When it comes to rediscovering their ancient past, some countries are littered with monuments that show them the way. Egypt has its pyramids at Giza, and the ruins of the Acropolis display all the former glory of Athens. But for nations like Ireland, that distant history is a bit more difficult to uncover.
The foundations of their society are harder to spot, but are no less complicated. One burial ground has puzzled and enamored archaeologists for generations. But thanks to cutting-edge technology, experts are now picking up on key details that were previously hidden. But will some wish that this past remained a secret?
Not unlike Egypt, Ireland has its own Valley of the Kings, a wind-swept and rocky expanse where great chieftains were laid to rest thousands of years ago. Its most famous tomb almost blends in with the countryside.
Of all these burial sites, some of which date back to 7,000 years ago, Newgrange is the crown jewel. This giant mound was rumored to be the home to some gods, and it appears to align with some astral bodies. Its deepest chambers contain human remains.
Ken Williams / The New York Times
No modern scientist had been able to decode Newgrange’s meaning, but Dr. Daniel Bradley of Trinity College believed he could succeed where so many others failed. The geneticist emerged as one of the foremost experts in ancient DNA and surveyed the mound with his colleague Lara Cassidy.
Trinity College Dublin / Twitter
Granted, it wasn’t like the Trinity researchers were breaking new ground. County Meath residents had known about Newgrange for centuries — and sometimes “borrowed” stone from the structure for their own homes — while a proper archaeological excavation began in 1962. Was there anything left for Bradley and Cassidy?
The winding tunnels and rock walls of Newgrange instilled them with all the confidence they needed. Calling it “a liminal space, a place that inspires a sort of awe,” the Trinity team went hunting for whatever traces of DNA they could find.
Ken Williams / Twitter
Measuring at 250 feet in diameter and 40 feet high, Newgrange represents a feat of Stone Age engineering. Cassidy and Bradley surmised that anyone connected to the site must have been socially prominent. And anyone buried there must have been legendary.
Ron Cosgwell / Flickr
The main underground chamber isn’t impressive merely because of its size or the mound of bones found within. A skylight in the roof allows the sun to light up the room — most brightly during the winter solstice. While little is known about Newgrange’s architects, there was no doubt that this was the peak of their achievements.
Ken Williams / The New York Times
Over 200,000 tons of stone, clay, wood, and earth make up the monument, and some elements were hauled from miles away. The amount of resources and length of construction suggest that no one individual could have built this. It must have been an elite class, or perhaps an important family.
This otherworldly tomb, guessed Bradley and Cassidy, must serve as the final resting place for whatever type of royalty led these ancient Irish peoples. DNA analysis would provide the clearest glimpse into their lives, as this civilization left very few discernible hints behind.
All kinds of cryptic glyphs and drawings decorate the walls of Newgrange, but most of their exact meanings are lost to us. Without any sort of Irish Rosetta Stone to guide them, the Trinity researchers turned their attention to a less pleasant-looking feature.
Ken Williams / The New York Times
They collected samples from the bones in the main chamber. Beyond determining the date of death, Bradley and Cassidy hoped to learn where these people came from and whom they were related to. Their initial findings had no lack of intrigue.
One DNA sample took their breath away. After isolating genes inherited from the person’s father and mother, Bradley and Cassidy were shocked to observe that many of these sequences were nearly identical.
These similarities went beyond the parents hailing from the same community. They were so alike, that the deceased’s parents must have been from the same family. Could this prominent Irishman really have been the product of incest?
Well, sibling relationships aren’t just limited to Game of Thrones. While the taboo of incest was likely very much present in ancient Ireland, powerful families, like those who built Newgrange, could rise above the rules.
By marrying and procreating with each other, noble brothers and sisters could consolidate power within their own family. It was not unlike how many Egyptian dynasties carried on, leading Bradley to describe the residents of Newgrange as “Irish pharaohs.”
This finding also correlated with long-held Irish folklore. Historical records compiled in the Middle Ages mentioned a King Bressal who was in a relationship with his sister and died near Newgrange. The Trinity researchers might’ve verified his identity — as well as the roots of Ireland.
The pharaoh in this tomb had only a trace of indigenous genes in his remains, indicating that these rulers of Ireland originated somewhere else. Continued study of the site could unveil the early human migration patterns that established Europe as we know it.
Ken Williams / The New York Times
The discovery sent waves throughout the academic community, though not without some criticism. David Reich, an expert in prehistoric human migration pointed out that some of the Newgrange burials occurred hundreds of years apart — gaps that could complicate any narratives about the evolution of the Irish people.
Clearly, there is more work to be done. But perhaps by the next time the winter solstice lights up Newgrange, we’ll have all the answers about these Irish pharaohs. In fact, remnants of Ireland’s earliest civilizations are buried all over the place — if you know where to look.
When a turf cutter from Northern Ireland called Jack Conway went out to work on the Emlagh bog, everything seemed normal. But he was about to unearth something that hadn’t seen the light of day for thousands of years.
While he was working, Jack’s shovel suddenly hit something quite a bit harder than the peat he was trying to harvest. He quickly dug it up, especially since it would hardly be the first time that something mysterious was unearthed from the bogs before.
You see, the land that became the bogs was once the intersection of three different ancient kingdoms and was thought be a place with supernatural powers, almost like something out of a high-fantasy movie. The land’s mystical reputation would bring people in droves to the bogs.
New Line Cinema
Feeling a spiritual connection to the land, people would often come and bury offerings to the gods for their protection. Such sacrifices weren’t meant to be dug up again, but the bogs actually do have a special property people discovered centuries later.
The low temperatures and high acidity of the bogs, combined with a low amount of oxygen, makes them excellent at preserving whatever is buried below. Over time, people have uncovered a veritable treasure trove’s worth of artifacts from Irish peat bogs.
Graham Higgs / Flickr
Because the bogs prevent decomposition, old objects including tools, coins, jewelry and other thousand-year old curios have been found in relatively good condition. The preservative properties of the bogs also made them useful for a more sinister purpose, which made Jack’s initial discovery a bit worrisome.
Photo Courtesy of NYU
The marshy depths of the Emlagh bog were also particularly good at mummifying bodies. Several ancient corpses were found on the bottom of the bog — some very clearly not there by accident either. Thankfully, it became clear Jack hadn’t found a body, but he still wasn’t sure what he had found either.
Warner Bros. Pictures
In fact, it just looked like a large, oddly shaped rock. However, there was one thing that stood out about Jack’s discovery: It had a particularly odd smell to it, described as being similar to a strong but not unpleasant cheese.
Unable to make any sense of the chunk buried 12 feet into the bog, Jack called in the officials from the Cavan County museum. After properly examining it and even going as far as carbon dating the object, they finally revealed what Jack had found.
It was actually butter — 2,000 year old butter to be precise! Funnily enough the butter had been so well preserved that it was still technically edible. But what on Earth was it doing in the middle of a bog?
Photo Courtesy of Nordic Food Lab
Unlike modern bricks of salted butter that can keep fresh for a few months without a refrigerator, salt wasn’t common in medieval Ireland. So the low temperatures and preservative properties of the bogs made them into a natural “freezer” of sorts.
Hundreds of lumps of this hard butter have been discovered in containers made of of animal bladders or wood, many of which also survived for thousands of years in pristine condition. But why would ancient people go through so much trouble just for a condiment?
Photo Courtesy of National Museum of Ireland
Back in medieval times, butter was actually a luxury good that people could pay their taxes and rent with. While we wish we could pay our bills will Land O’Lakes like that, there’s still one important question about this ancient butter: How does it taste?
First, we should probably start with the smell. While Jack described the lump he unearthed as having a fairly pleasant scent, other people were less charitable. The smell of ancient bog butter has been compared to a stomach-churning combination of spoiled milk and bad Parmesan cheese.
Brian Fitzgerald – Flickr
Who would be brave enough to try tasting this then? Andrew Zimmern actually tried a bit of 3,000 year old bog-butter on his show Bizarre Foods. He described the taste as “a lot of funk” with “a crazy moldy finish.” But there are still people who can’t resist trying it for themselves.
A 300 year old lump was actually brought into an Irish elementary school for the kids to taste test it for themselves. Funnily enough, they claimed it wasn’t too bad. Perhaps it’s more of an acquired taste? Either way, this ancient tradition is starting to catch on with locals.
In fact, one local man decided he would create his own bog butter. After making 3 pounds of homemade butter, Brian Kaller wrapped it in cheesecloth and buried the lump in the bog behind his house. He’d dig it up after a year of aging in the Irish countryside.
Photo Courtesy of Brian Kaller
The end result looks considerably more appetizing than any of the ancient ones that were unearthed. According to Brian, it has an “earthy” flavor that he enjoys when making eggs or drizzling it on top of popcorn. He even invited his neighbors to share it!
Photo Courtesy of Brian Kaller
Though the trend of DIY bog butter probably won’t catch on, many hunks continue to be discovered. You can even view a few pieces in Irish museums — just don’t be surprised if they won’t let you have a taste. Though these aren’t the strangest places where old foodstuffs were uncovered…
Photo Courtesy of The Willowbrook Bed and Breakfast
The Kronan took seven years to construct, and once it was finished, it took to the seas like a multi-masted beast. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the magnificent ship.
The ship’s luck ran out in 1676. During a maritime battle, the Kronan hit rough waters and capsized while making a sharp turn. The gunpowder on board ignited and that was that.
For three hundred years, the Kronan sat peacefully at the bottom of the ocean and housed all sorts of aquatic life. Would anyone ever discover its whereabouts and gather the artifacts inside?
Amazingly, in 1980, an amateur researcher named Anders Franzen discovered the shipwreck’s location. The Swedish government sponsored yearly archaeological dives to collect any lost artifacts. What was hidden in the ship for so many years?
The divers who went on the expeditions were in awe. It was obvious the ship was used for war. Openings in the vessel’s sides had old rusted cannons protruding out.
After a thorough search of the ship, it was easy to picture what the massive structure looked like sailing the high seas. There were dozens of small rooms for housing the men aboard, and each one was equipped with weaponry.
The divers had special equipment used to help clear the sand and mud that accumulated on all the surface areas. Buried underneath was a trove of ancient treasures…
Whatever the divers recovered from the wreck was going straight into the Kalmar County Museum in Sweden. The museum had an entire Kronan exhibit ready for unveiling once they excavated the items.
The dive teams found an abundance of old rifles and firearms. The weapons revealed fascinating information about seventeenth-century warfare. Information that experts may not have even known.
After the guns were excavated, researchers cleaned off the grime and rust so they looked new. They now sit on display at the Kalmar Museum. But, firearms weren’t the only amazing things found…
They also found objects that spoke more to everyday life in the 1600s, like musical instruments, including violins and trumpets. The people on board the ship needed forms of entertainment, and playing tunes certainly helped pass the time at sea.
One of the expeditions came across this pristine gold ring. Can you believe after three hundred years at the bottom of the ocean the gem inside still has a sparkle to it? This looks like something straight out of a Tiffany’s display case.
When the Kronan sank, it was carrying loads of gold and silver coins, and the divers found an abundance of them among the rubble. It was Sweden’s largest coin discovery ever, with coins minted in Sweden, Egypt, Syria, and even Turkey!
One of the most important things they found was a wooden plaque with the name of the ship scrawled across it. It may not have been worth as much as the gold and silver, but this plaque was an intact part of history, and equally as important as everything else.
The Kalmar County Museum was more than ecstatic to display all of Kronan‘s lost treasure. However, they had no idea that the most interesting item was yet to be found…
Just when researchers thought they unearthed nearly everything of importance, one of them came across this black tin jar nestled in the mud — and it was heavy. More gold and silver coins, perhaps?
Twitter / @SarahWardAU
When scientists finally pried open the can, they were overwhelmed by a pungent smell. They stared at the grayish lump of mush and suddenly it hit them. It was some kind of preserved cheese product!
They described the smell as a mix of yeast and Roquefort cheese. During the era when the Kronan was built, cheese was a real status symbol. It separated the rich from the poor. In this case, however, the cheese was well past its prime.
No one intended to add this Kronan cheese to a gourmet cheese plate anytime soon, but just the fact it was still in relatively good condition stunned everyone. Where’s Andrew Zimmern when you need him? He’d probably give this a taste!
The Kronan cheese sits on display at the museum along with the rest of the findings. Since the ship was discovered in 1980, diving teams have collected over 30,000 artifacts, and they haven’t even explored every nook and cranny. Maybe they’ll come across a nice Merlot to pair with the cheese!
But while they investigated the Kronan, another strange relic from the past had turned up in a place that no one expected.
See, the coast of California is no stranger to significant storms, specifically El Niños—the unusually warm systems that move over the area in late December. But one 2016 storm in Coronado, California was especially devastating.
The residents of Coronado were quick to make their way back outside after the rains and winds passed. They were ready to clean up their town, but they certainly were not prepared for what they’d find there…
When people reached South Coronado Beach, they noticed something very unusual protruding from the sandy shore. It was a massive shape of some kind, and it clearly wasn’t part of a reef. What the heck was it?
No one was quite sure what the strange formation was, but everyone was curious enough to want to get a closer look. Many residents had theories, but the truth would be even more wild…
It would take more work to find out what this powerful storm had unearthed. Luckily, as the tide continued to wash the surrounding sand away, the answer was revealed…
It was an enormous shipwreck! Everyone was in awe when they finally realized what the structure was. How amazing is it that a ship that enormous had been lying just beneath their feet all along?
This storm had to be really intense in order to uncover something the size of a city block. As the surface of the ocean increases in temperature—and the warm air meets much colder air in the sky—it causes intense wind and rain.
Any time an El Niño storm hits a populous area, it typically causes a hefty amount of damage. Usually, the best way to prepare is byboarding up windows and doors or simply evacuating the area altogether.
Obviously, the intensity of El Niño’s winds and rain regularly tossed around small boats. The discovery on South Coronado Beach, however, was completely different. This was no small boat—this thing was seriously huge!
Now that the enormous vessel was uncovered, everyone wanted to know where exactly it had come from. On top of that, what was it used for when it was a fully-functioning ship sailing the high seas?
As it turned out, the history of the ship was fascinating. Named the SS Monte Carlo, the 300-foot vessel was built in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1921. It was one of the few concrete and iron ships built after World War I.
The ship was the property of the United States Quartermaster Corps until 1923, when it was sold to the Associated Oil Company of San Francisco. This company then sold it to two actual mobsters, Ed Turner and Martin Schouwiler, in the early 1930s.
The two men had hoped to turn their new property into a “sin ship” during Prohibition. It was to be anchored three miles off the coast of Coronado Beach in international waters, so gambling, prostitution, and alcohol were all technically legal onboard… or so they hoped.
Unsurprisingly, the ship became incredibly popular. Visitors from all around came to indulge in the illegal activities it offered. The ship was by no means the first “sin ship” in existence, but it was the largest. In its prime, it would host upwards of 15,000 gamblers a week!
It’s estimated that the ship also raked in nearly $3 million a year, which by today’s standards is nearly $52 million! However, on New Year’s Day in 1937, a massive storm set the ship adrift, and it eventually ran aground on the shores of South Coronado Beach.
Over the next several years, the remains of the ship were slowly buried underneath the sand. That is, until the 2016 El Niño, which was strong enough to remove the sand and reveal the ancient piece of history once more.
With a little help of the incoming and outgoing tide, the sand slowly revealed more and more of this former “sin ship.” It didn’t take long before the residents of Coronado could make out the entire thing.
Once people could see the entire vessel, word of the discovery spread rapidly around the area. Everyone wanted to explore this real-life shipwreck for themselves! Can you blame them?
As fascinating as the discovery was, visitors needed to be extremely careful around the remains. Because the ship was built with concrete and iron, erosion had caused the frame to develop extremely sharp edges. Albeit dangerous, exploring it might be worth it…
Some rumors suggested that upwards of $150,000 worth of gold and silver coins were still on board. Even if it was just a rumor, the SS Monte Carlo remains a treasure in its own right! It’s encouraged other adventurers too.
Beneath the calm waters of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, there is a massive secret, one that lay hidden for hundreds of years. But it didn’t stay that way forever.
Flickr / Christian Loader
It is the wreck of the Whydah, a massive ship built to hold 150 men and several hundred tons of cargo. It went missing off the coast of New England in 1717, and many assumed it was lost forever.
However, explorer Barry Clifford discovered the wreck of the Whydah in 1984, and he has been digging up artifacts from the site ever since. His exploits make him one of the greatest treasure hunters of all time.
Wicked Local Yarmouth
Barry has long been on the hunt for a treasure that will make him a legend. He once believed he found the remnants of the Santa Maria from Christopher Columbus’ original 1492 voyage, but tests later determined it was a different vessel.
The Whydah, however, was a monumental find. It was the flagship of one of history’s greatest pirates: Black Sam Bellamy. This captain was known as the ‘Robin Hood of the Sea,’ and for good reason.
For one thing, Bellamy only targeted wealthy merchants and tried to use as little violence as possible. His crew members received equal pay and respect, even those who were Native Americans or former slaves.
In fact, the Whydah was originally the property of slave traders until Bellamy seized it by force and freed the captives aboard.
Valparaiso University, Wikimedia Commons
Most famously, Bellamy pulled off the biggest heists in pirate history. Historians estimate that he plundered the modern equivalent of $120 million throughout his career.
These daring exploits made Bellamy one of the most talked-about pirates of his time. He rose above his criminal origins to become a bona fide folk hero.
Unfortunately, Bellamy didn’t have much time to enjoy his success. A massive storm sank the Whydah, claiming untold amounts of treasure and most of the crew, including Bellamy himself.
Centuries later, Clifford and his colleagues have unearthed countless relics and treasures from the wreck, and they established the Whydah Pirate Museum to share Bellamy’s story.
Even though Clifford’s team has been studying this site for decades, he still felt like they were only scratching the surface. Then, one diving mission in late 2016 changed everything.
The explorers located a large chunk of debris from the Whydah that had many artifacts trapped inside of it. They hauled it up to dry land for a closer look.
It presented a virtual treasure trove, with genuine coins and seafaring equipment jutting through the rough surface. But this motherlode contained one thing the scientists didn’t expect to find… human bones.
They came across a femur just a short distance away from what appeared to be Bellamy’s pistol. Could it be the remains of the late great Captain himself?
Wikimedia Commons / WellCome Images
Clifford knew they needed proof, so he recruited a team of forensic scientists. They extracted DNA from the bone and compared it to that of one of Bellamy’s descendants in the United Kingdom. At last, the results came in…
Flickr / vâniamoreira1
But it was not a match. This bone likely belonged to an anonymous crew member, but certainly not to Captain Bellamy. The elusive Black Sam slipped away from authorities once again.
The bad news sunk Clifford’s theory faster than the Whydah. Nevertheless, the bone gave researchers the chance to learn more about the typical sailor from that era.
Clifford can still take pride in his ongoing excavation of the Whydah. After all, no other famous pirate ship has been studied so closely. Nobody can question his accomplishments or contributions to history.
Besides, the mysteries of the Whydah are still out there in the briny deep, and Bellamy’s final resting place may even surface someday. All it will take is the right person to find it.