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 Questions About Columbus Day

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ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images

Every American student learns that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and landed in the New World in 1492. Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr.'s poem "History of the U.S." has made it impossible to forget the date (although the couplet actually predates her birth), and many federal workers get a day off every October to recognize the explorer's arrival in the New World. You know the who and where, but here are 10 more answers to pressing questions about Columbus Day.

1. When did Christopher Columbus become a cultural icon?

By the early 1500s, other navigators like Amerigo Vespucci and Francisco Pizarro had become more popular and successful than Columbus had been with his off-course voyages. According to The New York Times, historians and writers in the latter part of the 16th century restored some of Columbus’s reputation with great words of praise for the explorer and his discoveries, with his fellow Italians proving particularly eager to celebrate his life in plays and poetry.

2. How did Christopher Columbus's popularity reach the United States?

Blame the British. As the American colonies formed an identity separate from their mainly English roots, colonists looked to figures like the "appointed of God" Columbus to symbolize their ideals. "By the time of the Revolution," writes John Noble Wilford, "Columbus had been transmuted into a national icon, a hero second only to Washington." Columbus's American legacy got another shot in the arm in 1828 when a biography (peppered with historical fiction) by Washington Irving transformed Columbus into an even more idealized figure who sought to "colonize and cultivate," not to strip the New World of its resources.

3. When was the first Columbus Day?

The first recorded celebration took place in 1792 in New York City, but the first holiday held in commemoration of the 1492 voyage coincided with its 400th anniversary in 1892. President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation in which he called Columbus a "pioneer of progress and enlightenment" and suggested that Americans "cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life."

If Harrison had had his way, though, the holiday would have been celebrated on October 21. He knew that Columbus landed under the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar we use today—making October 21 the correct date for anniversary celebrations.

4. Did anyone actually celebrate Columbus Day in the 19th century?

Italian Americans embraced Columbus as an important figure in their history and saw celebrating him as a way to "be accepted by the mainstream," the Chicago Tribune notes. The Knights of Columbus, an organization formed by Irish Catholic immigrants in 1882, chose the Catholic explorer as their patron "as a symbol that allegiance to their country did not conflict with allegiance to their faith," according to the group's website. Following President Harrison’s 1892 proclamation, they lobbied for Columbus Day to become an official holiday.

5. When did Columbus Day become an official holiday?

The holiday first found traction at the state level. Colorado began celebrating Columbus Day, by governor's proclamation, in 1905. Angelo Noce, founder of the first Italian newspaper in the state, spearheaded the movement to honor Columbus and Italian American history. In 1907, the Colorado General Assembly finally gave in to him and made it an official state holiday.

6. When did Columbus Day become a federal holiday?

With Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, lobbying from the Knights of Columbus paid off, and the United States as a whole observed Columbus Day in 1934. Thirty-four years later, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Uniform Holiday Bill, which designated Columbus Day as a federal holiday.

7. Why does the date of Columbus Day change every year?

Columbus Day was originally celebrated on October 12, the day Columbus landed in the New World, but the Uniform Holiday Bill took effect in 1971 and changed it to the second Monday in October, as well as moved the dates of Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day to Mondays (Veterans Day would be moved back to November 11 in 1980 after criticism from veterans’ groups). The act of Congress was enacted to "provide for uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Monday, and for other purposes."

8. Does every state observe the Columbus Day holiday on the same weekend?

In Tennessee, Columbus Day comes with an asterisk. The state’s official holiday observance calendar reads that Columbus Day is the second Monday of October, or "at the governor's discretion, Columbus Day may be observed the Friday after Thanksgiving."

9. Which states don't celebrate Columbus Day?

In Hawaii, the second Monday of October is known as Discoverer’s Day, "in recognition of the Polynesian discoverers of the Hawaiian Islands, provided that this day is not and shall not be construed to be a state holiday," KHON2 writes. According to the Pew Research Center, only 21 states treated Columbus Day as a paid state holiday in 2013. South Dakota, New Mexico, Maine, and the District of Columbia celebrate Native Americans Day or Indigenous People's Day as a paid holiday. Several cities, like San Francisco and Cincinnati, celebrate Indigenous People's Day.

10. How do other places around the world celebrate Columbus Day?

In Italy, Columbus Day (or Giornata nazionale di Cristoforo Colombo) is listed as one of the national or international days of celebration and is still on October 12, but it's not a public holiday. Some countries have chosen to observe anti-Columbus holidays like the Day of the Indigenous Resistance in Venezuela and Nicaragua, Pan American Day in Belize, and the Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity in Argentina.

Quid Pro Quo Has a Nefarious Etymology

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MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images

While some altruists will happily lend a hand without expecting anything in return, most of the world runs on the idea that you should be compensated in some way for your goods and services.

That’s quid pro quo, a Latin phrase which literally means “something for something.” In many cases, one of those “somethings” refers to money—you pay for concert tickets, your company pays you to teach your boss how to open a PDF, etc. However, quid pro quo also applies to plenty of situations in which no money is involved. Maybe your roommate agreed to lend you her favorite sweater if you promised to wash her dishes for a month. Or perhaps, in return for walking your neighbor’s dog while he was on vacation, he gave you his HBO login credentials.

No matter the circumstances, any deal in which you give something and you get something falls under the category of quid pro quo. According to The Law Dictionary, “it is nothing more than the mutual consideration which passes between the parties to a contract, and which renders it valid and binding.” In other words, if everyone on both sides understands the expectation that something will be given in return for a good or service, your contract is valid.

Based on that definition, quid pro quo hinges on transparency; all parties must understand that there’s an exchange being made. However, this wasn’t always the case. As the Columbia Journalism Review reports, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary entry states that quid pro quo was used in 16th-century apothecaries to denote when one medicine had been substituted for another, “whether intentionally (and sometimes fraudulently) or accidentally.”

So, if you were an unlucky peasant with a sore throat, it’s possible your herbal remedy could’ve been swapped out with something less effective—or even dangerous. Though Merriam-Webster doesn’t offer any specific examples of how or why this happened, it definitely seems like it would have been all too easy to “accidentally” poison your enemies during that time.

Just a few decades later, the term had gained enough popularity that people were using it for less injurious instances, much like we do today.

[h/t Columbia Journalism Review]

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