As 2019 draws to a close, it’s time to once again revisit the year’s most exciting discoveries in art history and archaeology, from long-lost paintings to buried treasures and everything in between.

As always, some discoveries are the result of years, if not decades, of concerted research on the part of experts. Others are made by happenstance, such as a set of solid gold bands found by an amateur metal detectorist in the UK or an eagle-eyed 12-year-old who spotted an ancient mammoth tooth during a family gathering in the woods of Ohio.

Not all discoveries, of course, hold up to scrutiny. Some invite skepticism: The theory about Leonardo da Vinci’s only surviving sculpture has been floated for years; and claims to have decoded the mysterious Voynich manuscript have been floated for the second straight year—this time using an extinct language called proto-Romance—but were once again quickly called into question, leading the University of Bristol to retract its announcement about the paper.

But in many cases, the finds astonish and provide a greater understanding of human history and the world around us. So, without further ado, here are the biggest discoveries of 2019.

 

A High School Student’s Lunch Money Fetched $204,000

The penny! It's worth a bundle. Photo: Heritage Auctions.

The penny! It’s worth a bundle. Photo: Heritage Auctions.

Even though he was just 16 at the time, Don Lutes Jr. knew there was something strange about the copper penny he received in a handful of change at the school cafeteria back in 1943. Turns out, it was one of just 20 copper pennies produced that year, the US Mint having switched to zinc-plated steel coins during wartime. Lutes died in 2018, but he’d had the coin authenticated in the 1950s. The world became aware of his amazing discovery in January, after his descendants sold it at auction for the impressive sum of $204,000.

 

Stonehenge Was Built Using Stones From Faraway Quarriesand Lard!

The inner rocks of Stonehenge may have been dragged nearly 150 miles from where they were quarried to their current site. Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images.

The inner rocks of Stonehenge may have been dragged nearly 150 miles from where they were quarried to their current site. Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images.

In February, a team of archaeologists claimed to have identified the exact quarries in the Preseli Hills in Wales that the “bluestone” dolerite rocks used to build Stonehenge came from. It’s still unclear why the ancient builders would have moved the massive monoliths some 143 miles to erect the mysterious structure, but we do have a new hint as to how they achieved such a monumental task: using lard. Archaeologists now believe that antique jars with traces of lard found nearby suggest that animal fat was being used not just for cooking, but for construction purposes.

 

A Family Realized Their Mother’s Portrait Was by One of Africa’s Most Famous Artists

Ben Enwonwu, Christine (1971). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Ben Enwonwu, Christine (1971). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

A Texas family never gave much thought to the portrait of the family matriarch that had decorated their home for decades. Then they Googled the artist, Ben Enwonwu, and discovered that he was a Nigerian Modernist art star who had recently made headlines for his rediscovered masterpiece of the Nigerian royal princess Adetutu Ademiluyi. When the family auctioned the painting at Sotheby’s London, it sold for £1.1 million ($1.4 million) despite a pre-sale estimate topping out at just £150,000 ($192,000).

 

A Japanese University Research Team Found a Giant Peruvian Earthwork Using A.I.

The original (left) and an A.I. rendering of a newly uncovered Nazca Line drawing in Peru.

The original (left) and an A.I. rendering of a newly uncovered Nazca Line drawing in Peru.

Japan’s Yamagata University has been able to find 142 previously unknown Nasca Lines, giant earthwork drawings created in prehistoric Peru. To help find the faint lines, carved between 100 BC and 300 AD, the research group teamed up with IBM Japan to develop an A.I. model using the deep learning platform IBM Watson Machine Learning Community Edition. After analyzing the high-resolution aerial photos, A.I. added one new geoglyph to the project’s discoveries, for 143 examples of ancient Land art in total.

 

Female Scribes May Have Made Medieval Manuscripts

Traces of lapis lazuli were found in the dental tartar of a woman who lived at a 12-century German monastery, leading researchers to believe she was a highly skilled artist who worked on illuminated manuscripts. Courtesy of Science Advances.

Traces of lapis lazuli were found in the dental tartar of a woman who lived at a 12th-century German monastery, leading researchers to believe she was a highly skilled artist who worked on illuminated manuscripts. Courtesy of Science Advances.

An investigation into monastic medieval diets sent researchers in an entirely unexpected direction when an archaeologist discovered visible traces of lapis lazuli in the dental tartar of a 10th- or 11th-century German nun. The working theory is that she was working with the expensive blue pigment to create a religious manuscript. Creating those colorful illuminations was a skill previously thought to be the exclusive purview of monks, but who knows how many of those anonymous medieval artists were actually women?

 

A Stolen Klimt Was Found at the Scene of the Crime—23 Years Later

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of a Lady (c. 1916-17). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of a Lady (c. 1916-17). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

A gardener at the Ricci Oddi modern art gallery was stunned when he opened a metal panel on the back of the museum building, obscured by ivy vines, to discover a Gustav Klimt painting hidden inside. The work, Portrait of a Lady, was stolen back in 1997, its mysterious disappearance giving rise to all manner of conspiracy theories. Currently valued at €60 million ($66 million), the canvas may or may not have been on the premises the whole time.

 

LiDAR Continues to Transform the Field of Mayan Archaeology

Takeshi Inomata identified this ancient Maya site, dubbed La Carmelita, using LiDAR maps, seen here in both low and high resolution. Image courtesy of the Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía/Nacional Center for Airborne Laser Mapping.

Takeshi Inomata identified this ancient Maya site, dubbed La Carmelita, using LiDAR maps, seen here in both low and high resolution. Image courtesy of the Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía/Nacional Center for Airborne Laser Mapping.

Inspired by archaeologists in Guatemala who found thousands of Maya ruins thanks to light detection and ranging technology known as LiDAR—which involves airplanes equipped with laser mapping tools that take topographical readings of the landscape—a researcher at the University of Arizona looked at some old LiDAR maps published by the Mexican government in 2011. What he found were 27 unknown Mayan sites across 4,400 square miles of land, accomplishing decades-worth of groundtrooping remotely, without having to take a machete to dense jungle vegetation—further demonstrating just how revolutionary LiDAR is.

 

An Old Lady Had a $26.8 Million Masterpiece in Her Kitchen 

Cimabue, The Mocking of Christ. Photo courtesy ACTEON Senlis.

Cimabue, The Mocking of Christ. Photo courtesy ACTEON Senlis.

The owner, a little old lady in France, kept the small religious painting hanging above the hot plate in her kitchen. It was only when she called in an auction house to help sell some of her belongings that she discovered the piece was actually a missing panel from a well-known altarpiece by Cimabue—and worth many millions. Considered Italy’s first proto-Renaissance painter, Cimabue represents an important stepping stone between the Byzantine style of Italy’s medieval period and the greater realism of the 14th century. But the painting smashed expectations when it sold at auction in Paris for a record €24.2 million ($26.8 million).

 

The Oldest Figurative Cave Painting in the World Was Discovered in Indonesia

A researcher studying what was previously believed to be the world's oldest figurative art in a Borneo cave. The find has been supplanted by a new discovery in Indonesia. Photo by Pindi Setiawan.

A researcher studying what was previously believed to be the world’s oldest figurative art in a Borneo cave. The find has been supplanted by a new discovery in Indonesia. Photo by Pindi Setiawan.

The oldest pictorial art in the world is now believed to be an ancient hunting scene painted on the walls of an Indonesian cave some 43,900 years ago. The prehistoric artwork is even more significant, however, because it shows imaginary figures with both human and animal features. That suggests that the concept of religious thinking originated not in Europe, as previously thought, but much earlier, and on the opposite side of the globe.

 

A 17th-Century Painting Was Uncovered Inside an Oscar de la Renta Boutique

The work by Arnould de Vuez uncovered at 4, rue de Marignan, Paris. Photo courtesy Oscar de la Renta.

A work by Arnould de Vuez uncovered at 4, rue de Marignan, Paris. Photo courtesy of Oscar de la Renta.

Construction workers found the surprise of a lifetime when they encountered a 1674 painting by Arnould de Vuez, an artist in the court of Louis XIV, hidden behind a wall of a historic Paris building. The workmen were doing renovations ahead of the planned opening of an Oscar de la Renta fashion boutique, but quickly stopped to call in art historians. The painting, praised as an “inexplicable holy grail,” was carefully restored and can now be seen at the designer’s shop.

 

An Ancient Roman Coin Found in an English Field Is Said to Depict the “First Brexiteer” 

Golden aureus coin featuring a bust of Allectus, the Roman official who ruled Britain as an independent nation from 293 to 296 AD, during the time of the Roman Empire. Photo ©The Trustees of the British Museum.

Golden aureus coin featuring a bust of Allectus, the Roman emperor who ruled Britain as an independent nation from 293 to 296 AD, during the time of the Roman Empire. Photo ©The Trustees of the British Museum.

Any metal detector enthusiast would be happy to stumble across a 24-carat gold coin, but a 1,700-year-old one found in a field in Kent, England, proved a particularly fascinating discovery. That’s because it features the Roman Emperor Allectus, who forced the “original” Brexit by breaking away from the Roman Empire and ruling Britannia and northern Gaul as an independent nation between 286 and 296 AD. At London auction house Dix Noonan Webb, it was expected to fetch no more than $127,000, but it sold for $700,000, becoming the most expensive Roman coin minted in Britain ever sold at auction.

 

Can’t get enough? Here are the other art world discoveries covered on Artnet News this year: 

Did Archaeologists Just Find the Oldest Art Ever Made? A New Study Claims Archaic Humans Designed Patterns on Bones in China

Researchers Have Discovered That the Ancient Egyptians Somehow Developed a Complex Yellow Paint Also Used by Vermeer

Egyptian Authorities Unveil Spectacular Images of a Newly Discovered 4,000-Year-Old Tomb—See Them Here

Archaeologists Were Shocked to Find This Golden Pendant of an Ancient Egyptian Goddess—in Greece

The Ancient Minoans Liked to Party Hard—and They Had Their Own 3,500-Year-Old Version of the Solo Cup

Strange Cones Depicted on the Heads of Ancient Egyptians Puzzled Scholars for Years. Now the Mystery Has Been Solved: They Were Hats

Divers Have Discovered an ‘Exceptional’ Trove of Artifacts Tied a Llama Sacrifice Ritual in South America’s Largest Lake

An Ornate Shield Found in a Celtic Warrior’s Grave Is Challenging What We Know About Ancient Combat

Researchers Discover That the Lovers of Modena, Two Ancient Skeletons Found Holding Hands, Were Actually Both Male

A 1,000-Year-Old Viking Ship Has Been Unearthed by High-Tech Archaeologists in a Norwegian Farmer’s Field

Stunning New Images of a Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Virgin of the Rocks’ Have Revealed Underdrawings of an Entirely Different Composition

An Antiques Dealer Thinks He Found the Bed Where King Henry VIII Was Conceived. It Was Hiding in Plain Sight in an English Hotel Room

Metal Detectorist Strikes Gold, Finding a Ring Belonging to 15th-Century British Courtier Wrongly Executed for Treason

Experts Have Discovered a Previously Unknown Painting by Baroque Master Artemisia Gentileschi—and Now It’s for Sale at Sotheby’s

The Smithsonian Just Opened a Manila Envelope and Discovered Four Yayoi Kusama Paintings It Had No Idea Existed

Scientists Have Found the Rare Secret Ingredient Rembrandt Used to Make His Paintings So Vibrant

A Long-Lost Cupid Is Revealed Under the Surface of One of Vermeer’s Greatest Paintings

A Dutch Conservator Made the Discovery of a Lifetime When She Found That Monet Hid Water Lilies Beneath a Lesser-Known Painting

Historians Were Unsure for Decades if This Still Life Was by Van Gogh. Then They Found a Ghostly Self-Portrait of the Artist Painted Underneath

A Drawing Found in a Queens Thrift Store Turned Out to Be a Genuine Egon Schiele Worth as Much as $200,000

An Eagle-Eyed Man Bought a $25 Painting at a Garage Sale. Turns Out It Was Worth 380 Times That—and Was Stolen in 1991

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