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20 Most Impressive Archaeological Sites

Archaeology is one of Kelley's great passions. He's read many books on the subject, as well as every issue of "Archaeology" since 1987.

Restored area of the Domus Aurea in Rome, Italy

Restored area of the Domus Aurea in Rome, Italy

You gotta dig those ruins!

The list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World has been around for a long time, but only one of these wonders is still vertical—the Great Pyramid of Khufu in Egypt. Therefore, you won't find the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus on this compilation, because it's little more than rubble strewn on the ground, which isn't very impressive! Moreover, each site on this list can include more than just the well-known monuments, temples or citadels; the surrounding area or complex can be just as important to archaeologists and laypeople.

Pyramids of Giza

Pyramids of Giza

Entrance leading to the Grand Gallery in the Great Pyramid of Khufu

Entrance leading to the Grand Gallery in the Great Pyramid of Khufu

1. Pyramids of Giza

Pyramids can be found all over the world, but the only true pyramids can be found in Egypt. The Pyramids of Giza, the largest found in Egypt, were constructed about 4,500 years ago during the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom. Scientists are still trying to figure out how these three monuments were built. Many think external ramps and cranes were used, which seems the most scientific way possible. In an article of the May/June 2007 issue of Archaeology magazine, the author theorizes that an external ramp was used for the lower third of the pyramids, and then this ramp was re-used in an “internal ramp” designed to erect the higher levels of the structures.

Interestingly, a microgravimetry survey of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the highest of the three, showed less dense areas in the upper reaches of the pyramid. According to an article in the July/August 2009 issue of Archaeology, a noticeable niche in the upper northeast face of Khufu’s pyramid may provide an entry into this hypothetical internal ramp.

Regarding this noticeable niche, on an installment of Secrets of the Dead entitled “Scanning the Pyramids,” shown on PBS in January 2018, scientists using 3D technologies and muon detectors discovered a void inside the niche on the northeast face of the Great Pyramid. This void could be as long and wide as the Grand Gallery, which connects to the King’s Chamber lower in the pyramid. In the future, tiny robots may be used to explore this void and any others that may be discovered.

However the Pyramids of Giza were built, they are perhaps the most enduring monuments ever constructed by humankind!

Tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi

Tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi

Terracotta warriors found near the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi

Terracotta warriors found near the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi

2. Tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi

The Tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi lies about 30 kilometers from modern Xian in China. The tomb contains the remains of China’s first emperor, a ruthless autocrat who died in 210 B.C.E. The pyramid-shaped tumulus over the burial chamber rises to a height of 165 feet and a circumference of nearly one mile (originally it was nearly 400 feet high). The mausoleum is thought to contain a scale model of the capital city, including rivers of mercury, and a planetarium with constellations made of pearls.

A nearby pit contains an army of perhaps 8,000 life-size terracotta warriors and horses arranged in battle formation. Incredibly, each soldier shows a unique likeness! The tomb has not been excavated because of Chinese government does not think it can perform at present such a monumental archaeological project. Who can wait for when they do? (Please note: the latest movie in The Mummy series, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor relates to the story of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi.)

Aerial view of Teotihuacán

Aerial view of Teotihuacán

Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán

Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán

3. Teotihuacán

Located in the Valley of Mexico, Teotihuacán was the capital of a great civilization, which flourished from 300 B.C.E. to about the year 1000. Teotihuacán was the largest pre-Columbian city in the Americas and could have housed as many as a quarter million inhabitants. The major monuments of this area are the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon. According to ancient Mexican legend, the Pyramid of the Sun marks the place where time began.

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Bisecting the site, the Avenue of the Dead, labeled as such by Spanish conquerors who thought the buildings were tombs, is flanked with flat-topped temples, perhaps the most prominent of which is the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, where in recent years numerous human bones have been discovered. Some scientists think these bones are the remains of a mass human sacrifice, whose purpose was to consecrate the temple. One popular theory likens this ancient metropolis to a kind of model of the solar system. (For more information regarding this theory check out Graham Hancock’s book Fingerprints of the Gods.)

In 2009, a team of scientists placed a muon detector in a tunnel beneath the Pyramid of the Sun, hoping to discover hidden chambers in the monument. Muons, essentially cosmic ray remnants from deep space, can penetrate solid mass, though the denser the mass the more particles are blocked, providing images of rarefactions for investigators. (For more information about this high-tech investigative tool, see the September/October 2008 issue of Archaeology magazine.)

Present day view of Stonehenge

Present day view of Stonehenge

Artist's depiction of ancient Stonehenge at the summer solstice sunrise

Artist's depiction of ancient Stonehenge at the summer solstice sunrise

4. Stonehenge

Stonehenge is as old as the Pyramids of Egypt and perhaps just as enigmatic. Nobody knows for sure how or why it was built. One of many so-called “henges” found throughout the United Kingdom, current theory posits that Stonehenge could have been a ceremonial center linked to others in the region, particularly the nearby Woodhenge. (See the June 2008 issue of National Geographic.) For many years scientists have theorized that Stonehenge was an astronomical observatory or calendar, because of stone alignments with the winter and summer solstices. It also could have been a burial ground, as human bones have been found in the area. Some experts think these could be the remains of sacrificial victims.

And, according to an article in the October 2008 issue of Smithsonian magazine, some archaeologists think the megaliths at the monument, particularly the so-called bluestones, could have been used for healing purposes. At any rate, it’s truly astonishing to realize that Neolithic people (perhaps the Druids) had the technical skills for moving megaliths weighing as much as 50 tons from as far away as the Preseli Mountains in Wales, some 250 miles from Stonehenge! One thing about Stonehenge remains certain - it will continue to amaze for years to come.

Serpent effect at El Castillo (the Castle) at Chichén Itzá

Serpent effect at El Castillo (the Castle) at Chichén Itzá

Temple of the Warriors at Chichén Itzá

Temple of the Warriors at Chichén Itzá

5. Chichén Itzá

Chichén Itzá was a city and ceremonial center strategically located in the heart of the northern Yucatan peninsula. The Maya built this ancient metropolis about 600 C.E. and then about 987 C.E. the rulers of Teotihuacán took control of it for a time. The city flourished until 1221 when a revolt and civil war broke out. Perhaps the most prominent edifice of the city is El Castillo (the Castle) or Temple of Kukulkan, a multi-tiered pyramid whose steps cast the shadow of a moving serpent at the spring and fall equinoxes.

Also found in the area are the Temple of the Jaguars, the Temple of the Warriors, the Temple of the Wall Panels, the Caracol (observatory temple), the Sacred Cenoté, and other wonders. Of course, there are many impressive Mayan sites—Uxmal, Caracol, El Mirador, Copán and Palenque, just to name some—but Chichén Itzá is perhaps the most magnificent of them all.

Huaca del Sol at Moche

Huaca del Sol at Moche

"Decapitator" mural at Huaca de la Luna

"Decapitator" mural at Huaca de la Luna

6. Moche, Peru

The Moche culture flourished along the northern coast of Peru from 100 to 700 C.E. The Moche built an elaborate system of canals, as well as many adobe temples or huacas, as they are called there, particularly the Huaca del Sol and the Huaca de la Luna (or pyramids of the sun and the moon, respectively.) Excavated since the 1990s, various impressive Moche ruins have been heavily damaged by looters, first by the Spanish conquistadors looking for gold and other riches, and later by local tomb robbers in search of valuable artifacts which can be sold on the black market. The Moche, like many other ancient Peruvian civilizations, were a warlike people who engaged in human sacrifice and ritualized executions. Interestingly, the Moche suffered from extreme weather conditions around 500 C.E.—30 years of heavy rain, followed by 30 years of drought, an El Niño event of great proportions, indeed!


Reconstructed Ziggurat of Ur

Reconstructed Ziggurat of Ur

Artist's depiction of the Ziggurat of Ur

Artist's depiction of the Ziggurat of Ur

7. Ziggurat of Ur

The Ziggurat of Ur is the finest example of Sumerian architecture. (The Sumerians invented writing—and many other things—about 5,000 years ago.) Built about 2000 B.C.E. by the Sumerians near the city of Ur in what is now south-eastern Iraq, the Ziggurat of Ur has been re-constructed in recent years and looks astonishingly good, particularly compared to the ruins of others ziggurats, which are little more than piles of mud brick. (The “ruins” of the Tower of Babel, another ziggurat, are nothing more than a hole in the ground.)

Dedicated to the Nanna, the Moon-God, this temple was rebuilt by many kings, the last of whom Nabonidus of Babylon, whom the invading Persians wrested from power in 539 B.C.E. The ziggurat, in general, represented the religious nexus of the Mesopotamian cultures of the ancient Middle East, providing a platform, if you will, from which a man or woman could interact with the gods and perhaps receive a favor or two in the process.

Reconstructed area of the Domus Aurea

Reconstructed area of the Domus Aurea

Painted vault in the Domus Aurea

Painted vault in the Domus Aurea

Vault with occulus at Domus Aurea

Vault with occulus at Domus Aurea

8. Domus Aurea

A list such as this wouldn’t be complete without at least one archaeological site found in Rome, Italy, often called The Eternal City. The Domus Aurea, Latin for Golden House, was built by the Emperor Nero from 64 to 68 C.E. This palatial complex, from 100 to 300 acres or more in size or about the area of three football fields, included a bronze statue of Nero some 30 meters high. Known as the Colossus Neronis, the statue disappeared sometime between the fourth and seventh centuries C.E. The Domus Aurea wasn’t completed before Nero died in 68 C.E.

Within a decade of Nero’s death, the Golden House was stripped of its gold, marble, jewels and ivory, so these valuables could be used for subsequent construction of other Roman buildings. What remained was soon covered with 40 feet of dirt so the Baths of Trajan, the Temple of Venus, the Flavian Amphitheater and the Baths of Titus could be built upon it. Fortunately this dirt protected the frescoes, mosaics and other artworks from moisture, which can degrade archaeological sites.

The ruins of the Domus Aurea lay underground and forgotten for centuries, until rediscovered in the late fifteenth century, when artists such as Raphael and Michelangelo descended through these ruins of Roman antiquity, the sight of which influencing their artwork and that of many other artists for centuries to come.

Only 30 per cent of the Domus Aurea has been uncovered and much of the rest is deteriorating rapidly, as vaults and galleries collapse. A pilot project has been undertaken to lessen the weight above the Domus Aurea by thousands of kilograms, before more of the Domus succumbs to gravity, moisture and earthquakes.

Many millions of dollars is needed to continue excavations and restoration at the Domus Aurea, so if you want to donate to the cause, please do so!

Artist's depiction of the Colossus Neronis

Artist's depiction of the Colossus Neronis

Entrance to the Treasury of Pharaoh at Petra

Entrance to the Treasury of Pharaoh at Petra

Royal tombs at Petra

Royal tombs at Petra

9. Petra

Petra, the so-called rose-red city was built by the Nabataeans about the time of the birth of Christ. Carved from the native red sandstone, the city is a marvel of the ancient world, particularly when one realizes that it was built in the inhospitable Jordanian desert. In fact, without the construction of numerous cisterns, the city would have been impossible to maintain. Perhaps the most arresting portion of the site is the so-called Treasury of Pharaoh at the main entrance to Petra. (This entrance was used in a scene for the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.) The portal to this entrance seems to beckon one into a mysterious, perhaps dangerous world, into which one should think twice before entering!

Another amazing part of Petra are the royal tombs, which are also carved into a cliff face, the architecture of which an equivalent of seventeenth-century baroque. Interestingly, the Romans were the last “civilized” people to occupy Petra. Once the spice trade, which traveled through the area, became diverted by maritime routes, Petra was slowly abandoned to the shepherds and, of course, eventually, the tourists.

If you’re planning on being one of those tourists, you better hurry. An article in the July/August 2009 issue of Archaeology says that water is destroying the monuments by carrying salt to them (salt is very destructive to monuments) and also leeching minerals from the rock used in their construction. Also, local developers, hoping to make profits from the site, have damaged many of the buildings during the construction of septic tanks, roads and hotels.

Cliff Palace

Cliff Palace

Close-up of Cliff Palace

Close-up of Cliff Palace

10. Cliff Palace

Perhaps the finest archaeological ruin in what is now the United States, Cliff Palace was built by the Anasazi, aka the Ancestral Puebloans, about 900 years ago and then abandoned some one and a half to two centuries later, probably as the result of a lengthy drought in the American Southwest. The ruin, located in Mesa Verde National Park near the Four Corners region in the state of Colorado, holds over 150 rooms and 23 kivas (round sunken ceremonial areas). This cliff dwelling was essentially an apartment building, though some archaeologists think it was a center place for all residents of the Mesa Verde region.

As a sidebar, due to the discovery of human bones with telltale markings at certain other sites, some scientists think the Anasazi may have practiced a form of ritualized cannibalism. For more information, see the January/February 1994 issue of Archaeology magazine.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Cliff Palace was heavily damaged by looters, curiosity seeks and even so-called scientists. Looting of archaeological sites is a major problem throughout the American Southwest. Fortunately Cliff Palace is now protected by the federal government.

Aerial view of Caral

Aerial view of Caral

Sunken temple at Caral

Sunken temple at Caral

11. Caral

Caral is the site of what may be the oldest city in the Western Hemisphere. Constructed some 4,700 years ago in what is now the Norte Chico region of Peru, just north of Lima in the Supe Valley, Caral ranks on the short list of regions, along with Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, as the first to develop what most people would call civilization. Covering 165 acres, the site is one of the largest in Peru, a country with the most archaeological sites in South America. The site contains six pyramids, some originally as high as 70 feet, circular plazas and massive monumental architecture. Caral’s architectural style seems the precursor for subsequent Andean civilizations for the next 4,000 years.

Numerous artifacts have been found at the site, including flutes made from pelican and condor bones and cornets fashioned from llama and deer bones, suggesting the site may have heard its share of music. Experts think Caral’s population could have reached 3,000. The site was occupied for perhaps a millennium and then abandoned for some reason. Competition from other nearby cities is considered the probable cause. (For more information about Caral, see the July/August 2005 issue of Archaeology magazine.) Please keep in mind, the nearby site of Aspero may be even older than Caral; it fact, it could be the world’s oldest city!

Acropolis of Athens today

Acropolis of Athens today

Artist's depiction of the Acropolis of Athens in 100 C.E.

Artist's depiction of the Acropolis of Athens in 100 C.E.

The Parthenon at the Acropolis of Athens

The Parthenon at the Acropolis of Athens

The Erechtheum with Caryatids (huge female statues) at the Acropolis of Athens

The Erechtheum with Caryatids (huge female statues) at the Acropolis of Athens

12. Acropolis of Athens

Perhaps the greatest architectural achievement of the legendary Gold Age of Greece, the Acropolis of Athens is a spectacular sight, even in ruins, and its historical significance would be very hard to qualify. Comprising 21 archaeological attractions—the Parthenon, the Propylaia, the Erechtheum, the Theatre of Dionysus, the Temple of Athena Nike, and many others—the Acropolis was constructed by the direction of Pericles, a Greek statesman, general and lover of the arts. It was built upon an outcropping of rock nearly 500 feet high. The Acropolis, which in Greek means “high city,” underwent a series of construction periods, which began in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E. and continued until about 400 B.C.E.

Over the centuries, the various buildings of the Acropolis have suffered from age, natural disasters, pollution, misguided repairs and acts of war; in fact, in 1687, during the Morean War, the Parthenon, being used as a storage site for gunpowder, was hit by an artillery shell and badly damaged. And during the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s, the Acropolis, by this time used as a fortress, was besieged once again. In present times, parts of the Acropolis, particularly the Parthenon, have undergone extensive restoration, which may continue for many years, as long as funding is available, of course.

West Court at Copán

West Court at Copán

Stela M (bottom center) and the Hieroglyphic Stairway at Copán

Stela M (bottom center) and the Hieroglyphic Stairway at Copán

Reconstruction of the Rosalia Temple at the site museum of Copán

Reconstruction of the Rosalia Temple at the site museum of Copán

13. Copán

The Maya civilization is certainly one of the most impressive of the New World and, fortunately, the remnants of their buildings are scattered throughout Mesoamerica at places such as Chichén Itzá, Palenque, Tikal, Caracol and, of course, Copán, considered by academics and other experts to be the grandest of the Classic Maya city states, particularly in terms of art and architecture. Mayan presence on the fertile bottomlands near the Copán River in western Honduras began about 2000 B.C.E.

But the city state that would eventually become Copán developed much later, around 300 to 450 C.E., roughly around the beginning of the Classic Maya era, which lasted until about 900 C.E. Copán’s Classic dynasty collapsed because of deforestation, soil erosion, disease and/or a loss of political stability, though experts can only speculate about such causes by drawing analogies to other civilizations around the world.

More than 20 Stelae or statues of rulers can be seen at Copán. But perhaps the most spectacular aspect of Copán is the fascinating Hieroglyphic Stairway, which covers the western face of a pyramid where the twelfth king of Copán’s greatest dynasty was entombed around 700 C.E. The steps of this imposing stairway are covered with dates, emblems and some 2,200 name glyphs, the latter of which comprising the longest known Mayan hieroglyphic text, as well as statues (seated figures) of Copán’s many prominent kings. There’s nothing quite like it in the Mayan world—and perhaps any other place on the planet as well!


Model of the Second Temple of Jerusalem

Model of the Second Temple of Jerusalem

Western Wall or Wailing Wall (center), the only extant remnant of the Jewish Second Temple

Western Wall or Wailing Wall (center), the only extant remnant of the Jewish Second Temple

14. Jerusalem

As is the case with many ancient cities in the Middle East, Jerusalem comprises as veritable layer cake of different civilizations going back at least 3,000 years. If one were to dig just about any place in this holy city, one could possibly find an artifact of archaeological significance, though it doesn’t hurt to have a good idea where some of them could be found. In the December 2019 issue of National Geographic, in an article titled “Under Jerusalem,” archaeologists search for a 2,000-foot-long street that once conveyed people to the Second Jewish Temple, built in 516 B.C.E. and later destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. So far, scientists have found some of the limestone steps for this ancient avenue.