A carved off-beige door witha wooden and twine handle going across the opening, like a seal.

Accidental Discoveries: The Unexpected Wonders from the Past

Documentation of accidental discoveries is common, but how common are they?

For hundreds of years, there have been discoveries from all around the world. The majority of these have all been on purpose. On the other hand, some are by accident. The main reason being is that archeologists and historians know what to look for and its possible location. For the few found by accident, it was uncoincidental luck.

 

Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls, on parchment paper, on a dark beige background. A few of the pieces at the top and bottom of the scrolls are missing.
image source: imj.org.il

These ancient manuscripts are approximately 2 000 years old. Discovered between 1947 and 1956, they date between 3rd century BC and 1st century AD.

Some pages are parchment, while others are papyrus.

The majority of the text is in Hebrew, the rest in Aramaic or Greek.

Found in the Desert Caves of Qumran, the hot desert climate and darkness of the caves preserved the scrolls.

Accidental Discovery

In 1947, a Bedouin shepherd of the Ta’amireh tribe left his flock to find a stray. Around Qumran, he found a cave in the crevice of a steep, rocky hillside. Through a stone inside, he heard pots breaking. Exploring further, he discovered mysterious clay jars.

Many of the jars were empty. Those intact had their lids on. Upon a closer look, it revealed old scrolls inside the jars, with some wrapped in linen and blackened with age.

With several scrolls found, the shepherd went to a Bethlehem antiquities dealer. Accompanied by fellow tribesmen, they sought more scrolls, finding seven. Unaware of their value, the first antiquities dealer bought four. A second antiquities dealer, Salahi, bought three.

After hearing the news, Hebrew Professor Eliezar Lip Sukenik set out to investigate.

Passing the Jerusalem border and the British divided military zone, he met with an Armenian antiquities dealer. Eager to see more of the ancient writing, they traveled to meet with Salahi. The professor was in awe of seeing the Hebrew manuscripts, 1 000 years older than any other he came across.

Excavation

From 1965, excavations happened after news spread. In at least 12 caves, there were more scroll fragments. Only a handful were intact. Scholars were able to put the fragments together, resulting in 950 manuscripts. The number of additions and deletions in the texts show the writers freely modified what they copied.

Today, 100 000 fragments are in the Shrine of the Book, where the first seven scrolls are. Now, located in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, there is continuous study of the scrolls to discover their true origins.

Categories

After a rigorous study process, scholars proved that the scrolls fit into three different categories.

The first is biblical. The first 200 scrolls are now part of the Hebrew Bible, the earliest evidence of biblical text.

The second is apocryphal, works not included in Jewish texts and falsely ascribed to them. Large segments of the Jewish population valued them, appearing as reflecting the beliefs of others.

The third is sectarian. A wide variety of genres, including biblical commentary, religious-legal writings, liturgical texts, and apocalyptic contexts. It reflects the life of a specific community, believed to be the Essene community, one of the three main Jewish sects.

Through studying them, they show how diverse the religious belief system of ancient Judaism was.

 

Derinkuyu Underground City

A 2D colourful map of the Derinkuyu Underground City, showing the multiple levels and the rooms, with the inhabitants going about their daily lives and activities.
image source: flikr.com

A sub-terranean city, with homes and communal facilities, built by early Christians to escape religious persecution. There are over eight levels.  The rooms included food and drink preparation areas, a church, mass storage homes, stables, and wine presses.

Accidental Discovery

In 1963, a Turkish man knocked down a wall in his basement, discovering a mysterious room. Digging further, he found a network of tunnels. This led to the discovery of the underground city, leading to its excavation and preservation.

In 1969, nearly half of the city became accessible after thorough excavation and restoration. Visitors are able to explore the haven.

Formation

Located in Cappadocia (a region in Turkey), soft, volcanic rock is the foundation of the city. This is thanks to ancient volcanic eruptions. Over time, layers and layers of magma built up. Therefore, stable rock formed, capable of carving approximately 60 meters (197 ft.) below the surface. Moreover, it sheltered close to 200 000 people, including livestock.

The builders were Phrygians, an ancient Indo-European race, in the 7th and 8th centuries. Built and completed in the Byzantine era, during the Roman period, Greek-speaking Christians established Derinkuyu. The caverns expanded into multiple levels.

A Haven

During the Arab-Byzantine Wars (780 – 1180), the inhabitants were protected from the Muslim Arabs.

Additionally, Derinkuyu connected to other underground cities through a complex network of tunnels. The tunnels were created during the Arab-Byzantine War.

In the 14th century, it protected the Christians from the Mongolians’ assault on Timur.

In the 20th century, the underground city saved the Christians from persecution, during the Ottoman era, from the Turkish Muslim powers.

A well-preserved site giving a look into the lives of these “cave dwellers”.

 

Lascaux Cave

The Lascaux Cave interiot seen, special lights illuminating the paintings on teh wall. A man is standing in the background, showing how large the save is compared to the paintings.
image source: theguardian.com

This accidental discovery is a Paleolithic cave in southwestern France, dating back to 17 000 – 15 000 BC.

Accidental Discovery

On September 12th, 1940, four boys discovered a fox hole after following their dog. Thinking hidden treasure was inside, they explored the hole. 15 meters (approx. 50 ft.) below, they found the cave paintings.

After getting out of the hole, the boys returned prepared. They began charging admission fees to their friends to see the saves.

News spread to their headmaster, a member of a local prehistorian society. Soon, Abbé Breuil (a distinguished prehistorian) got word of the cave and confirmed the paintings’ authenticity.

Excavation and Analysis

There are approximately 600 paintings, mostly animals, on the interior walls. Not only were the paintings a marvel, but the impressive composition of them in telling their stories. There were numerous horses, deer, aurochs, ibex, bison, and some felines. Additionally, there were mythical creatures and one human figure, a bird-headed man.

There is continuous speculation over the cave’s meaning. It has a ritualistic, maybe spiritual, aspect.

Homo sapiens made homes in Europe, particularly southwestern France and northern Spain. It is possible that someone lived in the cave, the art acting as a temporary activity.

Aftermath

The cave was made open to the public in the 1960s.

However, problems arose. Firstly, simply breathing on the paintings harmed them. Secondly, the thick atmosphere in the cave caused visitors to faint. Thirdly, condensation on the walls and ceilings led to excess moisture. As a result, the cave became infested with lichens and mold. Fourthly, high-powered lighting added to the damage, causing the paintings to fade.

In 1963, the Lascaux Cave was closed off from the public. The French Prime Minster of culture allowed only experts in.

In 1979, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In 1983, for the public, experts created a replica of the cave. It is 200 meters (approx. 656 ft.) from the original site in the village of Montignac.

The continuous efforts to halt further damage brings more to learn.

 

The Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum in London, on its podium, concealed within a glass box.
image source: washington.edu

The Rosetta stone is a broken part of a bigger slab, carved with a message from ancient Egypt.

The greatest significance of this accidental discovery is that it helped experts re-discover Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Accidental Discovery

Between 1798 and 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte campaigned in Egypt. He aimed to dominate the Eastern Mediterranean, threatening the British hold on India.

The accounts of finding the stone are vague.

Members of Napolean’s Army were repairing Fort Julien near the town of Rashid (Rosetta). They found the stone built into the wall. The officer of engineers, Pierre François Xavier Bouchard, extracted the stone from the wall. Later, the wall was destroyed as part of Fort Julien’s construction.

General Menu, Bouchard’s commanding officer, noticed the stone’s importance. He sent it to Alexandria, where casts and copies were made. Soon after, it was seized by British General Tompkins Turner. After that, the stone made its journey to the British Museum in London.

Deciphering the Rosetta Stone

Many international scholars tried to decipher the code.

Englishman Thomas Young discovered that the hieroglyphs are related to an Egyptian ruler, Ptolemy V, and the directions the symbols should be read.

However, a French scholar, Jean-François Champollion, fully deciphered the text. Champollion discovered the texts were in three different styles: ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, ancient Egyptian demotic, and ancient Greek. What aided in the translation was his ability to read ancient Greek and Coptic.

The Coptic writing system is derived from the Greek alphabet. Many of its letters originate from an everyday ancient Egyptian dialect.

Champollion figured out what the demotic signs were, in Coptic, resulting in understanding their meaning. Then, he traced the demotic signs back to hieroglyphic symbols. Soon, he was able to make educated guesses as to what the hieroglyphs stood for.

Jean-François Champollion became known as the Founding Father of Egyptology.

Currently, the Rosetta Stone is in the British Museum in London.

Three Ways Written

The first noted writing style was 14 lines of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, mainly used by priests for important or religious documents.

The second was 32 lines of ancient Egyptian demotic, used for everyday purposes.

The third was 53 lines of ancient Greek. During that time, Greek was an administrative language. The Rulers were Greco-Macedonian after Alexander the Great’s conquest.

Written in all three, only priests, government officials, and rulers of ancient Egypt could read and understand it.

Deciphered History

In 196 BC, a group of Egyptian clergymen and Ptolemy V issued a decree for the engraving of the slab of stone. From the translations, as clear evidence, Ptolemy V was a generous and religiously devoted leader. Priests of the temple in Memphis,Egypt supported him.

The rediscovery of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs reflects its significance.

 

Uluburun Shipwreck

A replication of the accidental discovery of the Uluburn Ship beanth the sea level, with two divers in the background swimming towards it.
image source: flickr.com

This is a Bronze Age ship, dated between 1330 – 1300 BC.

It carried a full cargo of trade goods. Its journey, under speculation, was from a port in southern ancient Lydia, Turkey, with the destination being the Greek mainland.

Accidental Discovery

In 1982, Turkish sponge diver, Mehmed Çakir, came across what he described as “metal biscuits with ears”. This was near the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, near Kaş. However, he discovered they were more than what they appeared.

After news spread, a later discovery saw that it was an elite ship with cargo from the Bronze Age.

Between 1984 – 1994, the excavation took place over 11 seasons. 22 000 logged dives 45 meters (150 ft.) below sea level.

Causes of the shipwreck are unknown.

The main theory lies with the shipwreck’s location. It was near a high, rocky cliff coming out into the ocean. There is reason to believe that strong, unexpected winds drove the ship on to the rocks, causing it to sink.

Cargo

This is archaeological evidence of gifts exchanged by the wealthy. Luxury items included carved ivory containers and jewellery of gold and semi-precious stones.

Copper and tin ingots, along with empty and food-filled pottery, were also on the Uluburun.

As well, there were raw materials from distant lands: glass ingots, unworked elephant tusks, ostrich eggshells, and faience beads.

Weapons onboard suggest that there were possible piracy threats.

Among the personal items were balance weights and musical instruments. This suggests that a Syro-Cannanite crew and several Greek passengers were onboard.

As an undisturbed time capsule, it gives a look into the Bronze Age, particularly in trade and materialism. Additionally, aspects of construction, economic exchange, and transportation were part of the discovery.

 

Venus De Milo

The Venus de Milo in the Louvre. The accidental discovery is standing on its podium. The marble statue shows the toh half of the armless woman, nude, and the bottom half of her in a draped skirt.
image source: lacamaradelarte.com

Also known as the Aphrodite of Milos, this Parian marble sculpture was by Alexandros of Antioch in the 2nd century BC.

Accidental Discovery

There are several interpretations of this part of the story. While ploughing the fields or searching for building blocks, Yorgos Kentrotas found a small cave near a peasant’s plot of land. Another version states that Yorgos’s son, Antonios, was with him upon the cave’s discovery. Inside the save as the top half of a marble statue of a woman. The search began for the bottom half.

French navy ensign, Olivier Voutier, anchored his ship on the island, Milos. He sought out antiquities. He encountered a man (and his son) searching through the stones near the Greek village, Trypiti. After seeing their finding of half a marble statue, he began to help with finding the other half and pieces.

After reporting to his supervisors, the French bought both halves of the statue. Soon after, it was called the Venus de Milo.

The statue arrived in France a year later, and was presented to Louis XVIII. He later donated the statue to the Louvre.

According to reports, the statue was found with several pillars decorated with marble heads. Additionally, fragments of an upper left arm holding an apple were found. An inscribed plinth, believed to be part of the marble statue, was lost during transport after its discovery.

Analysis

According to the Louvre, the sculpture is of two blocks of marble: one for the top half of the body and the second for the bottom half. There is speculation about color and jewellery on the statue.

The sculpture could be one of two deities:

  1. Venus, the Roman goddess of love, due to the nudity and curve of the body, or
  2. Amphitrite, the Greek goddess of the sea. Milos is known as her place of worship.

The greatest mystery of this accidental discovery is the position of her arms.

To many artists, the Venus de Milo is the epitome of graceful, feminine beauty.

 

Xian Terra Cotta Warriors

The Xian Terra Cotta Army is shown under a controlled dome. This accidental discovery is opened to the public, to see the three pits that are opened.
image source: nytimes.com

Life-sized and detailed statues representing the guards of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. Their purpose was to accompany China’s first emperor in the afterlife, spiritually protecting him.

The construction began in 246 BC and ended in 206 BC, years after the death of the first emperor.

It took approximately 40 years to complete, with over 72 000 labourers.

Accidental Discovery

In 1974, there was a drought in several areas of China. Farmers, desperate for water, dug a well. A meter into the ground, they struck red earth. They found life-sized pottery heads and several bronze arrowheads.

Archaeologist Zhou Kangmin, aware of the discovery, set the excavation in motion.

Excavation

A deep excavation discovered 600 pits, complex underground vaults. Although some are difficult to enter, three major pits are easily accessible.

Pit 1 is the largest, holding 6 000 soldiers and horses. However, only 2 000 are on display.

The soldiers and horses face east in a rectangular formation, armed with a long spear, dagger, or halberd. The vanguard (leading the advance) are three rows of infantry at the very east of the formation. Behind them is the main force of armored soldiers, with weapons and eight horse-driven chariots. To the north, south, and west of the formation is the army’s defense wing.

Pit 2 uncovers the mystery of ancient army formation. There are four units:

  • First unit: kneeling and standing soldiers.
  • Second unit: chariots in war arrangement.
  • Third unit: infantry, chariots, and troopers in a rectangular formation.
  • Fourth unit: many troopers wielding weapons.

Pit 3 is the command post, the smallest pit. 68 terra cotta figures are in the command post, many headless and speculated to be official figures.

Creating the Army

Clay was a cheaper option to form the vast army.

Made on an assembly line, pieces of each warrior were created separately.

First, separate moulds were added to the surface of the sculptures. Then, artists would individually model faces and hair. Next, after placed in fire kilns, the sculptures were hard and durable. Finally, they were painted, every figure made different and unique.

However, due to humidity and erosion for 2 000 years, the Terra Cotta Army lost their colour.

Even so, they give a look into the military, cultural, and economic history of the past.

 

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

Three bronze tribesmen are seen, weilding weapons, pertruding out of the base with malicious facial expressions.
image source: unbelievable-facts.com

It is through the discoveries of the past that we are able to understand the world’s history. These accidental discoveries are more than just accidents. They show that there is more to learn about the world, about different cultures and societies. From learning about rulers to understanding methods of protection, there are endless possibilities about what the gaps of history are. It might not be an archeologist or historian finding the next piece of history. It might just be being in the right place at the right time.

 

“There are no accidents. There is only some purpose that we haven’t yet understood.”

-Deepak Chopra.

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