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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
18th-19th century
20th century
     Wang Tao-shih and Aurel Stein
     Shang divination bones
     Machu Picchu
     Tomb of Tutankhamen
     Cemetery at Ur
     Peking Man
     Dead Sea Scrolls
     Workshop of Phidias
     The art of the San
     Chinese junk
     Ebla archive
     Royal tombs at Vergina
     Frozen corpse in the Alps
     Chauvet Cave

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Wang Daoshi and Sir Aurel Stein: 1899-1907

Wang Daoshi is a Daoist monk, living at Dunhuang - a site on the Silk Road, famous for its ancient Buddhist caves. As an act of piety he has cleaned out a cave long blocked by a fall of rock and sand. He is repairing its painted murals, when he investigates a large crack. Instead of rock, there is brick behind it. It is part of a wall sealing off an inner cave.

This inner cave is stacked to the roof with ancient scrolls. They have been sealed away here, late in the 11th century, to save them from marauding Tibetans.


Wang Daoshi reports his amazing discovery to the provincial governor. He is ordered to seal the cave up again until a decision is taken about what shall be done with the scrolls. Meanwhile the humble monk is rewarded by being appointed their official curator.

Bureaucratic decisions are taken slowly in imperial China. The position at Dunhuang is unchanged in 1907 when a mysterious visitor arrives with pack animals and a great many crates. The clear implication is that they contain his personal luggage or merchandise. In fact they are empty.


The visitor to Dunhuang is Aurel Stein, an energetic British archaeologist based in India. News has reached him of Wang's discovery, and he is immediately relieved to discover from the monk that no inventory of the scrolls has yet been made. He persuades Wang to open up the brick wall.

His first glimpse of the treasure leaves Stein in no doubt as to its importance. He notes in his account of the adventure his dread that 'the shifty priest, swayed by his worldly fears and spiritual scruples, would be moved in a sudden fit of alarm or distrust to close down his shell before I had been able to extract any of the pearls'.


Every night for weeks, under cover of darkness, Stein's assistant carries scrolls in his voluminous sleeves from the cave to his employer's tent. Soon three trusted servants are making midnight sorties to carry away sackfuls of material. Eventually some 7000 scrolls have been transferred to those empty crates. Stein is ready to depart from Dunhuang. He seems to go, as he arrived, with just his own luggage.

After some negotiation he gives Wang Daoshi 500 rupees. With the transaction completed, he describes his satisfaction at 'seeing the shy Daoshi, honest in his own way, breathe freely again'.


Rarely has western archaeology been shown in a worse light, but Stein receives his knighthood five years later from a grateful monarch. Most of the treasures, including the world's earliest printed book and many rare paintings on silk, are now in the British Museum and British Library.

Perhaps Stein's best defence is that he saved the 7000 scrolls from being taken to Paris. A year after his departure from Dunhuang, a French scholar arrives to cart away another 3000 for the Bibliothèque Nationale.


Shang divination bones: 1903

Peasants near An-yang, in northern China, have for years been offering dragon bones for sale; they are an essential ingredient in several popular Chinese medicines. Some of the bones have strange markings on them. A selection of these is published by a scholar in 1903 and causes world-wide interest. Word gets back to the peasants that dragon bones are even more valuable than they had realized. They dig deeper and discover some spectacular objects made of bronze. These too sell well.

Not till 1928 do the archaeologists take seriously this source of interesting material. When they begin digging, they discover the capital city of the Shang dynasty - the first Chinese civilization.


Machu Picchu: 1911

Ever since the arrival of the Spaniards in Peru there have been rumours of a lost city of the Incas. Many have searched for it before the challenge inspires Hiram Bingham, an American historian. In 1911 he arrives in Cuzco with a party from the university of Yale.

After several disappointments, following up rumours of ruins, the group stops for the night by a canyon of the Urubamba river. An old Indian, named Arteaga, walks into the camp. He says that he knows a ruined place near a peak in the jungle. He will take anyone there for a silver dollar.


The next day Bingham and an interpreter set off with him. They cross the rapids of the river on an alarming log bridge and then progress slowly through hot dense jungle. After some hours they are about 2000 feet above the river.

Bingham is excited to see traces of terracing. Further on, at the top of the jungle ridge, he is confronted by 'walls of beautiful white granite' containing 'blocks of Cyclopean size' - the characteristic style of Inca masonry. Above the ridge soars the jagged peak of Machu Picchu. Bingham has found his lost city. And the world recovers one of the most remarkable human settlements in all history.


The tomb of Tutankhamen: 1922

Howard Carter, an English archaeologist, has been digging for some years in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. His concession has only a few weeks to run in 1922 when he discovers, on November 4, what seems to be a step hewn into the rock. Beyond it several others are uncovered, leading down to a barrier bearing the name Tutankhamen.

On November 6 a telegram from Carter reaches his patron, the earl of Carnarvon, in Britain. Carnarvon and his daughter set off immediately for Egypt. They land at Alexandria on November 20, and by November 23 they have sailed up the Nile to Luxor.


With Carnarvon beside him, on November 25, Carter removes the first stone from the tomb's wall. It reveals a corridor leading to a second door. When this is opened, on November 26, the two men are astonished to see a chaotic jumble of furniture, statues and objects, piled up as if in a cramped attic. And everywhere the glint of gold. But this is only the antechamber. The burial chamber itself is reached on 17 February 1923. It will take another five years to sort out the contents.

By then, only Carter is alive to savour the discovery to the full.


The legend of the curse of Tutankhamen, outraged at the violation of his tomb, derives from events of 1923. In March Lord Carnarvon is bitten by a mosquito in the Valley of the Kings. The bite turns infectious but is responding to treatment, in Cairo, when the unfortunate earl develops pneumonia. On April 5 he dies.

As if to help the legend along, it is discovered that on the very same day a dog in Lord Carnarvon's house in England has mysteriously died too.


The cemetery at Ur: 1927

Leonard Woolley, in charge of the excavations at Ur in Iraq, uncovers in 1927 a remarkable complex of tombs - known now as The royal cemetery at Ur. The cemetery is exceptional because of the range of beautiful objects, in gold and lapis lazuli, buried with the occupants of the tombs (presumed to be a king and queen) in about 2500 BC.

It is also a very early example of the sacrificial demands made by many Bronze Age rulers on their retinue of courtiers and assistants. Large numbers of them are expected to accompany their employer into the world beyond.


Peking Man: 1927

At Zhoukoudian, near Beijing, a fossilized human tooth is discovered in 1927. Its great age (known from the surrounding archaeological evidence) is sufficient to give its original owner the grand designation 'Peking man'. But little, as yet, can be deduced about him.

Over the next ten years, the same site yields remains of forty-four humans from about 500,000 years ago. The skulls reveal a close relationship with the controversial Java man, discovered forty years previously. More recent finds of the same kind in Java have meanwhile added a new weight of evidence. It becomes widely accepted that all these remains are part of the species now known as homo erectus.


Lascaux: 1940

Four schoolboys are hunting in 1940 near the estate of Lascaux, in the Dordogne region of France. Their dog falls into a hole. They squeeze in to rescue it and find themselves at the entrance to a large cave. Exploring a little way with matches, they see that the walls are covered in paintings.

For a week they keep the news to themselves, enjoying further exploration, and then they tell the schoolmaster, Leon Laval. He brings in an expert. It is immediately evident that a treasury of prehistoric cave paintings has been discovered to rival even Altamira.


Dead Sea Scrolls: 1947

A group of Bedouin Arabs are herding goats in 1947 through the desert area of Qumran, near the Dead Sea, on their way to sell them in Bethlehem. A goat strays and a boy clambers along a rocky slope to retrieve the animal. Idly he throws a stone into a cave. He hears the sound of something breaking.

Inside the cave he finds some tall clay jars. They contain bundles of manuscripts, sewn together in long scrolls and wrapped in linen. These are the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Other caves in the vicinity later yield up many more.


Workshop of Phidias: 1954

An ancient building is excavated in 1954 just to the west of the temple of Zeus at Olympia. Discarded tools, heavy pottery moulds and fragments of worked ivory are found. They date from about 430 BC, revealing that this was the workshop of Phidias.

Here he and his assistants constructed the great statue of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The surface of the statue was of ivory and sheets of gold. The pottery moulds, as tough as roof tiles, were for working sheets of gold into the necessary shapes to fit the god's body. A pottery mug found in the studio has inscribed in its base the message 'I am the property of Phidias'.


The art of the San: 1969

Archaeologists, digging in 1969 in a remote cave in the Hun Mountains in Namibia, unearth some stone slabs on which animals have been painted. They were probably done by the San people, the earliest modern inhabitants of southern Africa and well known for their cave art.

On the wall of the cave such paintings would probably have been judged a few hundred years old, or at the most a few thousand. But these slabs are buried, among the rubbish of human habitation. Radiocarbon dating of the surrounding material reveals that they were last seen between 28,000 and 26,000 years ago. Until the discovery of Chauvet cave, in 1994, they are the world's earliest known images.


Chinese junk: 1973

Dredging is taking place on the southeast coast of China at Ch'uan-chou, a busy port in the time of Marco Polo. A large sea-going junk is unearthed. Made of cedarwood, with sails of bamboo which can be furled with hempen cords, it has the separate holds formed by bulkheads which Marco Polo describes.

The junk seems to have sunk in about 1274 on its return from a trading voyage. It is bringing back to China tortoise shell, francincense, dried herbs, rare woods and mercury.


The Ebla archive: 1975

One of the Italian team excavating Tell Markikh, in Syria, uncovers a pile of cuneiform tablets. The first of them lists, in a Semitic version of cuneiform, the city states and trade centres which 'belong to Ebla's ruler'.

Until now Ebla has been little more than a name to archaeologists. From this moment it not only has a location; it is revealed to have been a community of great economic significance from perhaps as early as 2500 BC. The first cuneiform tablets turn out to be part of a library amounting to some 15,000 items. The evidence reveals that they were once arranged, by subject, on wooden shelves.


The royal tombs at Vergina: 1977

Manolis Andronicos, a Greek archaeologist, investigates in 1977 a large mound in the Macedonian plain. The place is known now as Vergina. But the treasures found here identify it almost certainly as Aigai, the first capital city of Macedon. It was here that Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, was murdered in 336 BC.

The mound contains three large tombs. Their murals give them a place of great significance in Greek archaeology, for they are the only surviving examples of Greek painting from the classical period. Contents of the tombs date them securely to the late 4th century BC.


The tomb of a boy is decorated with a painting of a two-horse chariot. The tomb of a young woman, buried with a baby, has the murals which are in the best condition and of the highest quality. The scenes include one, painted with freedom and vigour, which is particularly appropriate to the death of a young woman; Hades in his chariot snatches up Persephone and carries her off to the underworld.

The third and largest tomb has on its façade a frieze, badly damaged, of a hunting scene. But it is the contents of this tomb which provide the second revelation of great archaeological significance. They make it almost certain that this is the tomb of Philip II himself.


The tomb chamber, hastily sealed and with walls of rough unpainted plaster, contains the armour and a few precious possessions of someone whose cremated bones are in a gold casket. They are the bones of a man in his forties. There are signs that they were wrapped in a purple cloak, and the chamber contains also a gilded diadem. In a much more finely finished outer chamber there are similar royal remains, including a beautiful gold wreath and a purple robe interwoven with gold. These accompany the bones of a woman in her twenties.

The probability is that this is the urgently prepared tomb of the murdered Philip II, later joined by one of his young wives (of whom there were many).


The frozen corpse in the Alps: 1991

On 19 September 1991, in the Hauslabjoch gully high in the Alps on the border between Austria and Italy, two German climbers come across the head and shoulders of a man, face down, protruding from the ice. Erika and Helmut Simon, from Nuremberg, assume this is a fairly recent tragedy. The glaciers of the Alps often yield up lost climbers in a state of near-perfect preservation.

The Simons inform the innkeeper of their Alpine hostel. He tells the police, who begin a recovery operation by helicopter. Four days later news of the strange discovery reaches the archaeological department of Innsbruck University. The man in the ice turns out to be more than 5000 years old.


Chauvet Cave: 1994

In December 1994, in the Ardèche region of southern France, three expert potholers decide to explore a small cavity (only about 30 inches high and 10 inches wide) among the vegetation high on a hillside. A little way in, they reach a sheer drop of 30 feet. It leads them into a vast cave system, previously unkown.

The floors are littered with the bones and skulls of bears which long ago made a habit of hibernating here. And the walls are covered with paintings.


It will be many years before the superb images in this cave are fully studied, but two rare characteristics rapidly become evident. One is the unusual selection of animals depicted. In most palaeolithic art the paintings are of hunted animals - bison, cattle, horses, deer. Here it is the dangerous animals which predominate - rhinoceroses, lions and mammoths.

The other discovery, from the first scientific tests, is even more startling. The earliest of the paintings analyzed turns out to have been created about 31,000 years ago. This is slightly older than the first known paintings in Africa, and approximately twice as old as the cave art of Lascaux and Altamira.


Humans never lived in this great cave; they only used it for the mysterious purpose of their art. The rubbish on the floors belongs to the bears, whose presence here predates the human visits. One of the strangest sights of the cave is a bear's skull placed on a slab of stone, but it appears that it is not an altar. The stone is a piece of rock fallen from the roof; apparently an ancient visitor considers it a good place for the skull.

The paintings here are clearly among the greatest examples of palaeolithic art. The finders name the cave after one of their number, Jean-Marie Chauvet, who since 1993 has been a curator of decorated caves in the Ardèche. Chauvet will acquire a resonance equal to Lascaux and Altamira.


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