For many Westerners in the 19th century, the notion of a massive sacred city shrouded deep in the jungles of Cambodia seemed like little more than a legend — fodder for fiction and fantasy. Sure, there were antiquarian maps that showed such a thing, and missionaries who swore they had been to it; but something of that magnitude had to be seen to be believed. And then, in 1860, Henri Mouhot saw it: Angkor Wat.
After many months travelling into the interior of Thailand and Cambodia, Mouhot arrived at the mythic temple complex, and immortalized its magnificence in the public imagination through a collection of writings and sketches he sent home to France. How unthinkable it must have seemed at the time, for a complex measuring some 500 acres in area and more than 600 feet in height to have stayed so mysterious for so long.
This story sounds a bit like that of Petra, an age-old city chiselled into the stone cliffs of Jordan. It was well-known to the natives, but never spotted by a foreigner until 1812, when the wily Swiss adventurer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt — pretending to be a Sheikh — convinced the locals to lead him to it.
They followed a remote road through the desert and finally viewed it through a narrow valley, the vast ruins hewn directly into monolithic mountains of rose-red rock. And although Burckhardt didn’t actually “discover” Petra any more than Mouhot “discovered” Angkor Wat, such breakthroughs altered the public’s perception of the world; people had to accept that the mysteries of human history were nowhere near solved. And in the subsequent decades, many authentic discoveries would be made.
The exploration of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Egyptian desert is a well-known and dramatic example. In 1912, archaeologist Theodore M. Davis famously wrote, “I fear the Valley of the Kings is now exhausted.” Little did he know that its largest cache of artifacts would be dug up by Howard Carter 10 years later, ushering in an Egyptology craze that spanned Europe and America.
Ever wonder why the flappers of the 1920s — with their bobbed hair, circlets, and beaded frocks — looked so Cleopatra-esque? It’s not a coincidence. The socialites of the speakeasies, and the art deco designers of Manhattan and Chicago, were riveted by what they were reading in the news at the time. By 1929, the full extent of Petra’s streets and sepulchres started to be excavated by a team of experts. Well, perhaps not the full extent — after all, another huge monument was mapped in 2016 with the help of aerial technology.
It’s funny how the more recent finds sometimes include the most ancient relics. The Lascaux Cave in central France contains close to 2,000 astonishing works of art created almost 20,000 years ago; and it was first located by a group of teenage boys in 1940.
This sort of amateur success is always as thrilling as it is surprising. It’s similar to how workers in Shaanxi, China, accidentally discovered the now-famous Terracotta Army while digging a rural well in 1974.
There seems to be no end to the epic history embedded in our earth, and no end to the excitement of seeking new, and very old, hidden treasures. And it appears as though these revelations are possible for almost anyone — provided they’re in the right place at the right time.
Written by Dillon Ramsey
Headline photo of Petra in Jordan by ZEBULON72