Up Pompeii! Europe’s top 10 archaeological sites

Inspired by Margaret Mountford’s new show Pompeii: The Mystery of the People Frozen in Time, we rate our favourite excavation sites in Europe to visit…

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Up Pompeii! Europe’s top 10 archaeological sites
Written By
Jade Bremner

Europe is a hotbed of burial grounds for the ancient dead. Incredible settings offer the chance to discover strange ghostly remains and eerie Neolithic caves, and to visit creepy preserved bodies in the midst of grand architecture.

BBC1’s Pompeii: The Mystery of the People Frozen in Time, Margaret Mountford (The Apprentice) offers insight into the mystery surrounding the treasures (dating back to 79AD) found in Italy. Learning about Europe’s most compelling sites doesn’t have to stop at the small screen, either. Follow our guide to the continent’s top archaeological sites and have your very own Indiana Jones adventure (minus the trap doors and snakes)…

1. Ancient Olympia, Greece

This is where the Olympic games began in 776 BC – and it’s a little more impressive than Stratford, that’s for sure. The games were created to honour Zeus, father of gods and men. There’s still a collection of ancient sporting structures here, where Roman warriors once battled it out for glory and often fought to the death. In 1875, archaeologists uncovered world-class sites like the Temple of Zeus, the Temple of Hera, the Palaestra (an ancient Greek wrestling school) and the Philipeion (a circular platform made of ivory and gold, where statues of Alexander the Great and various Olympians showcased the power of the empire).

2. Pompeii, Italy

Due to a volcanic disaster in 79 AD, this Roman city was buried under a four-metre layer of soot, debris and lapilli (volcanic rock). The eruption wiped out 20,000 people back then, but the disaster has conserved their legacy. For 1,500 years the town remained under its ashy insulation and, remarkably, thousands of bodies were preserved. When they eventually decomposed, the bodies left cavities in the ground. Archaeologists have since filled these cavity shapes with plaster and created the exact body positions they would have been in during their last moments on earth. Some were in praying positions, some were hiding, there’s even a cast of a dog lying on its back. The site fascinates millions of tourists and archaeologists each year (including, Margaret Mountford in her new show Pompeii: The Mystery of the People Frozen in Time), who come to see how rich men, slaves, and everyone in between once lived.

3. Stonehenge, England

Alien enthusiasts, spiritual types and historians go potty over this famous set of standing rocks. The cremated remains found here date back to 3,000 BC, and it’s believed the setting was used as a sundial in ancient times. In order to protect the stones, the area has recently been fenced off. However, for an entrance fee, visitors can get up close to this magnificent site all year round.


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4. Delphi, Greece

People living in the sixth century BC believed Delphi, set against its glorious mountainous backdrop, was the centre of the universe. Delphi was said to be the meeting place of two eagles, released by Zeus. Today, visitors can see the Temple of Apollo, plus a stadium, terrace, treasury and magnificent amphitheatre.

5. Grapčeva cave, Croatia

Stalactites and stalagmites decorate the hallways and chambers of this off-the-beaten-track cave, dating back to 5,000 BC. As opposed to the busy major archaeological sites in Greece and Italy, this less-trodden spot is a real discovery. Here, inquisitive folk can see where Neolithic islanders practised their ancient cult.

6. Carnac stones, France

This incredible site in Brittany, near the seaside village of Carnac, has more than 3,000 prehistoric stones up to 13 feet high, laid out in perfectly straight lines. No one actually knows why these megaliths were erected, but legend holds that the rocks were once Roman army soldiers (looking for Pope Cornelius), and the wizard Merlin turned them into stone.


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7. Björkö, Sweden

Birch trees and ancient treasures are the main draw on this northern island in Lake Mälaren, where the mass burial grounds of a Bronze Age community remain. Among the 1,600 monuments, there are nine stone structures outlining graves, a cairn (man-made stack of stones) and several peculiar rock formations, including rectangular stone settings and even some in the shape of ships. The island is also famous for an excavation site inBirka, where they found remnants of a Viking community. Visitors can amble around a reconstructed ancient village and learn more about this historic community.

8. Etruscan Necropolises of Cerveteri and Tarquinia, Italy

The two sites of Cerveteri and Tarquinia contain a whopping collection of 200 painted tombs and 6,000 graves, filled with Etruscan remains. Dating back to the seventh century BC, they’re organised like a city, with burial chambers set out in careful rows and in various shapes, some reminiscent of huts or houses. It’s possible to squeeze inside the small openings and view incredible magical and (ahem) erotic wall paintings.

9. Rock Art of Alta, Norway

This site, near the Arctic Circle, has more than 6,000 carvings and paintings of everyday ancient life, including reindeer herding, boat making and fishing. The impressive bit is that they’re unfathomably old, dating back to 4200 BC. The area’s now an open-air museum that covers 11,000 years of history in the area. Impressive stuff.

10. Skara Brae, Scotland

The Bay of Skaill in Orkney is home to the Scottish version of Pompeii. Here you’ll find an ancient settlement discovered by accident. During a storm in 1850, a huge chunk of earth from the mainland was stripped away. When the weather calmed down, the villagers found various artifacts and began their own mini amateur excavation. It’s lucky for us that they did; they uncovered the outline of a 5,000-year-old village, with small houses and all. 

Watch Pompeii: The Mystery of the People Frozen in Time, with Margaret Mountford, on BBC One on 27 March at 9.00pm to 10.00pm

Pictures courtesy of Marrian Mariusz Daraż,

Wilfried Banchereau, Unesco, Chmee2, Wiki Commons


RT Travel: Visit Europe's historical sites, 6 days from £459 click here to find out more