15 of the Most Mysterious Objects at Museums
Museums aren’t just air-conditioned places to visit on a hot day when you’re exploring a new city — they’re full of fascinating artifacts with incredible stories to tell.
Sometimes, these artifacts are even shrouded in mystery, their origins and stories indecipherable to the world's greatest minds.
From a cursed gemstone to a 15th-century manuscript written in unbreakable code, behold the most mysterious museum objects on Earth.
The Wedge of Aiud
In 1974, archaeologists in Aiud, Romania discovered a wedge-shaped object buried approximately 35 feet underground alongside two mastodon bones.
The fact that it was discovered alongside mastodon bones would make the artifact around 11,000 years old — but aluminum wasn’t discovered until the early 19th century.
To this day, the exact origins and age of the object remain unknown, and scholars have no clue as to how it ended up near bones from thousands of years before aluminum was discovered and used to make tools.
Where to see the wedge of Aiud: The object has been donated to the Museum of the History of Transylvania in Romania.
The Hasanlu Lovers
Around 800 B.C.E., the ancient Iranian city of Hasanlu was completely destroyed by fire. The entire population either died in the fire or as a result of violence in its aftermath.
Today, Hasanlu serves as an important archaeological site that, through thorough excavation, has uncovered fascinating finds. And the most fascinating find of all is undoubtedly the “Hasanlu Lovers,” two intertwined skeletons found in a bin of plaster-covered mudbrick in 1972.
The skeletons were given their name because they were initially thought to be romantically involved — their arms are around each other, and one skeleton appears to be gently touching the face of the other. But now scholars believe they may not have been lovers at all.
Scientists confirmed that one skeleton is male, and while the other is still up for debate, it appears to “lean male” as well. They also speculate that the two may be related. In addition, it’s still unclear why the skeletons ended up in the bin in the first place, though it’s thought that they were likely hiding from the fire and subsequent violence.
The so-called “lovers” have attracted archaeologists and researchers from around the world to try and solve the mystery of who they were and how they got there.
Where to see the Hasanlu lovers: The embracing skeletons are now in the collection of the Penn Museum in Philadelphia.
The Shroud of Turin
Some believe that the Shroud of Turin, one of the most well-known mysterious objects in the world, was used in the burial of Jesus Christ. Others see the cloth — and the image of the face of a bearded man on it — as a fake from medieval times.
There have been countless tests on the shroud in an attempt to confirm its origins, but none have been completely conclusive or universally accepted. The most recent research was published in 2018 and used modern forensic technology to help determine if the bloodstains did, in fact, come from Jesus.
Ultimately, they concluded that someone most likely created the bloodstains by hand, but who did so, and how, remains a mystery.
Where to see the shroud of Turin: Currently on display at the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Turin, Italy, the shroud continues to draw crowds who want to see the bloodstained cloth.
Human Skull Cup
This cup made out of a human skull, discovered at Gough's Cave in Somerset, England, dates back nearly 15,000 years. Scientists actually believe they know its origin, and full warning, it's stomach-churning: The object appears to be something made and used by a group of cannibals.
What's unclear is exactly why and how said cannibalism took place. The best guess? It was part of some sort of spiritual ritual.
Where to see the human skull cup: The Natural History Museum in London is the current home of this morbid find.
Nearly 300 years ago, the first “dodecahedron” — a 12-sided metal object — was uncovered in England. Since then, more than 100 of these objects have been found in locations across northern Europe that were once part of the Roman Empire.
Three centuries on, scientists and historians remain baffled as to what exactly the objects are.
While some theorize that the dodecahedron was used as a weapon, others think it may have been a child’s toy or a tool used to calculate distance. What makes this even more mysterious is the fact that there is no paper trail. According to an article in Mental Floss, historians have not found any written documentation mentioning dodecahedrons.
What we do know is that these intricately crafted metal objects have been found buried with Roman coins, leading scholars to believe that they were considered valuable for some reason. Why? We simply do not know.
Where to see Roman dodecahedrons: The objects are on display across Europe, including at the Saalburg Roman Archaeological Park near Frankfurt in Germany.
The Cursed Amethyst
Though amethysts were traditionally thought to bring tranquility and calmness, one storied gem has the reputation of being cursed.
In January 1944, a beautiful but spooky amethyst mounted on a ring in the form of a snake was donated to the Natural History Museum of London by the daughter of a man named Edward Heron-Allen. With it was a letter explaining the strange and alarming tale of the gem.
For starters, it was looted from an Indian temple in 1855 and subsequently brought to England, where it was given to Edward Heron-Allen and allegedly wreaked havoc for decades. When Heron-Allen passed the amethyst on to various friends, they each reportedly experienced tragedies including a trail of suicides, apparitions, disasters and failed careers.
When the gemstone came back to him, Heron-Allen wrote the letter and sealed it into a bank vault. It remained there until after his death, when his daughter donated it to the museum.
But is the amethyst really cursed? Probably not. As it turns out, Heron-Allen probably made up the legend and curse as a way of promoting a short story he wrote in 1921 under the pseudonym Christopher Blayre, called “The Purple Sapphire.”
Where to see the cursed amethyst: Though it’s cursedness is in question, the gem remains an attraction worst seeing at the Natural History Museum of London.
The Antikythera Mechanism
Since divers first pulled this mechanism from the wreck of the Antikythera ship near Greece in 1900, scholars have tried to make sense of exactly what it did and how it came to be. What we do know, though, is incredible: This was quite possibly the world’s first computer.
X-rays taken in the 1970s and 1990s revealed that the mechanism was likely used to track the path of the sun, moon and planets, Smithsonian reports. Because the X-rays were hard to interpret, it wasn’t until an archaeologist and his team did CT scans on the artifact in 2006 that hidden inscriptions inside the mechanism were discovered.
There are several missing pieces that likely hold important clues to the origin and purpose of this early computer, as well as the meaning of the hidden inscriptions.
Where to see the Antikythera mechanism: Tech aficionados can find this proto-computer housed at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.
The Copper Scroll
The Dead Sea Scrolls get all the press, but another scroll made of copper was discovered in 1952 alongside it, and may be even more mysterious.
Thanks to modern dating techniques, we know it was created approximately 2,000 years ago, when the Roman Empire controlled the Qumran settlement, in what is now the West Bank in the Palestinian territories.
Some researchers think that the scroll describes a massive treasure of gold and silver that local residents hid to keep safe from the Romans. Today, we still don’t know if or where this treasure exists, why exactly it was buried and who decided to do it.
Where to see the copper scroll: You can find it on display at the Jordan Museum in Amman.
The Codex Gigas
The Codex Gigas is a gorgeous medieval manuscript distinguished by its heft (it weighs 165 pounds) and one shocking feature: a full-page portrait of Satan. The image has earned the manuscript the name, "The Devil's Bible."
Who put together this extraordinary work, and why is the devil featured so prominently? Legend has it that a monk going by the name Herman the Recluse wrote the manuscript in a single night, while awaiting execution for breaking his monastic vows. He made a deal with the devil to complete the tome containing all the world's knowledge in a single night, in exchange for his life.
Much more likely, the manuscript was written by a monk, sans any Satanic participation, over the course of several years. Handwriting analysis suggests it was indeed completed by one man, with National Geographic experts determining it would take five straight years of writing to finish.
Beyond that, little is known. And in the meantime, the legend persists.
Where to see the Codex Gigas: The public is free to view the manuscript at the National Library of Sweden in Stockholm.
Empty Frames at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, located in Boston, is the setting of the biggest unsolved art theft in the world. On the morning of March 18, 1990, two robbers dressed as police officers entered the museum and, in 81 minutes, stole 13 works of art by artists like Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet and Degas. It’s estimated that the collective value of the stolen art is more than $500 million.
The crime remains unsolved to this day, and the museum is offering a $10 million reward for information leading directly to the recovery of all 13 works of art in good condition and a separate $100,000 reward for the Napoleonic bronze eagle finial that was taken.
Where to see the empty frames: Today, visitors to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum can see the empty frames hanging on the walls as a symbol of hope that the works will one day be returned.
The Lewis Chessmen
The game of chess has been around for a long time, but one set in particular has captivated the imagination of archaeologists, historians and chess enthusiasts for more than a century.
In 1831, an intact chess set washed up on the dunes of the Isle of Lewis, off the coast of Scotland. Not only is it the only complete surviving chess set from medieval times, but archaeologists still aren’t sure how its figures — made in Norway more than 1,000 years ago — ended up on the Isle of Lewis.
One theory? When the chess set was created, the Western Isles — including the Isle of Lewis — were part of Norway, not Scotland. It is thought that a merchant might have buried the set for safe keeping, before traveling to Ireland to use it for trade.
But that’s merely speculation. To this day, the true story behind the Lewis Chessmen remains a mystery.
Where to see the Lewis chessmen: Much of the set is currently on display at the British Museum in London.
The Voynich Manuscript
The person or people responsible for a 15th century manuscript written in code did an amazing job at making it unbreakable, as centuries later, historians are still trying to figure out what it means.
Indeed, the origin, language and date of the the Voynich Manuscript — named after the Polish-American antiquarian bookseller, Wilfrid M. Voynich, who acquired it in 1912 — remain unknown.
In addition to the undecipherable text, the manuscript also contains puzzling drawings that appear to depict “botanical, figurative, and scientific drawings of a provincial but lively character, drawn in ink with vibrant washes in various shades of green, brown, yellow, blue, and red,” according to the Yale Library website.
Typically described as a magical or scientific text, the Voynich Manuscript contains a wide range of drawings, including Zodiac symbols, 113 unidentified plant species, miniature female nudes, nine cosmological medallions and more than 100 different species of medicinal herbs and roots.
It also contains star-like flowers and possibly even recipes written into the margins.
Where to see the Voynich manuscript: The manuscript can be found at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. Can you crack the code?
Some of the most prized lawn ornaments in Costa Rica are also some of the most mysterious objects on Earth.
In the 1930s, when workers from the United Fruit Company began clearing the land in a valley in Costa Rica, they came across a significant number of perfectly round stone spheres. Though they are clearly manmade, exactly who made these, how they did it, when it happened and why remains unclear.
The only thing there’s some certainty about? That they’re extremely old. Archaeologists speculate that the spheres were created by a now-extinct society somewhere between 700 CE and 1530 CE.
Where to see the Diquís spheres: Though these balls can be found throughout the area, six are officially on display in the courtyard of Costa Rica’s National Museum in San Jose.
The Holey Jar
Yes, that spelling is correct: It’s a jar full of holes, and it was found in a bomb crater outside of London after World War II.
The artifact dates back to Roman times in England, or roughly 43 to 410 C.E., and archaeologists speculate that the ancient clay vessel may have been used as a lamp or cage for mice or snakes, though they don’t know for sure.
Unlike many ancient artifacts which are full of holes because of natural wear and tear over the years, the holes in this jar appear to have been put there intentionally, adding to the mystery.
Where to see the holey jar: It is currently on display at the Museum of Ontario Archaeology in Canada.
The Maine Penny
Back in the mid-1950s, an amateur archaeologist from Maine made the discovery of a lifetime: what appeared to be a silver Norse penny, made between 1065 and 1093.
Though sometimes denounced as a hoax, if the coin is real, it provides evidence of Viking contact with North America several centuries ahead of Columbus. The only other credible Viking artifacts found in North America come from Newfoundland, so this is the only evidence we have that Vikings may have made it farther south.
Part of the mystery is why only one coin — rather than a larger haul — was found on the site. But when the Maine State Museum sent a team to investigate the site further, they discovered many other out-of-place artifacts from outside the region. They hypothesized that Native Americans may have conducted trade on the site, or that it was possibly used as a sort-of pre-Columbian World’s Fair where different objects were on display in one location.
In any case, to this day, the full story of the coin is unknown.
Where to the Maine penny: This mysterious coin is in the collection of the Maine State Museum.