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Wikimedia Commons/Thinkstock/Bryan Dugan

4 Crazy Things Found in Drawers

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Wikimedia Commons/Thinkstock/Bryan Dugan

Humanity has been meaning to clean out its junk drawer since 1824. That, at least, is when the charming poem "Articles Found in a Kitchen Drawer" first appeared in a London magazine, and the inventory remains recognizable even today:

A rusty bent skewer, a broken brass cock,
Some onions and tinder, and the draw'r lock;
A bag for the pudding, a whetstone and string,
A penny-cross bun and a new curtain-ring:—
A print for the butter, a dirty chemise,
Two pieces of soap and a large piece of cheese;
Five tea-spoons of tin, a large lump of rosin,
The feet of a hare, and corks by the dozen;—
A card to tell fortunes, a sponge and a can,
A pen without ink, and a small patty pan...

Sometimes, though, drawers do turn up something better than old rubber bands and disused phone chargers. There's the occasional fortune in Spanish gold—and maybe even a Nobel Prize or two—to be found.

DRAWER #1: A Millennium-Old Runic Enigma

No matter how old the junk in your drawer is, you're unlikely to top one family in the French village of Auzon. A visiting professor in the 1850s discovered that they possessed the pieces of a peculiar old broken sewing box of heavily carved whalebone, some of which they'd simply tossed into a drawer. Now displayed in the British Museum, it's proved to be very old junk indeed: more than 1000 years old, in fact. Dubbed the "Franks Casket," the carvings on it are a dizzying mix of verse in Old English runes and Latin ciphers. Its panels depict Roman and Germanic mythology alike, along with a Christian Adoration of the Magi thrown in for good measure. Although the lettering dates it to 8th century Northumberland, the meaning of its enigmatic artwork has had scholars arguing for more than a century.

But how did it wind up in a junk drawer? It appears to have been looted during the French Revolution from the shrine of Saint-Julien in Brioude, where nobody had taken much notice of it. And until one of the family's children naughtily removed the silver hinges and fittings, the box had done perfectly good household duty—not at holding an ancient mystery, but at holding thimbles and spools.

DRAWER #2: Newton's Golden Guinea

Auctioneers aren't necessarily thrilled when you ask if coins you found in an old drawer are worth anything. Chances are, they're not—and that's what Gorringes Auction House staffer Leslie Gillham was about to explain in 2012 to an anonymous local retiree in the Kentish town of Tunbridge Wells.

"She gave me two silver crowns and I thought 'shame you haven't got any gold coins,'" he explained to the Kent News afterward. "Then she produced the 5-guinea piece, which made my eyes nearly pop out of my head."

The coin, found in her late husband's handkerchief drawer, was a rare 1703 Vigo 5-guinea piece. Only 16 are known to exist. Though a guinea was traditionally worth about £1 and minted from West African gold (hence the name), Vigos were struck from gold captured in 1702 from a Spanish fleet in Vigo Bay. The haul was modest—4500 pounds of silver, and a mere 7.5 pounds of gold—but the Royal Mint, then overseen by Isaac Newton, used the handful of Spanish gold to mint a special run of guineas to "Continue to Posterity the Remembrance of that Glorious Action."

As to how one appeared in a handkerchief drawer, the widow hadn't a clue. It may have already been there when she inherited the bureau from her parents, because her husband didn't collect coins. His spouse certainly gained some modern coinage, though: The guinea sold last December for £296,160 ($476,871).

DRAWER #3: Radioactive Fame

February 26, 1896, began inauspiciously for Henri Becquerel. A professor of Physics at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, Becquerel was inspired by the recent discovery of X-rays to experiment with some photographic plates—namely, to see if uranium salts emitted X-rays after exposure to sunlight. There was just one problem: The sun wasn't cooperating. Paris was overcast, and Professor Becquerel dejectedly wrapped up his plates and the uranium and shoved them together into a desk drawer. The plates, he figured, would at best show "very weak" images. But when he finally developed them a few days later, he was stunned to find that "silhouettes appeared with great intensity." Despite sitting in a dark desk drawer for days, something exposed the film. The logical explanation was that the uranium itself was emitting radiation even without any external excitation—an unheard-of phenomenon.

Carefully controlled follow-up experiments by Becquerel proved his hunch right—and inspired Marie Curie and her husband Pierre to research what Marie would dub radioactivity. The "failed" experiment in a Paris drawer brought worldwide fame: In 1903, Becquerel and the Curies were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize.

DRAWER #4: F. Scott Fitzgerald's Lost Years

Authors, Ernest Hemingway once mused, were best advised to meet Hollywood studios at the state line: "You throw them your book, they throw you the money, then you jump into your car and drive like hell back the way you came." But his fellow Lost Generation icon F. Scott Fitzgerald spent years in the 1930s writing for studios, where the Great Gatsby author was paid handsomely to write one ill-fated script after another. Visiting Metro Goldwyn Mayer's offices in 1985, University of Nebraska assistant professor Wheeler Winston Dixon found their basement contained desks still stuffed with Fitzgerald's notes—"they had the actual legal pads there, intact," Dixon recalls in amazement. Among their boxes of castoffs, he discovered Fitzgerald's six-page outline for the ending of his famously unfinished script to Infidelity, a 1938 Joan Crawford vehicle that got scrapped for portraying, well, infidelity.

These days the notes are safely archived at the University of South Carolina, far from MGM's basement—and Dixon is now a Professor of Film Studies at University of Nebraska. Fitzgerald's screenplay and concluding notes remain something of an undiscovered treasure, Professor Dixon insists: "I still think to this day, if you gave it to a really good screenwriter, it'd be a brilliant script."

See Also: 9 Crazy Things People Found Inside Their Walls

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
8 New Ancient Ships Found at the 'Shipwreck Capital of the World'
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The number of wrecks discovered at the "shipwreck capital of the world" continues to grow. According to Haaretz, the latest find adds eight new wreck discoveries, bringing the total up to 53 sunken ships in a 17-mile stretch off the coast of Fourni, Greece.

As Mental Floss reported, in 2015 archaeologists working off the coast of Fourni identified 22 shipwrecks dating back to 700 BCE—already an historic find. But additional dives conducted by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and the RPM Nautical Foundation have continued to yield new discoveries. Nine months later, in June 2016, the Fourni Underwater survey turned up 23 more ancient, Medieval, and post-Medieval shipwrecks in the area with the help of local fishermen and sponge divers. The latest expedition took place in June 2017.

Divers inspect and survey an ancient amphora near the shipwreck site.

The Fourni archipelago, consisting of 13 tiny islands, never hosted a sizable town, but it was an important stopping point for shipping routes between the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea, and on to Cyprus, the Levant, and Egypt. The area may have been a hotspot for ships seeking safe harbor from violent storms in that part of the Aegean Sea, as Peter Campbell of the RPM Nautical Foundation told Haaretz. It wasn’t an entirely safe destination for merchant ships, though; it was also a pirate haven.

Some of the latest wrecks found include a ship from the Greek Classical Period—around 500 BCE to 320 BCE—carrying Greek amphorae (ceramic jars), a Roman ship with origins in the Iberian Peninsula, and anchors dating back to the Archaic Period (800 to 479 BCE). Researchers found more stone, lead, and iron anchors all the way up to the Byzantine Empire, which lasted until the 15th century.

Two conservationists sit at a table working with shards of ancient pottery.

The ancient trade routes that crisscrossed the Mediterranean (and the dangers of ancient seafaring) have made the area a fertile ground for millennia-old shipwrecks even outside of Fourni. As recently as 2016, divers off the coast of Israel stumbled upon a 1600-year-old merchant ship filled with Roman artifacts. In 2015, Italian divers discovered the wreck of a 2000-year-old ship carrying terra cotta tiles in deep waters near Sardinia.

The Fourni project is still ongoing, and researchers plan to conduct a fourth season of underwater surveying in 2018. Once the project completes a full survey and documentation of the area, the researchers may consider excavating some of the wrecks.

[h/t Haaretz]

All photos by Vasilis Mentogianis courtesy the RPM Nautical Foundation

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J. P. Oleson
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science
Time Has Only Strengthened These Ancient Roman Walls
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J. P. Oleson

Any seaside structure will erode and eventually crumble into the water below. That’s how things work. Or at least that’s how they usually work. Scientists say the ancient Romans figured out a way to build seawalls that actually got tougher over time. They published their findings in the journal American Mineralogist.

The walls’ astonishing durability is not, itself, news. In the 1st century CE, Pliny the Elder described the phenomenon in his Naturalis Historia, writing that the swell-battered concrete walls became "a single stone mass, impregnable to the waves and every day stronger."

We know that Roman concrete involved a mixture of volcanic ash, lime, seawater, and chunks of volcanic rock—and that combining these ingredients produces a pozzolanic chemical reaction that makes the concrete stronger. But modern cement involves a similar reaction, and our seawalls fall apart like anything else beneath the ocean's corrosive battering ram.

Something else was clearly going on.

To find out what it was, geologists examined samples from walls built between 55 BCE and 115 CE. They used high-powered microscopes and X-ray scanners to peer into the concrete's basic structure, and a technique called raman spectroscopy to identify its ingredients.

Microscope image of crystals in ancient Roman concrete.
Courtesy of Marie Jackson

Their results showed that the pozzolanic reaction during the walls' creation was just one stage of the concrete toughening process. The real magic happened once the walls were built, as they sat soaking in the sea. The saltwater did indeed corrode elements of the concrete—but in doing so, it made room for new crystals to grow, creating even stronger bonds.

"We're looking at a system that's contrary to everything one would not want in cement-based concrete," lead author Marie Jackson, of the University of Utah, said in a statement. It's one "that thrives in open chemical exchange with seawater."

The goal now, Jackson says, is to reproduce the precise recipe and toughen our own building materials. But that might be harder than it sounds.

"Romans were fortunate in the type of rock they had to work with," she says. "They observed that volcanic ash grew cements to produce the tuff. We don't have those rocks in a lot of the world, so there would have to be substitutions made."

We still have a lot to learn from the ancient walls and their long-gone architects. Jackson and her colleagues will continue to pore through Roman texts and the concrete itself, looking for clues to its extraordinary strength.

"The Romans were concerned with this," Jackson says. "If we're going to build in the sea, we should be concerned with it too."

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