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Wikimedia Commons/Thinkstock/Bryan Dugan
Wikimedia Commons/Thinkstock/Bryan Dugan

4 Crazy Things Found in Drawers

Wikimedia Commons/Thinkstock/Bryan Dugan
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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15 Jokes From the World's Oldest Jokebook
Images: iStock. Collage: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss.
Images: iStock. Collage: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss.

The oldest recorded joke—a lowbrow Sumerian quip stating "Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap"—dates back to 1900 BCE, eking out a pharaoh wisecrack from Ancient Egypt by a solid three centuries.

But to pilfer one of the oldest jokes in the book means dusting off the Philogelos (meaning "Laughter Lover"), a Greek anthology of more than 200 jokes from the fourth or fifth century. From gags about dunces to jests at the expense of great thinkers, here are 15 jokes from the oldest existing collection of jokes, as translated by now-retired classical languages professor William Berg.

1. A STUDENT DUNCE GOES SWIMMING

comedians
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A student dunce went swimming and almost drowned. So now he swears he'll never get into water until he's really learned to swim."

2. AN INTELLECTUAL VISITS A FRIEND

ancient dancers
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"An intellectual came to check in on a friend who was seriously ill. When the man's wife said that he had 'departed,' the intellectual replied: 'When he arrives back, will you tell him that I stopped by?'"

3. THE MISER'S WILL

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A miser writes his will and names himself as the heir."

4. THE SHARP-WITTED SPECTATOR

ancient theater
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A sharp wit observes a slow runner: 'I know just what that gentleman needs.' 'What's that?' demands the sponsor of the race. 'He needs a horse, otherwise, he can't outrun the competition!'"

5. THE HOT-HEADED DOCTOR

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"Consulting a hotheaded doctor, a fellow says, 'Professor, I'm unable to lie down or stand up; I can't even sit down.' The doctor responds: 'I guess the only thing left is to hang yourself.'"

6. THE COWARDLY SAILOR

treater rehearsal
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A coward is asked which are safer, warships or merchant-ships. 'Dry-docked ships,' he answers."

7. THE JEALOUS LANDLORD

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"An envious landlord sees how happy his tenants are. So he evicts them all."

8. THE DRUNK BARKEEPER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A drunk opens a bar, and stations a chained bear outside."

9. THE GUY WITH BAD BREATH

ancient comedian
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A guy with bad breath decides to take his own life. So he wraps his head and asphyxiates himself."

10. THE WIFE-HATER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A wife-hater is attending the burial of his wife, who has just died. When someone asks, 'Who is it who rests in peace here?', he answers, 'Me, now that I'm rid of her!'"

11. THE LUCKLESS EUNUCH

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A luckless eunuch got himself a hernia."

12. THE HUSBAND WITH HALITOSIS

Roman woman holding a mask
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A husband with bad breath asks his wife, 'My dear, why do you hate me?' She give him an answer: 'Because you kiss me.'"

13. THE GLUTTONOUS GIFTER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A glutton is marrying his daughter off to another glutton. Asked what he's giving her as a dowry, he responds, 'She's getting a house with windows that look out onto the bakery.'"

14. TOO TIRED TO CARE

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"Two lazy-bones are fast asleep. A thief comes in, pulls the blanket from the bed, and makes off with it. One of them is aware of what happened and says to the other, 'Get up! Go after the guy who stole our blanket!' The other responds, 'Forget it. When he comes back to take the mattress, let's grab him then.'"

15. THE FORGETFUL TEACHER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"An incompetent teacher is asked the name of Priam's mother. At a loss, he says, 'Well, we call her Ma'am out of politeness.'"

A version of this story ran in 2014.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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