Objects uncovered by archeologists often give us fascinating insights into past civilizations. But some artifacts seem to throw up more questions than answers, and they arguably make us doubt everything we think we know about the world. These 20 finds, then, are the weirdest and most mysterious discoveries to date.
20. The Mount Owen Moa Claw
Stumbling through the dark, a trio of cavers found something truly horrific: a huge claw looking like it belonged to the devil itself. Investigations carried out after that 1986 expedition on Mount Owen in New Zealand found, though, that the scaly Mount Owen moa claw belonged to an upland moa – a now-extinct giant flightless bird – that had died 3,000 years ago. Thank goodness for that.
19. The Atacama Skeleton
His name is Ata, and his remains were found in Chile’s Atacama Desert in 2003. The body is just six inches in length, with fewer ribs than is normal and an elongated skull. Some anthropologists say that the Atacama Skeleton was a premature fetus or that he suffered from a form of dwarfism. Others, however, claim that Ata has extraterrestrial origins – despite DNA testing suggesting that he is just a few decades old.
18. The Codex Gigas
Housed in the National Library of Sweden is a book that some believe is the work of the devil itself. The giant 13th-century tome, called the Codex Gigas, or “Devil’s Bible,” is nine inches thick and weighs in at 165 pounds, with rich leather bindings and metallic trim. But one page in particular stands out; yes, staring out from one leaf is a color image of the devil. The story goes that the scribe made a pact with the devil in order to complete the work.
17. Roman Dodecahedrons
Thanks to the civilization’s written histories, much of life in the Roman Empire is well understood – but these 12-sided objects, known as Roman dodecahedrons, continue to puzzle archaeologists. More than 100 have been discovered across Europe, and no one has yet found conclusive proof of what they were for. According to some, they were used as dice or lucky charms; other theories, meanwhile, suggest that they were utilized to measure the trajectory of projectiles or even as devices to help with the weaving of gloves.
To date, 18,000 dogu – clay figurines of all shapes and sizes – have been unearthed in almost every corner of Japan. They tend to be between 2,000 and 10,000 years old, and while some look sinister, others look almost playful. What do they mean? Nobody knows for sure. Some dogu may have been toys or ornaments. There’s even a theory that they were brought to Earth by aliens – who else?
15. The Antikythera Mechanism
Rescued from its watery resting place near the island of Antikythera in 1901, this curious artifact, dating back to the second century BCE, has been called an “ancient computer.” Its system of gears and levers wouldn’t be rivaled in terms of complexity for another 1,000 years. In 2006 researchers in the U.K. used X-rays to help solve the mystery of the device’s purpose. Their work suggested that the Antikythera mechanism was used to follow the positions of stars and also to keep track of the cycle of the ancient Olympic Games.
14. The Voynich Manuscript
The Yale University library is home to what is arguably the most mysterious book on the planet – even the world’s best code breakers haven’t cracked it over the years. Believed to have been penned in the north of Italy during the Renaissance, the Voynich Manuscript is written in unknown script and language, with the text accompanied by mysterious pictures. Does it contain the secrets of life itself? Or is it just the work of an eccentric?
13. The Winnipesaukee Mystery Stone
Laborers digging close to Lake Winnipesaukee in 1872 discovered something they – and everyone else since – have been unable to adequately explain. The smooth, egg-shaped Winnipesaukee Mystery Stone is marked with a number of strange symbols and patterns as well as a face. To add to the mystery, the small holes found at each end could, certain people say, have only been made using advanced tools. To some, this can only mean one thing: a hoax. To others, of course, it can only mean… aliens.
12. The Ubaid Lizardmen
Few archeological finds in the Middle East match these for mystery: figurines dating back 7,000 years that appear to have reptilian features. Many of the objects, which were found at various sites across what is now Iraq, also seem to be wearing helmets and even shoulder pads. The so-called Ubaid lizardmen continue to provoke interest – and of course out-there theories – to this day.
11. The Quimbaya Airplanes
The Quimbaya civilization may not be as famous as those of the Mayans or the Incas, but the treasures it left behind after it disappeared from Colombia around 1,000 years ago are nonetheless intriguing. In particular, these small golden figures – the Quimbaya Airplanes – continue to fascinate. Proof that the Quimbaya mastered flight? Scaled-up models of the figurines have been found to be capable of flying. But whether this is just a coincidence, or proof that aliens gave the Quimbaya the knowledge of flight, is up for debate.
10. Rat Kings
Looking like something straight out of a horror movie, so-called rat kings are clumps of rodents snarled together by their tails. Despite looking like the creation of a deranged mind, they are said to occur naturally, though rarely, when up to 50 rats get tangled up and then bound by dirt, blood and feces. Unsurprisingly, rat kings have historically been regarded as bad omens and, specifically, a sign of plague.
9. Ulfberht Viking Swords
It’s a weapon Odin himself would be proud to hold. Called the Ulfberht, it’s a type of Viking sword made with such pure metal that it would have given the bearer a massive advantage in battle. But, curiously, the technique needed to create such a pure steel was not believed to have been developed until the Industrial Revolution – some 800 years after these wondrous weapons were forged. These swords thus prompted a rethink of Viking metalworking.
8. The Rongorongo Tablets
Easter Island is famous for its giant standing figures, with their huge heads staring out over the Pacific. But the islanders left behind something more. During the 19th century, for example, explorers also found the Rongorongo tablets. But while most anthropologists agree that these are examples of the lost Rongorongo language, nobody has yet been able to decipher the mysterious texts.
7. Sumerian King List
In the early 20th century, German-American academic Hermann Hilprecht discovered a stone tablet listing the kings of the Sumer, an ancient kingdom in the south of what is now Iraq. What puzzled Hilprecht about the Sumerian King List – and continues to baffle scholars to this day – is the mix of the real and the fantastical. Alongside real rulers, mythical leaders are also listed, including some who seemingly reigned for thousands of years.
6. Ica Stones
The theories linked to these stones are certainly mind-boggling, though the items have been dubbed by skeptics a “preposterous” hoax. Supposedly found in Inca graves throughout Ica Province in Peru, and brought to the world’s attention in the 1960s, the small Ica stones are allegedly decorated with pictures of advanced medical techniques, highly accurate maps and even dinosaurs. Unfortunately for creationists and “ancient astronaut” believers alike, however, the farmer who sold many of the objects later admitted that he fabricated them.
5. Shroud of Turin
There have been no shortage of attempts to debunk this 14-foot length of cloth as a hoax. In 1988, for instance, tests carried out on the Shroud of Turin – revered by many Christians as being the cloth that covered the body of Jesus of Nazareth – indicated that it actually dates from the Middle Ages. So far, no one has been able to satisfactorily explain how the image of a man came to appear on the cloth – but could there really be a supernatural explanation?
4. The Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca Head
Ever since this terracotta head representation was discovered lying buried in a grave in the Toluca Valley, just outside Mexico City, its origins have been fiercely contested. Because it looks similar to statues found in ancient Rome, some archeologists hold it as proof of cross-continental trade and travel having taken place centuries before Columbus took to the seas. However, it’s also suggested that the Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca Head may have ended up in the Americas after a wrecked Roman ship washed ashore.
3. The London Hammer
In 1936 an iron-headed hammer was found encrusted in rock in a Texas cave. Carl Baugh, a leading figure in the creationist movement, bought the so-called London hammer in the 1980s, claiming that, since it takes centuries for rock to encase an object, our conventional understanding of history is incorrect. Skeptics, however, say that the probably 19th-century hammer is simply encrusted in deposits left by mineral-rich water.
2. The Williams Connector
While out hiking one day in 1998, John Williams claimed that he found a rock with what looks like a triple plug jutting out of it. Williams furthermore claimed that the rock would have taken 100,000 years to form. For some, the Williams connector is proof, perhaps, of time travelers leaving behind clues of their trips, but not everyone’s convinced. And Williams’ refusal to share the location of his discovery only adds weight to such skepticism.
1. The Coso Artifact
In 1961 Virginia Maxey and Mike Mikesell were out in search of minerals in the Californian hills when one rock caught their eye. Upon cracking their discovery open the pair then found what looked like a spark plug, and later they claimed that a geologist dated the rock at 500,000 years. Was this proof of an ancient advanced civilization? Had the Coso artifact been left behind by a time traveler? Or was the geologist wrong and it was actually just a decades-old spark plug encased in its own rust?