7 Ancient Mysteries Archaeologists Will Solve This Century

National Geographic archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert predicts the amazing finds we may make in the 21st century.
Picture of trees are still thick within a pocket of jungle in the Mosquitia

Last year archaeologists equipped with a LiDAR scanner, which uses laser light to probe beneath the jungle canopy, discovered the ruins of a lost city deep in the Honduran rain forest. Such technology is ushering in a “new age of exploration,” says archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert.


By Kristin Romey, National Geographic

When the National Geographic Society awarded its first archaeology grant to Hiram Bingham in 1912, the archaeologist headed off to Machu Picchu with one of the most advanced pieces of technology at the time: a Kodak panoramic camera. More than a hundred years later, archaeologists have a staggering array of technological tools to employ, from remote-sensing equipment that allows us to “see” beyond the visual bandwidth to computers so powerful that they can process in a second what it would take humans thousands of years to do.

With that enthusiasm in mind, we asked Hiebert to share his predictions on what we may be able to look forward to in this new century of discovery:

1. Discovering previously unknown cities—or even civilizations—in Central and South America

“Archaeologists are using LiDAR [light detection and ranging] to literally ‘see’ beneath dense jungle canopies in places like Honduras and Belize to locate settlements that we weren’t aware existed,” says Hiebert.

Picture of A floor mosaic depicting the Greek myth ''The Abduction of Persephone'' by Pluto

A mosaic discovered last year inside an immense, marble-walled tomb near the ancient site of Amphipolis in northern Greece stirred speculation that the tomb belonged to a member of Alexander the Great’s family. PHOTOGRAPH BY ARISTIDIS VAFEIADAKIS/ZUMA PRESS/CORBIS

2. Finding the tomb of Genghis Khan or Alexander the Great

Technology like ground-penetrating radar (GPR) enables archaeologists to look underground without digging, says Hiebert. For National Geographic’sValley of the Khans Project, his team used satellite imagery to identify potential locations for the burial site of Genghis Khan, and then “ground-truthed” the areas with GPR to determine their viability. “While we didn’t locate the tomb of Genghis Khan at the time, it’s a great way to survey large areas of land for what might be a relatively small feature. Ultimately it’s a numbers game: The more area you’re able to survey, the more likely you are to find something. Why not the tomb of Genghis Khan? Or Alexander the Great?”

Picture of A kneeling archer rises among China's great terracotta army

An army of lifelike clay soldiers guards the vast tomb of Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor. Archaeologists have yet to explore the dark secrets of the emperor’s burial mound. PHOTOGRAPH BY O. LOUIS MAZZTENTA, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Archaeologists know the location of the burial site of Qin Shi Huang Di—surrounded by his Terracotta Warriors in X’ian—but the potential of damaging items preserved in the tomb for more than 2,000 years makes them reluctant to open it. “Remote-sensing tools like GPR andmagnetometers can give us an idea of the interior structure, and eventually we’ll have tiny robotic devices that can enter the tomb and collect data with negligible disturbance,” says Hiebert.

Phaistos on the island of Crete was one of the most important centers of Minoan civilization. Powerful computers could help researchers decipher the Minoans’ mysterious writing system, known as Linear A. PHOTOGRAPH BY GORDON GAHAN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

4. Deciphering the mystery language of the ancient Minoans

Picture of ancient geoglyph of a spider located in the Nazca Desert of Peru

In the coastal desert of southern Peru, sprawling figures etched on the land have inspired wonder in air travelers since first spotted in the 1920s. PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT CLARK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

5. Understanding the purpose of the Nasca lines

Researchers are still theorizing on the purpose of the Nasca lines. Do these elaborate geoglyphs in Peru represent constellations? Are they associated with water sources? Hiebert agrees with anthropologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Johan Reinhard, who says that no single evaluation proves a theory about the Nasca lines. “This is where using increasingly powerful computer analysis to crunch big sets of geographical and archaeological data would be really important,” says Hiebert.

Picture of Close to the Museum in Salekhard, a young Nenet boy approaches the baby mammoth

Frozen for 40,000 years, this mammoth calf was discovered in 2007 by reindeer herders in Siberia. Other long-frozen remains may emerge from shrinking ice sheets. PHOTOGRAPH BY FRANCIS LATREILLE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

As global warming causes ice sheets and glaciers to retreat, it will be “very, very likely” that a well-preserved Neanderthal will one day emerge, says Hiebert, much like the 40,000-year-old baby mammoth found in Siberia.

Picture of Archaeologists unearth what is believed to be a Viking outpost

Unearthing what she believes to be a Viking outpost, archaeologist Patricia Sutherland (in orange jacket) and her colleagues work in Baffin Island’s Tanfield Valley. PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID COVENTRY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

7. Confirming large-scale Viking presence in North America

Follow Kristin Romey on Twitter.


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