Archaeology in the early 20th century was still in its developmental stages. Archaeologists just after the turn of the 19th to 20th century were still very much interested in finding treasures or acquisitions for large museums in the United States and Europe.
And few of their methods for acquisition fit into what we might consider ethical standards today: excavations were rushed, some even facilitated with the use of dynamite; often, little regard was given to context or subtle aspects of sites like pollen, phytoliths, soil stains, etc–floatation as a method to obtain light organic materials like pollens and seeds was ridiculed well into the 1970s (“marble doesn’t float!”); and backroom deals between archaeologists and local officials ensured that objects like the Nefertiti bust ended up in the hands of Western museums.
That said, there are still a number of very significant finds that are, even today, considered extremely important. I’m sharing five such sites and discoveries here, but keep in mind: this list is by no means exhaustive or even the TOP five. It’s just five that immediately come to mind for me.
1. 1900 – The Discovery of the Minoan Civilization
This story really begins in the late 19th century with Sir Arthur Evans. After his wife’s death in 1894, Evans decided to visit Crete for the first time. Where he ended up buying land at Knossos. At first, he only bought a portion of Kephala Hill in 1895. But in 1899, after Crete gained independence from Turkey, Evans purchased the rest of the Knossos site. He and David Hogarth began excavating in 1900.
Evans reckoned that Neolithic people first arrived at Knossos around 8,000 BCE, probably by boat, and probably creating buildings first of wattle and daub. Modern radiocarbon dates place the earliest occupation of Knossos at around 7,000-6,500 BCE, so he was pretty close in his early estimates.
During those first excavations, Evans discovered the Minoans. The plan of the palace at Knossos was laid out along with what Evans described as a throne room and magazines (storerooms). Over time, he uncovered many frescos, pottery, and burials. Minoan art is very distinctive and often evokes images related to the sea with octopuses, fish, an fishing, though bull imagery and bull-leaping are also a thing with the Minoans.
Eventually, Evans recreated the palace itself–what he intended as a true representation based on archaeological evidence. However, some are skeptical of its representational veracity, claiming it has influences of modern, 1920s art deco style. Still, others see it as an accurate facsimile. The reality is that it’s probably something in between.
Still, Evans did find in his excavations two tablets of great importance: the Linear A and Linear B tablets. Evans believed that the latter was a derivative script of the former, thus their sequential names. The Linear B tablet has been deciphered (by Michael Ventris in the 1950s), but the Linear A tablet has not.
2. 1906 – The Discovery of the Hittites
Already known through Biblical mythology and legend, the Hittites were discovered to be a genuine civilization with the excavation of the Hittite capital, Hattusa (Boghazkoy in modern Turkey). Excavations of Hattusa happened between 1906 and 1931.
The Hattusa excavation was run by Hugo Winckler and he discovered more than 10,000 tablets inscribed with cuneiform Akkadian but in an unknown language. An unknown language that matched a set of two letters previously discovered in 1887 during excavations in Amarna in Egypt. All that was known until then was that they were letters from the “kingdom of Kheta,” and that Kheta was located in the region of Mesopotamia known to 18th Dynasty Egyptians as the “land of Hatti.“
Other Hittite sites were also excavated soon after and, by the early 1940s, a wealth of material remains allowed archaeologists and linguists to discover and decipher their written language. Since about 1907, the German Archaeological Institute has continued excavations at Hattusa (Boghazkoy, Turkey).
3. 1911 – The Discovery of Machu Picchu
In 1911 Hiram Bingham (1875-1956) led an expedition in Peru that came across what he called “The Lost City of the Incas.” News of the discovery spread like wildfire at a time when the fastest method of communication was the telegraph and the early telephone. News papers covered it far and wide as the “Yale men” returned with their news of finding a “lost city.”
Of course, Bingham didn’t discover Machu Picchu, but he did effectively re-discover it. While lecturing on Latin American history at Yale, Bingham married a wealthy heiress and this is, perhaps, how he was able to fund his expedition after coming across mentions of a “secret capital” of the Incas where they based a campaign of resistance against the Spanish conquest in the 15th century.
Considered to be the last in a long line of American adventurers, Bingham might not have even discovered the ruins of Machu Picchu had he not agreed to a brief side-trip up a nearby hill from the camp they were preparing to break on the 24th of July 1911. A local farmer, Melchor Arteaga, told Bingham of the ruins and he reluctantly agreed to make a mid-day journey to check it out.
Today, Machu Picchu is one of the most visited archaeological sites in South America if not the world. It may not be the actual “lost city of the Incas,” and it isn’t the capital Bingham was searching for, but it is believed to be the estate for Inca emperor Pachacuti, built around 1450 CE and abandoned by the time the Spanish began their conquest nearly 100 years later.
4. 1922 – The Discovery of Tutankhamen’s Tomb
Lord Carnarvon, a wealthy British antiquarian hired Howard Carter in 1909 to find something cool to excavate in Egypt. Carter began his career in archaeology working for Sir William Flinders Petrie and had a decade of experience by this time.
World War I put a bit of a damper on things, so Carnarvon and Carter were getting a little frustrated. They agreed that if nothing cool was found by 1922, they’d call it quits by the end of the year.
As luck would have it, Carnarvon received a telegram from Carter in November: “At last have made a cool discovery… the coolest of tombs with seals intact… recovered same for your arrival.” [substitute the words “wonderful” and “magnificent” for both instances of “cool” and you have it word-for-word].
The pair created a media frenzy and staged a grandiose spectacle of a tomb opening where they broke the seals and shined a light inside to describe all the “wonderful things!” Most scholars have little doubt that the pair already went inside the night before and re-sealed and re-set the tomb for the media the next day. Even without modern social media and satellite television, the media spectacle was effective. And Egyptologists have tried off-and-on over the years to duplicate it–most notably Zahi Hawass with live presentations on television.
This was certainly an important find for many reasons. For the media, the importance of the tomb was the riches it contained–the treasure! Gold and fine burial goods. For Carnarvon, the importance was the possibility of enhancing his personal collections. But for Carter and the archaeological community, this was an opportunity for two things: 1) obtain real information from an undisturbed burial of an Egyptian ruler from a crucial period in time (1336-1327 BCE); and 2) a way to show the world how archaeology of the 20th century is nothing like its 19th century forerunner. Gone are the days of looting and tomb-robbing in spite of Carnarvon’s ambitions. Or so was the hope.
5. 1926 – The Discovery of the Olmec Civilization
The word “Olmec” has been around at least since the 16th century and it’s the name the Aztec gave to the “people of the land of rubber” living along the Gulf of Mexico where rubber trees are native species. Around the middle of the 19th century, the term “Olmec” began to be used in connection with the large sculpted stone heads of Tabasco and Veracruz, two states in South Mexico.
But it was in 1926 that archaeologists Frans Blom and Oliver La Farge, working at the sites of La Venta and Tres Zapotes, began finding more of these huge heads. La Venta even had a pyramid. From here, the evidence for a distinct culture, being referred to as the Olmec, kept showing up at these sites as well as Cerro de las Mesas, San Lorenzo, and even Tlatilco just outside of modern Mexico City. By 1943, evidence for the Olmec culture was found as far north as Michoacan and as far south as Costa Rica.
The advent of radiocarbon dating techniques finally allowed archaeologists to show the Olmec to be a mother culture of a region in the Americas that had become known as Mesoamerica. The culture peaked at between 1200 and 400 BCE, making the Olmec culture one that was contemporary with the New Kingdom of Egypt, the Dark Age of Greece, and–later–the first Olympic Games of Greece.
It seems likely that the later Mesoamerican cosmology, worldviews, and socio-political organizations of the Maya, Aztec, and others have their roots in Olmec culture. There is even an early hieroglyphic script called Epi-Olmec that shows up about 400 years before full-fledged writing at La Venta.
That’s my five discoveries of the early 20th century that I think were of great importance. There are definitely some others though. Comment below with the sites or discoveries you feel are of equal or greater importance to these.