This year, archaeologists dug up a wealth of treasures that unveiled not only some strange practices (like building a pyramid within a pyramid within a pyramid) but also some of the long-held secrets of well-known artifacts. From new Dead Sea Scrolls to the youngest mummy ever found in Egypt, to a 1,500-year-old stone complex the size of 200 American football fields to the tomb of Jesus, here’s a look at the biggest archaeology stories of 2016.
Noah’s ark mosaic
A mosaic depicting the story of Noah’s ark was discovered this year within an ancient synagogue at the site of Huqoq in Israel. In the mosaic, the ark can be seen along with pairs of animals, including lions, bears and leopards. Another panel of the mosaic depicts the story of the parting of the Red Sea, showing ancient Egyptian soldiers, who were surrounded by overturned chariots, being eaten by giant fish.
Egypt’s youngest mummy
A miniature coffin in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, holds what appears to be the youngest known Egyptian mummy. The coffin, made of cedar wood, was discovered at Giza in 1907 and dates back more than 2,500 years.
The fetus inside the coffin was only 16-18 weeks old after the time of gestation (when it was conceived) and likely died from a miscarriage. The coffin, which has tiny carvings on it, had been in the museum for over a century, but curators had assumed that it probably held internal organs from someone who was mummified. Not until CT scans were performed was the occupant of the tiny coffin revealed.
Virtually unwrapped scroll
Using a series of CT scans, scientists were able to “virtually unwrap” a burnt Dead Sea Scroll dating back around 1,700 years. The charred scroll was discovered in 1970 at the site of En Gedi near the Dead Sea in Israel. The well-known “Dead Sea Scrolls” were discovered between 1947 and 1956 at another site, this one called Qumran, also near the Dead Sea.
The En Gedi scroll’s charred state made it extremely fragile and impossible to physically unwrap. The scans revealed the text of the scroll, which consists of part of the Book of Leviticus. The precise date of the scroll isn’t clear, though it appears to date back around 1,700 years or possibly a bit earlier, the researchers said. A similar CT-scan technique was used in 2015 to read charred 2,000-year-old scrolls from the site of Herculaneum in Italy.
Pyramid within a pyramid within a pyramid
Archaeologists discovered that the El Castillo pyramid at Chichén Itzá in Mexico actually consists of a pyramid within a pyramid within a pyramid. The outermost pyramid was constructed sometime between 950 and 1000, while the pyramid within that pyramid was constructed sometime between 850 and 900, and a pyramid within that was constructed sometime between 600 and 800.
To make the discovery, scientists conducted an electrical resistivity survey of the outermost pyramid. Electrical resistivity is a widely used technique in archaeology, in which electrical currents are passed through a structure, or the ground, and the resistance encountered by the currents is measured. These measurements are then used to help determine what lies underneath a surface.
Ancient Egyptian boat tableau
The largest carvings are nearly 5 feet (1.5 meters) in length and show “large, well-rendered boats depicted with masts, sails, rigging, deckhouses/cabins, rudders, oars and in some cases rowers,” wrote expedition leader Josef Wegner in an article published in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology this year. Inside the structure, archaeologists also found planks that they said are likely from a wooden boat that used to be inside the structure.
Kazakhstan megalithic site
Excavation of the “tomb of Jesus”
In 2016, a team of archaeologists opened the tomb in order to carry out conservation work and learn more about the site. They found the limestone bed, which, according to legend, Christ’s body had been placed on after he was crucified. The excavations may shed more light on the tomb and the legends behind it.
Unknown branch of humanity
“We believe that they interbred with modern humans shortly before modern humans crossed into the ancient continent of Sahul — what is now Australia, New Guinea and Tasmania — some 50,000 to 60,000 years ago,” Eske Willerslev, a palaeogeneticist at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, told Live Science. The discovery was made by analyzing the genomes of present-day aboriginal Australians.
New Dead Sea Scrolls
Additionally, an Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) team seized a papyrus dating to the seventh century B.C. that was bound for the antiquities market. The IAA said that the papyrus was found by looters in a cave in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea. This papyrus may also be a forgery, some experts told Live Science.
In the wake of these newly discovered scrolls, the IAA has undertaken a new project to survey and excavate any remaining caves in the Judean Desert, near the Dead Sea, that may hold scrolls.