History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree uponNapoleon Bonaparte
Yours truly is an archaeologist. While it’s not my primary job anymore, I’m still obsessed with history and I’m not opposed to digging a few holes and getting covered in mud. Unfortunately, I never got to participate in the excavation of the archaeological sites below… at least 4 out of 5 of them but more on that later.
There are some archaeological sites that you see and go “… huh. I guess I can sort of imagine what that lump used to be…maybe. Anyone want to give me a hint? No? Okay…”. These aren’t those kinds of sites. These are blow your pants off, out of this world amazing archaeological sites that will take you back in time. Enjoy!
Rising out of the Wadi Mousa, Petra sites on a plateau in southwest Jordan. Inhabited as early as 7,000 BCE, Petra was located in a key area for trade. As early as the 4th century BCE. the Nabataeans gained control over the area and brought with them their superior knowledge of agriculture, harvesting rainwater, and stone carving. The site flourished, especially in the 1st century and its population peaked at around 20,000 inhabitants. In 106 CE, Petra lost its independence to the Roman empire and in 363 an earthquake destroyed many of its structures causing its importance to begin to decline. Christian churches were built during the course of the Byzantine era and the site was completely abandoned shortly afterwards. It wasn’t until the 19th century that it was rediscovered.
While most people only know of the Al-Khazneh structure that is believed to be the mausoleum of the Nabataean King Aretas IV, it is not the only incredible site to see. The Bab Al Siq features several stone carvings and serves as a gateway to the Siq which served as the main entrance to the city giving visitors an incredible first look at its wonders. The dam built several thousand years ago by the Nabataeans still stands and shows the incredible talent of the culture to control the frequent flash floods throughout the area.
The entire site is carved into the stone cliff face making it seamlessly blend into nature. There’s no better place to view this effect than in the Street of Facades where rows of monumental tombs are carved hundreds of feet tall. Keep walking and you’ll come across the theatre. This ancient structure, built between 4BCE-27CE, once seated 4,000 spectators.
Today, most of the archaeological park is open to tourists who can explore the outside of the impressive structures. Excavations are still ongoing today and focus primarily on how the lower classes lived their daily lives as opposed to only focusing on the well-documented upper classes.
Pompeii might be the most iconic and well-known archaeological site on earth. Located at the base of the infamous volcano, Mt. Vesuvius, Pompeii is an ancient Roman city that was preserved in time after an eruption in 76 CE encased the site in volcanic ash. The site is a rare glimpse into a snapshot of history as the feet of ash preserved the entire city’s last moments almost perfectly.
Soon after the eruption subsided, thieves and scavengers plundered pieces of the site in search of valuables. However, the site was soon forgotten, and covered further under subsequent eruptions. Part of the city was disturbed in 1592 when an aqueduct tore through several walls. Pieces of a villa were then discovered in 1693. It wasn’t until 1763 that an inscription was discovered revealing the city’s true name.
Since that time, near constant excavations under the direction of a variety of archaeologists have been conducted. I even had the extreme pleasure of getting to participate in one for three weeks! Villas, elaborate mosaics, plaster casts of people and animals, brothels, inscriptions, a theatre, and so much more have revealed themselves over the centuries. Most archaeological sites you can visit today have some rooms that are reconstructed as a best guess of what it used to look like. Pompeii is so unique in that archaeologists can determine exactly what each room looked like down to even minute details.
Today, the site is in a state of disrepair. Two-thirds of the site is excavated today and the other will remain untouched for the foreseeable future. In the early days of excavation, preservation was not a consideration. As a result, the site did not fare well over the centuries. Archaeologists and researchers alike have conservation as their top priority today, although funding does not go towards this as much as it should. Tourists frequently climb on sites and touch objects that can be affected by touch. To keep the site as preserved as possible, the remaining one-third will stay untouched.
No matter when you visit the site, you can immediately tell it’s a moving place. From the impressive entrance to the modest neighborhoods and the lavish villas, Pompeii is truly a site to see. In one of the museums you can view the plaster casts of the people and animals in the same positions they were as they breathed their last breaths and nothing is quite as moving as that.
Nestled high in the Andes mountains, Machu Picchu is the picture perfect archaeological site to visit. This site was built in the 15th century and later abandoned as the Spanish invaded nearby areas. The site was built as a seat of power for the Incan emperor Pachacuti and it certainly accomplishes a vision of complete beauty with its views, temples, and design.
Most of the buildings have been reconstructed to resemble their original glory, however no furnishings or roofs have been reconstructed. The entire site used to be covered with jungle which archaeologists battled out of the way to get to the history. Machu Picchu today is a luscious green color with giant stone slabs jutting from the earth. You can even see alpacas and llamas grazing their way around various areas of the site.
The entire site is divided into agricultural and urban sectors. Terraced gardens are a major feature which the Incans mastered. Each terrace features its own microclimate allowing them to grow and harvest crops that would not normally thrive in such high altitudes. Each of the 200 buildings are built to suit the mountain terrain and used the geography to their advantage.
One of the most impressive areas of the site features the religious and ceremonial aspects, the Intihuatana (ritual stone), Temple of the Sun, and Room of Three Windows. Most of the site is oriented around the sun as it was their most important deity. Machu Picchu as a whole represents the innovative, creative, and technologically advanced nature of the Incan culture.
Excavations took approximately 3 years to complete and the site has been open to tourists for decades. Due to the large number of tourists visiting each year, the site has begun to feel the effects of this. The Peruvian government declared the site’s preservation a major priority and has limited the number of people allowed in each day. Don’t let that keep you from visiting. There are many spaces to explore and the knowledgeable guides will reveal all of the hidden meanings of structures and carvings that most people would miss.
Chicen Itza is the second-most visited archaeological site in Mexico, but it deserves all of the hype. The town of Chicken Itza was founded in the 5th century CE and was located in an area already boasting many Mayan monuments. During the 10th century, the Toltec culture began to migrate north and the Mayan and Toltec cultures fused. The architecture of the site is the perfect example of these two influences coming together. By the 15th century, the city was in full decline and later abandoned until the 1800s when excavations were first conducted.
The main attraction of the site is the Kulkulkan Pyramid which rises ~100 feet. The 9-tiered terraces and 4 stairways symbolize the 9 heavens and the 4 directions of the compass. The main entrance is made even more impressive with two serpent heads guarding the temple. Once you’re done there make your way through the Hall of One Thousands Columns, believed to be the site of an indoor market or assembly area, to the Temple of Warriors.
Nearby is the ball court, market, Temple of Jaguars, and the steam bath, but don’t forget to explore outside of the city center. The tomb of Chacmool and the Cenote Sagrado are worth visiting as well with their impressive architecture and beautiful surroundings, respectively. The Wall of Skulls stands near the sacred waters, but has a much darker history. This wall used to hold stakes where the decapitated heads of human sacrifices were impaled. All that remains today are the carved skulls which serve as a grim reminder that the past isn’t always pleasant.
The Tomb of the High Priest sits on the southern part of the site and while much smaller than the Temple of Kulkulkan it is still worth seeing, especially for the serpent heads guarding the entrance. Nearby is the observatory which among other things allowed the priests to tell time more accurately. Complete your trip around the site with a trip to the Nunnery, a church with iconic symbols dedicated to the rain god.
The site is still being explored, analyzed, and discovered to this day. Most recently a new cenote was discovered, so who knows what new information will find its way to the surface in the coming years.
Flourishing from the 9th-15th centuries, this megacity in Cambodia is home to one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world, Angkor Wat. Spanning almost 250 miles, this city covers a massive area which includes urban and forested sites, hydraulic structures, sculptures, and temples. While much of this extremely large city has been excavated, there are many places still needing full excavations and most likely many areas still to be discovered.
With over 1,000 temples and structures to see it can be hard to even imagine which ones to choose to visit. Angkor Wat is by far the most visited and with good reason. This temple is the largest and most lavish with carvings decorating nearly every surface. You can explore seemingly endless corridors, galleries, chambers, courtyards, and more all doing their part to represent the Hindu myths, religion, and culture.
While Angkor Wat is the most visited, it shouldn’t be the only one to visit as archaeologists have painstakingly excavated over 1,000 other structures, giving visitors a unique glimpse into the past. The Ta Phrom temple is part archaeological structure, part jungle with tree roots cascading down and sometimes through the temple itself.
It’s hard to imagine a site like Angkor offering endless incredible sites, but it really does. The Elephant Terrace features a 1,000 foot terrace of elephant sculptures and even quite a few lions. Preah Khan is littered with snake and phallic symbols making it extremely interesting and different to see. While it has been vandalized over the years, it’s still a must-see site! Bayon and Baphuon are also unique with their intricate carvings, so make sure you make your way around Angkor to see them too.