6 strangest ancient artefacts in history

Venus of Willendorf from multiple angles

Venus of Willendorf as shown at the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria, CC BY-SA 4.0

Strangest Things examines Earth’s most remarkable and mysterious objects hidden away in museums, laboratories and storage rooms. Using the latest technology, these artefacts can be rebuilt to uncover their deepest secrets. Strangest Things airs Mondays at 9pm on Sky HISTORY.

The problem with conversations about the strangest ancient artefacts is separating the facts from the fantastical imaginations of people that want to believe in an alternative reality. The inclusion of Klerksdorp Spheres or the Ica and Dropa Stones can easily undermine the provenance of genuinely strange objects that have been discovered throughout history.

Still, that doesn’t mean to say that the six we’ve chosen are all squeaky clean, but to the best of our knowledge, and research, each of these artefacts inspires a sense of wonder.

1. London Hammer

We’re starting in London, Texas (not London, England). What we know is that an object encased in rock was found close to a waterfall by a couple walking along a creek in 1936. A decade later their curious son cracked it open and found a late 19th century miner's hammer inside. But the rock appeared to be from a Cretaceous time frame, where man was not supposed to have evolved for another 100 million years.

The scientific answer is that the rock isn’t 400 million years old but actually contains minerals from ancient strata that have dissolved and hardened around a disused hammer. However, this hasn’t stopped a series of ongoing arguments among creationists, and the hammer now resides at the Creation Evidence Museum, in Texas.

2. The Antikythera Mechanism

On the other end of the scale is the Antikythera Mechanism, which isn’t so much as strange as it is astonishing. At around 300 BC, this is the oldest known example of an orrery (a mechanical model of the Solar System) making it the world’s oldest known analogue computer.

To put its sophistication into some sort of context, it’d be a further 1,000 years before the earliest medieval clocks were assembled, and until this machine was discovered in a shipwreck near the Mediterranean island of Antikythera in 1901, such devices only existed in Greco-Roman literature. In addition to tracing the moon and the planets, the device also predicted eclipses and the timings of various Panhellenic games, such as the Olympics.

3. Baghdad Battery

The incorrect, or subjective, naming of objects can cause unwarranted controversy. Take the so-called Baghdad Battery for example, because it’s widely believed by experts to not be ‘a battery’. What we certainly have are three objects dating from between 224–650 AD, a clay jar, an iron rod and a copper tube which, if combined with an electrolyte (such as vinegar or lemon) has the potential to generate a small amount of electricity.

So, when these items were discovered by Wilhelm König of the Museum of Iraq in 1936, he declared them to be an ancient Parthian battery, though he declined to mention how, where and when he found them. It’s now believed that the Baghdad Battery was probably a jar used for storing sacred manuscripts, long since dissolved, but leaving the rod on which it was bound and the tube in which it was sealed, intact. Sadly, further research will have to wait as the object itself was looted from the museum during the 2003 Invasion of Iraq.

4. Birka Ring

The ring, made of silver alloy and bearing a coloured glass stone, is inscribed with ‘for/to Allah’ in Kufic Arabic and dates back to somewhere between the 8th and 10th centuries. It was found in the late 19th century inside a Scandinavian grave with the remains of a woman who’d died during the age of the Vikings, a long way from the Kufic Arabic-speaking Abbasid Caliphate who oversaw vast swathes of land from Tunisia to the borders of India during this time.

Things start to get a little clearer upon learning that Birka, located about 19 miles from Stockholm on Björkö Island, was a famed trading point during the age of the Vikings, suggesting that while they were plundering Europe, they may have been trading with the Caliphate. Nothing like this ring has ever been found before or since, ensuring its significance.

5. Piri Reis Map

In 1929, a portion of the Piri Reis Map, rendered on Gazelle skin, was discovered by Greek language expert and Theologian Gustav Adolf Deissmann. Piri Reis (or to give him his full name Hadji Muhiddin Piri Ibn Hadji Mehmed) was an admiral and cartographer of Ottoman-Turkish origin. In 1513, he produced a comprehensive map that he’d assembled from around twenty regional maps, such as an Arabic map depicting India and some drawn by Christopher Columbus. The latter aspect makes the map particularly significant as it’s the only recording we have of Columbus’ map during his third voyage to the New World.

But there is something else here as well. The map appears to show Antarctica almost 300 years before it was discovered and, if that isn’t remarkable enough, the continent is drawn as a land mass and without its 6,000-year-old ice cap.

6. Venus of Willendorf

It’s believed that there are as many as 40 of these curious little oolitic (ooliths are small spheres called stuck together by lime mud) limestone objects (and a further 80 in fragments) discovered in 1908 in Willendorf, Austria during excavations of a palaeolithic site. What makes these four-and-a-half-inch tall statuettes intriguing is that we know hardly anything about them, save the fact they’re from about 28,000–25,000 BC and aren’t native to the region in which they were discovered.

Virtually everything else is speculative. The braided hair or cap may derive from contemporary fashion and the abstract emphasis on the sexual features suggest that were some sort of fertility figurine. On a linguistic note, the appropriation of ‘Venus’ to the object is problematic as it predates the mythology of Venus by thousands of years, so many scholars refer to them as the ‘Women of Willendorf’ instead.