Fascinating Finds Revealed in 2021
In a year dominated by disheartening news, archaeological and cultural discoveries offered a welcome distraction. 2021 yielded an array of intriguing finds, particularly as lockdowns lifted and researchers returned to the field.
Over the course of human history, natural disasters, the ravages of time, theft and iconoclasm have destroyed countless masterpieces. But many others remain hidden, tucked away in attics and basements, awaiting the day that their genius will once again be recognized. A prime example of a rediscovered art historical treasure went on view in London earlier this month. Bought on a whim at a Massachusetts estate sale for $30, the centuries-old sketch of a mother and child turned out to be an original drawing by Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer. Now valued at an estimated $50 million, the previously unknown preparatory work had long been identified as a modern reproduction. Two telltale features identified by authenticators suggest otherwise: the artist's "A.D." monogram and the presence of a watermark seen on more than 200 sheets of paper used by Dürer.
Other Renaissance-era works rediscovered in 2021 include a pair of 16th-century portraits of Cosimo II de' Medici and Ferdinando I de' Medici, found beneath plaster in a storeroom at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and a forgotten painting of the Last Supper linked to Italian artist Titian. Likely created in Titian's workshop, the work hung largely unnoticed on a church wall in Ledbury, England, for more than a century. The painting's owners only realized its significance after an art historian and conservator brought in to restore a separate work identified it as something "a bit special."
A similar scenario unfolded during Covid-19 lockdown, with art historian Tom Ruggio discovering a long-lost work by 17th-century Baroque artist Cesare Dandini during a chance visit to the Church of the Holy Family in New Rochelle, New York. Part of a series of four paintings depicting the Holy Family, the canvas had hung in the building in relative obscurity since 1962. "It's something you expect to find in Italy," Ruggio told Westchester magazine in September, "but it was really out of place in a church in New York." Another Baroque masterpiece, a marble skull sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, spent almost 200 years hidden in plain sight as an unattributed work in the Dresden State Art Collection's archaeology department. "[S]o realistically sculpted that it could almost be mistaken for a genuine human skull," according to the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, the sculpture once sat on the desk of Pope Alexander VII.
Family ties led to the rediscovery of two oil paintings by Irish impressionist Paul Henry and a work on paper by Cubist Pablo Picasso. An Ohio man preparing to sell his parents' art collection found the Henry landscapes in the back of an old storage unit. Both subsequently sold for more than $200,000 each. The Picasso, meanwhile, sat in a Maine closet for 50 years and was likely passed down to the finder by his great-aunt, who studied art in Europe during the 1920s.
Several decades after the Picasso painting's creation, Armenian American artist Arshile Gorky pasted a work titled The Limit(1947) over another abstract creation now known as Untitled (Virginia Summer). Gorky's daughter Maro Spender had long suspected that another composition was hidden beneath The Limit, and lockdown presented the perfect opportunity to investigate further. Separating the work on paper from its canvas, conservators spotted a vibrant landscape rendered in shades of green and blue. Gorky probably painted the scene in the summer of 1947 and reused its canvas as a cost-cutting measure.
Last but not least, a masterpiece of a different kind-a blue-and-white dress worn by Judy Garland in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz-turned up in a trash bag at the Catholic University of America in June, confirming long-standing rumors that the Washington, D.C. school's drama department housed the iconic costume.
The missing masterpieces outlined above owe their significance to their famous creators. But scholars also value millennia-old artworks crafted by anonymous artists who inadvertently offered enduring glimpses into ancient cultures. Consider, for instance, a 3,500-year-old Babylonian tablet that may contain the earliest known depiction of a ghost. The drawing is only visible when viewed from above under a light, but when studied in the correct way, "those figures leap out at you across time in the most startling way," Irving Finkel, the British Museum curator who spotted the image, told the Observer in October. The tablet's written instructions offer advice on how to exorcise pesky ghosts, leading Finkel to posit that the drawing depicts a male spirit being led back to the afterlife.
Some 300 years after the tablet's creation, people in what is now northwestern Peru painted a similarly eerie image on the wall of a shrine complex. Rendered in shades of ocher, yellow, gray and white, the mural of a knife-wielding spider god was likely made by members of the Cupisnique culture. The complex where it was found may have been built to honor water deities.
Other examples of ancient artwork unveiled this year include stunning mosaics. In Israel, archaeologists conducting excavations ahead of residential construction in the city of Yavne happened upon a 1,600-year-old mosaic that may have been part of a Byzantine-era mansion. After cleaning the surface with special acid, the team was astonished to find a "colorful mosaic carpet ... ornamented with geometric motifs." A more recent mosaic found in Rutland, England, formed the floor of a dining or entertainment room in a third- or fourth-century C.E. Roman villa. Measuring 36 by 23 feet, the artwork is thefirst Roman mosaic depicting scenes from the Iliad ever found in the United Kingdom. Per John Thomas, project manager at the University of Leicester Archaeological Services, the scene "gives us fresh perspectives on the attitudes of people at the time [and] their links to classical literature."
Also dated to the days of Roman Britain (43 to 410 C.E.) was a trio of statues found during a dig at St. Mary's Church, which was built in Buckinghamshire around 1080 C.E. and torn down in the mid-20th century. The team discovered two complete stone busts of an adult man and woman and what appears to be the stone head of a child. All three sculptures once stood in a Roman mausoleum built on the site of a Norman church destroyed by Roman invaders.
Physical evidence of long-ago clashes is plentiful in the archaeological record, running the gamut from an iron dagger used by warriors during India's ancient Sangam periodto a trove of Roman weapons buried in Spain around 100 B.C.E. to the remains of Nazi massacre victims in Poland.
2021 also saw an array of finds linked to the Crusades, a series of religious wars fought by Muslim and Christian armies between 1095 and 1291. ("Crusader," for what it's worth, is an "anachronistic term [often used] to lump disparate medieval conflicts into an overarching battle between good and evil, Christianity and Islam, civilization and barbarism," as historians David M. Perry and Matthew Gabriele wrote for Smithsonian in November.) At the beginning of the year, archaeologists in Turkey discovered the grave of Kilij Arslan I, second sultan of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rüm. The Muslim ruler's forces won a decisive victory at the 1096 Battle of Civetot, killing thousands of Crusaders and bringing the so-called People's Crusade to an abrupt close. The team also found the grave of Kilij Arslan's daughter.
South of Turkey, in Lebanon, excavations revealed two mass graves of 13th-century Crusaders. The remains belonged to 25 young men and teenage boys whose bones bore signs of brutal fighting, including stabbing, slicing and blunt force trauma. Most of the injuries were confined to the soldiers' backs, suggesting they may have been killed while fleeing from their enemies. "So many thousands of people died on all sides during the Crusades, but it is incredibly rare for archaeologists to find the soldiers killed in these famous battles," said biological anthropologist Piers Mitchell. "The wounds that covered their bodies allow us to start to understand the horrific reality of medieval warfare."
Other medieval warfare discoveries made this year include the remnants of an encampment where Frankish knights stayedbefore their defeat by Saladin's Muslim armies at the 1187 Battle of Hattin and a four-foot-long sword perhaps misleadingly identified as the property of a Crusader.
Jumping ahead to the 19th century, archaeologists in Alaska recently identified thefort where Indigenous Tlingit warriors faced off with Russian colonizersin the fall of 1804. The Russians and their Aleut allies targeted the encampment in retaliation for an 1802 Tlingit attack on the Russian outpost of Redoubt Saint Michael. Though the Tlingit managed to defend the fort from an initial assault, they decided to retreat north after a six-day siege-a move that allowed the Russians to gain a foothold in the region and claim Alaska as a colony. In Virginia, meanwhile, researchers surveying a Civil War cemetery happened upon a buried 19th-century road and a brick-lined culvert. The pathway wound around the site of a planned monument that failed to come to fruition.
Numerous traces of history's deadliest conflict, World War II, emerged in 2021. Excavations on the Channel Island of Alderney unearthed a Nazi bunker nestled in the ruins of a Roman fort; in Scarborough, England, workers renovating the Esplanade Hotel found a series of handwritten love letters exchanged by a soldier and his girlfriend between 1941 and 1944. Across the North Sea, in Germany, a history teacher cleaning his aunt's house discovered a cache of Nazi artifacts stashed in a wall, including a portrait of Adolf Hitler, a revolver, gas masks, Nazi Party badges, brass knuckles, letters and documents. Members of the National Socialist People's Welfare organization, which once used the property as its local headquarters, probably hid the items toward the end of the war. In the German city of Lübeck, meanwhile, archaeologists recovered an eerily preserved cake reduced to a crisp by a March 1942 British bombing raid. "Although it is heavily charred and blackened with soot on the outside, the heat has shrunk [it] to only a third of its original height," said Lisa Renn, excavation manager for the city's archaeological team.
Broadly defined as the period between humans' invention of stone tools and the development of writing systems, prehistory can be difficult to parse given the lack of documentation available. But physical evidence of people who lived many millennia ago helps illustrate the realities of prehistoric life, underscoring surprising parallels with modern society. Perforated snail shells found in a cave in Morocco, for instance, speak to early humans' use of jewelry and adornments to communicate information about themselves to others, while 200,000-year-old handprints and footprints left in a cave by children in what is now Tibet, six lines inscribed on a bovine bone some 120,000 years ago, 20,000-year-old cave paintings in northwestern India, and 4,000- to 5,000-year-old carvings of deer in a tomb in Scotland speak to humanity's enduring desire for creative expression.
Other tangible traces of prehistoric humans discovered this year include fossilized footprints left by a group of Neanderthals walking along the coast of what is now southern Spain around 100,000 years ago, a 4,000-year-old tree trunk coffin used to bury an elite member of Bronze Age society and the remains of a baby buried with care in an Italian cave some 10,000 years ago. The level of attention afforded to the interment suggests that early humans imbued female infants with personhood. "[T]he evidence implies there was equal treatment of males and females," anthropologist Michael Petraglia told National Geographic. "This is consistent with [today's] egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies."
The kings and queens who commanded such realms as ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire and medieval England wield much fascination for historians and the public alike. For proof of this trend, simply look to Smithsonian's ten most-read stories of the year: Number three centered on a funerary temple dedicated to the Egyptian Old Kingdom queen Naert, while number four detailed an amateur treasure hunter's discovery of the missing centerpiece of Henry VIII's crown, a gold figurine depicting Henry VI.
Other royal finds revealed in 2021 included rich purple fabric dated to the time of the biblical King David and King Solomon, the ruins of Roman Emperor Hadrian's ornate breakfast chamber, a sandstone slab seemingly installed by the Egyptian pharoah Apries 2,600 years ago, and a tiny gold book that may have belonged to a relative of English king Richard III.
In addition to the gold figurine once featured in Henry VIII's crown, experts discovered a range of treasures linked to the notorious Tudor dynasty: a wooden falcon, sold at auction for $101 in 2019, that originally belonged to doomed queen Anne Boleyn; hidden inscriptions in Anne's execution prayer book that were likely added by women who preserved the devotional text for her daughter, the future Elizabeth I; and well-preserved 16th-century wall paintingsat the estate of a prominent noble family.
This year, statues found across the ancient world testified to the diverse religious beliefs of past civilizations. The Greek and Roman pantheons proved particularly popular, with likenesses of Venus, Roman goddess of love, and her son, the love god Cupid, turning up in Gloucestershire County, England. In Aizanoi, Turkey, researchers discovered depictions of a trio of Greek gods: Aphrodite, Dionysus and Hygieia. Back on the British Isles, in the Irish townland of Gortnacrannagh, excavations unearthed an eight-foot-tall, 1,600-year-old wooden sculpture of a pagan deity. One of 12 comparable statues found in Ireland to date, the artworks' "meaning is open to interpretation," according to scholar Cathy Moore, "but they may have marked special places in the landscape, have represented particular individuals or deities or perhaps have functioned as wooden bog bodies, sacrificed in lieu of humans."
Archaeologists also shed new light on events in Christian and Jewish history. Finds unveiled in Israel in 2021 include a 2,000-year-old synagogue in Mary Magdalene's supposed hometown, a Hellenistic fortress destroyed by Jewish forces in the second century B.C.E. anddozens of previously unknown Dead Sea Scroll fragments. A study published in August seemingly offered physical evidence of an earthquake chronicled in the Old Testament, presenting damage to buildings and shattered pottery from the eighth century B.C.E.
Magic, the macabre and the mysterious
From the world's only known pregnant Egyptian mummy to the 2,000-year-old grave of a child and puppy to a cemetery of 18th-century Polish plague victims, the year was filled with unsettling finds. In the realm of ritual and superstition, researchers unveiled a 4,400-year-old staff carved in the shape of a snakeand wielded by a Neolithic shaman in what is now southwest Finland. "I have seen many extraordinary things in my work as a wetland archaeologist, but the discovery of this figurine made me utterly speechless and gave me the shivers," archaeologist Satu Koivisto told Live Science.
Equally eerie was a 2,300-year-old ceramic jar filled with the remains of a dismembered chicken. Text written on the ancient Athenian vessel indicates it was used to enact a curse on as many as 55 victims. On a lighter but still magic-related note, 13th-century manuscript fragments discovered by chance at a library in England contained an alternate version of the legend of Merlin, wizard advisor to Camelot's King Arthur. "With medieval texts there was no such thing as copyright," Laura Chuhan Campbell, a medieval language expert at Durham University, explained toAtlas Obscura. "So, if you were a scribe copying a manuscript, there was nothing to stop you from just changing things a bit."
Macabre reminders of mortality also proved plentiful in 2021, running the gamut from the butchered bones of a 3,000-year-old shark attack victim to the remains of a Vesuvius victim who almost escaped the volcano's deadly eruptionto the skeleton of an enslaved man who was buried in Roman Britain while wearing heavy iron shackles and a padlock around his ankles. Other physical traces of Roman brutality included a bronze key handle that depicts a condemned prisoner fending off a lionand a crucifixion victim who had a nail hammered through his heel bone.
Some archaeological discoveries revealed this year raised more questions than answers. On the Mediterranean island of Corsica, the remains of adults buried in giant amphorae between the third and sixth centuries C.E. puzzled researchers, as the practice of interring the deceased in jars was more often reserved for infants and children. In Transylvania, people buried with urns placed over their skulls or feetsimilarly baffled scholars, who theorized that the vessels contained food or drink intended as nourishment for the afterlife.