Historical artifacts we still can't explain

A lot of artifacts, we understand. Things like swords and daggers, we know those were for stabbing and smiting of foes. Other things, though, are less clear, and we're left to try to guess just what was going on in the minds of our forebearers. There's just no accounting for some people, and when we have to look at their lives through the lens of time, it can make for some confusing discoveries.

The sword in the stone

No, not that sword in the stone. That one's not real. There is, however, a very real sword lodged in a stone in a chapel in Italy, and no one has the slightest idea how it got there.

As the story goes, Galgano Guidotti was a minor nobleman who lived in the middle of the 12th century. After spending most of his life killing and looting, as most of his contemporary knights did, he had a vision from the Archangel Michael and decided to give up the bloodshed and switch sides. Eventually, he found his way to Montesiepi, where he got a little bit of an attitude with another vision, and tried to drive his sword into a stone to prove it was impossible. Learning the very important lesson that you don't talk back to visions from heaven, the sword slid into the stone. Not only is it still there, but a chapel was built around it.

For a long time, archaeologists were as skeptical about that story as you are right now, but when ground-penetrating radar became a thing, they looked through the rock to see what was there. It wasn't just a hilt and fake sword. It's a real, period-correct, honest-to-gosh sword. As if that's not cool enough, there's also a pair of mummified hands in the chapel, supposedly a reminder of what happens to someone who tries to steal the sword (they have their arms ripped off, and sometimes, they're torn apart by wolves).

The Copper Scroll

We were once told that archaeology was a lot of really boring stuff that's nothing like you see in the movies. Supposedly, there's a lot of careful research but definitely no treasure maps with spots marked by an X. We were lied to.

The Copper Scroll is an honest-to-gosh treasure map. It was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and it tells the story of exactly how to find major ancient treasures … sort of. According to the text, 64 treasure hoards were scattered across Jerusalem and the Judean desert, and they were used to hide the most valuable treasure in the world from invaders. That treasure wasn't just religious artifacts but a huge amount of gold, silver, and coins, too. No one's really sure just how much we're talking here — the weights and measurements the scroll uses haven't been successfully translated — but archaeologists are pretty sure it's what people call "a lot."

The pieces of archaic text that have been translated give rather precise directions. The problem is that the directions are a little too precise and refer to things like water tanks, reservoirs, and underground passages. We have no way of tracing those references now. Some think the whole thing is fiction anyway, but another school of thought says the Copper Scroll was a record of the actions of a religious sect of people living in the city of Qumran, who were responsible for safekeeping Jewish treasure. We've seen Indiana Jones, and we're pretty sure it's the second theory. It has to be.

Indonesia's mysterious stone statues

The Indonesian island of Sulawesi is home to plenty of weird wildlife, and it's also home to a series of megaliths that no one's been able to explain. Around 400 of them have been found so far, and we're not dismissing the idea that there's more. Some are only a few inches tall. Others tower 15 feet high, and a handful of them are distinctly human-shaped. Other megaliths are in the shape of basins, which might have been coffins, or … honestly, no one has the foggiest idea, but they have found giant stone lids for some of them. There are some stone tables (or altars), but there's a distinct lack of any signs of the civilization that created these structures and statues. No tools, no burial grounds, no handprints left behind on stone walls … nothing.

No one has even been able to tell when they were carved. They've certainly been there long enough that a mythology has grown up around them, and some locals claim that they're the remnants of criminals who were cursed to stand for an eternity. Other stories claim they were ancestor totems, used in some sort of ritual worship. While we're pretty sure they're not people that were turned to stone, there's something so undeniably creepy about these things that we're not going to rule out the possibility.

The skulls of Motala, Sweden

Our ancestors did a lot of strange stuff, and heck, we still do a lot of strange stuff. It's in our DNA. But just what was going on at a lake near Motala, Sweden in the Stone Age … that, we have no idea. And given the evidence, we're not sure we really want to know.

Sure, mounting heads on stakes isn't unheard of, but the really, really creepy part of this discovery is that it included the bones (or, more accurately, bone fragments) of at least 11 individuals that ranged from men and women right down to children and babies. Whatever was going on there, they were very equal opportunity about it. The bones are around 8,000 years old, and they were found alongside animal bones and stone tools. Two of the skulls had been pierced by wooden stakes, and right, we get the whole displaying-of-trophies thing. But one of the skulls, which had belonged to a woman, contained another woman's broken skull bones. Whether this was some sort of weird burial rite involving relatives or some sort of strange religious practice … we're curious, but it's definitely that sort of curious that closes the YouTube video and purges the search history about 10 seconds into finding out.

Las Bolas

UNESCO officially calls the site "Precolumbian Chiefdom Settlements with Stone Spheres of the Diquis," but that sounds really boring, and we prefer "the place that has the really big balls." And the Costa Rica jungles have the biggest balls of all.

Scattered across four different sites, on what's called the Diquis Delta, are the remains of a civilization that date to between 500 and 1500 AD. In addition to the regular sort of archaeological remains — roads, burial grounds, and things of that sort — there's also around 300 stone spheres. They're close to perfectly shaped (better than we could do), and are all different sizes. Some could fit in your pocket, and others are estimated to weigh somewhere around 15 tons. For hundreds of years, the stone spheres were buried under dirt, mud and sediment, and that's kept them safe from all kinds of unsavory characters. That hasn't helped us figure out much about them, though, and we have no clue who made them, when they were made, or what they possibly could have been for.

There's no apparent rhyme or reason to the placement of the spheres, most of which are in residential locations. One of the sites has a set arranged in a linear pattern, another site has an abnormally large sphere, and a sadly large number have been looted, destroyed, or moved (and that means we don't even know how many there really were). They obviously can't be carbon-dated, but based on the layers of sediment they were buried in, it looks like someone was carving these things over a period of about 1,800 years. Astronomical calendar? Compasses? Lore says that the gods used them to control the weather, but maybe they were just a sort of divine bocce set. It's as good a guess as any.

The Big Circles

Science and creativity don't always go hand in hand, and that means incredible discoveries sometimes get incredibly boring names like "The Big Circles."

We actually only discovered how weird they are in 2014 (but we first saw them in 1920), when aerial images revealed not only how big they are, but how many there are. So far, we've found 12 scattered across Jordan and one in Syria, and they're basically, well, big circles. A stone wall made from imprecisely-cut rocks is laid out a giant circle that's between 720 and 1460 feet in diameter and a rough average of three feet high, and weirder still is that there's no entrance to any of them. Oh, and they're also pretty perfectly round.

The fact that there's no entrance puts an end to most of the theories about what they might have been used for — there's no practical reason that you're going to, say, be keeping a herd of cattle in an enclosure you'd have to lift them in and out of. There's the precisely round shape, too, and the sheer distance between each of the sites, which date to sometime between 2000 and 4500 BC. We do also know that some of them have been destroyed — the one in Syria was all but demolished by expanding towns — but that hasn't gotten us any closer to figuring out what they were built for. We do, however, have a theory any archaeologist is free to use: we think it's a prison for the demogorgon, when it's summoned into this world. Go ahead and use that, science. You're welcome.

The Roman Dodecahedron

Most of the Roman Dodecahedron are made from either bronze or stone, and all have 12 sides, a hollow center, and holes (of varying sizes) on each face. Some have knobs on each point, and more than a hundred have been found in France, Germany, and Switzerland. They've been dated to somewhere between the second and third centuries, and if that sounds familiar, you were paying attention in history class. That's when Rome ruled that part of the world, and that's why these artifacts are called what they are. It's definitely not because we've found art or literature talking about what they were used for, because when it comes to that sort of thing, there's almost nothing.

The only reference to the fancy d12 die are from Plutarch, and he wrote that it had something to do with the 12 signs of the zodiac. He was Greek, though, so that doesn't explain why there's only some features of the dodecahedrons — like the size of the holes and the knobs — that vary. At least we know they're not fakes, though, so that's something.

We also know there's such a wide range of suggested uses for the dodecahedrons, it's clear we're just guessing at this point. Some suggest it was used to measure the angle of sunlight and determine when crops should be planted, while others think they're decorative candlesticks, weather gauges, children's toys, or religious objects. It's even been suggested that, since many of them were found on Roman borderlands, they were some sort of key military device, and might have been used as survey instruments or range finders for ballistic weapons. One theory that has been debunked is that they were some sort of gambling tool, because they would be incredibly unfair and not at all random. Thougfh, that might make them a gambling tool of a particular persuasion, come to think of it. We'd use it, and we wouldn't feel guilty about our winnings.

The Cochno Stone

In 2016, archaeologists from the University of Glasgow unearthed a prehistoric site that had already been discovered once. After the Cochno Stone was thoroughly documented in the 1960s, it was then re-buried to protect it from vandalism, because humans are jerks and prove time and time again that they just can't have nice things. Dated to around 3000 BC, the stone sits next to a housing estate in West Dunbartonshire, Scotland, and is said to have some of the best depictions of Neolithic and Bronze Age carvings ever discovered. We just don't know why people went to all the trouble of carving the exquisite markings into relatively soft stone, or what any of it means.

The surface of the stone was already mapped before it was defaced by graffiti and people's boots. The goal of the 2016 excavation was to map it more extensively, with 3D scanning technology that would allow archaeologists to get a look at the stone as it was originally intended, before the damage done by some of the dregs of modern society. While we doubt it's the case, we would admire the irony if the carvings on the stone turned out to be graffiti from prehistoric hoodlums. How do you say "Eat at Joe's" in Neolithic?

The Judaculla Rock

Judaculla Rock is named for the Cherokee legend that Judaculla, an ancient giant, was the one who left the markings on the boulder's surface. The tale says that he was jumping from mountain to mountain when he pressed his hand into the stone and left the imprint of his seven fingers, but aside from that, no one's really sure what the deal is about the North Carolina stone with the prehistoric petroglyphs.

Strangely, some of the best images we have of the rock come from the 1930s, when archaeologists filled in the carvings with chalk, to really show just where the markings were. In the decades since, weather has taken its toll on the soapstone boulder, and it's inevitable that at some point, the carvings are going to wear away completely. They've already been dated to be between 2,000 and 3,000 years old, and not only do we not know what the carvings mean, but we're not sure who made them, either. They're undeniably odd markings, and there's nothing that you can really look at and single out as, "Oh, that's a cat," or "Hey, that's a guy flipping off his neighbor." Even stranger, there's supposedly two other similar stones in the area, but no one can find them any more.

So, what gives? People have suggested that it's an ancient peace treaty, religious marker, or even something like the Rosetta Stone, giving us the key to unlocking other languages. Unfortunately, whatever it's unlocking has been so lost to time, we have no idea where to even start. Extra-unfortunately, this one might disappear before we figure out the secrets it holds.

Miami's Stone Circle

Quick, name the last place you'd expect to find an ancient stone circle that's reminiscent of sites like Stonehenge. Detroit? Chicago? Miami? For sure. In 1998, construction crews were tearing down six blocks of housing to clear space for a few new skyscrapers. In the process, they uncovered a circle of 24 large holes and limestone — fortunately, they called in the experts. A little further digging of the literal sort, and they had cleared a perfect circle that was 38 feet in diameter, dated to around 2,000 years ago, and littered with all kinds of ancient artifacts, because ancient construction crews just couldn't clean up after themselves.

Along with animal bones and shark teeth, archaeologists found tools and ax heads made from basalt. That's significant, because the closest place to get basalt is hundreds of miles away in what's now Georgia. Because people are incapable of finding something old without thinking aliens are behind it, aliens were immediately blamed. However, the truth — what little we know of it — is so much cooler.

Further digging led archaeologists to conclude that the site was left behind by one of the most mysterious people to settle in the southern US: the Tequesta. First described by 16th-century Spanish conquistadors (who had apparently never heard about the pot calling the kettle black) as a bloodthirsty and hostile people, they were a largely nomadic group that managed to survive into the 18th century. Because they were nomadic and roamed throughout what's now the Everglades, there's a lot we don't know about them, including what the deal with this ancient circle is. The site, now preserved by the Florida Department of State and nominated for all sorts of historic monuments statuses, is still being studied. At best, they'll stumble across a breakthrough. Worst case, you have someplace cool to visit if you ever find yourself in Miami.

The Holey Jar

We don't pretend to be archaeologists (though we do love pretending to be Indiana Jones). We do like to think we have a pretty good grasp on some historical concepts, like what storage jars are for. We have it on good authority that most jars are used for keeping things safe, dry, organized, or simply located in a single, easily accessible place. Also, they usually don't have holes because spills suck. So when the Museum of Ontario Archaeology pieced together the shattered fragments of a 1,800-year-old Roman jar and found that it was full of holes, they were at a loss to describe what the point of the artifact was.

It's the only one of its kind, and it's called the Holey Jar, because geddit? We're not sure what it's for — we're not even sure where it's from, because it hit the museum as a part of a collection assembled in the 1950s by a British archaeologist. This guy had rescued the pieces from one of the craters that pockmarked London during the bombings of World War II … maybe. It might be Roman, it might be from Iraq, it might be from the Moon — it might even be from the ancient city of Ur. Who knows!

Some of the theories prove just how weird humans have always been. One suggestion is that it was used for keeping snakes, a standard animal in various religions. Another suggestion isn't just that it was a Roman snack jar — it was a Roman snack jar that once held tasty, tasty treats made of a dormouse stuffed with pork, then roasted or boiled. Yum(?)! Disturbingly, that theory might not hold water because they'd found dormouse jars elsewhere, and they usually had little ramps to lure the poor rodents inside. We said people are weird, and we meant it.

Khatt Shebib

There's a 93-mile-long wall out in the middle of the desert in Jordan, and no one has the foggiest idea what it is. It was built with the age-old method of just piling rocks on top of each other, so that's not incredibly helpful when it comes to telling us anything. After the wall was finished, about 100-odd towers seems to have been built along it, and when we say "towers" we mean "small round buildings between 6 and 8 feet across."

It's not a straight wall, either, and even though British diplomats first saw it in 1948, it's only with advances in aerial photography that it's been more completely documented. That means only recently have we been able to see that portions of the wall are two parallel walls, and other parts branch off in directions that must have meant something at some point.

As far as the who, why, what, and when, no one has a clue. The best date estimates for when it was built range from somewhere between 300 BC to AD 750, and that's a pretty broad time frame. It was definitely long before we had advanced to the point where we could move massive amounts of earth with things other than manpower, so whoever built this clearly went through a lot of trouble, assembling it stone by back-breaking stone. We hope it was worth it, whatever it was supposed to do.

The Maine Penny

Archaeology is a lot of guesswork, and they're still trying to guess who was really the first to make the trip across the Atlantic to the New World. (Sorry, Columbus, we all know it wasn't you. Nice PR, though.) In 1957, an amateur archaeologist found a small coin in what he thought was a purely Native American site at Naskeag Point in Maine. No biggie, right?

Then in 1974, experts visiting the Maine State Museum announced that it was a Norse coin, and it took another four years to date the coin to between 1065 and 1080. The site itself was dated to just after that — when the coin would have logically been in circulation — but the question of just how it ended up in Maine has been hugely debated. Some people insist it's proof of Norse contact with Maine, but since it's the only Norse artifact that's been found, others say it's a hoax. Still others suggest it might have been carried there as a part of some 12th-century trade network. The coin has a mark that's led some to suggest it had been made into a pendant, and was brought to the New World that way, and there's something oddly comforting about the idea that even hundreds of years ago, we were picking up souvenirs, turning them into jewelry, and then losing them.

Calixtlahuaca's Head

In all fairness, Calixtlahuaca's Head does, indeed, sound like a low-budget, late-night horror movie. The real story only gets weirder, and we'll forgive you if you're muttering "it's a hoax" before you finish reading.

For decades, a certain segment of the archaeological world has been shouting about connections between ancient civilizations, and in 1933, the discovery of a strange, decidedly Roman-looking artifact seemed to support the whole idea that somehow, the ancient Romans had sailed the seven seas and stopped off in what's now Mexico. The head was recovered from an undisturbed site, buried under two floors, and was among other artifacts dated to between 1476 and 1510.

There's been a lot of arguing about what this means, mostly spurred on by a 1961 anthropologist's declaration that the artifact was most definitely Roman and dated to around the year 200. Others chimed in with their support, noting that things like the design of the hair and beard were the very height of third-century Roman fashion. How'd it get to Mexico to be buried at Calixthlahuaca years before the Spanish got there? Is it a hoax? Or is there simply something about fashion that's ingrained into us on a cellular level? No one really knows.

The Starving of Saqqara

The eerily named Starving of Saqqara is a 2-foot-tall limestone statue that now belongs to the Concordia University in Montreal. It came to the university from a collection of Mediterranean antiquities, and even though there's no shortage of experts that have been consulted, no one has the faintest idea where the statue came from or what it's supposed to be. Saqqara is the name of an ancient Egyptian burial ground, but no one knows just how the statue came by that name or if the two are really related.

Even stranger, a mysterious script was etched into the statute, and no one's been able to even come close to identifying that, either. If it's a fake, someone went to a lot of trouble to fake something that's not recognizable as anything of importance, and if it's not fake? We have a lot to learn.

The Plain of Jars

Some places aren't really on anyone travel plans, and one of those is a remote corner of Laos about 250 miles outside the capital city of Vientiane. (We won't judge if you didn't even know that was the capital, but seriously, get out a bit more.) Head out into the literal middle of nowhere, and you'll find the Plain of Jars.

It's a pretty accurate description of what's there, as the sprawling site of hundreds of square miles is filled with thousands of stone jars. They're in random places, some alone, some in groups, with some up to 9 feet tall. Some have lids, some don't. Some are decorated with carvings, others aren't.

Since you already know where we're going with this, you probably can guess that no one has the slightest idea what the jars were for. There's plenty of theories, but theories aren't facts — if they were, we'd all have hoverboards and jetpacks. There's the theory that they were burial sites, or that they were urns for placing a body in to allow it to decompose before the rest of the burial rites were performed, because people are weird. Others say that they're kilns and were used to make building materials. Still others suggest that they were used for brewing rice wine, and that's our favorite. We're thinking it's that, or beer pong of the gods.

The Newton Stone

The standing stones of Europe are all undeniably cool, and they all have a certain amount of mystery to them. But standing in Aberdeenshire in Scotland is the Newton Stone, and it's a little different. The blue stone was — at some point — carved with what looks like a pattern of a snake, some circles, what might be some blooming flowers, and a few more circles. On the other side of the stone are six lines of text, in a language no one's seen elsewhere, and a series of dashes.

The dashes are a language called Ogham, but no one's been able to figure out what the other language is or what it means. There have been, however, plenty of people who have "translated" the words as corrupted versions of one language or another. According to some scholars, it's a version of Latin probably left during Roman occupation, but because scholars just can't seem to get on the same page with anything, others have translated it as being derivations of Greek words that, for some reason, become a series of Slavic words. Still others translate it as a version of Pictish, but what that all really means is that no one knows what it is.

At least one person believes that it's got ties to Atlantis, because of course it does. The theory behind that story is that when ancient Atlanteans were driven from their homeland and spread out across Europe, they founded other civilizations like the Assyrians and the ancient Scottish clans. We can get onboard with this, because the world could seriously use some more good stories.

The Sanxingdui artifacts

In 1986, construction workers near Chengdu uncovered something bizarre: an ancient cache of artifacts that included animal bones and elephant tusks, along with around 200 jade figures, massive bronze artworks, and a life-size statue. Most of the artifacts seemed to have been damaged, dumped into the massive pits, and buried. Further investigation dated them to around 1200 BC and discovered that they were cast with technology that wasn't thought to even exist at the time.

No one's sure how they were made — no forges or foundries were ever found, no tools were uncovered, and in fact, until the discovery, it was thought that Chinese civilization was busy growing up elsewhere. No one knows why the figures were broken and buried, and even though traces of similar artwork and aesthetics were found at the nearby Jinsha, dating to about 500 years after the burial of the Sanxingdui treasure horde, no one's quite sure exactly what the story is.

The pieces have a sort of unearthly, supernatural look to them, with their exaggerated features and almost wing-like ears. Ancient aliens, maybe, or maybe it's just proof that there's a huge amount we don't know about our own collective history. We're not necessarily betting people, but we'd love to know the odds on aliens if you've got 'em.