The Burned House Phenomenon
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Cucuteni-Trypillian culture of Neolithic Europe left behind a curious puzzle for archaeologists: It appears that, for more than a thousand years, the houses in every settlement were burned. It’s not clear why. Possibly the fires arose accidentally or through warfare, or possibly they were set deliberately. The extent of each fire must have been considerable, because the raw clay in the walls has been vitrified by intense heat, an effect that has not appeared in modern experiments with individual houses. But the reason for the phenomenon, and for its longevity, remains unknown.


In the early 20th century, medical students often posed for photographs with the cadavers they were learning to dissect — in some cases even trading places with them for a tableau called “The Student’s Dream.”

John Harley Warner and James M. Edmonson have published a book of these photos, Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930. “What we know with certainty about any particular photograph often is frustratingly meager,” they write. “A dissection room photograph discovered tucked between the pages of an old anatomy textbook or up for auction on eBay is likely to have no indication of where or when it was taken, who took it, or who is in it. The photographs suggest stories that cannot easily be recovered.”

But they say that the images generally were intended not to be entertaining or flippant, but to mark a professional rite of passage for the students. “Privileged access to the body marked a social, moral, and emotional boundary crossing. ‘Know thy Self’ inscribed on the dissecting table, the Delphic injunction nosce te ipsum, could refer to the shared corporeality of dissector and dissected. But it most certainly referred to knowing the new sense of self acquired through these rites. As visual memoirs of a transformative experience, the photographs are autobiographical narrative devices by which the students placed themselves into a larger, shared story of becoming a doctor.”

The Swampman

Suppose lightning strikes a dead tree in a swamp; I am standing nearby. My body is reduced to its elements, while entirely by coincidence (and out of different molecules) the tree is turned into my physical replica. My replica, The Swampman, moves exactly as I did; according to its nature it departs the swamp, encounters and seems to recognize my friends, and appears to return their greetings in English. It moves into my house and seems to write articles on radical interpretation. No one can tell the difference.

But there is a difference. My replica can’t recognize my friends; it can’t recognize anything, since it never cognized anything in the first place. It can’t know my friends’ names (though of course it seems to), it can’t remember my house. It can’t mean what I do by the word ‘house’, for example, since the sound ‘house’ it makes was not learned in a context that would give it the right meaning — or any meaning at all. Indeed, I don’t see how my replica can be said to mean anything by the sounds it makes, nor to have any thoughts.

(“I should emphasize that I am not suggesting that an object accidentally or artificially created could not think; The Swampman simply needs time in which to acquire a causal history that would make sense of the claim that he is speaking of, remembering, identifying, or thinking of items in the world.”)

(Donald Davidson, “Knowing One’s Own Mind,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 60:3 [January 1987], 441-458.)


In November 1995, a three-year-old heifer jumped a 5-foot gate at a slaughterhouse in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, minutes before she would have been killed. Despite record amounts of snow, she stayed alive and evaded capture for 40 days, foraging in backyards and aided by sympathetic townspeople.

When she was final retaken, a local family purchased her from the slaughterhouse and established her in sanctuary at Peace Abbey in Sherborn, where she received regular visitors and became a symbol of animal rights and vegetarianism.

When she died in 2003, she was buried between statues of Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi. Her own grave now bears a life-sized statue.

The Body in the Cylinder

In 1943 a bulldozer turned up a 6-foot cylinder while clearing building debris from a blitzed site in Liverpool. It was laid aside by the building contractors and remained unregarded for two years, until in July 1945 three boys discovered a human skeleton inside.

It appeared to be the remains of an adult male who had crawled into the cylinder and was lying there, his head pillowed on a brick wrapped in sacking, when he died, probably around 1885. He was wearing Victorian clothing of good quality, and his pockets contained two diaries, a postcard, a handkerchief, a brooch, a signet ring, and some miscellaneous papers.

The postcard was addressed to T C Williams. In 1885 Liverpool had had a paint and brush manufacturer by that name. He had declared bankruptcy the year before, and the inquest hypothesized that he’d left home and been sleeping in the cylinder, perhaps at his place of business, when it became sealed somehow and he’d asphyxiated. Possibly the authorities at the time assumed he’d absconded to escape his debts. There is no record in England of his burial.

The whole case is fascinating.

Family Resemblance

Consider for example the proceedings that we call ‘games.’ I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? — Don’t say: ‘There must be something common, or they would not be called “games”‘ — but look and see whether there is anything common to all. — For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look! — Look for example at board games, with their multifarious relationships. Board games, what are some? Consider chess, of course, but think also of Monopoly. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost.– Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball-games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear.

— Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 1953

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1997 a series of eruptions by the nearby Soufrière Hills volcano buried most of Plymouth, Montserrat, making it uninhabitable.

The government was moved to the town of Brades, but nominally Plymouth remains the capital, making it the only ghost town that serves as the capital of a political territory.


On May 14, 2008, 19-year-old Brandon Swanson of Marshall, Minnesota, called his parents around 2 a.m. to say he’d driven his car into a ditch and asked them to pick him up. He said he wasn’t hurt and gave them his best estimate of his location.

His parents drove to meet him, keeping in touch by phone, but couldn’t find him. Each party flashed its headlights, but neither could see the other.

Finally Brandon told them he was going to walk toward some lights that he took to be the town of Lynd, 7 miles from Marshall. He named a bar there and asked his father to meet him in the parking lot, and his father began to drive there, talking to Brandon as he did.

Shortly after 2:30 a.m., 47 minutes into the call, Brandon suddenly interrupted himself with the words “Oh, shit!”, and the connection was lost. He has not been seen or heard from since.

Cell phone records showed that he’d been near Porter, 25 miles from the location he’d estimated. His car was found nearby, but years of searching have not found a body. The case remains unsolved.

Elephants and Locomotives

The elephant is no more wonderful than his biographers usually make him. It was to his lordly self that a railway accident was due on the Perak State Railway [Malaya] in September. The last train for the day was about three miles distant from its destination (Teluk Anson), and was running at about twenty miles an hour, when the fireman noticed something on the line. He called to the driver, who immediately shut off steam. Too late, however, for the train collided violently with a huge object, which proved to be a wild elephant that had strayed on to and was crossing the line at the time. The elephant had one of its legs broken, and half cut off; a part of the trunk was also cut off. The monster itself was thrown down the bank, where it soon died from loss of blood. The engine was also derailed.

The Sketch, Jan. 16, 1895

I can find two stories of subsequent “duels” between elephants and locomotives on the same line. The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1926) describes one that took place in 1897, and Forest and Stream has an account of one in 1900. Neither mentions the other, though, so I think perhaps they’re describing the same encounter.

Photo © David Tyers (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Yorkshire’s 4-mile Kiplingcotes Derby has been held every year since 1519, making it the oldest annual horse race in England. According to the ancient rules, if the race ever fails to take place, it must never be run again, so organizers make sure to arrange at least a nominal showing even in bad conditions. In 1947, 2001, and 2018 (harsh winter, foot-and-mouth crisis, heavy rain) the full race was not run but a single horse was led around the course to keep the tradition alive.

Another oddity: Under the rules the winner gets 50 pounds but the second-place finisher gets the remainder of the entry fees — so he may come out ahead.