Worldwide Droughts Uncover Ancient Relics, Ruins and Remains

By: Cherise Threewitt  | 
This aerial view of the excavations in Iraq show how expansive the Bronze Age city that was submerged in the Mosul reservoir is. © Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

Key Takeaways

  • Droughts around the world are revealing ancient relics and ruins, including dinosaur tracks in Texas, Buddhist statues in the Yangtze River and Nero's ancient Roman bridge in the Tiber River.
  • The receding waters of rivers, lakes and reservoirs, caused by climate change-induced droughts, have uncovered a variety of historically significant artifacts, from a 1,000-pound World War II bomb in the Po River to the lost city of Zakhikuan in Iraq.
  • These discoveries highlight the unexpected ways in which modern environmental challenges can provide new opportunities for archaeological and historical research, offering insights into past civilizations while reminding us of the ongoing impacts of climate change.

Rising global temperatures fueled by climate change have caused catastrophic droughts from Arizona to Iraq. Lake Mead just outside Las Vegas, for instance, is the reservoir spanning the border between Arizona and Nevada, and the largest by volume in the U.S. According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Lake Mead was just 28 percent full Sept 5.

Lake Mead has landed in the headlines, not only because it is receding, but also because of what of what's been uncovered since: five sets of human remains.


Experts believe there could be more remains still submerged, most of which are likely innocent drowning victims, but it's almost certain there are a fair number tied to crimes, as well. On a less nefarious note, officials also discovered an unapproved boat ramp in the lake in August.

Lake Mead isn't the only body of water that's dried up and revealed some strange, hidden ruins and relics this summer. Take a look at some of the other surprises that were uncovered around the globe when the heat rose and the water receded.


1. Dinosaur Tracks in Texas

Dinosaur tracks are nothing new to Texas' Dinosaur Valley State Park. In fact, they're very, very old. But severe drought conditions on the Paluxy River uncovered quite a set of massive tracks in mid-August that are usually covered by water and mud. The tracks date back about 113 million years ago and prints likely belonged to Acrocanthosaurus, which was a huge theropod and probably stood 15 feet (4.5 meters) tall and weighed about 7 tons (6.3 metric tons). The tracks are in a limestone sediment that hardened.

Dinosaur tracks
Everything really is bigger in Texas, even dinosaur tracks like these that were recently revealed when drought conditions caused the Paluxy River in Dinosaur Valley State Park to dry up.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department


2. Buddhist Statues in Yangtze River

In August 2022, the drought in China caused water levels to drop across the southwestern part of the country. In the Yangtze River Basin, in fact, rainfall was 45 percent lower than it was in July, making conditions even worse. The plunging water levels exposed a formerly submerged island known as Foyeliang, which revealed three Buddhist statues estimated to about 600 years old. The statues are on the highest part of the island reef, thought to have been built during the Ming and Qing dynasties. At the time the discovery in mid-August, as many as 66 rivers in the region had dried up, but no other artifacts had made headlines.


3. Nero's Ancient Roman Bridge

In July 2022, water levels in the Tiber River in Rome, Italy, dropped low enough to reveal the remains of an ancient stone bridge. The bridge isn't exactly a new discovery; in fact, it's been visible during previous droughts and was already known as the Pons Neronianus, or the Bridge of Nero. Some historians believe the bridge was built by Nero when he was emperor of Rome between 54 C.E. until his death in 68 C.E. However, other experts believe that the bridge may have been built even before then, and that Nero rebuilt it at a later point.

Bridge of Nero
The remains of the ancient Bridge of Nero, near Ponte Vittorio, resurfaced after the drought-stricken River Tiber all but dried up in Rome, Italy.
Stefano Montesi/Corbis via Getty Images


4. Unexploded World War II Bomb in Po River

Another river in Italy, the River Po, also dried up during the summer of 2022. And what it was hiding just beneath its waters was a 1,000-pound (450 kilogram) bomb dropped during World War II. If that's not scary enough that bomb, mercifully, failed to detonate. Fishermen found the bomb on the riverbank near the village of Borgo Virgilio. The discovery prompted officials to shut down nearby air and river traffic until the scene was safely contained. In August, the unexploded bomb — which Italian military officials said had 530 pounds (240 kilograms) of explosives— was safely detonated after about 3,000 nearby residents were evacuated.

unexploded bomb
This unexploded bomb from World War II was found when waters on the Po River in Italy receded in August 2022.
Ciancaphoto Studio/Getty Images


5. Lost City of Zakhikuan

German and Kurdish archaeologists found what they believe is a lost city estimated to be about 3,400 years old. The discovery was made in Iraq when water levels at the Mosul reservoir in the Kurdistan Region dropped because of extreme drought. The site — described as "an extensive city with several large buildings" — is believed to have been Zakhikuan, an ancient center in the Mittani Empire (ca. 1550-1350 B.C.E.).

The German and Kurdish archaeologist teams excavated, measured and documented large buildings and artifacts from the Mittani period that they believe is the lost city of Zakhikuan.
© Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO


6. Spanish Stonehenge

Water in the Valdecanas reservoir in Spain's province of Caceres dropped dramatically during one of the country's worst droughts in decades. And that delighted archaeologists because the receding waters exposed what's officially known as the Dolmen of Guadalperal, aka Spanish Stonehenge. The circle made of dozens of megalithic stones was first discovered by German archaeologist Hugo Obermaier in 1926, but the area where the monument is located was flooded in 1963. Since then, it's been visible due to drought just four times. Scholars believe the circle was erected sometime around 5000 B.C.E., though little is known about who built it or why.

Dolmen of Guadalperal
The Dolmen of Guadalperal, sometimes also known as Spanish Stonehenge, is seen above at the Valdecanas reservoir, in late July 2022 for just the fourth time ever.
Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images


Frequently Asked Questions

How do droughts aid archaeological discoveries?
Droughts lower water levels in rivers, lakes and reservoirs, revealing previously submerged historical sites, artifacts and ruins that provide new insights into ancient civilizations.
What precautions do archaeologists take when exploring newly exposed sites?
Archaeologists conduct careful excavations, employing precise documentation and preservation techniques to protect and study the uncovered artifacts without causing damage to them or the surrounding environment.