Compiling a list of the top archaeological finds in a given year is always a weird exercise in time dilation. I’m tasked with revisiting past lives through the art, shipwrecks, and bones left behind. Some items on this list were lost for merely a century; others for millennia. No matter how old they are, though, they’re all relegated to a relativistic ‘then’ — a world that’s well and truly gone, except for these tantalising clues we’re sometimes lucky enough to find.
These are the archaeological discoveries that were the most significant, bizarre, or just plain fun in 2022.
Largest cave art in North America found
Archaeologists found ancient mud glyphs on the roof of a limestone cave in an undisclosed part of Alabama. The glyphs included human-like figures and may have been made across centuries, with evidence in the chamber pointing to the first few centuries CE as well as the 7th-10th centuries CE.
Parasitic worms found in 2,700-year-old toilet
What a delightful treat for the archaeologists working on an opulent, nearly 3,000-year-old home outside modern-day Jerusalem. In January, a research team announced that they found the preserved eggs of intestinal worms — whipworm, roundworm, tapeworm, and pinworm — in a large stone with a hole in its centre, thought to be a toilet. It’s a reminder to keep a decent diet, because in several millennia archaeologists may be able to reconstruct your guts by what you left behind.
Shackleton’s Endurance found
There it was, festooned with deep sea creatures but otherwise looking every bit like the ship that disappeared in 1915: the Endurance, the ship of explorer Ernest Shackleton. The vessel got stuck in ice and sunk off the coast of Antarctica; amazingly, the crew survived. The ship has clearly lived up to its name, as it looks mostly intact despite sinking over a century ago to a depth of nearly 3,048.00 m.
Australian boab carvings
Archaeologists have found centuries-old carvings on 12 boab trees in northern Australia. The exact age of the carvings is not yet known, but the archaeological team (working with First Nations Australians) believe the imagery is connected to Indigenous oral traditions.
Lead coffins beneath Notre Dame
Archaeologists rehabbing the Notre Dame cathedral following the devastating April 2019 fire that downed the venerable building’s spire found two lead sarcophagi under the floor. The 700-year-old coffins are now thought to belong to a church leader and a horse-riding nobleman.
King Tut’s space dagger
X-ray scans of an ornate dagger from Tutankhamun’s tomb revealed that the iron weapon was made from meteoritic metal. The researchers did chemical analyses on the dagger and also turned to ancient Egyptian literature, where they found references to a special dagger gifted to King Tut’s grandfather by a foreign ruler.
Canaanite script discovered on ancient lice comb
The oldest known sentence in the Canaanite script was discovered on a fine-toothed comb whose purpose, per the translation of the sentence, was to remove lice. The sentence incised on the ivory comb was simple: “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.”
Human spines found on posts in Peru
Archaeologists in southern Peru found a disturbing scene: 192 posts threaded by human vertebrae. The freaky artifacts were dated to between 1450 CE and 1650 CE; the archaeological team thinks the posts may have been a response to Colonial-era looting of graves.
The oldest known human fossil… is even older
New analysis of the fossil known as Kibish Omo I has pushed back its age by 30,000 years, making the fossil a remarkable 233,000 years old. That number comes from dating of the volcanic ash layers in which the bones were found back in the 1960s.
Apparent Crusades-era grenades found in Jerusalem
Cue the Monty Python jokes. Archaeologists re-analysed some ceramics found in Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter in the 1960s and found that the pottery probably held explosive materials. Thus, the team concluded, they may have found the remains of Crusades-era grenades.
Human-butchered mammoths in New Mexico
An intriguing chance find of approximately 37,000-year-old mammoth bones in New Mexico revealed something about human history in North America. The bones held signs of butchering by humans, which indicates that people were in southwestern North America earlier than previously believed.
Cosmic rays suggest humans arrived in Americas by coast
Archaeologists say that an ice-free corridor that linked Beringia to the Great Plains may have opened up earlier than previously thought, indicating that the Americas may have been reached first by humans travelling along the Pacific coast.
Preserved finds from the day Pompeii fell
Pompeii’s Regio V is the gift that keeps on giving. Last year, excavations in the ancient Roman city revealed a ‘thermopolium,’ basically a Roman bodega for quick bites. This August, archaeologists at Pompeii announced the discovery of several furnished rooms in a house in the same area, containing plates, planks, and other items of daily middle class life in the city that vanished under volcanic ash in 79 CE.