15 extraordinary discoveries of 2022

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

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.

Hundreds of these tablets were found, with the same symbol usually written on both front and back. Credit: Athribis-Project Tübingen

But archaeologists discovered 18,000 ink-inscribed pieces of pottery — known as “ostraca” — at the site of Athribis early this year, and among them were hundreds of fragments with a single symbol repeated front and back. Those scribbles are evidence of “naughty pupils” being made to write lines, according to researchers at Germany’s University of Tübingen, which carried out the excavation — in other words, the Bart Simpsons of the Nile Vallaey. The fragments also included receipts, school texts, trade information and lists of names.

A possible lead on Cleopatra’s long-lost tomb

Discovering Cleopatra’s lost tomb would be a “holy grail” for archaeologists, and one team at the University of Santo Domingo may have found its entryway. In November, the Egyptian Ministry for Tourism and Antiquities announced that the team had located a 4,281-foot-long tunnel, located more than 40 feet underground, at a site around a temple in the ruined city of Taposiris Magna, during an extensive hunt for the ancient ruler’s burial site.
A tunnel network beneath the temple of Taposiris Magna may lead to Cleopatra's final resting place.

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

There’s one more known Van Gogh self-portrait in the world, and it was hidden behind a painting of a peasant woman. Art conservators in Scotland made the discovery when they took an X-ray of one of his portraits from 1885 and discovered the artist’s own visage behind layers of cardboard and glue. While X-rays often reveal how artists modified their compositions, the full self-portrait of the Dutch artist came as a huge surprise. Van Gogh was known to reuse canvases to save money, according to the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS), where the discovery was made.
An X-ray showing Van Gogh's self-portrait next to the artwork that conceals it.

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 man in the English countryside trying his hand at becoming a metal detectorist stumbled upon a gold and diamond medieval wedding ring on his second attempt. David Board’s astonishing find — which he first believed was “scrap metal,” he told CNN — was back in 2019, but came to the public’s attention this fall ahead of its sale at Noonans.
A metal detectorist found this gold and diamond ring on his second try.

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

Some unexpected guests showed up at a thermal bath in Tuscany this fall — more than two dozen well-preserved Ancient Roman bronze statues covered by almost 6,000 coins.

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.

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

An unassuming bronze mirror held in storage at the Cincinnati Art Museum has turned out to be an incredibly rare object with a “magic” secret — when light is directly cast on it, an image of a seated Buddha emerges.
A 400-year-old "magic mirror" reveals the image of a Buddha when light is shone on it in a particular way.

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

What makes a Vermeer a Vermeer? When researchers conducted an extensive study of several notable paintings by the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, they found that one of them — “Girl with a Flute” — was actually misattributed, or a fake. The downgraded painting was likely made in his studio, either by an assistant, apprentice or family member.
"Girl with the Flute" may have been painted by Vermeer's assistant or a family member.

“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 summer, Australian miner Lucapa Diamond Company announced it may have found the largest pink diamond in 300 years. The 170-carat blush gemstone, dubbed the “Lulo Rose,” was found in Angola and celebrated as a “historic” discovery by the government.
This pink diamond may be the largest discovered in 300 years.

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

In September, archaeologists concluded a dig that uncovered large pieces of a youthful depiction of the mythological hero Hercules — also known as Heracles — in Philippi in northeastern Greece.
Large pieces of a Hercules statue discovered in northeastern Greece.

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 Palestinian farmer was stumped this past spring when trees wouldn’t root on a patch of his land — so he and his son began digging and found something wholly unexpected. The intact Byzantine-era mosaic they uncovered features colorful animals and intricate patterns, and is located in his olive orchard in the Bureij refugee camp.
A farmer and his son (pictured) in Gaza discovered this mosaic.

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

When archaeologists began reconstruction work on the razed Mashki Gate, or “Gate of God” in Nineveh, Iraq, which had been destroyed by ISIS militants, they didn’t expect to find preserved ancient Assyrian carvings beneath the ruins. The excavation team uncovered seven marble slabs depicting Assyrian soldiers, palm trees, pomegranates and figs that were once part of the palace of King Sennacherib, who ruled from Nineveh around 700 BC and had the gate built.
Reconstructions efforts on the Mashki Gate led to the discovery of these ancient carvings.

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

In April, archaeologists discovered the burial site of an important woman in Northamptonshire country, England, some 13 centuries ago on land earmarked for a housing development. She left behind a remarkable necklace made of gold, garnet and other semiprecious stones, along with other artifacts including a large silver cross and decorated pottery.
A powerful woman's necklace reconstructed 13 centuries after she was buried.

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

Roughly five years after looters broke into a secret chamber nearly 100 feet beneath a home in southeastern Turkey (and were later caught), archaeologists have found the Iron Age-era complex contains ancient artwork illustrating important cultural exchanges.
Figurative works from 9th-century BC showing a procession of gods.

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

Construction on HS2, a high-speed rail project in England, has inadvertently led to one of the most thrilling discoveries of the year — the remains of a Roman trading settlement near Northamptonshire. The discovery back in January included a road and more than 30 roundhouses, as well as workshops, kilns, wells, jewelry, cosmetics, pottery, and more than 300 Roman coins.
An aerial image of the Blackgrounds Roman archaeological site.

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

Since a farmer happened upon an artifact-rich area a century ago — now called the Sanxingdui archaeological site — the 4.6-square-mile plot of land has yielded thousands of relics. The latest haul, reported by Chinese state media in June, includes 3,155 objects, a turtle shell-shaped box and a sacrificial altar among them.
A bronze altar excavated 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.

(Like our Facebook page for the latest posts, as well as follow us on Google News and Twitter.)

Share This