What Archaeological Sites Used To Actually Look Like

Let's see what archaeological sites used to actually look like!


Our planet’s been around for a whopping 4.5 billion years. In that huge expanse of time, dinosaurs have been and gone, the Earth’s geography has completely changed, and countless civilizations have risen and fallen.

Evidence of these lost civilizations remains however, in ruins across every country across the globe. But what were they like before they were ruins? Well, grab your trowel and get ready to dig in, as we find out what archaeological sites used to actually look like.

Sky-High Citadel

Almost 8,000 feet atop a mountain in Peru’s Urabamba River Valley stands the remains of one of the world’s most famous ruins, the legendary Incan citadel of Machu Picchu.


But when it was first discovered back in 1911 by American explorer Hiram Bingham, it was barely recognizable as a citadel at all. It’s believed the Incans built the settlement up high so it would be really tough to attack.


However, this also meant that after they fled the city in the late sixteenth century following a possible smallpox epidemic, it lay undiscovered for years. During this time, it became more and more overgrown.


Because Incans didn’t use cement or mortar, tree roots penetrated straight through the ruins, making the foliage incredibly difficult to get rid of without causing damage. Bingham and his crew were painstakingly careful though, and over the course of four months they toiled away for hours a day clearing the unwanted plant life.

When they were finally done, the team were amazed at the sprawling site they’d uncovered. And nowadays, after further excavation, the awe-inspiring ruin is even clearer!

Of course, despite the dramatic improvement it’s still far from its 15th century glory days. Back then it’s believed the many stone houses were all in tip-top shape, with thatched roofs of dried grass.

As well as residential houses it had a farming zone, a sacred area, and a royal district where historians reckon Incan ruler Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui reigned from his palace.


Really, it’s a testament to the Incans’ building prowess that any of it still stands today, considering how exposed the mountain citadel is to the elements. And knowing how flimsy some new builds can be, maybe modern men should start taking a little Incan advice!

The Bronze Giant

A long time ago, back in the third century BC, there stood a great bronze statue in the harbor of the Greek city of Rhodes. The gargantuan monument depicted the sun god Helios and was said to stand an almighty 105 feet tall. As such, it was named the Colossus of Rhodes, and became one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.


Sadly however, the colossus only stood for 54 years before a savage earthquake in 226 BC toppled it to the ground, breaking it into pieces! Even so, the destroyed remains still proved a popular tourist attraction for centuries after.


Until, that is, in 654AD, when Arabian forces raided Rhodes and carried the fragmented pieces of the Colossus away (with an army of 900 camels) to be melted down and sold. Sadly, today there’s a whole load of nothing where the great statue once stood. But if you’re familiar with the Colossus of Rhodes, you might be surprised to hear that despite the famous imagery of it straddling the harbor, this never happened.

That iconic image actually came about centuries later and was touted by historians in the Middle Ages who’d never seen the monument. The harbor itself is almost the same width as an American football field, so to be proportionately accurate, the statue would have had to stand a stupendous 1,640 feet tall.

This was firmly impossible at the time. Even now, India’s Statue of Unity, which is the tallest statue in the world, is only 597 feet tall, almost three times shorter! Therefore, the colossus was far more likely to have looked something like the image below. Not quite as impressive!


Insanity In Italy

Of all the natural disasters in recorded history, the eruption of Italy’s Mount Vesuvius in the year 79 AD has captured people’s imagination like no other. The ensuing ash cloud crashed down the volcano and completely covered the nearby city of Pompeii, eradicating an entire community in one fell swoop.

It wasn’t until about 1,700 years later that archaeologists finally unearthed the ancient Roman city, and they were duly surprised. Despite all that time, the thick layer of ash had preserved everything. So well in fact, that the majority of the city is still recognizable. Walls, buildings, paved streets, and even some art remain remarkably untouched by age.


However, it’s still nothing like the bustling city of 12,000 people that existed for many years before the fateful eruption. The vibrant municipality had an amphitheater, gymnasium, port, and even a complex water system.


There were many temples too, devoted to the various Roman gods, including The Temple of Jupiter. Unfortunately, Jupiter’s temple got toppled by an earthquake in 62 AD and today only scraps remain. Regardless, Pompeii is still an astonishing place to visit if you can be brave being so close to Mount Vesuvius!


The Real Wall

If you’ve ever seen Game of Thrones, you’ll be familiar with The Wall, the giant icy megastructure made to keep out threats from the north of Westeros. But did you know it’s based on a real-life wall in the north of England?

If you were to go there right now, you’d find the ruins of Hadrian’s Wall, a huge 73-mile-long structure stretching all the way from one coast to the other.


It dates far back to the year 122 AD, when the Roman Emperor Hadrian ordered it built to separate the Roman Empire in Britain from the barbarians up north. Sound familiar? The real wall though was made of stone, not ice, and it wasn’t quite as tall as George R. R. Martin’s fictional barrier.

However, it was a lot grander than the meager remnants that are leftover today. Standing almost 20 feet tall in some places, the towering barricade was an intimidating sight to behold. And it wasn’t just a wall.

By the end of the 4th century, a whopping 80 forts, called milecastles, had been built along it too. As well as these, the extensive structure also hosted 17 larger forts and numerous observation towers to ensure nothing got past.


When the Romans left Britain at the start of the 5th century however, the wall quickly fell into disrepair. People began plundering it by removing great chunks of stone and using it to build other things like churches, farms, and houses.

And although this practice was ended by the 19th century, by that time the damage had already been done. Where imposing milecastles once stood guard, now only waist-high fragments of stone remain. It’s a good job White Walkers aren’t real then!

Nero to Zero

Obviously, ancient Rome’s emperors weren’t the humblest bunch of people. In comparison to Emperor Nero though, the others look like saints. That’s because Nero, who became emperor in 54AD, commissioned a colossal palace complex for himself in the heart of Rome.

The Golden House of Nero covered nearly half a square mile of space. That’s about three times the size of the entire Vatican City!

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Built with stone and marble between 64 and 68AD, the extravagant palace had 150 rooms both above ground and underground, as well as a pool and an enormous 100-foot statue of the emperor himself. If that wasn’t enough, all of the rooms were covered floor to ceiling with gold, precious stones, shells, and pearls.

Aptly then, it was named the Domus Aurea, or Golden House for those of us not too hot on the old Latin. Of all its rooms though, the Octagonal Hall was by far the grandest. This incredible chamber served as a banquet hall and had five dining rooms branching off it with waterfalls cascading down the back walls. Flower petals and perfume were rigged to fall from the richly decorated ceiling too.


The really amazing thing about the Octagonal Hall was that it revolved. Day and night, the flamboyant food hall rotated around its axis as petals fell from above and waterfalls cascaded all around it. And, crazily, archaeologists reckon the majestic mechanism was powered entirely by water!

All this narcissistic extravagance did not make Nero popular though, and so his successors wanted to distance themselves from him as much as possible. Therefore, they savagely stripped the whole palace of its materials and riches, and even filled in most of its underground rooms in order to build on top of them.

This means that sadly, although the main structure survives, the palace is far from the grand complex it once was. That said, the Octagonal Hall was excavated and is still immediately recognizable today, despite the lack of decoration.


The Plundered Parthenon

The ancient Romans weren’t the only civilization partial to a little opulence. At the height of the ancient Greek Empire, between 447 and 432BC, one of history’s most iconic temples was built atop Athens’ religious citadel, the Acropolis.

Known simply as The Parthenon, the 23,000 square foot temple was held up by 65 marble columns, above which were exquisite, vividly painted friezes. Most impressively, a 39-foot-tall statue of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and war, stood guard inside the temple.


It was made from gold and ivory and would’ve been spectacular to behold but by the fifth century AD, it was gone. We can’t be sure what happened, though it could’ve been looted by Christian Byzantines, that is, the East Roman Empire who later conquered Greece in the sixth century AD.

After they took Athens, they converted the Parthenon into a Catholic church and destroyed many of the carved friezes. It remained like this until 1458AD, when the structure changed hands once again.

This time, the Muslim Ottoman Empire seized control of the Greek capital and made the holy building a mosque. Only a couple of hundred years later however, Christian forces returned and launched another attack, bombarding the Parthenon with cannonballs!

This would’ve been bad enough, but the Ottomans had been using the temple to store volatile ammunition inside. The cannonballs smashed into the ammo, creating a powerful explosion which tore through the building and caused massive structural damage.


And there’s more. Later, in the 19th century, British Earl Thomas Bruce visited the Parthenon and stole some of the remaining marble friezes and sculptures to bring back to London where they still are today.

Because of all this, it’s safe to say the poor old Parthenon doesn’t look quite as glamorous as it did back in its heyday. But even so, most people would kill to look that good at the age of 2,454!


Chillin’ In Chichen Itza

If you’re ever in the rather specific mood to soak up some rays while marveling at some of the best-preserved ancient pyramids on Earth, then I suggest taking a trip to Chichen Itza, in Mexico’s Yucatan state.

This Mayan city is well over 1,500 years old, and though nobody lives there now, at its peak it was home to 35,000 people! Because of this, the whole site covers four square miles and has a slew of 26 ruins to be explored.

The most famous of the ruins is called El Castillo. This tremendous temple looms nearly 80 feet above the Main Plaza and has 91 steps up each of its four sides, for a total of 365 including the upper platform.


It’s no coincidence that this is the same number of days as a solar year, and it’s probably related to the rituals that were carried out at the top. Because those ancient Mayans had some weird rituals. The pyramid was built directly on top of a cenote, which is essentially a water-filled sinkhole.

At the top of the pyramid there’s a deep pit which leads down into this cenote. In times of drought, it’s thought that the Mayan people believed that by taking one very unlucky person and throwing them down the pit to their doom, the sacrifice would bring rain.


But it can’t have worked that well because the city was completely abandoned in the 15th century, and ironically, it was probably because of drought. Left to its own devices, the jungle ran rampant on the temple, and when it was finally decided to excavate the site in the early 1900s, you could hardly see it at all.


A full decade of hacking and slashing later though and the pyramid was eventually revealed in all its glory to become the popular tourist attraction it is now.

Really Old Sarum

Old Sarum is an Iron Age hillfort that dates all the way back to 400BC! Originally built and inhabited by British tribespeople, the fort changed hands around 43AD when it was occupied by Romans after their conquest of Britain.


Then after the Romans abandoned Britain around 400AD the site was taken up by the Anglo-Saxons, who lived there for hundreds of years until the Norman Conquest in 1066. It was the Normans that made the biggest changes to the old fort.

They’re responsible for throwing up the motte, that is, the elevated mound in the center which the castle stood on. They surrounded this with a huge courtyard, called a bailey, and then built a cathedral inside it.


At its peak, around the year 1100, the site had become a buzzing borough notable for the literate clerks that resided in the cathedral. However, bad relations between troops in the castle and the clergy led to the cathedral being removed and rebuilt a couple of miles south in Salisbury where it still resides. Imagine having a disagreement so intense you move an entire cathedral because of it!

After this, royal interest in the site declined rapidly, and with it the population, until finally in 1832 it lost its borough status and was deserted. And because so many of the buildings were made from timber, they decayed and were lost to time. Now, only a few clues remain that the once important settlement was ever there.

Great Giza

The oldest of all seven wonders of the ancient world, the Great Pyramid of Giza is still an awe-inspiring testament to ancient Egyptian civilization. Built as a tomb for the pharaoh Khufu around 4,500 years ago, it now serves as one of the most popular tourist destinations on the planet.


But it wasn’t always this way. When it was first built, the Great Pyramid didn’t have the rough, jagged appearance it has today. Rather, it was smooth and shiny from top to bottom.

This is because the Egyptians built a layer of limestone over the initial, step-like structure, and polished it so it gleamed white in the sunlight. They even decorated the point of the pyramid in gold, making the original structure far flashier than it looks nowadays.


But considering the gargantuan monument is made from almost 9,000 tons of granite, over 550,000 tons of mortar, and more than 6 million tons of limestone, how on earth did they construct it in the first place?

Well, the workers would travel southeast of Giza to the Tura quarries on the other side of the Nile, and hammer lines of wooden wedges into the stone. Then, they’d soak the stone in water. The wedges would absorb this water, expand, and in doing so crack the rock into blocks.


These blocks were taken from the quarries and ferried across the Nile before being dragged on sleds all the way to the site of the pyramid. Once there, the painstaking work wasn’t over.

Using a complex ramp and pulley system the heavy blocks had to be hauled all the way up the pyramid, where they were finally smoothed down into shape. And the real tragedy? After all this backbreaking work, hardly any evidence of it remains today. Over thousands of years, various peoples stripped the white limestone and golden tip off to use in other buildings.


Taq Attack

Northeast of Egypt lies Iraq, a country that was once part of a vast land known as Persia. And 22 miles southeast of Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, a strange old ruin protrudes from the ground. Believe it or not, this battered archway is all that’s left of what was once the grandest, richest city of its time, Ctesiphon.


Founded in the second century BC by King Mithridates I, the sprawling city was the jewel in the Persian Empire’s crown for the best part of 800 years. Though surprisingly little is known about Ctesiphon, we do know that it boasted an extravagant palace decorated with marble, glass mosaics, and jewel-adorned carpets, which the arch, known as Taq Kasra, was once a part of.


Even today, it’s still the largest single-span arch in the world. So, what the heck happened? Well, the sheer wealth of the city made it a pretty big target. The Romans attacked and successfully invaded three times between 116 and 198AD, but though the city was sacked it didn’t fall, continuing on as the epicenter of Persian culture for another 400 years.

In 637AD, however, everything changed. Muslim Arab forces gathered strength outside the city and fought a great battle against Persia. They won. After their victory, they rode into Ctesiphon and looted everything they could.


Luckily, the inhabitants of the city had already fled. Nothing else was safe however, not even the buildings themselves, which were torn apart and carried away to build what would become Baghdad. The only thing they didn’t take was Taq Kasra. Because nobody takes the Taq.

Colossal Colosseum

Just about everybody loves going to the theater for an evening of live entertainment! This was just as true back in ancient Rome, only their entertainment happened to include brutal fights to the death. And the most anticipated ones all took place in the biggest, most recognizable amphitheater to ever exist, the Roman Colosseum.

Commissioned around 70AD by the Emperor Vespasian as a gift to the people, it was opened a decade later in 80AD by his son, Titus. And with 157-foot-tall walls, 80 entrances, and a capacity of up to 87,000 people, the behemothic building proved a resounding success.


Spectators of all social classes could attend the various events though they didn’t get quite the same experience. The seats nearest the front at the bottom were reserved for the most important people, and the lower your social class the further back you sat with the poor, slaves, and women holding up the very rear. Partly because of this inclusivity, the Colosseum flourished for four centuries.


But changing tastes and the decline of the Western Roman Empire led to its neglect and abandonment after the sixth century AD. Little by little, parts of the structure were stripped off to be used elsewhere, and violent earthquakes shook the amphitheater too, further damaging it.

Now, only one third of the original Colosseum remains, and the stage that once held so many astounding events only holds rubble. But even though it’s far from its former self, its architectural allure is as strong as ever.


Time-Touched Tikal

Nestled deep within the Guatemalan rainforest is a mysterious assortment of structures, standing in stark contrast with the nature around them. They make up the ruins of the city of Tikal, once one of the most powerful kingdoms in ancient Mayan civilization.

Covering nearly 17,000 square feet of land though, it’s the imaginatively named Tikal Temple Two that’s the most impressive of these structures.


The temple was built as a mausoleum for Lady Kalajuun Unen’ Mo’, who was the wife of a Mayan king that reigned between 682 and 734AD. At 125 feet high, it pierces through the trees but back in the eighth century it would’ve been even taller, at around 138 feet.

And though it’s remarkably well preserved for its age, it used to look a whole lot more vibrant. The Mayans loved red; they even colored their cocoa with it!


The striking color scheme isn’t the only thing that’s faded over time though. The temples at Tikal were also covered with intricately carved designs. Some have survived, like the mask in the picture below, but sadly many are long worn away. Even so, the site is still well worth visiting today.


Mysterious Mound

In the north of Ireland there’s a mystical patch of land so drenched with history, myth, and legend that it holds a staggering 240 archeological sites across its two-and-a-half-square-mile expanse.

This is the land of Rathcroghan where the very first Halloween festivals were held back in the 9th century! Alongside the myriad of other ancient sites, including a creepy cave that supposedly leads to hell, Rathcroghan looks like a grass-covered mound.

It doesn’t look as interesting as a literal hell cave, but that innocent-looking mound holds more secrets than you can imagine. Measuring 300 feet across and 20 feet tall, it stands prominently in the center of the landscape – which means it was pretty darn important.


So, any guesses what it might’ve been? Here’s a clue: about 1,500 years ago it looked less like a mound and more like a huge fort. But if you remember Old Sarum, hillforts look very different nowadays, so you can throw out that idea. This isn’t a fort; the Rathcroghan mound was actually a gigantic ceremonial temple.


By scanning the earth using special equipment, archeologists have found evidence to suggest wooden ramparts and ceremonial henges used to sit atop the hillock. We don’t know exactly what rituals took place within the hallowed hall, but we do know that those practicing them were ancient Celtic pagans.

As such, the temple was probably the site of all sorts. Seers might’ve stood inside as they prophesized the future; crowds of people could’ve gathered to offer up their precious possessions to the gods; and on very rare occasions, humans could’ve even been sacrificed!


But you’d have never thought of all that just from looking at it now. So, it just goes to show – never judge a mound by its cover, as the saying goes.

If you were amazed at how these ancient ruins and archeological sites used to look like, you might want to read this article about how famous landmarks could have looked.

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