“It’s not what you find, it’s what you find out,” says David Hurst Thomas, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Which is to say that finding the artifact or remains of a building on an archaeological dig is only the half of it. It’s the story that flows out of these remnants of a civilization that really matters. In the spirit of adventure, we did our own digging into National Geographic’s archive of archaeology photographs. Click through to uncover photos that illuminate our fascinating past.
An aerial view of Leptis Magna in western Libya, one of the largest and best preserved Roman cities. The city, constructed during the reign of Augustus and Tiberius, was remodelled by Septimius Severus, and became a thriving urban center complete with a theater, market square, baths and basilica.
This sculpture of the mother-goddess Kybele was found at Catalhoyuk, Turkey and is often cited as proof of Earth Mother worship, a common belief in Neolithic Europe before the rise of patriarchal society.
People stand among the ruins of the Maya Palace of Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico. This Alfred P. Maudslay photograph appeared in Biologia Centrali-Americana: Archaeology, issued between 1889 and 1902.
In this photo from a 2011 National Geographic article, neurosurgeons perform an autopsy on a 5,000 year-old Neolithic mummy in order to determine his genetic makeup and cause of death. “The Iceman” was found in the Alps on the border between Austria and Italy in 1991.
Aerial view of Jarlshof, an archaeological site on the southern tip of the Shetland Islands. The site is noted for its broad historical range, with ruins from the Bronze Age through the Viking Age and into the early 16th century.
Members of an archaeology expedition help pull a wooden ferry across a river in Mongolia’s Darhad Valley.
A man from the former kingdom of Mustang in northern Nepal carries human remains recovered from a burial crypt. (Read more about archaeology in Mustang.)
In this 1961 National Geographic photo, famed paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey and his family look for early hominid remains at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania.
Thousands of life-size clay soldiers and horses stand guard over Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s tomb near the city of Xi’an, China. Considered one of the greatest archeological discoveries of modern times, the Terra-Cotta Army was discovered in 1974 by a group of farmers.
A carving of a Nubian captive adorns the handle of a walking stick recovered from the tomb of King Tut. The placement of a Nubian captive on King Tut’s walking stick is typical of Ancient Egyptian imagery which often depicts kings in their role as conqueror.
A diver descends into a cenote or sinkhole in Mexico. Exploring cenotes has enabled archaeologists to discover new clues about Maya civilization.
The Stones of Stenness is a Neolithic monument in Orkney, Scotland dating from around 3000 BC. Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar, and the newly discovered “Ness of Brodgar” form the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site.
Archaeologists study a colossal Olmec stone head in La Venta, Mexico in this 1947 National Geographic photo. The Olmec civilization, the first in Mesoamerica, offers valuable clues into the development of the rest of the region.