10 Fabulous Ancient Tombs

From King Tut’s treasure-stuffed tomb to one of the world’s oldest human burial sites, these ancient resting places sent their occupants to the afterlife in style.
The world-famous tomb of Tutankhamun.
The world-famous tomb of Tutankhamun. / Print Collector/GettyImages

From Sutton Hoo to King Tut’s crypt, ancient burial places have provided some of the most exciting discoveries in archaeology, revealing fascinating stories (and eye-popping bling) from civilizations of the past. Here are 10 of the most fabulous ancient tombs ever found.

Newgrange Burial Mound // Ireland

An entrance into the burial chamber of Newgrange. / Michael Nicholson/GettyImages

Newgrange is regarded by many archaeologists as the most impressive Stone Age burial place in Europe. It dates from 3200 BCE, making it older than Stonehenge and the pyramids of Giza. The enormous stone-covered circular burial mound measures 279 feet in diameter and was once surrounded by a ring of 35 large standing stones. Only 12 stones remain, though each is decorated with mysterious patterns—spirals, zigzags, and notches—that archaeologists think could be related to astronomical events. A 62-foot-long passage leads into the burial chamber, which contains three alcoves. On the winter solstice, the rays of the rising sun momentarily travel directly down the ancient passageway and flood the chamber with light.

Tomb of the Lord of Sipán // Peru

A replica of the tomb of the Lord of Sipán in Peru.
A replica of the tomb of the Lord of Sipán in Peru. / Bernard Gagnon, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Most of the ancient mud-brick pyramids in Peru were looted long ago, often by Spanish conquistadors who melted down the precious gold treasures found inside. In 1987, though, an excavation of a pyramid known as Huaca Rajada revealed a dazzling hoard of artifacts. 

The tomb dates from the time of the Moche culture, which thrived from 1 to 700 CE, some 1000 years before the Inca. As the researchers dug down into the tomb they discovered a crouching skeleton with its feet removed—they concluded that this was to prevent the guard from ever deserting his post. Below the skeleton was an intact tomb with a wooden sarcophagus containing the skeleton of a man in royal regalia, complete with a crescent-shaped headdress of beaten gold, a golden face mask, and earrings inlaid with turquoise. The skeleton also wore necklaces from which dangled 10 gold and silver peanuts (an important crop), three times their normal size. 

The richly arrayed tomb held over 450 priceless objects, giving archaeologists unprecedented insight into Moche culture. After analysis of the finds, researchers believed the skeleton represented a high-ranking warrior-priest and named him the Lord of Sipán, after the nearby town.

Tomb of Kazanlak // Bulgaria

A detail of a fresco in the Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak.
A detail of a fresco in the Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak. / Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Discovered in 1944 during the construction of a WWII bomb shelter, the 4th-century BCE tomb of Kazanlak was part of the Thracian settlement of Seuthopolis in present-day Bulgaria. The structure is a tholos, a domed tomb shaped like a beehive, and its layout follows the traditional concept of a journey to the afterlife, with three distinct spaces: entrance hall, a corridor, and a circular burial chamber. The bodies of a man and a woman were discovered inside the chamber and are thought to be the Thracian ruler Roigos and his wife. What makes the site unique are the incredible murals and frescoes covering the walls of the tomb, offering a rare look into Thracian culture. One of the most impressive murals depicts a funeral feast at which a man and woman sit on thrones as a procession of servants and musicians file toward them bearing gifts.

Tutankhamun’s Tomb // Egypt

Close-up photo of Tutankhamun's golden death mask.
Tut's iconic golden death mask. / assalve/E+/Getty Images

Surely the most famous ancient tomb on Earth is that of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun, who died in 1327 BCE. In November 1922, a British team led by archaeologist Howard Carter rediscovered the unlooted tomb and brought countless valuable artifacts to the surface for the first time in over 3000 years. More than 5000 objects were stacked inside the tomb, including furniture, sculpture, cosmetics, incense, jewelry, clothes, and weapons, plus beautiful wall paintings and hieroglyphs, all shedding light on ancient Egypt and its death rites. The most amazing object by far was the now-iconic golden death mask of the boy king. The rich discoveries sparked Egyptomania throughout the world, and rumors of the mummy’s curse have endured for decades.

Tut’s tomb is relatively small compared to other tombs in the Valley of the Kings, like those of Ramses II and Amenhotep III. But almost all have been plundered over the centuries, leaving archaeologists to imagine what great treasures have been lost. 

Macedonian Royal Tombs // Greece

A gold funerary wreath from the Macedonian royal tombs, 350 BCE-325 BCE.
A gold funerary wreath from the Macedonian royal tombs, 350 BCE-325 BCE. / Print Collector/GettyImages

The ancient tombs in Vergina, northern Greece, are the burial sites of King Phillip II of Macedon—father of Alexander the Great—and Alexander IV, son of Alexander the Great, as well as many other Macedonian royals and elites. Alexander himself was also supposed to have been buried at this sacred site, but after dying from mysterious causes in Babylon in 323 BCE, his body was taken to Egypt. His burial place is unknown.  

The tombs were rediscovered in 1977. Many had been raided in antiquity, but that of Phillip II remained untouched. It yielded impressive grave goods including weapons and armor made from gold and silver, plus a stone sarcophagus containing a gold chest with the cremated remains of a man wrapped in sumptuous purple fabric. Through years of detailed analysis, documentary evidence of injuries Phillip experienced, and other facts, researchers were able to match the details of Phillip’s life to the armor and remains uncovered in the tomb, confirming its identity.

Panga ya Saidi Cave // Kenya

Not every ancient tomb is celebrated for its lavish grave goods or unusual construction. Some, like the Panga ya Saidi Cave in Kenya, become notable for their extreme age. Archaeologists at the site were amazed to find the careful burial of a young child dating back 78,000 years, the oldest known human burial in Africa [PDF]. Analysis of the teeth revealed that the child was between 2 and 3 years old. Researchers named him Mtoto, Swahili for “child.” The deliberate arrangement of the body with the knees brought up to the chest, the placing of an object used as a pillow under Mtoto’s head, and the remains of a fabric covering all suggest that Mtoto’s community practiced funerary rites

Bronze Age Royal Tombs // Cyprus

Researchers from the University of Gothenburg recently uncovered what they think are royal or very high status graves in Dromolaxia Vizatzia in southeastern Cyprus. 

After local farmers reported ploughing up broken sherds of pottery, the researchers used a magnetometer to detect anomalies in the ground. Large cavities were found to lie just under the surface of the soil. Excavations soon uncovered a two-chambered tomb containing more than 500 ancient artifacts and burials dating to 1500 to 1300 BCE. Notably, the items hail from many different cultures: Gems from Afghanistan and India, gold and ivory from Egypt, and amber from the Baltics reveal the surprisingly extensive networks of trade operating at that time. A number of skeletons were also discovered, including that of a woman who was laid next to jewelry, ceramic pots, and a bronze mirror.

Daisen Kofun // Japan

An aerial view of Daisen Kofun
An aerial view of Daisen Kofun based on National Land Image Information (Color Aerial Photographs), Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. / Copyright © National Land Image Information (Color Aerial Photographs), Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, Geospatial Authority of Japan, Wikimedia Commons

During the Kofun Period (250–538 CE) in Japan, many large burial mounds were created to house the remains of the imperial family. The most impressive, Daisen Kofun near Osaka, is said to hold the tomb of the Emperor Nintoku. The vast burial mound measuring 1594 feet long and 115 feet high—the largest in the world—can only really be appreciated from above. Aerial photography reveals the structure’s unusual keyhole shape. It took 16 years to build the tumulus and cover it with 50 million stones. Today, thick forest has been allowed to grow on top to protect it from erosion. Very little is known about the tomb because it has been only partially excavated; a stone floor and several clay figurines have been discovered. 

West Kennet // England

Inside West Kennet Long Barrow in England.
Inside West Kennet Long Barrow in England. / blue sky in my pocket/Stone/Getty Images

This Neolithic tomb in Avebury, built around 3650 BCE, is the best-preserved long barrow in the UK. Long barrows are large burial mounds that often contain multiple graves. West Kennet is exceptionally big, stretching to 328 feet and featuring five chambers. Today the barrow is covered in turf, but when it was newly built the white chalk of the barrow would have been starkly visible across the landscape. The remains of at least 46 individuals—a mix of males, females, children, and adults—have been discovered buried inside. The barrow was likely in use for some 1000 years before it was filled with rubble and closed with three enormous sarsen stones sealing the entrance.

The Tomb of Qin Shi Huang // China

Terracotta Army, Xian, China
A terracotta army guards the tomb of China’s first emperor in Xian. / Tim Graham/GettyImages

The actual tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, remains unexcavated—but digs around the tomb have revealed jaw-dropping treasures. Six hundred pits, covering an area of 22 square miles, house an extraordinary collection of life-size terracotta warriors who have guarded the tomb for more than 2000 years. So far, about 2000 of the estimated 8000 warriors have been unearthed, revealing kneeling archers, standing soldiers, and huge terracotta horses, plus musicians and clay waterfowl. Documentary sources suggest it took 700,000 convicts to construct the tomb and the individually carved terracotta statues, each with its own hairstyle, clothing, and facial expression, attesting to the unfathomable amount of work that went into creating the mausoleum.

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