Nobody thinks that all of the world's ancient treasures are discovered by whip-toting adventurers swinging around caves. But we do assume that they're at least found by some kind of trained professionals.
Not always. Some of the greatest historical finds have been stumbled across by random dudes just wandering around the neighborhood. Like ...
In 1947, a Bedouin goat herder and his cousin decided to take a day off from shepherding to wander around some creepy old caves near the coast of the Dead Sea. Instead of the absolutely nothing you would usually expect to find in a cave underneath the desert, the shepherds accidentally found themselves in a Lara Croft level. The caves were full of weird old pottery artifacts, and if anyone knows anything about caves with old artifacts in them, it's that there's going to be treasure, and probably booby traps that can only be disarmed by riddles or very precise jumps.
How do you even get here without a whip?
Disappointingly, the pottery only contained a bunch of old scrolls. After momentarily checking to see if they were maps to treasure, the shepherds took them anyway and carefully preserved the scrolls via the tried and true method of tying them to a tent pole ... until they found a dealer who was interested in buying them for around 30 bucks. And that was basically that. Everybody learned a valuable lesson about expecting to find anything valuable in a bunch of desert caves.
"We should have just used it for toilet paper. Do you have any idea how expensive that is in the desert?"
The hunks of old parchment went back and forth between several unimpressed village folk, some of whom probably used them as napkins or dishrags, before they were sold to someone who actually figured out what he was looking at: the oldest goddamned existing copy of the Bible. And we're talking the oldest by a thousand years. We now call them the Dead Sea Scrolls, and they are commonly regarded as the most important historical discovery of the 20th century.
Oh, and they also include appendices to the Bible, or a kind of director's cut that didn't make it into the version in your hotel room nightstand. These are of interest to Bible scholars because they clarify a few things that the modern Bible leaves ambiguous -- most notably why the hell God told Abraham to kill his son, just to stay his hand at the last second. According to the scrolls, it was due to a bet God made with the devil, which God totally won.
"God actually has a pretty serious gambling problem."
Most importantly, though, the Dead Sea Scrolls provided Bible scholars with the ability to compare the modern Bible to the original version. The oldest version of the Bible prior to this discovery, the Leningrad Codex, was written in A.D. 1008, the result of 1,000 years' worth of Chinese whispers. Nevertheless, the scrolls show the modern Bible to be surprisingly accurate, or at least they have yet to reveal any mind-blowing errors, like that Jesus was actually a dog or something.
To this day, the goat herders who found the things probably still think the guy who bought them was a sucker for forking over 30 bucks.
"Seriously, guys, the money is shit. Don't waste your time."
In 1820, a curious farmer named Yorgos Kentrotas went exploring around the ruined city of Milos, although he should probably have been herding sheep or something (nobody claimed he was a particularly good farmer). Under a pile of rubble, he found an ancient Greek statue, right where Athenian invaders had left it around 2,400 years earlier. He figured the marble statue of a woman might be worth something, even though it was missing both of its arms.
"Look! Behind that useless rubble. Useful rubble!"
Yes, he had stumbled across the Venus de Milo, now one of the most famous statues in the world (though you may only know it as "that one without the arms"). Unlike pieces such as Michelangelo's David, which since its creation has enjoyed a life of luxury in various palaces and museums around the world, the Venus de Milo spent most of its life crammed down in the mud, until its discovery by that farmer.
Figuring that the statue didn't go well with the general decor in his farmhouse, Kentrotas decided to sell it to a French naval officer who was wandering around the area. The French thought that it would look really nice in the Louvre along with a bunch of other stuff ripped off from foreign countries, so they agreed to buy it. But they dragged their feet on getting the paperwork in order, and Kentrotas had a bunch of sheep that weren't herding themselves, so he went ahead and sold it to the Turks behind the French's backs.
They should have paid attention to his Craigslist ad.
When the French returned and saw the statue being loaded onto a ship bound for Constantinople, they threw a tantrum and persuaded the local authorities to annul the sale and have it shipped to Paris. Apparently, not only did the Turkish ambassador have the Greek authorities whipped for this insult, but the Turkish sultan in turn had the ambassador executed.
Meanwhile, the Venus de Milo wound up in the Louvre, where it has been ever since. You have to wonder if her arms aren't still lying back under the rubble somewhere.
Centuries with no bra, and she's still got a great rack.
Imagine digging a hole in your backyard to make space for a swimming pool and suddenly finding yourself in a first-century Roman village. No, you haven't dug yourself a time hole. But this is what you might have experienced if you'd been on a construction team in Italy in 1738.
"Hey! This isn't where we're supposed to bury the bodies."
In that year, the king of Spain commissioned some workmen to build him a summer palace in Naples. After picking a nice spot near the beach, the excavations came to an abrupt and confusing end when they started digging up thousands of paintings of dicks. Unwittingly, they had stumbled upon Pompeii, sex capital of ancient Rome.
It's about to get slightly less work safe up in here.
The excavation site was actually ground zero of a volcanic eruption from when Mount Vesuvius exploded in A.D. 79. Pompeii happened to be directly in the path of a 900-degree ash cloud of searing death, which blanketed the city in less time than it took its inhabitants to scream. But unlike some of the less fortunate towns around it, Pompeii wasn't touched by lava flows. The town was buried -- and preserved -- by the ash, which was essentially like freezing it in carbonite.
It was bad for the people who lived there, but good for historians. Few Roman works of art survived the ages, so it's all thanks to Mount Vesuvius killing thousands of people and sealing Pompeii up tight that we have any idea what the Romans liked to decorate their houses with. And it turns out it was dicks.
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There were 35 brothels in Pompeii (the same as the number of bakeries), and the whole town was decorated with images of people boning. Frescoes depicting more sex positions than the Kama Sutra (including the only known Roman depiction of cunnilingus) cover the town like neon signs cover Vegas. But, porn obsession aside, what historians learned from Pompeii is that the ancient Romans, in a lot of ways, were just like us. The town was covered in political propaganda for an upcoming election (which, for obvious reasons, was abruptly cancelled), as well as advertisements and regular childish graffiti. Scrawled on the walls were personal tags, jokes and occasional gems of advice, such as "The one who buggers a fire burns his penis." You can't beat that wisdom.
Who knows what other depraved nuggets of enlightenment were lost forever.
This may not have been the first time someone accidentally came across the buried city, by the way. There is a story that, in 1599, an architect working on a project in the area dug up some sexually explicit frescoes. After an awkward few moments of contemplation, he buried them again, backed away slowly and tried to forget what had happened. You can't be too careful about potentially awakening a bunch of vengeful cock spirits.