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10 Lost Rarities That Were Hiding in Museums All Along

by Jana Louise Smit
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Museums are vast places. Some have archives consisting of several warehouses, so it’s not inconceivable to think that some items get lost in storage. But despite their worth, rare and unique artifacts also regularly fall through the cracks. From sounds not heard in 18,000 years to a UFO that was “Britain’s Roswell,” here are unique slices of museum history that were thankfully recovered.

Related: Top 10 Ancient Finds That Will Surprise You Today

10 A Noseless Alexander the Great

In 2019, archaeologists were taking stock at a warehouse belonging to the Archaeological Museum of Veroia in Greece. At one point, they noticed a marble statue half-hidden underneath other items. Sure, the nose was missing, but the face was immediately recognizable—this was Alexander the Great.

The stunning bust had been forgotten in the dark depths of the warehouse for years. Initially discovered in the ruins of a Greek village, the absent nose wasn’t the only damage. Sometime during the 18th and 19th centuries, the head was used as building material on a wall. This covered it with splotches of mortar. At the time of discovery, researchers somehow also missed the fact that the statue depicted the most famous king of Macedonia.

A new assessment determined that the artwork was created in the second century BC, roughly 200 years after Alexander the Great died. The 2,100-year-old statue was eventually cleaned and put on display at the Museum of Royal Tombs of Aigai in Vergina.[1]

9 A Freakishly Big Sea Monster

Predator X – The Giant Arctic Pliosaur

In 2023, a researcher examined fossil drawers at the Abingdon County Hall Museum in the United Kingdom when he found a massive vertebra. This chance discovery led to three more vertebrae, all of which had been excavated in Oxfordshire and dated back 152 million years.

But this was no ordinary Jurassic creature. After scanning the fossils, it became clear that the spine bits belonged to a fearsome marine animal called a pliosaur. Looking like a cross between a crocodile and a turtle, they had paddle-like flippers and fanged jaws. Scary fact: those jaws could deliver a bite more powerful than a Tyrannosaurus rex.

This group of apex predators came in different species and sizes. This was the biggest one ever discovered, measuring 32 feet to 47 feet (9.8m to 14.4m) long, making it one of the largest—and scariest—carnivores to ever live in the sea.[2]

8 A Bizarre Charles Dickens Story

Charles Dickens was a celebrated novelist, but the story in question is not one that he invented. Instead, it starts with a letter he penned on Christmas Eve, 1869. Dickens was distressed because 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 might never have known about 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 thing in “good humor.”

Dickens might not have been so forgiving had he known two things. This was his last Christmas turkey (he died a few months later), and railway officials sold pieces of the overly well-done turkey to locals at sixpence a piece.[3]

7 The Fake That Was Authentic

Thought-to-be replica sword from ‘Bronze Era’ turns out to be real at the Field Museum

Some things go missing 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 one look at the sword, and insisted that the weapon wasn’t a replica but instead an authentic piece from the Bronze Age. This prompted the museum’s curator to order an X-ray of the sword. The tests showed that the artifact was forged from the right combination of tin and copper to chemically match other Bronze Age artifacts.

The 3,000-year-old sword was likely thrown into the Danube River on purpose between 1,080 and 900 BC. During this time, people ritualistically discarded weapons in waterways to commemorate a battle or the death of a loved one.[4]

6 The Real Last Captive Thylacine

Long-lost remains of last Tasmanian tiger were being stored in museum cupboard | ABC News

According to popular lore, the last thylacine to die in captivity was a male called Benjamin. That’s not true. In 1936, a female Tasmanian tiger was illegally trapped and sold to the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, where Benjamin was also kept. She outlived the male but died four months later of exposure. When the animal passed away, nobody realized the significance of the moment—that there would never be another thylacine in a zoo.

Over time, the truth dawned, but when researchers tried to locate her remains, they were nowhere to be found. Some feared that she’d been discarded after death and thus lost forever. But in 2022, staff at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) uncovered an unpublished report which revealed that the body had been at their own museum all along.

According to the report, the remains were donated to TMAG and stored in the museum’s educational section, not the zoological section where researchers had looked for the thylacine before. Sure enough, when they opened a cupboard in the educational archives, they found the female’s preserved pelt and skeleton. She’d been used in school visits to teach students about thylacine anatomy before being permanently stored away in the 1980s.[5]

5 Extremely Rare Pyramid Wood

Missing 5,000-year-old piece of Great Pyramid puzzle discovered in cigar box in Aberdeen

In 1872, a piece of wood was discovered in Egypt’s Great Pyramid. Found within the Queen’s Chamber, the cedar plank measured 5 inches (13cm) long. The artifact was a rare delight, being one of only three items ever to be found inside the Great Pyramid. Needless to say, when the fragment vanished, the loss wasn’t small.

A clue appeared in 2001, however, in the form of an archival record. The document revealed that the fragment had been donated to a Scottish university. Even with the institution’s name in hand (the University of Aberdeen), the wood was nowhere to be found.

By 2019, the artifact was officially missing for 70 years. During this year, however, an assistant curator at the University of Aberdeen accidentally found a cigar tin in their Asia museum collection. It contained several pieces of broken wood. The splinters were identified as the now-shattered Giza wood, and tests also determined it was 5,000 years old. The age bracket suggests that the plank was used in the pyramid’s construction process and left behind by the builders, not later explorers.[6]

4 Lost 18,000-Year-Old Sounds

Listen as a 17,000-year-old conch shell is played once more

In 2021, researchers released the results of an accidental find. They’d been riffling through the inventory of the Natural History Museum of Toulouse, located in France when they noticed a seashell bigger than a person’s head. The history of the conch was also available. Found in 1931 inside the Marsoulas cave near the Pyrenees Mountains, the artifact once belonged to the Pyrenean Magdalenians who lived in the cave 18,000 years ago.

But the initial study incorrectly assumed the shell was a communal drinking cup with a damaged tip. The new study realized that human hands had altered the tip, drilled holes in the shell, and added a tube-like 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 wasn’t limited to three toots. That was just the first experiment, and apparently, it’s capable of a lot more. As a bonus, it’s also the oldest musical shell of its kind known today.[7]

3 Edison’s Last Breath

Edison’s Last Breath | 100 Wonders | Atlas Obscura

Most people know Henry Ford as the man who invented the gas-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 over 30 years until 1931, when Edison was on his deathbed. Bereaved, Ford asked the man’s son to capture his father’s dying breath in a test tube and give it to him as a memento.

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 stumbled upon 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 really did give Ford the tube. However, no one knows if he held the container in front of his dying father or whether he merely handed Ford an empty tube that was in the room when Edison died.[8]

2 Footage Believed to Be a Myth

Mardi Gras Carnival 1898

Among film aficionados, a rumor circulated about the existence of a film showing a Mardi Gras parade from 1898. If real, the clip would be the oldest moving footage of a New Orleans Mardi Gras and the city of New Orleans itself. While many believed the film was just a rumor, Arthur Hardy wanted to recover this rare piece of cinematic history. But after decades of searching, he was ready to give up.

But then Hardy contacted the Louisiana State Museum, and the dominos started to fall. The curator of the museum reached out to the Rex Organization, which assists in organizing the Mardi Gras parade. An archivist with the Rex Organization went on the hunt, and in 2022, he 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 “Harvest Queens”—prompting one float to carry people dressed as pineapples. It also showed Rex, the “King of the 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 carry a papier-mache bovine instead.[9]

1 The Silpho Moor UFO

In 1957, three men were walking along Silpho Moor near Scarborough when they found what newspapers would later call a “copper-bottomed flying saucer.” The description included a diameter of 18 inches (45cm) and copper sheets bearing strange hieroglyphs. Although expert analysis suggested a hoax, people’s imagination ran wild, and this helped the broken artifact to earn the lofty title of “Britain’s answer to Roswell.”

Then, the fragments disappeared. Almost half a century later, a man visited the Science Museum archives. He was searching the archives for files on aviation historian and UFO enthusiast Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith when he found a cigarette tin.

Inside the box were several pieces of metal and a note that said “alleged UFO bits.” Since the bits strongly resembled those described in the 1957 incident, there’s a good chance that they belong to the object found at Silpho Moor.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen
Jana Louise Smit

Jana earns her beans as a freelance writer and author. She wrote one book on a dare and hundreds of articles. Jana loves hunting down bizarre facts of science, nature and the human mind.

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