Ötzi the iceman
In 1991, hikers climbing a glacier in the Italian Alps stumbled upon the frozen remains of a man who lived over 5,000 years ago. Known as Ötzi, the glacier mummy has since been the subject of intensive research by scientists. [Mummy Melodrama: Top 9 Secrets About Ötzi the Iceman]
Studies of the Copper Age mummy suggest that Ötzi was a shepherd, herding sheep, cows and goats near what is now the Italian-Austrian border. Scientists have concluded that Ötzi likely didn't live in the Alps, but rather spent most of his life in Isack Valley or the lower Puster Valley, in an area that is now part of northern Italy. And it's not just the ancient man's life that scientists are interested in; they're also keen to understand more about his death.
A study published in 2012 found that Ötzi bled to death after an arrow struck an artery in his shoulder. He also suffered a blow to the head during this fatal attack, according to researchers. Whether the shepherd fell and hit his head after the arrow struck him or was bludgeoned by his attackers remains a mystery.
In 1974, paleoanthropologists working in the Afar Triangle of Ethiopia unearthed hundreds of bone fossils belonging to the hominin species Australopithecus afarensis. The bones represented about 40 percent of the skeleton of a female of that species, who lived approximately 3.2 million years ago. Scientists dubbed this skeleton "Lucy."
For decades, Lucy represented the only known skeleton of A.afarensis(several other bones belonging to members of the species were found in the 1970s, but more complete specimens weren't unearthed until the 1990s). Like modern humans, A.afarensis walked upright on two legs, but recent studies suggest that Lucy and her kin also used their load-bearing arms to climb trees, where they may have searched for food or hidden out from hungry predators.
Palace of Knossos, Crete
Located on the Greek island of Crete, the Palace of Knossos is a Bronze Age structure built by the Minoan civilization around 1950 B.C. The palace complex covers about 150,000 square feet (14,000 square meters) and, in ancient times, was surrounded by a sizeable town.
The Palace of Knossos became a well-known archaeological site in the early 20th century, when British archaeologist Arthur Evans led a team of researchers in the excavation and restoration of the ancient site (though the first excavations at Knossos were conducted in 1878 by an archaeologist from Crete). Evans and his team discovered that the first palace built on the site had been severely damaged and that another palace was built on top of it around 1700 B.C., according to the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. The second palace stood until around 1450 B.C., when some kind of catastrophe (either a natural disaster or an enemy invasion) destroyed not only Knossos, but also other sites across Crete.
Knossos is perhaps best known for its colorful frescoes, many of which depict mythological creatures, marine wildlife and ceremonial scenes. The site also yielded many diverse examples of Minoan pottery, many of which are displayed at the nearby Heraklion Archaeological Museum.
Sutton Hoo, England
Located in the east of England, Sutton Hoo is the site of several early medieval cemeteries, including an Anglo-Saxon ship burial — one of the most remarkable archaeological finds ever discovered in Great Britain.
The ship burial was unearthed in 1939, when Edith Pretty, then the landowner of the Sutton Hoo estate, asked archaeologist Basil Brown to investigate a large burial mound on her property. Inside the mound, Brown found the remains of an 86-foot-long (27 meters) ship loaded with treasures and, as he would discover, the skeleton of a long-dead Anglo-Saxon leader. Artifacts from the burial mound include an iron helmet, gold jewelry and silverware, many of which are on display at the British Museum.
Cave of Altamira
The prehistoric paintings that adorn the walls of the Cave of Altamira in Spain were discovered in 1879 by an amateur archaeologist and his young daughter. The Paleolithic drawings, which were made with charcoal and natural earth pigments, depict bison, aurochs (an extinct species of wild cattle), horses, deer and the outlines of human hands.
Scientists believe that most of the drawings were created between 14,000 and 18,500 years ago, though a recent study suggests that some of the artwork at Altamira was created about 35,600 years ago — at a time when humans were just starting to inhabit northern Europe.
Located in the southeast Pacific, Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, is best known as the home of approximately 1,000 giant "head" statues, or moai. There are an estimated 900 moai on Rapa Nui, which were carved and erected sometime between the 11th and 17th centuries A.D., according to UNESCO. The figures, which consist of oversized heads atop long torsos, range in height from 6 feet (2 meters) to over 30 feet (9 m), though one unfinished moai on the island is over 65 feet (20 m) tall.
The moai, and the ceremonial platforms (ahu) around which they typically stand, were built by a group of Eastern Polynesian settlers, who came to the island sometime around the first century A.D. The Rapa Nui people worshiped their ancestors and depended on these ancestral gods for protection and good fortune during life and the afterlife, according to the Easter Island Statue Project. Researchers believe that the moai were constructed as representations of these deified ancestors.
In 1900, a group of sponge divers in the Mediterranean Sea came across a 2,000-year-old shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera. The divers hauled many artifacts from the wreck, including three flat pieces of corroded bronze that are now known as the Antikythera Mechanism.
The rusty old device sat in storage at the National Archaeology Museum, Athens, until the 1950s, when Derek J. de Solla Price, a science historian from Yale University, took interest in the find. Price described the mechanism as an "ancient Greek computer," and other researchers have referred to the Antikythera Mechanism as an astronomical calculator. It's about the size of a shoebox and contains an intricate system of gears and a crank on the outside that controls the gears. The two faces of the device contain a series of dials, which researchers believe corresponded to a display of the sun, moon and planets.
While the ancient Greeks could have used the device to track the position of the sun, the phases of the moon and even the cycles of Greek athletic competitions, researchers aren't sure why ancient people would have needed such a complicated device to track those cycles. Recently, researchers have suggested that the Antikythera Mechanism was used as an instructional device — more of a novelty than a necessity.
The Nazca Lines are geoglyphs (large designs produced on the ground) located on the coastal plateau of Peru. The designs, many of which were scratched on the ground or created with rocks, cover about 170 square miles (450 square kilometers). The oldest of the lines were made with rocks and date to 500 B.C., but the ancient Nazca people produced most of the designs between 200 B.C. and A.D. 500. Some of the Nazca Lines are simple geometric shapes, while others are in the shape of animals, like monkeys, birds and llamas.
The mysterious lines were never really "discovered," as they are visible from nearby foothills, and many people likely observed them before they were brought to the attention of the general public. Paul Kosok, a historian from the U.S., was the first researcher to seriously study the Nazca Lines in the 1940s. To this day, researchers aren't sure why the lines were made. However, there are a number of theories as to their possible uses, including those that suggest links to astronomy, religion and agriculture. [See Photos of the Mysterious Nazca Lines]
An antique dealer discovered the mysterious Voynich Manuscript in 1912 and immediately knew that he had stumbled upon something special — a book written in a language that no one can read. The 250-page book features a range of interesting images, from female nudes and Zodiac signs to drawings of medicinal plants.
Researchers believe that the book is about 600 years old and hails from Central Europe. One researcher who has studied the Voynich manuscript extensively believes that it is most likely a treatise on nature, written in an unknown Near Eastern or Asian Language. However, there are some scholars who believe that the manuscript is simply an elaborate hoax that has kept people guessing since the Renaissance. [The 25 Most Mysterious Archaeological Finds on Earth]
Located in southern Turkey, near the modern-day city of Urfa, Göbekli Tepe is an archaeological site that dates back more than 11,000 years. Only a small portion of the site has been excavated since its discovery in 1963, but researchers believe that the structures found there may have been part of a prehistoric temple — perhaps the first temple ever constructed.
Göbekli Tepe's standout features are its T-shaped limestone blocks, which line the site's stone rings. The rings were built so that each was inside of the other and the largest has a diameter of 100 feet (30 m). Before building a new ring inside of a larger ring, ancient people would line the outer ring with the T-shaped blocks and then fill the outer ring with debris. The blocks were also carved with images of people and animals. While researchers aren't sure exactly what purpose all of these rings and blocks served, some suspect that the site attracted people from all over the Near East and served as a place of pilgrimage.