We’re often drawn to rare finds in unexpected places, as well as history-making archaeological digs that shed light on humanity’s past. This year, there was no mysterious monolith in the desert to keep us on the edge of our seats, but there were some incredible finds, as tiny as an insect trail in a famous artwork and as grand as an entire city.
Below are 12 of the most exciting art and design discoveries of 2021.
The one ring (to prevent your hangover)
A gold and purple amethyst ring that may have been worn to prevent hangovers was found at a site where (of course) one of the largest known ancient wineries once stood, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced in November. The jewel was located in the Israeli city of Yavne, quite close to the remains of a warehouse containing wine vessels known as amphorae. The ring’s owner was probably a wealthy Byzantine who lived between the 3rd and 7th centuries (and would likely be surprised to learn that we’re still hunting for a good hangover cure 1,500 years later).
Elie Haddad, a co-director of the excavation, said in a statement that the item may have “belonged to the owner of the magnificent (winery) warehouse, to a foreman” or to an “unlucky visitor, who dropped and lost their precious ring.”
A surprise Rembrandt
When an artwork fell off the wall in a Roman country house in 2016, what started as a straightforward request to restore the piece set off an unexpected chain of events. It turned out to be a lost Rembrandt painting, once believed to have survived only through copies held at major institutions. This summer, the Italian Heritage Foundation confirmed “The Adoration of the Magi,” an oil on paper mounted on canvas, is an original made by the prolific Dutch master. Rembrandt painted the work in 1632-33, and it depicts the three wise men meeting the baby Jesus for the first time.
An ancient city is slowly uncovered
What was the biggest reveal of the year? An entire 3,000-year-old city – the largest discovered in Egypt – unearthed from beneath the sand. Archaeologists began excavating “The Rise of Aten,” which was discovered on the western bank of Luxor, in the fall of 2020.
“The discovery of this lost city is the second most important archeological discovery since the tomb of Tutankhamun,” said Betsy Bryan, professor of Egyptology at Johns Hopkins University, in a statement.
As of April, archaeologists had uncovered much of the city’s southern half, finding intact houses with walls up to 10 feet (3 meters) high, a large bakery and a burial site containing a skeleton. The rooms in the homes were filled with pottery vessels, tools for spinning, weaving and glass-making, and jewelry still present, “left by the ancient residents as if it were yesterday,” according to the statement.
A warty pig gets its due
After a remarkable find in an Indonesian cave on the island of Sulawesi, a depiction of a warty pig is believed to be the oldest surviving image of an animal. At least 45,500 years old, archaeologists identified the warty pig in the artwork as such due to its hornlike protrusions; the red ocher-colored scene features three pigs altogether, with one possibly observing a fight between its two companions.
This discovery, as well as other recent finds from caves in the same region – including a hunting scene from 43,900 years ago depicting human-animal hybrids – have cemented Indonesia’s importance in early human history. For a long time, abstract symbols found in Europe were thought to be the oldest works of cave art.
“This discovery underlines the remarkable antiquity of Indonesia’s rock art and its great significance for understanding the deep-time history of art and its role in humanity’s early story,” Adam Brumm, a professor at Griffith’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution, told CNN earlier this year.
A golden mask from a sacrificial pit
In June, a lightweight gold mask was one of around 500 relics recently excavated from a group of sacrificial pits in southwest China, at the archaeological site Sanxingdui located near Chengdu. Thousands of artifacts have been found at the 4.6-square-mile site since a local farmer accidentally located it a century ago. According to the state-run press agency Xinhua, the mask was likely part of a larger bronze head made during the late Shang dynasty, whose rule ended in 1046 BC. Among the other discoveries were ivory relics, bronze figurines and a jade knife.
Tiny beads with historical implications
Blueberry-sized Venetian beads that were excavated in northern Alaska in the mid-2000s are now believed to be the earliest known European-made objects in North America, predating Christopher Columbus’s journey across the Atlantic. In January, the University of Alaska Fairbanks published a study with the researchers findings that the beads may have arrived between 1440 and 1480, decades before Columbus set sail in 1492. Some of the beads – along with some plant fibers that were carbon-dated to establish a time period – were unearthed at Punyik Point, a famous archaeological site that sits on an ancient trade route.
According to the university, Venice maintained trade routes to Asia during the 1400s, and the beads may have journeyed along the Silk Road toward China before making their way to Russia’s Far East, then across the Bering Strait to the Arctic.
But that’s not all…
In March, the Israeli government announced that dozens of fragments of a Dead Sea Scroll bearing biblical text were found by archaeologists working in the Judean Desert.
Also in March, researchers announced that they had identified a 3,200-year-old mural depicting a spider god holding a knife, which was discovered in northern Peru in 2020 on the side of an adobe temple, part of a site that has been mostly destroyed by local farmers.
In May, a 2,000-year-old marble head of a young Augustus Octavian, Rome’s first emperor, was discovered in the Italian town of Isernia, during the repair of a badly damaged medieval wall.
In August, new DNA analysis revealed that a warrior found in an Iron-Age era grave in Finland may have been non-binary.
In October, the Dallas Museum of Art exhibited new findings on Vincent Van Gogh’s olive grove paintings, including the trail of an insect that unfortunately landed in his paint, which provide evidence of where at least one of the works may have been created.
In November, archaeologists revealed that they believed they’d found one of Egypt’s lost “sun temples,” dating from the mid-25th century BC, beneath another temple at Abu Ghurab.
Top image: An ancient ring that could supposedly stop your holiday hangover in its tracks.