History is filled with all manner of mysteries that continue to perplex us well into modern times, and in many ways it almost seems as if there is just as much that we don’t know as that which we do. Among some of the oddities that tend to emerge from the depths of history are various artifacts and objects that defy easy classification and manage to confuse and compel. Such strange items might simply puzzle us, while others threaten to change history as we know it, but all are elusive oddities we struggle to understand. From out of place artifacts that should not exist, to strange objects that defy understanding, to just plain weird discoveries, here is a selection of strange historical oddities that have been found over the years.
Many such strange discoveries take the form of ancient artifacts that have turned up in places where they have no business being. In 1933, an archeological dig headed by archaeologist José García Payón in Mexico’s Toluca Valley, just 43 miles from Mexico City, came across a rather strange find among the many pre and post-Columbian artifacts uncovered at the site. The area was determined to have been a grave site, and as such had many grave offerings left by long forgotten visitors, such as various objects made of gold, copper, turquoise, rock crystal, jet, bone, shell and pottery, all dated to between 1476 and 1510 AD, but there amongst them was found a small terra cotta head that did not fit any of the known designs for the people of that region. Indeed, it was to prove far stranger.
When the head was examined, it was immediately apparent that it was very old, and that it had a distinctive style very similar to artifacts found in ancient Rome, which didn’t seem to make any sense at all, as this was a pre-Columbian grave site in Mexico. Later carbon dating done on the head itself put its origins at somewhere between around the 9th and 13th century AD , making it far older than the site it was found at, and generating theories that it was evidence of some sort of contact between the ancient Romans and the Mesoamericans. For his part, Payón himself sort of swept the strange find under the carpet, not publishing anything on the finding until 1960. In later years what has come to be known as the Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca head has been further discussed and analyzed, and in 2001 it was examined by the archeologist Romeo H. Hristov, of the University of New Mexico. Hristov came to the conclusion that it actually dated to the 2nd century AD, and that due to its age and the distinctive hairstyle and beard of the head that it must have been a Roman artifact that had been brought to the region in pre-Columbian times, an assertion that would be shared by Bernard Andreae, a director emeritus of the German Institute of Archaeology in Rome, Italy, who would write:
[the head] is without any doubt Roman, and the lab analysis has confirmed that it is ancient. The stylistic examination tells us more precisely that it is a Roman work from around the II century A.D., and the hairstyle and the shape of the beard present the typical traits of the Severian emperors period [193-235 A.D.], exactly in the 'fashion' of the epoch.
The origins of the mysterious head and how it would up in Mexico have continued to be discussed and debated, and there have been many other ideas on the matter. For some it was simply an artifact brought over by early European explorers or even Vikings in pre-Columbian times, although how it ended up at the Mexican grave site is unclear. It could have also been brought over at some point by traders from Asia, such as China or India, where it somehow managed to venture out to that site. It could even have somehow drifted to Mexico from some far away Roman shipwreck or could just be a complete hoax that was planted at the site as a prank. For now the mysteries swirl, but one thing for sure is that an ancient Roman terra cotta head is certainly a strange thing to turn up outside of Mexico City.
Almost as strange was a discovery made in 1954, when an amateur archeologist by the name of Guy Mellgren stumbled across something decidedly odd while exploring in the state of Maine, in the United States. Mellgren had been poking around at the site of what was once a Native American settlement at Naskeag Point on Penobscot Bay in Brooklin, Maine, when he found a treasure trove of old Native artifacts, but as he sifted through his find he came across what appeared to be an ancient silver coin, which seemed jarringly out of place there amongst the Native relics. Unsure of what he had found, Mellgren brought the coin to specialists and things would get even weirder still.
Experts who examined the highly corroded coin at first thought it to be a 12th century British penny, and it was subsequently sorted of filed away with the other relics, but in 1978 the coin was re-examined and found to in fact be a very old Norwegian coin, dating all the way back to the reign of Olaf Kyrre, who was King of Norway between the years of 1067 to 1093 AD. This has been confirmed by other experts and is not really in dispute, but what is less clear is how it ended up in a Native American settlement that dates to 1180 to 1235. Although Norse Vikings from settlements in Greenland are known to have reached areas of Newfoundland long before Columbus arrived on these shores, how would a Viking coin find its way to Maine in pre-Columbian America, far south of where Vikings were ever thought to have ventured? Theories have ranged from that the Vikings did travel south, where they made contact with the Natives of the region, which would rewrite history as we know it, or that Natives from further north traded the coin with other tribes, after which it made its way to Maine being passed along. What makes it all even more baffling is that among the 30,000 artifacts found at the site this one coin is the only thing at all that is of Norse origin. Of course there is also the idea that the coin was a hoax, but in the end the “Goddard Coin,” also called the “Maine Penny” remains a curious unsolved mystery.
Other much larger out of place artifacts have been found on occasion, and a good example would be a gigantic, 80-ton boulder found on a hillside at Hidden Mountain, in Los Lunas, New Mexico in 1933. In this year a Frank Hibben, an archaeologist from the University of New Mexico, was led to the monolithic stone by a local guide, who claimed it had first been found in the 1880s. Upon this enormous slab of solid rock was a flattened area upon which was inscribed a passage written in ancient Hebrew, which is odd considering the inscription was estimated as being anywhere between 500 to 2,000 years old, putting it well out of the time frame for ancient Paleo Hebrew to have any business being in North America.
Experts that have examined what has come to be known as the Los Lunas Decalogue Stone believe it may have been used as an ancient Samaritan mezuzah, which were boulders placed at synagogues and other important places and etched with passages from the Decalogue, but this still doesn’t explain why or how it ended up all the way over in New Mexico up to 2,000 years ago. While there has been much talk that it is evidence of pre-Columbian visitation by Semitic explorers, there is also much criticism that it is likely a hoax, either by settlers in the 1800s or perhaps even carried out by Hibben himself to support his own fringe theories on Pre-Clovis migration to North America. Archaeologist Kenneth Feder is among the skeptics, and has flat out denied the authenticity of the stone, saying:
There are no pre-Columbian ancient Hebrew settlements, no sites containing the everyday detritus of a band of ancient Hebrews, nothing that even a cursory knowledge of how the archaeological record forms would demand there would be. From an archaeological standpoint, that's plainly impossible.
However, the stone has still managed to be widely discussed and debated, and it is far from solved. It is hard to study, as its immense size make it unable to be moved to a museum, vandals have destroyed portions of the inscription, and there has never been a consensus on where this mysterious boulder came from or why it holds ancient Hebrew. Is this monstrous boulder with its enigmatic markings evidence of the pre-Columbian presence of Hebrew speaking settlers in the New World, or is it all fake? Who knows?
Some odd historical objects are not necessarily out of place, but still manage to remain confounding and anomalous all the same. In 1929, German theologian Gustav Adolf Deissmann was cataloging items at the vast library of the Topkapı Palace, in Istanbul, Turkey, when he came across an old, dusty bundled up wad of seemingly discarded gazelle skin parchment. It would have seemed like just basically garbage at the time, but when the parchment was unfurled it would prove to hold within it quite an amazing discovery indeed.
There upon the parchment was a portion of an intricate map, unlike anything Deissmann had ever seen, and when it was analyzed by experts it was found to have been made by the Ottoman admiral and cartographer Piri Reis in 1513 AD. Although only a third of the map was intact, the rest missing, it was found that this was not just any ordinary old map, as it seemed to be part of an actual map of the world, and it was shockingly accurate for its time. Here was a map that correctly outlined such far flung lands as Europe, Africa, Caribbean islands, and even South America, islands such as the Azores and Canary Islands, and Japan, as well as uncharted areas such as Nova Scotia, the coast of Antarctica, and the Andes Mountains, at a time when many of these places had not even been discovered yet and all with impressive accuracy that should have been impossible at the time. Indeed, some experts have even said that it simply could not have been done with anything less than satellite imagery, and this is a map drawn up in 1513.
No one could figure out how this could have been done, but there were hints in that the map listed some of its sources, including numerous other Arab and Indian maps, and even mentioning a long lost and nearly mythical map supposedly compiled by Christopher Columbus, which is thought to have been the first map of the world that he is speculated to have made while in the West Indies. This map has never been found, but it is strongly believed that somehow Piri Reis had seen it and used it together with around 20 other maps to craft his own, although none of the source maps mentioned, nor the missing portions of the map, have ever been located. To this day the stunning accuracy of the Piri Reis Map remains a baffling anomaly. How did he get this information? How was he able to map out places not even known to have been discovered at the time? What would the lost portions reveal? We may never know.
Some historical anomalies are rather numerous, yet still manage to baffle as no one is really sure what they are. Throughout many portions of what was once the Roman Empire there have been found over 100 small bronze objects measuring around 2 to 5 inches across and with a unique shape of 12 flat pentagonal faces with holes and knobs upon them. While many examples of these artifacts have been found, and they are most certainly Roman in origin, the problem is no one has the slightest idea of what they were used for. There are no known written records or design plans for them, and these “dodecahedrons” have been speculated as being everything from navigational tools, to zodiac instruments, to astronomy tools, knitting instruments, calendars, candlestick holders or even children’s toys. Your guess is as good as anyone’s, and although there are many of these objects and they seem to have been rather common they will likely nevertheless remain an impenetrable mystery.
Not all enigmatic historical objects are so old, and there have been a few such oddities in more recent times as well. In 1968 a building in Chicago, Illinois, in the United States was being renovated when a wall was torn down to reveal hiding behind it a brand new looking World War I era motorcycle with a distinctive design no one had ever seen before. It had a unique engine design not seen in any other motorcycle of the time, an innovative and one-of-a-kind brake system, had specially made parts not found in any other motorcycle then or since, and overall it was far more advanced than anything else of its era. It also still ran smoothly and seemed none the worse for wear after decades hidden away forgotten behind a wall. Most oddly of all, the one-of-a-kind bike had the word “Traub” written upon it, its meaning just as cryptic as anything else about it.
When the first owners of the building were tracked down they were able to shed a bit of light on the mystery, saying that their son had stolen the motorcycle and hidden it behind the wall before leaving to fight overseas during the war, but this did little to explain where it came from in the first place or who built it. The mysterious motorcycle has since become part of the collection of the Wheels Through Time Museum, and to this day there has not been found any other example of this bike and its design, nor any other parts for it, no one knows who made it, and it remains a cipher.
Even more recently was an unusual find made in 2014 by rangers at the Great Basin National Park, in Nevada. As they were patrolling a rather remote area of the park they found a tree in the middle of nowhere that had leaning against it a very old looking rifle, just neatly propped up and abandoned out there in the wilderness. It was soon found that the rifle was an antique Model 1873 Winchester rifle that had been manufactured between the years of 1873 and 1919, and which would have been considered a valuable heirloom. It was also in very good condition, and even now no one can figure out why anyone would just leave this old-fashioned antique weapon out there against that tree. Was it left there by some pioneer, gold prospector, or hunter from the 19th century? Was it put out there by a gun collector for reasons we will never know? Was it left behind by a time traveler? Who knows? The gun sits in a museum with no known owner.
Here we have looked at just a sampling of odd and unusual historical objects that have managed to evade understanding either by being out of place, coming out of nowhere, or being just plain weird. It is interesting to think that for as much as we think we like to know about history and for as much progress we have made in chronicling it there can still be these oddities that pop up from time to time to challenge our perceptions and serve as frustrating riddles we may never solve. It certainly seems that history is far from fully illuminated, and hiding out there in the nooks, crannies, and shadows are plenty of anomalies that manage to stay obscured in the mists of time, teasing us from the recesses of past eras.