The Mysterious Bronze Objects That Have Baffled Archaeologists for Centuries

The Roman dodecahedron Brian Campbell found in East London
The Roman dodecahedron Brian Campbell found in East London
Brian Campbell

One August day in 1987, Brian Campbell was refilling the hole left by a tree stump in his yard in Romford, East London, when his shovel struck something metal. He leaned down and pulled the object from the soil, wondering at its strange shape. The object was small—smaller than a tennis ball—and caked with heavy clay. “My first impressions," Campbell tells Mental Floss, "were it was beautifully and skillfully made … probably by a blacksmith as a measuring tool of sorts.”

Campbell placed the artifact on his kitchen windowsill, where it sat for the next 10 or so years. Then, he visited the Roman fort and archaeological park in Saalburg, Germany—and there, in a glass display case, was an almost identical object. He realized that his garden surprise was a Roman dodecahedron: a 12-sided metal mystery that has baffled archaeologists for centuries. Although dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of explanations have been offered to account for the dodecahedrons, no one is certain just what they were used for.

AN ANCIENT PUZZLE

A dodecahedron at the Saalburg Roman Fort Archaeological Park
A dodecahedron at the Saalburg Roman Fort Archaeological Park
Rüdiger Schwartz/Saalburg Roman Fort Archaeological Park

The first Roman dodecahedron to intrigue archaeologists was found almost 300 years ago, buried in a field in the English countryside along with some ancient coins. "A piece of mixed metal, or ancient brass, consisting of 12 equal sides," read the description of the egg-sized object when it was presented to the Society of Antiquaries in London in 1739. The 12 faces had "an equal number of perforations within them, all of unequal diameters, but opposite to one another … every faceing had a knobb or little ball fixed to it." The antiquarians were flummoxed by the finely crafted metal shell, and what its purpose may have been.

The 1739 dodecahedron was far from the last discovery of its kind. More than 100 similar objects have since been found at dozens of sites across northern Europe dating to around the 1st to 5th centuries CE. Ranging in size from about a golf ball to a bit larger than a baseball, each one has 12 equally sized faces, and each face has a hole of varying diameter. The objects themselves are all hollow.

By the mid-19th century, as more were found, the objects became known to archaeologists as dodecahedrons, from the Greek for “12 faces.” They're on display today in dozens of museums and archaeological collections throughout Europe, although given how little is known about them, their explanatory labels tend to be brief.

What's more, they have no paper trail. Historians have found no written documentation of the dodecahedrons in any historical sources. That void has encouraged dozens of competing, and sometimes colorful, theories about their purpose, from military banner ornaments to candleholders to props used in magic spells. The obvious craftsmanship that went into them—at a time when metal objects were expensive and difficult to make—has prompted many researchers to argue they were valuable, an idea that's supported by the fact that several have been found stashed away with Roman-era coins. But that still doesn't explain why they were made.

ARMED AND DANGEROUS?

A Roman cavalry charge, a relief from the Arch of Constantine in Rome, circa 315 CE
A Roman cavalry charge, from the Arch of Constantine in Rome, circa 315 CE
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the 19th century, some antiquarians favored the theory that the dodecahedrons were a type of weapon—perhaps the head of a mace (a type of club with a heavy head), or a metal bullet for a hand-held sling. But as other scholars later pointed out, even the largest of the dodecahedrons are too light to inflict much damage. Moreover, Roman soldiers usually fired solid lead balls from their slings—nothing that looked like the intricate, and hollow, dodecahedrons.

Yet weapons aren't the only items useful in a war. Amelia Sparavigna, a physicist at Italy’s Politecnico di Torino, thinks the dodecahedrons were used by the Roman military as a type of rangefinder. In research published on the online repository arXiv in 2012, Sparavigna argued that they could have been used to calculate the distance to an object of known size (such as a military banner or an artillery weapon) by looking through pairs of the dodecahedrons' differently sized holes, until the object and the edges of the two circles in the dodecahedron aligned. Theoretically, only one set of holes for a given distance would line up, according to Sparavigna.

The theory is strengthened by the fact that several of the dodecahedrons have been found at Roman military sites. Sparavigna tells Mental Floss that “the small little studs [on the outside allow for] a good grip of the object. So an expert soldier could use it in any condition,” while the many pairs of holes allowed them to quickly select between a variety of ranges. “The Roman army needed a rangefinder, and the dodecahedron can be used as a rangefinder,” she explains.

But many modern scholars disagree. Historian Tibor Grüll of the University of Pécs in Hungary, who reviewed the academic literature about the dodecahedrons in 2016, points out that no two Roman dodecahedrons are the same size, and none have any numerals or letters engraved on them—markings you might expect on a mathematical instrument. “In my opinion, the practical function of this object can be excluded because ... none of the items have any inscriptions or signs on [them],” Grüll tells Mental Floss.

He points to the distribution of the objects as an important clue. They have been found across a northwestern swath of the former Roman Empire from Hungary to northern England, but not in other Roman territories such as Italy, Spain, North Africa, or the Middle East. That lack works against the idea that the objects were military devices. "If it was a tool for ranging artillery," Grull says, "why does it not appear all over the empire in a military context?"

GUESSING GAMES

Perhaps the dodecahedrons were used for play, not war. Some scholars have suggested they may have been part of a child’s toy, like the French cup-and-ball game known as bilboquet, which dates from the Middle Ages. Their shape also invites comparisons to the dice used for gambling, a common pastime in the Roman era. But most Roman dice were six-sided, smaller, and carved from solid wood, stone, or ivory. Plus, the differently sized holes on each face of the dodecahedrons makes them useless as dice: One side is always heavier than the other, so they always fall the same way.

Many scholars have suggested that the items had a special cultural significance, and perhaps even a religious function, for the peoples in the formerly Gallic regions of northern Europe. The 1939 discovery of a well-preserved bronze dodecahedron in Krefeld, near Germany’s border with the Netherlands, lends credence to this idea. The object was found in the 4th-century CE grave of a wealthy woman, along with the remains of a bone staff. According to an essay from the Gallo-Roman Museum at Tongeren in Belgium, the dodecahedron was likely mounted on the staff like a kind of scepter head, and "probably ascribed with magical powers, bestowing religious power and prestige on its owner."

Or perhaps they had a different kind of cultural significance. Divination or fortune-telling was popular throughout the Roman empire, and the 12 sides of the dodecahedrons could suggest a link to the astrological zodiac. Others have suggested a link to Plato, who said that the dodecahedron was the shape “used for embroidering the constellations on the whole heaven.” (It's not quite clear exactly what Plato was talking about.)

Rüdiger Schwarz, an archaeologist at the Saalburg Roman Archaeological Park near Frankfurt in Germany—where Campbell first identified the curious object he'd found—explains that any discussion of the cultural significance of the objects is purely speculative. “We have no sources from antiquity which give an explanation of the function or the meaning of these objects,” Schwarz says. “Any of these theories may be true, but can neither be proved right or wrong.”

Schwarz points to another theory: The dodecahedrons may have been a type of “masterpiece” to show off a craftsman's metalworking abilities. This might be why they rarely show any signs of wear. “In this respect, the technical function of the dodecahedron is not the crucial point. It is the quality and accuracy of the work piece that is astonishing,” he tells Mental Floss. “One could imagine that a Roman bronze caster had to show his ability by manufacturing a dodecahedron in order to achieve a certain status.”

SOLDIERS IN THE BACKYARD

Of course, the internet loves an ancient mystery, and ideas about the purpose of the Roman dodecahedrons have flourished there. The work of Dutch researcher G.M.C. Wagemans, detailed at romandodecahedron.com, proposes that the objects were astronomical instruments used to calculate agriculturally important dates in the spring and fall by measuring the angle of sunlight through the different pairs of holes. Other internet researchers, perhaps less seriously, have used 3D-printed models of the Roman dodecahedrons for knitting experiments, and suggested that the true purpose of the objects was to create differently sized fingers for Roman woolen gloves.

Campbell has taken his artifact to several museums in London, but beyond confirming what it is, they could provide no further clues about its particular origin or purpose. "Many [is] the time I have handled it wondering as to its exact use," he says.

While Campbell has no clear idea what the Romans were doing with the dodecahedron—which he now keeps in a display cabinet in his house—he does propose how it might have come to be in his garden: by being left behind by soldiers traveling between London and the early Roman provincial capital of Camulodunum, now Colchester in Essex. Romford was at that time a river crossing and the probable site of a fortified posting station used by Roman troops for changing horses and resting in safety.

“Two thousand years ago, I believe this area was forested and the River Rom's flood plain was much wider than today,” Campbell says. “I often form a picture in my head of 100 or so Roman soldiers in full uniform bedding down in the area, now the bottom of my garden.”

Roman dodecahedrons are still being found today. Recent examples have been unearthed by metal-detectorists in the north of England, and by archaeologists excavating a late-Roman rubbish pit in the north of France [PDF]. It's likely more will be found in the future.

But unless someone also finds an instruction manual—and after more than 1500 years, that seems doubtful—the Roman dodecahedrons will continue to baffle, and fascinate, for many years to come.

Mental Floss's 40 Favorite Stories of 2019

Yoyochow23/iStock via Getty Images
Yoyochow23/iStock via Getty Images

In any given year, Mental Floss publishes upwards of 5000 stories—from short news posts to in-depth lists to longform features to oral histories and everything in between. And while our readers have made their favorite stories of 2019 known, now it’s our staff’s turn. In case you missed any of them, these were our favorite stories to write, edit, read, and share with all of you over the past 12 months.

1. Man Opens Can of Beans, Finds Just One Bean

Sometimes a story comes along that is so random and un-news-worthy that it actually becomes news-worthy. Ellen Gutoskey's harrowing tale of a man in England who came home hungry one night after a long day and tore into a can of beans only to find "a pathetic, lone bean drowned in a sea of savory-yet-unsatisfying bean juice" is the perfect example of just such a story. —Jennifer M. Wood

2. How Harry Houdini Tricked Theodore Roosevelt

harry houdini and theodore roosevelt aboard the ss imperator
Harry Houdini and Theodore Roosevelt aboard the SS Imperator.
Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

We'd briefly featured this encounter between two larger-than-life historical figures in a list, and while I'd hoped to fit it into the first season of our History Vs. podcast, it didn't quite fit anywhere. But it was too good a story not to tell in full, and Ellen Gutoskey did a phenomenal job of spelling out Houdini's trickery—and TR's gullibility. —Erin McCarthy

3. 10 Examples of the Mandela Effect

I knew that “No, I am your father” from 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back is often misquoted as “Luke, I am your father,” which I thought was a weird, kind of cute, definitely isolated incident. Finding out from Jake Rossen’s article that there’s an entire category of collective false memories was extremely jarring and also—because I love to remind my brain that it’s not as great as it thinks it is—very fun! —Ellen Gutoskey

4. Bessie Coleman, the Black Cherokee Female Pilot Who Made Aviation History

Photo illustration of Bessie Coleman.
Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain

Michele Debczak delivered a touching tribute to this little-known aviator, who broke boundaries and refused to be discouraged from following her passion. It's the story we all sometimes need to read as a reminder that determination and grit can take you to places you've never been. —Jake Rossen

5. The One Where Jennifer Aniston's 'Rachel' Haircut on Friends Became a Phenomenon

In honor of the 25th anniversary of the premiere of Friends, Jay Serafino investigated an aspect of the show that had a huge impact: Jennifer Aniston's haircut. I'm not exactly a Friends super-fan, but I do love stories that answer questions about random pop culture trends that I would never think to ask. And this was definitely one of them. —Michele Debczak

6. Anthony Daniels Finally Explains the Mystery of That Obscene C-3PO Trading Card

The torso of 'Star Wars' droid C-3PO is pictured

Kory westerhold, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

I don’t often get starstruck, but when I saw that Jake Rossen had actually talked to C-3PO himself, Anthony Daniels, I shot out about a half-dozen texts to friends and family. And to think that we actually got the scoop behind Threepio’s phallic trading card mishap—well, 11-year-old me couldn’t be prouder. —Jay Serafino

7. The Story of Kate Warne, America's First Female Private Detective

In the 1800s, a time when women didn’t have many rights, let alone opportunities, Kate Warne made her own way. After fighting her way into law enforcement, Warne became the first female private detective in America. She went on to solve cases of theft, thwart a murder plot, and—most importantly—help President Abraham Lincoln journey through secessionist territory safely. But despite all of Warne’s work, there’s a surprisingly small amount of information out there about her. So, while it’s compelling to read about her cases, Warne’s story is an important one to tell to ensure that women who helped pave the way for better opportunities are not erased from history. —Kristen Richard

8. Happy Little Mystery Solved: We Finally Know What Happened to All of Bob Ross’s Paintings

Bob Ross painting landscape.
Bob Ross Inc.

Back in 2012, we ran a story titled “What Happened to Bob Ross’ Paintings?” This year, we finally got an answer to that question. And as Michele Debczak reported, the answer might have been sitting right in front of us all along: they're in a regular storage room (no climate-controlled environment for these works of art) at Bob Ross Inc. headquarters in northern Virginia. Mystery solved! —JMW

9. When Harriet Tubman Helped Lead a Civil War Raid That Freed 750 People

Harriet Tubman was a majestic badass (I don't use this word lightly) with a moral compass any of us would be lucky to possess. She saved hundreds of people even though she was triply oppressed: a woman, a person of color, and suffering from serious medical issues. This story about a Civil War raid she helped lead is just one small but fascinating piece of her life story, but I think it's a must-read. Also, if I can put on my editor's hat for a second, Brigit Katz turned in a perfect piece in a tight timeframe and meticulously linked on her facts; an editor's dream. —Bess Lovejoy

10. Venus Flytraps in Peril: Why Everyone's Favorite Carnivorous Houseplant is Under Threat

Bunch of Venus flytraps.
protechpr/iStock via Getty Images

I can't go to a flea market or county fair and consider buying a Venus flytrap after reading Michele Debczak's's exposé of the myriad factors threatening these carnivorous cuties. Not only did she reveal an ecosystem of poachers, traders, and climatic changes affecting their survival; we also meet the botanists and conservationists trying to save the li'l native plants. But the buck ultimately stops with consumers, who will want to avoid buying Venus flytraps after reading this powerful feature. —Kat Long

Before this story, I had no idea that Venus flytraps can only be found wild in one 75-mile stretch of the Carolinas. Michele seamlessly blends crime and environmentalism in a story that's full of surprises, whether she's discussing the beneficial effects of controlled burns or how the commercial popularity of flytraps grown in a lab could be endangering the ones in the wild. —BL

11. Could Gigantic Coconut Crabs Have Played a Part in Amelia Earhart’s Mysterious Disappearance?

At least one scientist and one Mental Floss staff writer think so, actually. As far-fetched as this headline seems, the evidence in the article is strangely compelling. Basically, scientists found U.S.-made artifacts on the island of Nikumaruro, and bone-sniffing dogs confirmed that a human had died at the site. However, since Earhart’s remains have never been found, it’s been suggested that giant coconut crabs have scattered them across the island. I’m waiting for the next bit of news to break in this case like I used to wait for the next Harry Potter book to come out. —EG

12. How Did Casper the Friendly Ghost Die?

A still from Casper (1995)
Universal Pictures

Growing up, I loved Casper the Friendly Ghost—the cartoons, the comics, the movie—yet the implications of him being a ghost never really occurred to me. Which would or should mean that he likely met some sort of untimely death at a young age. Leave it to Jake Rossen to point this out during an editorial brainstorm, and happily volunteer to do a deep dive into Casper's history to dig up any clues about how this friendly spirit met his ultimate demise. —JMW

13. 11 Things We No Longer See in Schools

This piece made me so nostalgic for rifling through the card catalog in the school library, writing on the chalkboard, and, yes, even gym glass (although in my day, the dodgeball balls were rubber, not foam). —EM

14. Who Has Jurisdiction Over Crimes Committed in Space?

An illustration depicts a skeleton inside of an astronaut suit
nedelcupaul/iStock via Getty Images

I'll let Jake Rossen's introduction to this fascinating feature speak for itself: "It's 2050. Humans have mastered commercial space travel. Hundreds of people pay thousands of dollars to be sent into orbit in a spaceship. Maybe some decide to help colonize Mars. Then, trouble. A jilted spouse. A smuggled firearm. Perhaps a struggle followed by suffocation. A space traveler is found dead on board a ship or on the Red Planet. Who has jurisdiction over such crimes?" With his patented blend of humor and dead seriousness, Jake adroitly broke down an issue that world leaders should consider when and if humans begin regularly visiting our neighbors in the solar system. —KL

15. When Taco Bell Tried (And Failed) to Conquer Mexico

What constitutes "authentic" cuisine, and does authenticity always matter? These were the questions Taco Bell faced while attempting to infiltrate the Mexican market. The fact that Taco Bell never caught on in the home of the taco may not be surprising, but the tactics the company used when trying to build a presence south of the border make for a fascinating bit of fast food history. —MD

16. Frost Bite: When Sub-Zero Temperatures Shattered an Antarctic Explorer's Teeth

An image of Antarctic explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard.
The History Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

I don’t have a lot of phobias, but the ones I do have are kind of odd and very specific: Being attacked by a squirrel is one of them, and having my teeth shatter is another. So Erin McCarthy had me hooked from the title with this story about Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a 20th century explorer whose teeth actually shattered from the sub-zero temperatures he was forced to contend with while on a scientific mission in Antarctica. Erin’s detailed recap of his adventures had me engrossed, and grossed out, in equal parts. —JMW

17. The Time the U.S. Government Banned Sliced Bread

The government has probably tried to ban everything at one time or another, but sliced bread seems a little excessive even for them. Lucas Reilly takes an eye-catching headline and then eases the reader into a world where, yes, this almost happened—and it sounds surprisingly sane. Any piece that utilizes the phrase "baking regulations" and expounds on the "stern measures" the feds were aiming to use against Big Bread is worth your time. —JR

18. 11 Secrets of Lexicographers

Open pages of a dictionary.
Fotokresba/iStock via Getty Images

We here at Mental Floss are obsessed with words, from old-timey slang to words just added to the dictionary—so to be able to go behind-the-scenes with the people who put the words in dictionaries was especially thrilling. —EM

19. Unraveling the History of Human Hair

Hair: most of us have it, but have you ever thought deeply about how it came to be on your head? Freelancer Lorraine Boissoneault did, and returned with a fascinating dive into the little-known evolution of human hair. We've barely begun to study hair, it turns out; researchers are just starting to come up with systems to describe hair types, colors, and textures. Meanwhile, DNA evidence from hair is revealing more about us and how humans have lived over millennia. After reading Lorraine's story, you'll never watch an episode of Forensic Files the same way again. —KL

20. 30 Years Later: The Great Milli Vanilli Hoax

Milli Vanilli, portraits, London, 27 September 1988, L-R Rob Pilatus, Fab Morvan
Michael Putland/Getty Images

After making a Milli Vanilli reference that fell pretty flat, I realized that the most notorious band of the '90s is no longer a universally known quantity. And I needed to make sure that Mental Floss could do its part to right that wrong. As usual, music writer Ken Partridge was up for digging into the history of the Grammy-winning duo and writing a great piece on exactly what went down during, and after, one of the music industry's greatest hoaxes was made public. —JMW

21. The Sea Waif: A Murder on the Ocean and the Little Girl Who Stayed Alive

Deanna Cioppa is a fantastic writer—every word is sure and strong. I was captivated by this story of an 11-year-old girl whose family was murdered at sea in 1961, and who survived for several days afterward on the open ocean in a tiny life raft. Not only that, the girl—Terry Jo Duperrault—went on to live a fulfilling life, and wrote a book about her whole ordeal. If that's not fortitude, I don't know what is. —BL

22. Alien Encounter: The Life and Death of Walt Disney World's Scariest Ride Ever

Sign outside ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter.
Sam Howzit, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Michele Debczak has a knack for backstories. And when she started talking about the history of Walt Disney World's Alien Encounter—a "ride" I experienced firsthand back in the early '90s—we knew we had a fascinating story on our hands. As always, she delivered exactly that. —JMW

23. 15 Things You Might Not Have Known About the RMS Titanic

Kat Long’s wealth of knowledge about the RMS Titanic makes you think she might’ve been a consultant on the James Cameron’s 1997 movie (she wasn’t—in fact, she’s never even seen it!). From what survivors thought after the collision to what went down at the inquiry, her list of little-known facts is so full of detail and intrigue that you’ll likely want to share it with everyone you’ve ever talked to. —EG

24. What's the Difference Between Cement and Concrete?

Concrete being poured from tube.
Vladimir Kokorin/iStock via Getty Images

Thanks to many years spent editing at Popular Mechanics, using the terms cement and concrete interchangeably is one of my pet peeves. I'm thrilled we published something that sets the record straight! —EM

25. Cats Make Facial Expressions, But Not Everyone Can Read Them

I love cats, but like many people, I've always felt like I've never quite understood them. So it was interesting to learn that they not only have different facial expressions, but that pretty much the only people who could read them spent a lot of time around felines, further showing cats are just as complex as we thought. —KR

26. The Bizarre Tale of the Orca II, the Stunt Boat from Jaws

A mechanical shark attacks the replica 'Orca II' boat during filming of 1975's 'Jaws'
Courtesy of Jaws: Memories from Martha's Vineyard // Photo by Lynn and Susan Murphy

As someone who has never seen 1975's Jaws (sorry!), I started reading this article thinking it would be an interesting bit of pop culture with a little extra narrative flair, courtesy of Jake Rossen. But it was more than just a cool story—by the end, I felt like the Orca II was a lifelong pet that I had just watched slowly die. Like Jake says, it’s a “lesson in the fragility of cultural artifacts.” But also, surprisingly upbeat! —EG

27. How Thomas Jefferson's Obsession with Mastodons Partly Fueled the Lewis and Clark Expedition

Emily Petsko's funny and thought-provoking feature describes the study of natural history in the United States at the turn of the 19th century, led by our most scientifically minded president, Thomas Jefferson. In his effort to establish scientific inquiry in the new nation, Jefferson started a beef with the French naturalist Comte de Buffon and instructed Lewis and Clark to hunt down a mastodon to show up the European intellectuals. I love how Emily's story captures this unexpected slice of early American history. —KL

28. The 15 Best TV Series Finales of All Time

Bryan Cranston in the 'Breaking Bad' series finale
Ursula Coyote, AMC

As the final season of Game of Thrones began approaching this year, there was a lot of talk about how it would all play out and whether or not David Benioff and D.B. Weiss's finale would go down as one of the greatest of all time (spoiler alert: it didn't). But that got us talking about other series finales, and the creative tightrope walk that creating a great one truly is. The always-thoughtful Matthew Jackson did a fantastic job of breaking down some of the best finales of all time (I myself am torn between Six Feet Under and Breaking Bad), which sparked a lot of chatter—and some heated debates—among our readers (and ok, maybe among some staffers, too). —JMW

29. Cold Case: Revisiting Houston's Infamous Ice Box Murders

This one has everything you could want from a crime story: the corpses of an elderly couple stuffed inside a refrigerator, a baffled police force, and the mysterious son who went AWOL right before his parents’ heads were found in the vegetable crisper. It’s the quintessential tale of murder in a small town, but what makes this one really stand out is the lead image Jake Rossen found on Getty. —JS

30. 10 Forgotten Rankin/Bass Christmas Specials

A scene from Rudolph's Shiny New Year (1976)
A scene from Rudolph's Shiny New Year (1976).
Rankin/Bass Productions

I have never forgotten—oh, how I wish I could!—the bushy-eyebrowed nightmare of a vulture from 1976’s Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, but I had definitely forgotten every other Rankin/Bass special on this list. Michele Debczak's article unearthed a lot of cherished childhood memories for me, and also made me realize I was much less of a film critic as a five-year-old. —EG

31. When Theodore Roosevelt's Antique Gun Was Stolen From Sagamore Hill

When Tyler Kuliberda told me about this theft while I was visiting Sagamore Hill for the History Vs. podcast, I knew we had to write about it. Jake Rossen does a phenomenal job weaving together the narrative of the firearm, from its manufacture to its time on the Maine to its use by TR in the Spanish-American War—and, of course, its two disappearances. There's no better story for true crime addicts who also love TR. —EM

32. 6 Puzzling Anachronisms That Made It Into Shakespeare’s Plays

shakespeare impersonator at a laptop
iofoto/iStock via Getty Images

William Shakespeare may be widely considered one of the greatest writers to ever walk the Earth, but Ellen Gutoskey's rundown of a handful of tiny little mistakes he made in terms of time and place serve as a kind of nice reminder that nobody's perfect. —JMW

33. The Reason Behind Those Brightly Colored Balls Along Power Lines

Life is full of things we see so often they become invisible, which makes Ellen Gutoskey's story about the motivation behind those pervasive orange spheres so interesting. Of course we guess they have some kind of identification purpose, but the details throw the reader for a bit of a loop. It's the kind of story you read and immediately want to share. —JR

34. Why Little Women Still Matters, More Than 150 Years Later

Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh and Eliza Scanlen in Little Women (2019)
Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen in Greta Gerwig's Little Women (2019).
Wilson Webb / © 2019 CTMG, Inc.

We're at the end of 2019 and Little Women is in the news once again because of Greta Gerwig's newest film adaptation. The greatest stories are those that somehow transcend time, even if they're set in a very specific one. And as Garin Pirnia reminds us here, the fact that we're still not just talking about Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, but analyzing it through a modern-day lens, says much about this masterwork. —JMW

35. How Does Alberta, Canada, Stay Rat-Free?

A question you’ve surely been wondering about for decades, at least. As someone well-acquainted with subway rats, street rats, and every other subcategory of rat besmirching my beloved Manhattan, this article almost made me up and move to Alberta, Canada. The province's commitment to keeping the rats away is the best real-life fairytale I’ve ever heard. —EG

36. The Best Offbeat Museums to Visit in All 50 States

The exterior of The Idaho Potato Museum in Blackfoot, Idaho
The exterior of The Idaho Potato Museum in Blackfoot, Idaho.
Courtesy of The Idaho Potato Museum

I loved featuring so many unusual museums in one piece—and in fact, I have it bookmarked so that I can make sure to visit these weird and wonderful places whenever I find myself in the vicinity. And, after years of griping that we never feature D.C. on these lists, we finally listened! —EM

37. 8 of the Most Notorious Art Forgeries in History

I love stories about frauds, fakes, and things that are not as they seem. I was fascinated by Allison Meier's story of a family of art forgers in northern England who managed to pass off as legit a 10th-century reliquary, an ancient Egyptian statue, and a faun sculpture by Paul Gauguin, among other items. Police estimate they made around $1.6 million off their charade, which fooled some of the most esteemed institutions around. Meier also mentions the gothic frescoes at the Marienkirche church in Germany, which were revealed during World War II bombing and then "miraculously" restored—at least until a local painter came forward and revealed that the restoration was almost entirely his own invention. His "refurbishment" included modeling some of the supposedly ancient figures on a 1930s Austrian actress, the Russian mystic Rasputin, and his own father. —BL

38. London on Ice: The Georgian Frost Fairs Held on the River Thames

Frost Fair on the River Thames in the 17th Century
Thomas Wyke, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain in the United States

We live in a world threatened by warming global temperatures, but it wasn't always this way. In fact, it used to get so cold that both elephants and Queen Elizabeth I could romp upon the frozen Thames. Writer Evan Lubofsky explains how London's climate at the tail end of the Little Ice Age gave rise to fabulous frost fairs, and how our changing Earth has made these wintertime celebrations a thing of the past—likely forever. Evan manages to entertain with a tale blending history, science, and our uncertain future. —KL

39. 13 Facts About the Chauvet Cave Paintings

I have always been interested in how humans have found ways to express themselves with art throughout history. So I was particularly fascinated to read Kat Long's article about the almost perfectly preserved Chauvet Cave paintings in France. Not only will this article teach you more about the 14 different animal species that can be found on the wall, but you’ll learn how the cave formed, the first modern humans who inhabited it, and a lot more. —KR

40. 10 Wild Scooby-Doo Fan Theories

When it comes to digging up wacky, weird, and sometimes downright morbid fan theories, Kristin Hunt is our go-to writer. And while she has uncovered all sorts of weird ideas about shows like Breaking Bad, The Office, 30 Rock, Friends, and Downton Abbey, the fact that so many people have put so much thought—much of it very dark indeed—into Scooby-Doo amazed me. And had me laughing out loud. —JMW

26 Fascinating Facts About Fossils

Mental Floss via YouTube
Mental Floss via YouTube

If you’ve never visited the Big Bone Room, you’re in luck. Check out our visit to New York City's American Museum of Natural History for a rundown on fossils, which provide invaluable insight into our understanding of history and its once-living occupants.

In this edition of "The List Show," editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy explains the ins and outs of excavation, fossil follies (extinct giants were a big miss), and the terrorizing prospect of a 3-foot-tall parrot.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here!

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