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The Dig

Examples of Underestimated Archaeology Similar to Sutton Hoo

Like many millions of Netflix’s subscribers, I thoroughly enjoyed The Dig, one of their latest original movies starring Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan. The film tells the story of Edith Pretty, a Suffolk landowner and widower who in 1939 hires the services of local excavator Basil Brown, to investigate some ancient mounds in her property which she thought could have some historical value, despite the archeologists of the local museum thinking otherwise.

A few weeks ago Greg pointed out how Netflix’s filmmakers left out some remarkable ‘supernatural’ aspects from the original story –jump here if you missed the article– but to me one of the most interesting parts about the film, was how everybody (including Brown at first) grossly misjudged the importance of the site; what was originally thought to be just another Viking burial ground that had been probably sacked centuries ago, turned out to be the discovery of Sutton Hoo, a much older and incredibly well-preserved tomb of a Saxon warlord who was buried on top of a massive wooden ship, surrounded by dozens of priceless jewels and pieces of ironwork, which prompted the finding to be called ‘the English Tutankhamun.’

With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to make a short list of similar underestimated archeological discoveries, whose real importance were begun to be understood after their initial discovery.

Troy

Considered for many centuries to be nothing but a literary myth concocted by Homer –the classic blind poet, not the bald dumb one– it was until the XIXth century that Heinrich Schliemann, a German millionaire and adventurer, set out to prove the academics wrong, and that ‘the Illiad’ dealt with true historical events. In the late 1860s Schliemann decided that the Turkish town of Hissarlik, known for its fortress like earth mounds (which no one had bothered to check out before him) best matched the scenes of the epic poem. In 1871 he began to dig.

Schliemann’s wife wearing the diadem he found

What he soon found was not just an ancient city buried beneath the earthworks, but a whole series of settlements built one on top of another. One of those layers had trace evidence of having been scorched by fire, suggesting it had suffered a violent end. The crowning of Schliemann’s efforts came in 1873, when the excavation unearthed all sorts of jewels including a golden diadem, which the amateur archeologist dubbed ‘Priam’s treasure’ after the name of Troy’s king during the time of the war with the Greeks. Schliemann attained international fame for his discovery, and today modern archeologists acknowledge that one of the ancient cities he found was probably the inspiration behind the Homeric saga. Other archeologists have even suggested the famous ‘Trojan horse’ which was used by the Greeks to beat their enemies’ defenses could have been a boat, instead of a giant wooden sculpture.

Cahokia

Cahokia

Located in Collinsville, Illinois at the state’s southern tip opposite St. Louis, Missouri on the Mississippi River floodplain, Cahokia is the most complex pre-Columbian settlement north of Mesoamerica, spanning over 120 mounds in six square miles. At its peak, around the year 1100, Cahokia was home to as many as 10,000 people. The city was built using advanced astronomical knowledge to orient the mounds to diverse celestial events.

Monk’s Mound is the largest earthen structure in all of North America. To the south of Monk’s Mound are 40 acres of flat land, which was originally thought to be a natural formation; but further investigation showed that it was deliberately leveled and filled.

The Cahokia mounds were discovered by French explorers in the 1600s. The place was inhabited by the Cahokia tribe at the time, hence why it received that name. In 1967 excavation of what is referred to as ‘Mound 72’  uncovered more than 270 people buried there in a series of mass graves, which were thought to be sacrificial victims. At the center of this burial site –named ‘the Beaded Burial’ by the discoverers– were found the bodies of six men, which cemented the idea that Cahokia was ruled by male warriors.

An illustration of the ritual sacrifice by strangulation of 53 of young women (aged 15 to 25) at the Mound 72 burial of an important personage, now referred to as the “Birdman” because of the falcon shaped arrangement of beads around his body.

But a recent re-examination of the skeletal remains found at the central burial more than 50 years ago, determined that instead of just six bodies there were actually twelve, and many belonged to women. This puts into question many long-held assumptions about Cahokia, including the belief that it was a strict patriarchal society.

Altamira Cave Paintings

By the XIXth century scholars thought primitive men were too brutish and stupid to understand the concept of Art. All that changed thanks to a serendipitous discovery in 1868 when an Asturian brick maker named Modesto Cubillas went hunting with his dog one day, and found the poor animal trapped in a narrow fissure after trying to pursue its prey. Modesto liberated the dog and found an entrance to a cave; he told his neighbors about it but nobody paid much attention to it, thinking it was just another one of the many grottoes peppering the Cantabrian landscape.

Modesto also told about the cave to Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, a rich nobleman who was also a paleontology fan. Sautuola visited Altamira in 1876 where he found a few abstract symbols, but did not give them any attention since he thought they weren’t man-made. The amateur archeologist returned to the cave three years later accompanied by his young daughter. It was the eight-year-old girl the one who made the momentous discovery of the life-like paintings of prehistoric creatures in the ceiling of one of the chambers. Sautuola was amazed by the sight and proceeded to report the finding to Juan Vilanova, a professor of Paleontology in the University of Madrid.

Vilanova supported the finding, but the most prestigious academics of the time flat out rejected it. The orthodox consensus was that the paintings were so sophisticated they could not possibly have been created by ‘cavemen’, so they were either made by Roman soldiers(!) or forged by a painter hired by Sautuola himself(!!). It was only after similar paintings were found in France that orthodox archeologists gave a second look to the Altamira finding, and in 1902 its authenticity was confirmed. Unfortunately, both Sautuola and Vilanova had died without receiving their deserved vindication.

“After Altamira,” Pablo Picasso said after visiting the caves, “all is decadence.”

The Antikythera Mechanism

Described by some as the world’s first computer, the Antikythera mechanism is an ancient Greek orrery capable of accurately predict astronomical positions, solar eclipses, and also calculate the date of the Olympic games. This incredible ancient gadget was discovered in a shipwreck dating to the first century B.C. on the Greek island of Antikythera –hence the name– in a wooden box by Valerios Stais on May 17, 1902, but its real importance was just beginning to be understood decades later, and it took the development of modern non-destructive technologies like computer tomography (MRI) to assess its true level of sophistication.

To this day we still do not know who was the genius who built the Antikythera mechanism –some people presume it was the great astronomer Hipparchos, while others suggest its construction was influenced by the legendary Archimedes, who gave us the phrase ‘Eureka!’.  Over at my friend Seriah Azkath’s podcast Where Did the Road Go? I have engaged on several occasions on roundtable discussions about this astounding OOPART (out-of-place artifact) and I always return to the idea that this Greek computer was not in all likelihood a one-of-a-kind prototype –can you imagine the Apple company letting Steve Jobs take the one and only prototype of the iPhone with him on a risky sea voyage? – and neither was it built in a vacuum, which means the knowledge to build such a device has to be traced back long before its actual construction.

How the Antikythera mechanism might have looked like

And, more importantly, what other ancient machines similar in complexity to the one found at Antikythera have we not found yet?

Gobekli Tepe

Gobekli Tepe

In the Turkish language, Gobekli Tepe means ‘pot-belly hill’. Located in Southeastern Anatolia, this site is nowadays considered one of the most important archeological finds in the whole world, because it shows how seriously underestimated were both the artistic sophistication and engineering capacity of ancient hunter-gatherers, and it also upends the orthodox assumption that megalithic architecture of such magnitude was only possible after human civilization progressed into hierarchical agricultural societies, and the invention of pottery and writing. For Graham Hancock fans, Gobekli Tepe is particularly important because it suggests how ancient civilizations suffered the effects of cometary impacts.

Incredible bass reliefs carved in the pillars of Gobekli Tepe

This site is also the perfect example of a previously overlooked and underestimated archeological find, because when it was originally discovered in 1963, it was thought to be nothing but a Byzantine cemetery. It was not until the late German archeologist Klaus Schmidt (1953-2014) took a second look at the site in the 1990s, that its monumental importance (pardon the pun) was beginning to be understood.

German archeologist Klaus Schmidt

Schmidt unfortunately suffered a heart attack and left the vast majority of Gobekli Tepe still unexplored. Here is hoping the Turkish government will pick up where he left, and not just turn the site into a tourist attraction.


There are of course many other examples of archeological finds that modern academics are probably underestimating due to long-held dogmas –the submerged structures of Yonaguni or the rain erosion on the Sphinx quickly come to mind– but unfortunately it looks as if we will still have to wait some more until new generations of archeologists take a second look at these sites with fresher eyes and broader minds. In the meantime, let us hope more parents encourage their children to watch movies like The Dig in order to inspire in them a sense of wonder about those who came before us.