Hundreds of strange archaeological discoveries have been made in modern history. However, many archaeological discoveries also offer a tempting insight into unsolved mysteries, which continue to fascinate people around the world. Check out these 10 controversial archaeological discoveries and find out why each one stimulates debate between scientists, historians, or the general public.
1James Ossuary: Archaeological Evidence of Jesus of Nazareth?
The James ossuary is a 2,000-year old chalk box which was used for containing dead bones. Carved into one side of the box there is an Aramaic inscription that reads, "Ya'akov bar-Yosef akhui diYeshua" (English translation: "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus"). The inscription is very significant for adherents of Christianity because, if genuine, it might provide archaeological evidence of Jesus of Nazareth.
For a 90-year period, from 20 B.C. to A.D. 70, the Jewish burial custom was to place the body in a cave for a year or so and then retrieve the bones and put them in a bone box—ossuary—that could then be placed in a niche in the family tomb.
Several hundred such boxes from that era have been found, 215 of which have inscriptions. Only two boxes mention a brother.
The box was originally tested in Israel by scientists at the Geological Survey Group, who judged it to be about 2,000 years old. But the inscription divides the believers and the non-believers due to the Israeli Antiquities Authority, which determined in 2003 that the inscriptions were forged at a much later date. Also, statistical analyses of ancient names suggest that in contemporary Jerusalem, there would be an average of 1.71 people named Ya'akov (James) with a father Yosef (Joseph) and a brother named Yeshua (Jesus).
According to the James ossuary's owner, an Israeli engineer and antiquities collector named Oded Golan, the box came from the Silwan area in the Kidron Valley, southeast of the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem. Golan purchased the artifact from a Jerusalem-based dealer in the 1970s.
In December 2004, the James ossuary's owner was charged with 44 counts of forgery, fraud, and deception, including forgery of the Ossuary inscription. In 2012, Golan was acquitted of the forgery charges but convicted of illegal trading in antiquities. He was also fined 30,000 shekels and sentenced to one month in jail for minor non-forgery charges related to the trial. The judge said that this acquittal "does not mean that the inscription on the ossuary is authentic or that it was written 2,000 years ago."
2Jehoash Inscription: A Legitimate Tablet which Describes Renovations of King Solomon's Temple?
The Jehoash Inscription is the name of a controversial artifact rumored to have surfaced in the construction site or in the Muslim cemetery near the Temple Mount of Jerusalem. Chiseled in ancient Hebrew and dated to the ninth century BCE, the tablet describes renovations of the First Temple, which is said to have been built by King Solomon, that were ordered by Jehoash, son of King Ahaziah of Judah. It corresponds to the account in II Kings 12:1-17, in which the king laments the state of the temple and commands that money which the priests collect from the people be used to fix it up.
While some scholars support the antiquity of the patina, which in turn strengthens the contention that the inscription is authentic, the scientific commission appointed by the Israeli Minister of Culture to study the Jehoash tablet concluded that various mistakes in the spelling and the mixture of different alphabets indicated that this was a modern forgery. The stone was typical of western Cyprus and areas further west. Patina over the chiseled letters was different from that on the back of the stone and could easily be wiped off the stone by hand.
In a press conference in Jerusalem on June 18, 2003, the Israel Antiquities Authority commission declared the inscription a modern forgery.
The Israel state confiscated the sandstone artifact, charging collector Oded Golan (yes man, the same antiquities collector who is the James ossuary's owner) with forging it and other antiquities and dealing in them.
The court didn't actually rule in 2012 whether the tablet, ossuary, and various other artifacts were genuine or not, just that the state hadn't proven that they were fake, and therefore Golan couldn't be charged with dealing in fake antiquities. Despite the court's ruling, the state refused to return the tablet to Golan and petitioned to bring the lawsuit to the Supreme Court, which has now had its say. On October 17, 2013, a panel of three justices rejected the state's argument 2-1, and ordered that the tablet be restored to Golan.
3Shroud of Turin: The Real Face of the Son of God?
The Shroud of Turin is a length of linen cloth bearing the image of the face and body of a bearded man who appears to have suffered physical trauma in a manner consistent with crucifixion. There is no consensus yet on exactly how the image was created, but it is believed by some that the 14ft-long linen cloth was used to bury Christ's body when he was lifted down from the cross after being crucified 2,000 years ago, despite radiocarbon dating placing its origins in the Medieval period.
The image is much clearer in a black-and-white negative than in its natural sepia color. The negative image was first observed in 1898 on the reverse photographic plate of amateur photographer Secondo Pia, who was allowed to photograph it while it was being exhibited in the Turin Cathedral. The shroud is kept in the royal chapel of the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Turin, northern Italy.
The origins of the shroud and its image are the subject of intense debate among theologians, historians, and researchers. Scientific and popular publications have presented diverse arguments for both authenticity and possible methods of forgery. A variety of scientific theories regarding the shroud have since been proposed, based on disciplines ranging from chemistry to biology and medical forensics to optical image analysis.
In 1978, a detailed examination carried out by a team of American scientists found no reliable evidence of how the image was produced. In 1988, a radiocarbon dating test was performed on small samples of the shroud. The laboratories at the University of Oxford, the University of Arizona, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology concurred that the samples they tested dated from the Middle Ages, between 1260 and 1390.
In March 2013, experiments conducted by scientists at the University of Padua (Italy) dated the shroud to ancient times, a few centuries before and after the life of Christ. The tests dated the age of the shroud to be between 300 BC and 400AD, but with an error margin of 400 years due to the unknown influences of temperature and humidity on the samples during their lives.
The Catholic Church has neither formally endorsed nor rejected the shroud, but in 1958 Pope Pius XII approved of the image in association with the devotion to the Holy Face of Jesus. More recently, Pope Francis and his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI have both described the Shroud of Turin as “an icon.”
As well as can be expected, the shroud continues to remain one of the most studied and controversial archaeological objects in human history.
4Talpiot Tomb: The Lost Tomb of Jesus Christ and His Family?
The Talpiot Tomb is a rock-cut tomb discovered in 1980 in the East Talpiot neighborhood, five kilometers south of the Old City in East Jerusalem (Israel). The archaeological team determined it to be from the Second Temple period, which lasted from about 538 BC to AD 70. It is also assumed that a tomb of this type would have belonged to a wealthy Jewish family.
The tomb was discovered by construction workers who were laying the foundations for an apartment complex when preparatory demolition work accidentally uncovered the tomb's entrance. Construction of the apartment buildings was completed in 1982. Due to the fact that some children got into the tomb and played inside, the authorities sealed the entrance for safety reasons.
In 2005, a team led by biblical historian James Tabor, who is professor and chair of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, and the controversial filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, opened the tomb again and claimed to find a 2,000-year-old engraving on an ossuary, which they say depicts Jesus' resurrection. The limestone burial box contained human bones and an inscription that has been interpreted as "Yeshua bar Yehosef" ("Jesus, son of Joseph").
Altogether, ten limestone ossuaries were found, with six of them bearing epigraphs, although only four of them were recognized as such in the field. The archaeological team determined the ossuaries to be of little note, and delivered them to the Rockefeller Museum for analysis and storage. In addition, three skulls and crushed bones were found on the floor of the tomb, indicating that the tomb had been disturbed in antiquity. Their footage was incorporated into the 2007 documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus, in which the authors claimed that the Talpiot Tomb was the burial place of Jesus of Nazareth, as well as several other figures from the New Testament. Of course, this claim was disputed by many archaeologists and theologians, as well as language and biblical scholars.
Analysis of mitochondrial DNA that was performed by Lakehead University on the remains found in the ossuary marked "Jesus son of Joseph" and the one marked "Mariamne" or "Mary" (who some claim to be Mary Magdalene) found that the two occupants were not blood relations on their mother's side. Based on these tests, the makers of the documentary suggest that "Jesus" and "Mariamne" were probably married "because otherwise they would not have been buried together in a family tomb," but the remains were not dated using radiocarbon to further sustain this supposition. Neither was any announced DNA testing performed on the others ossuaries to see if any familial relation existed there. Additionally, scholars argue the DNA tests only prove that they did not have the same mother and they could easily have been father/daughter, half brother/sister, cousins, or any number of possibilities that do not include a matrilineage line.
5Piri Reis Map: An Actual Copy of Christopher Columbus' World Map?
The Piri Reis map was discovered serendipitously on October 9, 1929 through the philological work of German theologian Gustav Adolf Deissmann, who had been commissioned by the Turkish Ministry of Education to catalogue the Topkap? Palace library's non-Islamic items.
The discovery caused an international sensation, as it represented the only then known copy of a world map of Christopher Columbus (1451–1506), and it was the only 16th-century map that showed South America in its proper longitudinal position in relation to Africa. Its creator, Piri Reis, was one of the most important cartographers in his era and one of the most famous admirals in the Ottoman maritime history.
Some analyses assert that the map is an azimuthal equidistant projection centered on Cairo, but a 1998 analysis by Steven Dutch of the University of Wisconsin Green Bay shows a better fit with a point near the intersection of the present-day prime meridian and the equator. There are extensive notes in Turkish around the edges of the map, as well as some interior detail which is mostly inaccurate and fanciful.
A more sober analysis was published by Gregory McIntosh, a historian of cartography, who examined the map in depth. He was able to find sources for much of the map in Columbus' writings. Certain peculiarities (such as the appearance of the Virgin Islands in two locations) are attributed to the use of multiple maps as sources; others (such as the errors in North American geography) he traced to the continued confusion of the area with East Asia. As far as the accuracy of the depiction of the supposed Antarctic coast is concerned, there are two conspicuous errors. First, it is shown hundreds of miles north of its proper location; second, the Drake Passage is completely missing, with the Antarctic Peninsula presumably conflated with the Argentine coast. The identification of this area of the map with the frigid Antarctic coast is also difficult to reconcile with the notes on the map which describe the region as having a warm climate. Also, in 1513 Cape Horn had not yet been discovered, and Ferdinand Magellan's voyage of circumnavigation was not to set sail for another six years. It is unclear whether the map maker saw South America itself as part of the unknown southern lands (as shown in the Atlas Miller) or whether (as the Dutch thought) he drew what was then known of the coast with substantial distortion. In any case, serious scholarship holds that there is no reason to believe that the map is the product of genuine knowledge of the Antarctic coast.
The Piri Reis map is currently located in the Library of the Topkap? Palace in Istanbul, Turkey, but is not usually on display to the public.
6Baghdad Battery: Galvanic Cells for Electroplating Gold onto Silver Objects?
The Baghdad Battery is the common name for a number of artifacts created in Mesopotamia during the early centuries AD of the Persian Empire period, and were probably discovered between 1936 and 1938 in the village of Khuyut Rabbou'a, near Baghdad, Iraq. The vessels showed signs of corrosion, and early tests revealed that an acidic agent, such as vinegar or wine, had been present.
In 1940, Wilhelm König, the German director of the National Museum of Iraq, published a paper speculating that they may have been galvanic cells, perhaps used for electroplating gold onto silver objects. This interpretation is far from receiving widespread acceptance, but it continues to be considered as at least a hypothetical possibility by some scientists and believers in extraterrestrial visitation and advocates of pseudoarchaeology theories.
König thought that the objects might date to the Parthian period (between 250 BC and AD 224). However, according to St. John Simpson of the Near Eastern department of the British Museum, their original excavation and context were not recorded well, so evidence for this date range is very weak.
On March 23, 2005, the Discovery Channel program MythBusters built replicas of the jars to see if it was indeed possible for them to have been used for electroplating or electrostimulation. Ten hand-made terracotta jars were fitted to act as batteries. Lemon juice was chosen as the electrolyte to activate the electrochemical reaction between the copper and iron. Connected in a series, the batteries produced four volts of electricity. When linked in a series the cells had sufficient power to electroplate a small token.
In March 2012, Professor Elizabeth Stone of Stony Brook University, an expert on Iraqi archaeology, said that modern archaeologists do not believe the object was a "battery." Skeptical scientists see the electrical experiments as embodying a key problem with experimental archaeology, saying that such experiments can only show that something was physically possible, but do not confirm that it actually occurred. Further, there are many difficulties with the interpretation of these artifacts as galvanic cells.
Lastly, the artifacts strongly resemble another type of object with a known purpose – storage vessels for sacred scrolls from nearby Seleucia on the Tigris. Those vessels do not have the outermost clay jar, but are otherwise almost identical. Since these vessels were exposed to the elements, it is possible that any papyrus or parchment inside had completely rotted away, perhaps leaving a trace of slightly acidic organic residue.
7Ötzi: A 5,300-Year-Old Man with a Higher Degree of Neanderthal Ancestry than Modern Europeans?
Ötzi is a well-preserved natural mummy of a man who lived around 3,300 BCE. It was found on September 19, 1991 by two German tourists from Nuremberg, Helmut and Erika Simon, at 3,210 metres on the East Ridge of the Fineilspitze in the Ötztal Alps on the Austrian–Italian border while they were walking off the path between the mountain passes.
Ötzi had several carbon tattoos, including groups of short, parallel, vertical lines on both sides of the lumbar spine, a cruciform mark behind the right knee, and various marks around both ankles. Radiological examination of his bones showed "age-conditioned or strain-induced degeneration" in these areas, including osteochondrosis and slight spondylosis in the lumbar spine and wear-and-tear degeneration in the knee and the ankle joints, in particular. It has been speculated that these tattoos may have been related to pain relief treatments similar to acupressure or acupuncture. If so, this is at least 2000 years before their earliest known use in China (c. 1000 BCE).
Ötzi's clothes were sophisticated. He wore a cloak made of woven grass and a coat, a belt, a pair of leggings, a loincloth, and shoes, all of which were made of leather from different skins. He also wore a bearskin cap with a leather chin strap. The shoes were waterproof and wide, seemingly designed for walking across the snow; they were constructed using bearskin for the soles, deer hide for the top panels, and netting made of tree bark. Soft grass went around the foot and inside the shoe, functioning like modern socks. The coat, belt, leggings, and loincloth were constructed of vertical strips of leather which were sewn together with sinew. His belt had a pouch sewn to it that contained a cache of useful items including a scraper, a drill, a flint flake, a bone awl, and a dried fungus. However, a more recent hypothesis by British archaeologist Jacqui Wood says that Ötzi's "shoes" were actually the upper part of snowshoes. According to this theory, the item currently interpreted as part of a "backpack" is actually the wood frame and netting of one snowshoe and animal hide to cover the face.
In May 2012, scientists announced the discovery that Ötzi still had intact blood cells. These are the oldest blood cells ever identified. In most bodies that are this old, the blood cells are either shrunken or mere remnants, but Ötzi's have the same dimensions as living red blood cells and resembled a modern-day sample. However, a paper written by paleoanthropologist John Hawks suggests that Ötzi had a higher degree of Neanderthal ancestry than modern Europeans.
In October 2013, scientists from the Institute of Legal Medicine at Innsbruck Medical University analysed the DNA of over 3,700 Tyrolean male blood donors and found 19 who shared a particular genetic mutation with the 5,300 year old man, which led them to identify the link.
As if all this were not controversial enough, claims have been made that Ötzi is cursed. The allegation revolves around the deaths of several people connected to the discovery, recovery, and subsequent examination of Ötzi. It is alleged that they have died under mysterious circumstances. These people include co-discoverer Helmut Simon and Konrad Spindler, who was the first examiner of the mummy in Austria at a local morgue in 1991. To date, the deaths of seven people, of which four were the result of some violence in the form of accidents, have been attributed to the alleged curse. In reality hundreds of people were involved in the recovery of Ötzi and are still involved in studying the body and the artifacts found with it. The fact that a small percentage of them have died over the years has not been shown to be statistically significant.
Since 1998 it has been on display at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, the capital of South Tyrol.
8Cyrus Cylinder: An Iranian Document about the History of the Ancient Near East, Mesopotamian Kingship, and the Jewish Diaspora?
The Cyrus Cylinder is an ancient clay cylinder on which is written a declaration in Akkadian cuneiform script in the name of the Achaemenid king Cyrus the Great. It dates from the 6th century BC and was discovered by the Assyro-British archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam in March 1879 during a lengthy program of excavations carried out for the British Museum in the ruins of Babylon in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq).
The Cylinder's text has traditionally been seen by biblical scholars as corroborative evidence of Cyrus' policy of the repatriation of the Jewish people following their Babylonian captivity (an act that the Book of Ezra attributes to Cyrus), since the text refers to the restoration of cult sanctuaries and the repatriation of deported people. This interpretation has been disputed, as the text identifies only Mesopotamian sanctuaries, and makes no mention of Jews, Jerusalem, or Judea. The Cylinder has also been called the oldest known charter or symbol of universal human rights, a view rejected by others as anachronistic and a misunderstanding of the Cylinder's generic nature as a typical statement made by a new monarch at the beginning of his reign. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, has stated that the cylinder was "the first attempt we know about running a society, a state with different nationalities and faiths — a new kind of statecraft." It was adopted as a national symbol of Iran by the Imperial State, which put it on display in Tehran in 1971 to commemorate 2,500 years of the Iranian monarchy.
The Cyrus Cylinder has been displayed in the British Museum since its formal acquisition in 1880.
9Skull 5: A New Individual Homo Species?
Skull 5 is the name of a 1.8-million-year-old fossil that has been described as the first complete adult hominid skull of that degree of antiquity.
The well-preserved skull was discovered in pieces in 2000 and 2005 in Dmanisi, Georgia. According to researchers, the discovery "provides the first evidence that early Homo comprised adult individuals with small brains but body mass, stature and limb proportions reaching the lower range limit of modern variation."
Unlike other Homo fossils, it had a number of primitive features including a long, apelike face, large teeth, and a tiny braincase about one-third the size of that of a modern human being. This confirmed that, contrary to some conjecture, early hominids did not need big brains to make their way out of Africa.
So, the discovery of Skull 5 alongside the remains of four other hominids at Dmanisi gave the scientists an opportunity to compare and contrast the physical traits of ancestors that apparently lived at the same location around the same time.
In October 2013, after eight years of research, Dr. David Lordkipanidze, a researcher at the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi and the lead study author, and his colleagues said that the differences between these fossils were no more pronounced than those between any given five modern humans or five chimpanzees. The hominids who left the fossils, they noted, were quite different from one another but still members of one species.
Now it gets controversial, because Dr. Lordkipanidze claimed that the similarities between the new skull from Georgia and Homo erectus remains from Java, Indonesia may mean that there was genetic continuity across large geographic distances. What's more, the Dmanisi researchers suggest that the fossil record of what have been considered different Homo species from this time period, such as Homo Ergaster, Homo Rudolfensis and Homo Habilis, could actually be variations on a single species, Homo erectus. In other words, just as people look different from one another today, so did early hominids look different from one another, and the dissimilarity of the bones they left behind may have fooled scientists into thinking that they came from different species. Thus this new theory defies the current understanding of how early human relatives should be classified.
Nonetheless, the anthropology researchers not involved with the Dmanisi excavation are not in agreement on the idea that this is the same Homo erectus from both Africa and Asia, or that individual Homo species from this time period are really all one species, but there was broad recognition that the new findings were a watershed moment in the study of evolution.
10Calico Early Man's Tools: Artifacts or Geofacts?
The Calico Early Man Site is an archaeological site in an ancient Pleistocene lake located near Barstow in San Bernardino County in the central Mojave Desert of southern California.
The lacustrine, fluvial, and alluvial sediments of the Pleistocene Manix Formation contain remains of numerous Rancholabrean animals ranging in age from approximately 20,000 years to well in excess of 350,000 years before the present. Fossils recovered from the section include those of a camel, a horse, a mammoth, a saber-tooth cat, a dire wolf, a short-faced bear, a coyote, a flamingo, a pelican, an eagle, a swan, geese, a mallard duck, a ruddy duck, a canvasback duck, a double-crested cormorant, a grebe, a crane, a seagull, and a stork.
The history of this site dates back to 1942, when amateur archaeologists discovered what they believed to be primitive stone tools in this area. Fragments were embedded in the sediment of the shoreline of an ancient Pleistocene Era lake called Lake Manix.
Thousands of rocks that bear a strong resemblance to prehistoric tools have been found at the site. Scientifically dated to over 200,000 BP, the excavated subsurface objects are many times older than the traditional date of the first human entry into the Americas, approximately 11,000 BP.
In 1963, Louis Leakey, a British archaeologist and naturalist whose work was important in establishing human evolutionary development in Africa, commenced archaeological excavation with Ruth DeEtte Simpson, an archaeologist from California.
Archaeologists have classified this site as a possible stone tool workshop, quarry, and camp site. Perhaps early nomadic hunters and gatherers stopped in this area to fashion the tools which they used to survive. These tools may have included stone knives, scrapers, punches, picks, and chopping tools, as well as some saw-like tools called denticulates. No human bones or remains have been found here.
The controversy that concerns us centers on whether the "tools" were made by humans (i.e., artifacts) or through typical geological processes (i.e. geofacts). The general scientific consensus is that the subsurface items are geofacts.
The archaeologist Jeffrey Goodman who worked at the site with Leakey had also claimed that the stone artifacts were made by humans. Goodman has also made controversial statements that the artifacts found at Calico Hills may be as old as 500,000 years and, if proven, would be the oldest human artifacts in the world, which would place human origins in the Americas. However, according to Kenneth Feder, professor of archaeology at Central Connecticut State University, the majority of scientists have rejected Goodman's claims since they were not supported by even a shred of evidence. Also, in 1973 the geologist Vance Haynes claimed – after three visits to the site – that the artifacts of Leakey were formed by stones becoming fractured in an ancient river on the site.
Leakey continued to visit the site several times a year and was connected with the project until his death in 1972.