44 Ancient Artifacts That Reveal What Life Was Really Like For Our Ancestors

Published June 21, 2020

From prehistoric porn to ancient wine, discover some of the most fascinating ancient artifacts that you won't see in history books.

Sapphire Caligula Ring
Bronze Age Hand
Oseberg Viking Ship
Ancient Chess Board
44 Ancient Artifacts That Reveal What Life Was Really Like For Our Ancestors
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While ancient times seem like they happened so long ago, some things never change — and these artifacts are all the proof you need. From practical items to magnificent artworks, humankind's ingenuity has always led us to create items we see in our imagination. Whether it's a tool or a chair, there's an ancient artifact that represents it.

Maybe you enjoy learning about ancient Egypt, with its mystic pyramids, hieroglyphics, and love of cats. Or maybe you're a fan of the prehistoric Mesopotamians, with their uncanny ability to make just about anything out of clay. Perhaps you prefer reading about the Assyrians and their infamous battle cry: "I destroyed, devastated, and burned with fire."

From the 3.3 million-year-old stone tools found in Kenya to the ancient Egyptians' treasure-filled tombs, artifacts are defined as any objects made, modified, or used by a human, anywhere in the world. Since many ancient peoples didn't develop a written language, these artifacts are the only clues as to how they lived, worked, and played.

Often, artifacts speak louder than written words ever could. They are a valuable learning tool, and many hobbyists dream of finding a spectacular specimen themselves. Unfortunately, in the U.S., if you're not an archaeologist and you find an artifact, you're required to report it. Each state has an office of preservation or a state archaeologist, and they can assist you.

With that, let's take a deeper dive into some of the more fascinating ancient artifacts from around the world.

The Antikythera Mechanism

Reconstruction Of The Antikythera Mechanism

electropod/Flickr A reconstruction of the Antikythera mechanism.

At first glance, the Antikythera mechanism looked like an innocuous lump of bronze and wood on an ancient shipwreck. But in 1902, one of the archaeologists examining wreckage from a sunken Greek ship from 85 B.C. noticed something unusual. The "lump" had cracked open a bit — and inside he saw gear wheels.

Often referred to as "the world's first computer," the Antikythera mechanism was actually a tool used in astronomy. Its two metal dials displayed the zodiac and the days of the year, with pointers indicating the location of the Sun, the Moon, and the five planets that were known to the Greeks at the time (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn).

The astoundingly modern-looking ancient artifact consisted of 82 pieces, including about 30 interlocking gear wheels. Technology like this would not be seen again in Europe for another 1,000 years.

Archaeologists were amazed at the discovery. However, it wasn't until X-ray technology became available that the complexity of the device was fully revealed. The technology fueling the Antikythera mechanism proved so advanced that some people believed aliens helped create the device.

World's Oldest Paint Studio

Ocher Shell And Grindstone

Science/AAASAn abalone shell with a grindstone on the shell lip, evidence of the earliest paint-making.

In 2011, archaeologists found 100,000-year-old tools used for paint-making — the oldest evidence of mixing paint — inside the South African Blombos cave. Archaeologist Christopher Henshilwood uncovered two abalone shells with ocher ground into them.

Ancient people would add bone and charcoal to a liquid mixture to make it sticky, and ocher provided the color. Grindstones and hammerstones were other tools that assisted in the preparation of the materials.

"Above and below each shell and to the side of each shell was a complete kit that was used for producing a pigmented mixture," Henshilwood said. "We can see where the small quartz grains that had adhered to the finger had left a very tiny trace in the shell."

It was pretty complex chemistry for the time. According to Science Mag, "The conceptual ability to source, combine, and store substances that enhance technology or social practices represent a benchmark in the evolution of complex human cognition."

Furthermore, it's a benchmark in individuality. "The ultimate purpose of putting something on yourself, your house, your walls is to make a statement about who you are," said Alison Brooks, an anthropologist at George Washington University. "I think we're going to find that these early people were smarter than we think."

King Tut's Tomb

Howard Carter And King Tut

Wikimedia CommonsHoward Carter and his famous discovery, the sarcophagus of the Egyptian King Tutankhamen.

Of course, there are many artifacts from the tomb of King Tutankhamen, who died in 1324 B.C. The man who uncovered these treasures was Howard Carter, an archaeologist who was given permission by excavation backer Lord Carnarvon to explore the Valley of the Kings in 1914.

There were excavation delays caused by World War I, but a hopeful Carter pressed on. Finally, after a water boy stumbled on a rock that happened to be the top step of a fateful flight of stairs, Carter's dream was realized.

The outer chambers of King Tut's tomb were open — having been looted not long after the burial. However, the inner chambers remained undisturbed. The gilded wood shrine containing his sarcophagus still had the necropolis seal. As it turned out, one of the world's greatest mysteries had been kept hidden for a long 3,245 years.

Photographer Harry Burton captured the iconic photo of the ornately decorated doors of the second shrine. The simple copper handles were secured together with rope. This was accompanied by a clay seal depicting Anubis, the jackal god who stood in protection of the tomb.

One can only imagine what it must have been like to remove that rope from the tomb door. Inside, the king's mummified remains were untouched; it was the most well-preserved pharaoh's tomb ever found.

That said, everything can always be improved. The tomb was recently remodeled to the glory it once enjoyed in the time of the ancient Egyptians.

Next, read about how archaeologists are closing in on the location of Antony and Cleopatra's tomb that remains hidden somewhere in Egypt. Then, find out how this newly discovered 5,300-year-old site played a key role in the golden age of Chinese civilization.

Erin Kelly
An All That's Interesting writer since 2013, Erin Kelly focuses on historic places, natural wonders, environmental issues, and the world of science. Her work has also been featured in Smithsonian and she's designed several book covers in her career as a graphic artist.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
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Kelly, Erin. "44 Ancient Artifacts That Reveal What Life Was Really Like For Our Ancestors." AllThatsInteresting.com, June 21, 2020, https://allthatsinteresting.com/ancient-artifacts. Accessed June 21, 2024.