The big archaeology discoveries of 2023

The story of humanity stretches back thousands of years and thanks to archaeologists around the world, new pages are being added to the record every year. In 2023, these history scientists uncovered new and interesting details about individual humans and entire cultures.

From Egyptian mummies being subjected to CT scans to cash prizes for deciphering carbonised scrolls from Mount Vesuvius, archaeologists have been hard at work in 2023. Here are some of the most fascinating stories exploring the ancient world covered by Cosmos this year…

Homicide rates hit their maximum… 4,000 years ago

Studying human remains that are between 2,000 and 14,000 years old, scientists have been able to pinpoint the moment when homicide rates maxed out. 

As it turns out, the advance into the Bronze Age marked a downturn in the rates of people knocking each other off. Until this point, it’s likely that increasing urbanisation (bringing groups closer together), rising inequality among people and shifts in climate and disease shocks likely contributed to rising interpersonal violence.

Excavations in cueva de malalmuerzo.
Excavations in Cueva de Malalmuerzo. Credit: Pedro Cantalejo Credit: Pedro Cantalejo

Spain’s oldest human genome found in ancient tooth

A 23,000-year-old genome has been extracted from a tooth in Spain’s Andalusia region. Found in a cave network, the tooth was taken by archaeologists and its genetic material was decoded by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutional Anthropology. They found it was genetically linked to an even older (35,000yo) sample from Belgium discovered in 2016, but had no known connection to peoples of North Africa, despite the cave network being only a few dozen kilometres away.

A Herculaneum scroll, Institut de France. Credit: Digital Restoration Initiative, University of Kentucky.

Rolled gold? Decode the Herculaneum scroll and win cash money

The charred remains of 2-millennia-old scrolls from the ancient Roman city Herculaneum, uncovered from a large villa buried beneath the volcanic ash of Mount Vesuvius, were subject to high energy X-rays in 2018 to try and transcribe the carbonised paper.  The research team from Kentucky University in March released its decoding software along with thousands of scroll X-ray images in the hope someone might translate the detail. Whoever can successfully decrypt the scrolls could be rewarded to the tune of US$250,000.

Two people wearing gloves and ppe examining a bone
DNA research at the Vasa Museum. Professor Marie Allen, Uppsala University and Conservator Malin Sahlstedt, the Vasa Museum. Credit: Anna Maria Forssberg, Vasamuseet/SMTM.

Don’t keep your secrets to yourself, Vasa

Vasa was the pride and joy of the Swedish navy in 1628, up to the moment it sank one kilometre into its maiden voyage, killing 30 sailors in the process.

Contrary to common belief, however, not all of the sailors were male. An international team investigating their remains identified one as female through osteological analysis using systems developed by the US Department of Defense.

Burial chamber tomb sarcophagus
Burial chamber with sarcophagus. Credit: P. Košárek / Czech Institute of Egyptology via Facebook.

Mummy found inside 4,400-year-old lost tomb

Unlike many of his fellows, Egyptian high official Ptahshepses was sleeping easy these last 4 millennia. That’s until a group of Czech archaeologists stumbled across his tomb in 2022 after a years-long search. In October this year, the institute published pictures from their discovery.

Golden boy ct scan 02

Egyptian museum uses CAT scan to uncover warts-and-all detail of mummy

You need to open a sarcophagus to find out what’s inside, right? Wrong!

In January, the Egyptian Museum released details CT scans of a sarcophagus containing what they dubbed ‘Golden Boy’ – a wealthy member of the ancient elite. The Museum released extensive details of what the scans showed – from the ornate artefacts and ritual plants buried with him to the anatomical features used to predict his ethnicity.

Malaysian cave paintings tell a violent story

In Sarawak, Malaysia, lies a cave adorned with centuries-old cave paintings portraying a violent battle. In August, archaeologists published results of radiocarbon dating that may determine just which battles these murals portray – skirmishes between the region’s indigenous peoples and invading Malay elites.

Scans of a 2 million year old jawbone
Images of the fossil mandible from the Garba IV archaeological site near Melka Kunture. Credit: Mussi et al (2023).

Ancient human species settled African highlands 2 million years ago 

In October, an analysis of fossilised infant jawbone remains was published, clarifying which human species originally settled the highlands south of the modern-day Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. The fossil, recovered from an archaeological site in the region, belonged to a girl of the species Homo erectus, one of the early hominids to emerge in Africa about 2 million years ago and spread across Asia as far as Indonesia in the (relatively) recent past.

A stick on a black background
Perspective photograph of the double-pointed throwing stick from Schöningen, Germany. Credit: Volker Minkus (CC-BY 4.0).

300,000-year-old stick one of the oldest examples of human tools

This double-pointed stick from a site in Germany may be one of the oldest human tools ever recovered from an archaeological site. Recovered by a team of German researchers, their analysis suggests it may have been crafted by predecessors like Homo heidelbergensis or Homo neanderthalensis. Subject to 3D microscopy and infrared spectroscopy analysis, the stick was part of a restudied collection of wooden objects from the region, where scientists hoped to determine why their creators made them. In all likelihood, the specimen was likely used as a hunting stick.

Colonial shipwreck may have more to offer even as the sea claims it

South Australia’s oldest colonial shipwreck is itself being colonised – by sea life. Yet even as it further sinks into the sea bed off the state’s Fleurieu Peninsula and becomes infiltrated by marine animals, experts hope it can still shed light on the state’s early history, including that of the whaling industry active in the region in the 19th century.

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