Archaeology is a hard gig - and not because of rolling boulders of doom or deadly snakes, as the Indiana Jones series would have you believe. Real archaeologists’ jobs consist of digging up stuff that may be millennia old, trying to determine its exact age, and then trying to make sense of it. Humanity still struggles to understand the world around us today, so why would trying to understand the world as it was thousands of years ago be any easier?
Inevitably, the sheer difficulty of archaeology has led to some slightly embarrassing wrong conclusions. These misunderstandings may be the result of an archaeologist’s own hubris, or malicious hoaxes, or just plain old human error. However the mistakes are made, they allow us a chance to laugh at the escapades of hapless researchers, but also to rethink just how much of what we accept about the past is actually true.
The Runamo Inscription was thought to be a revolutionary find, but it just turned out to be an extraordinary case of wishful thinking.
Located in Sweden, Runamo is a dolerite dike covered in a series of strange, vertical lines. In the 12th century, the Danish chronicler Saxo Grammaticus claimed that the mysterious lines were ancient runes now too worn to be read, but that they were intended to be a memorial to the legendary Danish king Harald Wartooth. Over the following centuries, scholars made many attempts to decipher the ancient runes, with some claiming that they could make out and translate a few words. Some even claimed the runes contained a poem.
It wasn’t until the 1800s, after several centuries of researchers debating the mysterious inscription, that it was finally determined that the cracks were just that - cracks. The dike was simply covered in natural fissures formed in the stone. They only looked like old-timey writing.
Archaeologists dig up what seems to be a perfectly ordinary Neanderthal specimen. Things take a turn for the unexpected when a close inspection reveals a bullet hole in the poor caveman’s skull. Sound like the intro to a cheesy movie about time travel? If so, you may have better instincts than the countless others who bought into this crazy notion when a weird hole was found in a Neanderthal skull in Australia in 1921.
Of course, actual research determined that the hole was caused by a bacterial infection, and that this hole had actually begun healing before the victim died, which means the hole didn’t even kill the specimen (who, for that matter, was not a Neanderthal, but a member of an earlier hominid species). No time travel required!
Many archaeological misconceptions are innocent errors, but occasionally they happen because of an individual’s own flaws, and that’s definitely the case with Great Zimbabwe. Great Zimbabwe is a ruined city that was discovered inside modern Zimbabwe, and was once the site of the capital for the mighty Kingdom of Zimbabwe.
Of course, some racist archaeologists decided that Africans couldn’t possibly have constructed something so architecturally impressive, and so they sought out evidence of Great Zimbabwe’s European origins.
Karl Mauch thought he found it when he used the incredibly scientific method of comparing the smell of his pencil to that of the crossbeams uncovered at Great Zimbabwe, concluding that the beams must be made of Lebanese wood like his pencil was. Amazingly, many bought his argument, and it was awhile before Great Zimbabwe’s African origins were once again acknowledged.
Sometimes what seems like an amazing discovery is really just somebody making stuff up. This was the case for the Piri Reis map, named after its creator, an Ottoman admiral and cartographer. The map, which came from the early 16th century, seemed to contain way more information about the world than any cartographer of the time had the right to know about.
The map also claimed to have been inspired by Christopher Columbus’s maps, although this seems unlikely at best. The Piri Reis map even showed details of Antarctica, leading some to speculate that this was proof that Columbus or others had explored far more of the Earth than anyone thought possible.
In the end, the real explanation was much less exciting, as it seems that Piri Reis just made up his map based on sailors’ rumors of the time and his own imagination.