There are many incredible archaeological sites around the world that offer records of the ways of life and beliefs of past civilizations. While a lot of them have become tourist meccas, such as Stonehenge, Pompeii, and Machu Picchu, others are more obscure—and yet, the wealth of information they have to offer is not any less important or fascinating. Below are highlights of a baker’s dozen of incredible sites that haven’t quite gotten their due.
The Domus Aurea, or the “Golden House” in Latin, was an ancient complex built by the Roman emperor Nero after the great fire of 64 CE destroyed a large section of the city, replacing Nero’s first palace, the Domus Transitoria. One of the most extravagant builds in Roman history, the complex boasted more than 300 rooms on three floors and occupied an area 25 times that of the Colosseum. The Domus Aurea includes numerous luxurious features—including a huge golden dome, ceilings inlaid with semiprecious stones and ivory, mosaics, frescoes, and rooms lined in white marble. Ostensibly used as a pleasure palace to host Nero’s parties, the Domus Aurea came complete with its own pools, fountains, artificial lake, vineyards, cornfields, and forests. Unfortunately, funding Nero’s lavish lifestyle came at the cost of Roman citizens. It was later seen by his successors as both a moral failure and an utter embarrassment and was gradually built over; after more than 20 years of on-and-off restoration, the Domus Aurea is open to the public.
The Nazca Lines, in southern Peru, are geoglyphs, or large-scale drawings etched into the landscape using natural materials. These geoglyphs depict more than 1,000 straight lines, geometric figures, animals, and plants and are believed to have been created by the prehistoric Nazca people between 200 BCE and 600 CE. They can be viewed from high above by airplane, where one might see drawings of a monkey, hummingbird, lizard, and orca. There are several theories about the Nazca geoglyphs—that they depict deities, are a form of irrigation, or are a calendar with astrological alignments—but their original purpose is ultimately unclear.
Tōdai-ji temple (“Great Eastern Temple”) was the largest building ever completed in Japan when it was erected under Emperor Shōmu in the 740s. Its construction, which signaled the arrival of Buddhism in Japan from India, brought together some of the most skilled craftspeople in the country and was intended to show the power and prestige of the imperial house. A special tax that funded the structure, however, was not popular among the people. The temple was rebuilt in the 12th century and is today a UNESCO World Heritage site. In its main hall sits a massive bronze Buddha statue—a 17th-century remake of the 282-foot-tall original—the largest of its kind in the world today.
One of the largest excavated sites in the Americas, the ancient Mayan city of Tikal is nestled among the trees of the Guatemalan rainforest and covers at least 47 square miles. The city flourished from around 300 to 800 CE and was inhabited by 60,000 to 100,000 people. Most of the buildings unearthed at Tikal were constructed during the eighth century CE. Notable structures include a ceremonial center with step-pyramid temples, palaces, public squares, and ball courts. Though Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés marched past the area in 1525, the city’s ruins remained concealed beneath natural vegetation and weren’t rediscovered until the Guatemalan government sent out an expedition in 1848. It remains unclear what ultimately caused Tikal’s decline.
Leptis Magna was a prominent city in the Carthaginian and Roman empires, situated in present-day Libya. It was founded by the Phoenicians in the seventh century BCE and was later subsumed by the Carthaginian Empire around 650 BCE. When Rome conquered the Carthaginians during the Punic Wars (264–146 BCE), the city became a colony of the Roman Empire. In the second and third centuries CE, Roman emperor Septimius Severus, who was born in the city, expanded it and spent lavishly on such structures as the Arch of Septimius Severus and the Severan Basilica. Rivaling Carthage and Alexandria in Egypt, Leptis Magna became one of the greatest cities in North Africa. Later, however after a tsunami and several invasions, the city fell into decline, and by 1000 CE it had been absorbed by the city of Al-Khums.
Ggantija, or “giantess” in Maltese, is a megalithic temple complex located on the island of Gozo in present-day Malta. Local legend says that these freestanding limestone structures, some of which are more that 20 feet tall, were built by giants. Estimated to be approximately 5,500 years old, the complex would have been constructed using only the basic stone tools and techniques of the Neolithic period. Archaeologists believe the temples may have been used by an ancient fertility cult. Among the oldest freestanding monuments in the world—yes, even older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids—they are UNESCO protected.
This partially excavated burial mound in northern Syria may be the world’s oldest war memorial, dating back to the third millennium BCE. Tell Banat stands at 72 feet tall and is known as the White Monument because the material it is composed of, gypsum, glistens in the sun. While it was originally thought to contain enemy remains, later research showed that a portion of the burial site may have been designed to honor the Mesopotamians’ own fallen warriors. The bodies of the deceased were placed directly into the earth and were organized according to each person’s military rank.
Anyone interested in Pompeii—the ancient Roman city enveloped and preserved in volcanic ash following the 79 CE eruption of Mount Vesuvius—will be rewarded by a visit to its neighbor just 11 miles to the northwest, nestled between present-day Naples and Sorrento, Italy. A smaller, wealthier version of Pompeii, Herculaneum was a residential city at the base of Vesuvius that was home to roughly 4,000–5,000 elite citizens from Rome and Naples. While it suffered the same fate as Pompeii, the ruins of this costal retreat are better preserved, with rich frescoes, furniture, intact upper floors, and original wooden balconies. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This more than 1,000-year-old ancestral Puebloan site sits hundreds of feet above the valley floor in San Juan National Forest in Colorado. With more than 200 homes and ceremonial dwellings, it once housed several thousand Chacoan people and boasts incredible views. The architecture was laid out to align with the sun and moon. A great kiva, a pit house, a multifamily dwelling, and a Chacoan-style great house pueblo are among the site’s most notable man-made structures, overlooked by the landmark Chimney Rock itself and the smaller Companion Rock. All lie within the Chimney Rock National Monument created by President Obama in 2012.
Immortalized in Homer’s epic poem The Iliad, which chronicles the end of the Trojan War, the archaeological site and former city of Troy in present-day Turkey boasts more than 4,000 years of history. Located on the coast of the Aegean Sea and close to the Dardanelles Strait, its remains serve as evidence of the first contact between the Anatolian and Mediterranean civilizations. Twenty-four excavations conducted over the past 140 years have revealed numerous notable features from different periods in the city’s history, dating as far back as the Bronze Age, including 23 sections of defensive walls around the citadel, 11 gates, a paved stone ramp, and the lower sections of five defensive bastions. Other highlights include prehistoric settlements and cemeteries, the temple of Athena, a Roman agora and concert hall, Hellenistic burial mounds, Roman and Ottoman bridges, and monuments from the Battle of Gallipoli. It was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1998.
The ancient Greco-Roman city, located in what is now Jordan, is one of the 10 Decapolis cities where Western culture mixed with Semitic and Persian civilizations. In 63 BCE the Romans took over (though they allowed the city substantial self-rule), after which time the city rapidly expanded in size, significance, and wealth. It continued to flourish even during changes of power—for example, when the Persians took over in 614 CE. When a massive earthquake hit Gerasa in 749 CE, however, the city was partially abandoned, which contributed to its decline. Less than 50 miles from Jordan’s current capital, Amman, it is today one of the largest and best-preserved Roman cities in the Middle East. Highlights include Hadrian’s Arch, the Temple of Artemis, and the forum.
This former capital city in Peru, named after the civilization that built it, contains the adobe ruins of two temples dedicated to the moon and sun: Huaca de la Luna and Huaca del Sol. The complex boasts decorated walls and striking multicolored friezes. The Moche civilization flourished between 100 and 700 CE at the foot of Cerro Blanco (“white hill”) near present-day Trujillo. Though the ruins have sustained damage, first from Spanish conquistadors and then by local tomb raiders, you can still view elaborate frescoes and architecture. The Moche unfortunately died out around 500–700 CE—hastened, it is believed, by extreme weather conditions including earthquakes, drought, and flooding.
On the island of Santorini in Greece, Akrotiri was an ancient Minoan settlement roughly 50 acres in size, established during the late Bronze Age. Not unlike Pompeii and Herculaneum, the village was wiped out and preserved in ash following a volcanic eruption in 1628 BCE. Its citizens were luckier, though: Akrortiri had been evacuated ahead of the eruption. The site boasts many features such as an elaborate municipal drain system, multistory buildings decorated with wall paintings, furniture, and ceramic vessels. Excavations began at the site in connection with the construction of the Suez Canal in 1867 and were taken up again in 1967. Today the excavated areas are enclosed in a climate-controlled structure.