From the Sphinx to the Terracotta Army, photos show 10 historical sites when they were discovered and after they were excavated

One of the heads of the Pharaoh RAMSES II being carried by cranes to the temple’s new site

Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Scientists are still making new discoveries about ancient civilizations.
Architectural structures that have endured centuries give us insight into ancient civilizations.
Many ancient historical sites are dedications to gods and religious figures. 

The concept of a lost city is enticing. An ancient civilization lost to time and space that holds secrets of how early humans used to live in a time before modern technology sounds more like fiction than fact. Yet, remnants of old civilizations have been found time and time again.

These cities are not always lost, nor are they always “discovered.” Dubbing European explorers as “discoverers” can discount the local knowledge and traditions of Indigenous residents.

Nevertheless, European explorers, archaeologists, and diplomats are many times the ones who lead excavations and restorations of historical sites. These ancient sites give us insight into past cultures, climates, warfare, and education. 

Here are 10 archeological sites when they were rediscovered and what they looked like after they were restored. 

Chichén Itzá, Yucatan, MexicoCasa Colorado at Chichen Itza, Mayan Ruins, in Yucatan Mexico. Before and after discovery.

Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images and Geography Photos/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Chichén Itzá is the historical site of an ancient city in Yucatan, Mexico. The city was first established between AD 415-435. In AD 957, the Toltec King, Kukulkan, and his people migrated from central Mexico and took control of the city and brought Chichén Itzá into a new era.

Chichén Itzá combines architectural and cultural influences of the Toltecs and the Mayans. The Mayans leveled the ground where they built their city, paved streets that connected all their buildings, and had one of the largest ball courts in all of Mesoamerica.

The city was abandoned in 1440 when the native Yucatec Maya revolted against the rulers of the Itzá. After the revolt, the Itzá disbanded and left the city of Chichén Itzá behind. 

In 1841, John Lloyd Stephens, an American explorer, re-discovered Chichén Itzá during one of his pilgrimages to Central America.

The excavation by archaeologist Sylvanus Morley didn’t start until 1924. By the time Morley and his team made it to Chichén Itzá, the city had been overgrown and destroyed by local vegetation

The city is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and, as of 2007, has been voted as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.

Tikal, GuatemalaTwo photos of a temple in Tikal, Guatemala, before and after excavation.

Hanna Seidel/United Archives/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The timing of the settlement and development of Tikal is disputed amongst archaeologists, but many believe Tikal to have been settled by 600 BC. Many of the buildings in the city were believed to have been built sometime between AD 250 to 900.

Before its collapse, Tikal was home to more than 60,000 people and was the economic hub of the Mayan civilization. Archaeologists are in disagreement about the reasons for the abandonment of Tikal and some attribute it to societal and economic troubles. A new study suggests that a combination of mercury and toxic algae may have poisoned the drinking water during a large drought, driving everyone away from the city. 

The first official expedition to the ruins wasn’t until 1848. Though, according to some Guatemalan archives, it is believed people were living there in the 18th century. 

The excavation and restoration of Tikal occurred during the 10-year period from 1956 to 1966, in large part due to archeologists from the University of Pennsylvania. 

The park became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the 70s and is still being researched today. As recently as 2021, researchers discovered a new building amongst the ruins of Tikal that could teach researchers more about the city’s lost history. 


Mayan Temple of the Inscriptions, Chiapas, MexicoA side by side comparison of the Mayan Temple of inscriptions in Chiapas, Mexico.

Left: Roger Viollet via Getty Images Right: DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images

The city of Palenque was a Mayan city located in modern-day southern Mexico. Palenque and its temples were established in AD 432 and expanded further between AD 615 to 683. Palenque is home to the Temple of Inscriptions, believed to be the largest Mayan funerary pyramid. 

Palenque was re-discovered by Father Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada, a Spaniard traveling through Mexico in 1567. By the time Lorenzo found Palenque, the city had been abandoned.

At its peak, the city was believed to have held a little over 6,000 people, significantly smaller than other Mayan cities found in the area. 

Palenque became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 and has been integral for researchers learning about the Mayans. Though it isn’t the biggest Mayan city, the temples and tombs of Palenque have helped researchers learn about Mayan architecture, sculpture, and language

Terracotta Army, Shaanxi Province, ChinaA partial view of life-size terracotta figures excavated in the pit surrounding the tomb of Qin Shinhuangdi and a modern view of the site today.

ASSOCIATED PRESS/CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images

In 1974, a farmer was digging a well on his land when he struck the head of a terracotta man. Yang Zhifa, the farmer, alerted the authorities of his discovery. Shortly thereafter, a team of archaeologists discovered not just one but thousands of terracotta figures under Zhifa’s farm.

Among the four pits that were discovered, there are an estimated 8,000 terracotta soldiers of various rankings and positions. The soldiers, now gray and brown, were believed to be adorned in colorful paints when they were created 2,200 years ago, National Geographic reported. 

The Terracotta Army is believed to be a part of the funerary complex for Qin Shi Huang, the “first Qin Emperor” and the largest funerary complex in the world.

It is currently a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde, ColoradoCliff Palace, Mesa Verde, Colorado, before and after excavation.

Left: Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images Right: MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP via Getty Images

Just like the Terracotta Army, Cliff Palace was accidentally discovered in 1889 by ranchers looking for stray cattle. Cliff Palace was believed to be built between 1260 and 1280 and contained 150 rooms, 23 kivas (underground chambers), and housed 100 people.

The ranchers, all brothers, took various items from the site and attempted to sell them to museums in the area. During their sales, they came across Gustaf Nordenskiöld, a Swedish explorer and scholar who was interested in their findings. 

Nordenskiöld took artifacts from the site, including ash from old fires, trash from the floors of buildings, and a mummified corpse, back to Sweden. Nordenskiöld’s actions stirred controversy, and Cliff Palace gained national attention. 

The attention from Nordenskiöld’s actions prompted Virginia McClurg to advocate for the protection of Cliff Palace. McClurg created national support for Cliff Palace and was integral to it becoming a National Park

The Great Ziggurat of Ur, modern-day IraqThe Great Ziggurat of the ancient city of Ur in the southern province of Dhi Qar.

Left: HUM Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images Right:ASAAD NIAZI/AFP via Getty Images

The Great Ziggurat of Ur was built in Mesopotamia, now modern-day Iraq, and was constructed around 2100 BC. Ziggurats in Mesopotamia were constructed with a temple at the top to honor the patron god of a city.

Though the base of the Great Ziggurat of Ur, made of  720,000, 33-pound baked bricks, is still standing, the temple at the top has been lost to time. By the sixth century BC, the Euphrates River, upon which Mesopotamia built its civilization, changed course. Without the water from the river, the city became uninhabitable and the Ziggurat, as well as the city that surrounded it, was abandoned.

In the 1920s Dr. Leonard Wooley, a British archaeologist, in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania and The British Museum, began excavation of the Ziggurat of Ur.  

The Ziggurat has been restored twice in its lifetime. The first was in the sixth century BC by the Babylonian King Nabonidus, who repaired the upper terraces. The next restoration was made by Saddam Hussein 2,400 years later. Hussein restored the lower foundation of the Ziggurat and the large staircases leading to the top. 

Angkor, Siem Reap, CambodiaA side-by-side comparison of Angkor Wat upon its discovery and two centuries later.

Left: Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images Right: Yusuke Harada/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The city of Angkor was established in the ninth century and was the capital of the Khmer Empire until around the 15th century. In total, Angkor covered over 400 square miles. The city utilized local water sources to build a series of canals, reservoirs, dykes, and basins for the 750,000 people that were estimated to have lived there. Archaeologists and researchers are still uncertain as to why the city was abandoned.

Angkor wasn’t “discovered” as much as it was revitalized. The French explorer Francois Mouhot found Angkor in 1859, but locals still knew the area and used it to some degree. However, the French, who colonized Cambodia for most of the 20th century, started a commission in the 1900s to restore the site, which had degraded from years of war, earthquakes, and overgrown vegetation. 

Angkor became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992 and houses one of the largest religious buildings in the world, Angkor Wat. Angkor received 2.2 million international visitors in 2019 and over 280,000 visitors in 2022. 

The Great Sphinx of Giza, EgyptThe Sphinx of Giza depicting the Sphinx before and after excavation.

Left: Getty Images Right: MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP via Getty Images

Archaeologists believe the Great Sphinx of Giza was built around 2540 BC. But researchers are still unsure who built the structure and why. The Sphinx is thought to be connected to the pyramids of Giza because of its close proximity to them. However, researchers are unsure what the Sphinx’s relation to the pyramids is or who commissioned it to be built. 

The Sphinx was abandoned and left to the elements at the end of the Old Kingdom of Egypt in 2181 BC. The head of the Sphinx was all that was visible to Egyptians and visitors for centuries after its abandonment. Despite many attempts, the rest of the Sphinx wasn’t excavated until 1930 by Egyptian archaeologist Selim Hassan. 

At 240 feet long and 66 feet tall, the Sphinx is one of the largest and oldest monumental sculptures in the world. Despite restoration and preservation attempts, the Sphinx continues to deteriorate as a result of wind, humidity, and pollution

Borobudur Temple, Kedu Valley, IndonesiaThe bells at Borobudur temple before and after restoration.

Left: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images Right: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

The temple of Borobudur was built around AD 800 and is the world’s largest Buddhist temple. The temple has 500 Buddha statues at the top, and the journey to the top is replete with 3,000 sculptures reflecting the teachings of Buddha. 

The temple was abandoned in the 1500s for reasons unknown, leaving the site in disrepair as time and nature took over. In the 19th century, the British Governor of Java wanted the temple excavated. The excavation led to stones, statues, and other parts of the temple being stolen and used in buildings or private collections. 

Borobudur underwent one of the most “ambitious international preservation projects ever attempted” and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1968. The temple’s statues were cleaned, and drainage systems were installed to prevent erosion.

The Great Temple of Abu Simbel, Aswan, EgyptThe Great Temple of Abu Simbel before and after excavation.

Left: Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images Right: Sui Xiankai/Xinhua via Getty Images

The Abu Simbel Temple was built to honor King Ramses II in the 13th century BC. The front of the temple has four statues of Ramses with smaller statues of his wife and children at his feet. The inside of the temple is covered with imagery depicting Ramses defeating enemies, leading his army, and joining the gods at the end of his life. 

The temple was rediscovered by Swiss explorer Jean-Louis Burckhardt in 1813. When the temple was discovered, only one of the heads of the four statues of Ramses was visible above the sand. By 1817 the temple had been excavated enough to enter. 

However, in 1959 the temple was threatened by plans to dam the Nile River. The dam would flood the valley where Abu Simbel was located. UNESCO, only in its 14th year, decided to relocate the entire temple.

Banding together hydrologists, archaeologists, engineers, and architects, UNESCO finished the relocation of the temple in 1968 and placed the temple where it currently resides. 

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