Top 10 Discoveries of 2012

Features January/February 2013

ARCHAEOLOGY's editors reveal the year's most compelling stories

Any discussion of archaeology in the year 2012 would be incomplete without mention of the much-talked-about end of the Maya Long Count calendar and the apocalyptic prophecies it has engendered. With that in mind, as 2013 approaches, the year’s biggest discovery may actually be that we’re all still here—at least that’s what the editors of Archaeology continue to bet on.

However, you won’t find that story on our Top 10 list. We steered clear of speculation and focused, instead, on singular finds—the stuff, if you will—the material that comes out of the earth and changes what we thought we knew about the past. Here you’ll see discoveries that range from a work of Europe’s earliest wall art to the revelation that Neanderthals, our closest relatives, selectively picked and ate medicinal plants, and from the unexpected discovery of a 20-foot Egyptian ceremonial boat to the excavation of stunning masks that decorate a Maya temple and tell us of a civilization’s relation to the cosmos.

Then there are the discoveries that just made us wonder. What drove someone to wrap their valuables in a cloth and hide them almost 2,000 years ago? And why were people in Bronze Age Scotland gathering bones and burying them in bogs?

The finds span the last 50,000 years and cover territories from the cradle of civilization to what is today one of the world’s most populous cities. These are a few of the discoveries that speak to us of both our record of ingenuity and our humanity. The enduring question is always: Were the people behind the evidence anything like us?

  • Top 10 Discoveries of 2012 January/February 2013

    Maya Sun God Masks

    El Zotz, Guatemala

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    (Courtesy Stephen Houston, Brown University; Courtesy Edwin Román)
  • Top 10 Discoveries of 2012 January/February 2013

    Neanderthal Medicine Chest

    Piloña, Asturias, Spain

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    (Courtesy CSIC Comunicación)
  • Top 10 Discoveries of 2012 January/February 2013

    First Use of Poison

    Lebombo Mountains, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

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    (Courtesy of Francesco d’Errico and Lucinda Backwell)
  • Top 10 Discoveries of 2012 January/February 2013

    Aztec Ritual Burial

    Mexico City, Mexico

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    (Courtesy Melitón Tapia/INAH)
  • Top 10 Discoveries of 2012 January/February 2013

    Caesar’s Gallic Outpost

    Hermeskeil, Germany

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    (Courtesy © Sabine Hornung, Arno Braun)
  • Top 10 Discoveries of 2012 January/February 2013

    Europe’s Oldest Engraving

    Sergeac, France

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    (Courtesy Raphaëlle Bourrillon)
  • Top 10 Discoveries of 2012 January/February 2013

    The First Pots

    Jiangxi Province, China

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    (Courtesy Science/AAAS)
  • Top 10 Discoveries of 2012 January/February 2013

    Scottish “Frankenstein” Mummies

    South Uist, Scotland

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    (Courtesy Mike Parker Pearson)
  • Top 10 Discoveries of 2012 January/February 2013

    2,000-Year-Old Stashed Treasure

    Kiryat Gat, Israel

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    (Courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Top 10 Discoveries of 2012 January/February 2013

    Oldest Egyptian Funerary Boat

    Abu Rawash, Egypt

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    (Courtesy Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities)
  • Artifacts November/December 2012

    Beaker Vessels

    Ceramic beakers were the vessels of choice for the so-called “Black Drink” used at Cahokia by Native Americans in their purification rituals

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  • Around the World November/December 2012


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  • Digs & Discoveries November/December 2012

    The Desert and the Dead

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    (Courtesy Bernardo Arriaza)
  • Features November/December 2012

    Zeugma After the Flood

    New excavations continue to tell the story of an ancient city at the crossroads between east and west

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    Photo of Belkıs/Zeugma
    (Hasan Yelken/Images & Stories)