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Updated by GOAT Series Staff on Apr 17, 2018
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Greatest Recovered Artifact of All Time

What is the greatest recovered artifact of all time?

The Death Mask of Tutankhamun

The Death Mask of Tutankhamun
In 1922, one of archaeology’s most cherished finds occurred in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. When Howard Carter uncovered the entrance to the tomb of King Tutankhamun, known colloquially as King Tut, he had no idea what he would find on the other side. Massive gilded statues, including a piece in the likeness of Anubis, were among the various treasures discovered with the mummified pharaoh. The most startling find of all, however, was on Tutankhamun’s body: an ornate and gilded death mask, formed with a royal beard, an alert stare, and elaborate headdress. Upon its recovery, the mask became an international sensation, spurring the public’s fascination with Egypt and its lavish past. To this day, much of the travel to Egypt’s tombs and pyramids is derived from the findings within the pharaoh’s tombs, including the death mask that has forever immortalized the 19-year-old ruler.

Date of Discovery: 1922 | Approximate Date of Creation: Unknown, likely 14th century BC | Location of Discovery: Valley of the Kings, Egypt | Culture of Origin: Ancient Egyptian

Description: An ornate funerary mask formed with gold, semiprecious stones, and a variety of glass paneling, intended to be used as the mask covering the mummified body.

Historical Significance: Rekindled international interest in Egypt and the Ancient Egyptian rulers, illustrated the death rituals of the culture.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls
Much like the Rosetta Stone, these famous scrolls are among archaeology’s greatest legends. Discovered in a series of caves over a decade, they provide some of the first tangible vindication for the Hebrew Bible’s verses, since they contain handwritten text which fits the Hebrew canon and scripture. Some of the scrolls did not provide a direct link to the Hebrew Bible, but instead focused on secular issues, providing anthropologists and archaeologists with more insight into the lifestyle and tactical planning efforts of the Hebrew people. Due to the sensitive location of the discovery and the religious connotations, multiple nations have claimed ownership of the scrolls, including Palestine and Jordan. Currently, the scrolls are housed throughout the world in various museums and exhibits, and continue to exist as living legends for their historical and religious value.

Date of Discovery: Between 1946 and 1956 | Approximate Date of Creation: 4th Century BC | Location of Discovery: Khirbet Qumran, Israel | Culture of Origin: Ancient Hebrew

Description: Over 980 original versions of Hebrew Bible entries, largely written in Hebrew and Aramaic.

Historical Significance: Cemented the validity of contemporary passages, as well as possessing significant religious value.

The Terracotta Soldiers

The Terracotta Soldiers
Statues have often been known to guard the mausoleums of many famous rulers, and in some cases, groups of statues stand watch over sacred sites. The Terracotta soldiers discovered in China, however, take the concept to a breathtaking extreme. This model army was found in a collection of pits, and after careful excavation, the scope and craftsmanship of the display finally came to light. Filled with thousands of soldiers, chariots, and horses, the army is believed to be a product of the long-standing Qin Dynasty, constructed to protect the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Interestingly enough, the army’s designers were also careful enough to include some essential non-combat personnel in the ranks, including entertainers and ruling officials. Even more fascinating is the condition of the sharpened weapons found throughout the pits, which are often discovered rust-free due to a coating of chromium dioxide.

Date of Discovery: 1975 | Approximate Date of Creation: 3rd Century BC | Location of Discovery: Shaanxi, China | Culture of Origin: Chinese Qin Dynasty

Description: A massive collection of terracotta warrior statues (including chariots and cavalry) gathered in pits, with sizes varying according to military rank.

Historical Significance: Offered insight into the Qin burial rituals, as well as the technology and craftsmanship of the dynasty.

The Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone
Anybody who has attempted to learn a language has probably heard of Rosetta Stone, though the linguistics company’s link to the real stone is only symbolic. The Rosetta Stone, a piece commissioned by King Ptolemy V and recovered in Egypt after a landmark discovery, paved the way to understanding and translating the previously unintelligible Egyptian hieroglyphs. Because the stone contained three juxtaposed languages – hieroglyphs, Demotic script, and Ancient Greek – it offered experts the first real opportunity to begin assembling a translation protocol. Much like puzzle pieces, the languages on the slab fit together to create one of the world’s first decryption keys. Today, the Rosetta Stone is housed at the famous British Museum, and seems destined to stay there in spite of Egypt’s requests to claim the artifact.

Date of Discovery: 1799 | Approximate Date of Creation: 196 BC | Location of Discovery: Rashid, Egypt | Culture of Origin: Ancient Egyptian

Description: A granodiorite slab covered in three distinct languages, reportedly commissioned by King Ptolemy V.

Historical Significance: Supplied the first functional method of translating and comprehending Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The Sutton Hoo Helmet

The Sutton Hoo Helmet
In pop culture, the Anglo-Saxons are often remembered as the distant cousins of the Scandinavian Vikings. While there were significant differences between the two groups, the emphasis on warfare and post-mortem honoring was a shared fabric between societies. The Sutton Hoo burial ship, named after its location along the River Deben, is an Anglo-Saxon grave site which housed an eclectic mixture of funerary items: spearheads, purses, and expensive textiles, among other things. One of the most memorable and substantial finds, however, was a decorative helmet which resembled Swedish designs. In addition to forging a possible link between the two cultures, the Sutton Hoo helmet also represents a stunning find, since helmets are rarely discovered at Anglo-Saxon burial sites. Today, the helmet has become the de facto “face” of the Anglo-Saxons, and embodies the warrior spirit of Britain’s conquerors.

Date of Discovery: 1939 | Approximate Date of Creation: 7th century AD | Location of Discovery: Suffolk, England | Culture of Origin: Anglo-Saxon

Description: An elaborate and decorative helmet worked in tinned bronze, complete with stylized brows, a set of cheek and neck guards, and flanking panels over the ears.

Historical Significance: Provided a better understanding of Anglo-Saxon warrior culture and burial traditions, made links to similar Swedish customs from the same era.

The Antikythera Mechanism

The Antikythera Mechanism
While some artifacts provide a greater sense of clarity regarding ancient cultures, others only create more questions. Such is the case with the infamous Antikythera mechanism, which was recovered by divers off the coast of Greece in 1900. Aside from this puzzling piece of machinery, a variety of statues, coins, and other artifacts were discovered among the wreckage. The Antikythera mechanism, according to the most recent interpretations, was the Ancient Greek model of an analog computer. Its construction suggests a high degree of mathematical and astronomical knowledge on the part of its designers, and its mere existence confirms many scholars’ beliefs in an advanced and well-educated caste of Ancient Greek society. Because of extensive decay and damage, the exact function of the mechanism may never be fully understood by archaeologists. Nevertheless, the world’s most ancient computer commands a certain degree of respect.

Date of Discovery: 1900 or 1901 | Approximate Date of Creation: 205 BC | Location of Discovery: Near Antikythera, Greece | Culture of Origin: Ancient Greek

Description: A clockwork mechanism composed of interlocking bronze cogs, apparently intended to predict astronomical events.

Historical Significance: Demonstrated a profound and advanced understandings of mathematics and astronomy in the Ancient Greek world.

The Nebra Sky Disk

The Nebra Sky Disk
While modern perceptions of ancient civilizations may involve some element of barbarism or limited intelligence, recent archaeological finds have suggested that most cultures preserved advanced knowledge in one form or another. The Nebra Sky Disk, originally uncovered in Germany and sold in a black market deal, represents an enormous amount of astronomical knowledge and eclipse observance from its source culture, the Unetice people. Dating procedures were able to conclude that the disk was gradually shaped over time, with additional holes and celestial symbols being added as the Unetice followed the night sky’s patterns. Because of its significance as one of the world’s earliest recorded models of the cosmos, UNESCO eventually added it to the prestigious Memory of the World Register and helped to ensure its exhibition in Halle, Germany.

Date of Discovery: 1999 | Approximate Date of Creation: 1600 BC | Location of Discovery: Nebra, Germany | Culture of Origin: Unetice

Description: A bronze disk measuring nearly a foot in diameter, decorated with inlaid gold and astronomical symbols such as a sun and moon.

Historical Significance: Hinted toward a Bronze Age understanding of astronomy, as well as a connection between eclipses, astronomical monitoring, and religion.

The Mask of Agamemnon

The Mask of Agamemnon
Despite the sense of wonder attached to this Mycenaean death mask’s owner, its name is actually a misnomer, since it has been debunked as belonging to the legendary Mycenaean king. Despite this, the gold-forged funerary mask is one of the most intact and significant finds to emerge from Mycenae’s past, since many other traces of the civilization have been destroyed or lost. Through this mask, which was discovered in a burial pit, researchers were able to form a more complete picture of Mycenae’s death rituals. How a culture deals with its deceased members, of course, is one of the most important details in historical anthropology. In spite of its misleading title, the mask is among the most valuable artifacts from Agamemnon’s people.

Date of Discovery: 1876 | Approximate Date of Creation: Between 1550 and 1500 BC | Location of Discovery: Mycenae, Greece | Culture of Origin: Unknown, likely Mycenean

Description: A gold funeral mask existing as one piece of a five-part set, rumored to have crafted for the legendary Greek hero Agamemnon.

Historical Significance: Although the mask predates Agamemnon or his mention in Greek stories, the mask offers a fascinating look at the customs and artwork of Mycenae.

The Phaistos Disc

The Phaistos Disc
When an object comes attached with a long-standing debate about its authenticity, there’s something worth investigating. The Phaistos Disc, discovered in a Minoan palace after thousands of years of neglect, is one of archaeology’s more troublesome mysteries. Its clay surface is adorned with dozens of symbols, none of which have ever been truly decoded by experts and researchers, and its purpose is equally unclear. Several of its designs have been translated into other hieroglyphs from surrounding civilizations, but none of the symbols have ever been combined in a comprehensive manner, and more interpretations of the disc continue to emerge as time goes on. Regardless of what the Phaistos Disc is or was intended to be, its meaning may very well have been buried with the ruins of the Minoans themselves.

Date of Discovery: 1908 | Approximate Date of Creation: 2nd millennium BC | Location of Discovery: Phaistos, Crete | Culture of Origin: Ancient Minoan

Description: A disk formed from fired claying and stamped with a variety of symbols and insignias, but lacking clarity regarding its intended use.

Historical Significance: Sparked a large debate and speculation regarding the disc's use or symbolism, which still continues to this day.

The Folkton Drums

The Folkton Drums
Despite their name, the Folkton Drums are not drums in the practical or literal sense. Instead, they’re chalk recreations of the instrument, carved during the Neolithic period and intended to be used as toys or models for a child. Many artifacts are known for their luxurious nature or demonstration of wealth, but others are more subtle, and convey deep meaning about the nature and lifestyle of a people. These chalk carvings are covered in images of faces and various designs, and were found in the graves of a presumably noble child, since there have been no other finds of a similar type or value in northern England. While these tiny drums may not be gilded blades or the armor of a warlord, they are an expression of innocence and creativity in a long-lost era.

Date of Discovery: 1889 | Approximate Date of Creation: Between 2600 and 2100 BC | Location of Discovery: Folkton, England | Culture of Origin: Neolithic Britons

Description: A set of intricately-carved model drums created using chalk, found within a child's grave.

Historical Significance: Helped to create a more rounded perception of settlers from this era, demonstrated the importance of music or leisure in everyday life.

The Hagby Runestones

The Hagby Runestones
The Vikings are typically associated with beards, heavy drinking, and longships, but an important aspect of their society was ritual mourning. Throughout Europe, one can visit carved runestones, which were erected to honor the memory of fallen kin or comrades. In fact, runestones were so vital to their society that a profession solely devoted to carving the slabs existed. In Uppland, Sweden, four runestones – termed the Hagby Runestones – honor the memory of fallen Norsemen, including several warriors of the foreign mercenaries known as the Varangian Guard. In addition to demonstrating more of the Viking death rituals, the runestones also represent a significant source of information about the Varangian guardsmen, who are often described in literature stemming from their “working place” in Constantinople. While the bodies of the Norsemen may no longer be intact, these stones are sure to remain through the ages.

Date of Discovery: 1930 | Approximate Date of Creation: 11th century AD | Location of Discovery: Uppland, Sweden | Culture of Origin: Norse

Description: Four runestones carved in memory of lost warriors or family members, with three of the stones honoring Varangian warriors.

Historical Significance: Aided researchers in understanding the nature of runestones and the spread of Norse settlers, shed light on Varangian warriors.