Top 10 Rare and Fascinating Ancient Objects

Updated on October 21, 2019
Jana Louise Smit profile image

Jana loves compiling and sharing lists about the natural world, science, and history.


10. Egyptian Soldier's Letter

In 2014, archaeologists deciphered a cache of papyrus found over a century ago. One was written by an Egyptian soldier. His letter was noteworthy because it was 1,800 years old but reflected the modern homesickness and worry faced by soldiers today when they are stationed far away from home. His name was Aurelius Polion and he lived during a time when Rome controlled Egypt. Polion appeared to have voluntary joined the Roman army for the benefits (food and salary) but did so without knowing where he would be posted.

As it turned out, it was too far away for his liking. Worse, his letter provided the information that he had already written six communications to his family – and still, they ignored him. The papyrus pleaded with his mother and siblings for an answer and made it clear that he planned to ask for leave so that he could visit them. There is no way to tell if Polion went home, but his letter probably did. The soldier was stationed in modern-day Hungary but his letter was discovered in an Egyptian town.

9. The Czersk Flask

In 2006, a Polish man found a beautiful object in a forest. The aluminum canteen had a handmade engraving that depicted a couple in love. The happy image turned tragic when the message on the back was discovered. Written in Cyrillic, it revealed that the artist had been a Russian soldier. He was held in the World War I (1914 to 1918) prisoner-of-war camp in Czersk, in Poland. The carving, which showed the embracing lovers in great detail, was probably a memory of his wife or fiance.

Researchers believe that the unnamed man was captured by the Germans and became one of the thousands of POWs to die at Czersk. His death could explain why such an exquisite piece ended up being discarded. Most prisoners at the camp died of highly infectious diseases. Fearing contamination, their personal possessions were were thrown away. The flask was probably buried in the camp's trash pit where it remained hidden for over 100 years.

Poland has several cemeteries for Soviet POWs who died during WWII. This one is located at Krakow.
Poland has several cemeteries for Soviet POWs who died during WWII. This one is located at Krakow. | Source

8. An Unusual Gauging Tool

During their Classical period (300 to 900 A.D.), Mayan entrepreneurs produced and sold salt. In 2019, researchers investigated an ancient salt mine called Ek Way Nal. Among other artifacts, the team recovered a gauge tool. It was an exceptionally rare discovery. A gauging device seems logical in a salt mine but this artifact was made from high-quality jadeite. This rare mineral was reserved for diplomatic exchanges, ritual objects or jewelry for the elite members of society.

Damage on the artifact showed that it was used like any other gauging device. But how did valuable material like this end up in a miner's toolbox? The answer could be as simple as a flourishing business. Salt was sought after by the Mayans and many salt producers became wealthy. They could certainly afford high-quality materials and perhaps chose jadeite tools as a status symbol.

7. Gruesome Display Of Power

The Incan village Iglesia Colorada once stood in the lower Andes. In 2003, archaeologists dug in the settlement's trash and found something odd. The village had a cemetery but instead of receiving a funeral, four skulls had been thrown away like rubbish. The skulls had holes drilled at the top and scrape marks indicated that their jaws had been defleshed. The likeliest explanation was that the freshly decapitated heads – with bloody grins – were strung up to scare the village.

The settlement dated to the late 1400s or early 1500s when the Incas forced smaller communities to join their empire. Some resisted. Iglesia was far away from the Incan capital in an inhospitable region. The locals probably used their knowledge of the land to defy the invaders. Things must have boiled over at one point. In a terrible display of power designed to frighten the villagers into submission, the Incas killed three women and a child and hung their heads for everyone to see.

6. Lifting Mechanism That Predates The Crane

The Greeks were the first to invent and use the building crane in the 6th century B.C. Archaeologists have debated how the Greeks managed to raise large buildings prior to this time. In 2019, the answer came. A 2019 study found that the Greeks relied upon a lifting mechanism for about a century before they invented cranes. The researchers investigated ancient temples and analyzed the rope grooves and other markings on the buildings' large blocks. The rope burn suggested that some kind of lifting system swung the blocks into place before workers used rollers and levers to perfect the brick's position. Whatever rope system was used, it was capable of lifting and swinging stones as heavy as 400 kilograms (882 pounds). Unfortunately, the actual device remains missing.

5. The Royal Cloth

In 2016, an altar cloth grabbed the attention of historians. It appeared to be a recycled piece from one of Queen Elizabeth I's dresses. This is not your everyday find. When the queen died in 1603, none of her 2,000 gowns survived. They were exquisite; made with the finest furs, jewels, and precious metals. Most royal clothing disappeared because Elizabeth gifted them to her favorite staff and after Parliamentarian Oliver Cromwell seized power, he sold most of the Tudor property.

What heightened the chance that a royal dress and not another woman's finery became the altar cloth is the fact that Elizabeth forbid other women to dress this well. The altar cloth was undeniably upper class. It was woven from silver silk and embroidered with such skill that modern experts called it a “masterpiece.” Then there was Blanche Parry. The woman was born in Bacton, the same town that owns the cloth. Parry served the queen since Elizabeth was a baby and became a royal favorite. It is plausible that the dress was gifted to Bacton's church when Parry passed away in 1590.

Although not as grand, this night dress might also have belonged to Elizabeth I.
Although not as grand, this night dress might also have belonged to Elizabeth I. | Source

4. A Prank Souvenir

While working at Bloomberg's headquarters in London, a construction crew found old-looking things and called in the experts. For the next few years (2010 to 2014), archaeologists mined 14,000 items from the site. Among them were 200 iron styluses, the Roman version of a pen.

One of them was unique, thanks to an unusual inscription. It roughly translated as “I went to Rome and all I got you was this pen.” Museum experts believe the stylus was a cheap (yet affectionate) joke souvenir bought by a traveler for a loved one. If true, then the trend of buying momentoes of one's trip to hand out to friends and family is nothing new. Thus far, only a few inscribed Roman styluses have ever been found but this was the only clown among them.

3. The Wooden Platform

It all started with a lobster. Divers near the Isle of Wight noticed a lobster digging on the seafloor. When they saw the creature was throwing Stone Age flint from its nest, it triggered an archaeological survey of the area. A sweep in 1999 revealed a coastline that had sunk beneath the ocean a long time ago. There was a strong human presence from the Stone Age and the most noteworthy discoveries included the United Kingdom's oldest wheat and piece of string. Both pushed the island's agricultural history back with 2,000 years.

However, the prize find was unearthed in 2005. A wooden platform – now just a pile of timbers – resembled a shipbuilding site. While scholars are not unanimous about the platform's purpose, its age is definitely around 8,000 years old. That is remarkable by itself. If future studies can confirm that it was used to produce vessels, the platform will be a part of the oldest known boat factory in the world.

2. 6000-Year-Old NASA Technology

In 2016, scientists tested a worn-looking artifact. Discovered in Pakistan, the amulet was around 6,000 years old. Which kind of explained why it looked so tired. The tests were designed to find out how the artifact was made and involved shooting a highly-concentrated beam of light at it. The technique works like this. Some of the light is absorbed by the artifact and if strong enough, will reflect information about the manufacturing process. More precisely, which ingredients were used and their chemical reactions.

In this case, the signature showed that the craftspeople relied on a process still used by NASA. Called lost-wax casting, they forged a wax replica of the six-spoked amulet and formed a clay cast around it. Once the cast hardened, the wax was removed and molten metal was poured into the mold. Lost-wax casting replaced permanent metal molds and allowed people to produce more complicated and specialized designs. The amulet is one of the oldest examples ever found.

1. Elixir of Immortality

Chinese legends speak of a potion that bestows immortality upon whoever drinks it. If only. In 2018, excavations opened a grave in China's Henan Province. It was full of the usual human remains, pottery and grave goods. However, one vessel contained an unidentified liquid.

The fluid was light yellow and 2,000 years old. The researchers sniffed at it and the aroma suggested that the pot contained wine. Suspecting rice wine, it was analyzed for traces of rice and sorghum. The results were clear. This was not liquor. It was a mix of alunite and potassium nitrate. The latter is a popular ingredient in fertilizer and fireworks, but the addition of alunite caused a lightbulb moment. Ancient texts specifically identified alunite as one of the elixir's ingredients. Although this was the first time that the fabled drink had been found, the irony was delicious – consuming too much potassium nitrate can be fatal.

© 2019 Jana Louise Smit


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