History

7 Ancient Mysteries Archaeologists Will Solve This Century

National Geographic archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert predicts the amazing finds we may make in the 21st century. Sunday, 5 November

By Kristin Romey

When the National Geographic Society awarded its first archaeology grant to Hiram Bingham in 1912, the archaeologist headed off to Machu Picchu with one of the most advanced pieces of technology at the time: a Kodak panoramic camera. More than a hundred years later, archaeologists have a staggering array of technological tools to employ, from remote-sensing equipment that allows us to “see” beyond the visual bandwidth to computers so powerful that they can process in a second what it would take humans thousands of years to do.

“There’s a reason why National Geographic is calling the 21st century the “new age of exploration,” says archaeologist and Society fellow Fredrik Hiebert. “The opportunities for what we can discover in this century and the questions we’ll finally be able to answer seem almost limitless.”

With that enthusiasm in mind, we asked Hiebert to share his predictions on what we may be able to look forward to in this new century of discovery:

1. Discovering previously unknown cities—or even civilisations—in Central and South America

“Archaeologists are using LiDAR [light detection and ranging] to literally ‘see’ beneath dense jungle canopies in places like Honduras and Belize to locate settlements that we weren’t aware existed,” says Hiebert. 

2. Finding the tomb of Genghis Khan or Alexander the Great

Technology like ground-penetrating radar (GPR) enables archaeologists to look underground without digging, says Hiebert. For National Geographic’s Valley of the Khans Project, his team used satellite imagery to identify potential locations for the burial site of Genghis Khan, and then “ground-truthed” the areas with GPR to determine their viability. “While we didn’t locate the tomb of Genghis Khan at the time, it’s a great way to survey large areas of land for what might be a relatively small feature. Ultimately it’s a numbers game: the more area you’re able to survey, the more likely you are to find something. Why not the tomb of Genghis Khan? Or Alexander the Great?”

3. Entering the tomb of China’s first emperor

Archaeologists know the location of the burial site of Qin Shi Huang Di—surrounded by his Terracotta Warriors in X’ian—but the potential of damaging items preserved in the tomb for more than 2,000 years makes them reluctant to open it. “Remote-sensing tools like GPR and magnetometers can give us an idea of the interior structure, and eventually we’ll have tiny robotic devices that can enter the tomb and collect data with negligible disturbance,” says Hiebert.

4. Deciphering the mystery language of the ancient Minoans

It’s been more than a century since the powerful Minoan civilisation of the Mediterranean was uncovered, but scholars are still unable to decipher their language, known as Linear A. “So far we have more than 1,400 examples of Linear A to study,” says Hiebert. “And now we have Big Data in our toolkit. Why don’t we put IBM’s Watson on the job?”

5. Understanding the purpose of the Nasca lines

Researchers are still theorising on the purpose of the Nasca lines. Do these elaborate geoglyphs in Peru represent constellations? Are they associated with water sources? Hiebert agrees with anthropologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Johan Reinhard, who says that no single evaluation proves a theory about the Nasca lines. “This is where using increasingly powerful computer analysis to crunch big sets of geographical and archaeological data would be really important,” says Hiebert.

6. Recovering an intact Neanderthal

As global warming causes ice sheets and glaciers to retreat, it will be “very, very likely” that a well-preserved Neanderthal will one day emerge, says Hiebert, much like the 40,000-year-old baby mammoth found in Siberia.

7. Confirming large-scale Viking presence in North America

Just as increasing temperatures will make glaciers reveal their secrets, the thawing coasts of Canada will expose a network of Viking settlements that will force us to rewrite the “discovery” of the Americas, Hiebert predicts. “We already have identified two Viking sites in the Americas, and once we better understand the nature of these settlements, I’ll bet you we’ll start recognising them all along the Atlantic coast. It’s not impossible to imagine.”

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