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10 Discoveries That Stole the Spotlight in Recent Years

by Estelle
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Ongoing discoveries, whether ancient texts, fossils, or weird medieval items, continue to broaden modern society’s perspective on what life was like at a time we can’t begin to fathom living in. Even objects just a few decades old provide a sense of elation at adding another piece to a historical puzzle.

On this list are some of the most exciting discoveries announced over recent years.

Related: Ten Astonishing New Discoveries About The Cosmos

10 Fiery Globe

What Is It That So Many People Have Seen? | Ball Lightning

On June 7, 1195, a single but massive dark cloud hung low in an otherwise bright blue sky over Norwich. Suddenly, a spinning ball, fiery in nature, popped out of this ominous cloud and hurtled toward Earth, where it “fell toward a river.” While this may sound like a fictional tale, an account of the incident exists in a monastic chronicle compiled by a monk named Gervase, who served in the Christ Church Cathedral in Canterbury.

Furthermore, historians believe (as of the beginning of 2022) that this incident was the first credible written record of ball lightning in England. Up until the discovery of this story, experts believed that the earliest sighting of this rare phenomenon happened in the 17th century.

Gervase was a keen observer of celestial activity, and his detailed writings about what he’d seen emerge from the cloud are very similar to later reports of ball lightning. Physicist Emeritus Professor Brian Tanner and historian Professor Giles Gasper were studying a medieval text when they happened upon Gervase’s account. They published their findings in January 2022.[1]

9 Dragons of Death

Pliosaur discovery on Jurassic Coast is ‘very likely a new species’

Dragon of Death sounds like a spin-off of Game of Thrones, doesn’t it? However, in this case, it refers to an exciting discovery made in the Andes Mountains. A press release in 2022 revealed that a new species of pterosaur had been discovered in these mountains and that this creature was the ruler of the skies around 86 million years ago.

Among the well-preserved fossils, scientists discovered vertebrae and fore- and hind-limb bones. The remains are from the largest pterosaur that ever roamed South America. While the remains are stored at the Laboratory and Museum of Dinosaurs, visitors can see a life-size replica of the pterosaur there.

Another incredible prehistoric discovery was announced in December 2023. Fossil hunters revealed that they had finally unearthed a six-and-a-half-foot-long pliosaur skull from a rock cliff along the Jurassic Coast in England. This fantastic find, which also resembles the skull of a fiery dragon, may belong to an entirely new species, according to scientists.

Phil Jacobs, a fossil enthusiast, first spotted part of the ancient monster’s snout while walking on the beach. He called local palaeologist Steve Etches, and with the help of a drone, they found the rest of the skull embedded in a rock 36 feet (11 meters) from the ground. After weeks of meticulous chiseling, the pair extracted the massive, fossilized skull. The skull will go on display in the Etches Collection Museum in Kimmeridge, England, in 2024. Jacobs and Etches plan to return to the rock cliff to find the rest of the creature’s remains. [2]

8 Vampire Slaying Kit

Antique Vampire-Slaying Kit Up for Auction

Imagine living in a time when you had to have a vampire hunting kit stashed away in your house. Lord Hailey of Britain certainly felt the need for such a kit. The aristocrat’s box of vampire repellents recently sold at a Derbyshire auction for $15,000 (£13,000). The box included crosses, crucifixes, a wooden stake, rosary beads, pistols, a Bible, and a bottle of holy water. It even features two crucifixes on the lid that doubles as secret sliding locks.

Accompanying the items in the vampire hunting kit was a document that detailed the registration of an “alien enemy” in 1915. As mysterious items usually do, this vampire-slaying box made headlines and garnered bids worldwide, including in the U.S., Canada, and France.

It seems that a vampire hunting kit would have come in handy for residents in 17th-century Poland. In 2022, archeologists announced they had unearthed the burial of a woman with a sickle placed across her neck. The sickle was placed in such a way that if the woman, clearly believed to have been a vampire, sat up in her casket, she would have cut her own head off. And, just in case the sickle method failed, the corpse was shackled to her grave using a padlock around her big toe.[3]

7 1,800-Year-Old Curse

Convert’s curse found in ancient grave in Galilee – Anat Harel

Just as there was an intense fear of vampires in history, so was there a worldwide acknowledgment and fear of curses.

A man named Jacob, who converted to Judaism before he died eighteen hundred years ago, conjured a curse, wrote it down in red ink, and instructed whoever would bury him to place it on his grave as a deterrent to grave robbers. In Greek, he warned that if anyone should attempt to open his grave, a curse would rest upon that person. The inscription further indicated that he died at the age of 60 and was a full convert; it also listed his name.

The grave marker was discovered in 2021 in a national park in Galilee in northern Israel, home to the Jewish Beit She’arim cemetery. Images of the marker formed part of a related press release by the University of Haifa and the Israel Antiquities Authority in May 2022.

In 2021, archaeologists also discovered a so-called “curse jar” in the Agora of Athens that was used 2,300 years ago to curse at least 55 people. When researchers looked inside the jar, they found the dismembered head and legs of a chicken. On the exterior surface, the jar was inscribed with 55 names. It is believed that this jar was central to a binding curse ritual belonging to Athenians. Researchers also believe the curse would have been intended to inhibit the physical and mental abilities of those cursed.[4]

6 Largest Predatory Dinosaur

Two new species of dinosaur discovered on Isle of Wight | University of Southampton

Fossil discoveries are always exciting as they widen our knowledge about dinosaurs and other ancient creatures.

Paleontologists announced in June 2022 that they discovered a new spinosaurid dinosaur fossil on the Isle of Wight. This new find has been named the “White Rock” spinosaurid, and the creature was one of the largest land-based hunters in Europe. These dinos measured more than 33 feet (10 meters) in length and sported a crocodile-like face.

The fossil was discovered in a rock face named the Vectis Formation, where the spinosaurid inhabited the lagoons in the area. The discovery also strengthens the argument that spinosaurid dinosaurs originated in western Europe.[5]

5 Deepest Shipwreck in the World

The Deepest Wreck Ever Located: The Destroyer Escort Samuel B Roberts

The USS Samuel B. Roberts, a destroyer escort of the U.S. Navy, served in WWII and was the first in the line of three Navy ships given the same name. During the Battle of Samar, the ship sank during a show of force by U.S. warships that prevented the Imperial Japanese Navy from attaching the amphibious invasion fleet stationed off the island of Leyte.

The ship’s last known survivor died on March 20, 2022. In June 2022, it was announced that the wreck of the destroyer had been discovered in 22,621 feet (6,895 meters) of water in the Philippine Sea. The wreck—the deepest in the world—shows signs of having hit the seafloor bow first in images provided by a submersible. It also bears several puncture holes from Japanese shells.

Texan adventurer Victor Vescovo discovered the wreck. Vescovo is also the first person to have visited the deepest points of Earth’s five oceans.[6]

4 Ice Age Cave Bear DNA

Cave Bear – Ancient Animal

Twenty-five thousand years ago, huge plant-eating cave bears stopped roaming Europe and northern Asia. Scientists believe that the steady increase in human populations led to a decline in suitable habitats (caves) for these bears, and they eventually faded away.

Researchers assumed that cave bears who struggled to fatten up during the summer months died during their hibernation. Bones in caves across Europe and northern Asia all but confirmed this theory. In a quest to know more about these fascinating creatures, a team of researchers recovered a genome from a 360,000-year-old cave bear in the Caucasus Mountains in 2021. This genome is the oldest genetic material extracted from bones not trapped in permafrost.

Analysis of the cave bear’s DNA revealed that these bears evolved 1.5 million years ago. What’s more, they evolved from the common ancestors shared by brown and polar bears. This means cave bears formed their own lineage, after which a descendant of an unknown ancestor split into what we know today as polar bear and brown bear species.[7]

3 Remnants of a “Fairy World”

Ancient Sanxingdui culture challenges traditional narrative of Chinese civilisation

At an archaeological site in Sichuan, China, excavators made an incredible discovery when they dug into a series of pits. Inside lay a treasure trove of artifacts, including a bronze sculpture of a snake sporting a human head, a bronze box with jade and gold masks, and a bronze altar.

Experts believe that the sculptures and masks reflected the “fairy world” that people imagined existed at the time. Two pits were excavated during the 1980s, with six more excavated since 2020. A total of 13,000 artifacts dating to the Bronze Age have been uncovered at the site. The artifacts inside the pits are likely evidence of ritualistic events. The fact that some of the artifacts had been burned also indicated that those who burned them believed they would open a communication channel to another realm or that they might have requested guidance from said realm.[8]

2 Hidden Van Gogh Painting

Vincent Van Gogh self-portrait discovered through X-ray – BBC News

Mention Vincent van Gogh and The Starry Night, and a missing ear comes to mind. Van Gogh is known to have painted a series of self-portraits in addition to his other famous paintings—more than 35, to be exact.

In a chance discovery in June 2022, another self-portrait was added to the tally when Van Gogh’s Head of a Peasant Woman painting was X-rayed before being displayed at an exhibition. While examining an X-ray of the back of the painting, conservators at the National Galleries of Scotland discovered an image of the painter staring back at them. And what’s more, this self-portrait image shows the painter’s intact left ear. It is believed that this newly discovered portrait had been hidden for at least a century and that it had been covered by layers of glue and cardboard when framed in the early 1900s.[9]

1 Seeing the Universe through a Clearer Lens

James Webb Space Telescope’s discoveries 2 years since launch

In July 2022, the world got a taste of the mind-blowing capabilities of the James Webb Space Telescope.

NASA revealed some of the images taken by the telescope, including never-before-seen views of the cosmos and the deepest-ever captured infrared view of the universe. The telescope also brought a second dying star of the Southern Ring nebula into view for the first time.

The telescope unveiled rapid phases of star formation in the Carina Nebula that were previously hidden. James Webb found a supermassive black hole, predating all other black hole discoveries. Its mass equals that of nine million suns, and its sheer size and age have made it nearly impossible for scientists to explain.

Incredibly, the telescope led to the discovery of a chemical called methyl cation, which makes up most of the organic material on Earth. It also captured sandstorms on a planet around 235 trillion miles away from our planet.

In October 2023, the telescope spotted around 40 pairs of planets, each the size of Jupiter, free-floating through the Orion Nebula. Astronomers still don’t have an explanation. James Webb may even have stumbled upon evidence of life on exoplanet K2-18b in the form of dimethyl sulfide. This potential discovery makes the outlook for 2024 immensely exciting.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Estelle is a regular writer for Listverse.