6 Nobodies Who Stumbled Into World Changing Discoveries
Nobody thinks that all of the world's ancient treasures are discovered by whip-toting adventurers swinging around caves. But we do assume that they're at least found by some kind of trained professionals.
Not always. Some of the greatest historical finds have been stumbled across by random dudes just wandering around the neighborhood. Like ...
The Dead Sea Scrolls
In 1947, a Bedouin goat herder and his cousin decided to take a day off from shepherding to wander around some creepy old caves near the coast of the Dead Sea. Instead of the absolutely nothing you would usually expect to find in a cave underneath the desert, the shepherds accidentally found themselves in a Lara Croft level. The caves were full of weird old pottery artifacts, and if anyone knows anything about caves with old artifacts in them, it's that there's going to be treasure, and probably booby traps that can only be disarmed by riddles or very precise jumps.
How do you even get here without a whip?
Disappointingly, the pottery only contained a bunch of old scrolls. After momentarily checking to see if they were maps to treasure, the shepherds took them anyway and carefully preserved the scrolls via the tried and true method of tying them to a tent pole ... until they found a dealer who was interested in buying them for around 30 bucks. And that was basically that. Everybody learned a valuable lesson about expecting to find anything valuable in a bunch of desert caves.
"We should have just used it for toilet paper. Do you have any idea how expensive that is in the desert?"
The hunks of old parchment went back and forth between several unimpressed village folk, some of whom probably used them as napkins or dishrags, before they were sold to someone who actually figured out what he was looking at: the oldest goddamned existing copy of the Bible. And we're talking the oldest by a thousand years. We now call them the Dead Sea Scrolls, and they are commonly regarded as the most important historical discovery of the 20th century.
Oh, and they also include appendices to the Bible, or a kind of director's cut that didn't make it into the version in your hotel room nightstand. These are of interest to Bible scholars because they clarify a few things that the modern Bible leaves ambiguous -- most notably why the hell God told Abraham to kill his son, just to stay his hand at the last second. According to the scrolls, it was due to a bet God made with the devil, which God totally won.
"God actually has a pretty serious gambling problem."
Most importantly, though, the Dead Sea Scrolls provided Bible scholars with the ability to compare the modern Bible to the original version. The oldest version of the Bible prior to this discovery, the Leningrad Codex, was written in A.D. 1008, the result of 1,000 years' worth of Chinese whispers. Nevertheless, the scrolls show the modern Bible to be surprisingly accurate, or at least they have yet to reveal any mind-blowing errors, like that Jesus was actually a dog or something.
To this day, the goat herders who found the things probably still think the guy who bought them was a sucker for forking over 30 bucks.
"Seriously, guys, the money is shit. Don't waste your time."
The Venus de Milo
In 1820, a curious farmer named Yorgos Kentrotas went exploring around the ruined city of Milos, although he should probably have been herding sheep or something (nobody claimed he was a particularly good farmer). Under a pile of rubble, he found an ancient Greek statue, right where Athenian invaders had left it around 2,400 years earlier. He figured the marble statue of a woman might be worth something, even though it was missing both of its arms.
"Look! Behind that useless rubble. Useful rubble!"
Yes, he had stumbled across the Venus de Milo, now one of the most famous statues in the world (though you may only know it as "that one without the arms"). Unlike pieces such as Michelangelo's David, which since its creation has enjoyed a life of luxury in various palaces and museums around the world, the Venus de Milo spent most of its life crammed down in the mud, until its discovery by that farmer.
Figuring that the statue didn't go well with the general decor in his farmhouse, Kentrotas decided to sell it to a French naval officer who was wandering around the area. The French thought that it would look really nice in the Louvre along with a bunch of other stuff ripped off from foreign countries, so they agreed to buy it. But they dragged their feet on getting the paperwork in order, and Kentrotas had a bunch of sheep that weren't herding themselves, so he went ahead and sold it to the Turks behind the French's backs.
They should have paid attention to his Craigslist ad.
When the French returned and saw the statue being loaded onto a ship bound for Constantinople, they threw a tantrum and persuaded the local authorities to annul the sale and have it shipped to Paris. Apparently, not only did the Turkish ambassador have the Greek authorities whipped for this insult, but the Turkish sultan in turn had the ambassador executed.
Meanwhile, the Venus de Milo wound up in the Louvre, where it has been ever since. You have to wonder if her arms aren't still lying back under the rubble somewhere.
Centuries with no bra, and she's still got a great rack.
An Entire Roman City
Imagine digging a hole in your backyard to make space for a swimming pool and suddenly finding yourself in a first-century Roman village. No, you haven't dug yourself a time hole. But this is what you might have experienced if you'd been on a construction team in Italy in 1738.
"Hey! This isn't where we're supposed to bury the bodies."
In that year, the king of Spain commissioned some workmen to build him a summer palace in Naples. After picking a nice spot near the beach, the excavations came to an abrupt and confusing end when they started digging up thousands of paintings of dicks. Unwittingly, they had stumbled upon Pompeii, sex capital of ancient Rome.
It's about to get slightly less work safe up in here.
The excavation site was actually ground zero of a volcanic eruption from when Mount Vesuvius exploded in A.D. 79. Pompeii happened to be directly in the path of a 900-degree ash cloud of searing death, which blanketed the city in less time than it took its inhabitants to scream. But unlike some of the less fortunate towns around it, Pompeii wasn't touched by lava flows. The town was buried -- and preserved -- by the ash, which was essentially like freezing it in carbonite.
It was bad for the people who lived there, but good for historians. Few Roman works of art survived the ages, so it's all thanks to Mount Vesuvius killing thousands of people and sealing Pompeii up tight that we have any idea what the Romans liked to decorate their houses with. And it turns out it was dicks.
There were 35 brothels in Pompeii (the same as the number of bakeries), and the whole town was decorated with images of people boning. Frescoes depicting more sex positions than the Kama Sutra (including the only known Roman depiction of cunnilingus) cover the town like neon signs cover Vegas. But, porn obsession aside, what historians learned from Pompeii is that the ancient Romans, in a lot of ways, were just like us. The town was covered in political propaganda for an upcoming election (which, for obvious reasons, was abruptly cancelled), as well as advertisements and regular childish graffiti. Scrawled on the walls were personal tags, jokes and occasional gems of advice, such as "The one who buggers a fire burns his penis." You can't beat that wisdom.
Who knows what other depraved nuggets of enlightenment were lost forever.
This may not have been the first time someone accidentally came across the buried city, by the way. There is a story that, in 1599, an architect working on a project in the area dug up some sexually explicit frescoes. After an awkward few moments of contemplation, he buried them again, backed away slowly and tried to forget what had happened. You can't be too careful about potentially awakening a bunch of vengeful cock spirits.
A Perfectly Preserved Caveman
In 1991, a couple of German tourists, Helmut and Erika Simon, were strolling around the European Alps when they came upon the head and shoulders of some guy sticking out of the ice with a surprised expression on his face. Fearing that they had stumbled upon the body of a dead hiker, they called for help.
"But, uh, don't hurry or anything."
He might have been a hiker, but if so, he was doing his hiking more than a thousand years before the New Testament. The scientists who later dug up the body discovered that he hadn't been alive since about 3300 B.C.
The corpse, Otzi (named by the scientists, since he wasn't wearing a name tag), turned out to be the best-preserved natural mummy ever discovered. The amazing fluke is that the random tourists happened to be jaunting around that part of absolutely nowhere right during the narrow window of time when Otzi had defrosted enough to be visible, but before he started deteriorating or got eaten by a wolf with a taste for jerky. The result is that the iceman is so well preserved that we know the color of his eyes and what he had for his last meal.
Ibex. Without hollandaise sauce. So you know he was a classless schmuck.
This was huge, since Bronze Age civilization is still kind of a mystery to us -- what we know about it involves a lot of guesswork, occasionally filling the holes in our knowledge with things we saw on The Flintstones. So finding an actual, frozen caveman is the next best thing to going back in time. In particular, Otzi was found to have tattoos, which we assume revealed his prehistoric gang affiliations.
He is believed to have cost $19.95 from Hasbro (rock sold separately).
The mummy has also earned millions in tourism dollars for the Italian province that he calls home. And for over a decade, the tourists who found him had been embroiled in a legal battle to get a cut of the profits. Apparently, seeing a corpse lying in the snow and having the decency to contact the authorities about it is worth more than the 10 million lira (around $7,600) they were offered as a reward, which they turned down as not a high enough figure.
After dragging it through the courts for almost two decades, they were finally awarded 150,000 euros (about $200,000) for the discovery. Well, only Erika was compensated. Helmut had died in a skiing accident a few years earlier due to what people feared was a "mummy curse." Even though the only thing Otzi has in common with your regular "cursed" Egyptian mummies is that they're all dead.
Although he definitely had a few things in common with Adrien Brody.
Hey, speaking of which ...
A Famous Lost Play, Stuffed in a Mummy
You can count the number of incredible discoveries that have been found inside mummies on one hand. Or, more specifically, on one finger. Sometime back in the '90s, scientists in Egypt were unwrapping a mummy for science reasons (we guess) when they found that the body appeared to be stuffed with bits of papyrus. Mummies were stuffed like this to keep them puffy, but this time they were surprised to find that the stuffing had Greek words written on it. A little investigation showed that the mummy was stuffed with a play called Achilles by Aeschylus.
You may not have heard of Aeschylus, but he was the Andrew Lloyd Webber of ancient Greece, one of the first great playwrights and author of an estimated 90 plays. The reason his name isn't as household as, say, Shakespeare is because his life's work was held in the Library of Alexandria, along with about a million other books we'll never read, since the library was burned down by people who hate words. But apparently somebody had a copy of this play lying around in their "scrap paper to stuff mummies with" bin.
Because no one else was gonna read those. Dicks.
And the work is surprisingly complete for something that was stuffed inside a dead guy for 2,000 years. With the help of a few experts to fill in the gaps, Achilles was actually performed in the theater in 2004, thanks entirely to someone who ironically thought so little of it that he used it to stuff granddad.
Either that, or certain forms of undead prefer paper to brains.
The Books That Could Challenge the Bible
The Dead Sea Scrolls might seem like a once-in-a-lifetime discovery, but they recently lost their title as the most amazing Bible-related things found in a desert cave.
It's off to the toilet paper mines for you, scrolls.
Researchers recently came into possession of a number of books written on lead plates that appear to have been created by the earliest Christians just a few years after Jesus' death, and if so, they could possibly change everything we think we know about Christ and the founding of the church. That is, if they're actually real.
The story goes that, just like the Dead Sea Scrolls, a shepherd stumbled upon a cave in the Jordanian desert that contained up to 70 ring-bound metal books, each about the size of a credit card. So of course he sent them to his local museum to be authenticated, right? Actually, no, he sold them at the market for a few bucks, which is apparently what you do when you find priceless Biblical artifacts in a cave.
"Trade ya for an old VHS player."
After changing hands a few times, the artifacts now known as the Jordan Lead Codices finally found their way to a guy who was willing to let people study them. Or at least two of them. The rest he hoards and rubs with olive oil in a bizarre attempt to preserve them.
In the meantime, researchers are all aquiver about the mysterious codices. These wouldn't really be an older copy of the Bible, but writings that predate it -- insights from people writing about Jesus at the time of Jesus, and who may have even met Jesus (remember, the New Testament was written years or decades later). We don't know just yet, because the codices are written in such obscure Jewish tribal dialect that we can't translate much but for the odd word here and there.
A surprising number of which were "elephantine penis."
Oh, and then there are some scholars who think that the real reason we can't translate them is because they are bullshit forgeries written by someone who didn't understand much about the language they were trying to imitate. But as usual, we are reserving hope that there's a little bit of Indiana Jones magic in this world. In the meantime, we're heading to the Middle East, and we're bringing our cave-diving equipment.
"Leave the gold. We're huntin' for Bibles."
For more strokes of fortune that paid off, check out 6 Global Corporations Started by Their Founder's Shitty Luck and 5 Accidental Inventions That Changed The World.