Rainy Season in the Andes Reveals the Oldest Known Copper Death Mask

The front (left) and back (right) of a 3000-year-old copper mask. Small holes near the edges suggest the mask could have been attached with threads. Someone tried to repair the fracture near the left eye—note the holes near it.
The front (left) and back (right) of a 3000-year-old copper mask. Small holes near the edges suggest the mask could have been attached with threads. Someone tried to repair the fracture near the left eye—note the holes near it.
Cortés & Scattolin in Antiquity, 2017

A good downpour can be an archaeologist’s best friend. A recent rainy season in the northwest corner of Argentina revealed an ancient copper mask, green with rust, that had been hidden in the dirt for the last 3000 years. It's the oldest known copper artifact in the Andes—the longest continental mountain range on earth—and one of the oldest metalworks ever found in South America. Its discovery complicates the long-standing idea that metalworking began on the continent in Peru, thousands of miles north.

The mask looks a bit like a Jack-o’-lantern, with a little triangle for a nose and small openings for the eyes and mouth. Residents of the village of La Quebrada stumbled across the mask, as well as some bones, sticking out of the dirt in 2005. Shortly after, archaeologists came in to excavate the site, and they found that the mask wasn’t resting on just one burial, but was covering a collective grave with 14 bodies.

“We don’t know exactly what the actual meaning of the mask was in the context of this pre-Hispanic society,” archaeologist Leticia Inés Cortés, of Argentina’s National Council for Scientific and Technical Research, tells Mental Floss. Ancestor cults are very ancient and widespread in the region, Cortés says, so the mask could be a representation of the ancestor of the group and the rest of their community. Later DNA tests might reveal the relationships between the deceased.

The burial site was located near the 1900-year-old settlement of Bordo Marcial. However, radiocarbon dates showed that the tomb and mask are much older—dating back to 3000 years ago, before any villages even existed in the region.

During this time period, people in the area were just beginning to leave their hunter-gatherer way of life. But even before they truly settled down and started farming, they apparently figured out how to take advantage of the rich copper sources in the region that are still mined today.

Cortés, who described the mask in a new report in the journal Antiquity, tells Mental Floss that there’s been a tendency to treat Peru as the epicenter for technological innovation in the region. This mask, meanwhile, shows “that there is no one place for technological innovation, but many, including this region of the southern Andes.”

In other words, it’s not like a few geniuses in the central Andes figured out how to melt down metal to make beautiful objects and their invention spread from there.

Archaeologists might have previously assumed that cultures only started making fine metal objects when they had elite ruling classes and a capacity to create agricultural surpluses to free up time for skilled workers. But the mask from Argentina also builds on other evidence from the region demonstrating that displays of wealth might pre-date sedentary life.

“The discovery underscores the idea that social complexity—that is, a hierarchical social order—is not required for the emergence of early metal working,” says Mark Aldenderfer, an archaeologist at the University of California, Merced, who wasn’t involved in the study.

Aldenderfer previously discovered the oldest gold artifacts in the Americas, in the form of a necklace dating back to 4000 years in Peru near Lake Titicaca, when people in that region were just starting to settle into villages.

“The circulation of metal artifacts and their interment with the dead suggest that new forms of wealth accumulation and networking began to emerge during this transitional period,” Aldenderfer tells Mental Floss. "I suspect that the copper mask from Bordo Marcial reflects a similar social context."

A (Still-Sharp) Medieval Sword Was Pulled from a Sewer in Denmark

Pipe layer Jannick Vestergaard and engineer Henning Nøhr hold up the sword they found.
Pipe layer Jannick Vestergaard and engineer Henning Nøhr hold up the sword they found.
Nordjyllands Historiske Museum (Historical Museum of Northern Jutland)

If the legend of King Arthur and Excalibur is anything to go by, anyone who successfully extracts a sword in a stone will be treated like royalty. The fable doesn’t say anything about the reward one gets for removing a medieval weapon from feces, though.

As Smithsonian reports, a pipe layer and an engineer recently found a sword from the medieval era while doing construction work on a sewer in Aalborg, Denmark’s fourth-largest city. The relic was plucked from a layer of waste that had accumulated atop an old slab of pavement that once ran through the city.

Most remarkably, the sword was still intact—and the blade still sharp. It’s about 3.5 feet long and of extremely high quality, according to archaeologists. The sword may have been used between 1100 and 1400, but the likeliest explanation is that it got separated from its owner sometime in the 14th century. “Findings from here have always pointed to the 1300s, so the sword must have ended up in the earth in this century,” archaeologist Kenneth Nielsen said in a translated statement.

The sword next to a tape measure
Nordjyllands Historiske Museum (Historical Museum of Northern Jutland)

It’s rare for such an important historical artifact to turn up in such an unlikely—and unhygienic—place. Swords were valuable and highly prized possessions, and they were treated as such. They were typically buried with their owners, but no graves are situated above the sewer where the weapon was found.

The country’s history offers some clues about what may have transpired, though. In the 1300s, power struggles and internecine war were common throughout Denmark. “The best explanation we can come up with is that the owner of the sword was defeated in a battle,” Nielsen told The Local Denmark. “In the tumult, it was then trod down into the layer of mud that formed the street back then.”

Similarly, a 14th-century sword was found in a Polish peat bog in 2017, and archaeologists suspect the owner either sunk into the marsh and met a grisly end, or merely dropped his weapon and was unable to retrieve it.

While these questions will likely remain unanswered, members of the public will have the chance to admire the Danish "sewer sword" in all its glory at the Aalborg Historiske Museum (Aalborg Historical Museum), which is located near the site where the sword was found. Fortunately for future visitors, it will be cleaned and preserved first.

[h/t Smithsonian]

George Pollard Jr., Unlucky Captain of the Ship That Inspired Moby-Dick

Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab during the shooting of the 1956 film Moby Dick
Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab during the shooting of the 1956 film Moby Dick
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Captain George Pollard Jr. had no choice but to eat his cousin. Crammed aboard a small whaleboat with some of his crew, the captain had been drifting aimlessly in the South Pacific for more than two months. The sun was relentless, their thirst was unquenchable, and the hull was leaking. Saltwater had leached into the men’s stash of bread, and one by one, Pollard’s men died of starvation—and were promptly devoured by the hungry survivors.

It was a nightmare scenario. Weeks earlier, in November 1820, Pollard's crew had been pursuing (and harpooning) a pod of sperm whales when an angry 85-foot-long whale barreled head-on into the captain's ship, The Essex of Nantucket, sending it to the ocean's bottom. The 20 survivors scrambled into three small whaleboats, which eventually became separated during a storm. After two and a half months at sea, the days began to blur and the stockpile of food dwindled, and the four men remaining on Pollard’s boat realized they were all going to starve if food didn’t soon become available. So they agreed to draw lots: Whoever pulled the short stick would volunteer to be shot and eaten.

It was a terribly irony. When the Essex sank, the men had been relatively close to the Marquesas Islands, but Pollard's men were afraid of landing there—the islands were rumored to be full of cannibals. Pollard agreed to follow a longer route, hoping to drift south and then east in hopes of reaching Chile. That decision, however, had made cannibals of the men on board.

As for the drawing of lots, Pollard’s 18-year-old cousin, Owen Coffin, was the unlucky loser. When Pollard insisted that he take the young man's place, Coffin refused—and was summarily shot in the head. “He was soon dispatched,” Pollard grimly recalled, “and nothing of him left.” About two weeks later, Pollard's boat was discovered. By that point, the two surviving men—Pollard and sailor Charles Ramsdell—had resorted to drinking their own urine and were found gnawing on the bones of their deceased mates.

The ordeal would haunt Captain Pollard. Before the voyage, he had promised Coffin’s mother that the boy would return home safely, and his failure to keep Coffin alive plagued Pollard's conscience. After surviving a second shipwreck, the captain took a job on sturdy land as Nantucket's night watchman, where he looked over the streets and wharves.

Three decades later, when Pollard was 60, Herman Melville—fresh from finishing Moby-Dick—paid the aging skipper a visit. Pollard didn’t know about the book, and the two didn’t exchange many words. But Melville harbored a secret: The sinking of the Essex had inspired his novel. (We should caution that Melville did not base the monomaniacal character of Ahab on Pollard himself. "While Melville was inspired by Pollard's adventures," the BBC says, "the unlucky seafarer's character is not thought to have been the basis for the novel's obsessive Capt Ahab.")

Melville marveled at the tormented man, saying of his encounter: “To the islanders he was a nobody—to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered.” In fact, Melville mentioned Pollard in his epic Clarel, the longest poem in American literature.

Never he smiled;
Call him, and he would come; not sour
In spirit, but meek and reconciled:
Patient he was, he none withstood;
Oft on some secret thing would brood.

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