The 6 Most Iconic Artifacts of the Ancient World

This story was originally published in 2020.

You’ve probably heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls and seen King Tut’s mask. But if you want to beat your family to Danger, you better learn their stories. Here’s our cheat sheet for six iconic artifacts from the ancient world.

1. Venus of Willendorf

(Credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen/Wikimedia Commons)

Of: About 30,000 years ago, Austria

Now: Vienna Natural History Museum in Austria

Fatty and almost 30,000 years, Venus of Willendorf is the female icon of the Ice Age. The four inch tall figure bears pronounced breasts, buttocks, belly, and vaginal lips, but has no feet or facial features. Pigtails, or perhaps a knit cap, cover her head, and flecks of pigment suggest the beige limestone artifact was once painted red.

Archaeologists found the figurine in 1908, about a week after excavations at Willendorf II, an Austrian site along the Danube, about 80 km from Vienna. During the 1900s and 2000s, several other excavations happened there, with constantly improving methodswhich unearthed two less famous Venus figurines and hundreds of stone tools.

Throughout Europe, nearly 200 similar figures surfaced from sites between 23,000 and 40,000 years. Although modern scholars call these artifacts Venus, after the Roman goddess of love and fertility, the actual sculptors lived at least 20 millennia before classical Rome. It is unclear why people in the Ice Age carved these figurines, with researchers proposing that they served as symbols of fertility, self-portraits or pornographic articles. Either way, the alleged sex appeal didn’t last: on a 5-point scale from unattractive to extremely attractive, Venus of Willendorf received an average rating of 0.14 in a 2011 survey of 161 students.


Read more: The origin of the 30,000 year old Venus of Willendorf


2. Colossal Olmec heads

(Credit: Iron Gregory/Shutterstock)

Of: From approx. 3400 years agoGulf Coast, Central America

Now: Several Mexican museums, including the one in Mexico City National Museum of Anthropology

Called a few times mother culture of Mesoamerica, the olmec civilization rose from the swamp forests of the Gulf Coast between about 400 and 1400 BC. More than two millennia later, in 1862 AD, a farmer digging the same dirt struck a colossal stone head. It was the first of 17 similar heads yet to be recovered, believed to be portraits of Olmec rulers.

The towering statues stand between 5 and 10 feet tall, each weighing more than an adult elephant. They represent surly men with almond eyes, flat noses and full lips. But each head bears a unique face, expression and hairstyle, supporting the idea that the carved rocks represent particular rulers.

The first accidental discovery occurred at Tres Zapotes in the foothills of the Tuxtlas Mountains, which provided the basalt stone used to make them. But archaeologists later discovered most of the heads nearly 60 miles from the basalt source, in the ancient capitals of San Lorenzo and La Venta. Although surely laborious, it is unclear how the Olmecs transported these massive boulders, eventually carved and displayed in central plazas. And, several heads seem to have been broken and buried long ago, leading some archaeologists think of the elders deliberately destroyed old statues as new rulers took power.


Read more: The origins of the 3,400-year-old Olmec colossal heads


3. King Tut’s funerary mask

King Tut’s funerary mask. (Credit: Mark Fischer/Flickr)

Of: 3,300 years ago, the New Kingdom of Egypt

Now: The Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt

Say pharaoh and most people will imagine the funerary mask of King Tutankhamun. The 24-pound facial replica capped the shrouded mummy of the Egyptian king, who died in 1323 BC at the age of 19, after reigning just 10 years. The solid gold base highlights with lapis lazuli, turquoise and other semi-precious stones. The chin bears a tube-like beard and the forehead displays a vulture and a cobra, deities who together symbolized the unification of Lower and Upper Egypt.

The mask reappeared in the modern world in 1922, when British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the nearly intact tomb of King Tut in the Valley of the Kings, a royal cemetery along the Nile. Over the ages, modern and ancient looters have emptied most Egyptian royal tombs. Tut’s burial chamber was therefore the first to reveal the phenomenal wealth of the pharaohs.


Read more: The origins of King Tut’s 3,300-year-old burial mask


4. Rosetta Stone

(Credit: Claudio Divizia/Shutterstock)

So: 2,200 years ago, the ancient Egyptian city of Rosetta

Now: The British MuseumEngland

Frankly, the Rosetta Stone is a boring read, a priestly decree published in 196 BC, affirming the divine worship of King Ptolemy V on the first anniversary of his coronation. But its scribe chiseled the message into the black slab three times in a row in different scripts: ancient Greek, the formal hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt, and its more relaxed cursive demotic script. And this bilingual inscription in three scripts allowed deciphering egyptian hieroglyphsunlocking all the writings of ancient civilization.

Discovered in 1799 by French soldiers during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, the artifact ended up in London after British troops defeated the French there in 1801. Ancient Greek was understood, so scholars and the public immediately recognized the stone’s potential for deciphering hieroglyphs. But it will take another 20 years before Jean-François Champollion manages to crack the code.

The most popular item in the British Museum today, the relic stands 3ft 9in and weighs 1,680lbs, although around a third is missing, knocked over over the ages. The full text is however still known, as other monuments bear the same decree.


Read more: Unlock Ancient Texts with the 2,000-Year-Old Rosetta Stone


5. Terracotta Army

Of: 2,200 years ago, Shaanxi province, China

Now: Museum erected on the site, Qinshihuang Emperor’s Mausoleum Site Museum

Imagine building your tomb for over 30 years, fueled by unlimited power, resources, and a desire for immorality. Even then, your mausoleum might not compare to the complex commissioned by Qin Shihuang, the first emperor to rule a unified China from 210-221 BC. 22 square milesmuch more land than most college campuses (all but three in the United StatesIn fact).

The site features statues of dancers and acrobats, gold-adorned horse-drawn carriages, and bronze waterfowl in diorama-like canals. But he is perhaps best known for the terracotta army, thousands of life-size clay warriors, lining trenches in military formation. In 1974, farmers digging a well discovered the first statue. Since then, three major excavations have uncovered an additional 2,000 soldiers, although another 6,000 probably remain buried. Every statue seems represent a real soldier in the strength of Qin Shihuang, based on their individual hairstyles, caps, tunics, facial hair and functional bronze weaponsremaining remarkably sharp so far. Even their ears are unique, according to a 2014 study in the Journal of Archaeological Sciences.


Read more: A Clandestine Army: The 8,000 Terracotta Warriors


6. Dead Sea Scrolls

(Credit: Lerner Vadim/Shutterstock)

Of: About 2,000 years ago, the shores of the Dead Sea in the West Bank and Israel

Now: The Israel MuseumJerusalem

In 1947, Muhammed ed-Dib, a Bedouin shepherd, went in search of a wandering goat along the steep cliffs bordering the Dead Sea. What began as a goat hunt culminated in one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the 20th century: In a narrow cave, ed-Dib discovered clay jars filled with ancient scrolls – the first of nearly 1,000 tattered texts written between 300 BC and 70 AD. to understand the Dead Sea Scrolls.

About 230 of the scrolls transcribing stories into the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament of Christianity – although these copies probably predate the compilation of the Bible. The rest contains other religious texts, such as prayers, hymns and rules. Although primarily written in Hebrew, the records also contain older Paleo-Hebrew, several Aramaic dialects, Greek, Latin, and Arabic.

Over the years, archaeologists have recovered many other scrolls of 12 caves near the first treasure and some more remote places. Thanks to the brackish conditions of the desert, some scrolls have aged intact. But most deteriorated, constituting a corpus of more than 25,000 pieces of parchment and papyrus. Like a puzzle – with countless missing pieces – fragments have been painstakingly reassembled by matching handwriting and materials. In the future, DNA sequencing could help because many scrolls are made from animal skins. The method, tested on 26 fragments in a 2020 Cell papermanaged to match the remains of the same creature.

From what can be read, scholars debate the authors of the scrolls. Some say that the texts came from various sources; others attribute them all to a Jewish sect that lived near the 12 caves in the first century CE


Read more: At 2,000 years old, the Dead Sea Scrolls help inform ancient language


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