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Archaeologist excavates ancient human skull at a Scythian necropolis at Chervony Mayak, Ukraine
An archaeologist carefully examines a skull, while excavating the late Scythian burial ground of Chervony Mayak, Ukraine (2017). Image by Nataliya Shestakova. (CC BY 4.0)

What is Archaeology?

Archaeology is the scientific study of the human past, through the systematic recovery, documentation, and analysis of fossils, artifacts, rocks, structures and other physical remains.

The term 'archaeology' comes from the Greek words "archaios" (ancient) and "logos" (word or study).

Note: for an explanation of archaeological terms relating to prehistory and the ancient world, see: Archaeology Glossary.


Except for the Paleolithic, dates are very approximate, since all the above periods began and ended at different times around the world.

Note: The term 'Ancient World' refers to the events of the period 3000 BC to 500 AD. This is coterminous with the Bronze and Iron Ages. See also: Ancient Art.

What is an Archaeological Site?

Answer: An archaeological site is any spot which contains physical remains of past human activities. There are two basic types of site: prehistoric and historical.

Examples of Prehistoric Sites

A site can be as small as a pile of debitage (flint flakes left-over from tool-making), half a dozen stone tools abandoned by a prehistoric hunter, a kitchen midden (Stone Age garbage heap), or a buried human skull.

Or it can be as large and complex as the Burrup Peninsula, one of Australia's largest and densest sites of prehistoric art; or the paleolithic painted caves of the Vézère Valley UNESCO World Heritage Site, in the French Dordogne.

Examples of Historical Sites

Historical sites are those dating from roughly 2,500 BC onwards, when happenings were recorded in writing.

They embrace a wide variety of archaeological sites, including: cathedrals, cemeteries, catacombs, temples, tombs, battlefields, scenes of disaster, shipwrecks, concentration camps, factories, mills, factories, and underground houses and communities.

Among the best examples of historical sites are the Egyptian pyramids. (See below)

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Contents of Archaeological Sites

The two most important things which are commonly found at archaeological sites are artifacts and fossils.

What are Artifacts?

Answer: An artifact is any object made, modified, or used by humans. Artifacts are the evidence that archaeologists collect, to build up a picture of what happened in our past.

Archaeologists analyze artifacts to learn about the skills and behaviours of those who made and used them. Examples include:

Pottery and Ceramics

Ancient pottery and ceramics are among the most common and enduring artifacts found at archaeological sites. See also: Timeline of Ancient Pottery.

These artifacts serve as valuable clues to ancient cultures' artistic styles, craftsmanship, and technological advancements.

Different types of pottery vessels, such as storage jars, cooking pots, and drinking vessels, offer insights into food preparation, trade networks, and daily life.

Stone Tools

Stone tools are essential artifacts in understanding hominins, as well as prehistoric societies and their technological capabilities.

From hand axes to arrowheads, choppers to microliths, and burins to blades, stone tools are a key behavioural marker.

Analysis of tool typology and raw materials, helps archaeologists to understand the evolution of ancient hunting, crafting, and tool-making practices. See also: History of Stone Tools.

Metal Artifacts

These include bronze tools, weapons of all description, and jewellery. The discovery of metal artifacts can provide evidence of social stratification and the emergence of specialized artisan classes.

Modern archaeology concerns itself with metal machinery, including sunken submarines, ships like the Titanic, or crashed planes.

Bone and Antler Artifacts

These include scrapers, needles, awls, combs, atlatls, bows and arrows, and projectile points, as well as cultural objects - all of which offer valuable insights into prehistoric lifestyles.

See, for instance, the Bison Licking Its Side, part of an antler spear thrower (atlatl) from La Madeleine rock shelter.

Textiles and Fibers

Clothes are key indicators of social progression. What textiles are used, and how they are woven and fastened, are small but important signs of how our ancestors lived.

Architecture and Building Materials

Architectural remains, including walls, foundations, and structural features, reveal the layout and design of ancient settlements and buildings.

They help archaeologists to understand how families and communities built their homes/shelters, and how societies built and valued their religious structures.

A study of the construction materials used, the size and numbers of rooms, and the number of hearths, can tell us the relative status of the occupants, among other things. See, for instance, the Çatalhöyük proto-city.

Art and Symbolic Artifacts

This type of artifact includes works like the painted slabs at Apollo 11 Cave Stones, the sculpted blocks at Roc-aux-Sorciers, or the venus figurines from across Europe.

All these items have profound cultural significance. They offer glimpses into ancient belief systems, religious practices and, most importantly, human cognitive skills and creativity.

Almost all the sophisticated art of the Stone Age was created by Homo sapiens, during the Upper Paleolithic.

Arrangements of Rocks

Stones that are part of symbolic arrangements are also seen as artifacts.

Open air arrangements (petroforms) include the Carnac Stones in Brittany. Indoor arrangements include the speleothem structures in the Bruniquel Cave in southern France.

Coins and Tokens

These serve as crucial artifacts for understanding ancient economies, trade, and systems of exchange. They provide insights into currency systems and the trade networks of ancient societies.

Personal Artifacts

Includes jewellery, amulets, and personal adornments. These items reflect individual identity, status, and fashion trends in ancient societies.

See, for instance, the Krapina Eagle Claw Jewellery found in northwest Croatia, or the Cave of Los Aviones Shell Jewellery.

Ochre Pigments

Ochre pigments, especially ochre crayons, may be signs of decorative art, like body painting, and cave painting.

Writing and Inscriptions

Inscriptions and written texts, whether on stone, clay, or other materials, provide essential historical records and insights into ancient languages and communication systems.

See, for instance, The Inscription at La Pasiega Cave, the Hammurabi Stele (with its Code of Hammurabi), or the pyramid texts discovered at the Pyramid of Teti.


Features are non-portable artifacts, such as like soil stains that reveal the original positions of storage pits, structures, or fences.

They include pyramids and menhirs, walls, pits, middens, ditches, foundations, cisterns, wells, and pathways/roads, to name but a few.


Biofacts, also known as ecofacts, consist of natural remains that are associated with human activity.

Or, to put it another way, any organic material at an archaeological site, which has not been altered by humans, yet still possesses cultural relevance.

Biofacts include collections of charcoal, seeds, other plant remains, as well as cesspits and latrines. All these things may yield important insights into human life of the time.

Plant and animal remains, for instance, can indicate hunting and dietary patterns. The huge piles of reindeer bones found in Magdalenian caves, were a clear sign that hunters had (for various reasons) started to focus almost exclusively on reindeer.

Acoustic Phenomena: Audiofacts

A new field, known as archaeoacoustics, has opened up recently, which concerns itself with acoustic resonance in paleolithic caves - such as Niaux Cave, Grande Grotte d'Arcy-sur-Cure, Le Portel, and Lascaux - at spots decorated with cave art.

Recordings of acoustic response - that is, echoes of sounds made at these locations of cave art - may soon qualify as prehistoric 'audiofacts'.

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What are Fossils?

Fossils are the preserved remains or traces of once-living organisms that provide insights into the history of life on Earth. These ancient remains can be found in various forms, including bones, teeth, shells, imprints, and even petrified wood.

Fossilization occurs through a complex process involving burial and mineralization, which preserves the organic material and transforms it into rock over millions of years.

While archaeology primarily deals with the study of human history and culture through material remains, fossils play a significant role in reconstructing past ecosystems, climate conditions, and the evolution of various organisms, including our hominin ancestors.

These fossils provide evidence of the flora and fauna that existed in ancient environments, shedding light on the subsistence patterns, dietary habits, and ecological relationships of past human societies.

Fossils also contribute to understanding the age and geological context of archaeological sites. Paleontological dating methods, such as biostratigraphy and radiocarbon dating of fossilized organic material, help archaeologists establish the relative and absolute chronology of sites.

Hominin fossils are particularly significant in archaeological research, as they provide direct evidence of human evolution and the development of cultural and technological traits.

Examples include 'Lucy' the australopithecus skeleton of a young female, found in Ethiopia. Australopithecines are thought to be closely associated with the first human species, but precise evidence is lacking.

Thanks to archaeogenetics and its analysis of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), discoveries of the remains of hominins, such as Homo ergaster, Neanderthals, and Denisovans, have transformed our understanding of human prehistory and migration patterns.

In addition, fossilized pollen and plant remains found in archaeological contexts offer critical information about ancient environments, vegetation, and climate change.

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Archaeological Methods

The job of an archaeologist involves six basic tasks.

  1. Location of the archaeological site.
  2. Excavation of the site.
  3. Identification and preservation of the discovered artifacts.
  4. Dating of the artifacts.
  5. Documenting of all the above.
  6. Analysis of the findings.

The methods used to complete these tasks, include the following:


An archaeological survey involves systematically examining a given area to identify and document archaeological sites or features on the surface without excavation.

Surveys can be conducted through ground observation, aerial photography, and the use of remote sensing technologies like LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) to reveal buried structures and landscapes.

Ground-Penetrating Radar (GPR)

Ground-penetrating radar is a non-invasive geophysical technique that uses radar pulses to detect and map subsurface structures and features.

GPR helps archaeologists identify potential excavation targets and gain insights into hidden archaeological remains without disturbing the ground. This method has been invaluable in mapping the full extent of the archaeological site at Göbekli Tepe.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

GIS is a powerful tool used by archaeologists to map and analyze spatial data related to archaeological sites, landscape features, and environmental variables. GIS allows archaeologists to visualize and analyze patterns, distribution, and relationships within a given area.


Excavation is the primary method used by archaeologists to uncover and retrieve archaeological remains buried beneath the earth's surface.

It involves carefully removing layers of soil and sediment to expose the artifacts, ecofacts, and structures preserved beneath.

Excavation is a meticulous process that requires precise documentation and recording of the context and stratigraphy of the materials encountered.

Unfortunately, several of the most important paleolithic caves were excavated very crudely during the early 20th century, with serious consequences for the preservation of important artifacts.

Modern archaeologists and anthropologists, like Randall White, have introduced a far more professional approach to excavation.

This has led to a number of important discoveries at Abri Blanchard, as well as Abri Castanet and Abri Cellier, in the Vézère Valley, in the Dordogne.

Here are some of the most common excavation methods.

Stratigraphic Excavation

Also known as stratigraphy, this method is based on the principle of superposition, which states that the deeper layers of soil are older than the upper layers.

Archaeologists use this method to establish a chronological sequence of events at a site. Each layer or stratum is meticulously documented, and artifacts found within these layers are assigned to specific time periods.

Horizontal Excavation

This involves digging along the surface of a site to expose entire structures or features. This method is particularly useful when dealing with large structures or when a site's vertical depth is limited.

Horizontal excavation provides a comprehensive view of the layout and organization of a site and allows for detailed mapping and analysis.

Vertical Excavation

This involves digging deep into the layers of a site. It is especially useful when attempting to establish a precise chronology or when studying deep cultural deposits.

Grid Excavation

This technique involves dividing the archaeological site into a series of squares or grids, each with its unique designation. The method ensures a systematic and organized approach to excavation, allowing for precise documentation of artifacts and features.

Trench Excavation

Trench excavation is typically employed when a large area needs to be excavated quickly. Archaeologists dig long, narrow trenches to expose multiple layers and features.

Trenches can provide an overview of the site's history and help identify areas that require further investigation.

Rescue Excavation

Also known as salvage excavation, this type of excavation is used in response to impending threats to archaeological sites, such as construction or development projects.

This method is used to quickly recover as much information as possible before the site is destroyed or altered.

Underwater Excavation

This involves excavating and documenting submerged archaeological sites.

This method is used to study shipwrecks, submerged settlements, and artifacts lost underwater due to sea-level rise. See, for instance, the mostly submerged Cosquer Cave, near Marseille.

Remote Sensing Techniques

In recent years, remote sensing techniques - including ground-penetrating radar, aerial photography, LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), and satellite imagery - have become popular.

These methods are used to identify features beneath the surface without the need for extensive and disruptive excavation.


Typology involves classifying artifacts into specific types based on their form, function, and style.

By organizing artifacts into groups, archaeologists can discern patterns and changes in material culture over time and across different cultures.

Typological analysis aids in dating and understanding the cultural context of artifacts.

Experimental Archaeology

Experimental archaeology involves recreating ancient techniques, processes, and technologies to understand how artifacts were made and used.

For example, experimental archaeology has been used extensively to investigate cupules, the mysterious man-made cup-shaped impressions in the surface of rock faces, to see how long they took to create.

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Dating Methods

Dating methods in archaeology are procedures used to determine the age of rocks, fossils, or artifacts.

There are two types of dating methods: relative and absolute.

Relative dating methods can only tell if one sample is older or younger than another, while absolute dating methods provide an approximate date in years for the tested sample.

Relative Dating Methods

One of the most widely used relative dating methods is Stratigraphy. This method is based on the principle that in undisturbed layers of sediment or rock, the older layers are found beneath the younger ones.

Archaeologists excavate sites in layers, called strata, and carefully document the position of artifacts and features within each layer.

By studying the vertical arrangement of these strata, archaeologists can establish a relative chronological sequence of events.

Seriation is another important relative dating method. This method relies on the assumption that styles of artifacts change over time.

Archaeologists use seriation to place artifacts in order, based on changes in their style or design.

This method is particularly useful for dating ceramic ware, as changes in pottery styles can be clearly observed over time.

Fluorine dating is another method. This is used for bones and other organic materials that have been buried in the same soil.

Over time, groundwater containing fluorine ions seeps into buried materials, gradually increasing the fluorine content.

By comparing the fluorine content of different samples, scientists can determine their relative age.

Fluorine dating is helpful for dating organic materials buried together but is limited to materials from specific geological contexts.

Absolute Dating Methods

Radiocarbon Dating

This method, also known as carbon-14 dating, is one of the most widely used archaeological dating methods.

It relies on the fact that living organisms absorb carbon-14 (a radioactive isotope) from the atmosphere through photosynthesis or consumption of other organisms.

When an organism dies, it no longer takes in new carbon-14, and the existing carbon-14 starts to decay at a known rate. By measuring the ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12 in organic remains, such as wood, charcoal, or bone, archaeologists can estimate the age of the sample.

Radiocarbon dating is especially effective for dating organic materials such as wood, charcoal, bone, shell, and other plant and animal remains.

Despite its widespread use and reliability, radiocarbon dating does have its limitations. The method is most accurate for dating materials up to about 50,000 years old, beyond which the amount of remaining carbon-14 becomes too small to measure accurately.

Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL)

OSL dating is used to date sediments and geological materials, such as sand grains or pottery.

It relies on the principle that certain minerals, like quartz and feldspar, accumulate energy from natural radiation over time.

When exposed to sunlight or heat, these minerals release the stored energy in the form of light, known as luminescence.

OSL dating is often used to determine the age of sediments that contain artifacts or other cultural materials. By measuring the luminescence emitted, researchers can calculate the time elapsed since the sediments were last exposed to sunlight or heat, giving an estimate of the artifact's age.

Thermoluminescence (TL) Dating

Thermoluminescence dating is a similar method to OSL dating but is applied specifically to ceramic materials.

Like OSL, thermoluminescence relies on the concept of luminescence in minerals.

When ceramic artifacts are fired during their creation, they absorb natural radiation from their surroundings. Over time, the radiation energy accumulates, and the ceramic's luminescence increases.

By heating the ceramic artifact in the laboratory, archaeologists can measure the emitted luminescence, allowing them to calculate the time since the artifact was last fired and its age.

Potassium-Argon Dating

Potassium-argon dating is a radiometric dating method used to determine the age of volcanic rocks and minerals.

It is based on the decay of potassium-40 (a radioactive isotope) into argon-40, with a half-life of approximately 1.3 billion years.

Volcanic rocks often contain potassium-bearing minerals, such as feldspar and mica, which accumulate argon over time.

By measuring the ratio of potassium-40 to argon-40 in a volcanic sample, archaeologists can calculate the time since the rock cooled and solidified, providing a minimum age for the artifacts found inside.

Uranium/Thorium Dating

This technique relies on the radioactive decay of uranium isotopes and their daughter thorium isotopes. It is able to date materials up to several hundred thousand years old.

The process begins with the incorporation of uranium into the calcium carbonate material through groundwater or ocean water.

Over time, the uranium undergoes radioactive decay, transforming into thorium. The decay occurs at a known rate, allowing scientists to use the ratio of uranium and thorium isotopes to calculate the age of the sample.

Unlike other radiometric dating methods, such as radiocarbon dating, which are effective for dating materials up to approximately 50,000 years old, Uranium/Thorium dating extends the dating range back hundreds of thousands of years.

This makes it particularly valuable for dating archaeological materials beyond the reach of other dating techniques.

One of the most significant applications of Uranium/Thorium dating is in the dating of cave formations, such as stalagmites and stalactites. These formations grow as mineral-rich water drips from cave ceilings, leaving behind layers of calcium carbonate over time.

By analyzing the ratio of uranium to thorium in these formations, scientists can accurately date the growth periods and ascertain when specific events, such as human occupation or climatic changes, occurred.

Similarly, Uranium/Thorium dating is commonly used to date marine shells found in archaeological sites. Marine organisms incorporate uranium and thorium from seawater into their shells during their lifetime.

After the organism dies, the uranium continues to decay into thorium, allowing scientists to determine the age of the shell and, by extension, the age of the archaeological context in which it was found.

The prehistoric art in several Spanish caves, such as Tito Bustillo (Asturias), was given much older dates by U/Th dating technology.


Dendrochronology, also known as tree-ring dating, relies on the analysis of tree rings in ancient wood samples.

Trees form one growth ring per year, and the width of each ring is influenced by environmental conditions such as temperature and precipitation.

By comparing the patterns of tree rings in ancient wood with those in modern tree-ring sequences, archaeologists can create a master chronology spanning hundreds or even thousands of years.

Dendrochronology is particularly useful for dating wooden artifacts and structures, such as buildings, tools, and even shipwrecks.

The precision of dendrochronology allows for highly accurate dating, often to the exact year the tree was felled.

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Archaeological Theory

The foundation of archaeological theory lies in the desire to answer fundamental questions about our past.

Cultural evolutionism

One of the earliest and most influential archaeological theories was cultural evolutionism, which emerged in the 19th century.

Pioneered by figures such as Lewis Henry Morgan and Edward Tylor, cultural evolutionism says that societies went through stages of development from simple to complex, with Western civilization seen as the pinnacle.

However, this theory has been criticized for its Eurocentric bias and for oversimplifying the complexities of human cultures.

Processual archaeology

By comparison, mid-20th century processual archaeology marked a significant shift in archaeological theory.

Led by scholars like Lewis Binford and Kent Flannery, processual archaeology emphasized the use of scientific methods and quantitative data analysis.

It focused on identifying the underlying processes that influenced cultural change, such as environmental factors and adaptive strategies.

Processual archaeology sought to make archaeology a more rigorous and objective scientific discipline.

Post-processual archaeology

In the late 20th century, post-processual archaeology adopted a more fundamentalist approach.

Post-processualists like Ian Hodder and Michael Shanks, questioned the so-called 'objective' nature of scientific archaeology, and instead emphasized the subjectivity of interpretation.

They argued that archaeologists' biases and preconceptions invariably influence their approach to their work.

Post-processual archaeology emphasizes the importance of understanding the past from the perspective of the people who lived it, acknowledging that interpretation is shaped by cultural context.

Feminist archaeology

Another theoretical approach is feminist archaeology. This seeks to address gender biases in archaeological interpretations.

Led by scholars like Margaret Conkey and Joan Gero, feminist archaeology aimed to reveal the roles and contributions of women in ancient societies, which were often overlooked in traditional archaeological narratives.

Indigenous archaeology

In recent years, archaeologists have embraced a more inclusive and collaborative approach known as indigenous archaeology.

This seeks to involve descendant communities in the research process, ensuring that their voices and perspectives are heard and respected.

It challenges the colonial legacy of archaeology and strives for ethical engagement with indigenous communities and their heritage.

Postcolonial archaeology

The more radical postcolonial archaeology has recently gained prominence. This aims to critically examine the legacy of colonialism in archaeological practice.

It seeks to decolonize archaeology by recognizing and addressing the unequal power dynamics between Western archaeologists and indigenous communities.

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Context in Archaeology

Context, in the area of archaeology, encompasses both the spatial and temporal relationships between artifacts, features, and their surrounding environment.

The spatial context refers to the physical location of artifacts and features within an archaeological site.

Successful excavation requires careful mapping and recording of the artifacts' positions relative to one another, which aids in reconstructing the layout of ancient settlements or activity areas.

The temporal context, on the other hand, refers to the relative dating of artifacts and features in relation to one another.

It helps archaeologists to establish the chronological sequence of events and activities that took place at the site.

Determining the temporal context is essential for understanding how the site evolved over time and how different cultural layers may have influenced one another.

One of the primary goals of archaeological excavation is to maintain the integrity of context during the process of recovery.

Contextual information can be lost or compromised if artifacts and features are not carefully documented and recorded in their original positions.

Proper excavation techniques, including stratigraphic analysis, help ensure that artifacts are unearthed in their stratigraphic context, allowing archaeologists to reconstruct the sequence of deposits and activities at the site accurately.

Understanding the context in which artifacts are found is crucial for accurate interpretation. For example, a ceramic vessel found in a ritual context may carry different symbolic meanings than the same vessel found in a domestic context.

The principle of association is closely related to context in archaeology. It asserts that artifacts found together are likely to have been used or deposited together, suggesting a functional or symbolic relationship.

For instance, the discovery of arrowheads near animal bones may indicate hunting activities, while the presence of religious artifacts near human burials may indicate burial rituals.

The concept of context also extends beyond the site level to the broader regional and cultural contexts. Archaeologists must consider how the site fits into the larger cultural landscape and how it relates to other contemporary sites.

Analyzing the distribution of artifacts and their raw material sources, for instance, can provide insights into ancient trade networks.

In recent years, there has been a growing emphasis on involving descendant communities in the research process.

This type of collaboration allows for a more holistic understanding of the archaeological context.

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Famous Archaeological Sites

Here is a short selected list of 22 famous archaeological places, many of which are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Lomekwi 3: 3.3 million BC

Lomekwi 3 ('a place of digging stones') is located near the eastern shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya. It was here in 2011, that a team of researchers led by Sonia Harmand and Jason Lewis uncovered the oldest stone tools known to history.

These tools - sharp-edged cores and flakes - date back to 3.3 million years ago, and predate the previously known stone tools by nearly 700,000 years.

The discovery challenges the long-held belief that early toolmaking skills emerged with Homo habilis, suggesting that tool-making behaviours may have originated earlier than previously thought.

Right now, Lomekwi 3 marks the starting point of Stone Age culture, but future discoveries of stone tools may push the date back even earlier.

Olduvai Gorge: 2 million BC

One of the most renowned sites in Africa, Olduvai Gorge lies within the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania, and is closely associated with the work of Louis, Mary and Jonathan Leakey.

The site has yielded a treasure trove of hominin fossils and stone tools (choppers and flakes), providing a comprehensive record of human evolution.

The remains of several early hominins have been found in Olduvai Gorge, including those of such as Australopithecus boisei, Homo habilis and Homo erectus.

The stratigraphic sequence at the site spans approximately two million years, making it a crucial location for understanding the evolutionary history of early humans in Africa.

Atapuerca: 1.2 million BC

The Archaeological Site of Atapuerca is located in the Atapuerca Mountains near the city of Burgos, in Spain.

The site consists of several cave sites, including Gran Dolina, Sima de los Huesos, and El Mirón.

Archaeological digs at Gran Dolina, led by José María Bermúdez de Castro and Eudald Carbonell, have revealed evidence of hominin activity dating back to around 1.2 million years ago.

Investigations at Sima de los Huesos, under the direction of Juan Luis Arsuaga, have yielded a large number of hominin fossils, including specimens of Homo heidelbergensis.

El Mirón, excavated by Lawrence Guy Straus, has provided evidence of modern humans during the Upper Paleolithic period.

Blombos Cave: c.100,000 BC

Blombos Cave on the southern coast of South Africa, was occupied by early modern humans over thousands of years.

In 1991 a team of archaeologists led by Christopher Henshilwood began excavating the cave.

In 2011, they found the world's oldest known drawing - a tiny fragment of silcrete stone decorated with a cross-hatched pattern of red ochre, dated to 71,000 BC.

Other finds included: a collection of stone tools, including blades and projectile points; a quantity of engraved marine shell beads, dating to 73,000 BC; and more than 8,000 pieces of ochre, dating to between 75,000-100,000 BC, including many which had been ground into crayons.

Leang Tedongnge Cave 43,500 BC

Leang Tedongnge Cave is one of many limestone caves in the Maros-Pangkep district of Sulawesi island, Indonesia. It contains the world's oldest figurative painting - a red ochre image of a warty pig, or suid.

This Sulawesi cave painting predates its European equivalents by at least 5,000 years. What's more, there are hundreds of other similar, but unexcavated caves in the area.

El Castillo Cave: c.39,000 BC

Located in the Cantabria region of northern Spain, El Castillo Cave was recently made famous when a red dot sign was dated to the Aurignacian culture, around 39,000 BC.

The cave was discovered by Hermilio Alcalde del Río in 1903, and its art consists of paintings and engravings, featuring a variety of animals (including some rare images of dogs), hand stencils, and abstract motifs.

The Stone Age artists used red, black, and yellow pigments to create vivid depictions of animals, often superimposing them to give the impression of movement and interaction.

Chauvet Cave: c.36,000 BC

Located in the Ardèche department of southern France, the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave is seen as one of the most extraordinary sites of Upper paleolithic art in France.

The antiquity of its charcoal drawings is still 'disbelieved' by some experts, despite a battery of direct datings.

The cave had remained sealed by a rockfall for some 20,000 years, until it was discovered by Jean-Marie Chauvet, Éliette Brunel Deschamps, and Christian Hillaire in 1994.

The cave's walls are adorned with an extraordinary collection of animal pictures, featuring rhinoceroses, lions, mammoths, and cave bears.

The delicate and skillful use of lines and shading gives the animals a real sense of movement and life. Chauvet is recognized as the benchmark for charcoal drawing during the Upper Paleolithic.

Altamira Cave: c.34,000 BC

Located in the Cantabria region of northern Spain, Altamira Cave was one of the first great painted caves to be excavated.

One of the cave's large red claviform symbols was recently dated to the era of Aurignacian art, no later than 34,160 BC.

However, most of its paintings date to the Magdalenian culture after 15,000 BC, including its multi-coloured 'ceiling of the bison.'

Altamira's artists mainly painted bison, horses, and other animals, using a Stone Age colour palette of red, yellow, and black.

They also used the cave's contours and relief to enhance the animals' three-dimensional appearance, and emphasize their power and majesty.

Altamira's cave art was initially met with skepticism. Critics could not believe that prehistoric people were incapable of creating such sophisticated paintings.

Nevertheless, the cave's authenticity was eventually established, and Altamira is now seen as the highpoint of cave painting during the final phase of the Paleolithic.

Lascaux Cave: c.19,000 BC

Located in the Dordogne region, Lascaux Cave is one of the most famous painted caves in the world.

Discovered by accident, by a group of teenage boys in 1940, the cave's enormous collection of cave art - comprising some 2,000 images of which 600 are paintings, and the rest engravings - predominantly features horses, bulls, and deer, often portrayed in dynamic motion.

The collection includes a number of iconic images. These include the massive black bulls, in the Hall of the Bulls; the Bird Man and Bison, in the Shaft; the Large Sorcerer, or Wizard, at the junction of the Apse and the Nave; and many more.

In addition, there are a mass of different abstract signs and symbols throughout the cave.

Göbekli Tepe: 9500-8000 BC

Situated in southeastern Turkey, Göbekli Tepe is a Neolithic hunter-gatherer sanctuary that proves some populations created monumental religious, or ceremonial, buildings, before they began farming.

This challenges the notion that agriculture was a prerequisite for monumental architecture and complex social structures.

Göbekli Tepe consists of multiple circular enclosures with large T-shaped pillars, some adorned with intricate carvings of animals and symbols. These carvings are the oldest megalithic art in the world.

The purpose of Göbekli Tepe remains a subject of debate, but it is believed to have held significant ritual or religious importance.

Overall, the site implies a degree of social organization and architectural sophistication that was previously unheard of, among hunter-gatherer societies.

Cueva de las Mano: 7300 BC

The so-called 'Cave of the Hands', in the remote Argentinian region of Southern Patagonia, is world famous for its prehistoric collages of hand stencils and other handprints, dating to 7,300 BC.

There are over 2,000 handprints painted in and around the cave, in manganese dioxide (black), iron oxides (red), kaolin (white) and natrojarosite (yellow) pigments.

Troy: 3600-1200 BC

The ancient Turkish city of Troy, immortalized in Homer's epic poem the Iliad, was believed to be a mythical place until its rediscovery in the late 19th century by the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann.

The site is famous for its multiple layers of occupation, with nine ancient cities built one on top of the other.

Schliemann's excavations unearthed treasures such as gold jewellery and beautifully crafted artifacts, leading some to speculate that he had found the legendary "Treasure of Priam."

Troy is best known as the setting for the Greek-Trojan War, and the famous 'Trojan Horse' used by the Greeks to gain entry to the city. The main ancient source for the story is the Aeneid, an epic poem in latin, by Virgil.

Stonehenge: 3000-2000 BC

Stonehenge, located on Salisbury Plain, UK, is an iconic Neolithic monument consisting of a circular arrangement of large standing stones.

The latest research suggests Stonehenge was built by descendants of early farmers from the Eastern Mediterranean, along with descendants of hunter-gatherers from western Europe.

It also indicates that Stonehenge served as a ceremonial and burial site.

The site was built in stages from about 3,100 to 1,600 BC. It involved the use of a large number of megaliths of enormous size and weight.

They included: 30 giant sarsen stones, weighing about 25 tons each; and at least 5 larger trilithons, each weighing 50 tons. Some had been transported for hundreds of miles.

Two other henges are situated nearby. They are Woodhenge and Avebury Henge. The latter is the largest stone circle in Europe, consisting of about 100 megaliths, encircled by a 6-metre high mound.

Royal Tombs at Ur: 2600 BC

Ur was the greatest city-state of the Sumerian Empire. The excavation of its ruins (1922-34) was led by British archaeologist Leonard Woolley.

The highlight of the dig was the excavation of the Royal Tombs, which yielded many valuable artifacts, including a quantity of gold jewellery, as well as the Standard of Ur.

One of the masterpieces of Sumerian art recovered from a communal tomb known as the Great Death Pit at Ur, is a pair of figurines called Ram in a Thicket, made with gold and silver, lapis lazuli, copper, shell and red limestone.

Memphite Necropolis: 2580-2560 BC

Located on the outskirts of Cairo is the Memphite Necropolis, which consists of four sets of Ancient Egyptian pyramids, which were built as monumental tombs for the Egyptian pharaohs. They are located at Giza, Abusir, Saqqara and Dahshur. Together, they contain the greatest collection of megalithic architecture in the world.

Each pyramid contains elaborate burial chambers, funerary goods, and intricate hieroglyphic inscriptions, providing invaluable insights into ancient Egyptian beliefs and funerary practices.

Alongside the pyramids at Giza, stands the enigmatic Great Sphinx, a massive limestone statue with the head of a human and the body of a lion.

In total, the necropolis occupies a 30-kilometre long parcel of the Western Desert, in the vicinity of the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis.

For details, see the following sites:

Mohenjo-Daro: 2500 BC

Mohenjo-Daro, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Pakistani Indus Valley, was one of the largest settlements of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization.

Archaeological digs led by Sir John Marshall in the 1920s and 1930s uncovered a sophisticated urban centre with advanced city planning and drainage systems.

The site's ruins include large public baths, granaries, and residential structures, indicative of a highly organized society with complex social and economic structures.

One of its iconic pieces of sculpture is the bronze female nude, known as the Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-Daro (c.2000 BC).

Ancient Thebes with its Necropolis

Thebes, the city of the god Amun-Ra, was the capital of Egypt during the Middle and New Kingdoms. Includes Egyptian temples and palaces at Karnak and Luxor, and the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

Lion Gate, Hattusa: 14th Century BC

The most famous archaeological site of Hittite culture is the Lion Gate at Hattusa, capital of the Hittite Empire. It featured two huge lion sculptures flanking the gate's outer bronze doors. Originally, the lions' eye sockets were lined with precious minerals.

The Lions Gate at Hattusa is constructed in the same way as the Lion Gate entrance to the city of Mycenae.

Sennacherib's Palace, Nineveh: 693 BC

One of the great archaeological sites of Assyrian art and culture, Sennacherib’s Southwest Palace in Nineveh - known as the 'Palace without Rival' - was bigger than any other Assyrian royal palace, up to then, but took only 8 years to build. Its wall were covered with alabaster reliefs, while colossal winged bulls and lions guarded key gateways.

Babylon: 626-539 BC

The ancient city of Babylon - now in ruins - was the centre of Babylonian art and architecture during the Neo-Babylonian Empire.

Ancient writings from Herodotus to the Old Testament describe its beautiful temples, shrines and palaces, but the city's greatest archaeological treasure must be the Ishtar Gate (575 BC).

Standing 12 metres tall, the gate was built from enamelled bricks, in cobalt blues and sea greens, and decorated with more than 500 relief sculptures of bulls, lions and dragons. A replica now stands in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin.

The Ishtar gate was the last great work of Mesopotamian art, before the region was conquered by the Persians in 539 BC, led by King Cyrus the Great.

Pompeii: AD 79

Pompeii was an ancient Roman city located near Naples, Italy. In AD 79, Pompei, together with Herculaneum and many buildings in the surrounding area were buried under 4 to 6 metres of volcanic ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted.

Most occupants had left during the previous two days of volcanic activity, but 1,500 were killed.

The city is preserved almost exactly as it was when the eruption occured, even down to the colloquial Latin graffiti carved on the walls.

Chichen Itza: 600-1200

Chichen Itza, one of the largest ancient cities of the Maya civilization, is located on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

Dominated by the iconic Pyramid of Kukulkan, it was built during the Late Classic period, and contains a 5 square kilometre core of mixed Maya and Toltec architecture, including the Puuc and Chenes styles of the northern Yucatán Peninsula.

The city's name means 'At the mouth of the well of the Itza' - the Itza being the dominant ethnic-lineage group of the region.

Archaeologists, including Edward Herbert Thompson in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, have uncovered impressive structures such as the Temple of Warriors, the Ball Court, and the Great Cenote.

These excavations have provided significant insights into the advanced engineering and astronomical knowledge of the Maya culture: a Mesoamerican civilization that lasted from 250 to 1697.

The city contains the remains of many fine stone buildings, connected by a network of paved causeways, known as sacbeob. Many buildings were originally decorated in red, green, blue and purple colours.

Machu Picchu: 1450-1572

The 15th-century Inca citadel of Machu Picchu sits at an altitude of 2,430-metres (7,970 ft) in the Andes Mountains of southern Peru.

The site, whose name In the local Andean Quechua language, means 'old pyramid', is an architectural marvel and a testament to the remarkable engineering skills of the Inca civilization.

Rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911, it has breathtaking terraces, temples, and residential buildings - all sitting on a narrow mountain ridge.

The complex served as both a royal retreat and a religious centre.

Excavations have yielded valuable artifacts, including ceramics, textiles, and ritual objects.

In a recent online poll, the site was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

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Famous Archaeologists

Here is a short and highly selective list of famous archaeologists and prehistorians, who have done much for prehistoric and ancient archaeology.

Heinrich Schliemann (1822-90)

Heinrich Schliemann was a German archaeologist best-known for his landmark excavation of the ancient city of Troy.

A believer in the essential factual nature of Homer's works, he began the excavation of Troy in 1870, at Hissarlik, in Turkey.

Within three years he had discovered nine buried cities.

He also excavated Mycenae, the ancient capital of Mycenaean culture, some 120 kilometres south-west of Athens. It was here that he discovered the Shaft Graves, along with the Mask of Agamemnon, a treasured described as the 'Mona Lisa of prehistory'.

Emile Cartailhac (1845-1921)

Emile Cartailhac was a controversial French archaeologist and prehistorian who rubbished the discovery of cave paintings at Altamira, and ruined the reputation of Altamira's discoverer, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola.

He eventually retracted his criticism and published a profound apology - 'Altamira: Mea culpa d'un sceptique' in 1902.

After this volte-face, he became one of the pioneers of cave art study, and one of the scientists who understood its exceptional importance.

Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941)

Arthur Evans was a British archaeologist noted for his pioneering studies of Bronze Age Greek cultures in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean.

He is best-known for discovering and excavating the palace of Knossos on the Greek island of Crete, the centre of Minoan civilization.

Evans was the first to define Cretan scripts Linear A and Linear B.

Linear A (still undeciphered) was the primary script used by Minoans in palace and religious writings. It was followed by Linear B, a script used for writing in Mycenaean Greek, the earliest form of the Greek language.

Linear B was eventually deciphered in 1952 by English linguist Michael Ventris (1922-56).

Sir Flinders Petrie (1853-1942)

Flinders Petrie was a British Egyptologist and a pioneer of professional methodology in archaeology, notably in the preservation of artifacts.

He was appointed to the first professorship of Egyptology in Britain - the Edwards Professor of Egyptian Archaeology and Philology at University College London - and was responsible for excavating many important archaeological sites in Egypt and Palestine, in conjunction with his wife, Hilda Urlin (1871–1957).

Louis Capitan (1854-1929)

Louis Capitan was a French archaeologist and paleontologist who conducted significant excavations in the Dordogne region of France.

He collaborated with Denis Peyrony and played a crucial role in the exploration and documentation of prehistoric sites such as La Ferrassie, and others, uncovering important Neanderthal fossils and stone tools.

Denis Peyrony (1869-1954)

Denis Peyrony was a French archaeologist known for his work on prehistoric sites in the Dordogne region of France. He played a crucial role in excavating and identifying numerous Paleolithic sites, including Les Eyzies and La Micoque.

Peyrony's meticulous stratigraphic studies and classification of stone tools advanced our understanding of prehistoric cultures and their technological advancements.

Howard Carter (1874-1939)

Howard Carter was a British archaeologist and Egyptologist known for his discovery, in 1922, of the tomb of the 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Tutankhamun, in the Valley of the Kings, Egypt.

The discovery of this intact royal tomb, filled with treasures and artifacts, was a momentous event in the world of archaeology and Egyptology.

Carter's meticulous work, assessing and documenting the thousands of items in the royal tomb, took nearly ten years, with most of the artifacts being moved to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Abbé Henri Breuil (1877-1961)

Abbé Henri Breuil was a pioneering French archaeologist, and a recognised authority on European Stone Age art.

Almost no painted cave was excavated in France during the first half of the 20th century, without his presence.

He published numerous books and monographs, and helped to introduce the caves of Lascaux and Altamira to the general public.

Sir Mortimer Wheeler (1890-1976)

Mortimer Wheeler was one of the most important British archaeologists of the 20th century and a founder of the British Institute of Archaeology.

He is noted for his work on Roman archaeological sites at Verulamium (St Albans), Maiden Castle (Dorset), and later in India.

He also investigated several Iron Age sites in Brittany.

After World War II, he became fascinated by the Bronze Age Indus Valley Civilization, and conducted an excavation at Mohenjo-daro.

Louis Leakey (1903-1972)

Louis Leakey was a British archaeologist and paleoanthropologist who significantly advanced our understanding of human evolution, by showing that humans originated in Africa.

He conducted extensive excavations in East Africa, most notably in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania.

Along with his wife Mary Leakey, he made groundbreaking discoveries of early hominin fossils, including those of Homo habilis and Homo erectus.

Leakey's work revolutionized the understanding of human origins and the complexities of our evolutionary history.

André Leroi-Gourhan (1911-1986)

André Leroi-Gourhan was an important French archaeologist and theorist about prehistoric cave painting.

In his analysis of parietal art, he identified a masculine/feminine duality – which he said could be observed in the bison/horse and aurochs/horse pairs, and in certain opposing abstract signs. These ideas have since been discredited.

Leroi-Gourhan also defined an ongoing stylistic evolution of cave painting through four consecutive styles: Aurignacian, Gravettian, Early Magdalenian and Late Magdalenian. This has been broadly used for decades to indirectly date the cave painting in several French caves.

Mary Leakey (1913-1996)

Mary Leakey, wife of Louis Leakey, was a British archaeologist and paleoanthropologist in her own right. She continued her husband's work in East Africa and made remarkable contributions to the study of early hominins.

Notably, she discovered the Laetoli footprints in Tanzania, which provided evidence of early hominins' bipedalism.

Mary's excavation and documentation skills, solidified her place as one of the most influential archaeologists of her time.

Klaus Schmidt (1953-2014)

Klaus Schmidt was a German archaeologist and prehistorian who led the excavations at Göbekli Tepe from 1996 to 2014. His single-minded efforts led to one of the great epipaleolithic discoveries of the modern era - the world's oldest known example of megalithic architecture and sculpture.

Related Disciplines

NEXT: Timeline of Prehistoric Art.


(1) William Rathje, et al; (2013). Archaeology in the Making. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-63480-9.
(2) Ian Hodder, et al; (2008). "Interpreting Archaeology: Finding Meaning in the Past". Routledge. London. ISBN 9780415157445.
(3) Greene, Kevin (1983) Archaeology, an Introduction: The History, Principles and Methods of Modern Archaeology. Barnes & Noble. ISBN: 9780389203629.
(4) Thomas Hester, et al; Field Methods in Archaeology 7th edition (2009) Routledge. ISBN 9781315428413.
(5) Colin Renfrew & Paul Bahn (2016) Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice. Thames and Hudson. ISBN13-978-0500292105.
(6) Geoffrey A. Clark (2009). "Accidents of History: Conceptual Frameworks in Palaeoarchaeology". In Marta Camps and Parth Chauhan (ed.) Sourcebook of Paleolithic Transitions: Methods, Theories, and Interpretations. Springer. pp. 19–42. ISBN 9780387764788.
(7) D.L. Hoffmann, et al. U-Th dating of carbonate crusts reveals Neandertal origin of Iberian cave art. Science. Feb 2018. Vol 359, Issue 6378 pp.912-915.

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