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Ancient sites like the pyramids of Egypt, with their mysterious passages and hidden tombs, and Stonehenge, with its strange ring of standing stones, have fascinated the world for millennia. Other sites — some that date back as far as our cave-dwelling ancestors — are less well-known, but exhibit sophisticated engineering and seemingly modern techniques that may surprise you. The questions of why they were originally built are often still open, despite centuries of research — which makes these sites even more baffling. These cave drawings, desert geoglyphs, temples and stone lines reveal mysteries of human history.
Even to this day, new information continues to emerge about the ancient Irish site at Newgrange. The sophisticated paleolithic passage tomb was constructed around 320 BCE — 600 years before the Great Pyramids of Giza — and was abandoned when the Celts arrived in Ireland. Along with the rest of Irish culture and history, lore about Newgrange was suppressed during English rule of Ireland, which began with the Norman invasion of 1169.
The site’s first “discovery” took place in 1699, when a search for stones suitable for construction uncovered the entrance to the tomb. Over the next few centuries, visiting scholars speculated that the intricate stone work and carvings had been created by Vikings or even Egyptians because the English, condescendingly, thought the Irish were not sophisticated enough. This belief perhaps saved the site from destruction or neglect — in 1882, England chose to preserve Newgrange under its Ancient Monuments Protection Act.
Ongoing excavation and study of the site continue to uncover details about its sophisticated Stone Age engineering and more. In 1967, archaeologists discovered that the tomb was aligned so the rising sun on the winter solstice flooded the main chamber with light. Standing stones in the surrounding landscape also appear to have distinct astronomical and calendar purposes. The roof stones were channeled to deflect rainwater off the structure — no minor consideration in Ireland — so that the inner chambers remain dry, even today. No mortar or metal was used in the construction. Some of the stones used were transported to the site from great distances by methods that researchers have yet to discern. Newly found ceremonial structures and stone and timber circles and dwellings continue to be added to the list of future excavations.
Lascaux Cave, France
When his dog fell down a hole in the Dordogne-Périgord region of France one day in 1940, a teenager enlisted the help of some friends to rescue the pooch. The foursome (and the dog) thus accidentally stumbled upon one of the great discoveries of the 20th century: Walls and walls of vividly colored cave paintings and engravings created by our Paleolithic ancestors as far back as 20,000 years ago.
The complex of caves, with a main chamber that measures 66 feet wide and 16 feet high, served as a gallery for some extensive and surprisingly sophisticated art, mostly depicting animals like horses, bulls, and deer. Because of the subject matter, scientists have concluded that the caverns were used as a site for hunting and religious rituals over many generations of prehistoric people, who reapplied pigment to the drawings. (Other animal models include bears, a few lions and even a rhino!) In addition to the artwork, study of the site uncovered stone tools and holes in the walls, thought to have supported scaffolding or light sources that would have allowed the artists to work higher on the walls.
The caves, protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, can no longer be visited by the public. When the caves did allow visitors, the introduction of artificial light led to fading of the vivid pigments, and a modern ventilation system accidentally produced mold spores that could permanently damage the artwork. However, the cave has been precisely replicated in a remarkable museum building nearby.
Nazca Lines, Peru
For thousands of years these geoglyphs — designs achieved by etching into the surface of the ground or by placing objects like small rocks onto the ground — were hiding in plain sight When seen from above, the lines make up simple geometric motifs and biomorphic drawings (ones that depict animals or plants), some of which extend as far as 30 miles. But because they were seen from the ground, the lines were mistaken for old trails or roads or the minor remnants of a lost civilization.
In 1926, an archaeologist hiking in hills nearby noticed that the lines made up images. Scholars have come to the region on foot and by airplane to document and study the lines ever since. So far, more than 1,000 drawings have been identified, and thanks to drones and satellite imaging, new geoglyphs are still being discovered in this arid region of Peru.
Scholars have determined that these very precise and very extensive lines were made by the local people during the years between 500 BCE and 500 CE, and across an area that extends 290 square miles. The Nazca people made the drawings by scraping away the top layer of gravel to create outlines. The region’s climate is so dry that rain and wind have not significantly eroded the works — the drawings of birds, giants, snakes, monkeys, spirals, spiders, and plants are still clear and easy to read. (The best way to see the lines, of course, is to fly over them.)
But why did the Nazca people make their sky-facing pictures? There is still no clear answer. Early studies concluded that they had a calendrical or astronomical purpose. One of the humanoid images was thought to look like an astronaut, so there were tabloid-ready theories from the 1960s that the lines had been made by aliens. Currently it’s believed that the lines were related to religious rites, with the possible purpose of creating pictures to please the gods above so that they would send water — the area only receives 20 minutes of rain annually!
Carnac Stones, France
In a small town in coastal Brittany, an array of 3,000 stones has been a source of mystery for about as long as written history itself. When seen from above, the stones — most of which are standing in parallel rows that sometimes extend as far as four miles — look like white lines of Morse code dots and dashes laid out on green pastureland. Other stones are arranged into stone circles, some stand alone outside any recognizable pattern, and still others make up dolmens, or groups of stone that sometimes signify a tomb. Excavations of some dolmens have uncovered passage tombs with multiple graves, as well as copper tools, stone jewelry and animal bones.
While the famous standing circle at Stonehenge is thought to have been constructed as a large calendar, as well as a place for Druid rituals and ceremonies, the purpose of Carnac is less clear. While definitely a place for burials, the site’s tidy stone rows don’t appear to be in any sort of celestially significant alignment. Local lore held that the rows of standing stones were an invading army petrified by a sorcerer or that the stones awaken once a year on Christmas Eve to get a drink of water from a nearby stream.
Residents of the small town of Carnac have not always been impressed by the existence of the stones. Their pagan origins irked 17th-century Christians, who erected a chapel on top of one of the dolmens. It is believed that farmers have taken down stones or shifted them off their land to deter visitors and scholars. Some dolmens have been put to use as chicken coops and stables. And one of Brittany’s many lighthouses was built from the famous stones of Carnac.