have been stumbled upon purely by accident, often by those outside the scientific community. In these photos, explore several particularly serendipitous finds of unique artifacts, some of which reach as far back as prehistory.
On Sept. 12, 1940, four teenagers followed their wayward dog into a cave complex near the village of Montignac in southwestern France. To their surprise, the caves hosted something remarkable: nearly 2,000 paintings and etchings of animals, humans and abstract shapes on the walls dating back between 15,000 and 25,000 years. Known as the Lascaux caves, the complex features figures depicted in surprising detail given the age of the illustrations. Animals portrayed on the cave walls included horses, stags, bison and felines. Archaeologists believed the caves were used for ritualistic purposes. Some parts of the illustrations even appear to construct a narrative, but what they mean exactly has yet to be deciphered. The caves were open to the public in 1948, but closed in 1963 in order to preserve the site from damage.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of over 800 biblical texts made of animal skin and papyrus. Dating to around 2,000 years ago, between the years 200 B.C. and 70 A.D., the scrolls could well be the oldest such documents in existence and have deepened historians' understanding of religious history. These documents may have been lost to history had a Bedouin shepherd named Muhammed edh-Dhib and his cousin not stumbled upon the first manuscripts along the northern shore of the Dead Sea at a remote site known as Qumran in 1947. The last fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls collection was uncovered in the mid-1950s. Although the scrolls have been extensively studied and translated, one big mystery remains: Who exactly wrote them?
As Napoleon Bonaparte's army marched through north Africa during his campaign in Egypt, they stumbled upon what would become known as the Rosetta Stone, after the town where it was discovered. Within Bonaparte's army was a squadron of scholars called Institute of Egypt, also known as the Scientific and Artistic Commission. As the military settled around the Nile Delta, the Institute explored local ruins and artifacts. After the discovery of the stone in 1799, several copies of the inscriptions on its face were made, since no one could read them at the time. By 1802, the Greek and Demotic portions of the stone had been deciphered by scholars. The hieroglyphics posed a different challenge all together, however, and it would take 20 years before French scholar Jean-François Champollion announced that he had cracked the code. By deciphering the hieroglyphs, Champollion opened a whole new door to understanding the civilization of ancient Egypt. The Rosetta Stone is currently kept in the British Museum.
In case you don't know what a geoglyph is, ancient Peruvians went through the trouble of leaving a picture-perfect definition. Known as the Nazca Lines, these giant carvings into the Earth were only discovered by airplane in the 1930s. Located in the Nazva desert in southern Peru around 250 miles (400 kilometers) south of Lima, the geoglyphs resemble a number of animals including a spider (as seen here), a condor, a monkey, a tree, as well as human figures and geometric patterns. Why exactly indigenous tribes living in the area between 100 B.C. and 650 A.D. felt compelled to produce these works remains a mystery, though archaeologists agree that it is likely tied to religious customs.
In 1991, German tourists stumbled upon a frozen body in a glacier on the Ötztal Alps between Italy and Austria. Although they originally thought the corpse to be the result of a recent death, the iceman mummy, named Ötzi, in fact dated back 5,300 years. Since Ötzi's discovery, the mummy has been extensively studied. Scientists have learned everything from his last meal to his cause of death to his possible occupation and they have even made reconstructions of his face. Ötzi died in the spring as a result of an arrowhead striking his left clavicle artery. He likely received a ceremonial burial and was found beside tools and other personal items.
Over the years, metal detector enthusiasts, particularly those in the United Kingdom, have uncovered archaeological treasures buried beneath the Earth. In 2009, 30-year-old Nick Davies hauled in 10,000 ancient Roman coins that he had found inside a clay pot buried in Shropshire, U.K. That same year, a trove of 1,500 gold and silver pieces dating back to the Dark Ages were found on a farmer's field in the western region of Staffordshire, England. Last year, 63-year-old David Crisp uncovered 52,000 ancient Roman coins, later given a value of around $1 million, in a clay pot in southwestern England.
In 1986, divers stumbled upon a nearly 2,000-year-old Roman shipwreck some six miles off the coast of the town of Grado, Italy. Measuring 55 feet long and 16 feet wide, the small trade vessel was stocked with 600 amphorae, or vases, packed with sardines and other fish. Further study of the shipwreck revealed that the ancient Roman engineers also had built in a hydraulic system that allowed the ship to carry an aquarium with live fish.