We may dream of winning the lottery, but what about finding a medieval-era wedding ring in your yard, or a Byzantine-era mosaic on your farm?
Everyday people joined archaeologists and art conservators in finding some of the year’s most compelling discoveries. Among them was a Van Gogh self-portrait, hidden behind a painting, a vast unearthed Roman town, and a secret tunnel to what could be Cleopatra’s lost tomb.
Below are the most exciting art and archaeology discoveries of 2022.
‘Naughty pupils’ ancient punishment method resurfaces
When Ancient Egyptian youth were disciplined with writing lines 2,000 years ago, they likely didn’t expect their efforts would survive long enough for us to see.
Hundreds of these tablets were found, with the same symbol usually written on both front and back. Credit: Athribis-Project Tübingen
A possible lead on Cleopatra’s long-lost tomb
A tunnel network beneath the temple of Taposiris Magna may lead to Cleopatra’s final resting place. Credit: Khaled El-Fiqi/EPA/Shutterstock
So far, the excavation in Egypt has turned up more than 1,500 objects, including statues and coins, according to archaeologist Katherine Martinez, who spoke with CNN, but “the most interesting discovery is the complex of tunnels leading to the Mediterranean Sea and sunken structures” — which they’ll continue to excavate.
Van Gogh peers out in hidden portrait
An X-ray showing Van Gogh’s self-portrait next to the artwork that conceals it. Credit: Neil Hanna
“Moments like this are incredibly rare,” said Frances Fowle, senior curator of French art at the NGS, in a press release announcing the news.
Whether or not the self-portrait will be able to be safely separated from the painting remains to be seen, as conservators continue to study the work.
A romantic token found through dumb luck
A metal detectorist found this gold and diamond ring on his second try. Credit: Noonans
The piece of jewelry features two entwined bands to symbolize marital union and an inverted diamond. Inside the band is a medieval French inscription that reads, “Ieo vos tien foi tenes le moy,” translating as, “I hold your faith, hold mine,” according to the auction house. The ring sold for £38,000 ($46,000) on November 29.
A thermal bath gives up its ghosts
The well-preserved statues, which depict Greco-Roman divinities including Apollo and Hygieia, were discovered at the hilltop town of San Casciano dei Bagni in the Siena province. For three years, archaeologists have been excavating the muddy site of an ancient bathhouse.
A newly discovered 2,300-year-old bronze statue — one of two dozen found in a Tuscan thermal bath. Credit: Ministero della Cultura/Reuters
Jacopo Tabolli, an assistant professor from the University for Foreigners in Sienawho coordinated the dig, said the statues were intentionally submerged under water as a ritualistic gift, sometime between the 2nd century BC and 1st century AD.
“You give to the water because you hope that the water gives something back to you,” he explained to Reuters at the time.
Unremarkable mirror reveals stunning secret
A 400-year-old “magic mirror” reveals the image of a Buddha when light is shone on it in a particular way. Credit: Rob Deslongchamps/Cincinnati Art Museum
The museum’s curator of East Asian art, Hou-mei Sung, made the discovery in 2021 on a hunch, after she noticed the mirror resembled other examples of “magic mirrors” from Edo-period Japan. She and a conservator shined a cell phone light on the object, first showing a nondescript image with some texture on the wall before them. After experimenting with more focused lights, a clear image of Amitabha, whose name is inscribed on the back in Chinese, was revealed.
“We were so excited,” Sung told CNN in July, when the museum announced its find. Only a few institutions in the world have a magic mirror in their collections.
Art researchers rethink famous Vermeer
“Girl with the Flute” may have been painted by Vermeer’s assistant or a family member. Credit: National Gallery of Art
Marjorie Wieseman, head of northern European paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which has exhibited the findings in the show “Vermeer’s Secrets,” told The Art Newspaper that the portrait may have actually been the handiwork of the artist’s eldest child, Maria.
Massive pink diamond located in Angola mines
This pink diamond may be the largest discovered in 300 years. Credit: Lucapa Diamond Company
Pink diamonds, which are rarer than their white counterparts, have been known to fetch exorbitantly high sums at auction. The cut 11.15-carat pink diamond, referred to as the “Williamson Pink Star,” sold for nearly $60 million in October, while the “Pink Star Diamond” shattered records in 2017 when the strawberry-sized 59.60-carat cut stone sold for over $71 million.
Hercules unexpectedly turns up
Large pieces of a Hercules statue discovered in northeastern Greece. Credit: Ministry of Culture
The classical statue (which dates back to the 2nd century AD) was an “extraordinarily interesting” and unusual find, according to Archie Dunn, a teaching fellow in Byzantine archaeology at the University of Birmingham, who was not involved in the excavation. Presumed to be a decorative part of a fountain, the statue would have been a rare ornament for the time period, especially with its “pagan origins,” he explained.
Farmer finds Byzantine mosaic in Gaza
A farmer and his son (pictured) in Gaza discovered this mosaic. Credit: Ibrahim Dahman/CNN
“I searched on the internet … We learned it was (a) mosaic belonging to the Byzantine era,” the father, Salman al-Nabahin, told Reuters in September. “I see it as a treasure, dearer than a treasure. It isn’t personal, it belongs to every Palestinian.”
Assyrian carvings found in ISIS’s wake
Reconstructions efforts on the Mashki Gate led to the discovery of these ancient carvings. Credit: Zaid al-Obeidi/AFP/Getty Images
“We were all awestruck and virtually speechless. It was like a dream,” archaeologist Michael Danti told CNN in October. “No one predicted that we would be finding Sennacherib reliefs in a city gate.”
A powerful woman’s Anglo-Saxon bling resurfaces
A powerful woman’s necklace reconstructed 13 centuries after she was buried. Credit: MOLA/Hugh Gatt
Who was she? The research team isn’t sure, but they do know she was powerful and devout, possibly a princess or abbess. The discovery joins around a dozen similar burials of high-status women that have been found around the country, with some grave sites including similar necklaces.
Secret chamber reveals ancient art
Figurative works from 9th-century BC showing a procession of gods. Credit: M. Önal
In May, the team shared their findings, detailing an unfinished artwork carved onto a rock wall from 9th-century BC that show a procession of deities. Mrade during the reign of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, which began in Mesopotamia and spread outwards, this illustration shows a melding of cultures instead of conquest, according to the study.
A vast Roman town found in the UK
An aerial image of the Blackgrounds Roman archaeological site. Credit: Courtesy HS2 Ltd
Because of the findings, it is believed the site, known as Blackgrounds, was once home to a “bustling and busy area,” according to a press release, one with commerce, industry and wealthy residents.
Another treasure haul from Sanxingdui
A bronze altar excavated from Sanxingdui. Credit: Wang Xi/Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images
A team from multiple institutions has been excavating six sacrificial pits, turning up more than 13,000 objects so far; last year, the artifacts they uncovered included a golden mask, ivory relics and a jade knife. The Sanxingdui culture still remains shrouded in mystery, as it left behind no written records or human remains, though many believe it to be part of the ancient kingdom of Shu, which ruled along the upper stream of the Yangtze River until it was conquered in 316 BC.
Top image: The pieces of a necklace from an influential Anglo-Saxon woman.