To “hermetically seal” something (after the alchemist Hermes Trismegistus) is to seal it in such a way, usually by magic, that it can never be opened. The following ten mysteries — a mixture of boxes, tombs and scrolls, as well as one letter — aren’t hermetically sealed necessarily, but some of them might as well be. In any case, none of them have ever been opened.*
10. Queen Elizabeth II’s letter
In November 1986, Queen Elizabeth II wrote an open letter to the people of Sydney, Australia. But the letter arrived sealed with a stipulation not to open it for another hundred years. So until 2085, on a day of the Lord Mayor of Sydney’s choosing, the contents of the letter will remain a mystery — kept in a vault in a restricted area in Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building. She didn’t even tell her own staff what it said.
Could it be new, Sydney-specific revelations of royal pedophilia? Could it be a decree from beyond the grave cutting Australia loose from the Commonwealth? Or maybe it cedes the throne to its rightful heirs, descendants of the Australian farmer Mike Hastings?
Boringly, it’s assumed to have something to do with keeping the building in which it’s now housed, named after her great, great grandmother, from being demolished. It already survived this fate once, in 1959, when developers had plans for a parking lot. Then, in 1984, a Malaysian company signed a 99-year lease on the building.
9. Bohuslav Jirus’s boxes
In 1901, the Croatian botanist, pharmacologist, philanthropist, and world traveler Bohuslav Jiruš left most of his worldly possessions to the National Museum. But the secretive professor (of whom there are no known photos) had a sense of humor; he left his estate in two wooden crates and said they mustn’t be opened for 200 years. In 2022, with 79 years still to go, museum staff realized they could use computer tomography (CT) to view the contents without having to actually open them and therefore without, technically, defying their benefactor’s wishes.
Hoping to satisfy their curiosity within their lifetimes, they put the dilemma to a vote — asking 3,000 members of the public what they thought. To their disappointment, 53 percent voted against a CT scan. So the guesswork resumed.
Given the weight of the crates, it’s thought they may contain objects made from copper — perhaps some kind of apparatus? Others believe the crates may house some botanical or pharmacological discovery — a medicinal plant or dangerous bacteria. At the very least, it’s assumed there’ll be a photo of the man in there somewhere and we’ll finally know what he looked like.
8. Alexander the Great’s tomb
OK, so this one has been opened — and plundered — again and again, by such luminaries as Cleopatra (to finance her war against Augustus), Caligula (to steal his breastplate), and Caracalla (to steal his tunic, ring, and belt). But nature, not humans, have since sealed it tight — and it hasn’t been opened since antiquity.
The 365 BCE tsunami that flooded Alexandria is thought to have cut off access to the tomb. In fact, along with a lot of the ancient city on which the modern city is built, it’s thought to have sunk to the seabed. But there are various other theories. It may be, as believed by Ambroise Schilizzi in 1850, in Alexandria’s Nabi Daniel Mosque — but permission to dig has never been granted. It may not even be in Alexandria at all. One theory suggests a tomb in Vergina, Greece, commonly believed to be that of Philip II of Macedon, is actually Alexander the Great’s. Another suggests it’s in Venice, within the tomb of Saint Mark beneath his Basilica. Yet another theory says it’s in the Siwa Oasis in western Egypt.
Back in Alexandria, though, Greek archaeologist Calliope Limneos-Papakosta has been searching for decades — most recently pumping out water to facilitate her digs. To date, she and her team have uncovered the city’s first roads and what they believe was the ancient royal quarter. This, she said in 2023, is where the conqueror is thought to be entombed.
7. The En-Gedi scroll
Discovered over 50 years ago in a damaged Holy Ark near the Dead Sea, the two-millennia-old En-Gedi scroll had been burned and crushed to an unopenable lump of charcoal. Opening it was out of the question; even handling the scroll risks crumbling it to dust. Archaeologists had no choice but to shelve the ancient document and forget about reading its contents.
Until recently. In 2015, computer scientist Brent Seales used his groundbreaking imaging software to “virtually unwrap” the scroll. First, he scanned it with X-rays using a micro-CT machine. Then he mapped it onto a 3D computer model of the scroll — which, given its irregular shape, was harder than it sounds. Finally, he digitally unraveled the shape to a flat page.
Although fragmentary because of the damage, resulting in just 35 lines of readable text, the scroll contained chapters of Leviticus (one of the first five books of the Torah). Written in the original Hebrew, it allows researchers to hone their understanding of the text’s early history. In fact, it’s the earliest copy of any Pentateuchal book ever found in a Holy Ark.
6. Mystery safe
When New York farmer Kirk Mathes returned to his fields from a trip out of town, he was mystified to find a 600-pound metal safe. There was no indication of who left it, or what was in it. But there was a note: “If you can open this, you can have what’s inside.”
When the press got wind of the story, Mathes farm in Barre, Orleans County, became a media circus. Apparently in an effort to play down the safe, he told reporters it was probably left by local “crazy kids … real jokers”. But crowds still descended on his farm, with some taking a sledgehammer to the safe, damaging the hinges and knocking off the handle and dial.
After calling police and hiding it away, Mathes said he plans to leave it unopened. Although bothered by the intensity of interest, he felt the mystery was fun enough to keep alive. “If you open it,” he said, “the show is over.” Now, there are plans to house the safe in a local history museum. “It could be holding millions of dollars. It could have confetti in there,” said Cindy Vanlieshout of the Barre Betterment Committee, “You have no idea, so just dream.”
5. Cleopatra’s tomb
According to archaeologist Kathleen Martinez, who has been searching for Cleopatra’s tomb for well over three decades, “Cleopatra outsmarted everyone.” She evaded the smug Roman emperor Augustus by killing herself then even denied the Empire her corpse by having it spirited away, along with Mark Antony’s, to a location that remains secret to this day. The most likely site appears to be Taposiris Magna, a temple outside Alexandria in Egypt. But it’s been many years since Martinez and her team unearthed “exciting artifacts” linked to the Queen there, including coins and Isis figurines.
More recently, though, in 2022, they found a spectacular tunnel 13 meters undergound, two meters tall and 1,305 meters long, hewn through the sandstone bedrock. Its design, a “geometric miracle” experts say, resembles that of the Tunnel of Eupalinos on Samos, constructed in the 6th century BCE. The tunnel is a promising lead, but like the previously discovered network of tunnels connecting Lake Mariout to the Mediterranean, it’s partly submerged under water thanks to earthquakes between 320 and 1303 CE.
If discovered, the tomb of Cleopatra will be the most important archaeological find of the 21st century. Martinez already knows what her first words will be if she is the one to uncover it: “The world has never forgotten you, Queen Cleopatra.”
4. The Herculaneum Papyri
The Herculaneum Papyri, unearthed in the other Pompeii, Herculaneum, in the late 1700s, number roughly 1,100 in total. Found in a luxurious villa belonging to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, they constitute a tantalizing “invisible library” full of unprecedented glimpses of the classical world. In fact, the Herculaneum Papyri represent the only classical Greco-Roman library to survive intact to this day. The only trouble is, they were carbonized into black, unopenable lumps of charcoal by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
For centuries, researchers have attempted to get at their contents — often destroying the scrolls in the process. (Many were destroyed, either thrown into the sea or burned as coal, before their discoverers even realized what they were.) Their first archivist Camillo Paderni cut some in half, copied visible text, then scraped away each layer in turn. A couple of years later, Vatican conservator Antonio Piaggio glued the super-thin, super-tough intestinal membrane of a calf to the surface of a scroll then used weights and strings to delicately prise off each layer for artists to copy the contents. But the method was far from perfect, with many layers coming away stuck together and torn. Since then, the scrolls have been hidden away in secret vaults to protect their contents until such time as we can, somehow, open them properly.
Now, if the “virtual unwrapping” of the En-Gedi scroll is anything to go by, it looks like that time has arrived. The same computer scientist has compiled up to 12,000 cross-sections of the papyri he’s been allowed to examine, and is now depending on artificial intelligence to sort the jumble of letters by density. Unlike the En-Gedi scroll, the Herculaneum Papyri’s authors didn’t use metal in the ink. If successful, the scrolls usher in a new “renaissance of classical antiquity,” potentially changing the canon. But archivists are understandably cautious. Even just handling the papyri can turn them to dust. So far, Seales has only imaged two but still has to wait for AI to improve.
3. Joanna Southcott’s box
Self-proclaimed Woman of the Apocalypse Joanna Southcott sold “Seals of the Lord” to simpletons, guaranteeing each buyer one of 144,000 places in Heaven. She even appears to have believed it herself, persuaded by visions that she had a sacred mission. Namely, despite being a 64-year-old virgin, she was, she claimed, to give birth to a messiah in London — the Shiloh prophesied in Genesis. To be fair, she did look pregnant enough not only to persuade herself but also to attract followers (the Community of the Holy Ghost, later renamed the Panacea Society), who built an ornate gold cradle for the baby. In the end, however, Southcott’s abdominal swelling turned out to be a condition that killed her and, eventually, reluctantly, her followers buried her corpse.
But she left plenty more prophecies in a large wooden box, bound as “instructed by the Spirit” in Seven Seals. So at least they had that to look forward to. The trouble was Southcott said it could only be opened at a time of national crisis, and only in the presence of all 24 Church of England bishops. The first part was easy. Even in the 1920s, a century after her death, Southcott’s devotees knew they were living in the end times and that her box would “guide the English nation” to safety. The bishops, however, were not so convinced — even by the Panacea Society’s ad campaign on the sides of London buses, urgently warning the public that “England’s troubles will increase until the bishops open Joanna Southcott’s box”.
Despite preparing a house for the purpose, the bishops never came. Although a psychic investigator claimed to have opened the box with the Bishop of Grantham — finding books, papers, dice, a lottery ticket, night cap, earrings, purse, and a pistol inside — it was too small to be Southcott’s. Today, the real box is hidden somewhere in the English town of Bedford, which the Panacea Society believed was the Garden of Eden.
2. Vault B at the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple
Dedicated to Vishnu and run by royalty, the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Kerala, India is, because of its subterranean vaults, one of the most secure sacred sites in the world. The building is currently watched over by CCTV, metal detectors, and hundreds of guards armed with machine guns. Until June 2011, nobody even knew what treasures it concealed; it took a Supreme Court order to access to the “mega” secure vaults underground.
Among the items found were: a solid gold idol of Mahavishnu, four feet high, three feet wide, and studded with diamonds and gems; a solid gold throne for an 18-foot idol of the god; thousands of gold chains (one 18 feet long); solid gold coconut shells studded with emeralds and rubies; golden elephants; and sacks full of gold coins from the Roman and medieval eras. The value of the haul tallied up to roughly $22 billion.
However, one of the six vaults — Vault B — was exempt from the court order as it’s not part of the temple treasury. As of today, it remains unopened. But not through lack of trying. Apparently, one of the temple authorities’ attempts to crack the lock was halted when they heard the sound of crashing waves on the other side of the door — leading to the belief that it opens to the Arabian Sea. It’s also believed the vault is guarded by venomous snakes, vampires, and magic. There’s also rumored to be another, even more secret chamber beyond with solid gold walls and the largest cache of undiscovered treasure in the world.
1. The tomb of China’s first emperor
Ending the Warring States period, Qin Shi Huang united China under centralized imperial rule. Politically, this changed the Middle Kingdom forever. Personally, though, it boosted the new emperor’s lifelong obsession with immortality, affording him access to unprecedented resources and manpower. Even as a child, long before he became the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang was planning for this. Now he could issue edicts for everyone in the land to join his hunt for the elixir of life.
He could also start work on his underground necropolis, where (as a back-up) he planned for his body to lay in repose until it could be resurrected. Located in Shaanxi Province, this is where archeologists unearthed the famous Terracotta Army — lifesize replicas of ancient warriors. But this find, sizeable though it was, is only a tiny fraction of the 6.3-square-kilometer, and still unexplored, burial complex.
Built by 700,000 men over the span of 38 years, the subterranean city is said to hide: picturesque palaces and towers; priceless artifacts; many, many more terracotta warriors than have so far been uncovered (and in their original purple too, undamaged by daylight); and a complete, mechanical replica of China’s river network — filled with mercury. This latter point is what has kept archaeologists at bay. According to the ancient historian Sima Qian, the tomb is also guarded by automatic crossbows — the precise details of which were intentionally lost to history when their creators were locked inside.