Accidental Archaeological Finds

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Before the Internet, many kids used to play “Pirate.” The main point of pirates was to find buried treasure. That treasure may have been imaginary or perhaps planted by indulgent parents that would lead the miniature buccaneers to treasure. How could the kids tell where the treasure was? A crude X near the buried treasure would give the kids some idea of where the treasure could be found.

Modern archaeologists have their versions of the “X marks the spot” map. Sometimes, they have a map showing where a particular ancient ruin, piece of art, settlement, etc., is located. That’s if they’re lucky.

The acclaimed 2021 movie, “The Dig,” tells the story of the greatest discovery of Anglo-Saxon artifacts in history in 1938. We see how an archaeologist knows something lies beneath the ground simply by how several dirt mounds are located. Archaeologist Basil Brown suspected that the mounds were likely of Anglo-Saxon origin. He believed that it was likely the mounds had been robbed years, decades, or even centuries before. He dug anyway and found some of the greatest treasures in English history.

In 1985, marine treasure hunters discovered the wreck of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha,(popularly known just as the “Atocha”).  The Atocha sank in 1622 while returning to Spain with immense treasure. People had been searching for the Atocha for decades, perhaps longer. From 1969 onward, treasure hunters Mel Fisher, Finley Ricard, and their crews searched relentlessly for the Atocha.  They found tantalizing clues on the ocean floor for years before locating the wreck and most of the treasure.  The treasure was worth an estimated four hundred million dollars. Some of it is still on the ocean floor, waiting to be found.

These were found because people were looking for them. But more often than you might imagine, some great archaeological finds from the past have been discovered by accident. In this article, we will tell you about some of them.

 

The Clay Army of Xian

One of the most amazing accidental finds in history happened on March 29, 1974.  Found by Chinese farmers near the City of Xian, about 560 miles southwest of Beijing.

Today, “The Terra Cotta Warriors of Xian” are one of the most visited places in China.  They are also one of the most famous ancient finds of all time. It seems difficult to believe that perhaps the greatest find in Chinese archaeological history happened by accident, but it did.

In tilling and digging the soil, farmers found terracotta pieces of a clay figure. More digging revealed more pieces, then more pieces, and finally officials from the government and universities were called in. Over the period of the next months and years, thousands of terracotta figures, mostly soldiers, were found under ground.

One of the most amazing parts of this story is that most of the figures were still intact. It is believed that the terracotta soldiers were placed there to guard the tomb of Shi Huangdi.  He was the first and greatest emperor in Chinese history and the founder of the Qin Dynasty. This dynasty lasted from 221 to 206 BC, a short but pivotal period in Chinese history.

Along with thousands of “men” guarding the emperor’s tomb, there are also full size terracotta statues of horses with mounted soldiers upon them. Most are in unbelievably good condition. Even more astounding, each soldier has unique individual features – face, hair, clothing, and position are all unique. The size of the tomb is immense – twenty square miles/fifty square kilometers. Today, people can visit parts of the tomb, but the number is limited. To prevent damage, the Chinese government has erected walkways above some parts of the dead emperor’s guard. Only archaeologists, high government officials and at times, important overseas guests, are able to get a ground-floor view.

Derinkuyu cave city in Cappadocia Turkey

Archaeology through home renovation

In 1963, a man in Derinkuyu, Turkey was doing some remodeling and expansion on his house. Accounts differ – some say a work crew punched through a basement wall, others say the owner did. What was behind the wall was not more dirt, but a space big enough for a person to walk into. When the workers walked into the space behind the wall, they realized there was more than just a hidden culvert. They found hand-made tunnels and a couple of rooms. That’s when they called local government, and then professional archaeologists were brought in.

Though the men who found the tunnels were likely surprised by their find, they were probably not shocked by it. Derinkuyu lies in the Cappadocia region of Turkey, which is famous world-wide for the many dwellings partially or completely underground. Even today, there are people living within some of the caves of the beautiful region. This region is a Mecca for tourists and balloonists worldwide because of its beauty and fair weather.

People have lived in the regions cave and underground dwellings for centuries. Because of the geology, a number of caves were created by wind and water erosion. Our pre-historic ancestors lived in many of them. They were safer and more easily defended than a simple shelter on the open plains and valleys.

As you may know, some of the first converts to Christianity outside the Holy Land lived in modern-day Turkey. The Apostle Paul visited the area, made converts and three of his “epistles,” or letters, in the Bible are addressed to Christians living in modern-day Turkey – the Galatians, the Colossians and the Ephesians.

The caves were occupied before Christianity spread through the region. It was the Christians of the Roman Era and the later Christian monks and hermits that made the region famous. For groups of Christians, the caves places to live that were cool in summer, insulated in winter, had abundant water, and afforded protection and hiding places from persecuting Romans, and later, brigands and invading Muslims.

Derinkuyu cave city in Cappadocia Turkey

Tourists visiting Derinkuyu today are only able to access parts of eight levels of the complex – but there are eighteen levels to the complex. Unfortunately, Turkey, as we have just recently seen, is subject to earthquake, and even without the ground shaking, the levels below the eighth are considered too dangerous for groups of tourists or others to visit. Occasionally, archaeologists are granted access to the deeper levels, but this is rare, and only the most renowned and prepared professionals are even considered. The deepest levels are three hundred feet below the surface, and the total area of the complex is about three hundred thousand square feet.

Three hundred thousand square feet is both a lot and a little. A lot because the entire complex is underground and was mostly dug (or chiseled) out by hand. A little, because while the tunnel complex and its many rooms, both open and secret, are quite small. That’s actually not surprising, since, again, they were dug by hand. Exhaust tunnels for excess heat and smoke were also widely dispersed and their openings well hidden near or on the surface.

Some of the tunnels had defense devices installed, mostly large wheels of rock that could be rolled into place to block the tunnel, preventing defenders from penetrating the “city” further. There are many wells throughout the tunnel system, but each is independent from the other – enemies attempting to poison the wells at the top in hopes of poisoning the whole system would fail. Of course, the tunnel system itself was quite a formidable obstacle – any marauders might easily get lost, or fall into a trap, both literal and figurative. It seems likely that anyone getting lost within likely died or was killed.

The Derinkuyu tunnel city was not just a place for people to shelter . It was a working, livable town. There were stables, what scientists believe were meeting rooms that served as churches and/or schools, granaries, blacksmiths, etc., and olives were pressed for oil.

The underground city was used until quite recently. It’s doubtful that it housed the 20,000 people that could live there all the time. That’s an estimate based not only on the structures, but the time and historic documents. In later years, after the establishment of Christianity as the state religion of the Eastern Roman Empire (sometimes known as “The Byzantine Empire”), there was no need for believers to hide and live in the tunnels.

It is thought that most of the residents afterwards, at least in times of peace, were hermits and monks, and that the city served as a place of religious contemplation. The most recent occupants were Turkish Greeks, who were trapped between the armies of Turkey and Greece from 1920-22, and when an ethnic violence on both sides was rampant.

 

The Galloway Hoard

The Atocha was found by professional treasure hunters who had been looking for the wreck for years, and while throughout that time, they were looking in the right place, generally speaking, the wreck eluded them at every turn, until they stumbled across a “trail” of wreckage that led them to the famous shipwreck. It may even have been that the hunters had been over the same area many times, but currents washed layers of sand over the many doubloons, cannon, jewelry, etc. – until it washed it away. As you just read, the discovery of the Derinkuyu system was a complete accident.

The discovery of the Galloway Hoard (named for the town in far southwestern Scotland where it was found) was a combination of both purpose and accident. Like many Viking Age finds discovered in the British Isles recently, the Galloway Hoard was located and uncovered by a retired businessman turned metal detectorist whose free time was passed going over the land near his home in southern Scotland.

Though much of Scotland remained Scottish during the Viking Era, the southwestern corner, along with the area north of today’s Liverpool, was taken and settled by Vikings. In much of the rest of England, most Vikings were Danes, and they ruled the so-called “Danelaw” in eastern and northeastern central England for a long time. However, on the other side of the island, Norwegians held sway, and its likely that the Viking or Vikings that left the Galloway Hoard behind was a Norseman – a man from Norway. “Northmen” describes all Vikings, and while Danes spoke Old Norse, they were not “Norsemen” – that word is reserved for Norwegian Vikings.

Many people unfamiliar with Viking culture wonder why they would have left so much wealth buried and unused. Though it’s believed that most Viking hoards were placed there intentionally, as both homage to the gods and for use in the afterlife, it’s possible that some buried wealth was left there for safekeeping, a primitive form of vault, for no one, other than the owner or perhaps some trusted friends and family members would know where the treasure was buried.

Given the nature of Viking society, especially among those with wealth, it might just be that many owners were killed or died before they could make use of their hoards. Some have speculated that in many areas, with shifting river systems, erosion, and in many places, the “same-ness” of the geography, that many hoards were simply lost.

Derek McLennan, the retired businessman, had taken up metal detecting to fill and pass the time outdoors. Before he found the Galloway Hoard in September, 2014, Derek had located a number of small but valuable finds, including some relatively rare medieval coins.

It’s odd how much history is made by choosing one small option over another, for on the morning he made the discovery, McLennan was thinking about begging off the planned metal detecting excursion with his two friends because he felt a bit ill, but not wanting to let them down, he decided to go anyway.

The men had secured permission to investigate the area from the Church of Scotland, which owned the land. All three men had good reputations – they refilled any holes they made, they were unobtrusive, and they had always notified the authorities of any finds they made. Unfortunately, many metal detectorists in the UK have a bad name because they don’t repair the ground, and especially don’t notify the authorities of historically important finds – which they are required to by law. Violation of this law can result in both heavy fines and prison time.

McLennan was sweeping back and forth in a field when his detector beeped and told him there was something not far under the surface. When Derek dug down, he found what he first thought was an old spoon, but brushed off the dirt on it just to make sure. When he did, he was “gob-smacked”, and later told papers that “…I went into shock, endorphins flooded my system and away I went stumbling towards my colleagues waving it in the air.”

What Derek had found, and what he knew as soon as he removed the excess dirt from his find, was that the object was Viking. – it was decorated with a well-known Viking decorative style. Derek and his friends David Bartholemew and Mike Smith then began to dig in earnest. What they found was the largest Viking hoard ever found in the British Isles.

After he notified the authorities, experts came and took the hoard to examine it professionally. They also eventually put a value on what Derek found – and though the items themselves are priceless, Derek was awarded over two million pounds – though not after a legal fight with the Church of Scotland, which he won.

The Galloway Hoard includes fine silver jewelry, gold and silver ingots, gold and silver crosses, many coins, and also included one large earthenware jar. All of the items found, including the jar, dated back to the 9th or 10th century. The jar itself was opened in a laboratory and was contained remains of silk from the Byzantine Empire…in the 4th century!

You won’t likely find anything like Derek’s find combing the beach in Miami, but you never know, because while Vikings never made it to South Beach, 16th and 17th century pirates sure did! PS, there are no “x’s” on the ground!

 

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