Museums are vast places. Some have archives that consist of multiple stores, so it’s not unreasonable to think that some items will be lost in storage. But despite their value, rare and unique artifacts also often go unnoticed. From sounds not heard in 18,000 years to a UFO that was “Britain’s Roswell,” here are unique bits of museum history that have thankfully been recovered.
Related: The 10 ancient finds that will surprise you today
10 A noseless Alexander the Great
In 2019, archaeologists were taking inventory in a warehouse belonging to the Archaeological Museum of Veroia in Greece. At one point, they noticed a marble statue half hidden under other items. Sure, the nose was missing, but the face was immediately recognizable: it was Alexander the Great.
The impressive bust had been forgotten in the dark depths of the warehouse for years. Initially discovered in the ruins of a Greek village, the missing nose wasn’t the only damage. At some point during the 18th and 19th centuries, the head was used as a building material on a wall. He covered it with mortar stains. At the time of the discovery, the researchers also overlooked the fact that the statue represented Macedonia’s most famous king.
A new assessment determined that the artwork was created in the 2nd century BCE. C., approximately 200 years after the death of Alexander the Great. The 2,100-year-old statue was eventually cleaned up and put on display at the Aigai Royal Tombs Museum in Vergina.
9 A monstrously large sea monster
In 2023, a researcher was looking through the fossil drawers at Abingdon County Hall Museum in the UK when he found a huge vertebra. This serendipitous discovery led to three more vertebrae, all of which had been excavated in Oxfordshire and dated to 152 million years ago.
But this was no ordinary Jurassic creature. After scanning the fossils, it became clear that the spinal column fragments belonged to a fearsome marine animal called a pliosaur. They looked like a cross between a crocodile and a turtle, with paddle-shaped flippers and fanged jaws. Frightening fact: those jaws could pack a bite more powerful than a tyrannosaurus rex.
This group of apex predators came in many different species and sizes. This was the largest ever discovered, measuring from 32 to 47 feet (9.8 to 14.4 m) long, making it one of the largest and most terrifying carnivores to ever live in the sea.
8 A strange story by Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens was a famous novelist, but the story in question is not his invention. Instead, he begins with a letter he wrote on Christmas Eve, 1869. Dickens was distraught that the Great Western Railway Company had not yet delivered his Christmas turkey. The letter demanded to know where the bird was, and eventually he learned that it had been destroyed in a freak fire.
We may never have learned of this incident had it not been for another letter that was rediscovered at the National Railway Museum, where it lay forgotten for decades. In it, Dickens accepted the railway company’s apology and also mentioned that he was treating the whole matter with “good humour”.
Dickens might not have been so forgiving if he had known two things. This was his last Christmas turkey (he died a few months later), and railway officials sold pieces of the overcooked turkey to locals at sixpence each.
7 The fake that was real
Some things disappear in plain sight. For decades, the Field Museum in Chicago displayed a sword. Discovered in the 1930s, the artifact came from the Danube River in Budapest. According to its label, the sword was a replica of a Bronze Age Hungarian weapon made during medieval times or later. In other words, it was an old fake.
In 2022, a Hungarian archaeologist visited the museum, took a look at the sword, and insisted that the weapon was not a replica, but an authentic piece from the Bronze Age. This prompted the museum curator to order an X-ray of the sword. Tests showed that the artifact was forged from the correct combination of tin and copper to chemically match other Bronze Age artifacts.
The 3,000-year-old sword was probably thrown into the Danube River on purpose between 1080 and 900 BC. During this time, people ritualistically discarded weapons into waterways to commemorate a battle or the death of a loved one.
6 The last true captive thylacine
According to popular tradition, the last thylacine to die in captivity was a male named Benjamin. That is not true. In 1936, a female Tasmanian tiger was illegally trapped and sold to Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, where Benjamin was also kept. She outlived the male, but died four months later from exposure. When the animal passed away, no one realized the importance of the moment: that there would never be another thylacine in a zoo.
Over time, the truth came to light, but when investigators tried to locate his remains, they were nowhere to be found. Some feared that it had been discarded after death and therefore lost forever. But in 2022, staff at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) uncovered an unpublished report that revealed the body had been in their own museum the whole time.
According to the report, the remains were donated to TMAG and stored in the educational section of the museum, not the zoological section where researchers had previously searched for the thylacine. Sure enough, when they opened a cabinet in the educational archives, they found the preserved skin and skeleton of the female. She had been used on school tours to teach students about thylacine anatomy before being put into permanent storage in the 1980s.
5 Extremely rare pyramid wood
In 1872, a piece of wood was discovered in the Great Pyramid in Egypt. Found inside the Queen’s Chamber, the cedar plank was 5 inches (13 cm) long. The artifact was a rare treat, being one of three items found inside the Great Pyramid. It goes without saying that when the fragment disappeared, the loss was not small.
A track surfaced in 2001, however, in archival record form. The document revealed that the fragment had been donated to a Scottish university. Even with the name of the institution in hand (the University of Aberdeen), the wood was nowhere to be found.
By 2019, the artifact was officially missing for 70 years. However, during this year, an assistant curator from the University of Aberdeen accidentally found a cigar tin in his Asia museum collection. It contained several pieces of broken wood. The splinters were identified as the now-shattered wood from Giza, and tests also determined that it was 5,000 years old. The age group suggests that the tablet was used in the pyramid building process and was abandoned by the builders, not later explorers.
4 Lost sounds from 18,000 years ago
In 2021, the researchers published the results of an accidental find. They had been leafing through the inventory of the Toulouse Natural History Museum, located in France, when they noticed a seashell larger than a person’s head. The shell story was also available. Found in 1931 inside the Marsoulas cave, near the Pyrenees mountains, the artifact belonged to the Pyrenean Magdalenians who lived in the cave 18,000 years ago.
But the initial study incorrectly assumed that the shell was a communal vessel with a damaged tip. The new study found that human hands had altered the tip, punched holes in the shell and added a tube-shaped mouthpiece. This could only mean one thing. It was a musical instrument.
The team couldn’t resist playing the conch, and after an 18,000-year silence, it produced rich notes that were close to C, C sharp, and D. However, the shell was not limited to three touches. That was just the first experiment, and it’s apparently capable of much more. As a bonus, it’s also the oldest musical shell of its kind known today.
3 Edison’s last breath
Most people know Henry Ford as the man who invented the gasoline-powered automobile. A lesser known fact is that Ford was an employee and engineer at Thomas Edison’s company. The two struck up a friendship that lasted for more than 30 years until 1931, when Edison was on his deathbed. Heartbroken, Ford asked the man’s son to capture his father’s last breath in a test tube and give it to him as a keepsake.
Ford himself passed away in 1947, and his possessions were stored in boxes at the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan. Nearly 30 years later, museum employees came across the test tube and put it on display. Soon, the backstory involving Edison’s “dying breath” spread like wildfire.
The authenticity of the legend remains uncertain. Edison’s son actually gave Ford the tube. However, no one knows if he held the container in front of his dying father or if he simply handed Ford an empty tube that was in the room when Edison died.
2 Material believed to be a myth
A rumor circulated among moviegoers that there was a film showing an 1898 Mardi Gras parade. If real, the clip would be the oldest moving footage of a New Orleans Mardi Gras and of the city of New Orleans itself. While many believed the movie was just a rumor, Arthur Hardy wanted to bring back this rare piece of movie history. But after decades of searching, he was ready to give up.
But then Hardy contacted the Louisiana State Museum, and the dominoes began to fall. The museum curator contacted the Rex Organization, which helps organize the Mardi Gras parade. An archivist for the Rex Organization went on the hunt and, in 2022, found the legendary footage at the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam.
The two-minute film shows six floats taking part in the parade on February 22, 1898. The theme was “Queens of the Harvest”: one float carried people dressed as pineapples. It also showed Rex, the “King of Carnival,” on another float and a live bull on a third. Organizers abolished this tradition in the early 20th century, and Mardi Gras parades now feature a papier-mâché bovine instead.
1 The Silpho Moor UFO
In 1957, three men were walking on Silpho Moor near Scarborough when they found what the newspapers would later call a “copper-bottomed flying saucer”. The description included a diameter of 18 inches (45 cm) and sheets of copper with strange hieroglyphics. Although expert analysis suggested a hoax, people’s imaginations ran wild, helping the broken artifact earn the lofty title of “Britain’s Response to Roswell.”
Then, the fragments disappeared. Almost half a century later, a man visited the archives of the Science Museum. He was searching the archives of aviation historian and UFO enthusiast Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith when he found a can of cigarettes.
Inside the box were several pieces of metal and a note that read “suspected UFO fragments.” Since the fragments closely resembled those described in the 1957 incident, they most likely belong to the object found on Silpho Moor.
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