From fossilised remains and forgotten pottery shards to the excavation of massive-scale complexes, archaeology can tell us so much about history and the cultures that have helped shape it. Analysing remnants from the past is fundamental not only in our quest to better understand the lifestyles and motivations of our ancestors, but also in our desire to glean a deeper knowledge about humanity and culture itself, extending right up to the present day.
To celebrate the important role archaeology plays in the broader study of the historical record, we wanted to take a quick tour through some of the world's most fascinating - and most visited - ancient sites. Although you've likely heard of everything on this list, we're betting you're less familiar with the small details that make their existence so enthralling and that indeed often get overshadowed by the 'tourist attraction' label slapped unceremoniously across their crumbling facades.
There's nothing wrong with wanting to cross something off your bucket list, but we believe these archaeological sites deserve a little extra attention, so for anyone who wants to visit the Pyramids or Stonehenge but isn't quite sure why, or for anyone who just wants to learn a little more about the historical places and monuments that so often grace our TV screens and glossy social media feeds, this list is for you!
The Giza Pyramid Complex
It may seem like an obvious choice and you're probably rolling your eyes right now, but this approximately 4500 year-old site is cherished for good reason. It's not just the astounding quality of the workmanship that has enabled the Pyramids to survive the onslaught of time that's so impressive, but also the immense debate surrounding the site itself, most notably pertaining to the pre-industrial construction techniques that enabled the Egyptians to move innumerable heavy blocks with the precision required to align the Pyramids to true north. Yep, you read that right: true north. Although many building theories from sledge and ramp systems to hydraulic power have been considered, the fact that we remain largely unable to piece together the mystery of the Pyramids propels the sense of veneration one feels when standing in their immense shadows. Although the gleaming limestone once encasing the Pyramids has long since diminished, the site, even in its 'ruined' state, remains a true testament to the skill and tenacity of humankind and contains some of the most stunning archaeological finds our world has to offer.
Because of the complexity of the building work, it is likely that only the most skilled labourers, engineers, and architects were hired to work on the structures that would become Pharaoh Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure's tombs. So it might be time to dismiss that dramatic image of thousands of slaves hauling huge blocks through the desert that you've likely possessed since childhood, courtesy, you guessed it, of Hollywood.
We've all heard of it and you've probably even been there, but if you haven't and you're trying to figure out what's so impressive about a bunch of stones in an open field, prepare to have your mind blown. Located in modern-day Wiltshire, this Neolithic monument has become Europe's most famous of its kind and today receives over 800,000 tourists annually. The stone circle was built in various stages dating from about 3000 BCE to 1500 BCE, but it was probably only in the mid 3rd-century BCE that the site began to take on its familiar characteristics with the addition of stone settings. Considering the basic Neolithic tools available to the builders, the ability to haul the sarsen stones (weighing on average 25 tons) from their probable starting point at Marlborough Downs, located some 32km away, not to mention the transportation of the smaller bluestones (weighing 2-5 tons) from Preseli Hills, some 250km away, is simply awe-inspiring. But if the methods of transportation remain a mystery, it's nothing compared to the engineering itself.
The stones, for instance, were erected with interlocking joints unlike anything observed at other prehistoric monuments. As if that weren't enough, they have been precisely aligned to allow a clear view, from the circle's centre, of the summer-solstice sun rising over the heel stone. Although this would suggest a preoccupation with the heavens, the main purpose of the monument is unknown, with theories ranging from a Druid temple or cult centre for healing to an astronomical calculator for eclipses and solar events.
While Stonehenge is only one part of an impressive Neolithic site encompassing over 350 burial mounds and monuments including the Cursus, Woodhenge and Durrington Walls, it has provided invaluable information about Neolithic and Bronze Age ceremonial practices and continues to inspire its visitors today.
The archaeological site of Chichén Itzá, heart of the Mayan world, is overflowing with all manner of magnificent ruins, from stepped pyramids to temples. Although these should be appreciated together in order to truly absorb the importance of the area and the complexity of Mayan civilisation, it is the 30m high Temple of Kukulkan that continues to dominate the site. Consisting of 365 steps that represent the days of the year, the Temple of Kukulkan is famous for the serpent-shaped shadow that is cast each year during the spring and autumn equinoxes. As the sun sets, the serpent slowly descends the pyramid to ultimately meet a stone serpent head at the base of the great staircase, and if that doesn't blow you away, we don't know what will!
Aside from advanced astronomical skills that enabled the Mayans to, for example, predict solar eclipses, the site at Chichén Itzá also reveals abundant evidence of a once thriving urban centre home to trade, religious ceremonies, and other facets of communal dwelling, prior to its mysterious abandonment in the 15th-century.
Ziggurat of Ur
Built around 2100 BCE for the moon goodness, Nanna, and excavated in the 1920s, the Ziggurat of Ur is easily one of the most impressive monuments from the ancient word. Measuring 210 by 150 feet, standing between 70 and 100 feet high, boasting three levels of terraces, harbouring a drainage system, and constructed from hundreds of thousands of baked bricks weighing up to 33 pounds each, the monument would certainly have required more than just a little coordination from its Mesopotamian builders. Although the temple dedicated to Nanna has unfortunately not survived, the lower levels remain standing and thus provide a phenomenal insight into the engineering skills harboured by the civilisation that built it. Located in modern day Dhi Qar Province, in the south of Iraq, the Ziggurat of Ur continues to dominate its landscape despite the some 4000 years that have elapsed since its initial construction.
Located on a site that has been inhabited since prehistoric times, the ancient city of Petra, nestled between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea in Jordan, formed an important crossroads for Arabia, Egypt and Syria-Phoenicia due to the incense, silks and spices that were traded into and out of these regions. The most recognisable feature of the site, Ad Deir, is ornately carved into the sandstone rock and fitted with a sophisticated water management system that allowed for permanent settlement in a predominantly arid region, highlighting the genius of the Nabataean people who crafted it. Due to habitation by multiple groups across large periods of time, the site offers a unique blend of Hellenistic architectural facades and traditional Nabataean rock-cut tombs and temples that are bound to impress even the most reluctant traveller. Embedded within dramatic mountains and sweeping gorges, Petra represents a seamless collision of the natural and the man-made, rendering it of little wonder that the jaw-dropping ancient site has become a staple on the 'must-see' lists of travel-, history-, and archaeology-enthusiasts around the world. Go ahead and slap it on your bucket list if you haven't already!
Although this blog has only explored a handful of monuments out of a very long, awe-inspiring list, we hope it's stoked your lust for travel and inspired you to do a bit more digging into the wonders of some of the world's most popular archaeological destinations.
So go ahead and find your own treasures, make your own memories, and let your footprints sink into ancient ground alongside ones that have long since faded with these phenomenal wonders that have withstood the test of time and hosted countless civilisations across the millennia. You won't regret it!