5 Historic Sites Discovered by Accident

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Have you ever had a dream in which you opened a door to discover a room or hallway you’d never known was there? Imagine that experience in real life — suddenly being able to make out an abandoned cliff dwelling on a familiar rock face or getting to the top of a ridge to find an ancient city in the jungle beneath you. Here are five such historic sites that were uncovered in modern times by accident — and often by ordinary people.

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Ancient dwellings carved beneath a cliff at Mesa Verde National Park
Credit: bboserup/ iStock

One snowy December morning in 1888, two young cowboys searching for lost cattle caught sight of the Cliff Palace, a magnificent three-story structure built under the ledge of a canyon. The edges, doors, and windows of the cliff dwelling were outlined by snow, so the cowboys, Charlie Mason and Richard Wetherill, were able to see them clearly through the swirling storm.

The structure was part of Mesa Verde — Spanish for “green table,” so named by settlers who were struck by the verdant juniper and brush growing on the flat canyon tops). The array of cliff dwellings was well-known to the local Native Americans but unknown to white settlers until that day. The two cowboys and their family members continued to explore and excavate Mesa Verde over the ensuing months, claiming to have entered 182 of the dwellings built into the cliffs and bringing artifacts to historians. In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt established Mesa Verde National Park, thus protecting and preserving the area.

The people who originally lived in Mesa Verde are called the Ancestral Pueblo people, who settled in this region of Southwest Colorado in around 600 AD. Seven hundred years later, they abandoned the site over the course of a couple of generations likely because of an extended drought. In all, there are 4,000 structures and sites associated with Mesa Verde, including cliff dwellings that range from single-room buildings to veritable apartment buildings, like the 130-room Spruce Tree House.

Angel Falls, Venezuela

Angel Falls in Venezuela
Credit: FabioFilzi/ iStock

You might guess that the white water billowing down Venezuela’s Angel Falls served as inspiration for its celestial name, but in fact, the tallest uninterrupted waterfall in the world was “discovered” in 1935 by an American named Jimmy Angel. Angel, who’d worked as a stunt pilot and flown in World War I, was flying through the mountains of southern Venezuela looking for potential sites to mine diamonds, gold, or silver, when his plane crashed on a mesa — he survived and happened to spot the falls in the distance.

The extreme isolation of Angel Falls doesn’t deter visitors keen to see the magnificent sight, which dramatically drops 3,212 feet from the extended lip of Auyantepui Mountain to the jungle below. (If the falls look familiar, you may recognize them as the inspiration for Paradise Falls in Pixar’s 2009 animated feature Up.) To see the cascade in person, visitors must either take an airplane tour or a long river journey through the dense jungle region called the “lost world” (otherwise known as Canaima National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site).

Terracotta Army, China

Rows of Terracotta soldiers in Xi'an
Credit: Nikada/ iStock

During a drought in 1974, farmers digging a well in Xi’an, China, gradually uncovered some peculiar brass spear tips, then struck terra cotta fragments of what appeared to be a statue of a soldier. A local historian took over, leading a project that eventually unearthed an army of 7,000 clay soldiers standing at attention beneath the ground.

In the ensuing years, the army has grown; the excavation of an additional 200 troops was announced in early 2020. The soldiers, known as the terracotta warriors, each have unique features — a different helmet or weapon, dozens of distinctive faces, or a different stance. The troops, along with terracotta chariots, horses and wagons, were placed around the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang when he was buried in 210 BC, ready to protect him from the unknown forces of the afterlife.

The funeral complex, which sprawls over 20 square miles, is believed to contain a full-size replica of the emperor’s court and courtiers. The emperor’s tomb itself has never been opened. The Chinese archaeologists fear that prying open the sealed container could damage whatever is within and that it may have been boobytrapped on orders of an emperor who was ready to battle death.

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