Five Early-20th Century Archaeological Discoveries of Great Importance

Machu Picchu in 1911
Machu Picchu in 1911

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

Minoan Octopus Vase (1500 BCE)
Minoan Octopus Vase (1500 BCE), photo
by Wolfgang Sauber.

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.

Palace at Knossos
Reconstructed portion of the Palace at Knossos, North Portico. Photo by
Bernard Gagnon, CC BY-SA 3.0

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.

Lion Gate at Hattusas
Lion Gate at Hattusas, the Hittite Empire. Photo from MCAD Library, CC BY-2.0

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

Hiram Bingham
Hiram Bingham with
a mule, ~ 1911.

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.

Hiram Bingham's team in Peru
Hiram Bingham’s team in Peru, photo assumed to be public domain based on age.

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.

Carnarvon, Herbert, and Carter at Tut's Tomb
Left-right, Lord Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn Herbert, and Howard Carter at the
entrance to Tutankhamen’s tomb. Photo by Harry Burton, public domain.

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].

Howard Carter opening King Tut's tomb
Howard Carter opening King Tut’s tomb. Photo from the New York Times,
public domain.

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.

Small Olmec Figurines
Small olmec figurines. Photo by Madman2001, CC BY 2.0.

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.

Huge Olmec Head
Huge Olmec head from San Lorenzo.
Photo by Maribel Ponce, CC BY 2.0

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.

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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.

About Carl Feagans 396 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

7 Comments

  1. I am extremely interested in archeology,so pleplease keep me posted on new discoveries via via email.

  2. Good article, Carl: just to toss out an idea, since you are interested in the Archaeological finds/claims that are bogus, how about an article about the Top 10 most bogus Archaeological finds of the past 2 centuries? Seemingly there would be a lot to choose from, from the Kinderhook Plates all the way to Piltdown man….

  3. Im back from a long contract. But I hope people here will accept that historians have got things very wrong !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. I think most rational people are happy to acknowledge that historians are sometimes wrong. Pretty much the same people who are happy to acknowledge that pseudoscientists are pretty much always wrong unless they are piggybacking on the work of a historian or archaeologist who has it right.

  5. ..historians, archaeologists, etc., all get things wrong, that’s for sure. The only time that really becomes an issue, is when a person in one of those fields has a hard time admitting it, or, as happens most of the time, finds a way to gently sweep the error under the rug, hoping no one will notice….

  6. Oh yeah, a quick look at the various debates that rage in academic journals and on online forums devoted to these fields on pretty much a regular basis prove that people in those field are all about quietly sweeping things under the rug. Oh yes indeedy. Ditto for historians or any given field that Hancock supporters are sore at this week for calling out his BS.

    Might want to do a little damage control over on the Hancock book review discussion. I’ve never heard of the physics journals that were mentioned and took some time to figure out the zinger. But apparently the electricity experts here aren’t subscribers either.

  7. James Ford: …now, now, James, did you miss your “drug research” session over the weekend? LOL…

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  1. Dig it find out archaeological magazine 26-05-2019 – ghostmanraines

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