Ten Most Impressive Archaeological Sites

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.

The Great Pyramid, built by Khufu
The Great Pyramid, built by Khufu

1. Pyramids can be found all over the world, but the only true pyramids can be found in Egypt. The Pyramids of Giza 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 that external ramps and cranes were used. An article in the May/June 2007 issue of Archaeology magazine theorized that an external ramp was used for the lower third of the pyramids, and then this ramp was re-used in the construction of an “internal ramp” for the higher levels of the structures.

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. Further study may reveal the answer at last. However they were built, the Pyramids of Giza are perhaps the most enduring monuments ever constructed by humankind!

2. 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.)

The Pyramid of the Sun
The Pyramid of the Sun

3. 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. Teotihuacánwas 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.)

4. 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.

El Castillo
El Castillo
Temple of the Warriors
Temple of the Warriors

5. 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?

Hitching Post of the Sun
Hitching Post of the Sun

6. Perhaps the most extraordinary archaeological site in the Americas – if not the world – is Machu Picchu. Constructed by the Inca as a self-contained city, astrological and ceremonial site in the 1400s, Machu Picchu somehow escaped conquest by the invading conquistadores in the 1530s, even though they had heard of its existence. The site’s inaccessibility in the high Andes Mountains was almost certainly the reason.

Nevertheless, once the Spanish overpowered the Inca nation, this “city in the clouds,” as it is sometimes called, was abandoned, until re-discovered by Yale archaeologist Hiram Bingham in 1911. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this quintessential “lost city” is the so-called “Hitching Post of the Sun” or Intihuatana, which was used as an alignment point for the sun at the equinoxes. Shamanic legend says that any sensitive person who places his or her head upon this stone will enter the realm of the spirit world. These days there’s a hotel next to the site. What’s next – a Machu Picchu ride?

7. 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
Entrance to the Treasury of Pharaoh
The Royal Tombs
The Royal Tombs

8. 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.

9. 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.

10. 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!

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Comments 17 comments

Theo 2 years ago

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

vaneeza nawaz 4 years ago

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

Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 5 years ago from California Author

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 5 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 image

Kosmo 5 years ago from California Author

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 5 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 image

Kosmo 5 years ago from California Author

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 5 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.

Zoe 5 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 W 6 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 image

Kosmo 6 years ago from California Author

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

Austinstar 6 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 6 years ago

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

Xi'an tour 7 years ago

Xi'an ~ Wow~

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

1000 Places to See Before You Die 7 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

RGraf 7 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

Princessa 8 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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