8 Historical Treasures Unwittingly Used as Common Household Items

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Just because an artifact is ancient or historically significant or even sought after for years doesn't mean its owner is aware of it. Here are eight historical treasures that were used as common household items by owners who had no idea their random things were actually valuable antiquities.

1. MAZARIN'S GOLD LACQUER CHEST // TV STAND AND BAR

In 1970, a French engineer bought a lacquer chest from his landlord in South Kensington, London, for £100. He used it as a TV stand for 16 years. When he retired to the Loire Valley in 1986, the chest came with him. In France, he used it as a bar. After his death in 2013, his survivors had specialists from the Rouillac auction house appraise his estate in Touraine—and Philippe Rouillac recognized that the bar was a 17th century Japanese gold, silver, copper and mother of pearl chest that had once belonged to Chief Minister of the King of France, Cardinal Mazarin.

The chest was one of a set made by Kaomi Nagashige of Kyoto, official lacquer-maker to the Tokugawa shoguns, for Dutch East India Company official François Caron in around 1640. Caron exported them to the Netherlands, expecting to sell them for an exorbitant sum, but the Thirty Years' War got in the way. Mazarin finally bought the two largest chests in 1658 and had them sent to France on a warship.

They remained in the Mazarin family until the French Revolution when they were bought at an all-aristocratic-geegaws-must-go firesale by an enterprising haberdasher. He sold them to English collector William Beckford, who took them home with him. The two chests were separated in 1882 when the Victoria & Albert Museum bought the smaller one. The big one passed through several hands over the next 90 years, and the V&A desperately wanted to find it. Articles about it appeared in print magazines and, once the internet became a thing, online, expressing fervent hope that the chest had survived the Blitz and was just holed away in an attic by an unaware owner.

They got the unaware owner part right, anyway. At auction in 2013, Mazarin's Lost Gold Chest was bought by the Rijksmuseum for 7.3 million euros ($9.5 million).

2. A BRONZE AGE CEREMONIAL DIRK // DOORSTOP

When a farmer plowing his field in East Rudham, Norfolk, in 2002 churned up a large piece of bent green metal, he assumed it was a broken piece of machinery. Being a practical fellow, he put the four-pound object to work as a doorstop for the next decade. Eventually he tired of it and was considering throwing it away when a friend suggested he have it examined by a local archaeologist first, just in case. Andrew Rogerson, Senior Historic Environment Officer of Norfolk's Identification and Recording Service, recognized that the farmer's doorstop was in fact about 3500 years old and one of only six known oversized Bronze Age ceremonial dirks in the world.

It's 27 inches long, the edges have never been sharpened, and it lacks the rivetholes that would have been there had a handle ever been attached, so it was certainly not a usable dagger. The other five that have been unearthed—two in France, two in the Netherlands, one also in Norfolk, England—are so similar in form, dimension, and decoration that they are believed to have come from the same workshop. This was a prestige object, extremely valuable, extremely expensive, and likely bent for ritual purposes in a symbolic act of destruction before it was buried.

The Rudham Dirk was acquired for £41,000 ($56,877) by the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, where it's now on display.

3. A ROMAN SARCOPHAGUS // GARDEN PLANTER

The trend for sarcophagus garden planters took root in the 18th century when the scions of wealthy families brought back ancient artifacts by the cartload from their Grand Tours. Genuine archaeological treasures being a finite resource, Italy was soon replete with fakes sold as the real article, and by the late 19th century, replica sarcophagus and urn forms with no pretense at antiquity were popular garden accessories in Britain and the U.S.

That's why homeowners in Dorset had no idea the weathered, grey, moss-covered 7-foot trough once used to hold flower pots in their garden was, in fact, a Roman marble sarcophagus from the 2nd or 3rd century CE. It was appraiser Guy Schwinge with Duke's Auctioneers in Dorchester who spotted the archaeological treasure peeking out from under overgrown bushes. Its elegantly carved reliefs of a temple door and laurel garlands marked it as a high quality piece that once held the remains of a wealthy Roman.

While looking through their stuff in the house, Schwinge found an old auction catalogue from 1913 that explained the sarcophagus had been imported from Italy by Queen Victoria's surveyor of pictures, Sir John Robinson. It was auctioned (by Duke's, no less) after his death and purchased by the ancestors of the current homeowners.

The wheel came full circle when Duke's sold the sarcophagus at a 2012 auction for £96,000 ($133,000).

4. ANOTHER ROMAN SARCOPHAGUS // GARDEN PLANTER

A retired couple in Newcastle, northeastern England, read news stories about the Dorset jackpot and wondered if maybe the 6-foot 9-inch marble planter at the end of their garden—which was already in the garden when they bought the house—might be an ancient funerary artifact as well. They sent Guy Schwinge a few pictures and he hightailed it to Newcastle.

When he arrived, he found the piece sitting on the grass with plants inside. He confirmed that it was indeed a Roman sarcophagus from the 1st or 2nd century CE made of highly prized white Carrara marble. It's a strigilated sarcophagus, named for the panels of s-shaped swirls known as strigils after the curved scraping tool Romans used to remove dirt and sweat from the skin. This design was exclusively the product of workshops in the city of Rome itself. It has a central panel carved with the Three Graces, and panels at each end depict a putti holding a torch. The sides are decorated with winged griffins.

The back is rough hewn, which indicates it was meant for use in a family mausoleum, more confirmation that this was a wealthy person's coffin. A copper plaque on the back is inscribed "Bought From Rome 1902." Schwinge's research indicates it was probably brought to Newcastle in 1969 when the previous owners of the house moved there from a country estate in the Lake District.

Duke's got to auction off this one too. It was sold in 2013 for £40,000 ($55,400).

5. A 1000-YEAR-OLD SRI LANKAN TEMPLE MOONSTONE // GARDEN PAVER

Bronwyn Hickmott was 4 when her parents bought a house in East Sussex that had one intricately carved semi-circular granite paver in the garden path. She was captivated with the concentric bands of florals and animals and would spend hours tracing the figures with her fingers. After her parents died and the house was put on the market, she couldn't bear to part with the three-quarter ton, 8-foot-by-4-foot, 6-inch-thick granite slab she called "The Pebble." She removed it to her home and brought it with her every time she moved after that.

It was installed at the end of a concrete path in front of her bungalow in Devon when she happened to mention it to Bonhams appraiser Sam Tuke. Intrigued by her description, he had a look at the stone and identified it as a Sri Lankan Sandakada Pahana, or temple moonstone, from the Late Anuradhapura Period (10th/early 11th century). A thousand years before it found itself in England, it had graced the entrance to a temple in Anuradhapura, a sacred Buddhist city and a capital of Sri Lanka from the 4th century BCE to the 11th century CE.

The figures little Bronwyn had traced are symbols representing the life of the Buddha and the cycle of Samsara. Within the half-moon are concentric half-circles carved with Buddhist symbols. A half lotus blooms in the center, after which come a band of geese or swans, a band of foliage, a parade of four animals—elephant, horse, lion, and bull—and stylized flames on the outermost band.

It's an exceptionally rare artifact, one of only seven known from the period, and the other six are still in situ in front of stupas in Anuradhapura. The one in the Devon garden path was actually in better condition than the ones still in place because crowds of pilgrims and tourists haven't been stepping on it daily since Anuradhapura was reclaimed from the jungle in the late 19th century. Tuke's research found that the home in East Sussex had belonged to a tea planter who had lived in what was then known as Ceylon in the 1920s and '30s. He likely acquired it under circumstances of questionable legality.

Although the Sri Lankan Archaeology Department made noises about investigating the authenticity and origin of the piece, it did not pursue reclamation in court. The Sandakada Pahana was sold at auction in 2013 to an undisclosed buyer for £553,250 ($767,000), blowing through the pre-sale estimate of £20,000-30,000 ($27,750-41,600).

6. AN 18th CENTURY IMPERIAL CHINESE VASE // UMBRELLA STAND 

A retired couple on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset didn't much like the large blue and white vase they'd received as a gift more than 50 years prior. They thought it was ugly and stashed it in a junk room, where it was used to hold umbrellas. They took no great pains to keep it in pristine condition. Over the years, it developed a Y-shaped hairline crack and some paint stains.

It was spotted in a valuation walk-through by a valuer working with our old friend Guy Schwinge of Duke's. He recognized it as a Qing Dynasty lantern vase made circa 1740 by porcelain master Tang Ying. A mark on the bottom of the vase and at the peak of one of the mountains is the seal of the Qianlong Emperor. It is a one-of-a-kind piece likely inspired by a series of 17th century scroll paintings by Wang Hui.

It sold at Duke's in 2010 for £625,000 ($867,400), more than the value of the sellers' home and everything else in it combined. The vase probably would have sold for double the price had it not been damaged.

7. ARCHAEMENID GOLD CUP // AIR RIFLE TARGET

John Webber of Wellington, Somerset, was just a boy when his scrap metal dealer grandfather gave him what he thought was a brass mug before his death in 1945. The 5-inch cup was in the shape of two women's faces back-to-back with snakes on their foreheads. John used it as a target for his air rifle.

For decades he kept it in a shoe box under his bed until 2007, when he had appraised it before moving. That's when he discovered he'd been shooting at a Archaemenid Persian Janus cup beaten out of a single sheet of gold in the 3rd or 4th century BCE.

It was sold by Duke's at auction in June 2008 for a weirdly modest £50,000 ($69,400).

8. ANGLO-SAXON CARVING // CAT HEADSTONE

When Johnny and Ruth Beeston's dearly beloved cat Winkle went to his eternal rest 30 years ago, he was buried in their garden in Dowlish Wake, Somerset. Builder Johnny Beeston found the perfect headstone—a limestone carving of tonsured man with two fingers raised to his chest in benediction—at a salvage yard. In 2004, local amateur archaeologist and potter Chris Brewchorne walked by the garden and spotted Winkle's gravestone. He immediately understood that it was historically significant, and Ruth, now a widow and willing to sell the piece, had experts over to assess it.

It was identified as part of a larger sculpture, possibly a Christian cross, carved around 900 CE and later recycled as building material. The 18-by-17-inch stone has a partial inscription remaining on the top left. It reads "SC (S) (PE)TRVS," which is how we know the tonsured, clean-shaven fellow is meant to be Saint Peter. Where it was found is unknown, but the stone is native to the south Somerset area, so it was likely carved for a local religious institution. Muchelney Abbey, a Benedictine monastery dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, was just 10 miles away from Winkle's final resting place.

Pre-Norman Conquest Anglo-Saxon religious art is rare, and when Winkle's tombstone went up for auction in 2004, it was bought for £201,600 ($279,115) by an American expat, art collector and oil and timber heir Stanley J. Seeger. The Museum of Somerset was offered the piece first but they couldn't afford it; after Seeger's death, it went back on the market, and in 2015 it was acquired by the museum for £150,000.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

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Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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Little Weesy Coppin, the Ghost That Foretold the Franklin Expedition’s Fate

An 1847 illustration of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus during an earlier Arctic expedition, by James Wilson Carmichael.
An 1847 illustration of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus during an earlier Arctic expedition, by James Wilson Carmichael.
Royal Museums Greenwich, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On May 19, 1845, the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus set sail from England and headed for the Arctic. Commanding the expedition was Sir John Franklin, a distinguished naval officer with a few Arctic voyages under his belt. Britain’s Admiralty was hopeful that, within a year, he would arrive in the Bering Strait having successfully charted the Northwest Passage.

But as 1846 slipped away with no sign of either ship—and no word from the explorers—it became clear that something had gone wrong. Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, lobbied the Admiralty to investigate, and so began a steady stream of expeditions to locate the missing vessels. By spring 1850, they were none the wiser as to what had happened to the ships or the sailors. The country was captivated by the mystery, and Lady Jane was growing increasingly desperate for any lead.

It was around this time that a shipbuilder named William Coppin sent her a strange letter. The ghost of his daughter, he said, knew where to find the Franklin expedition.

Weesy Puts on a Show

Coppin lived in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, with his wife, his wife’s sister, and the couple’s five young children. In May 1849, their 3-year-old daughter, Louisa (Weesy for short) had died of gastric fever, but that hardly stopped her from being present. Soon after her death, her siblings reported seeing a “ball of bluish light” that they all agreed was Weesy; they even started setting a place for her at meals.

One night, Weesy’s older sister told her aunt that the words “Mr. Mackay is dead” were glowing on the wall of the bedroom. Though her aunt couldn’t see them herself, she nevertheless asked after Mr. Mackay—a banker friend of the family—the next day, and discovered that he had indeed passed away the previous night. Weeks later, the aunt suggested that the children put Weesy’s apparent clairvoyance to good use by questioning her about the fate of Sir John Franklin.

Weesy responded with flair, filling the room with an Arctic scene that showed two ships amid snowy mountains and narrow channels. When asked if Franklin himself was still alive, Weesy revealed “a round-faced Man [ascending] the Mast and [waving] his hat,” and she answered a query about his exact location with a series of abbreviations that included “P.RI” and “BS.”

An illustration of the two ships from Francis Watt's Pictorial Chronicles of the Mighty Deep.Kokstein, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The spectral illuminations were only visible to Weesy’s sister Anne, who copied them onto paper and showed her father upon his return from a trip. Coppin wasn’t wholly disbelieving, but he didn’t act on the information immediately. Then, in May 1850, after hearing that Lady Jane was preparing to send a ship to search for her husband, he wrote her a letter detailing Weesy’s appearance.

“[The abbreviations] constantly lead me to believe that [Sir John Franklin] is in Prince Regent Inlet off Barrow’s Strait, likely in the Victory in Felix Harbour or not far from it at this moment,” he said, and encouraged Lady Jane to direct her commander to that area. Shortly after, he met with her in person to reiterate his advice.

Charting a Course

Here’s where accounts of the story begin to diverge. In 1889, a reverend named J. Henry Skewes published a book—at Coppin’s behest—that credited Weesy’s vision with causing Lady Jane to point her expedition south, toward Prince Regent Inlet, instead of north, like she had been planning. While it’s true that the government had focused most of its search north toward Wellington Channel, it’s not true that Lady Jane herself had only considered a northern mission. In June 1850, she mentioned in a letter that Coppin visited her after “reading in the newspaper a paragraph of the ship’s being about to sail for Regent Inlet,” implying that she had already intended to explore that region.

Wellington Channel to the north, and Prince Regent Inlet to the south.TerraMetrics/Google

Skewes’s book also alleged that Weesy’s original directions had been much clearer than a few cryptic initials. According to him, she illuminated the words “Erebus and Terror. Sir John Franklin, Lancaster Sound, Prince Regent Inlet, Point Victory, Victoria Channel.” At that point, no place named “Victoria Channel” existed on the map, which Skewes used as evidence of Weesy’s omniscience. Since the Coppins were collaborating with Skewes, it’s possible that they simply recalled the events differently than they had decades earlier. They had also repeated the same séance several times, so the stream of intelligible words may have come later. In Coppin’s initial letter to Lady Jane, however, he said nothing about a “Victoria Channel.”

Even though Lady Jane had probably already set her sights on the south, Coppin’s conviction did seem to encourage her, and she instructed him to share Weesy’s vision with a select few influential figures around town. In early June, she saw off Captain Charles Codrington Forsyth in the schooner Prince Albert, hoping he’d return with news of her husband from beyond the inlet.

Unfortunately, the inlet was frozen, and Forsyth couldn’t get through.

Breaking News and Breaking Ice

The expedition wasn’t entirely fruitless—it was Forsyth who broke the news in England that another expedition had located three graves on Beechey Island, thus confirming that the Terror and Erebus had at least spent part of the winter in Wellington Channel [PDF]. There was still a chance that Franklin and his men had journeyed on toward Prince Regent Inlet after stopping on the island.

Lady Jane began preparing another mission, this time with Captain William Kennedy in command, and Coppin stuck around to help with shipbuilding and fundraising. Kennedy even spent a few days with the Coppins in Londonderry and supposedly corroborated Weesy’s account (though he didn’t see her messages for himself). Kennedy managed to make it through Prince Regent Inlet, but pivoted westward and came back empty-handed.

A portrait of William Kennedy painted by Stephen Pearce in 1853.National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Independent of Lady Jane's endeavors, a Hudson’s Bay Company surveyor named John Rae was making significantly more progress in the area. After passing through the inlet in 1851, he came to a narrow body of water that he christened “Victoria Strait” before encountering ice and turning back. During a surveying mission in 1854, Rae spoke with local Inuit, who reported having come across a few dozen white men on King William Island—not far from Victoria Strait. He even bought several English-made items from the Inuit, including a plate that bore Sir John Franklin’s name.

Now, Lady Jane directed her attention to King William Island, financing an expedition led by Francis Leopold McClintock in the late 1850s. In 1859, his lieutenant finally discovered an incontrovertible clue to the Franklin expedition’s fate: a boat, skeletons, and a note that explained Franklin had died in June 1847 and his crew had abandoned the ships—marooned in ice—in April 1848.

Little Weesy’s Contested Legacy

The note found during McClintock's 1859 expedition.Petecarney, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Coppin wasted no time asking Lady Jane to validate that Weesy’s leads (as Anne had transcribed them) had, in fact, been correct. Lady Jane obliged.

“I have no hesitation in telling you that the child’s chart … represented the ships as being in a channel which we believed at the time to be inaccessible, but which it has since been found they actually navigated,” she wrote. “Moreover, the names ‘Victory’ and ‘Victoria’ written by the little girl upon her chart correspond with that of the point (Point Victory) on King William’s Land, where the important record of the Erebus and Terror was found, and with that of the strait or channel (Victoria Strait) where the ships were finally lost.”

That said, she did decline returning the original chart to him. As Shane McCorristine writes in his book The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration, that could have been because she feared becoming a laughingstock if he published it. With Franklin’s demise no longer a mystery, entertaining the supernatural no longer had value.

A sketch of Lady Jane Franklin drawn by Amélie Romilly in 1816.The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Emmet Collection of Manuscripts Etc. Relating to American History, New York Public Library // Public Domain

Coppin’s story stayed under the radar until Skewes released his book, Sir John Franklin: The True Secret of the Discovery of His Fate, nearly 15 years after Lady Franklin’s death in 1875. The author so fervently believed that Weesy had expertly directed explorers to the Franklin expedition that his account seems exaggerated at best and downright ludicrous at worst, despite plenty of firsthand details from the Coppins. After its debut, John Rae and Francis McClintock both denied that the long-dead toddler had influenced their exploratory routes in any way.

Furthermore, as historian Russell Potter explains on his blog Visions of the North, Weesy’s phantasmal allegations weren’t totally accurate. Though the idea that Franklin may have gone south instead of north did ultimately lead to some discoveries, there’s no evidence that either the Terror or the Erebus actually went through Prince Regent Inlet. And when Weesy revealed the vision of a healthy Franklin waving his hat from the top of the mast, he had already been dead for more than two years.

In short, the ghost of Little Weesy didn’t single-handedly solve the mystery of the missing Franklin expedition. (In fact, the ships themselves weren’t even located until 2014 and 2016 off the southwestern coast of King William Island, far from Prince Regent Inlet and south of the island's Victory Point.) But you’d be hard-pressed to prove that her ghost didn’t exist at all—and considering that the story helped her father secure about a decade’s worth of work and plenty of high-society connections, she made an impact from beyond the grave.