Archaeology's TOP 10 DISCOVERIES
Archaeology|January/February 2022
DISCOVERIES

GOLDEN CITY

Luxor, Egypt

A settlement that was buried beneath the sand for thousands of years—and eluded archaeologists for centuries—is believed to be one of the largest ancient Egyptian cities ever unearthed. The site was discovered by a stroke of good luck when archaeologists began searching for the mortuary temple of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun (r. ca. 1336–1327 b.c.) along the west bank of the Nile in Luxor. What they found instead was a well-preserved urban settlement filled with houses, streets, and walls, some of which still stand 10 feet tall. Hieroglyphic inscriptions indicate the city was called tehn Aten, or “dazzling” Aten, and that it was founded by Tutankhamun’s grandfather Amenhotep III (r. ca. 1390–1352 b.c.). “I call this the ‘Golden City’ because it dates to the reign of Amenhotep III, which was the golden age of ancient Egypt,” says project director Zahi Hawass.

Aten was Egypt’s main administrative and industrial center. The city’s remarkable state of preservation is providing researchers with an unprecedented view of life there more than 3,000 years ago. Although only about one-third of the site has been excavated thus far, archaeologists have uncovered houses containing everyday objects including ceramic vessels, children’s dolls, and limestone gaming pieces. They have also identified bakeries, kitchens, and other areas associated with food production, as well as a vessel containing more than 20 pounds of dried meat prepped by a butcher named Luwy. There are also workshops that produced mudbricks and decorative amulets, and a residential and administrative neighborhood that was encircled by distinctive zigzag walls. Scholars do not yet understand why Aten fell into decline, but it may have been abandoned when Amenhotep III’s son, Akhenaten (r. ca. 1349–1336 b.c.), moved the Egyptian capital from Luxor to Amarna, 250 miles away. —JASON URBANUS

WORLD’S FIRST ARTISTS

Quesang Hot Spring, Tibet

The world’s earliest rock art may have been made by two creative children who lived in Tibet between 226,000 and 169,000 years ago. The young artists, probably either Neanderthals or members of the related Denisovan species, left a series of closely grouped handprints and footprints on an outcrop of a type of limestone called travertine. Travertine, which builds up around mineral springs, is initially soft enough to hold impressions. These can eventually harden after the spring changes course. Other ancient prints have been found preserved in travertine near the hot spring where the children’s prints were discovered, says Guangzhou University geologist and environmental archaeologist David Zhang. “The local people associate them with the Buddha,” he says, “but they were puzzled by these prints because they are so small.”

Zhang and his colleagues used uranium series dating, which examines trace amounts of uranium and thorium in calcium carbonate deposits such as travertine, to determine when the prints were left on the outcropping’s surface. Since uranium decays to thorium at a known rate, the researchers were able to calculate the age of the travertine from the ratio of the two elements. “I was shocked by the date,” says Zhang. “They are so early and there is no utilitarian explanation for how they are grouped together. They had to have been deliberately composed.” Zhang acknowledges that some might consider the prints childish doodles rather than true art. “What is play and what is art?” he asks. “We think these prints are both.” —ERIC A. POWELL

EARLIEST LEATHERWORKERS

Contrebandiers Cave, Morocco

While sorting through some 12,000 bone fragments excavated from Contrebandiers Cave near the Atlantic coast of Morocco, archaeologist Emily Hallett of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History noticed that some were smooth and shiny, as if they had been intentionally shaped by human hands. Upon consultation with colleagues, she determined that 62 of the fragments are bone tools dating to between 120,000 and 90,000 years ago. These include a number of tools made from animal rib bones of a type well known for its use in fur and leatherworking. “Once you have an animal skin, there are a lot of steps that have to be taken to process it so it’s supple, smooth, and ready to wear,” says Hallett. “These tools remove the connective tissues and fats from the skin without piercing and damaging it.”

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