Rock-Cut Architecture

You think your job’s bad. This was carved by hand from solid rock.

India has more than 1,200 such structures, the earliest dating to 8000 B.C.

“The Tomatina”

The world’s largest food fight takes place each year on the last Wednesday in August, when the town of Buñol, Spain, holds its annual tomato festival. Local trucks dump more than 100 metric tons of overripe tomatoes into the streets, and there’s a general free-for-all among up to 25,000 people.

Reportedly, when it’s over, rivers of tomato juice up to 12 inches deep run through the town, and area fire engines hose down the streets.

This has been going on since 1944, and apparently it has no political or religious significance — they do it just for fun.


If you visited Spain in January 2000, you needed a tin umbrella: Chunks of ice weighing up to 6.6 pounds fell out of a cloudless sky for 10 days.

No one knows how the ice formed. The chunks resembled hailstones, but no thunderstorm was present.

Planetary geologist Jesus Martinez-Frias dubbed the stones megacryometeors, and more than 50 have been recorded since the Spanish fall. The largest, in Brazil, weighed 485 pounds.


This is a sirrush, a curious creature that keeps turning up in Babylonian art. Basically it’s a dragon with a cat’s forelegs and an eagle’s talons. Strangely, it was depicted that way consistently for centuries, while other mythological animals went through sometimes drastic evolutions.

The German archaeologist Robert Koldewey, who discovered this bas-relief on the Ishtar Gate in 1902, believed that the sirrush might have been a real animal. For one thing, he pointed out, it’s depicted among ordinary animals, including lions and aurochs. For another, a biblical text refers to a “great dragon or serpent, which they of Babylon worshiped.”

After some research, Koldeway decided the best match was the iguanodon, a dinosaur with birdlike hind feet. Ancient civilizations are known to have unearthed fossils, so possibly the Babylonians had found the remains of an iguanodon or of a monitor lizard. Or, much more speculatively, perhaps some dinosaur lines still survived 2400 years ago in Central Africa — where bricks have been found similar to those in the Ishtar Gate.

Finger Fumblers

If you don’t speak, you can’t misspeak, right? Not so: American Sign Language has the equivalent of tongue twisters, known as finger fumblers.

One example is “good blood, bad blood” — which is hard to say in speech or sign.

Bigfoot East

That’s “Wild Man Cave” in Chinese. It’s an inscription near the entrance of the “Yeren Cave” in Western Hubei Province, China.

Known variously as the yeren, wild man, man-monkey, and man-bear, a huge red-haired hominid has been sighted at least 400 times in Hubei since the 1920s. In recent years the Chinese government has even begun distributing posters and funding scientific expeditions.

Maybe it’s just a legend, or maybe it’s a new species of orangutan. Or maybe it’s a remnant line of a giant ape that lived in these very mountains until about 100,000 years ago. Gigantopithecus was the largest ape that ever lived, three times the size of a gorilla — and its bones are still found in local caves. Hmm.

Dighton Rock


In May 1502, Portuguese explorer Miguel Corte-Real set out to find his brother Gaspar, who had disappeared somewhere near Newfoundland the previous year. Miguel also disappeared, and was assumed to have died in a storm …

… but no one has explained the inscriptions on Dighton Rock, a 40-ton boulder in the Taunton River in Massachusetts. It was customary for Portuguese explorers to inscribe their nation’s coat of arms as a land claim during the Age of Discovery, so some scholars believe that Miguel reached the New World and survived long enough to stake an early claim in Massachusetts. No other trace of him exists.

The St. Augustine Monster


On Nov. 30, 1896, two young boys came across an unidentified carcass on the beach near St. Augustine, Fla. Pale pink and rubbery, it was huge, 18 feet long and weighing an estimated 5 tons.

An analysis in 1971 agreed with early guesses that it was a gigantic octopus — in this case almost unthinkably huge, “with arms 75 to 100 feet in length and about 18 inches in diameter at the base — a total spread of some 200 feet.”

More recent studies in 1995 and 2004 say it was “the skin of an enormous warm-blooded vertebrate,” probably the entire blubber layer of a whale. Ick.


Lost at Sea

In July 1920, two railroad workers found a life jacket on the shore of the Delaware River in Philadelphia.

It bore the name LUSITANIA.

The Skeleton in Armor


In 1832, a human skeleton was unearthed in a sandbank in Fall River, Mass. A triangular plate of brass covered its sternum, and it wore a broad belt of brass tubes. The grave also contained a number of brass and copper arrowheads. To judge from the skull, the skeleton had belonged to a young man, but from where? The local Indian tribes did not work brass.

One commentator claimed it as evidence that the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, or Egyptians had discovered North America in the remote past. Later historians speculated that an early Norse explorer might have traveled south from Newfoundland, but the style of armor was unknown to medieval Norway. A third possibility is that it belonged to an early European colonist, perhaps a Portuguese explorer.

The skeleton was destroyed in a fire in 1843, so there’s no way now to date the remains scientifically, or to gather any further information. Its identity must remain a mystery.

tfeL to thgiR


Leonardo da Vinci recorded most of his personal notes in mirror writing. Maybe he wanted to hide his ideas from the Church … or maybe, being left-handed, he didn’t want to smudge the ink.

“A Stoppage of the Falls of Niagara”

The following remarkable account of the stoppage of Niagara Falls, appeared in the Niagara Mail at the time of the occurrence: “That mysterious personage, the oldest inhabitant, has no recollection of so singular an occurrence as took place at the Falls on the 30th of March, 1847. The ‘six hundred and twenty thousand tons of water each minute’ nearly ceased to flow, and dwindled away into the appearance of a mere milldam. The rapids above the falls disappeared, leaving scarcely enough on the American side to turn a grindstone. Ladies and gentlemen rode in carriages one-third of the way across the river towards the Canada shore, over solid rock as smooth as a kitchen floor. The Iris says: ‘Table Rock, with some two hundred yards more, was left dry; islands and places where the foot of man never dared to tread have been visited, flags placed upon come, and mementoes brought away. This unexpected event is attempted to be accounted for by an accumulation of ice at the lower extremity of Fort Erie, which formed a sort of dam between Fort Erie and Buffalo.'”

Barkham Burroughs’ Encyclopaedia of Astounding Facts and Useful Information, 1889

Cheaper Than Renovation

The frontage of the Saint-Georges Theater in Paris, transformed entirely with paint by muralist Dominique Antony.

This technique, where an effect emerges only when an image is viewed from a certain perspective, is called anamorphosis. Here’s a much earlier example.

Egging the Question


The magnificently named Lake Winnipesaukee Mystery Stone is just that — an odd carven stone, about 4 inches long, turned up by workmen digging a fence post in New Hampshire in 1872.

No one knows who carved it, when, or why. On one side are carved an ear of corn, a deer’s leg, and several other figures. One the other side are inverted arrows, a moon shape, a spiral, and some dots.

When the stone first came to light, the American Naturalist suggested that it “commemorates a treaty between two tribes.” But after an analysis in 1994, state archaeologist Richard Boisvert said that the holes drilled in the top and bottom are more consistent with power tools from the 19th or 20th century. He said that scratches in the lower hole suggest that the stone was placed on a metal shaft and removed several times. We’ll never know its real origin.

The Mahogany Ship


Like Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, the Shipwreck Coast of Australia combines rare beauty with treacherous seas. Explorer Matthew Flinders said, “I have seldom seen a more fearful section of coastline.” More than 50 ships have been lost here, most of them supply ships carrying immigrants and convicts to Victoria and New South Wales in the 1800s, but the coast’s strangest victim may have come much earlier.

Periodically since 1836, travelers have reported stumbling on the wreck of a very old ship of “hard dark timber — like mahogany.” The descriptions are quite specific. Here’s a letter by Captain John Mason of Belfast, published in the Melbourne Argus on April 1, 1876:

Riding along the beach from Port Fairy to Warrnambool in the summer of 1846, my attention was attracted to the hull of a vessel embedded high and dry in the Hummocks, far above the reach of any tide. It appeared to have been that of a vessel about 100 tons burden, and from its bleached and weather-beaten appearance, must have remained there many years. The spars and deck were gone, and the hull was full of drift sand. The timber of which she was built had the appearance of cedar or mahogany. The fact of the vessel being in that position was well known to the whalers in 1846, when the first whaling station was formed in that neighbourhood, and the oldest natives, when questioned, stated their knowledge of it extended from their earliest recollection.

Despite well-financed searches in 1890, 1992, 1999, and 2004, no trace of the ship has been found. If it ever existed, it may have been the missing ship of Portuguese sea captain Cristóvão de Mendonça, which was wrecked in 1522. If that’s true, there’s a strange irony here: The introduction of livestock and pests from Europe have destabilized the local dunes, which may have buried all evidence of Australia’s first European visitor.

Clever Hans


Illusionists know that people are eager to be fooled — some even participate unwittingly in their own deception. A striking example of this is Clever Hans, a trick horse who caused a sensation in the early 1900s. Using his hoof, Hans routinely tapped out correct answers to questions about math, reading, spelling and music. But an investigation showed that Hans’ real skill lay in reading his questioner’s body language, which always showed increased tension as he approached the final, “correct” tap.

In 1907, psychologist Oskar Pfungst actually took the horse’s place and found that he could get the right answer 90 percent of the time simply by watching the questioner’s posture and facial expression. This unconscious cueing is remembered as the “Clever Hans effect.”

Aqua Man

Accomplishments of Lewis Gordon Pugh:

  • One month after his first swimming lesson, swam from Robben Island to Cape Town, South Africa
  • Shortly thereafter, swam the English Channel
  • First person to swim around the southernmost point in Africa, the northernmost point in Europe, the Cape of Good Hope, and the Cape Peninsula
  • First person to complete a long-distance swim in all five oceans
  • First person to swim down the entire length of Norway’s Sognefjord, 204 kilometers
  • First person to swim across an African Great Lake (Lake Malawi)
  • Gold medal in the 500-meter freestyle at the 2006 World Winter Swimming Championships in Finland
  • World record for the northernmost long-distance swim (Spitsbergen, 1,000 kilometers from the North Pole) and southernmost long-distance swim (Petermann Island, off the Antarctic Peninsula)

Most recently Lewis became the first person to swim the entire length of the River Thames, to raise awareness about the problems of global warming. Along the way, he stopped in London to visit Tony Blair.

Annie Londonderry

The Gilded Age certainly saw some high-stakes wagers. Twelve years before Harry Bensley settled one bet by pushing a pram around the world, Annie “Londonderry” Kopchovsky settled another by circling the earth on a bicycle.

Annie’s task, proposed by two wealthy Boston clubmen, was to ride around the world in 15 months, earning $5,000 en route. She saw it as a challenge to make her way in a man’s world, and in 1895 the doughty 23-year-old, who had never ridden a bicycle before, pedaled out of Boston, leaving behind a husband and three children.

She brought only a change of clothes and a pearl-handled revolver, but she steadily earned money by carrying advertising banners and ribbons through cities around the world, starting with the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company, which paid her to carry its placard on her bike and to adopt her nickname.

That spirit carried her through. On returning home, the victorious Annie wrote a series of sensational features for the New York World, beginning with her cycling adventure. “I am a journalist and ‘a new woman,'” she wrote, “if that term means that I believe I can do anything that any man can do.”

Inverted Jenny


If you have one of these, hold on to it. Produced by a 1918 misprint, only 100 of these stamps have been found. That puts them among the most valuable stamps in the world — in 2003, an “Inverted Jenny” would sell for $150,000.

Both Sides Now

The Chevalier d’Eon (1728-1810) lived the first half of his life as a man and the second as a woman. Until age 49 d’Eon served as a diplomat and soldier in Louis XV’s France, fighting in the Seven Years’ War and spying in London for the king.

But in 1771 he claimed he was physically a woman and asked to be recognized as such. The government agreed, even financing a new wardrobe, and the chevalier spent his remaining 33 years as a woman, participating in fencing tournaments and even offering to lead a division of women soldiers against the Habsburgs.

Doctors who examined him after death discovered that his body was anatomically male.

Myrtle Corbin


Born in 1868, Myrtle Corbin had two separate pelvises, side by side — each of her large outer legs was paired with a small inner one. She could move the small ones, but they were too weak for walking.

The condition didn’t slow her down — she married a doctor at 19 and eventually gave birth to four daughters and a son.

Law Ghoul

When the English jurist and philosopher Jeremy Bentham died in 1832, his body was preserved and stored in a wooden cabinet at University College London. That was his request. It’s still there — you can see it at the end of the South Cloisters in the college’s main building. Occasionally it’s brought to council meetings, where Bentham is listed as “present but not voting.”

Unfortunately, students kept stealing the head (apparently a disquieting English custom), so the trustees replaced it with a wax one. Bentham’s real head is locked up in an undisclosed location.

Location, Location, Location

Sadly, there are no Friendly’s restaurants on Shades of Death Road, which runs for fully 7 miles through Warren County, N.J.

The sign is stolen so frequently that local residents have started greasing the pole. That’s a good trick, but it’s not appropriate everywhere.

“Vibrations of the Air”

If a person stand beneath a railway girder-bridge with an open umbrella over his head, when a train is passing, the vibration of the air will be distinctly felt in the hand which grasps the umbrella, because the outspread surface collects and concentrates the waves into the focus of the handle.

Barkham Burroughs’ Encyclopaedia of Astounding Facts and Useful Information, 1889