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

How common is it that we come across an accidental discovery?

There are discoveries that span hundreds of years and the majority have all been on purpose. The remaining, however, were accidents that someone happened to come by out of 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

The ancient manuscripts are approximately 2000 years old. Discovered between 1947 and 1957, they date between the 3rd century BCE and 1st century AD.

Some pages are parchment and others are papyrus. Most of the text is in Hebrew and the rest is in Aramaic or Greek.

How did they manage to survive, more intact than expected, after all these years?

They were found in the Desert Caves of Qumran. The hot desert climate and darkness of the caves managed to preserve the scrolls for 2000 years.

The Accidental Discovery

In 1947, Israel, 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. He threw a stone inside and heard pots breaking. He then explored the cave and discovered the mysterious clay jars.

Many of the jars were empty and those intact still had their lids on. When he took a closer look, the shepherd found old scrolls wrapped in linen, some blackened with age, inside the jars.

He took his fellow tribesmen to find more scrolls and found seven. He then went to a Bethlehem antiquities dealer, who, unaware of the scrolls’ value, bought four. A second antiquities dealer, Salahi, bought the remaining three.

After hearing news about the scrolls, Hebrew Professor EliezarLip Sukenik set out to investigate. He passed the Jerusalem border and the British-divided military zone and met with an Armenian antiquities dealer.

Sukenik eagerly wanted to read more of the ancient writing and traveled to meet with Salahi. The professor was in awe after seeing the Hebrew manuscripts that were 1000 years older than the others he came across.

The Excavation

In 1965, excavations started after news spread of the caves in at least 12 caves. In most of the caves, there were more scroll fragments and only a handful were intact.

Scholars were able to put the fragments together, which resulted in them having 950 manuscripts.

Today, there are 100,000 fragments in the Shrine of the Book, where the first seven scrolls are. They’re located in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, where they are continuously studied to discover their true origins.

Scroll Categories

After continuous studies on the scrolls, scholars discovered that the scrolls fit into three categories.

The first is biblical. The first 200 scrolls are part of the Hebrew Bible and also the earliest evidence of any biblical text.

The second is apocryphal, which are works not included in Jewish texts and were falsely ascribed to them. Large segments of the Jewish population valued them because they reflected the beliefs of others.

The third is sectarian. These scrolls included a wide variety of genres, such as biblical commentary, religious-legal writings, liturgic texts, and apocalyptic contexts. They reflect the life of a specific community, believed to be the Essene community, one of the three main Jewish sects.

These studies show the diversity of the religious belief system of ancient Judaism.

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

Early Christians built a subterranean city to escape religious persecution.

At over eight levels, the rooms included food and drink preparation areas, a church, mass storage rooms, stables, and wine presses.

The Accidental Discovery

In 1963, a Turkish man knocked down a wall in his basement and discovered a mysterious room. He dug further and found a network of tunnels that led to an underground city, which later brought on its excavations and preservation.

By 1969, nearly half of the underground city became accessible through excavation and restoration. Visitors could even explore the underground haven.

The City’s Formation

The city is in Cappadocia, a region in Turkey.

Its foundation is soft rock made from ancient volcanic eruptions. Over time, the layers of magma built up and formed stable rock that could be carved approximately 200 ft. (60 meters) below the surface. The rock was so stable that the city sheltered 200, 000 people and livestock.

The builders were Phrygians, an ancient Indo-European race from the 7th and 8th centuries. It was built and completed in the Byzantine era, during the Roman period when Greek-speaking Christians established Derinkuyu.

A Haven

During the Arab-Byzantine War (780 – 1180), the Christians were protected by their underground city from the Muslim Arabs.

This city also connected to other underground cities through a complex network of tunnels, which were also created during the war.

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

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

The 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 to 17,000 – 15,000 BCE.

The Accidental Discovery

On September 12, 1940, after following their dog, four boys discovered a foxhole. They initially thought there was a hidden treasure down the foxhole and explored it.

After exploring 50 ft. (15 meters) below the surface, the boys found cave paintings.

After they got out of the hole, the boys returned prepared. They started charging their friends’ admission fees to see the caves.

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

The Excavation and Analysis

The interior walls show close to 600 paintings, most of them animals.

Not only were the paintings a marvel, but they told impressive stories. There were numerous horses, deer, aurochs, ibex, bison, and some felines, along with mythical creatures and a bird-headed man.

However, there’s continuous speculation over the cave’s meaning, whether it has a ritualistic or spiritual aspect.

Homo sapiens made homes in Europe, particularly in southwestern France and northern Spain. It’s possible that someone lived in the save and the art was a temporary activity.

The Aftermath

The cave opened to the public in the 1960s, but this caused problems.

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 and the cave became infested with lichens and mold.

Fourthly, high-powered lighting added to the damage by causing the paintings to fade.

In 1963, the Lascaux Cave was closed off from the public. The French Prime Minister of Culture allowed only experts in. In 1979, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In 1983, experts created a replica of the cave about 650 ft. (200 meters) from the original site in the village of Montignac for public viewing.

There’s still an ongoing effort to halt further damage.

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 Rosette Stone is a broken part of a giant slab of stone, with a message from ancient Egypt carved onto it. The great significance of this accidental discovery helped experts re-discover Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The Accidental Discovery

The accounts of finding the stone are vague.

Between 1978 and 1801, Napolean Bonaparte campaigned in Egypt. he aimed to dominate the eastern Mediterranean and threaten the British hold on India.

Members of Napolean’s Army were repairing Fort Julien near the town fo Rashid (Rosette). They found the stone built into the walls.

The Officer of Engineers, Pierre François Xavier Bouchard, extracted the stone from the wall, which was later destroyed as part of Fort Julien’s construction.

General Menu, Bouchard’s commanding officer, noticed the stone’s importance and sent it to Alexanderia for casts and copies to be made.

Soon after, British General Tompkins Turkey seized the stone. It then 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 in which direction the symbols should be read.

However, it was French scholar Jean-François Champollion who fully deciphered the text. He found that the texts were in three different styles: ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, ancient Egyptian demotic and ancient Greek.

This discovery was made possible because of Champollion’s ability to read ancient Greek and Coptic.

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

Champollion figured out that the demotic signs were in Coptic, which resulted in understanding their meaning. Then, when he traced the demotic signs back to hieroglyphic symbols, he made educated guesses as to what the hieroglyphs stood for.

This discovery led to Champollion becoming “The Founding Father of Egyptology”.

The Rosetta Stone is currently in the British Museum in London.

Three Ways Written

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

The second was the 32 lines of ancient Egyptian demotics that were used for everyday purposes.

The third was 53 lines of ancient Greek.

During the time of the stone’s carving, Greek was an administrative language because the rulers were Greco-Macedonian after Alexander the Great’s conquest.

Since the stone was written in all three styles, only priests, government officials, and rulers of ancient Egypt could read and understand it.

Deciphered History

In 196 BCE, a group of Egyptian clergymen and Ptolemy V issued a decree for the engraving of the slab of stone.

The translations are clear evidence that Ptolemy V was a generous and religiously devoted leader and the priest of the Memphis Temple in Egypt supported him.

The 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

The Uluburun is a Bronze Age ship, dating between 1330 BCE to 1300 BCE, that carried a full cargo of trade goods. Its journey, though under speculation, started from a port in southern ancient Lydia, Turkey to the Greek mainland.

The Accidental Discovery

In 1982, Turkish sponge diver, Mehmed Çakir, saw what he described as “metal biscuits with ears” near the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. After taking a closer look, he saw those “metal biscuits” were more than they appeared.

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

From 1984 to 1994, an excavation took place in over 11 seasons with 22,000 logged dives 150 ft. (45 meters) below sea level, but the causes of the shipwreck remain unknown.

The main theory revolved around the shipwreck’s location. It was near a high, rocky cliff that came out onto the ocean. Scholars believe that strong, unexpected winds drove the ship onto the rocks, which caused it to sink.

The Cargo

The ship held cargo that’s archaeological evidence of gifts exchanged by the wealthy.

The luxury items included carved ivory containers and jewelry made from gold and semi-precious stones. There were also copper and tin ingots and empty food-filled pottery.

The raw materials on the ship were from distant lands: glass ingots, unworked elephant tusks, ostrich eggshells, and faience beads. The weapons found suggest that there were possible piracy threats.

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

This undisturbed time capsule gives a look at the trade and materialism of the Bronze Age. Parts of the discovery also included ancient aspects of construction, economic exchange, and transportation.

The 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 BCE.

The Accidental Discovery

There are several interpretations of the statue’s discovery.

While plowing the fields in the search for building blocks, Yorgos Kentrotas found a small cave near a peasant’s land plot.

A different version states that Yorgos’s son, Antonios, was with him when he found the save.

Inside the cave was the top half of a marble sculpture of a woman. The Kentrotas (and his son) started searching for the bottom half soon after.

French Navy Ensign Olivier Voutier anchored his ship on the island of Milos to seek out antiquities. He encountered a man (and his son) searching through stones near the Greek village of Trypiti.

After he saw the top half of the marble sculpture, Voutier helped with finding the other half.

He reported the finding to his supervisors. The French brought both halves of the statue and called it the Venus de Milo.

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

According to reports, the statue was found with several pillars decorated with marble heads, along with the upper left arm holding an apple.

However, an inscribed plinth, believed to be part of the statue, was lost during the transport of the marble artifact.

The Analysis

According to the Louvre, the sculpture was made from two blocks of marble: one for the top half and the other for the bottom half.

There’s still speculation about the color and jewelry of the statue.

The sculpture could be one of two deities:

  1. The Roman Goddess of Love, Venus, because of the nudity and curve of the body.
  2. Amphitrite, the Greek Goddess of the Sea because Milos is known as her place of worship.

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

The Terra Cotta Warriors represent the guards of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (259 – 210 BCE). They were to accompany China’s first emperor into the afterlife and spiritually protect him.

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

It required 72, 000 laborers to complete the work in those 40 years.

The Accidental Discovery

In 1974, there was a drought in several parts of China. The farmers were desperate for water and dug a well.

They dug a meter into the ground and struck red water. From there, they found life-sized potter heads and several bronze arrowheads.

Archaeologist Zhou Kangmin set the excavation in motion.

Creating the Army

Clay was a cheaper option to form the large army.

Each piece of the warrior was created separately on an assembly line.

First, separate molds were added to the surface of the sculpture. Then, artists individually modeled the faces and hair. Next, the sculptures were put in fire kilns to become hard and durable. In the end, every unique figure was painted.

Due to the humidity and erosion of 2000 years, the Terra Cotta Army lost its color but still gives insight into the militia, cultural and economic history of the past.

The Excavation

Three pits were excavated.

Pit one is the largest and holds 6000 soldiers and horses, but only 2000 are on display.

The soldiers and horses face east in a rectangular formation, armed with a long spear, dagger, or halberd. The vanguard, which leads the advance, is three rows of infantry at the east of the formation.

Behind the vanguard 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 two uncovers the mystery of ancient army formation in four units:

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

Pit three is the command post, the smallest pit.

68 terra cotta figures are in the command post. Some were headless and are speculated to be official figures.

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

These discoveries, despite being accidents, show that there’s most to learn about the world, about the different ancient cultures and societies.

It might not even take an excavation team led by an archaeologist or historian, simply someone 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.

Leave a Reply