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Legendary emperors are coming out of the earth at Sagalassos, a classical metropolis in central Turkey. After the assassination of Domitian in A.D. 96, a new Roman dynasty arose--the Antonines. In addition to the founder, Nerva, they include some of Rome's greatest rulers, figures whose names resound today: Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. More than a millennium later, Machiavelli dubbed them the "Five Good Emperors."

Imperial Colossi | Sagalassos, Turkey
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Following up on their discovery of Hadrian in 2007, excavators at Sagalassos this year found Marcus Aurelius and his foot, and the empress Faustina the Elder (Courtesy Marc Waelkens)

In 2007, the excavator of Sagalassos, Marc Waelkens of the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, discovered a head of Hadrian, part of a colossal statue that once stood in the city's Roman baths. In a niche opposite Hadrian, he found the toes of another massive statue. Possibly, he thought, they were remnants of a massive statue of the empress Sabina, Hadrian's wife. There were two more pairs of facing niches in the bath.

This year, Waelkens excavated three of the four remaining niches. On August 12, his team found a colossal head of Faustina the Elder, wife of the emperor Antoninus Pius. The opposite niche, which once held the emperor's statue, yielded only a pair of male feet in sandals. On August 20, the team had better luck, unearthing, in another niche, the legs, arm, and head of a statue of Marcus Aurelius.

The depictions of Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius are among the best representations of these emperors ever discovered. But the 2008 field season ended before the final niche was investigated. Says Waelkens, "It is almost certain it will yield remains of a statue of Faustina the Younger, Marcus Aurelius's wife, when we dig there next year."

More Top Discoveries of 2008