15 Incredible Things Revealed by Extreme Weather

STUART HERBERT VIA FLICKR // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
STUART HERBERT VIA FLICKR // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

High waves, violent winds, and extreme droughts can wreak terrible destruction—but they can also uncover amazing treasures. During summer 2018, a major drought in Europe revealed "hunger stones" inscribed with dire messages in the Czech Republic, the remains of a prehistoric henge in Ireland, and traces of a 17th-century garden in England. In prior years, weather has exposed Mayan hieroglyphics, medieval skeletons, ancient footprints, and much more. Here are 15 remarkable things revealed by weather.

1. THE OLDEST HUMAN FOOTPRINTS OUTSIDE OF AFRICA

In 2013, strong storms and erosion at Happisburgh, England, cleared away sand and revealed curious depressions in the mud. Archaeologists determined that they were human footprints—the oldest ever found outside of Africa. The people who made the footprints belonged to a different species of Homo than our own, and they lived between 1 million and 0.78 million years ago.

2. A CIVIL WAR SHIP—AND A BOTTLE OF TERRIBLE WINE

Wreck of the Mary Celestia
LookBermuda via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

During the U.S. Civil War, President Lincoln ordered a blockade around southern ports to stop goods from passing through. The Confederacy responded with blockade runners—ships helmed by daring captains who ran cotton, medicine, ammunition, and other goods through the blockade.

The Mary Celestia was one such vessel. It served in this role for only two years before it hit a reef and sank. In recent years, severe hurricanes have stripped away sand from the wreck, and they’ve exposed all sorts of interesting archaeological artifacts—including a sealed bottle of wine. Was the vino still drinkable? Experts sipped it and declared that it mostly tasted like sludgy seawater with notes of … gasoline.

3. A MEDIEVAL SKELETON HANGING FROM TREE ROOTS

In 2015, a tempest in Collooney, Ireland, toppled a huge beech tree—and hoisted half of a skeleton into the air. Archaeologists determined that the bones belonged to an early medieval man who met a violent death from some sort of sharp blade. When the beech tree was toppled, the roots popped up from the soil, carrying the top half of the skeleton with them.

4. A PREHISTORIC FOREST

A submerged forest in Wales
Stuart Herbert via Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Wild weather at Cardigan Bay in Wales periodically strips away sand and uncovers an unusual sight: an ancient forest of tree stumps. In 2014 an especially powerful set of storms exposed much of the forest, giving us amazing views of the ancient trees, which died over 4500 years ago as sea levels rose and salt water inundated the land. Archaeologists also found a wooden walkway dating to between 3000 and 4000 years ago, perhaps built by local people in an attempt to deal with rising seas.

5. THE WRECK OF A COAL SCHOONER—PROBABLY

Shipwreck that's probably the Bessie A. White
Nick Normal via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When Hurricane Sandy blew through New York State’s Fire Island, it exposed the hull of a large ship. Experts believe—though they can’t confirm—that this vessel is the Bessie White, a Canadian coal schooner. The ship ran aground in 1919 or 1922 after it became lost in heavy fog. Fortunately, the naval disaster didn’t claim any lives. The whole crew survived, including the ship’s cat.

6. UNEXPLODED SHELLS FROM WORLD WAR II

Explosives from past wars can still be found in our seas, and bad weather sometimes washes them ashore. In 2012, crews in New Jersey found two unexploded shells while combing the beach after Superstorm Sandy. And in 2014, the Royal Navy was called in to examine an unexploded shell on a beach in Devon, England. (After a thorough examination, the navy declared the shell safe.)

7. A CALIFORNIA "SIN SHIP"

In the 1920s and '30s, you could evade the law and gamble to your heart’s content on "sin ships" off the California coast. Many of these vessels had once been used for honest work—some had belonged to the military—but were rebuilt for drinking, gambling, and partying.

The Monte Carlo, a former oil tanker, was one such vessel. As a sin ship, it hosted such illustrious visitors as Mae West and Clark Gable. But on New Year’s Eve in 1936, a tremendous gale arose and the ship broke free of its moorings. Luckily, there were only two caretakers aboard, and they were safely rescued.

The ship washed up on the beach at Coronado the next day, New Year’s Day, and it still lies buried in the sand. But every now and then, storms remove enough sediment and it reappears. This past winter, El Nino storms gave beachgoers an impressive view of the wreckage— and a chance to stand where Hollywood stars once partied the night away.

8. IRON AGE SKELETONS

Rough weather battered Shetland in Scotland during the 2012-2013 holiday season. It caused a cliff collapse that exposed a grisly sight: human remains. Archaeologists and police were quick to the scene—but it soon became apparent that the remains were a little too old for a homicide investigation: The bones dated from perhaps 2000 years ago. Unfortunately, a further cliff collapse reburied the site, laying the bodies to rest once again.

9. A NEOLITHIC TOWN

The remains of the ancient town of Skara Brae
marydoll1952, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 1850, a tremendous squall hit the Orkney Isles in northern Scotland. It stripped grass and dirt from a large, lumpy knoll known as Skerrabra—and revealed something amazing. The knoll was actually an ancient town. This settlement, known as Skara Brae, dated back to 3200-2200 BCE. It gave archaeologists a glimpse into Scotland’s remarkable ancient past: Skara Brae’s inhabitants raised sheep and cows, feasted on now-extinct great auks, and slept on beds filled with heather.

10. A HUGE WOODEN STEAMBOAT

The steamboat Montana, built in 1882, was the largest ship that ever traveled on the Missouri River. But she lasted just two years before striking an underground tree and sinking. During a severe 2012 drought, water levels in the Missouri dropped low enough to expose the enormous wreck.

11. A GIGANTIC ANCIENT POT

In 2015, a storm’s powerful waves uncovered a nearly 5-foot-tall pot at Palmahim Beach National Park in Israel. Dating from between 300 and 500 CE, the vessel contained artifacts such as an incense pipe and an oil flask. But why would anybody make a piece of pottery as tall as a person? The ancient Romans used these containers, called dolia, to store food and drink.

12. A WHOLE BUNCH OF OIL

In 2016, an oil spill hit a beach in Norfolk, England. But no oil tanker had sunk or run aground in the area …. at least, not for 40 years.

In 1978, the Greek oil tanker Eleni V collided with another ship and capsized. It was later blown up by the army. At the time, policy dictated that the ship’s oil should be buried in trenches along the shore. But storms and erosion eventually exposed the oil, coating a mile of coastline in dark glop—nearly four decades after the offending shipwreck.

13. A SHIPWRECK (INCLUDING A BODY DELIVERY GONE WRONG)

In 1888, the French vessel Jeune Hortense approached the shore at Cornwall, England. It was carrying the body of a Cornish man who had died in France. The crew of four hoped to return the body to its homeland. Unfortunately, the ship ran aground. Fortunately, the crewmembers—and most of the 450 cows onboard—were rescued (it's not quite clear what happened to the body). Over time, sand covered the vessel. Now and then, though, wild waves blast away the sediment and expose it, giving visitors a glimpse of the wreck.

14. MAYAN HIEROGLYPHICS

In 2001, a hurricane hit Guatemala and blew away the sediment that had covered a Mayan staircase. But these were no ordinary stairs. They were covered in hieroglyphics [PDF]—and they told a remarkable story of a massive and incredibly bloody regional conflict, complete with a huge pile of skulls.

15. AN UNUSUAL WHALE SKELETON

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy caused massive beach erosion in Volusia County, Florida. An Orlando couple who were searching for sand dollars made an incredible discovery: the skeleton of a whale that had been buried for decades. And it was no ordinary whale: It was a Gervais’ beaked whale, a member of a group—beaked whales—so poorly known and mysterious that we’re still discovering new species even today.

A version of this post first ran in 2016.

11 Things You Might Not Know About Sports Night

ABC
ABC

Before there was The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, or The Newsroom, there was Sports Night. Premiering in the fall of 1998, Aaron Sorkin's freshman foray into television told the story of a late-night sports news show and the personalities that made it run, both in front of and behind the camera. Here are 11 things you might not know about the two-season dramedy, on its 20th anniversary.

1. IT WAS CONCEIVED AS A BOOK.

Originally, it didn't occur to Sorkin to think about Sports Night as a television series. He thought it might make an interesting book, and his agent at the time suggested a movie might be better—"Kind of a Broadcast News set in a SportsCenter place," Sorkin explained to TV Guide. "But I had a hard time thinking of a two-hour story to tell. It all seemed episodic to me, like small stories. I dismissed it, because it didn't occur to me to do a television series." A few years later, Sorkin found himself pitching the idea to ABC.

2. IT IS LOOSELY BASED ON SPORTSCENTER.

Shortly after Sports Night's premiere, Keith Olbermann—former co-host of ESPN's SportsCenter—couldn't help but notice the similarities between Sports Night’s fictional anchors Dan Rydell (played by Josh Charles) and Casey McCall (played by Peter Krause) and he and his SportsCenter co-host, Dan Patrick, respectively. After asking Sports Illustrated, "How much more of my life can these people borrow before they have to pay me?" Esquire sat Olbermann and Sorkin down together to hash it out. When Olbermann commented that "I have heard various stories about the origin of this series," Sorkin quickly confirmed that, "You are the origin. I sat in [a] hotel room for 13 months writing The American President. To keep me company, I would have SportsCenter on. I'd watch The Big Show four times in a row, and I thought it was the best-written show on television. It turned me into a big-time sports fan. As soon as I was done with The American President, I told [then-ABC head] Jamie Tarses, 'Send me off and let me write a pilot.'" Craig Kilborn has also long been rumored as part of the inspiration for Krause's McCall.

3. AARON SORKIN SPENT SOME TIME ON THE ESPN CAMPUS.

In order to research the series, Sorkin spent some time observing the goings-on at ESPN's main campus in Bristol, Connecticut. And it's there that he found the inspiration for Felicity Huffman's character, Dana Whitaker. "When I visited ESPN, I was very impressed with a particular producer who was juggling about a hundred things at once," Sorkin said. "She was the inspiration for casting a woman in the role of producer of Sports Night."

4. THE NETWORK INSISTED ON USING A LAUGH TRACK.

Given that Sports Night was a rather unconventional comedy, the network executives at ABC were worried that audiences wouldn’t get Sorkin’s sense of humor so they insisted on using a laugh track, much to everyone's dismay. "The network was looking for any touchstones that would make it feel like more of a traditional half-hour, and one of them was the laugh track," Sorkin told Entertainment Weekly in 2014. "By the second season, they said, 'You don’t have to use it anymore.' On those occasions when I go back and watch an old episode, that laugh track sounds so terrible." Added co-star Joshua Malina: "Would The Office have worked with a laugh track? No. At the time, studio executives were going, 'You don’t want to have a laugh track? But how are people going to know that it’s funny?'"

5. IT OVERLAPPED WITH THE WEST WING.

On September 22, 1999—exactly one year after Sports Night premiered—Sorkin's much beloved political drama, The West Wing, made its debut. While Sports Night struggled to find its audience (despite three Emmy wins and a Golden Globe nomination), The West Wing was an immediate hit, so much so that many people blame Sports Night's ultimate disappearance from the air after just two seasons on The West Wing. When ABC announced that it was canceling Sports Night, other channels—HBO and Showtime reportedly among them—came calling. But Sorkin decided that his attention would be better focused on The West Wing.

"While we received several intriguing offers for Sports Night to continue on another network, there were many other factors that were important for us to consider," Sorkin and his producing partner Thomas Schlamme said in a press statement. "We are tremendously proud of the two seasons' worth of episodes that aired on ABC and felt committed to reviving the show only if this creative integrity could continue. When we considered everything involved in making this happen, we felt it best for Sports Night to remain untarnished creatively."

6. JOSHUA MALINA WANTED TO PLAY DAN RYDELL.


Getty Images

Joshua Malina originally auditioned for the role of Dan Rydell. "I immediately fixated on what would ultimately become Josh Charles’ role of Dan," Malina told Entertainment Weekly. "I thought it was perfect for me." But Sorkin knew he wanted Malina in the cast, so he decided to rewrite the role of researcher Jeremy Goodwin to Malina's strengths.

"Aaron called, and he was like, 'Hey, do you remember the role of Jeremy in the pilot?,'" Malina recalled. "As it was originally written, he was 21. And I was 30 at the time. He’s like, 'I know he’s young, but what if I took another pass at it?' And he started describing what he might do, and I just interrupted him and said, 'Are you trying to convince me? Yes! I would play anything in this!'"

7. ROBERT GUILLAUME REALLY DID HAVE A STROKE.

In January 1999, Robert Guillaume, who played managing editor Isaac Jaffe, suffered a stroke while on the set and was immediately rushed to the hospital, where he insisted that "I haven't had a stroke. I can't have a stroke. Disney doesn't allow it. Not during business hours." In order to explain his absence from part of the first season, Sorkin wrote his stroke into the series. He returned at the end of season one. Guillaume passed away of prostate cancer on October 24, 2017, just one month away from his 90th birthday.

8. CASEY MCCALL MADE A SPIN CITY CAMEO.

In 1999, Peter Krause made a cameo as Casey McCall in an episode of Spin City, which immediately preceded Sports Night on ABC's Tuesday night lineup. In the episode, Mike (Michael J. Fox's character) and his girlfriend watch the show-within-the-show version of Sports Night, which then segued into the evening's actual episode.

9. THE SHOW WASN'T LACKING IN CRITICAL ACCLAIM.

Though it struggled to find an audience, Sports Night was never lacking in critical acclaim. The show was nominated for eight Emmy Awards during its two-season run, and won three of them, including Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series for Thomas Schlamme (for the pilot). In 2000, Felicity Huffman scored a Golden Globe nod for Best Performance by an Actress in a TV-Series - Comedy/Musical.

10. ITS "LOW" RATINGS WERE ACTUALLY PRETTY HIGH.

Though low ratings are often cited as the main reason for Sports Night's cancellation after two seasons, it averaged about 11.5 million viewers per week. If Sports Night were still on the air, it would be one of ABC's highest rated shows.

11. IN 2014, KEITH OLBERMANN CO-HOSTED WITH HIS ON-SCREEN ALTER EGO.

In 2014, Josh Charles reprised his role as Dan Rydell on The Big Show with Keith Olbermann. The pair reenacted Sports Night with highlights and witty banter, and allowed Olbermann to poke a little fun at Sorkin.

13 Facts About Notre-Dame Cathedral

iStock
iStock

Constructed between the 12th and 14th centuries, Notre-Dame de Paris has centuries of French history built into its stone. The Gothic cathedral reflects the prominent role of Paris as an economic and spiritual center in the 12th century, and its scars from the French Revolution are reminders of its long connection with the monarchy—a connection that almost resulted in its demolition. Yet although thousands of tourists enter its doors each day to photograph its rose windows and flying buttresses, this sacred destination still has its secrets. Here are 13 lesser-known facts about Notre-Dame de Paris.

1. A PAGAN CITY LIES BELOW THE CATHEDRAL.

The Île-de-la-Cité on which Notre-Dame de Paris now stands was once a Gallo-Roman city known as Lutetia. The cathedral may have been built right over remnants of a temple: Around 1710, pieces of a sculpted altar dedicated to Jupiter and other deities were discovered during an excavation under the choir (although it remains unclear if this is evidence of an ancient temple, or if the pieces were recycled there from another location). Additional architectural ruins found in the 1960s and '70s, many dating back to this ancient era, lie in the archaeological crypt located beneath the square just in front of Notre-Dame.

2. THERE'S SOME RECYCLED ARCHITECTURE ON ITS FAÇADE.

The Sainte-Anne Portal at Notre-Dame
The Sainte-Anne Portal at Notre-Dame

There are three portals on the western façade of Notre-Dame, each laden with sculpted saints and sacred scenes. One doesn't seem to fit, however—the Portal Sainte-Anne has a much earlier style than the rest. Its figures, such as the central Virgin and Child, look stiffer in their poses and less natural in their features compared to the other statues. That's because this tympanum, or semi-circular area of decoration, was recycled from a previous Romanesque church. A close examination in 1969 revealed that it was not originally made for this space, and had been adapted to fit the Gothic structure.

3. THERE'S A "FOREST" IN ITS ROOF.

The cathedral contains one of the oldest surviving wood-timber frames in Paris, involving around 52 acres of trees that were cut down in the 12th century. Each beam is made from an individual tree. For this reason, the lattice of historic woodwork is nicknamed "the Forest."

4. ITS FLYING BUTTRESSES WERE GOTHIC TRENDSETTERS.

Low angle view of the East end of Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral at sunset with flying buttresses
iStock

The cathedral was one of the earliest structures built with exterior flying buttresses. They were constructed around its nave in the 12th century to lend support to the thin walls, after the need for more light in the incredibly tall church required larger windows, and thus greater supports. The exposed flying buttresses became an iconic aspect of Gothic design, and although there's some debate over whether Notre-Dame was the first church to have them, they certainly set the trend in sacred architecture.

5. TWENTY-EIGHT OF ITS KINGS LOST THEIR HEADS IN THE FRENCH REVOLUTION.

In 1793, in the midst of the French Revolution, 28 statues of biblical kings in the cathedral were pulled down with ropes and decapitated by a mob. (King Louis XVI was guillotined earlier that year, and any iconography tied to the monarchy was under attack.) The mutilated stones were eventually tossed in a trash heap, which the Minister of the Interior dealt with by ordering the material be repurposed for construction. It wasn't until 1977 that the heads of 21 of these kings were rediscovered during work on the basement of the French Bank of Foreign Trade. Now they're at the nearby Musée de Cluny.

6. THE TOWERS ARE NOT TWINS.

The two towers of Notre-Dame
iStock

At first glance, Notre-Dame’s two towers appear like identical twins. Closer examination reveals that the north tower is in fact a bit bigger than the south. As with all the elements of the cathedral, they were built over time, and reflect how the cathedral is more of a collage of architectural trends and leadership than the culmination of one person’s vision.

7. ITS BELLS WERE ONCE MELTED DOWN FOR ARTILLERY.

The kings weren’t the only part of Notre-Dame destroyed during the French Revolution. The cathedral, like other churches around France, was transformed in the late 18th century from a Christian space and rededicated to the new Cult of Reason. All 20 of its bells—except the colossal 1681 bourdon called Emmanuel—were removed and melted down to make cannons.

While the bells at Notre-Dame were replaced in the 19th century, the new instruments were not as finely made as the older versions, and made a more dissonant noise when clanging. Finally, in 2013, a new ensemble of bells restored the cathedral to its 17th-century sound, with the deeply resonant Emmanuel still joining in the toll on special occasions.

8. NAPOLÉON AND VICTOR HUGO SAVED IT.

When Napoléon Bonaparte decided to have his 1804 coronation as emperor in Notre-Dame, the building was in bad shape. Centuries of decay as the city developed and changed around it, as well as the vandalism of the French Revolution, had left it on the verge of demolition. For years it had been used as little more than a warehouse. So when Napoléon declared its return to church use, and hosted his grand ceremony within his walls—an event in which he famously crowned himself—it brought Notre-Dame to new prominence.

Nevertheless, the coronation didn’t fix its structural deterioration. Then author Victor Hugo used the building as a personification of France itself in his 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris. (The book’s name is often translated as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, yet the hunchbacked bell ringer Quasimodo is not the main character; the central figure is Notre-Dame.) And Hugo vividly evoked its decrepit 19th-century state:

“But noble as it has remained while growing old, one cannot but regret, cannot but feel indignant at the innumerable degradations and mutilations inflicted on the venerable pile, both by the action of time and the hand of man, regardless alike of Charlemagne, who laid the first stone, and Philip Augustus, who laid the last. On the face of this ancient queen of our cathedrals, beside each wrinkle one invariably finds a scar. 'Tempus edax, homo edacior,' which I would be inclined to translate: 'Time is blind, but man is senseless.'”

The book was a success, and the momentum led to a major restoration overseen by architects Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.

9. ITS MONSTERS ARE MODERN, NOT MEDIEVAL.

Gargoyle and wide city view from the roof of Notre-Dame
iStock

Some of the most popular images of Notre-Dame are from the perspective of its gargoyles or chimera (the carved monsters that don’t act as waterspouts). Few visitors would guess that the fantastic creatures now on the cathedral weren't there until the 19th century; they were added between 1843 and 1864 during the radical restoration overseen by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc.

Hugo had described gargoyles extensively in Notre-Dame de Paris, and Viollet-le-Duc was reportedly inspired by this romantic vision of the past. A daguerreotype from before this overhaul shows a building more stark than the one we know today, with no beasts perched on its towers, its medieval gargoyles having long been removed. Unfortunately, many of the 19th-century gargoyles are now decaying; PVC pipes have taken the place of those that have been taken down for safety.

The gargoyles were far from the only fanciful addition by the architect Viollet-le-Duc. Among the 12 apostles he had installed around the new spire, he included himself as the face of Saint Thomas.

10. ITS SPIRE IS A SAINTLY LIGHTNING ROD.

Look way to the top of the spire and you'll spy a rooster. This is not a purely decorative bird. In 1935, three tiny relics—an alleged piece of the Crown of Thorns and some bits of Saint Denis and Saint Genevieve (the city's patron saints)—were secured inside the metal bird’s body. The idea, the story goes, was to create a sort of spiritual lightning rod to protect the parishioners within.

11. THE ORGAN IS THOUGHT TO BE THE LARGEST IN FRANCE.

The Notre-Dame organ involves almost 8000 pipes (some dating back to the 18th century) played with five keyboards, making it the biggest pipe organ in France (although some claim that Saint-Eustache has a larger one). While there are some slashes on the wood of the organ loft—damage from the French Revolution, when its fleur-de-lis symbols were carved off—it was restored in 2013 to mark the 850th anniversary of the cathedral.

12. ALL ROADS LEAD TO NOTRE-DAME DE PARIS.

Point Zero marker outside Notre-Dame in Paris
Jean-Pierre Bazard, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Mostly overlooked beneath the crowds of tourists milling around outside Notre-Dame is a diminutive circular marker with an eight-pointed bronze star embedded in the cobblestones. It’s engraved with the words Point zéro des routes de France, and is the point from which distances are measured from Paris to other cities in France. It was placed there in 1924, although it had to be temporarily dislodged in the 1960s during the excavations for what was intended to be an underground parking garage. Those construction plans were thwarted when workers turned up architectural ruins—now kept in the archaeological crypt.

13. BEES LIVE ON ITS ROOF.

On the Notre-Dame sacristy, adjacent to the cathedral, is a small hive of bees. It was installed in 2013, with Buckfast bees—a strain developed by a monk named Brother Adam and known for its gentleness—living in its hives. Their honey is made from the flowering plants in nearby gardens, including the Square Jean XXIII just behind the cathedral. According to The New York Times, the sweet stuff is given away to the poor.

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