20 Amazing Historical Discoveries in the Last 20 Years

The Staffordshire Hoard contains the one of the richest collections of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found.
The Staffordshire Hoard contains the one of the richest collections of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found. / Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Scientists and historians have made incredible finds—from the oldest human-made art to long-lost shipwrecks—in the 20 years since Mental Floss began. Let’s take a look at some key discoveries since 2001.

1. Extremely Old Cheese // Egypt

After the ancient Tomb of Ptahmes was unearthed in the late 19th century, it was promptly lost—because no one recorded where it was found. But by 2018, the tomb had been rediscovered, along with “probably the most ancient archeological solid residue of cheese ever found to date” inside it. Dating to the 13th century BCE and reported in the journal Analytical Chemistry, the cheese likely had the consistency of chèvre with a “really, really acidy” bite, one cheese expert told The New York Times.

2. The Lost Bones of Richard III // United Kingdom

For centuries, historians believed the body of King Richard III of England would never be found. After he was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, Richard’s corpse was buried at Church of the Grey Friars in Leicester, but over the next five-plus centuries of English history, the exact locations of the church and Richard’s grave were lost. In 2004, a Richard III scholar named Philippa Langley was walking through a Leicester parking lot when she had an overwhelming sensation that she was standing atop Richard’s grave. A 2012 excavation proved her right.

3. The Oldest-Known Abstract Artwork // South Africa

These reddish "hashtags" are believed to be the oldest-known abstract art.
These reddish "hashtags" are believed to be the oldest-known abstract art. / Craig Foster, Nature

Blombos Cave in South Africa has taught us a lot about the culture of early humans: The subterranean system is home to hundreds of stone tools, beads, and engraved bones. But the most amazing artifact to emerge? A work of abstract art, drawn on a rock with red ochre, which came to our attention in 2018 in a study published in Nature. At 73,000 years old, the doodle is believed to be the oldest known work of abstract art in human history.

4. Nutcrackers Used by Ancient Chimpanzees // Côte d’Ivoire

Jane Goodall famously observed chimpanzees using blades of grass as tools to catch termites in the 1960s, but it turns out that apes have been passing down their handyman skills for ages. In 2007, researchers found ancient rocks—used to smash nuts—at a prehistoric chimpanzee settlement in Côte d’Ivoire in West Africa. The evidence showed that chimps have been using stone tools for at least 4300 years.

5. A Mammoth Piece of Architecture // Russia

Ice Age hunter-gatherers aren’t famous for their architecture skills, but perhaps they should be. In 2014, archaeologists excavated a 25,000-year-old structure in the dense forest 300 miles south of Moscow. It was constructed with the bones of 60-plus woolly mammoths. “The sheer number of bones that our Paleolithic ancestors had sourced from somewhere and brought to this particular location to build this monument is really quite staggering,” archaeologist Alexander Pryor told The New York Times.

6. The Missing Ships of a Doomed Explorer // Canada

In 1845, Sir John Franklin, a British explorer, attempted to sail into the Canadian Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage. The trip wasn’t smooth sailing. Franklin’s ships—the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror—became stuck in ice and then sank in an uncertain location. Their entire crews perished. But thanks to generations of Inuit oral history, researchers were able to locate the Erebus in 2014. Two years later, the Terror was found.

7. A Poo-Covered Shoe // Armenia

If you want to preserve your belongings for posterity, the prehistoric people of Armenia have a suggestion: poop. In 2010, archaeologists announced the discovery of a 5500-year-old leather shoe inside a cave. The footwear was incredibly well-preserved—even its laces were still intact—thanks to the cave’s cool and dry climate. But there was another important factor: The shoe was preserved in a heaping pile of sheep dung.

8. An Ancient Math Table // China

In 2008, Tsinghua University in Beijing received a donation of ancient bamboo strips covered in calligraphy. Researchers soon realized the strips were like a jigsaw puzzle and pieced together thousands of the 2300-year-old strips. They revealed a multiplication table—the earliest decimal times table in history.

9. America’s Last Known Slave Ship // United States

In 1808, the United States banned the importation of enslaved people—but that didn’t stop slaving ships from making illegal runs across the Atlantic. In 1860, the Clotilda touched America’s shores with a cargo of human beings who had been kidnapped from their homes in West Africa. For decades, the fate of the infamous schooner was shrouded in mystery, but in 2019, marine archaeologists discovered the ship buried in the mud of Alabama’s Mobile River.

10. The Remains of a Roman Villa // United Kingdom

In 2015, an English rug designer named Luke Irwin was trying to build a recreation space for his ping pong-loving son. He hired contractors to install electricity in his Wiltshire barn, and as the workers began digging, they stumbled upon a bright blue and red mosaic floor—the remains of a Roman villa built around 200 CE. The mosaic was one of the best-preserved samples ever discovered.

11. The Origin of Mysterious Footprints // Italy

Italy’s Ciampate del Diavolo is home to trails of mysterious footprints. Locals knew about them for generations—folklore suggested they belonged to the devil—but it wasn’t until 2001 that the scientific community was notified of the so-called "Devil’s Trail.” Researchers quickly learned that they were some of the oldest human footprints in the world. Left by an early species of hominin walking through volcanic ash, the prints are approximately 350,000 years old.

12. A Hoard of Anglo-Saxon Gold // United Kingdom

This gold helmet piece was found as part of the Staffordshire Hoard.
This gold helmet piece was found as part of the Staffordshire Hoard. / Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The next time you see somebody scanning the beach with a metal detector, don’t scoff. In 2009, an amateur metal detectorist named Terry Herbert was scanning a farm when he stumbled upon a trove of jewel-encrusted weapons and approximately 4000 pieces of Anglo-Saxon gold. The Staffordshire Hoard, as it’s now known, was worth nearly $5 million and lauded by archaeologist Chris Fern as “one of the greatest finds of British archaeology.”

13. An Early Human Skull in an Unexpected Place // Israel

In 2015, the journal Nature detailed a stunning discovery: A human skull in a cave. But not just any skull—it was a 60,000-year-old specimen from Israel. Few human fossils have been found from that time period, especially from that region. The discovery lent more support to the Out of Africa Theory, the idea that modern humans originated in Africa and migrated outward toward Europe and Asia. Researchers speculated that the specimen “could be closely related to the first modern humans who later successfully colonized Europe.” And since then, even older evidence of modern humans has emerged, greatly expanding our knowledge of our own history.

14. Quarries that Supplied Some of Stonehenge’s Rocks // United Kingdom

Experts have long known that many of the famous bluestones of Stonehenge originated in Pembrokeshire, Wales. But few were certain how the stones reached their final location 140 miles away. Some suggested they were transported by hand. Others argued they were carried by glaciers. In 2019, scientists found evidence of ancient quarries—conclusively showing that the bluestones had been transported by humans, not ice. Then, in 2020, an analysis of the sarsen stones—the more famous standing rocks—determined that 50 out of 52 of them could be traced to an area 15 miles north of the monument. The origin of the remaining two is still a mystery.

15. King Herod’s Resting Place // West Bank

King Herod's tomb in the West Bank was located after a decades-long search.
King Herod's tomb in the West Bank was located after a decades-long search. / Chanania Herman/GPO via Getty Images

It’s not often that people from the Bible make headlines. But in May 2007, a team of Israeli archaeologists discovered something straight from the New Testament: the final resting place of Herod the Great, king of Judea. Local Bedouins helped the researchers find the famous ruler’s mausoleum and sarcophagus in the desert after a 35-year search.

16. A Hidden Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots // United Kingdom

After Mary, Queen of Scots was executed in 1587, displaying her royal portrait was a risky act. It’s no surprise that some painters quickly began revising old works depicting the queen. In 2017, an X-ray of a portrait of Sir John Maitland revealed the visage of the red-headed queen lurking beneath the surface. It had been hiding there for more than 400 years.

17. A 4000-Year-Old Board Game // Azerbaijan

In 2018, archaeologists in Azerbaijan examined an unusual pattern chiseled into the stones of an ancient rock shelter. Upon further inspection, the researchers realized the carving was a 4000-year-old example of the Game of 58 Holes. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “The game was played as a race between two players with game pieces in the form of pegs that were inserted into the holes making up each player's track.

18. The World’s Oldest Known Examples of Storytelling // Indonesia

The beautiful and sophisticated cave paintings of Lascaux and Chauvet, the latter of which was created about 30,000 years ago by Paleolithic artists, might get all the fame. But in 2019, a paper in Nature revealed that a team of archaeologists on the island of Sulawesi had stumbled across cave paintings that were much older. The artwork not only showed human-like figures and wild pigs and cows, but may display a complete story in which the human figures were pursuing the animals for food. The paintings were made at least 43,900 years ago. In 2021, drawings dated to at least 45,000 years ago were located in a nearby cave.

19. The Oldest Human Hairs // South Africa

For years, the oldest-known human hairs came from a mummy buried 9000 years ago. But a 2009 discovery would smash that record. That year, researchers in South Africa discovered human hairs that were up to 257,000 years old. The reason they survived? You guessed it: poop. The hairs were discovered in fossilized hyena dung—evidence that our ancestors used to be on the menu.

20. One of History’s Oldest Beer Recipes // China

In 2016, archaeologists in China discovered pots and vessels for beer-making and analyzed the trace residues, successfully hacking a 5000-year-old beer recipe. “Broomcorn millet, barley, Job’s tears, and tubers were fermented together,” according to the paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The recipe showed that barley was being cultivated in China 1000 years earlier than previously thought.

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