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6 surprising finds dug up by construction crews around the world

26 January 2022

Many engineering projects have faced delays when excavations turn up something unexpected. Join us as we explore some of the most fascinating finds that have astounding archaeological value.

6 surprising finds dug up by construction crews around the world
The city of Rome sits on centuries of ancient ruins, which have severely delayed the expansion of their underground railway. Image credit: Andrei T/Pexels

When starting on a new infrastructure project, many civil engineers don’t set out to make outstanding archaeological discoveries. And yet, it happens. Often.

Recently, a vast roman settlement was discovered on a HS2 site, and that was one of several discoveries that have been made during the major rail project so far.

But the UK isn’t alone in hiding precious artefacts underground.

Coming across ancient civilisations

1. The return of Ancient Rome

The city of Rome has been attempting to extend its metro service for quite some time now. Line C, which will run east to west through the heart of ancient Rome, initially opened in 2014 and was meant to be finished in 2015, but progress on the line has been slow due to the sheer number of archaeological discoveries that are constantly unearthed in the process.

One of the most astounding discoveries is that of Emperor Hadrian’s “Athenaeum”, originally built around 135 AD. The structure was identified after finding a grand granite and yellow marble stairway.

The archaeologists have concluded that they’d found the steps to “a covered rectangular amphitheatre, a place where plays, speeches and debates were held by the city’s poets, scholars and politicians.”

Roberto Cecchi, special commissioner for the Rome Metro, commented, “They don’t know that there is a whole other city, or rather two or three cities under modern Rome”.

Luckily for city-dwellers, they’ll get the chance to see these discoveries inside the San Giovanni station, as “the walls are lined with artifacts discovered during the subway’s construction, including stone bathtubs, marble busts and even ancient peach pits from a Roman fruit vendor…”

2. Discovering Mayan sports

In 2006, during an excavation for a housing development, the plans of which had to be adapted, archaeologists found a 2,500-year-old court used for a ball game that “played a central role in the religion and royal ceremonies of the Mayas.”

This court, found in the Yucatan region of Mexico, was 70% intact when found and it revealed the Mayans’ level of development. The ball game played in this court was central to several Mesoamerican cultures, and it depicted the Mayan account of the creation of the sun and the moon.

3. Underground churches

In 2016, in the Cappadocia region of Turkey, a 1,500-year-old Byzantine church was found during excavating and cleaning operations that were part of an urban housing project in the city of Nevsehir.

The church, found inside a castle dating back to the fifth century, was decorated in “never before seen frescoes depicting Jesus’ Ascension, the Final Judgement, Jesus feeding the multitudes, and portraits of saints and prophets.”

4. Integrating ancient architecture

During the construction of a new Marriott hotel in Cuzco, Peru, the team found walls that belonged to an urban Incan civilisation. They also found “ceramics, flooring, bones, and coal on the site.”

Rather than tearing down the walls, or relocating the construction, the hotel decided to incorporate the Incan walls into the architecture of the building.

Jurassic site

5. Mammoth discoveries

In 2014, in Seattle, Washington, an employee of Transit Plumbing, Inc. unearthed an 8.5-feet-long mammoth tusk that weighed around 500 pounds (227kg). After the discovery, palaeontologists were called onsite to help excavate the tusk and transfer it safely to the Burke Museum in Seattle.

Not far off, in Oregon, construction crews found enormous bones believed to belong to a mammoth from 10,000 years ago. The crew was working on the expansion of a football stadium when they spotted the bones and fortunately, they were able to call on an in-house archaeologist from Oregon State University to examine the bones.

Astounding discoveries were made further south, in California, when a contracting company stumbled upon fossils from the Ice Age.

While developing a subdivision, the crew dug up skulls and partial skeletons from “a bison, a woolly mammoth, an antique horse and an antique turtle.” Luckily, California law requires a palaeontologist to be onsite when moving substantial amounts of soil.

6. Dinosaur site-ing

The city of Heyuan in China has come to be called the ‘Home of Dinosaurs’ for a very good reason, as it’s the home to approximately 17,000 fossilised dinosaur eggs.

The first ones were dug up by civilians in a construction site and were initially mistaken as stones. The city boasts other dinosaur discoveries, such as bones, skeletons, and footprints.

Related links

For more on what other fascinating - and sometimes gruesome - finds have been made in the course of a construction excavation, check out 'Dig for infrastructure, discover a plague pit'.

  • Ana Bottle, digital content editor at ICE