Archaeology represents a constant search for answers. The information we uncover about our ancestors is generally provided piecemeal, which means that we rarely have the full picture about a particular person, or civilization, or event.
New artifacts are being unearthed every day, but that does not mean that the collective knowledge of our past is steadily increasing. Some discoveries are so bizarre, mysterious, and unique, that they serve only to raise more questions instead of providing answers.
10. The Face Carvings of Lepenski Vir
We start off with probably the oldest entry on our list, which was found in Serbia, at a mesolithic site called Lepenski Vir. This represents a vital location for European archaeology, as Lepenski Vir is one of the earliest permanent settlements on the continent, providing us with valuable information regarding one of the oldest peoples in Europe, the Iron Gates Culture.
That being said, there are still plenty of gaps in our knowledge of this ancient civilization that once occupied the region surrounding the Iron Gates of the Danube River. Perhaps the most pertinent example is the eerie sculptures that have been unearthed at Lepenski Vir whose purpose and appearance still perplex scholars.
The sculptures are estimated to be around 8,000 years old. Some of them depict simple geometric patterns, but many others have human-like faces which can appear to look quite sinister through modern eyes. They usually have wide, bulbous eyes, and an open, down-turned mouth that, to us, would suggest fear or sadness.
They have been carved out of quartz sandstone and around 100 of them have been discovered since excavations at Lepenski Vir started in the 1960s. Some of the face carvings appear so otherworldly that archaeologists don’t even think they are meant to depict humans, but rather fish. So far, the sculptures remain a unique discovery in the region, and an archaeological mystery that still stumps scholars as to their true purpose.
9. Rujm el-Hiri
It is known by several names – Rujm el-Hiri in Arabic, Gilgal Refaim in Hebrew; it is sometimes referred to as the Golan Stonehenge. Regardless of its name, there is one thing which is certain – this is one of the most mysterious ancient structures found in the Middle East.
Rujm el-Hiri is a giant megalith approximately 5,000 years old, located in Golan Heights in the Levant. It’s pretty obvious to see why it has earned comparisons to Stonehenge, but unlike its English counterpart, Rujm el-Hiri is not made out of giant stone slabs, but rather small piles of basalt rocks which together weigh over 40,000 tons.
These have been arranged into five concentric circles, with the largest one measuring over 500 feet in diameter. In the center, there is a 15-foot high cairn which was once a tomb before being looted by grave robbers.
The site was first surveyed and catalogued during the late 1960s. Since then, archaeologists have studied it extensively, but answers have been few and far between. We don’t know who built it or for what purpose. Was it the site of religious ceremonies or was it used for ancient astronomical observations? Who could have been buried at the center of such a structure? It is unlikely we will find out anytime soon.
8. The Porpoise Grave
Back in 2017, archaeologists began excavating the tiny island of Chapelle Dom Hue, off the coast of Guernsey. Their original intention was to try and unearth a medieval church, but that soon went to the wayside when they uncovered something much more bizarre – the body of a porpoise buried in its own grave.
The sea animal had been placed there almost 600 years ago, but the big question was why? Back then, the island was only inhabited by monks so, obviously, some kind of religious rite was initially suspected, but if that is the case, it would be something unique in Christianity. The monks also used to eat porpoises, so it could simply have been a discarded lunch, but that still presents the question of why they would have bothered to dig a hole when they could’ve just thrown the remains into the sea, which was only a few feet away. After all, if this was what they did with the remains, then archaeologists should probably have found a lot more graves.
Ultimately, scholars believe the motive behind this strange burial was a simple and practical one – food storage. They think that the monks butchered the porpoise and placed it underground, perhaps even in a brine, in order to preserve it and eat it later. Then, for whatever reason, they forgot about it, leaving it to make 21st century archaeologists scratch their heads. It is a solid idea, but even the scientist who put it forward admits that it would probably never be definitively proven true or false, given that so little remains of Chapelle Dom Hue.
7. The Singapore Stone
The modern history of Singapore began in 1819 when it was established as a trading post by Sir Stamford Raffles, and then turned into a British colony a few years later. However, there are stories, texts, maps, and legends that suggest that previous settlements have thrived in the area for centuries before Western colonization. However, historical records of their existence are hard to come by, so an accurate account of the history of pre-colonial Singapore remains highly elusive.
There is one tantalizing artifact in this regard and it is called the Singapore Stone. Today on display at the National Museum of Singapore, this sandstone fragment was once part of a giant monolith that was three meters high and three meters wide. It is dated to anywhere between the 10th and 14th centuries and sat for hundreds of years at the mouth of the Singapore River. According to the story behind it, it had been thrown there by a legendary strongman named Badang. Most importantly though, the face of the slab was covered in 50 lines of inscriptions that allegedly contained the history of Singapore.
Unfortunately, we’ll probably never know what they said. The monolith was destroyed in 1843, when the British blew it up to widen the mouth of the river and make room for a fort. What happened to the rest of it is unknown, but the only fragment thought to survive is the Singapore Stone that today sits in a museum and it does not intend to give up its secrets too easily. Despite several claims to the contrary, it has yet to be deciphered.
6. The Salango Skull Helmets
Without a doubt, the most disturbing entry on this list was discovered just last year at Salango, a site on the central coast of Ecuador. While excavating for remnants of the ancient Guangala culture, archaeologists found 11 burials dated to approximately 100 BC. Of the 11, two were infants, one around a year-and-a-half and the other between 6 to 9 months old. Although sad, what really made them stand out was the grim and unusual “headgear” they were wearing. Both of their skulls had been placed inside two larger skulls belonging to two older children.
Even though burial practices can differ wildly between cultures, even more so thousands of years ago, researchers still proclaimed this to be the first known instance of using children’s skulls as mortuary headgear. And if you want an even gorier detail, the same researchers believe that the “helmets,” if we may call them that, would have still been covered in skin and tissue when they were fitted, otherwise they would have broken apart.
Once scholars understood exactly what they had found, the one big question that remained was “why?” And, to be perfectly honest, we still have no idea. Curiously, the remains of infants were found in some of the other graves, but none of them had the same accessories, having been buried in a more conventional way.
5. The Maine Penny
There is little confusion regarding the origins of the Maine Penny, also called the Goddard Coin. Everyone knows what it is, and when and where it was found. The big mystery that has caused a lot of controversy is how exactly it got there in the first place.
The Maine Penny is a Viking coin, dated to the 11th century, to the reign of Olaf Kyrre, King of Norway. It was found in 1956 by two amateur archaeologists who were exploring a shell midden on the shoreline property of a man named Goddard, near the site of an old Native American settlement called Naskeag Point. The question is – what was it doing there?
The presence of a Viking coin at a Native American site in Maine would suggest that the two cultures crossed paths at one point. But, so far, the only confirmed North American Viking site is at the tip of Newfoundland, in Canada, so any new additions would have a great impact on the history of both Europe and America.
Unsurprisingly, scholars are reluctant to accept this idea based on a single coin, but they are also struggling to explain how it got there. Unless it was a hoax, of course. By this point, it is almost certain that the coin is, indeed, genuine, but it could have been planted there by Goddard or one of the archaeologists. This is the conundrum that has vexed researchers for decades and will unlikely be resolved anytime soon.
4. The Cursed Amethyst
Now let’s move on to cursed artifacts. Certainly, there are numerous objects and sites in the world that are purported to have curses, most famous of all the tombs of the pharaohs. However, we will be focusing on a mysterious gemstone instead.
It is known as the Delhi Purple Sapphire although, strictly speaking, it is actually an amethyst. Its exact origins are uncertain, but during the mid 19th century, it could be found in India, in a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Indra. Then, the Indian Rebellion of 1857 occurred, which not only caused a lot of bloodshed, but also widespread looting. A Colonel Ferris with the Bengal Cavalry obtained the gemstone and brought it back to England with him.
In the years that followed, Ferris lost his good health and his fortune, and so did his son who inherited the amethyst. In 1890, a writer and Fellow of the Royal Society named Edward Heron-Allen came to possess the stone. Misfortune started following him, as well as other people to whom Heron-Allen either loaned or gave the amethyst. At one point, the writer allegedly threw the stone into Regent’s Canal, only to have it returned to him a few months later, after being recovered from a dredger.
After that, Heron-Allen became convinced that the gemstone was “cursed and stained with blood,” so he placed it inside seven lockboxes and buried it deep in a bank vault, alongside a letter explaining the story behind the amethyst. It was recovered years after his death by his daughter and donated to London’s Natural History Museum. Nobody else has owned it since.
3. The Diquis Spheres
For 800 years, Costa Rica was home to the pre-Columbian Diquis culture between the 8th and 16th centuries. The civilization is now extinct, but it left behind a strange and puzzling legacy which has gone on to become a national symbol of Costa Rica.
We are talking, of course, about big balls. Stone balls called petrospheres, to be specific – over 300 of them, made out of a type of coarse igneous rock called gabbro. They vary wildly in size: some of them can be handheld, while the largest of them measure over two-and-a-half meters in diameter and weigh over 15 tons.
The Diquis Spheres, as they are usually known, can still be seen today in different parts of Costa Rica, as well as museums around the world. They were buried for centuries under thick layers of sediment, which saved them from looters, and were discovered during the 1930s when corporations started clearing the land to make room for banana plantations.
Since then, the Diquis Spheres have been studied extensively, but researchers have not been able to come up with much. The meaning behind them, how they were used, and even how they were made are still mysteries left behind by an almost-forgotten culture.
2. The Codex Gigas
The Codex Gigas is one of the largest surviving illustrated manuscripts in the world. Its name literally means “Giant Book” and it certainly lives up to it. The tome has 620 pages that are three feet high, and the whole book weighs 165 pounds. To make it even more impressive, all signs point to the manuscript being written by a single person, one truly dedicated monk living in 13th century Bohemia, today part of the Czech Republic.
And yet, this is not what makes the Codex Gigas stand out and gives it its dark reputation. No, that would be page 290, where its creator decided to draw a giant picture of Satan, thus earning the Codex Gigas the nickname of “The Devil’s Bible.”
We don’t know why he did this. It certainly was not standard practice back then, but it did give rise to a legend that suggests that the Codex Gigas was created by the Devil himself. According to the story, a monk was punished by being walled inside his room to starve to death. He made a deal, where his life would be spared if he could create a book that contained all of humanity’s knowledge in a single night.
He got to work, but soon realized that his task was impossible, so he made another deal with Satan, selling his soul in exchange for the finished book. The Devil then held up his end of the bargain, but included a drawing of himself to remind everyone of the manuscript’s true author.
1. The Starving of Saqqara
Egypt represents one of the most well-known civilizations of ancient times, one that has been studied extensively for centuries. And yet, there are so many elements from that time period that we still do not understand.
As a key example, let’s take the Starving of Saqqara – a sculpture, supposedly from the predynastic era of Egypt, that is unlike any other Egyptian statue we’ve ever seen. It features two figures, possibly a male and female, seated opposite each other. They are nude and have large, oblong heads. The sculpture is made out of limestone and also has inscriptions on it, although the language has never been identified. It is called the Starving of Saqqara, named after an ancient burial ground in Memphis, Egypt, but there is nothing certain to indicate that it was actually discovered there.
That’s about all we can say about it. During the 1950s, it ended up in the hands of Vincent Diniacopoulos, an antiques collector who exhibited it in his private gallery. Later, in 1999, his wife Olga donated their entire collection to the Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. There it’s been sitting for 20 years. Experts from all over the world have been consulted and they usually come to the same conclusions: they’ve never seen anything like it, they don’t know what the inscriptions say, and it is most likely either an unique example of ancient art, or a complete fake. Only time will tell if we will find out the truth.