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5 Must-See Archeology Museums

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Almost every major city in the world has a museum dedicated to archaeology. Each has its area of specialty—some highlighting local artifacts while others have drawn from excavations around the world. Some are even living museums with excavations you can walk right through.

From China to Türkiye to England, wherever your next vacation takes you, you’ll want to take in the artifacts at the following incredible archaeology museums.

With a collection of tools and artifacts chronicling the history of the Ottoman Empire, the Istanbul Archaeology Museum houses over one million objects. The museum itself is in two buildings, a more modern structure from the 19th century and a 15th century building, which is the oldest non-religious Ottoman structure in Istanbul.

Some of their must-see artifacts:

  • Tablet of a love poem dated to 2000 BC is the first known love poem written in cuneiform on a clay tablet

  • The Kadesh Peace Treaty is considered the oldest peace treaty in the world dating to 1258 B.C. It was was signed by Ramesses II of Egypt and Hattusili III of the Hittite Empire

  • The Alexander Sarcophagus, a late fourth century B.C. Pentelikon marble sarcophagus adorned with bas-relief carving of Alexander the Great and an Issos war scene. The sarcophagus is believed to be for one of Alexander’s commanders, Abdalonymos

  • The highly photographed glazed tiles from the Ishtar Gate of Babylon from 575 B.C.

In 1974, a farmer in Xi’an City unearthed the first of the world-renowned Terracotta Warriors, dating from 210 B.C. The Terracotta Army is part of the largest tomb in Chinese history, commissioned to protect China’s first emperor Qin Shihuang. It’s spread across 600 sites and 22 miles. At the Museum, visitors walk on raised platforms that overlook some of the pits where more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses were buried.

This living museum is built right atop the excavation, giving it the feel of an archaeological dig still in progress. You can get face-to-face with some of the life-sized warriors. The figures are all unique and vary in height, uniform, and hairstyle according to their rank and role.

Considered one of the greatest museums in the world, the National Archaeological Museum in Athens contains the richest collection of Greek Antiquity artifacts worldwide.

The collection contains dozens of jaw-dropping artifacts including:

  • The astonishing The Antikythera mechanism, the oldest example of an analogue computer used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses decades in advance

  • ·A number of Heinrich Schliemann’s artifacts from his excavations in Troy and Mycenae, including the Mask of Agamemnon, dated about 1050-1500 B.C.

  • Ceramic finds from various important Neolithic sites in the country and a dizzying array of sculptures of Greek and goddesses

  • Detail of part of the sacred law of the Acropolis and the Hékatompédon from 484 B.C.

Encompassing almost one million square feet with about 13 million artifacts, the British Museum’s collection documents the history of human culture from around the world. The museum is so monumental that at least two days should be set aside to roam its halls, although because the museum is free, it’s easy enough to visit as many times as you like. Of note: the British Museum contains many artifacts from other parts of the world and is under continuing pressure to repatriate a growing number of items.

A small sampling of artifacts:

  • The Rosetta Stone from Egypt is one of the most important artifacts ever found as it provided the key to understanding Egyptian hieroglyphs. It is a stele that contains a decree inscribed in three languages: hieroglyphics, demotic and Greek

  • Sutton Hoo mask and ship burial collection. If you’ve watched “The Dig” you’ll recognize these artifacts as those from the Anglo-Saxon burial site in Suffolk, England

  • The Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, dating from the 5th century B.C.

  • Lewis Chessmen carved from walrus ivory from the Outer Hebrides in Scotland, they are believed to be one of the few complete medieval chess sets

  • Rapa Nui Moai heads, the megalithic statues from Easter Island

  • The Standard of Ur and artefacts from Mesopotamia dating from about 3,000 B.C.

Or, learn about the History of the World in 100 Objects from the British Museum’s collection.

The National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico includes impressive archaeological displays and artifacts from pre-Columbian Mexico as well as ethnographic exhibits about present-day indigenous groups. The museum presents the displays chronologically as a walk through time.

Included in the museum is the he world’s largest collection of Mexican art and objects from 5000 B.C. to the Post-Classical period after the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico. In order to give a sense of place, some exhibits recreate archaeological scenes to give visitors the chance to see tombs in the context in which they were found. Most of the explanations are in Spanish, so for added context and to find your way through to the museum’s most important exhibits, a guided tour is the way to go.

Some of the artifacts:

  • Sun Stone, the Aztec calendar stone, weighing 24 tons. This is the most famous work of art in Mexico. It links Aztec ideology including violence and warfare, the cosmic cycles, and the nature of the relationship between gods and man.

  • Giant stone heads of the Olmec civilization dating from about 900 B.C. that are thought to represent powerful Olmec leaders. The heads are so large and heavy, it remains a mystery how they were transported.

  • Jade mask of the Zapotec Bat God created between 100 B.C. and 200 A.D. made out of 25 pieces of jade, a stone highly valued in Mesoamerican civilizations.

  • Artifacts and treasures made from gold, jadeite, pottery, flint, cloth and even wood from the Sacred Cenote of Chichen Itza dating from about 600 to 1200 A.D.

Be a part of an archaeological excavation yourself as a citizen scientist at archaeological dig sites featured on Ancient Odysseys!

Research conducted with the assistance of Sarah Besser.

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