CLOSE
davidd, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
davidd, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

11 Weird Things That Have Washed Ashore

davidd, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
davidd, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

From LEGO bricks and rubber duckies to a motorcycle and a giant eyeball, some very weird things have washed up on the world's beaches.

1. LOTS OF LEGO BRICKS 

Ever since 62 shipping containers full of 4.8 million LEGO pieces fell off a boat on February 13, 1997, pieces have been washing up on UK shores and delighting dedicated beachcombers. And they're not regular square bricks, either: Delightfully, many of the LEGOs in the container were nautically-themed. It’s estimated that in the 19 years since the spill, the pieces could have drifted over 62,000 miles—meaning they could be virtually anywhere in the ocean—but thus far finds have only been confirmed in parts of southern England, Wales, and one site in Ireland.

2. E.T.

When Margaret Wells was robbed in 2011 she lost one particularly irreplaceable item from her Hampshire, England home: A life-size E.T. replica made by her daughter as part of a stage makeup course. Several months later, a beach-goer at a nearby Portsmouth saw E.T. floating in the surf—but didn’t realize what it was at first. The pedestrian called the police, fearing it was a body on the beach, but the police quickly realized it was a one-of-a-kind alien model.

“There's only one in the whole of England and that is mine,” Wells said. “I always knew E.T. would come home.”

3. LOVE LETTERS FROM WWII

Just a day after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast in 2012, Kathleen Mullen made an incredible discovery near the Jersey shore. A stack of 57 letters, bound with a pink ribbon, had washed ashore in the storm. Mullen took the letters home, dried them by the fire—the power was still out from the storm—and realized she had stumbled up love letters written between Dorothy Fallon and Lynn Farnham between 1942 and 1947 while Lynn was in the military.

It’s unclear where the letters came from, but Mullen was determined to get them back to the couple. Through research online she was able to locate a niece, Shelly Farnham-Hilber, who lives in Virginia. Dorothy and Lynn had gotten married after the war and had two children. Lynn and the couple’s son are deceased and their daughter has lost touch with the family. But 91-year-old Dorothy was living in a nursing home in New Jersey.

"It's magical. You go, 'This can't be real,'" Farnham-Hilber told a local news station. "It's like a genealogical gold mine. It's just that moment that you think is lost forever and here is something. It's a gift."

4. HARLEY-DAVIDSON

Ikuo Yokoyama lost his home and three family members in the devastating 2011 tsunami. So he probably hadn’t given much thought to the fact that he also lost his motorcycle—and everything else that was in the van that he was using as a storage shed—until it washed up on shore over a year later in British Columbia, more than 3000 miles away. Peter Mark stumbled upon the storage unit while exploring a remote beach on Graham Island. The bike was a little rusty, but after the story went public, a Harley-Davidson representative in Japan tracked down Yokoyama and offered to pay for it to be transported back to him and repaired to its former glory.

5. THE "ST. AUGUSTINE MONSTER"

The St. Augustine Monster is one of the earliest examples of a globster—a delightful term referring to an unidentified animal mass that washes up on a beach and results in cryptozoologists speculating about sea monsters. This particular—and particularly large—carcass was discovered by a couple of young boys playing on Anastasia Island, Florida in November 1896. The boys assumed it was a whale, but Dr. De Witt Webb, the founder of the St. Augustine Historical Society and Institute of Science, concluded that it was the remains of a giant octopus and sent photos and a specimen to the Smithsonian labeled as such. Over the next century-plus, various tests claimed to “prove” at one time or another that it was a whale or an octopus, depending on which test was run. Finally, in 2004, it was conclusively proven that the St. Augustine Monster was a whale all along—just like the two boys who discovered it had thought.

6. A GIANT EYEBALL

In 2012, a Florida man found an eyeball the size of a softball on Pompano Beach. In previous eras, this likely would have kicked off decades of sea monster speculation, but the eye was quickly handed over to wildlife officials, who easily identified it as belonging to a very, very large swordfish.

7. A LOT OF RUBBER DUCKS

poolie, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Just like the LEGO pieces, these duckies were the victims of a shipping container accident that occurred in 1992. The buoyant bath toys have been drifting all over the world in the decades since, serving as unintentional educators about the ocean’s currents. Members of the "Friendly Floatees," a name given to these rubber ducks, have been discovered on the shores of Hawaii, Alaska, South America, Australia, the Pacific Northwest, and even the Arctic ice. Some 200 duckies are still circulating in the currents of the North Pacific Gyre, providing scientists with new information about what is now known as the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch. They’ve even become the subject of a book called Moby-Duck.

8. NAVY TRAINING MINE

Beach-goers in Miami Beach got quite a scare in 2011 when they noticed a 5-foot-long mine had washed ashore. The police were called and the beach was evacuated, but the Navy quickly assured the public that it was simply an inert training mine that had somehow broken free of an offshore training site.

9. A HUNDRED LIVE WWII BOMBS

The nearly 100 World War II-era bombs that washed ashore in Hampshire that same year, however, were very real and very dangerous. Some people speculated that the so-called Supermoon the previous week was responsible, possibly because it caused very low tides, while others speculated fishing nets pulled them up. A British Navy team blocked off the beach and detonated the bombs while they were submerged in high-tide. 

10. WHALE EXCRETA WORTH UP TO $180,000

Ken Wilman’s dog Madge noticed the smelly yellow lump of something on the beach in Lancashire first. Initially, Wilman had no interest in it.

“It smelled horrible. I left it, came back home and looked it up on the internet,” Wilman told The Mirror. “When I saw how much it could be worth, I went back and grabbed it.

He had stumbled upon a 6-pound pile of ambergris, or “whale vomit,” worth up to $180,000. The waxy substance is produced in the intestines of sperm whales to protect their digestive tracks from sharp squid beaks. Despite its nickname, it’s likely excreted, rather than vomited, into the ocean where it floats for untold years before occasionally washing up on shore. So why is the whale excrement worth so much?  High-end European perfumeries use it as a “fixer” which allows the scents to stay on the skin for much longer.

11. VAST QUANTITIES OF DRUGS

Bags of drugs washing up on beaches is fairly common. In fact, according to Galveston, Texas, police, packages similar to the 66-pound bundle of cocaine worth $3.5 million found on a local beach in May 2015 wash ashore once every couple of months. But what made this one unusual was that it was the sixth bundle of drugs discovered on the beach that week (four packages contained marijuana, and two contained cocaine). Police were unsure the reason for the massive increase, but speculated that heavy storms had restricted access to the Houston Ship Channel, which led to increased scrutiny by the Coast Guard—and traffickers throwing illegal drugs overboard.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Screenshot via Mount Vernon/Vimeo
arrow
History
The Funky History of George Washington's Fake Teeth
Screenshot via Mount Vernon/Vimeo
Screenshot via Mount Vernon/Vimeo

George Washington may have the most famous teeth—or lack thereof—in American history. But counter to what you may have heard about the Founding Father's ill-fitting dentures, they weren't made of wood. In fact, he had several sets of dentures throughout his life, none of which were originally trees. And some of them are still around. The historic Mount Vernon estate holds the only complete set of dentures that has survived the centuries, and the museum features a video that walks through old George's dental history.

Likely due to genetics, poor diet, and dental disease, Washington began losing his original teeth when he was still a young man. By the time he became president in 1789, he only had one left in his mouth. The dentures he purchased to replace his teeth were the most scientifically advanced of the time, but in the late 18th century, that didn't mean much.

They didn't fit well, which caused him pain, and made it difficult to eat and talk. The dentures also changed the way Washington looked. They disfigured his face, causing his lips to noticeably stick out. But that doesn't mean Washington wasn't grateful for them. When he finally lost his last surviving tooth, he sent it to his dentist, John Greenwood, who had made him dentures of hippo ivory, gold, and brass that accommodated the remaining tooth while it still lived. (The lower denture of that particular pair is now held at the New York Academy of Medicine.)

A set of historic dentures
George Washington's Mount Vernon

These days, no one would want to wear dentures like the ones currently held at Mount Vernon (above). They're made of materials that would definitely leave a bad taste in your mouth. The base that fit the fake teeth into the jaw was made of lead. The top teeth were sourced from horses or donkeys, and the bottom were from cows and—wait for it—people.

These teeth actually deteriorated themselves, revealing the wire that held them together. The dentures open and shut thanks to metal springs, but because they were controlled by springs, if he wanted to keep his mouth shut, Washington had to permanently clench his jaw. You can get a better idea of how the contraption worked in the video from Mount Vernon below.

Washington's Dentures from Mount Vernon on Vimeo.

There are plenty of lessons we can learn from the life of George Washington, but perhaps the most salient is this: You should definitely, definitely floss.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Wikimedia // Public Domain
arrow
History
Brazen Heads: The Curious Legend Behind Fortune-Telling Automata
A woodblock illustration from Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay
A woodblock illustration from Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Fortune-telling automata—think Zoltar—were a fixture of penny arcades and amusement parks for generations of schoolchildren. But these creations owe their origin in part to the literary legend of the brazen head, an imaginary all-knowing mechanical device supposedly endowed with the ability to answer any question and predict the future. Called brazen because they were made of brass, their popularity peaked in the Renaissance, when plays and romances featured them and thinkers pondered the supposed mysteries of their making.

"A NATURAL MAN'S HEAD"

The most frequently referenced brazen head is the one allegedly made by 13th century Franciscan friar and philosopher Roger Bacon, although stories of its creation don't appear until centuries after his death. The anonymous 16th century prose romance The famous historie of Fryer Bacon describes the magical object as a precise brass replica of a “natural man’s head,” including “the inward parts,” and tells how Bacon, struggling to give it speech, summoned the Devil to ask him for advice. Satan announced that the head would speak after a few weeks, as long as it was powered by “the continuall fume of the six hottest simples,” a selection of plants used in alchemical medicine.

The tale formed part of the plot of the popular play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, written by English dramatist and pamphleteer Robert Greene and first performed around 1589. In both accounts, Bacon’s ultimate purpose was to build a magical wall of brass around Britain to protect it against any invasions; the all-knowing head would have assisted him in the task. There is, however, a crucial difference: In the play, the “monstrous head” isn’t built by alchemy nor by natural magic, but by “necromantic charms." In both sources, when the magical creation finally speaks, Bacon is fast asleep and misses its words—“Time is,” “Time was,” and “Time is past.” The opportunity to question his creation about the secrets of the universe is gone, and the head explodes, destroying itself.

Never mind that Bacon was an expert in geometry and mathematics and one of the pioneers of the scientific method; rumors that he had built a brazen head “by the hand of the Devil” persisted well into 17th century. The extent of Bacon's magical doings during his lifetime is a subject of much debate, but his association with the demonic may come in part from his experiments in optics, which resulted in impressive tricks of perspective judged to have been done “by power of evyll spirites,” in the words of the 16th century mathematician Robert Recorde. And while there is no record of Bacon ever creating an actual brazen head, he was fascinated by early astronomical clocks—also made of brass, and also offering information about the cosmos.

Oil painting of Roger Bacon in his observatory by Ernest Board
Ernest Board, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

Bacon was a disciple of bishop Robert Grosseteste, another polymath alleged by literary legend to have made a brazen head, in his case by using “astral science” with the purpose of predicting the future. There are many similarities between the stories—particularly the fact that Grosseteste was also asleep when the brazen head delivered its cryptic words—so it’s likely that the two tales may have influenced one another over the years. And like Bacon, Grosseteste wasn’t exactly a sorcerer: Centuries after his death, he remains an influential figure in mathematical physics, still remembered as a crucial name in the development of Oxford University, where he lectured.

Even a saint was said to have made a brazen head. Renaissance sources tell us that 13th century Saint Albertus Magnus spent 30 years building a man of brass able to correctly answer any question, but according to one version of the story, the automaton was so loquacious that a disciple of Saint Albertus—the famed Thomas Aquinas—knocked it to pieces to stop its constant chattering.

Yet the earliest known written reference to something like a brazen head predates the Renaissance, and appears in the 12th century Chronicle of the Kings of England by William of Malmesbury. The historian attributes the creation of this head to Gerbert of Aurillac, who would become Pope Sylvester II in 999. We’re told that Gerbert traveled to Spain to “learn astrology and other sciences of that description from the Saracens,” and that he stole a book of spells from a Saracen philosopher before making a pact with the devil, who was responsible for his rise to the papal throne. “By a certain inspection of stars,” Gerbert built a head that accurately answered “yes” or “no” to any question—including one about its creator’s death. (Gerbert may have been clever enough to create an omniscient figure, but he failed to ask it the right questions: Told that he would only die after singing mass in Jerusalem, death nevertheless caught him by surprise days after having sung mass not in the city of Jerusalem, but in Jerusalem Church in Rome.)

William’s account is key to how the legend of the brazen head was received and interpreted. As a Christian monk, he regarded Islam as unholy. When Gerbert meddled with Saracens (a term medieval Europeans commonly used for Arabs and later Muslims) he was understood to have opened a door to the occult, introducing a “demonic” object to the Western world. William also perhaps strengthened the connection to paganism in the text by mentioning Daedalus, the cunning craftsman of Greek mythology, who fathered Icarus—and an impressive number of ancient automata.

INGENIOUS DEVICES

There was, indeed, some truth behind these stories. Ancient automata were not a mere mythical creation, but a real product of the inventiveness of some very early engineers. In the 4th century BCE, Archytas of Tarentum created a steam or compressed-air-powered dove; 3rd century BCE Philon of Byzantium designed a wine-pouring maid; and 1st century CE Hero of Alexandria produced a series of mechanical devices that included coin-operated machines, puppets, singing birds, and even a miniature theater able to stage a tragedy. This Greco-Alexandrian tradition was carried forward by Arab-Islamic engineers, such as the Banū Mūsā brothers in 9th century Baghdad, whose Book of Ingenious Devices contains designs for several different automata.

If many Christians regarded these inventions as devilry, it wasn’t just for their seemingly unnatural qualities, but also for their pagan origins.

Back in early modern England, Protestants used the brazen head motif for their own political purposes. In Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, Bacon—who like Gerbert, Grosseteste, and Albertus Magnus was an intellectual working on advanced ideas of philosophy and nature—is presented as a necromancer. The influential play is an example of Reformation propaganda: The Middle Ages are depicted as a breeding ground for magic and the occult, and Catholics are portrayed as credulous and superstitious, as opposed to Protestants, who are praised as advocates of progress.

MAGICAL RELICS

A wizard at Musée Mécanique, San Francisco
Musée Mécanique, San Francisco
Allison Meier, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The fascination with fortune-telling heads didn’t end with the Renaissance, however. Centuries later, the legend of Bacon’s brazen head still breathed in the works of Daniel Defoe, Lord Byron, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. In A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), Defoe describes how brazen heads were “the usual sign” that marked the dwellings of fortune-tellers and astrologers in 1665 London. What may have been false advertising in the 17th century became reasonably accurate in the penny arcades of the 20th century, where the fortune-telling business was actually performed by machines.

Many of these more recent fortune-telling creations still trade on tropes of the exotic—elderly gypsy women, Central European magicians, or Eastern mystics. While such automata are increasingly rare, several now live in museums, such as the Musée Mécanique in San Francisco or the Tibidabo Automata Museum in Barcelona. Although not the brazen heads of legend, they’re still functioning, ready to tell us our future—as long as we don't fall asleep.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios