We often think of publicly funded American achievements in science as enormous, government-sponsored projects that have enabled us to explore space, cure destructive diseases, and better understand the ecological systems of planet Earth.
However, the U.S. government also plays an important role in how we understand our human history through archaeological science. Since its founding in 1966, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has awarded more than 1,400 grants to archaeological projects worldwide, including some of the most important archaeological discoveries made by American researchers over the past decade. This work has been supported on modest budgets: The entire NEH budget in 2016 was $148 million, or about one three-thousandth of one percent of the federal budget.
Here are a few of the biggest discoveries in archaeology that have been brought to you in part by the U.S. Government:
Ancient stone ruins of Troy are illuminated at night. NEH-funded excavations of the city showed that it was prosperous but vulnerable.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES L. STANFIELD, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE
Troy is most famous as the site of the 10-year war that the Greek epic poet Homer recounts in the Iliad. But the ancient city of Troy is not just the stuff of song and legend: it’s also a fascinating archaeological site in Turkey. University of Cincinnati archaeologist Brian Rose’s work at Troy helped to distinguish a core of reality from the shrouds of mythology. His excavations in the 1990s helped establish a picture of an ancient city that was prosperous but vulnerable: Troy was constantly being destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries, and its towers and thick limestone walls suggested the constant threat of war.
Scientists prepare the 500-year old Ice Maiden for examination.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MARIA STENZEL
The Ice Maiden
Discovered in 1995 by archaeologist (and National Geographic Explorer) Johan Reinhard, the so-called mummified “ice maiden” was an apparent female victim of human sacrifice whose body was preserved high on the 20,702-foot Mount Ampato in southern Peru. She was killed by a single blow to the head about 500 years ago, and her burial goods included macaw feathers and figurines of gold and silver.
Excavations at Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the New World, began in 1994.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIELLA NOWITZ, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE
The rediscovery of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the New World, began in 1994. Archaeologists found tobacco pipes, post holes, European armour, ceramics, and evidence of trade with the nearby Powhatan Native Americans. They also learned that beyond the threats of disease and warfare, early settlers also experienced hunger so severe that in the winter of 1609 they resorted to cannibalism. Survey of the nearby site of Werowocomoco, the political centre of the Powhatan chiefdom, also showed evidence of trade and revealed details about the lives of the Native Americans in this area before their first contact with Europeans.
This 2011 discovery in El Zotz, Guatemala, revealed the remains of a Mayan king who was previously known only from hieroglyphic accounts. The archaeologist who made the discovery, Brown University’s Stephen Houston, believes that the tomb, which dates to 350 A.D., probably belonged to the founder of a dynasty. The chamber was elaborately decorated and contained painted stucco, conch shells, silver jewellery, and textiles.
The Uluburun shipwreck is one of the oldest shipwrecks ever excavated.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY INSTITUTE OF NAUTICAL ARCHAEOLOGY
The Uluburun shipwreck dates to roughly 1300 B.C., which makes it one of the oldest shipwrecks ever excavated. Discovered in 1982 off the Turkish coast, the ship was carrying a wide variety of luxury goods: elephant ivory, ostrich egg shells, ebony, glass, gold, and incense. It remains one of the most important underwater archaeological discoveries in the world and helped to show the dense network of connections that crisscrossed the Mediterranean in the Bronze Age.
Cattle bones helped archaeologists identify part of the original Plymouth settlement.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY DAVID B. LANDON, UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTES
In 2016, archaeologists from the University of Massachusetts discovered the 17th-century site that they believe was part of the original Plymouth settlement. Because the 102 original Pilgrims raised domesticated cattle, the discovery of the bones of a calf beneath a layer of artefacts from before 1650 was strong evidence that some part of the earliest “Plymouth Plantation” had been identified. They also found beads likely meant to be traded with nearby Native Americans.
Header Image: A detail from the Maya tomb at El Zotz. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY EDWIN ROMÁN, BROWN UNIVERSITY