10 Amazing UNESCO World Heritage Archeological Sites

These UNESCO World Heritage Sites are less-visited than other sites such as Peru's Machu Picchu or Egypt's Pyramids, but they're no less impressive both visually and in terms of human history.

Photo By: steve larese

Photo By: Steve Larese

Photo By: Courtesy Yvon Fruneau/UNESCO

Photo By: Towel401

Photo By: Courtesy Ariel Steinerl/UNESCO

Photo By: Courtesy Michael Tweedle/PromPeru

Photo By: Getty

Photo By: Courtesy UNESCO

Photo By: Courtesy Visit Costa Rica

Photo By: Courtesy Visit Malta

Photo By: Courtesy Visit Mexico

UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Egypt's Pyramids of Giza. The Great Wall of China. England’s Stonehenge. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) helps protect these and more than 1,000 other sites of cultural importance and scenic beauty around the globe and adds more every year. Many, such as Peru’s Machu Picchu (pictured) are well known. Others not so much, but they still encompass fascinating and important sites filled with awe and mystery that further the world’s knowledge and understanding of its many cultures both past and present. Here are 10 UNESCO World Heritage archaeological sites you may have not heard of, but that have been deemed "of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science."

Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico

New Mexico’s Chaco Culture National Historical Park encompasses a remote desert landscape containing 16 massive, multi-storied Ancestral Puebloan structures built of stone and plaster called great houses that were constructed mostly between circa A.D. 800 and 1150. Archaeologist and other scientists believe that this area was the epicenter of Ancestral Puebloan culture before it fractured into what would become today’s 19 New Mexico pueblos, as well as Arizona’s Hopi pueblo. Ruins surround large plazas where ceremonial dances took place, and enormous kivas (underground ceremonial chambers) speak to the area’s spiritual significance to both ancient Puebloans and those today. Many of these structures were aligned with solstices and other astronomical events. It was also a center of trade, and items such as parrot feathers and copper bells from Mexico have been found here. The visitor center’s museum contains many artifacts and details what is currently known about Chaco Canyon, and limited camping is available here as well.

Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain

This cave near Altamira in northern Spain contains artwork created between 35,000 and 11,000 B.C. during the Paleolithic Age. Impressively detailed and stylized images of colorful prehistoric bison were painted on the ceiling, and not seen again until their discovery by 1868. In 2008 Altamira was added to 17 other caves in the area that were given UNESCO status in 1985. Many of these caves in the Pyrenees region, including France’s famous Lascaux cave (another UNESCO World Heritage Site), are not open to visitors in order to protect the fragile artwork. However, since 2014 five people a day are randomly selected by lottery to visit the Cave of Altamira and see the original artwork. A replica of the Altamira Cave has been built at the visitor center to give those unable to see the real thing a sense of what it’s like. Visit here for more information.

Sceilg Mhichíl, Republic of Ireland

If you’ve seen Star Wars "The Force Awakens" you’ve seen Sceilg Mhichíl. But you might not have realized that what doubles as Luke Skywalker’s remote hideout is also one of Ireland’s two UNESCO World Heritage Sites (the other being Brú na Bóinne that includes Newgrange passage tomb). Called Skellig Michael in English, the island is seven miles off the southwest coast of the Republic of Ireland’s served as a monastery from the 6th to 13th century. The stone ruins of the monks’ monastery, quarters and other buildings are well-preserved, and the island is also a critical habitat for several species of seabirds (the inspiration for the movie’s porgs). While Skellig Michael has become more known in recent years thanks to Star Wars, only 180 people a day are allowed to visit May through October, weather permitting. There are no facilities and the 600 step climb is strenuous, click here for more visiting information.

Leshan Giant Buddha Scenic Area, China

Towering 233 feet above the confluence of the Minjiang, Dadu and Qingyi rivers, the Leshan Giant Buddha was carved out of a mountain from 713 to 803. It was created at the behest of Hai Tong, a Buddhist monk who wanted to quiet the waters of the turbulent rivers below that were destroying shipping vessels. It is said that the debris from the carving dumped into the river did just that, it calmed the currents. A sophisticated drainage system built into the structure has mitigated weathering over the centuries. To see the Giant Buddha, take a boat to the foot of the statue for a panoramic view, or graze down from atop the mountain. Since 2014 a high-speed train has traveled between Chengdu to Leshan, about an hour trip. A 40-minute bus ride from the Leshan station takes travelers to the park.

Sacred City of Caral-Supe, Peru

Machu Picchu is perhaps Peru’s best known archaeological site, but this culturally rich nation has 11 other UNESCO World Heritage Sites as well. The Sacred City of Caral-Supe predates the Inca empire by 3,500 years and is thought to be South America’s oldest center of civilization. Six pyramids dot the desert in Barranca along the Río Supe about 111 miles north of Lima, a three-hour drive along Route 1N. Caral's advanced building techniques absorbed earthquake shocks, and archaeological evidence suggests a successful, peaceful population.

Heart of Neolithic Orkney, Scotland, United Kingdom

The rugged, northern coast of Scotland contains many Neolithic archaeological sites collectively listed as the Heart of Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site. Stone circles including the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, tombs, settlements such as Skara Brae (pictured) and other 5,000-year-old sites dot the Orkney archipelago.

Archaeological Site of Nalanda Mahavihara at Nalanda, Bihar, India

Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016, the Archaeological Site of Nalanda Mahavihara in northeastern India protects the ruins of a monastery and school dating to the 3rd century B.C. Active until the 13th century, Nalanda Mahavihara contains stupas, shrines and other structures significant to Buddhism. Nalanda Mahavihara is the oldest-known university in India and one of the world’s oldest residential universities and is credited with helping to establish Buddhism as a major world religion. A university still operates at the site.

The Diquís Spheres, Costa Rica

In Palma Sur in southern Costa Rica, 300 spheres carved from basalt and limestone dot the grounds of a former banana plantation near the Río Térraba. Named for the Diquís culture that lived here some 1,000 years ago, these spheres are up to six-feet in diameter, weigh up to 15 tons and are renowned for their precision. Researchers aren’t sure of their purpose, but they might have shown the status of leaders. Officially called the Precolumbian Chiefdom Settlements With Stone Spheres of the Diquis, the 30-acre site became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014. The National Museum of Costa Rica has more information about the site and its museum here.

The Megalithic Temple of Hagar Qin, Malta

The Megalithic Temples of Hagar Qin encompass six Bronze Age structures made of massive boulders weighing up to 20 tons on the islands of Malta and Gozo. The oldest of these temples dates to 3600 B.C., some 600 years before Egypt’s pyramids were built. These temples are believed to have been ceremonial centers and tombs, and Hagar Qin is aligned with the sun to mark the summer solstice. They are some of the oldest ceremonial structures in the world.

Uxmal, Pyramid of the Magician, Mexico

Uxmal and its Pyramid of the Magician is a Mayan city that was connected via an extensive road system to other important Mayan cities such as Chichén Itzá, Caracol, Xunantunich in Belize and Tikal in Guatemala. Snakes and other detailed stone carvings represent Chaac, the rain god. The building of Uxmal was build starting around 700 and was home to an estimated 25,000 people. The Pyramid of the Magician gets its name from a story that the pyramid was built in one night by a magical dwarf whose mother was a witch. The site was overtaken by the Toltecs in 1100 and abandoned fully after the Spanish arrival in the 1500s. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

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