The 15 Biggest Art Historical Discoveries of 2018

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In 2018, we learned more about the art practices of the earliest humans and recovered (or reattributed) artworks by relatively recent humans, like ​Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell. Scientists and archaeologists also shed light on ancient cultures through art, from centuries-old Egyptian statues to Indonesian cave paintings. Our understanding of the art of the past—and its relationship to the present—became much more nuanced thanks to the 15 dramatic discoveries outlined below.

From pottery to pyramid construction, discoveries in Egypt shed light on ancient life.

It was a big year for archaeological discoveries in Egypt, particularly as the country seeks to ramp up interest in its billion-dollar showpiece museum, the Grand Egyptian Museum, which is now slated to fully open in 2020 (only eight years later than originally planned). A range of ancient artifacts, structures, and complexes were discovered this year, including a pottery studio from between 2613 and 2494 B.C.E., a tomb full of beetles and mummified cats, and most recently, the ornate tomb of high priest Wahtye, who served during the reign of pharaoh Neferirkare (c. 2446–2438 B.C.E.).

Among the most significant Egyptian archaeological discoveries of 2018 was one that may help shed light on how the pyramids were built: Scientists working in an ancient Egyptian quarry came across a surprisingly steep rampthat dates from the period when the Great Pyramid of Giza was erected. Another major find occurred in August, when archaeologists in the historic city of Luxor discovered a sphinx statue, fueling speculation that it may be the long-rumored companion sphinx to the iconic Great Sphinx of Giza. And perhaps most ominously, in July archaeologists ignored speculation about a curse and cracked open a mysterious, 2,000-year-old sarcophagus made of black granite to discover its grisly contents: three skeletons soaking in mummy juice.

Discoveries in caves around the world complicated the timeline of early art.

Much of what we thought we knew about the oldest art on the planet was challenged in 2018. Archaeologists in Spain dated cave paintings that they believe to be made at least 65,000 years ago, suggesting that they had not been created by homo sapiens—who are only believed to have arrived in Europe about 40,000 to 45,000 years ago—but rather by Neanderthals. That possible attribution comes as members of the scientific community have “been working towards arguing for the cognitive capacities of Neanderthals,” Gibraltar Museum paleoanthropologist Clive Finlayson told Smithsonian Magazine.

Though homo sapiens were only just reaching Europe 40,000 years ago, figurative cave paintings in Borneo were recently dated to that time. Though previously thought to be merely 10,000 years old, new dating revealed in November would make the paintings the world’s oldest figurative art. And in September, a report published in Nature suggested that the world’s oldest drawing had been discovered in a cave in South Africa. The angular ocher scrawl on a piece of silcrete is presumed to be 73,000 years old.

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