umanity has a peculiar way of leaving things behind. Over the centuries, countless famous artifacts have been discovered. All historical artifacts tell us more about how people lived before our time, but artifacts from the ancient world are some of the most prized and protected. Ancient world artifacts provide a glimpse into the ages we know the least about.
Table of Contents
- 1 Famous Ancient Artifacts
- 1.1 Sydney Rock Engravings (+3000 BC)
- 1.2 Gerzeh Beads (3200 BC – 3000 BC)
- 1.3 Caral Quipu (c. 3000 BC)
- 1.4 Ur Ram (c. 2500 BC)
- 1.5 Phaistos Disc (1850 BC – 1400 BC)
- 1.6 Nebra Sky Disc (1600 BC – 1000 BC)
- 1.7 Mask of Agamemnon (1550 BC -1500 BC)
- 1.8 Olmec Colossal Heads (1500 BC – 400 BC)
- 1.9 Nok Terracotta Sculptures (1500 BC – 500 AD)
- 1.10 Trundholm Sun Chariot (c. 1400 BC)
- 1.11 Bust of Queen Nefertiti (1345 BC)
- 1.12 Mask of Tutankhamun (1323 BC)
- 1.13 Babylonian Map of the World (900 BC – 700 BC)
- 1.14 Messapian Baby Bottle (400 BC – 300 BC)
- 1.15 Dead Sea Scrolls (300 BC – 100 BC)
- 1.16 Baghdad Battery (250 BC – 250 AD)
- 1.17 Terracotta Army (246 BC – 209 BC)
- 1.18 Antikythera Mechanism (205 BC – 100 BC)
- 1.19 Rosetta Stone (196 BC)
- 1.20 Lydenburg Heads (400 AD – 500 AD)
- 2 Frequently Asked Questions
Famous Ancient Artifacts
In our list of famous ancient artifacts, we run through a range of mysterious and mesmerizing fragments of history, from all over the world. Some have been found in the sandy depths of Egypt, while others have been found underwater or even accidentally. If you want to learn more about artifacts, we suggest having a look at learning-history.com.
This list is organized in chronological order, beginning with the oldest ancient artifacts and concluding with the youngest.
Sydney Rock Engravings (+3000 BC)
|Date Created||+3000 BC|
Sydney may be a bustling metropolis today, but some of the oldest human artifacts have been found in its vicinity. Aboriginal Australians had lived in the region as far back as 28000 BC, and were known to produce intricate drawings on rock faces, which have become some of the most famous ancient artifacts.
These inscriptions were applied by laying an initial sketch of the image and then impressing a U-shaped groove into the rock using stones, along with charcoal and chewed ochre for pigments.
The images depict scenes of humans, animals, mythical beings, and daily objects. There are over a thousand sites of Aboriginal rock art scattered across the Sydney area. Dating these ancient world artifacts is tricky because the engravings were both created and maintained over thousands of years. A comfortable estimate places much of the rock art between 3000 BC and 4000 BC, as part of the late Neolithic period.
The earlier engravings portray now-extinct animals, while more recent examples portray ships appearing on the coast.
Gerzeh Beads (3200 BC – 3000 BC)
|Creator||Ancient Egyptian jewelers|
|Date Created||3200 BC – 3000 BC|
|Dimensions (cm)||1.7 cm x 0.3 cm|
|Housed||Petrie Museum of Egyptology (London, England), The Manchester Museum (Manchester, England)|
Sometimes regarded as the oldest artifact from the ancient period, the Gerzeh Beads were found in a North Egyptian tomb in 1911. These nine beads form part of a larger necklace consisting of other precious metals like lapis lazuli, gold, and agate. The necropolis in which they were discovered dates back to 3200 BC.
They are regarded as the oldest human artifact of ironwork.
But it is not only the age of the Gerzeh Beads that makes them special. In the early 2010s, scholars concluded that the iron used to make these beads were sourced from a meteorite, after analyzing its chemical composition.
This explains their presence in a period before efficient iron extraction was developed, and forces us to consider that advanced production was already underway at this time.
Caral Quipu (c. 3000 BC)
|Date Created||Circa 3000 BC|
|Housed||Museo de la Nación (Lima, Peru)|
Between 4000 and 2000 BC, before the rise of the Olmec and Incan dynasties, the ancient Caral-Supe civilization thrived on the coast of modern-day Peru. While there, they built the first city in the Americas, Caral. During the third century BC, Caral was home to over 3000 residents, exhibiting advanced organization and high levels of peace.
Discovered in 1948, the city of Caral and its precious artifacts only began to be appreciated after the 1970s.
The site consists of numerous temple complexes host to pyramidic monuments and plazas, and it is believed that the Caral-Supe lived comfortably for their time. In the early 2000s, among hundreds of artifacts retrieved from the ancient city, archaeologist Ruth Shady uncovered a quipu, an ancient system of knotting textile which allowed for the keeping of records, mostly associated with the Incas from 800 BC onwards.
This is the earliest evidence of “writing” in the Americas, and at 4000 – 5000 years old, is one of the oldest human artifacts in history.
Ur Ram (c. 2500 BC)
|Date Created||Circa 2500 BC|
|Medium||Wood, gold, lapis lazuli, copper|
|Dimensions (cm)||45.7 cm x 30.5 cm|
|Housed||British Museum (London, England)|
One of the most famous artifacts from the ancient world is the Ram in a Thicket, which is more specifically two figurines depicting a goat perched up over a bush. It was discovered in 1928 at the Royal Cemetery of Ur, a rich archaeological site located in present-day Iraq.
The famous artifact was named after the biblical story of Isaac’s sacrifice.
Ram in a Thicket indicates an advanced crafting skill for its period. The pair of artifacts are composed of a mix of materials, with a base of wood blanketed in gold, lapis lazuli, and copper. Estimated to originate from about 2500 BC, many believe that the historical artifacts were functional ornaments, meant to be facing one another and likely suspending another object between them. The figurines had been crushed by soil following thousands of years under the surface, but a restoration brought these ancient world artifacts back to life.
Since we know that Ur did not naturally possess many of the materials that make up these historical artifacts, Ram in a Thicket tells a story about the expansive trade networks of the Early Dynastic Period.
Phaistos Disc (1850 BC – 1400 BC)
|Date Created||1850 BC – 1400 BC|
|Dimensions (cm)||15 cm|
|Housed||Heraklion Archaeological Museum (Crete, Greece)|
In 1908, Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier discovered a small disc in the ruins of a palace on Crete, in the Phaistos region. Crete forms part of the Greek islands and was home to the Minoan Civilization across the 2nd millennium BC. Even though an earthquake destroyed much of this palace and the historical artifacts inside, the Phaistos Disc was spared.
The small, coin-like object is inscribed with various symbols, ranging from animals and plants to items like hair combs and flutes.
This famous artifact has since attained mysterious status, as many have attempted to decipher the code hidden in these hieroglyphics. Today, most agree that we cannot reveal its message without more information. The artifact does tell us something about the advanced organization and expression of Minoan society, however. Some have noted the Phaistos Disc as an early example of the printing press, as the hieroglyphs are physically impressed into the clay, and then edited by hand.
This famous ancient artifact was certainly ahead of its time if we follow this understanding.
Nebra Sky Disc (1600 BC – 1000 BC)
|Creator||Unknown, possibly Unetice group|
|Date Created||1600 BC – 1000 BC|
|Dimensions (cm)||30 cm|
|Housed||State Museum of Prehistory (Halle, Germany)|
Rarely do amateur treasure hunts yield any significant treasure, but this is exactly what happened to two friends in the Ziegelroda Forest (Saxony, Germany) in 1999. With metal detectors, they discovered a collection of historical artifacts, including swords, bracelets, and a strange bronze disc.
The finding eventually landed them in prison, however, for operating without a license and failing to report findings to the government. They also damaged the ancient artifacts while extracting them.
A professional review of the findings quickly revealed the importance of the Nebra Sky Disc. The disc is peppered with golden dots behind two larger plates shaped in circular and crescent forms. This scene familiarly depicts the sky, with a sun, moon, and stars. Later in the artifact’s life, a few more plates were added symbolizing the solstice, indicating that the disc was used as a means of understanding astronomy.
There have been some disagreements about the dating of the Nebra Sky Disc, but consensus has since settled on around 1600 BC.
Mask of Agamemnon (1550 BC -1500 BC)
|Creator||Mycenaean funerary artists|
|Date Created||1550 BC – 1500 BC|
|Dimensions (cm)||H: 30.5 cm|
|Housed||National Archaeological Museum (Athens, Greece)|
In 1876, the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered several golden masks among gravesites at Mycenae, Greece, excavating on behalf of the Greek Archaeological Society. There were five funeral masks of men, women, and children, but because of the status associated with this practice and the gold found in the tomb, Schliemann believed he had found the body of King Agamemnon from Homer’s Iliad.
This mystique has established the Mask of Agamemnon as one of the most famous ancient artifacts.
It has also been subject to heavy scrutiny, as Schliemann was known to fix historical artifacts at sites. He successfully defended himself in court in this regard, however, and has enjoyed the fame associated with the discovery.
The masks were all produced by hammering and chiseling a thin gold leaf over a solid form, but the mask of the male chief was unique for its three-dimensional shape, facial hair, lively eyes, and elaborate gold carvings.
Today, we know that Schliemann was incorrect in his identification, but discovered a genuine artifact from the ancient world even older than he initially estimated – the funeral masks of a wealthy and influential Mycenaean family from the Bronze Age.
Olmec Colossal Heads (1500 BC – 400 BC)
|Creator||Ancient Olmec craftsmen and laborers|
|Date Created||1500 BC – 400 BC|
|Dimensions (cm)||1.47 m – 3.4 m|
|Housed||National Museum of Anthropology (Mexico City, Mexico), Xalapa Museum of Anthropology (Xalapa, Mexico), San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán Museum (San Lorenzo, Mexico) and more|
The Olmec Colossal Heads are seventeen monumental figures depicting human heads, understood to be historical artifacts from the Olmec Civilization, the first to establish itself in the Mesoamerican region. The heads are reformed basalt boulders with rough textures and a gray-brown shade. The first of these ancient world artifacts were discovered in 1862 (sometimes mistaken as 1938) and the latest in 2018. All but one of the heads were discovered outside the Gulf of Mexico.
Scholars of ancient Mesoamerica have long debated about who the figures represent, and why they were built.
Because of the number of resources that were required to construct such monuments, many assume the heads represent rulers or elites. All the sculptures depict males, with detailed headdresses of cloth and feathers, either with faces smiling, neutral, or threatening.
They may have initially been painted, based on pigments recovered by archaeologists.
Historians are further perplexed by the feats achieved by the Olmecs in constructing these monuments. These famous ancient artifacts, weighing up to 50 tons, were once transported efficiently across hundreds of kilometers. In absence of labor animals or wheels, the transport was likely based on cooperation with the natural landscape. From the artisans who chiseled features into the rock, to those who prepared food for the transporters, we can stand amazed at the organization displayed in the production of these artifacts.
Nok Terracotta Sculptures (1500 BC – 500 AD)
|Date Created||1500 BC – 500 AD|
Despite being widely scattered across the southern Sahara, the Nok Terracotta Sculptures are some of the most famous ancient artifacts and earliest examples of ironwork from the African continent. The first of the sculptures was uncovered by a mining company conducting operations near Nok, in Nigeria. Only until the second set of figures was discovered did professional archaeological operations begin. Erosion has reduced many of the sculptures to fragments, and thus complete heads are highly treasured.
These historical artifacts have also been widely looted, stolen, or trafficked, and most Nok figurines now rest in museums across Europe and North America.
Terracotta Nok sculpture of a sitted man-70.1998.11.1, located at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France; Louvre Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
While the function of these terracotta heads remains unknown, their composition indicates advanced craftsmanship. The heads are mostly life-sized, sporting detailed hairstyles, jewelry, and poses. These ancient world artifacts are hollow, designed around a coil and with small holes for drying and glazing.
Archaeologists assume these sculptures symbolized deities or charms, and continue to search for Nok artworks today.
Trundholm Sun Chariot (c. 1400 BC)
|Creator||Ancient Norse artisans|
|Date Created||Circa 1400 BC|
|Dimensions (cm)||54 cm x 35 cm|
|Housed||National Museum of Denmark (Copenhagen, Denmark)|
Discovered in a swamp near the northern coast of Denmark (Odsherred), the Trundholm Sun Chariot has left archaeologists with more questions than answers, especially since it was found alone, without any other historical artifacts nearby.
The bronze figurine depicts a horse pulling a disc, with both objects set on spoked wheels.
The disc itself is gilded in gold but only on one side, and is populated with highly decorative concentric rings. The disc is believed to symbolize how the sun traverses from East to West throughout the day, based on the direction it is “driven”. The sun chariot was a common religious symbol across the ancient world, with variations ranging from India to Greece.
This Trundholm chariot does not fit smoothly into historical chronology either, as horse-driven vehicles are only known to have appeared at least 400 years after the chariot’s production.
Bust of Queen Nefertiti (1345 BC)
|Creator||Egyptian sculptors, likely Thutmose|
|Date Created||1345 BC|
|Medium||Limestone, stucco, frit, coal, chalk|
|Dimensions (cm)||H: 48 cm|
|Housed||Neues Museum (Berlin, Germany)|
Easily one of the most recognizable ancient world artifacts, the Nefertiti Bust is a sculpture of the ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, the wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten, who ruled in the 14th century BC. The historical artifact is shrouded in mystery, controversy, and fame. Little information exists concerning Nefertiti’s life. Some speculate that she was a foreign queen, while others believe she even ruled as Pharaoh after the death of her husband, or that they ruled together.
We do know that she was the stepmother of the famous Tutankhamun, who also married one of Nefertiti’s daughters.
The artifact was discovered by a German archaeological company in 1912 while exploring the workshop of esteemed sculptor Thutmose. Over time, it has become a point of contention between the governments of Germany and Egypt. It has been said that the true worth of the bust was obscured from Egyptian authorities when initially returned to Germany. The Nefertiti Bust was celebrated by the German people as a historical symbol and was even nefariously used to build nationalist sentiments by Adolf Hitler.
The famous ancient artifact has more generally become associated with feminine strength and beauty, leaving its mark on popular culture, in films, and across fashion.
Mask of Tutankhamun (1323 BC)
|Date Created||1323 BC|
|Medium||Gold, obsidian, turquoise, lapis lazuli, carnelian, quartz|
|Dimensions (cm)||54 cm x 39.3 cm|
|Housed||Egyptian Museum (Egypt, Cairo)|
Possibly the most famous ancient artifact from the Egyptian world, the funeral mask of King Tutankhamun is a stunning fragment of both history and art. His face is combined with the likeness of the Egyptian god Osiris, who oversees the realm of the afterlife. While King Tutankhamun’s burial site was discovered in 1922, it took until 1925 to open the weighty sarcophagus of the young ruler and transport it to the museum. The site was located in the Theban Necropolis, one of many small cities built by ancient Egyptians to house their deceased rulers.
In a striking image of gems and gold, Tutankhamun’s headdress bears a cobra and a vulture, indicating his full rule over Egypt.
The sculptor also used an array of materials when producing the piece, ranging from lapis-lazuli to amazonite. Across a panel on the back of the King’s neck, a protective spell for the afterlife is inscribed in hieroglyphs.
While generally well-preserved, the beard has suffered detachments on several occasions.
In 2015, it was harmed when museum staff attempted to reattach it using a synthetic bond, but this damage was reverted with the professional application of beeswax – ironically the same material that the ancient Egyptians used in such cases. One theory also forwards that the mask was initially produced for one of the short-term Pharaohs before Tutankhamun, and was only later modified to portray his likeness. This explains why the mask has earring holes, more common among female Pharaohs, but the claim has also been refuted.
Babylonian Map of the World (900 BC – 700 BC)
|Date Created||900 BC – 700 BC|
|Dimensions (cm)||12.2 cm x 8.2 cm|
|Housed||British Museum (London, England)|
Discovered by the legendary Hormuzd Rassam, who also discovered the tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh, this famous ancient artifact is an early depiction of the world, as known by the Babylonians around 900 BC.
The map was recovered from the banks of the Euphrates River, a rich site of artifacts from the ancient world.
Common of world maps in the ancient period, it is centered on local features, such as the Euphrates, and then expands outwards. The Babylonian Map covers neighboring cities with accompanying labels, followed by an ocean and several landmasses beyond it.
It also contains a fragment of text in the Akkadian language, spoken in Babylon during this period.
Much of the descriptions available in the text are religious, but when combined with the map reveal a visionary knowledge of the physical world in a time when little was known about its shape or size.
Messapian Baby Bottle (400 BC – 300 BC)
|Date Created||400 BC – 300 BC|
|Housed||Archaeological Superintendency of Puglia (Bari, Italy)|
In 2012, archaeologists in Italy recovered a collection of artifacts from a Messapian tomb in Puglia. The Messapians occupied the region until 300 BC when it was conquered by the Romans. Among the mix of ancient world artifacts recovered was a terracotta pig with a drinking spout extending from its back, which has provided valuable insight into the domestic life of Messapians.
This historical artifact is more specifically a “guttus”, commonly used in the ancient world to pour liquids or feed infants.
The figurine was likely an early form of a baby bottle, and also has pebbles in its hollow stomach, so that it can be shaken or rattled. While only two clear human remains were recovered, the presence of this artifact suggests that a child may have also been buried in the tomb, only their remains have by now fully decomposed.
Dead Sea Scrolls (300 BC – 100 BC)
|Creator||The Essenes or other Jewish sect|
|Date Created||300 BC – 100 BC|
|Medium||Papyrus, copper, parchment, carbon black, cinnabar, galls|
|Housed||Israel Museum (Jerusalem, Israel) & The Jordan Museum (Amman, Jordan)|
The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of ancient manuscripts from the Qumran Caves near the West Bank. Some of these ancient world artifacts are fully preserved books, while others are mere fragments of pages. All in all, the Dead Sea Scrolls consist of 981 pieces of textual evidence and are considered some of the most famous ancient artifacts of all time. They were produced by a Jewish sect, most likely the Essenes, and may form part of a library.
Discovered across a decade between 1946 and 1956, the first of these artifacts from the ancient world were found by local shepherds in a system of caves.
The manuscripts were stored in fortified clay jars and were dually preserved by the dry conditions of the Qumran region. After word of this discovery spread, archaeologists from all over the world were attracted to the site.
Fragments of the scrolls are still being discovered there today, with the latest find occurring in 2021. Who knows how many more ancient world artifacts may be inside these caves?
The Dead Sea Scrolls are particularly relevant due to their religious importance. Written mainly in Hebrew, these historical artifacts contain some of the foundational texts of Judaism and further shed light on the development of early Christianity. The information available in these scripts has constructed a clear image of the history of Abrahamic religions and the linguistics of Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic.
Baghdad Battery (250 BC – 250 AD)
|Creator||Parthian or Sasanian craftsmen|
|Date Created||250 BC – 250 AD|
|Medium||Terracotta, copper sheet, iron, bitumen|
|Dimensions (cm)||140 mm x 38 mm|
|Housed||Missing from the National Museum of Iraq|
One of the more mysterious ancient world artifacts is the Baghdad Battery. Uncovered in 1936 on the periphery of Baghdad, this set of famous artifacts has sparked much debate in the years since its discovery. The historical artifacts include a terracotta pot, a slim metal rod, and a copper cylinder. The rod slides into the cylinder, which then fits snugly into the larger ceramic pot. With such precise measurements required, many believe that the three objects altogether form a mechanism or system.
The most popular theory states that these famous ancient artifacts worked like a battery, powering processes like gold plating or producing electrical currents with acidic liquids.
Throughout the 20th century, many attempted to reproduce this archaic battery system, and to some extent succeeded. Archaeologists, however, maintain that these historical artifacts were not batteries, as their materials were not conducive and no circuit connections have been included.
Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent looting of the National Museum in Baghdad, this historical artifact has now been missing for almost twenty years.
Many instead believe that these pots stored important documents and scripts. The potential existence of a battery almost 2000 years before its official discovery makes us wonder about the possibilities of the past.
Terracotta Army (246 BC – 209 BC)
|Creator||Local craftsmen, government laborers|
|Date Created||246 BC – 209 BC|
|Dimensions (cm)||175 cm – 200 cm (soldiers)|
|Housed||Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum (Xi’an, China)|
Many artifacts from the ancient world were once pieces of funeral art, and the Terracotta Army is no different. But unlike other historical artifacts in this list, this funerary gift cannot be slipped into a sarcophagus or placed in the corner of a tomb – it consists of over 8000 statues of soldiers, statesmen, horses, and carriages. Compared to other entries in this list, these famous ancient artifacts were discovered quite late.
Only in 1974, when some local farmers were looking to dig a well near Xi’an, was the magnificence of the Terracotta Army revealed.
Life-size and highly realistic, these clay soldiers even held functioning weapons until curators replaced them for safety and preservation. There are only ten different facial models among them, but somehow each soldier appears unique.
The largest collection of pottery figurines in the world, the soldiers are but one part of a larger necropolis of parks, offices, and city structures stretching more than 98 kilometers. The construction of this unfathomable complex required the efforts of over 700,000 workers from all over China, who began the project in 246 BC.
The site is the resting place of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, and the massive pit which hosts the army is positioned beside his tomb, so as to defend it.
To this date, however, the actual tomb of the emperor has not been breached to protect the ancient world artifacts it may hold. Dry conditions can deteriorate these artifacts in minutes, as has been noted on many of the Terracotta Warriors.
Antikythera Mechanism (205 BC – 100 BC)
|Creator||Ancient Greek scientists|
|Date Created||205 BC – 100 BC|
|Dimensions (cm)||34 cm x 18 cm|
|Housed||National Archaeological Museum (Athens, Greece)|
At the turn of the 19th century, the remnants of a Roman ship were discovered near the Greek island of Antikythera. A crew of amateur and military divers returned with a loot of historical artifacts. Among the valuable jewelry and statues rested a seemingly unimportant clump of wet wood and bronze. Only in 1902, two years after its discovery did archaeologists realize its significance. Today, it exists as 82 separate fragments of varying size and value. The Antikythera Mechanism is a mysterious artifact.
Used as an astronomical clock, the device functioned according to the principles of mathematics and computing, making it the earliest example of a computer system to date.
The Antikythera mechanism (front). Visible is the largest gear in the mechanism, approximately 13 centimeters (5.1 in) in diameter; No machine-readable author provided. Marsyas assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Based on the ancient Egyptian calendar and the familiar zodiac system, the mechanism consists of multiple gears that, when rotated, reveal specific details about the date and the positions of the sun and moon. It is believed to have been developed by early Greek scientists and is housed in a wooden box containing instructions for use on its sides.
Considered by many to be an “out of place artifact”, we can only begin to wonder about what the device was capable of when fully functioning, before years of corrosion underwater.
Rosetta Stone (196 BC)
|Creator||Ancient Egyptian temple engravers|
|Date Created||196 BC|
|Dimensions (cm)||112.3 cm x 75.7 cm|
|Housed||British Museum (London, England)|
During Napoleon’s Egypt campaign at the cusp of the 1700s, a group of French soldiers stumbled across a large, inscribed stone slab at Rosetta. Egyptologists quickly got to work on understanding the inscriptions, and the find was celebrated across France. But this was short-lived, as the British army seized the artifact after defeating the French at Alexandria in 1801.
The Rosetta Stone is a 760-kilogram stele that hosts three different inscriptions of a political decree in three different languages, namely Ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Demotic.
Originally belonging to a temple, the slab and its accompanying text have been traced back to the reign of Ptolemy V. The decree inscribed on the stone confirms his rule over Egypt in a time of political instability. Most important about the discovery of the Rosetta Stone was the potential it held for deciphering Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.
The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum; © Hans Hillewaert
The knowledge already held in Ancient Greek would allow for the unlocking of the secrets of the other two languages on the stone, even if much of the stone was damaged or missing. After being relocated to the British Museum, scholars all over Europe and the Middle East got busy deciphering and comparing the texts. This culminated with the construction of an entire alphabet of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs by Jean-François Champollion, after great collaborative effort.
Without the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, it is unlikely that we would know as much about ancient Egypt as we do today.
Lydenburg Heads (400 AD – 500 AD)
|Creator||Ndebele, Bantu or Bini artisans|
|Date Created||400 AD – 500 AD|
|Medium||Terracotta, slip, hematite|
|Dimensions (cm)||H: 20 – 38|
|Housed||Iziko South African Museum (Cape Town, South Africa)|
While playing as a child on his father’s farm in Mpumalanga, South Africa, Karl-Ludwig von Benzig came across a collection of historical artifacts that would alter the course of his life. The clay heads and fragments he accidentally discovered piqued his interests in archaeology and mineral collection. He received much acclaim in the 1960s after officially extracting the Lydenburg Heads as a teenager, initiating a long and successful career in the field.
These ancient world artifacts consist of seven carefully crafted terracotta heads of various sizes, most of which represent humans.
One of seven ceramic heads found near Lydenburg. Made in the form of an inverted pot with incised decoration around the next, thought to have been used in the performance of initiation rituals. Located at the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town, South Africa; Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net)., CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The two largest sculptures are big enough to be worn as masks, and also hold animal figurines. Along with the presence of detailed necklaces, this evidence suggests that the heads were likely produced for rulers or elites.
Only one of the heads depicts a non-human, animal-like figure.
The Lydenburg heads are the earliest recorded instance of the African Iron Age beneath the equator. Scholars agree that these famous ancient artifacts were most likely used as a set of masks and ornaments in ritual ceremonies, initiations, and ancestral celebrations.
This list of famous artifacts from the ancient world could have included many other entries, and we encourage you to explore further. It is amazing to witness how different developments were occurring at similar times, all over the ancient world, and to consider how much we have built from these inherited foundations.
Take a look at our ancient artifacts webstory here!
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is the Ancient World?
The ancient world refers to a period of history between 3000 BC and 500 AD, encompassing the Bronze and Iron Ages. The boundaries of these epochs are flexible, however, and ancient history can sometimes include late periods of the preceding Stone Age. The ancient world is associated with the start of recorded human history.
What About Older Artifacts?
You might be asking yourself, what about human artifacts before 3000 BC? To answer this, we have to go further back into periods not categorized as ancient, but prehistoric, a time which deserves a list of its own. The oldest human artifact is the set of stone tools found at Lomekwi 3 in Kenya, at three million years old, long before the appearance of homo sapiens. The oldest artifact of the homo sapien period is highly debated, ranging from cave paintings in Africa to beads in Israel.
Armin Kific is a researcher and writer based in Pretoria, South Africa. He completed a degree in Political Science with majors in History and Philosophy in 2020, and has since completed an Honours in Anthropology and History. He is currently working towards a Master of Social Science at the University of Pretoria. Armin’s knowledge of the arts spans across various mediums, and he is always looking for ways to marry art with social science. In 2021, he produced a short documentary film about the often-forgotten South African soul star Mpharanyana, integrating history, music, photography, and film. Armin is well-versed in art history, especially in the fields of political artwork and ancient artifacts. He enjoys exploring art history sources for information that has been lost or overlooked. He is also trained in biographical writing.
His favorite art movements include baroque, surrealism, and neoplasticism. Armin is an ardent supporter of indigenous art in South Africa, and is involved in an organization that looks to uplift South African artists following the challenges of Covid-19. By writing for artincontext, Armin continues to cultivate his artistic creativities and unite perspectives between art and society.
Learn more about the Art in Context Team.