What's the biggest archaeological find in history?

Vesuvius looms over Pompeii, the city that has enthralled archaeologists since the 16th century.
Vesuvius looms over Pompeii, the city that has enthralled archaeologists since the 16th century.

Identifying the biggest archaeological find in history is sort of like naming the best movie ever made. One person's blockbuster could be another person's bust. Still, there are ways to make the decision less subjective. One way requires a checklist to help evaluate the merits of various archaeological finds. Our handy checklist contains five questions:

  1. Does the find amaze with its details, clarity or size?
  2. Does the find advance the field of archaeology in a significant way?
  3. Does the find revise our thinking on a particular aspect of history?
  4. Does the find capture the imagination of non-scientists?
  5. And does the find help prepare us for the future?

We applied these questions to a who's who of archaeological discoveries. For example, we considered the Rosetta Stone, an ancient Egyptian stone bearing three languages that enabled scientists to decipher hieroglyphic writing. We considered the Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of manuscripts found on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea that provided insights about the rise of Christianity and the relationship between Christian and Jewish traditions. We considered the tomb of Tutankhamen, the boy king who ruled Egypt between 1333 and 1323 B.C. And we considered "Lucy," a 3.2-million-year-old hominid -- Australopithecus afarensis -- discovered in Hadar, Ethiopia, by Donald Johanson.

But our choice for biggest archaeological find in history is not a stone, a scroll or a skeleton -- it's Pompeii, an ancient city located on the plain of Campania in southern Italy. Pompeii was founded in the 6th century B.C. and became incorporated into Rome by 80 B.C. As a Roman colony, the city bustled with life and activity, supporting somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 inhabitants.

Then a series of man-made and natural disasters struck the city. First, in A.D. 59, a riot between the Pompeians and the Nucerians erupted in the amphitheater. Next came an earthquake, which destroyed much of the city in A.D. 62. Finally, on Aug. 24, A.D. 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried Pompeii beneath nearly 9 feet (3 meters) of ash, pumice and other volcanic debris. The city lay undiscovered -- and almost perfectly preserved -- for almost two millennia. Formal excavations began in 1748 and have continued to this day.