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The 5 most underrated ancient world artifacts

You may have heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls and seen the mask of King Tut. But if you wish to beat your relatives at Jeopardy, you should know more about them. Here is a list of six of the most famous things from the ancient world.

Beautiful rocky monument with a carved image of a human face in the jungle. close-up view. © fxquadro/Freepik

Venus of Willendorf (German)

Venus of Willendorf, Anthropos. © Wikimedia Commons

Venus of Willendorf is the Ice Age’s most famous woman. She is short and fat, and she is almost 30,000 years old. The four-inch-tall figurine has big breasts, buttocks, a belly, and lips that look like a woman’s genitalia. It doesn’t have feet or facial features, though. Her head is covered by braids or maybe a knit cap, and spots of color show that the tan sandstone artifact was once red.

In 1908, archaeologists dug at Willendorf II, an Austrian site on the Danube River about 50 miles from Vienna. About a week into the dig, they found the figurine. Several other dogs were done there in the 1900s and 2000s, using ever-better techniques. They found two less-famous Venus action figures and hundreds of stone tools.

Nearly 200 statuettes like these have been found at sites in Europe between 23,000 and 40,000 years old. Modern scholars call these sculptures Venuses, after the Roman goddess of love and fertility, but the people who made them lived at least 20,000 years before Classical Rome.

Researchers aren’t sure why Ice Age people made these figurines, but they may have been fertility symbols, self-portraits, or pornographic items. Any way you look, the supposed sexual appeal didn’t last: In 2011, 161 college students gave Venus of Willendorf an average rating of 0.14 on a scale from not attractive at all to very attractive.

Olmec colossal heads

Olmec Colossal Head, San Lorenzo, Veracruz, 1200-600 BC – front. © Wikimedia Commons

The Olmec culture grew out of the swampy forests of the Mexican Gulf Coast between 400 and 1400 B.C. It is sometimes called the mother culture of Mesoamerica. In 1862, when a farmer was digging on the same land, he found a huge stone head. It was the first of 17 heads that haven’t been found yet but are assumed to be portraits of Olmec rulers.

Each statue is 5 and 10 feet tall and weighs more than a full-grown elephant. They show men with almond-shaped eyes, flat noses, and full lips. But each face, expression, and headdress is different, which supports the idea that carved boulders show different leaders.

The first one was found by accident at Tres Zapotes in the foothills of the Tuxtlas Mountains. The basalt stone used to make them came from those mountains. But archaeologists later found most of the heads at the old capitals of San Lorenzo and La Venta, about 60 miles from where the basalt came from.

Even though it would have been hard work, no one knows how the Olmec moved these huge boulders, which were eventually carved and displayed in plazas. And it looks like several heads were broken and buried long ago. This had led some archaeologists to think that old statues were destroyed on purpose when new rulers took over.

King Tut’s Funerary Mask

Mask of Tutankhamun is a gold mask of the 18th-dynasty ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun (reigned 1334–1325 BC). © Wikimedia Commons

Most people think of King Tutankhamun’s death mask when you say “pharaoh.” The wrapped mummy of the Egyptian king, who died at 19 in 1323 B.C. after only ten years as king, was topped with a 24-pound copy of his face. The solid gold base shines with semiprecious stones like lapis lazuli, turquoise, and others. The chin has a beard that looks like a tube, and the forehead has a vulture and a cobra, both gods representing the coming together of Lower and Upper Egypt.

In 1922, British archaeologist Howard Carter found King Tut’s nearly complete tomb in the Valley of the Kings, a royal burial site along the Nile River. This was when the mask was brought back into the modern world. Most Egyptian royal tombs have been robbed over time, so Tut’s burial chamber was the first to show how much wealth the pharaohs took to the grave.

Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone. © Wikimedia Commons

The Rosetta Stone is a priestly decree from 196 B.C. that confirms the divine cult of King Ptolemy V on the first and of his coronation. It’s not very interesting to read. But the message was written on the black stone three times in three different scripts: Ancient Greek, Ancient Egypt’s formal hieroglyphs, and Ancient Egypt’s less formal, cursive demotic script.

And because it was written in two languages and three scripts, it was possible to figure out how to read Egyptian hieroglyphs and all of the writings from that ancient civilization. French soldiers found the artifact during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt in 1799. It ended in London after British troops beat the French in 1801.

Scholars and the public knew Ancient Greek, so they immediately saw that the stone could be used to figure out hieroglyphs. But it took Jean-Francois Champollion another 20 years to figure out how to do it.

The relic is the most popular thing in the British Museum right now. It is 3 feet 9 inches tall and weighs 1,680 pounds, but about a third of it has been broken off over time. But the full text is still known because it is written on other monuments.

Terracotta Army

The Terracotta Army. © Wikimedia Commons

Imagine working on your tomb for over 30 years with unlimited power, resources, and a desire to do bad things. Even then, your mausoleum might not be as grand as the complex built by Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of a unified China ruled from 210 to 221 B.C. He ordered the building of this complex.

Ancient Chinese texts say that more than 700,000 people worked on the 22-square-mile site, much bigger than most college campuses. There are statues of dancers and acrobats, carriages with gold decorations, and bronze ducks in canals that look like dioramas.

But the Terracotta Army, which is made up of thousands of clay warriors made to look like real people and lined up in trenches in a military formation, is probably what most people know about it. The first statue was found in 1974 by farmers digging a well. Since then, three major digs have uncovered 2,000 more soldiers, but, likely, another 6,000 are still buried.