Ten Most Impressive Archaeological Sites

Updated on February 1, 2018
Kosmo profile image

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.

Pyramid of the Niches in Mexico
Pyramid of the Niches in Mexico

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 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.

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

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 is connected 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

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 Teotihuacan
aerial view of Teotihuacan
Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan
Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan

3. Teotihuacan


Located in the Valley of Mexico, Teotihuacán was the capital of the Toltec civilization, which flourished from 300 B.C.E. to about A.D. 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. 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 represent 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.)

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
Serpent effect at El Castillo

5. Chichen Itza


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 A.D. 600, and then about A.D. 987 the Toltecs 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 others. There are many impressive Mayan sites, of course – Uxmal, Caracol, El Mirador, Copán and Palenque, just to name some – but Chichén Itzá is perhaps the most magnificent of them all. What’s your choice?

Moche huaca
Moche huaca
Moche frieze
Moche frieze

6. Moche, Peru


The Moche culture flourished along the northern coast of Peru from A.D. 100 to 700. 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 climate change in the 500s – 30 years of heavy rain, followed by 30 years of drought, an El Niño event of great proportions, indeed!


Ziggurat of Ur
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 being 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.

Entrance to the Treasury of Pharaoh at Petra
Entrance to the Treasury of Pharaoh at Petra

8. 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 area of Petra is the royal tombs, also carved into a cliff face, the architecture of which is 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.

Close-up of Cliff Palace
Close-up of Cliff Palace

9. Cliff Palace


Perhaps the finest archaeological ruin in what is now the United States, Cliff Palace was built by the Anasazi, a tribe of pueblo Indians, 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. 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

10. 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!

Questions & Answers

  • Where is Caral located?

    Caral is in Peru. You could find the exact location on Google Earth or other places.

© 2008 Kelley

Comments

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    • profile image

      Kosmo Kelley 

      7 weeks ago

      Thanks for the comment, Gary Glenn Jones. I also like history and archaeology, two of my favorite subjects. Later!

    • Gerry Glenn Jones profile image

      Gerry Glenn Jones 

      7 weeks ago from Somerville, Tennessee

      I love your article. It is very well written and delves deep into the subjects you have written about. I love archaeology and history in general.

    • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Kelley 

      2 months ago from California

      Macchu Picchu used to be on this list, and then I moved it to the 10 Greatest Lost Cities, a list on which it definitely belongs. Later!...

    • profile image

      RobertJames77 

      2 months ago

      Usually Macchu Picchu would be on a list like this.

    • profile image

      Dang 

      2 months ago

      Giza is the best

    • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Kelley 

      3 months ago from California

      Yeah, Bob, Gobekli Tepe is certainly a site that could appear on this list. There are so many to choose from, you know? Later!...

    • profile image

      Bob 

      3 months ago

      I think Göbekli Tepe in southern Turkey is the most impressive archaeological site in the world. Göbekli Tepe is so old that it is rewriting the entire history of humanity.The construction at Göbekli Tepe dates back almost 12,000 years, placing it in a time period that is generally considered to be pre-civilization.

    • profile image

      Martha 

      5 months ago

      My favorite archeological site is the cliff palace, I wish it was higher on the list. Also scotte spencer, I'm writing a paper too.

    • profile image

      Kosmo Kelley 

      6 months ago

      Hey, Ron, not a lot is known about the Toltecs, but Tula and Teotihuacan were major cities of theirs, it seems safe to suggest. Archaeologists have probably labeled Teotihuacan as the capital because it's such a grand place. Later!

    • profile image

      Ron 

      6 months ago

      Where do you get the idea that Teotihucan was the Toltec Capital? Their capital was Tula. No one knows who the people were who built Teotihucan. If you have newer information I would love to see it, since I just finished a whole series of specials on this city, and they all say no one knows who the builders were .

    • profile image

      uswah 

      8 months ago

      this is good

    • profile image

      Tom 

      12 months ago

      Stonehenge? And not Acropolis(Athens), Pantheon(Rome), Pompeii (Italy), Persepolis(Iran), Delphi (Greece)? OK, I think I know your origin.

    • profile image

      scotte spencer 

      13 months ago

      I wrote an essay and the website helped a lot

    • profile image

      Alex 

      15 months ago

      Yes, yes Greece AND Rome, so much stuff at both places!

    • profile image

      Theo 

      4 years ago

      Really!?!?! What about Greece ?? It's the place with the most archaelogical sites in the world!! Including Parthenon

    • profile image

      vaneeza nawaz 

      6 years ago

      Carol at night and Caral at sunset are my favourite these sites are wonderful.....

    • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Kelley 

      7 years ago from California

      Yes, India is definitely a fascinating place for archaeology enthusiasts, especially the Indus Valley civilization, though I believe that rests in Pakistan, formerly a part of India, of course. Thanks for the comments. Later!

    • cascoly profile image

      cascoly 

      7 years ago from seattle

      many of these places have fascinated me since i was a kid - by serendipity, my college dorm was named after Hiram Bingham, the 'discoverer' of Machu Picchu

      i've written hubs about maybe 1/2 these places thus far - probably my favorite area to explore is India, where isn't so much the standalone 'wonder', but the thoiusands of years of history and culture you find everywhere

    • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Kelley 

      7 years ago from California

      Hey, cascoly, you've visited all those incredible places? I'm impressed! Maybe one of these days I can see at least one of them. Fortunately, there's always the Discovery Channel. Later!

    • cascoly profile image

      cascoly 

      7 years ago from seattle

      I've visited Giza, Teotihuacan, Chichen Itza, Machu Picchu, Xian Terra Cottas & Mesa Verde

      some other contenders I've seen:

      Palmyra, Syria - well preserved ruins from 2nd CE

      Baalbek, Lebanon - best preserved Roman temples

      Nemrut Dag, Turkey - monument to egotism

      Khajuraho, India - incredible stone work

    • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Kelley 

      7 years ago from California

      Thanks for the thumbs up, toknowinfo. I really enjoy the subject of archaeology and I guess that enthusiasm makes for good writing. Later!

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 

      7 years ago

      Very well done hub. I have been to Stonehenge and to the Mayan ruins. They really leave you wondering about how they did that or knew the stuff they did. I enjoyed this article very much.

    • profile image

      Zoe 

      7 years ago

      "it's truly astonishing to realize that Neolithic people (perhaps the Druids) "

      Nope, the druids were much later. They were around in the Iron Age. Stonehenge pre-dates them by nearly 2000 years.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      7 years ago from Houston, Texas

      You have assembled a great list here. Another interesting site would be Easter Island. I think that Petra looks fascinating!

    • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Kelley 

      8 years ago from California

      El Castillo is one of the greatest ancient monuments in the world. It could be on this list by itself, as can many other individual wonders. Later!

    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 

      8 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      Chitchen Itza is amazing. I went for one Spring equinox and have been dying to go back to explore more of the site. There are some impressive things there.

    • Lamme profile image

      Lamme 

      8 years ago

      I'd love to visit ALL of these places! I've been to a few, but this is fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

    • profile image

      Xi'an tour 

      9 years ago

      Xi'an ~ Wow~

      I have been there,and I can't foget the spectacle.

    • profile image

      1000 Places to See Before You Die 

      9 years ago

      I recommend the book 1000 Places to See Before You Die. It has modern wonders among the ancient in it.

    • RGraf profile image

      Rebecca Graf 

      9 years ago from Wisconsin

      I would love to see these sights. They are so beautiful and rich in history and culture. Maybe before I die I can visit them.

    • Princessa profile image

      Wendy Iturrizaga 

      9 years ago from France

      Stonehenge and Machu Picchu are my favourite sites. I still have to visit the others ;-)

      There is not only the historical value of these places but also the magic around them.Waking up to the view of Machu Picchu, only listening the wild life, you experience one of those "mystical moments" that you cannot explain.

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