Digging for treasure is as old as the first plundered grave.
The urge to uncover buried wealth has obsessed countless searchers, enriching a few and driving others to the brink of madness.
“There are certain men who spend nearly all their lives in seeking for—kanûz—hidden treasures,” wrote the British traveler Mary Eliza Rogers after she visited Palestine in the middle of the 19th century. “Some of them become maniacs, desert their families, and though they are often so poor that they beg their way from door to door, and from village to village, they believe themselves to be rich.”
Not all the fortune hunters whom Rogers came across were desperate vagabonds. She also encountered sahiri, roughly translated as necromancers, “who are believed to have the power of seeing objects concealed in the earth.” These esteemed clairvoyants, often women, entered a trance that Rogers said allowed them to describe in minute detail the hiding places of valuable goods.
Archaeology transformed those “objects concealed in the earth” from simple treasures into powerful tools that allow us to glimpse the hidden past.
At first, the fledgling science emerging in Rogers’s day differed little from old-fashioned plundering, as European colonialists competed to fill their display cabinets with ancient statues and jewelry from faraway lands. But the new discipline also ushered in an unprecedented era of discovery that revolutionized the understanding of our species’ rich diversity, as well as our common humanity.
If this seems an exaggeration, imagine a world without archaeology. No luxurious Pompeii. No breathtaking Thracian gold. No Maya cities looming out of dense jungle. A Chinese emperor’s terra-cotta army would still be hidden beneath the dark soil of a farmer’s field.
Without archaeology, we would know little about the world’s earliest civilizations. Lacking a Rosetta stone, we would still puzzle over the enigmatic symbols on the walls of Egyptian tombs and temples. The world’s first literate and urban society, which flourished in Mesopotamia, would be known only dimly through the Bible. And the largest and most populous of these early cultures, clustered around the Indus River on the Indian subcontinent, would never have been revealed at all.
Without the systematic study of sites and artifacts, history would be held hostage by those few texts and monumental buildings that survived the vagaries of time. The immense Pacific of our past would be broken only by scattered atolls: a battered scroll here, a pyramid there.
Two centuries of excavations on six continents have given voice to a past that previously lay mostly submerged. Through recovered sites and objects, our distant ancestors—many of whom we didn’t know existed—can tell their stories.
At least as far back as the last king of Babylon, more than 2,500 years ago, rulers and the rich have collected antiquities to bask in the reflected beauty and glory of previous times. Roman emperors transported at least eight Egyptian obelisks across the Mediterranean to embellish their capital. During the Renaissance, one of these pagan monuments was raised in the heart of St. Peter’s Square.
In 1710, a French aristocrat paid workers to tunnel through Herculaneum, a town near Pompeii that had lain largely undisturbed since the deadly explosion of Vesuvius in A.D. 79. The unearthed marble statues sparked a craze that spread across Europe for digging up ancient sites. In the New World, Thomas Jefferson had trenches cut through a Native American burial mound not to find lucrative grave goods but to assess who built it and why.
By Mary Eliza Rogers’s day, European excavators were fanning out across the globe. Few were dedicated scholars. More often than not, they were diplomats, military officers, spies, or wealthy businessmen (and they were, with very few exceptions, men) intimately tied to colonial expansion. They used their influence and power abroad to both study and steal, as they filled their notebooks and carted off Egyptian mummies, Assyrian statues, and Greek friezes for their national museums or private collections.
Fast-forward to the Roaring Twenties. The spectacular bling found in the tomb of the Egyptian king Tut and the Royal Graves of Ur captured headlines and altered the course of art, architecture, and fashion. By then, however, educated professionals had begun to grasp that the most valuable material from trenches lay not in the gold retrieved but in the data locked within broken pottery and discarded bones.
New methods of recording fine layers of soil provided novel ways to reconstruct day-to-day life. And starting in the 1950s, measuring the radioactive decay of organic matter gave researchers their first reliable clock to date artifacts.
In our own century, archaeology increasingly is done less in the trench than in the lab. What once had little obvious worth—burnt seeds, human feces, the residue at the bottom of a pot—is the new treasure. Through careful analysis, these humble remains can reveal what people ate, with whom they traded, and even where they grew up.
Advanced techniques are even capable of dating rock art, providing insight into cultures such as those of the early Aboriginal peoples of Australia, who left behind little durable evidence. And the sea is no longer the impenetrable barrier that it had been from time immemorial, as divers gain access to shipwrecks ranging from a Bronze Age merchant vessel to the most legendary of all ocean disasters, the Titanic.
The single most revolutionary development of recent decades is our ability to extract genetic material from old bones. Ancient DNA has given us an intimate glimpse into how our ancestors interacted with Neanderthals. It has also led to the discovery of our long-lost cousins the Denisovans, as well as the extraordinarily small people of the Indonesian island of Flores.
A host of new approaches, from satellite images to x-ray fluorescence, allow scientists to probe sites and artifacts without putting a spade into soil or cutting a sample from a valued museum object. This means that we are less likely to inadvertently wipe out data that we don’t recognize but that later generations might yet recover.
Archaeology’s often unsavory past nevertheless continues to cast a long shadow. Not until the past decade has a movement to repatriate ill-gotten foreign artifacts, from the Elgin Marbles to the Benin Bronzes, gained political traction. For centuries, American and European reluctance to train or promote Indigenous archaeologists meant that when the colonial empires crumbled, there were few homegrown researchers with the experience to carry on the work. Those who struggle to do so often are hindered by war, a lack of resources, and development pressures. One of Central Asia’s great ancient Buddhist centers, Mes Aynak in Afghanistan, has been threatened by looters, rocket attacks, and a government plan to mine the site, which sits atop a vast reserve of copper. In August it fell under Taliban control.
The past is a nonrenewable resource, and every ancient site bulldozed or ransacked is a global loss. It is common wisdom today that local communities are an essential part of maintaining the health and well-being of natural ecosystems such as parks and wildlife preserves. The same applies to what our ancestors left behind.
The destruction that has afflicted sites across the Middle East and Central Asia is all the more terrible because impoverished villagers often have little stake in protecting them. Threats to this heritage include idol-smashing groups such as al Qaeda and the Taliban, as well as the buyers and sellers of looted artifacts. Peace and prosperity also pose dangers, when new construction destroys ancient remains.
Despite daunting setbacks, there is good reason to believe that a second golden age of archaeology—one largely shorn of its colonialist trappings and racist assumptions—has begun.
An influx of women and Indigenous researchers is revitalizing the field, while archaeologists (often an insular bunch) are now working more closely with their colleagues in other disciplines. They are charting global change through the ages with the help of climatologists, collaborating with chemists to trace the ancient spread of drugs such as marijuana and opium, and investigating more precise dating methods with physicists.
Recent finds, meanwhile, show the power of archaeology to radically reshape the way we relate to our past. Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, the world’s oldest known temple, dating back some 12,000 years, suggests that our urge to practice communal religious rites may have spurred us to settle down and plant crops, not the other way around. Egypt’s pyramid builders were not enslaved people but skilled workers who earned decent wages and drank good beer. And ancient DNA paints a jumbled and complicated tale of our ancestors’ journey across the planet that can’t be contained within race theories and national myths.
But archaeology’s real power remains rooted in its capacity to transcend intellectual knowledge and the creeds of the moment. Uncovering what has long been hidden connects us viscerally to our vanished ancestors. In that moment when an excavator brushes away the dirt to reveal an ancient coin or gingerly removes caked soil from a votive statue’s delicately chiseled face, the immense distances of time, culture, language, and beliefs can fall away.
Even if we are just gazing through the glass of a museum case or at the pages of a magazine, we can find ourselves closely linked to the person who shaped a pot, secured a dazzling brooch, or carried a finely wrought sword into battle. There is a haunting poignancy to those 3.7-million-year-old footprints left one rainy day on the Tanzanian savanna, as if we are present at the dawn of our own creation.
The task of archaeologists is not to find buried treasure but to resurrect the long dead, turning them back into individuals who, like us, struggled and loved, created and destroyed, and who, in the end, left behind something of themselves.
The selections that follow are drawn from the newly published National Geographic book Lost Cities, Ancient Tombs: 100 Discoveries That Changed the World.
Ice Age Artists
20,000 years ago, France
The lifelike cave paintings at Lascaux and Chauvet represent an explosion in human creativity thousands of years ago—and show artistry that was stunningly advanced.
On a September afternoon in 1940, four teenage boys made their way through the woods on a hill overlooking Montignac in southwestern France. They had come to explore a dark, deep hole rumored to be an underground passage to the nearby manor of Lascaux. Squeezing through the entrance one by one, they soon saw wonderfully lifelike paintings of running horses, swimming deer, wounded bison, and other beings—works of art that may be up to 20,000 years old.
The collection of paintings in Lascaux is among some 150 prehistoric sites dating from the Paleolithic period that have been documented in France’s Vézère Valley. This corner of southwestern Europe seems to have been a hot spot for figurative art. The biggest discovery since Lascaux occurred in December 1994, when three spelunkers laid eyes on artworks that had not been seen since a rockslide 22,000 years ago closed off a cavern in southern France. Here, by flickering firelight, prehistoric artists drew profiles of cave lions, herds of rhinos and mammoths, magnificent bison, horses, ibex, aurochs, cave bears. In all, the artists depicted 442 animals over perhaps thousands of years, using nearly 400,000 square feet of cave surface as their canvas. The site, now known as Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, is sometimes considered the Sistine Chapel of prehistory.
For decades scholars had theorized that art had advanced in slow stages from primitive scratchings to lively, naturalistic renderings. Surely the subtle shading and elegant lines of Chauvet’s masterworks placed them at the pinnacle of that progression. Then carbon dates came in, and prehistorians reeled. At some 36,000 years old—nearly twice as old as those in Lascaux—Chauvet’s images represented not the culmination of prehistoric art but its earliest known beginnings.
The search for the world’s oldest cave paintings continues. On the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, for example, scientists found a chamber of paintings of part-human, part-animal beings that are estimated to be 44,000 years old, older than any figurative art seen in Europe.
Scholars don’t know if art was invented many times over or if it was a skill developed early in our evolution. What we do know is that artistic expression runs deep in our ancestry.
Ötzi the Iceman
Circa 3300 B.C., Ötztal Alps, Italy
Frozen in time under a glacier in the Alps, this Neolithic hunter felled by a foe’s arrow about 5,300 years ago is the oldest intact human ever discovered.
In 1991, hikers high in the mountains on Italy’s border with Austria discovered a mummified body protruding from a glacier. Little did they suspect that this “iceman” was a time traveler from the Copper Age. Indeed, further investigation revealed that the 5,300-year-old Ötzi the Iceman—named for the Ötztal Valley near his death site—is the oldest intact human ever found. “Not since Howard Carter unlocked the tomb of King Tutankhamun in the early 1920s had an ancient human so seized the world’s imagination,” wrote mountaineer and author David Roberts.
Over the ensuing three decades, scientists have used an array of high-tech tools, including 3D endoscopy and DNA analysis, to examine the iceman and refine his biography in exquisite detail. What at first appeared to be a tale of a solitary Neolithic hunter overtaken by the elements has morphed into a riveting murder mystery.
He was in his mid-40s, a rather elderly man for his time. He suffered from worn joints, hardened arteries, gallstones, advanced gum disease, and tooth decay. While these health factors made his life uncomfortable, they did not kill him.
In 2001, a radiologist x-rayed Ötzi’s chest and detected a stone arrowhead, smaller than a quarter, lodged beneath the left shoulder blade. The forensic evidence became even more intriguing in 2005, when new CT scan technology revealed that the arrowhead, probably flint, had made a half-inch gash in the iceman’s left subclavian artery. Such a serious wound would have been almost immediately fatal. The conclusion: An attacker, positioned behind and below his target, fired an arrow that struck Ötzi’s left shoulder. Within minutes, the victim collapsed, lost consciousness, and bled out.
For all the answers that scientists have found about the iceman, many questions still remain. At the top of the list: Who killed this prehistoric hunter, and why?
The Black Pharaohs
730-656 B.C., Sudan and Egypt
In a long-ignored chapter of history, kings from a land to the south conquered Egypt, then kept the country’s ancient burial traditions alive.
In the year 730 B.C., a man named Piye decided the only way to save Egypt from itself was to invade it. The magnificent civilization that had built the Pyramids at Giza had lost its way, torn apart by petty warlords. For two decades Piye had ruled over his own kingdom in Nubia, a swath of Africa located mostly in present-day Sudan. But he considered himself the rightful heir to the traditions practiced by the great pharaohs.
By the end of a yearlong campaign, every leader in Egypt had capitulated. In exchange for their lives, the vanquished urged Piye to worship at their temples, pocket their finest jewels, and claim their best horses. He obliged them and became the anointed Lord of Upper and Middle Egypt.
When Piye died at the end of his decades-long reign, his subjects honored his wishes by burying him in an Egyptian-style pyramid at a site known today as El Kurru. No pharaoh had received such entombment in more than 500 years.
Piye was the first of the so-called Black pharaohs, the Nubian rulers of Egypt’s 25th dynasty. Over the course of 75 years, those kings reunified a tattered Egypt and created an empire that stretched from the southern border at present-day Khartoum all the way north to the Mediterranean Sea.
Until recently, theirs was a chapter of history that largely went untold. “The first time I came to Sudan, people said, You’re mad! There’s no history there! It’s all in Egypt!” says Swiss archaeologist Charles Bonnet. But he and other modern researchers are now revealing the rich history of a long-ignored culture. Archaeologists have recognized that the Black pharaohs didn’t appear out of nowhere. They sprang from a robust African civilization in a land the Egyptians called Kush that flourished on the southern banks of the Nile as far back as the first Egyptian dynasty, around 3000 B.C.
The Egyptians didn’t like having such a powerful neighbor to the south, especially since they depended on Nubia’s gold mines to bankroll their dominance of western Asia. So the pharaohs of the 18th dynasty (1539-1292 B.C.) sent armies to conquer Nubia and built garrisons along the Nile. Subjugated, the elite Nubians began to embrace Egypt’s cultural and spiritual customs—venerating Egyptian gods, using the Egyptian language, and adopting Egyptian burial styles.
The Nubians were arguably the first people to be struck by “Egyptomania.” Without setting foot inside Egypt, they preserved Egyptian traditions and revived the pyramid—a burial monument forsaken by the Egyptians centuries earlier—for their royal tombs. As archaeologist Timothy Kendall puts it, the Nubians “had become more Catholic than the pope.”
In the seventh century B.C., Assyrians invaded Egypt from the north. The Nubians retreated permanently to their homeland, but they continued to mark their royal tombs with pyramids, dotting sites such as El Kurru, Nuri, and Meroë with the steep-sided profiles that characterize their interpretation of ancient Egyptian monuments. Like their mentors, Kushite kings filled their burial chambers with treasure and decorated them with images that would ensure a rich afterlife.
Little was known of these kings until Harvard Egyptologist George Reisner arrived in Sudan in the early 20th century. Reisner located the tombs of five Nubian pharaohs of Egypt and many of their successors. These discoveries, and subsequent investigations, have resurrected from obscurity the first high civilization in sub-Saharan Africa.
A Maya King’s Domain
1000 B.C.–A.D. 900, Honduras
Extraordinary finds at the site of the ancient city of Copán in recent decades have helped archaeologists take a giant step forward in learning about the Maya.
In a tunnel 50 feet below the grassy plazas of Copán, an ancient Maya city in what is now Honduras, National Geographic staff archaeologist George Stuart peered through an opening in a wall of dirt and stone. There, in a hot, stuffy, earthquake-prone space, he saw a skeleton on a large stone slab. Stuart’s archaeological colleagues had discovered a royal burial—most likely that of K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, or Sun-Eyed Green Quetzal Macaw. The revered god-king, whose name appears in many of the site’s hieroglyphic texts, was the founder of a dynasty that maintained the power of this Maya valley kingdom for some 400 years.
That momentous discovery was made in 1989, but Maya scholars had long recognized the enormous significance of Copán. From more than a century of research, they knew that the ruined buildings beside the Copán River served as the political and religious capital of an important kingdom before its collapse more than a thousand years ago. Early on, investigators came to realize that the section now known as the Acropolis—a roughly rectangular area that rises high above the river—served not only as the locus of some of the city’s most spectacular architecture and sculpture but also as the seat of governing power during the height of the Maya Classic period, from about A.D. 400 to 850.
The rulers of Copán claimed descent from the sun and ruled by that right. They presided over a kingdom of some 20,000 subjects, ranging from farmers who lived in pole-and-thatch houses to the elite who occupied palaces near the Acropolis. As the archaeologists tunneled into the Acropolis, they came upon the most elaborately constructed and furnished tomb yet uncovered at the site. The remains of a noble lady rested on a thick rectangle of stone. She was richly attired and wore one of the most extraordinary arrays of Maya jade ever found. She was probably the wife of the founder, archaeologists believe, the queen mother of the next 15 rulers of the Copán dynasty.
With the discovery of the queen’s tomb, it soon became evident that this part of the Acropolis constituted a sort of axis mundi—in effect, a sacred stack of burials and buildings hallowed by the presence of one of almost unimaginable power in the eyes of the inhabitants of Copán. Given all the clues pointing to K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, it seemed that his final resting place could not be far away. The eager archaeologists dug deeper into the complex.
Finally, behind a facade of red sun-god masks on a platform, they discovered a skeleton they believe is that of the founder himself. The king was at least 50 years old, had jade inlays in two of his teeth, and passed into the afterlife with a broken lower right arm. There were signs of other wounds, perhaps suffered in battle or from the rigors of the Maya’s ritual ball game.
Continuing investigations suggest that the power derived from the founder began to falter with the capture and sacrifice in 738 of Copán’s 13th ruler by the king of a rival city-state. By King Yax Pasah’s time, a quarter of a century later, the power of Copán’s rulership had failed to rebound. After the Maya abandoned this site to the forest and the river, probably by the year 900, its stone buildings gradually crumbled. And yet, even in ruin, the site’s remaining ornate buildings and sculptures make it one of the greatest treasuries of art and architecture in the Americas.
Buddhist Shrines and Mines
A.D. 200-800, Afghanistan
A spectacular Buddhist complex is threatened by a huge copper mine and the Taliban takeover.
An hour’s drive along the Gardez highway south of Kabul, there is a sharp left turn onto an unpaved road. The path continues along a dry riverbed, past small villages, paramilitary roadblocks, and sentry towers. A little farther on, the view opens over a treeless valley creased with trenches and exposed ancient walls.
In 2009, a team of Afghan and international archaeologists and local laborers began to uncover thousands of Buddhist statues, manuscripts, coins, and holy monuments at this epic site. Entire monasteries and fortifications have come to light, dating back as far as the third century A.D. The excavation was by far the most ambitious in Afghanistan’s history.
A fluke of geology put these cultural treasures in jeopardy, though. Mes Aynak means “little copper well” in the local dialect, but there is nothing little about it. The lode of copper ore buried below the ruins is one of the world’s largest untapped deposits, an estimated 12.5 million tons. In 2007, a Chinese consortium won the rights to extract the ore on a 30-year lease. The company made a bid worth more than three billion dollars and promised to provide infrastructure for this isolated, underdeveloped district.
Before the deal with Chinese interests became public, artifacts already were in danger of being plucked out piecemeal by looters and lost to science. Afghan cultural heritage advocates demanded that the treasures be excavated and recorded properly before open-pit mining began.
Originally projected to begin in 2012, the mining project was stalled by contractual disputes, sagging copper prices, and Afghanistan’s conflict with the fundamentalist Taliban. Now that the militants control the country, the future of the site is even more uncertain.
The past archaeologists have revealed presents a stark contrast to the violence and disorder of today. From the third to the eighth centuries A.D., Mes Aynak was a spiritual hub that flourished in relative peace. At least seven multistory Buddhist monastery complexes form an arc around the site, each protected by watchtowers and high walls. Copper made the Buddhist monks here wealthy, and colossal deposits of slag—the solidified residue from smelting—attest to production on a major scale.
Much is known about ancient Buddhism’s links to trade and commerce, but little is known about its relationship to industrial production. This is where Mes Aynak could one day fill in important blanks, hinting at a more complex economic system than has been understood previously.
Puzzling out the full meaning of Mes Aynak will require decades of research. Archaeologists can only hope that time is on their side—and that they get the chance to reveal more of this little-known chapter from Buddhism’s glory days in Afghanistan.
The Swahili Empire
800–1500, East Africa
Swahili city-states on the shores of the Indian Ocean enjoyed centuries of wealth, thanks to trade linking them to Arabia, India, and beyond.
“The city of Kilwa is amongst the most beautiful of cities and elegantly built,” wrote Ibn Battuta, one of history’s great travelers. The city minted its own coins and had houses with indoor plumbing. Its residents wore clothing of imported silk. During its golden age, from the 12th to the 18th centuries, Kilwa was one of some three dozen prosperous ports that dotted what is known as the Swahili coast. Those ports, which stretched from present-day Somalia to Mozambique, had evolved into powerful city-states that grew rich from Indian Ocean trade. They flourished as ships from Arabia, India, and China called at their ports to carry away goods that made the Swahili wealthy.
Arabian sailors arriving in Africa found good harbors, a sea full of fish, fertile land, and opportunities for trade. Many stayed to marry local women, bringing with them the Islamic faith. The interplay of African and Arabian languages and customs created an urban and mercantile culture that is unique to this coast.
At its core, though, the culture was African—a fact that early archaeologists failed to recognize. Subsequent excavations at sites along the coast have shown how wrong they were. On Songo Mnara Island in Tanzania, for example, archaeologists uncovered a planned community that boasted a palace hung with tapestries, several dozen blocks of houses, six mosques, and four cemeteries, all inside a wall.
The Swahili trade network fell apart as the Portuguese muscled in and redirected goods toward the Mediterranean and Europe. But even as the trade hubs became backwaters, the rich Swahili culture endured through centuries of colonial occupation. “Swahili history is about adaptation and incorporation,” explains Abdul Sheriff, a Tanzanian historian. “Swahili culture may not be quite the same tomorrow as today, but then nothing living is.”
A ghost town in the Andes became a treasured window into Inca history after explorer Hiram Bingham introduced it to the world.
On hands and knees, three men crawled up a slick and steep mountain slope in Peru. It was the morning of July 24, 1911. Hiram Bingham III, a 35-year-old assistant professor of Latin American history at Yale University, had set out in a cold drizzle from his expedition camp on the Urubamba River with two Peruvian companions to investigate reported ruins on a towering ridge known as Machu Picchu (“old mountain” in Quechua, the Inca language). The explorers chopped their way through thick jungle, crawled across a “bridge” of slender logs bound together with vines, and crept through underbrush hiding venomous fer-de-lance snakes.
Two hours into the hike, at nearly 2,000 feet above the valley floor, the climbers met two farmers who had moved up the mountain to avoid tax collectors. The men assured an increasingly skeptical Bingham that the rumored ruins lay close at hand and sent a young boy along to lead the way.
When Bingham finally reached the site, he gaped in astonishment at the scene before him. Rising out of the tangle of undergrowth was a maze of terraces cut from escarpments and walls fashioned without mortar, their stones fitting so tightly together that not even a knife’s blade could fit between them. The site would prove to be one of the greatest archaeological treasures of the 20th century: an intact Inca ghost town hidden from the outside world for nearly 400 years. “It seemed like an unbelievable dream,” he wrote later.
Bingham acknowledged that he was not the first to discover Machu Picchu. Local people knew about it, and a Peruvian tenant farmer, Agustín Lizárraga, had even inscribed his name on one of its walls nearly a decade earlier. But Bingham did bring the mountaintop citadel to the world’s attention as the account of his work there, and at other sites in the region, filled the April 1913 issue of National Geographic.
Bingham was also the first to study Machu Picchu scientifically. With financial support from Yale and the National Geographic Society, he returned twice to the site. His crews cleared the vegetation that had reclaimed the peak, shipped thousands of artifacts to Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History—which were returned to Peru by 2012—and mapped and photographed the ruins. The thousands of photos that he shot would change archaeology forever, demonstrating the power of images to legitimize and popularize the science.
Marvels Revealed by the Thaw
1600s, Southwestern Alaska
Centuries-old artifacts of the Yupik people, preserved in permafrost, are emerging as temperatures rise. Now the rush is on to save these treasures.
The archaeological site of Nunalleq on the southwest coast of Alaska preserves a fateful moment, frozen in time. The muddy square of earth is full of everyday things the Indigenous Yupik people used to survive and to celebrate life here, all left just as they lay when a deadly attack came almost four centuries ago.
As is often the case in archaeology, a tragedy of times past is a boon to modern science. Archaeologists have recovered more than 100,000 intact artifacts at Nunalleq, from typical eating utensils to extraordinary things such as wooden ritual masks, ivory tattoo needles, pieces of finely calibrated sea kayaks, and a belt of caribou teeth. The objects are astonishingly well preserved, having been frozen in the ground since about 1660.
Climate change is now hammering the Earth’s polar regions. The result is a disastrous loss of artifacts from little-known prehistoric cultures—like the one at Nunalleq—all along Alaska’s shores and beyond.
A massive thaw is exposing traces of past peoples and civilizations across the northern regions of the globe—from Neolithic bows and arrows in Switzerland to hiking staffs from the Viking age in Norway and lavishly appointed tombs of Scythian nomads in Siberia.
In coastal Alaska, archaeological sites are now threatened by a one-two punch of rising temperatures and rising seas. When archaeologists began digging at Nunalleq in 2009, they hit frozen soil about 18 inches below the surface of the tundra. Today the ground is thawed three feet down. That means masterfully carved artifacts of caribou antler, driftwood, bone, and walrus ivory are emerging from the deep freeze that has preserved them in perfect condition. If not rescued, they immediately begin to rot and crumble.
The global level of oceans has risen eight to nine inches since 1900. That’s a direct threat to coastal sites such as Nunalleq, which is doubly vulnerable to wave damage now that the thawing permafrost is making the land sink. “One good winter storm and we could lose this whole site,” lead archaeologist Rick Knecht says.
When wooden artifacts began washing up on the beach, community leader Warren Jones helped convince the village’s board of directors that excavating Nunalleq was a good idea. Those conversations grew into a unique collaboration in which the community and the archaeologists work as partners.
Yupik from the wider area now drive ATVs to the site to learn more about their heritage and touch the artifacts. Workshops at a new culture and archaeology center celebrate Yupik culture then and now. Jones is proud of the partnership and looks forward to more discoveries at the site.
“I want our kids who are in college now to run the culture center and be proud that it’s ours,” he says.
Finding the Titanic
1912, Atlantic Ocean
In 1912 the largest, most luxurious cruise ship of its day sank. Its discovery after decades of searching revealed stunning details of the tragedy.
At 2:20 a.m. on April 15, 1912, the “unsinkable” R.M.S. Titanic disappeared beneath the waves, taking with her some 1,500 souls. Why does this tragedy exert such a magnetic pull on our imagination more than a century later? The sheer extravagance of the Titanic’s demise lies at the heart of its attraction. This has always been a story of superlatives: A ship so strong and so grand, sinking in water so cold and so deep. The ship’s fate was sealed on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City. At 11:40 p.m. it sideswiped an iceberg in the North Atlantic, buckling portions of the starboard hull along a 300-foot span and exposing the six forward compartments to the ocean’s waters. From this moment onward, sinking was a certainty.
Over decades, several expeditions sought to find the Titanic without success—a problem compounded by the North Atlantic’s unpredictable weather, the enormous depth (12,500 feet) at which the sunken ship lies, and conflicting accounts of its final moments. At last, 73 years after it sank, the final resting place of the Titanic was located by National Geographic Explorer at Large Robert Ballard and French scientist Jean-Louis Michel on September 1, 1985. The Titanic lay roughly 380 miles southeast of Newfoundland in international waters.
Recently declassified information has revealed that the discovery stemmed from a secret U.S. Navy investigation of two wrecked nuclear submarines, the U.S.S. Thresher and U.S.S. Scorpion. The military wanted to know the fate of the nuclear reactors that powered the ships, and to see if there was any evidence to support the theory that the Scorpion had been sunk by the Soviets. (There wasn’t.)
Ballard had met with the Navy in 1982 to request funding to develop the robotic submersible technology he needed to find the Titanic. The military was interested, but for the purpose of gathering its own intel. Once Ballard had completed the submarine inspection, if there was time, he could do what he wanted. He was finally able to begin looking for the Titanic with less than two weeks to spare. And then, suddenly one night at 1:05 a.m., video cameras picked up one of the ship’s boilers. “I cannot believe my eyes,” he wrote about the moment of discovery.
In the years since Ballard’s expedition, organic processes have been relentlessly breaking down the Titanic: Mollusks have gobbled up much of the ship’s wood, while microbes eat away at exposed metal, forming icicle-like “rusticles.” The hull has started to collapse, taking staterooms with it. “The most shocking area of deterioration was the starboard side of the officers’ quarters, where the captain’s quarters were,” said Titanic historian Parks Stephenson after a manned submersible dive in 2019. Using state-of-the-art equipment, the dive team captured images of the wreck that can be used to create 3D models, helping researchers further study the past and future of the ship.
How long will the Titanic remain intact? “Everyone has their own opinion,” said Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution research specialist Bill Lange. “Some people think the bow will collapse in a year or two. But others say it’s going to be there for hundreds of years.”
However long the wreck lasts, the story will surely live on—of a vessel with too much pride in her name, sprinting smartly toward a new world, only to be mortally nicked by something as old and slow as ice.
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This story appears in the November 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.