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The 25 most mysterious archaeological finds on Earth

Gobekli Tepe

Ancient Site of Gobekli Tepe in SanliUrfa, Turkey.

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Humans first settled into permanents towns, farmed and then built temples, in that order, starting in 8,000 B.C. Or did they?

An amazing archaeological discovery made in 1994 at Gobekli Tepe, a rural area of Turkey, has blown that hypothesis apart, prompting new questions about the evolution of civilization.

Containing multiple rings of huge stone pillars carved with scenes of animals and dating to the 10th millennium B.C., Gobekli Tepe is considered the world's oldest place of worship. Yet evidence also suggests the people who built it were semi-nomadic hunters, likely unaware of agriculture, which followed in the area only five centuries later. Because of Gobekli Tepe, archaeologists now have to ask which came first. Did building projects like this lead to settlement, and not vice-versa, as always thought?

The Copper Scroll treasure

A reproduction of parts of the Qumran Copper Scroll.

(Image credit: Public Domain)

Here's one archaeological mystery that we'd really like to solve: An ancient copper scroll discoveredat the site of Qumran in 1952 might describe a massive amount of hidden gold and silver, but no one knows where that treasure might be or if it even exists.

The copper scroll was found alongside the Dead Sea Scrolls in what is now the West Bank in the Palestinian territories. It dates back nearly 2,000 years to a time when the Roman Empire controlled the Qumran settlement. Researchers believe that the scroll might describe a treasure that was hidden by locals to keep it out of the hands of Roman forces during the area's frequent revolts against the empire.

King Tut's death

King Tut's sarcophagus was on display at an exhibition in Bratislava, Slovakia, in December 2014.

(Image credit: Jaroslav Moravcik / Shutterstock)

Few archaeological mysteries conjure up as much excitement as this one: the mysterious mummy of the Egyptian boy pharaoh Tutankhamun.

King Tut's tomb was unearthed in 1922 by British Egyptologist Howard Carter, and tales of a "pharaoh's curse" that kills those who come near the tomb have circulated ever since. But the real mysteries of King Tut's tomb are even more interesting than any curse. Archaeologists believe that the boy king died unexpectedly, perhaps from an infection or from injuries sustained in a chariot accident. His untimely death may help to explain the strange condition that his mummy was in when it was discovered.

King Tut appears to have caught fire after his body was mummified and his tomb sealed. Experts who have studied the mummy believe that King Tut's linen wrappings, which were soaked in flammable embalming oils, may have reacted with oxygen in the air to start a chain reaction that ignited the king's corpse, "cooking" it at about 390 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Celsius).

A rushed burial was likely behind the botched embalming job that caused the fire. But the hasty burial of this royal figure also gives rise to another mystery: It's possible that King Tut's tomb was originally built for someone else, and there may be other, undiscovered mummies buried in the same tomb.

The Ark of the Covenant

This bas-relief image showing the Ark of the Covenant being carried is from the Auch Cathedral in France.

(Image credit: Photo by I. Vassil, released into public domain through Wikimedia)

The Ark of the Covenant is a gold-encrusted wooden chest that contains the stone tablets of the 10 commandments, according to the Book of Exodus. In ancient times, this holy box was kept in the First Temple, a Jewish place of worship in Jerusalem. But the First Temple was destroyed in 587 B.C. by a Babylonian army led by King Nebuchadnezzar II, according to the Hebrew Bible. No one knows for sure what became of the ark, though since its disappearance, many people (both real and fictional) have gone looking for it.

So far, no one has actually found the holy relic (apart from Indiana Jones, of course). Some ancient reports say that the ark made its way to Babylon after Nebuchadnezzar's sack of the city. Others say that the ark was buried somewhere in Jerusalem, or that it was destroyed along with the First Temple. Modern reports hint that the ark resides in a monastery in Ethiopia.

And a recently translated ancient Hebrew text suggests that the Ark of the Covenant will simply reveal itself, though not "until the day of the coming of the Messiah son of David." 

Voynich manuscript

The Voynich manuscript's unintelligible writings and strange illustrations have defied every attempt at understanding their meaning.

(Image credit: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

One of the most talked about books of the 20th century was an ancient text that no one could read. Discovered by an antique bookseller in 1912, the Voynich manuscript is a 250-page book written in an unknown alphabet and illustrated with a range of images, from female nudes to medicinal herbs and Zodiac signs.

The book, which is currently housed at Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, dates back some 600 years and was likely written in Central Europe, according to researchers. While some scholars believe the book is simply a Renaissance-era hoax full of unintelligible words, there are some who think the book's text is written in an unknown language. Others believe the book lays out some kind of code that has yet to be cracked.

Stephen Bax, a professor of applied linguistics at the University of Bedfordshire in England, claimed to have deciphered 14 of the Voynich manuscript's characters in February 2014. The book is most likely a treatise on nature, written in a Near Eastern or Asian language, according to Bax.

The Hobbits

skull of a hobbit and modern human

(Image credit: Professor Peter Brown, University of New England)

Some scientific discoveries are truly stranger than fiction. Case in point: the 2003 discovery of hobbits on the remote Indonesian island of Flores. No, scientists didn't stumble upon a real-world version of the Shire, but they did uncover the bones of the petite ancient hominin Homo floresiensis, which they quickly dubbed "the Hobbit."

The first H.floresiensisskeleton ever discovered belonged to a 3.5-foot-tall (1.06 meters), 30-year-old adult female. At first, researchers believed the diminutive bones may have belonged to a human with microcephalia, a condition characterized by a small head and short stature. But later discoveries of similarly sized skeletons suggested that the Hobbit isn't just a tiny human — it's its own species. Yet, H. floresiensis' exact place in the family tree of hominins (human ancestors) is still a mystery.

Disappearance of the Sanxingdui

A bronze mask with protruding eyes from the Sanxingdui culture.

(Image credit: Creative Commons)

Not every perplexing archaeological discovery is made by a seasoned archaeologist. In 1929, a man repairing a sewage ditch in China's Sichuan province uncovered a treasure trove of jade and stone artifacts. These treasures found their way into the hands of private collectors, and in 1986, archaeologists working in the area unearthed two more pits full of Bronze Age treasures, including jade, elephant tusks and bronze sculptures.

But who created these hidden wonders? Researchers now believe that members of the Sanxingdui civilization — a culture that collapsed between 3,000 and 2,800 years ago — made the artifacts. Archaeologists now know that the Sanxingdui once inhabited a walled city along the banks of the Minjiang River. But why they left this city, and why they buried so many artifacts in pits before absconding, is the source of much speculation among researchers. In 2014, researchers presented one idea at the the meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, suggesting that an earthquake 3,000 years ago may have rerouted the city's river, causing the inhabitants to move. 

Noah's Ark

Mount Ararat in Turkey.

(Image credit: Mount Ararat photo via Shutterstock)

Some things are so good you just want to discover them again and again — like Noah's Ark, for example. The Biblical boat has been discovered many times by many people … or has it?

For centuries, amateur archaeologists from around the world have claimed to find evidence of the ark on and around Mount Ararat in Turkey, which is where the boat came to rest, according to the Book of Genesis. But some researchers doubt whether Noah's giant ark was ever built. Like Atlantis, Noah's Ark is an archaeological mystery that will continue to be solved, again and again, even though it might not exist. 

The lost Maya

A temple in Tikal, one of the Maya city states.

(Image credit: Zap Ichigo, Shutterstock)

How does a civilization that thrived for the better part of six centuries just disappear? That's a mystery that archaeologists working in southern Mexico and northern Central America have been trying to solve for decades.

Around A.D. 900, the flourishing Mayan civilization collapsed, but the reasons for this downfall are unclear. Scientific studies suggest that drought may have played a key role in the fall of the Maya. As the Maya cleared forests to make way for bigger cities and farmland, they may have inadvertently worsened the frequent droughts that were their undoing, according to a study published in the journal Science in 2012.

Other researchers speculate that soil degradation and declining prey populations (white-tailed deer, in particular) contributed to the end of the Maya. Still others experts note that shifting trade routes, as well as internal political conflicts likely hurried the demise of the once great empire.

The Khatt Shebib

Using aerial photography, archaeologists in Jordan have mapped a ruined wall known today as the "Khatt Shebib."

(Image credit: APAAME_20051002_RHB-0068 © Robert Bewley, Aerial Photographic Archive for Archaeology in the Middle East)

You might think that a 93-mile-long (150 kilometers) stone wall would have a very obvious purpose, but that is not the case for the Khatt Shebib. This mystery wall in Jordan was first reported in 1948, and archaeologists still aren't sure why it was built, when it was built or who built it.

The wall runs north-northeast to south-southwest and contains sections where two walls run side by side, as well as sections where the wall branches off. Though today the wall is in ruins, in its heyday, most of it would have stood about 3.3 feet (1 meter) high and just 1.6 feet (0.5 meters) wide; it's unlikely that the Khatt Shebib was built to keep out invading armies. However, it may have been constructed to keep out less threatening enemies — like hungry goats, for example. Traces of ancient agriculture to the west of the wall suggest that the structure may have served as a boundary between ancient farmlands and the pastures of nomadic farmers, according to archaeologists with the Aerial Archaeology in Jordan project. [See Photos of the Mysterious Ancient Wall in Jordan]