11 Things Lost, Then Rediscovered, At Museums

beautysupreme/iStock via Getty Images
beautysupreme/iStock via Getty Images

Museums often have millions of items in their collections, so it’s not surprising that things occasionally get misidentified or even lost—but it must be a nice surprise to rediscover them. Here are just a few examples of specimens and artifacts that were lost, then found, in museums.

1. Beetles Collected by David Livingstone

In October 2014, while he was searching the collections of London's Natural History Museum, Max Barclay found a wooden box with 20 beetles pinned inside and labeled “Zambezi coll. by Dr. Livingstone.” That would be Dr. David Livingstone, who collected the insects during his Zambezi expedition of 1858–64, the first European venture to reach and explore Lake Malawi in Africa. Barclay, the museum's collections manager of Coleoptera and Hymenoptera, said the beetle hoard “includes almost 10 million specimens, assembled over centuries ... I have worked here for more than 10 years and it was a complete surprise and incredibly exciting to find these well-preserved beetles, brought back from Africa 150 years ago almost to the day.”

The beetles were among a collection of 15,000 insects left to the museum by lawyer and amateur entomologist Edward Young Western when he died in 1924; he may have acquired the specimens from one of the members of the expedition at a natural history auction in the 1860s. Although the specimens were technically the property of the government, they were never published, so selling them quietly would have been relatively easy.

The specimens aren’t just a cool find; they also have scientific value. Researchers at the museum can use the historical specimens “to study the effect of changing environments on plants and animals around the world,” Barclay said.

2. A 6500-Year-Old Human Skeleton

Janet Monge, curator-in-charge of the physical anthropology section of the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, had always known about the mystery skeleton, which sat in a wooden box in basement storage. It had been at the museum as long as she had been. But no one understood its significance until this 2014, when researchers were working to digitize records from Sir Leonard Woolley’s 1929-30 excavation at the site of Ur in southern Iraq.

William Hafford, Ur digitization project manager, and his team found records indicating which unearthed objects went to which museums after Woolley's dig. According to a press release, half of the artifacts stayed in the newly formed nation of Iraq, and the other half was split between the two museums that had sponsored the excavation, the British Museum and the Penn Museum. Among a number of items on the list were “one tray of ‘mud of the flood’ and ‘two skeletons,’” the press release notes. “Further research into the museum's object record database indicated that one of those skeletons, 31-17-404, deemed ‘pre-flood’ and found in a stretched position, was recorded as ‘not accounted for’ as of 1990.”

Woolley’s field notes contained photos of the archaeologist “removing an Ubaid skeleton intact, covering it in wax, bolstering it on a piece of wood, and lifting it out using a burlap sling,” according to the museum. Monge told Hafford that she had no records of a skeleton like that, but did have a mystery skeleton in a box—and after the box was opened it was clear that the 6500-year-old skeleton was the one unearthed during Woolley’s excavation.

Scientists have named the skeleton—which once belonged to a muscular middle-aged man standing 5 feet 8 inches to 5 feet 10 inches—Noah, because he lived after a great flood that had covered southern Iraq.

3. Barnacles from Charles Darwin

Collection of barnacles from Charles Darwin
Joakim Engel, Statens Natuhistoriske Museum

In the decade before he published On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin corresponded with Japetus Steenstrup, then head of the Royal Natural History Museum in Denmark (the precursor to the current Natural History Museum’s Zoological Museum), who lent Darwin some fossilized barnacles in November 1849 for his Species research. “It is a noble collection, & I feel most grateful to you for having entrusted them to me,” Darwin wrote Steenstrup when he received the box of barnacles in January 1850. “I will take great care of your specimens.” (According to the History Blog, when the packages were late, Darwin was so concerned that he actually put an ad in the paper offering a reward for their return.)

When she was studying the correspondence between the two scientists, Hanne Strager, the head of exhibitions at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, noticed in the correspondence that Darwin mentioned a list of 77 additional barnacles he had sent as a gift when returned the borrowed barnacles to Steenstrup in 1854. That list was found in Steenstrup’s papers, and the museum was able to locate 55 of the barnacles, with the original labels—not an easy task, because they had not been kept together. As the History Blog notes, there wasn’t a reason to keep them together: “On the Origin of Species was five years away. The barnacles were seen as specimens like any other, not the curated collection of a great pioneering scientist. They were spread throughout the museum collection according to their species.” The museum has since put the specimens on display. Most of the missing barnacles come from one genus, and were probably lent out to another institution or scientist who never returned them.

A number of Darwin specimens have been lost and then rediscovered, including a beetle he found on an expedition to Argentina (which was named Darwinilus sedarisi in the scientist’s honor 180 years later); the taxidermied remains of a tortoise he captured in the Galapagos and kept as a pet; and a Tinamou bird egg he collected during the HMS Beagle expedition.

4. The Earliest Tyrannosaurid

This exceptionally well-preserved fossil, found in Gloucestershire, England, during an excavation in 1910, ended up in the collections of the Natural History Museum of London in 1942. It was misclassified for a number of years—its discoverers thought it was a new species of Megalosaurus—but eventually it was recognized as an unknown genus and dubbed Proceratosaurus. In 2009, scientists used computed tomography scans to determine that the dino is the oldest known relative of the Tyrannosauridae. It lived around 165 million years ago.

"If you look at [Proceratosaurus] in detail, it has the same kinds of windows in the side of the skull for increasing the jaw muscles," Angela Milner, associate keeper of paleontology at the Natural History Museum, told the BBC. "It has the same kinds of teeth—particularly at the front of the jaws. They're small teeth and almost banana-shaped, which are just the kind of teeth T. rex has. Inside the skull, which we were able to look at using CT scanning, there are lots of internal air spaces. Tyrannosaurus had those as well."

"This is a unique specimen,” Milner said. “It is the only one of its kind known in the world."

5. A Long-Beaked Echidna

Up until last year, scientists believed that the endangered, egg-laying long-beaked echidna had last lived in Australia 11,000 years ago—until the Natural History Museum in London found a specimen from their collections. According to its tag, the echidna was collected in Australia in 1901; the handwriting belonged to naturalist John Tunney, who visited North West Australia to collect specimens for Lord Walter Rothschild’s private collection (Rothschild apparently kept common echidnas, among other exotic animals, as pets).

The only known population of long-beaked echidnas live in the forests of New Guinea, but this discovery might mean that the creature isn’t extinct in Australia at all, and is still living undetected in some remote part of the continent. The region where Tunney collected this specimen is still so hard to reach that to get to parts of it requires a helicopter. Scientists plan to look for the long-beaked echidnas. "Finding a species that we … [thought] was extinct for thousands of years and still alive, that would be the best news ever,” Roberto Portela Miguez, curator of the mammals department at the Natural History Museum in London, told iTV.

6. Alfred Russel Wallace's Butterflies

Interns are routinely saddled with less-than-desirable projects, and on the surface, Athena Martin appeared to be one of those interns: During a four-week internship at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, the 17-year-old’s assignment was to go through 3340 drawers of butterflies searching for specimens collected by Alfred Russel Wallace, a Victorian naturalist who came up with the idea of evolution and natural selection independently of Darwin. The museum knew that there were specimens of Wallace’s in its collection, but didn’t know which specimens were his, or what species he had collected.

Martin’s task was not an easy one—it required her to read the tiny, handwritten labels pinned beside each insect—but it paid off: The intern discovered 300 of Wallace’s specimens, including a Dismorphia, which Wallace collected in the Amazon from 1848-52. It’s a particularly exciting find because his boat caught on fire during the return journey and most of the specimens were lost at sea. “I was a bit confused when I first found the Amazon specimen,” Martin said in a press release, “because I thought there might have been a labeling error due to the unusual location in comparison to the other specimens I was finding. It wasn't until I showed the specimen to [my supervisor James Hogan] that I found out that it was from the Amazon.”

The butterflies weren’t the only Wallace specimen lost and then found: In 2011, Daniele Cicuzza of the Cambridge University Herbarium found fern specimens—33 species in 22 genera and 17 families—that Wallace had collected on Gunung Muan Mountain in Borneo.

7. A Bear Claw Necklace from the Lewis and Clark Expedition

Bear claw necklace
Peabody Museum, Harvard University // Used With Permission

Sometimes, doing an inventory of what’s in storage can be very interesting, as two collections assistants at Harvard’s Peabody Museum found out in 2003. The duo was photographing artifacts in the Oceania storerooms when they came upon a grizzly bear claw necklace in excellent condition. They soon realized that the necklace had been incorrectly identified—it wasn’t Oceanic at all. Further research revealed that the necklace came from the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806, and was one of just seven surviving Native American artifacts that were definitely brought back by the explorers. It had been missing since it was cataloged in 1899.

The primary purpose of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark's two-year journey from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean was to map the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase, but they also studied the area’s plant and animal life and tried to establish relations with Native American tribes. It was perhaps in one of those meetings that they received the bear claw necklace, which was probably given to the explorers by a chief. "Bear claw necklaces, which relate to the bravery and stature of warriors, were treasured by Indian people,” Gaylord Torrence, curator of Native American art at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, said in a press release. “They are rare from any time period. The newly discovered bear claw necklace acquired by Lewis and Clark is quite probably the earliest surviving example in the world."

The necklace—which contains 38 bear claws—had a convoluted path to the Peabody. After the expedition, it was donated to the Peale Museum in Philadelphia; when the Peale closed in 1848, the necklace went to the Boston Museum, owned by the Kimball family. When that museum suffered fire damage in 1899, 1400 objects from its collection went to the Peabody Museum at Harvard, including the bear claw necklace. However, the Kimball family apparently changed its mind and decided to keep the necklace, even though the Peabody had already cataloged it. A Kimball descendant donated the necklace to the Peabody in 1941, and a staff member mistakenly cataloged it as an artifact from the South Pacific Islands.

8. Insect Fossils from the Jurassic

In the 1800s, geologist Charles Moore excavated hundreds fossils from sites in the southwest of England, including a quarry called Strawberry Bank near Ilminster. Most of Moore’s collection—which contained as many as 4000 specimens—was bought by the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution (BRLSI) in 1915, 34 years after the geologist’s death. But part of the collection was given away to the Museum of Somerset (then the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society), where it was put in storage and forgotten for almost a century. In 2011, these specimens—which includes insect fossils dating back to the Jurassic—were rediscovered when the BRLSI received a grant to restore Moore’s fossils. "These packages haven't been unwrapped since 1915 and some are in wrappings dating back to 1867, so it's quite exciting to unwrap them for the first time,” Matt Williams, collections manager at the BRLSI, told the BBC. “Amongst them I have been discovering unknown Strawberry Bank specimens.”

9. A Juvenile Human's Mandible

In 2002, scientists in the department of anthropology at the Field Museum of Natural History were reorganizing the European archeological collections when they found a juvenile mandible, which had come from Solutré, an Upper Paleolithic site that was excavated beginning in 1866. This particular specimen, unearthed in 1896, had somehow not been noticed, but in 2003, the pieces were analyzed, and according to a paper published in Paleo, “The specimen is comprised of approximately 60 percent of a juvenile mandible, broken post-mortem into two fragments … The resulting age range for this individual is 6.7-9.4 years, with an average of 8.3 years.” Radiocarbon dating revealed that the mandible was much more recent in origin than the ground in which it was found; it dates to 240 AD and 540 AD. In the paper, the scientists write that it’s safe to assume “the human mandible, no. 215505, represents a much later burial which intruded into bona fide Upper Paleolithic strata. … While this result lessens the significance of the individual specimen, it does begins to offer some insight into the nature and stratigraphy of the archaeological levels of Solutré as is represented in collections at the Field Museum of Natural History.”

10. An Emperor Penguin

Photographs taken of the University of Dundee’s D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum when it first opened in the early 1900s show a beautiful emperor penguin specimen on display. The bird made it through the demolition of the old museum in the 1950s, then disappeared. It turned up in the ‘70s, when it served as the mascot for the Dundee University Biology Society. The penguin got lugged around on nights out and even propped up the bar at one of the students’ regular drinking destinations. Eventually, those late nights and bar-prop duties took their toll: The hard-partying penguin’s condition deteriorated, and in the ‘80s, it was sent off to a natural history museum to be restored. And then it disappeared again.

The bird wasn’t found for another three decades, when it turned up in The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum collection in April 2014. “We have finally been able to have the planned conservation work carried out and our penguin is looking as good as new in its new home in the D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum,” Matthew Jarron, curator of museum services at the university, said in a press release. The bird was promptly put back on display.

11. A Tlingit War Helmet

In 2013, staffers at the Springfield Science Museum in Massachusetts were selecting objects for a new exhibition called “People of the Northwest Coast" when curator of anthropology Ellen Savulis came across a very interesting artifact. Described in records as an "Aleutian hat," it was ornately carved from a single piece of dense wood. None of the information she could find about hats made by Aleutians matched the object she was studying. So she called Steve Henrikson, curator of collections at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau, to ask him about it. When he viewed images, Henrikson knew that it was a war helmet made by the Tlingit people of southwest Alaska. Based on its decoration, he deduced that it was likely made in the mid-19th century or earlier.

The helmet entered the museum collection sometime after 1899 and was labeled "Aleutian hat," and was entered into the museum's collection records under that name. Forty years later, it received a permanent collection number, then sat in museum storage until Savulis discovered it. "It’s very rare," Henrikson said in a press release about the discovery. "There are less than 100 Tlingit war helmets in existence that we know of. I’ve been studying them for over 20 years and I’m sure I’ve seen most of them.”

10 Facts About the Winter Solstice, the Shortest Day of the Year

Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Amid the whirl of the holiday season, many are vaguely aware of the approach of the winter solstice, but how much do you really know about it? Whether you're a fan of winter or just wish it would go away, here are 10 things to note—or even celebrate—about the shortest day of the year.

1. The winter solstice HAPPENS ON DECEMBER 21/22 in 2019.

Sun setting behind a tree in the winter
buxtree/iStock via Getty Images

The date of the winter solstice varies from year to year, and can fall anywhere between December 20 and December 23, with the 21st or 22nd being the most common dates. The reason for this is because the tropical year—the time it takes for the sun to return to the same spot relative to Earth—is different from the calendar year. The next solstice occurring on December 20 will not happen until 2080, and the next December 23 solstice will not occur until 2303.

2. The winter solstice hAPPENS AT A SPECIFIC, BRIEF MOMENT.

sun setting through the trees
yanikap/iStock via Getty Images

Not only does the solstice occur on a specific day, but it also occurs at a specific time of day, corresponding to the instant the North Pole is aimed furthest away from the sun on the 23.5 degree tilt of the Earth's axis. This is also the time when the sun shines directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. In 2019, this moment occurs at 4:19 a.m. UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) on December 22. For those on Eastern Standard Time, the solstice will occur at 11:19 p.m. on December 21. And regardless of where you live, the solstice happens at the same moment for everyone on the planet.

3. The winter solstice mARKS THE LONGEST NIGHT AND SHORTEST DAY OF THE YEAR FOR THE NORTHERN HEMISPHERE.

sun setting over Central Park
rmbarricarte/iStock via Getty Images

As most are keenly aware, daylight hours grow shorter and shorter as the winter solstice approaches, and begin to slowly lengthen afterward. It's no wonder that the day of the solstice is referred to in some cultures as the "shortest day of the year" or "extreme of winter." New York City will experience 9 hours and 15 minutes of sunlight, compared to 15 hours and 5 minutes on the summer solstice. Helsinki, Finland, will get 5 hours and 49 minutes of light. Barrow, Alaska, will not have a sunrise at all (and hasn't since mid-November; its next sunrise will be on January 22), while the North Pole has had no sunrise since October. The South Pole, though, will be basking in the glow of the midnight sun, which won't set until March.

4. ANCIENT CULTURES VIEWED THE WINTER SOLSTICE AS A TIME OF DEATH AND REBIRTH.

snow on tree branches
Eerik/iStock via Getty Images

The seeming death of the light and very real threat of starvation over the winter months would have weighed heavily on early societies, who held varied solstice celebrations and rites meant to herald the return of the sun and hope for new life. Scandinavian and Germanic pagans lit fires and may have burned Yule logs as a symbolic means of welcoming back the light. Cattle and other animals were slaughtered around midwinter, followed by feasting on what was the last fresh meat for several months. The modern Druidic celebration Alban Arthan reveres the death of the Old Sun and birth of the New Sun.

5. THE  shortest DAY of the year MARKS THE DISCOVERY OF NEW AND STRANGE WORLDS.

Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth on December 21, 1620, to found a society that would allow them to worship freely. On the same day in 1898, Pierre and Marie Curie discovered radium, ushering in an atomic age. And on December 21, 1968, the Apollo 8 spacecraft launched, becoming the first manned moon mission.

6. THE WORD SOLSTICE TRANSLATES ROUGHLY TO "SUN STANDS STILL."

colorful sunset
a_Taiga/iStock via Getty Images

Solstice derives from the Latin scientific term solstitium, containing sol, which means "sun," and the past participle stem of sistere, meaning "to make stand." This comes from the fact that the sun’s position in the sky relative to the horizon at noon, which increases and decreases throughout the year, appears to pause in the days surrounding the solstice. In modern times, we view the phenomenon of the solstice from the position of space, and of the Earth relative to the sun. Earlier people, however, were thinking about the sun's trajectory, how long it stayed in the sky and what sort of light it cast.

7. STONEHENGE IS ALIGNED TO THE SUNSET ON the WINTER SOLSTICE.

Stonehenge sunset
jessicaphoto/iStock via Getty Images

The primary axis of the megalithic monument is oriented to the setting sun, while Newgrange, another structure built around the same time as Stonehenge, lines up with the winter solstice sunrise. Some have theorized that the position of the sun was of religious significance to the people who built Stonehenge, while other theories hold that the monument is constructed along natural features that happen to align with it. The purpose of Stonehenge is still subject to debate, but its importance on the winter solstice continues into the modern era, as thousands of hippies, pagans, and other types of enthusiasts gather there every year to celebrate the occasion.

8. ANCIENT ROMANS CELEBRATED REVERSALS AT THE MIDWINTER FESTIVAL OF SATURNALIA.

Saturnalia parade
A Saturnalia celebration in England in 2012.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The holiday, which began as a festival to honor the agricultural god Saturn, was held to commemorate the dedication of his temple in 497 BCE. It quickly became a time of widespread revelry and debauchery in which societal roles were overturned, with masters serving their slaves and servants being allowed to insult their masters. Mask-wearing and play-acting were also part of Saturnalia's reversals, with each household electing a King of Misrule. Saturnalia was gradually replaced by Christmas throughout the Roman Empire, but many of its customs survive as Christmas traditions.

9. SOME TRADITIONS HOLD THAT DARK SPIRITS WALK THE EARTH ON THE WINTER SOLSTICE.

Snowy woods
Serjio74/iStock via Getty Images

The Iranian festival of Yalda is celebrated on the longest night of the year. In pre-Islamic times, it heralded the birth of Mithra, the ancient sun god, and his triumph over darkness. Zoroastrian lore holds that evil spirits wander the Earth and the forces of the destructive spirit Ahriman are strongest on this long night. People are encouraged to stay up most of the night in the company of one another, eating, talking, and sharing poetry and stories, in order to avoid any brushes with dark entities. Beliefs about the presence of evil on the longest night are also echoed in Celtic and Germanic folklore.

10. SOME THOUGHT THE WORLD WOULD END ON THE 2012 WINTER SOLSTICE.

snowy woods with sun through the trees
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

December 21, 2012 corresponds to the date 13.0.0.0.0 in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar used by the ancient Maya, marking the end of a 5126-year cycle. Some people feared this juncture would bring about the end of the world or some other cataclysmic event. Others took a more New Age-y view (literally) and believed it heralded the birth of a new era of deep transformation for Earth and its inhabitants. In the end, neither of these things appeared to occur, leaving the world to turn through winter solstices indefinitely, or at least as long as the sun lasts.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

Cats Make Facial Expressions, But Not Everyone Can Read Them

takoburito/iStock via Getty Images
takoburito/iStock via Getty Images

Science has finally confirmed what humans have suspected for centuries: Cats are inscrutable creatures prone to peculiar behavior. Some of us, however, are still capable of picking up on their subtle emotional cues, including facial expressions, without relying on clues like tails, ears, or whiskers.

This new evidence of a cat’s slightly malleable face comes from a study in the journal Animal Welfare. Researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, recruited 6329 participants to watch a series of 20 video clips featuring cats reacting to either a positive or negative event. A positive interaction was defined as a feline approaching a human for a treat or an owner-identified action the cat traditionally found pleasant, like climbing into a favorite spot. A negative response was when a cat was confronted with something it wanted to avoid, was prevented from going into an area or outside, or was displaying an obvious sign of distress, like growling. (Sounds were edited out.) Most clips were from YouTube, though some were submitted by veterinarians and university colleagues. Breeds with long hair that might obscure facial changes were omitted. Most respondents were cat owners, and 74 percent were women 18 to 44 years old.

Using these brief clips, the researchers asked subjects to classify the cats as exhibiting positive or negative behavior by relying only on closely cropped footage of a cat’s face. They couldn’t rely on the tail or any other body language. The result? The average score was just 59 percent correct, accurately identifying a cat’s mood in an average of 12 out of the 20 clips. These humans, in other words, had little idea what a cat was experiencing based solely on their faces.

So why do researchers think they have any expression at all? Roughly 13 percent of subjects scored well on the test, getting at least 15 of the 20 questions correct. Those that did well were generally people who had extensive experience with cats, like veterinarians. That led researchers to conclude that people can become more attuned to the subtle flickers of emotion that may pass over a cat’s face.

“They could be naturally brilliant, and that’s why they become veterinarians,” Georgia Mason, a behavioral biologist and the study’s senior author, told The Washington Post. “But they also have a lot of opportunity to learn, and they’ve got a motivation to learn, because they’re constantly deciding: Is this cat better? Do we need to change the treatment? Does this cat need to go home? Is this cat about to take a chunk out of my throat?”

The paper appears to offer encouraging evidence that “cat whisperers” really do exist. If you’re curious whether you could be one of them, you can take a shortened version of the video test online.

[h/t Washington Post]

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