Category Archives: Strange Structures

Atlantis of the Sands: The Legendary Land of Riches

Atlantis of the Sands is the legendary lost city of Southern Arabia. Wikimedia commons. Public domain.

Atlantis of the Sands is the legendary lost city of Southern Arabia. Wikimedia commons. Public domain.

Atlantis of the Sands is a fabled lost city that supposedly existed once long ago along a busy trade route in Arabia. Laden with riches of red silver ore, splendors of large markets, and frankincense as valuable as gold, it may have been a huge emporium and stopping point for merchants. Grand legends told over the years have inspired searches that led to interesting discoveries. It now appears the lost city may have been more than just a legend after all.

Over the last several centuries, this mysterious place has attracted scholars and archaeologists who have attempted to discover its true location. Atlantis of the Sands acquired its nickname because, like its counterpart of the sea, there have been so many grand stories and people who have tried to find it. The original names for the legendary place are Ubar, Wabar or Iram.

Atlantis of the Sands is presumed to have been founded circa 3000 B.C. Located on the banks of a river that no longer exists, the city was a popular destination due to its vast trade markets, availability of resources and abundance of water. Legends describe large walls that boasted towering pillars. This “many towered city,” as described in the Koran, contained palaces and impressive temples. The Koran also attested to the uniqueness of the pillared city: “[Iram]…whose like had not been built in the entire land.”

Ranulph Fiennes wrote and published the book “Atlantis of the Sands: The Search for the Lost City of Ubar” in 1992, which helped to make it quite famous. Bedouin people who live in the deserts say that this city was lost in the Arabian sands when a huge catastrophic disaster occurred.


In Search of Atlantis of the Sands

Archaeological site of Ubar. Source:

Archaeological site of Ubar. Source:

Archaeologists have attempted to locate the city of Ubar using ancient maps and descriptions from legendary tales. Several inconclusive sightings only served to further the mystery of whether or not the Atlantis of the Sands really existed.

Research into the city of Ubar places the time of its destruction at somewhere around 100 C.E. Many experts think that the people there may have discovered how to farm frankincense, which was highly valuable and produced in the southern Arabian Desert. This theory is supported by the idea that the supposed location for Ubar is along one of the well-known trade routes of the time.


Bertram Thomas and T.E. Lawrence

Remains of Ubar. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons

Remains of Ubar. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons

There have been a number of explorers who have attempted to find the city, including Bertram Thomas, an Englishman. He embarked on an expedition in 1930 to locate Ubar, based on previous research by other explorers. It was Thomas’ notes and research in large part that had an influence on the research of T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. He was an archaeologist, military officer, and diplomat in the near east region. It may have been Lawrence who first described Ubar as Atlantis of the Sands. He had dreams of finding it, but he died unexpectedly in a motorcycle accident.

As Thomas began his exploration, he was told many stories about the area by Bedouin guides. They emphasized that it was dangerous to venture there. Additionally, they stated that the city had been destroyed because of the immorality of the people who had lived there, and that if they continued on their journey they would bring evil upon themselves. Thomas was not deterred by these stories, but he died before he could find the city of Ubar. He did, however, find old camel tracks.


The Nicholas Clapp Team

Depiction of the Atlantis of the Sands. Source: Pixabay, public domain.

Depiction of the Atlantis of the Sands. Source: Pixabay, public domain.

In the late 1980s the film-maker and amateur archaeologist, Nicholas Clapp, led an expedition to find Ubar based on the work of Bertram Thomas. He utilized the latest research, NASA satellite images, and ancient maps created by previous explorers. Among the members of the Clapp expedition was Ranulph Fiennes, who subsequently wrote the Atlantis of the Sands book.

The NASA images of the Rub ‘al Khali desert were able to see below the surface sand to identify well-worn roads that merchants on camelback had used for trade long ago. Interestingly, the tracks led to one place now called Shisr. The Clapp team decided to investigate and they discovered an ancient structure underneath a 300 year old building. They determined that this was some type of fortress that stood at the heart of a settlement. Pottery, coins, and evidence of many ancient fire pits dotted the area. Research indicates the artifacts date back to at least 2800 BC.

The fortress may have served as the king’s palace and a processing facility for frankincense. It may have also provided protection in times of danger. Eight walls circled the central building and a tower about 30 feet high stood at each corner. Clapp determined that this must be the ancient city of Ubar.

Unfortunately, a great deal of the fortress had fallen into a limestone sinkhole, and they were unable to excavate the rest of it. Fiennes surmised in his book that Ubar was really once a place called “Omanum Emporium” shown on ancient maps of Southern Arabia.

Like so many ancient legends, there are still more questions than answers. Has Atlantis of the Sands been found? Rather than having been smitten by God, did it fall into a giant sinkhole? For now, the legend is still alive, and only the sands of time will tell whether the vast desert will be relinquishing its secrets of this magnificent fabled city.

For more strange mysteries from the past, visit


Atlantis of the Sands

The Plain of Jars

CC BY-SA 2.5,

CC BY-SA 2.5,

The mists of time conceal many ancient cultures from even the most clever and determined modern archaeologist. While there are many who left behind written fragments that give scientists something to go on, many more failed to develop a system of writing. The lives of millions of men and women, with all of their struggles and triumphs, faded into the shadows of history, leaving behind only a few tangible scraps for their descendants to piece together. Some of these “scraps” might indeed be large, but their size makes them no less enigmatic than the smallest artifacts. Such is the case in Xieng Khouang province in Laos, where a high plateau is dotted with clusters of sandstone jars. The mysterious artifacts, some measuring as much as 9 feet tall, are the most tangible remains of a prehistoric southeast Asian culture about which little is known.


A long standing mystery

The Plain of Jars, as the site became known, was first studied by French archaeologist Madeline Colani in the 1930’s. She discovered that the jars were spread over the plain in a pattern that initially seemed to have no rhyme or reason, with as many as one to one hundred pots in each site. It was later found that most of the pots were placed in prominent areas, with commanding views of the surrounding area. Each pot was fashioned from a single stone, some being well formed while others were rather crude. There was also an assortment of small artifacts found in and around the pots, including bronze and iron tools, cowry shells, and glass beads. Many of the pots appeared to have been robbed. One site had a prominent cave, where Colani found bones and ashes.

This led Colani to hypothesize that the entire complex was a funerary site. Many Southeast Asian cultures practiced secondary burial, where a corpse is left to rot before being cremated. This allowed the soft tissues to decay, leaving behind bones and ligaments. Archaeologists believe that the bodies of nobles were thus exposed in the pots, while the poor were laid out in a trench. After cremation, the ashes of nobles along with their expensive belongings were placed back in the jars. So, the plain of jars is quite possibly a large set of funerary urns.

Similar sites in Northern India and Vietnam have led archaeologists to hypothesize that the builders of the Plain of Jars traded widely. The Laotian Highlands are rich in salt, a valuable resource in the ancient world. The accepted belief is that these people traded upon caravan routes, exchanging salt for beads, cowry shells, and other luxury goods. It appears that the stone jars represent the works of a thriving prehistoric culture dating back nearly 2,000 years. More research to unravel the enduring history of who these people were needs to be done, but unfortunately a modern conflict left the Plain of Jars the most dangerous archaeological site on Earth.


Bombs and mines

From 1964 to 1973, American bombers pounded Laos, attempting to destroy Viet Cong supply routes passing through the country as part of the ongoing Vietnam War. Over the course of nine years, American planes hammered the country with two million tons of bombs and other munitions. Xieng Khouang Province was targeted by some 63,000 sorties. The area is carpeted with unexploded bombs from this blitz, leading to thousands of deaths a year from farmers and other locals accidentally detonating bombs.

The Plain of Jars is itself is well within the danger zone, hampering efforts to excavate the area and find more about the culture who produced the strange urns. Efforts to clean up the site are ongoing, but the remains of a massive modern conflict could well hamper efforts to understand this ancient site for years to come.



The Serpent Mound–Ohio’s Mysterious Effigy

A photo of the Serpent Mound, taken from an observation tower on the site.

A photo of the Serpent Mound, taken from an observation tower on the site.

The ancients achieved amazing feats of engineering with the most basic tools and techniques, leaving structures that their descendants would puzzle over for centuries to come. Many such structures come readily to mind—Stonehenge, the Great Pyramids of Giza, and the Nazca Lines are just three of the most famous.

However, the building of such structures is not often associated with the Native Americans of North America, with the exception of the massive pyramids built by the Aztecs and Mayans in Central America. Contrary to popular belief, the indigenous tribes of what is now the United States did engage in massive projects that could rival even those of the Old World. One of these massive structures is located in Adams County, Ohio. Dubbed the Serpent Mound, the huge effigy remains an enigma to this day.

The Serpent Mound is one of hundreds of mounds built by Native American tribes in Ohio. Most mounds are conical structures used to bury and memorialize the dead, while some of the more massive mounds are effigy mounds, meant to be representations in earth of various animals. The Serpent Mound is among the largest and best preserved of these effigy mounds. Measuring 1330 feet in length and 3 feet in height, the mound is a depiction of an undulating snake with a curled tail, possibly with its jaws open to swallow an egg. There is some dispute as to what the effigy is meant to depict, with some claiming it is not a serpent at all but rather a stylized depiction of a comet streaking through the sky. This is indeed an interesting interpretation, since there is a meteor crater nearby, but no one knows for sure.

The egg. Taken from the footpath circling the site.

The egg. Taken from the footpath circling the site.

“No one knows for sure,” is a phrase that seems to hover over the Serpent Mound, an effigy shrouded in mystery. Even its age is in dispute. When archaeologist Frederic Putnam studied the mound in the late 19th century, he found nothing in the mound itself that revealed who made it or why. However, conical mounds situated nearby contained artifacts belonging to the Adena culture, who lived in the area from 800 BCE to 100CE. So, Putnam concluded that the site was the work of the Adena. However, evidence uncovered in 1991 disputed this age when radiocarbon dating performed on charcoal found within the mound found it to be only 900 years old. This evidence suggested that the presence of the Adena mounds nearby was happenstance, and the earthwork really was the work of the so-called Fort Ancient culture, who lived in the area from 1000CE to 1500CE. But this finding was itself overturned when a study performed in 2014 found new radio carbon dates suggesting the effigy was constructed around 300 CE, putting it firmly within the time period of the Adena culture.

So which age is right? It is difficult to tell, and more work is needed to pin point the age of the Serpent Mound as closely as possible. However, the difference in the two dates could stem from maintenance performed by later tribes who continued to utilize the site after the Adena passed into history. So, it is possible that the Fort Ancient peoples rebuilt sections of the mound, leaving behind charcoal remnants that were found by the 1991 study.

An illustration of the Serpent Mound site.

An illustration of the Serpent Mound site.

If this is the case, it might explain the age of the effigy but it leaves many other questions. Why did the Adena build the mound in the first place, and what is it meant to represent? Clearly the mound served a ceremonial purpose rather than that of a burial place. Curves in the structure show different alignments with the sun, such as with the summer and winter solstices. Could the mound be a sort of gigantic calendar, meant to help Adena and later priests track the motions of the sky? And if it was ceremonial, what sorts of ceremonies were conducted there? These questions might never be answered, as the builders left no written language explaining their thinking. All that remains is the earthwork they left behind, a silent enigma among the green hills of southern Ohio.


Author’s Note: The photographs included in this post were taken by me when I visited the Serpent Mound in 2010. I wanted to include a bit about my own feelings and thoughts from visiting the site. Some report visiting this particular mound as a spiritual experience–in fact, I accidentally interrupted a very nice woman who was meditating on the site, who said it gave off good “energy.” I had no such feelings myself, but I did find myself in awe when I was standing up on the observation tower, visualizing the Adena using little more rudimentary tools to transport the dirt and build the mound. Keep in mind, they didn’t have the wheel nor beasts of burden. Everything they built was with sheer manpower. This must have been an extremely important site to warrant such an output of blood and sweat. The Serpent Mound had the feel of the sacred, and it is a unique experience I am glad to have had.



The World’s Littlest Skyscraper

The World's Littlest Skyscraper By Travis K. Witt - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The World’s Littlest Skyscraper
By Travis K. Witt – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Humans have long built on a grand scale. From the Pyramids of Egypt to the moai of Easter Island, civilizations all over the world have built massive structures that even today boggle the mind.

This trend has continued into the modern world, with technology allowing for ever more massive buildings. Arguably the most emblematic structures of the 20th and 21st centuries are skyscrapers. Huge buildings reaching hundreds of feet into the sky, they are symbols of wealth, power, and prestige.

Early in the 20th century, there was a scramble for this vertical real estate, as taller and more ambitious skyscrapers reached ever higher. But one skyscraper bucked the trend, and is known not for its massive size, but as the smallest skyscraper ever built. Measuring only four stories tall, the structure was the brain child of a slick swindler who took advantage of the early 20th century oil boom in Texas.


The Littlest Skyscraper’s Legendary Origins

The World’s Littlest Skyscraper was born out of the booming economy of the Gilded Age, a time characterized by vast wealth and perhaps vaster corruption. Its origins are somewhat murky, but the strange structure was said to have been born as a result of the oil boom in North Texas in the first part of the 1900s. Residents of Wichita Falls and the surrounding Wichita County struck it rich selling rights to mineral deposits. The scale of business shot up so fast that deals were struck in the street and new oil companies trying to capitalize on Wichita’s black gold were putting up tents as makeshift offices. With all the money and business flowing into Wichita Falls, new office space was sorely needed.

Enter J.D. McMahon. A businessman from Philadelphia, McMahon knew an opportunity when he saw one. He rented a room in Wichita Falls and quickly went about promoting his plant for a modern skyscraper to rival those in New York and Chicago. He managed to sell $200,000 worth of stock in the venture to investors (nearly $5 million in today’s dollars) and promptly put their money to work.

What investors failed to realize, according to legend, was that the blue print they’d signed off on had been drawn up showing square inches, not square feet. The result was a squat building only four stories tall and measuring only 11×19 feet outside, with approximately a quarter of the inside space being occupied by stairwells.

McMahon completed construction of the little skyscraper, and promptly left with the remaining funds. Flummoxed investors attempted to track down the con artist and tried to take legal action, but since the building was built exactly according to blueprints they’d signed off on, the law could give them no recourse.

Investors tried to make the best of the situation, leasing space to oil companies who crammed desks and office workers into the cramped space as best they could. Such was the state of affairs, until the boom faded away. Then the Great Depression hit in 1929, and business dried up. The little skyscraper was boarded up and largely forgotten.


A New Life

The building sat idle for the next several decades. No one was quite sure what to do with the weird little structure. Finally, in 1986, the city deeded it to the Wichita County Heritage Society. Attempts at preservation failed, and once again the would-be skyscraper found itself in limbo. There was talk among townsfolk of demolishing the dilapidated structure. Not quite willing to commit to demolishing a quirky part of the town’s history, the city hired the architectural firm of Bundy, Young, Sims & Potter to shore it up.

The architectural firm partners quickly became enamored of the odd little building, to the point that in 2000 they partnered with Marvin Groves Electric to purchase and renovate the building. Today, the World’s Littlest Skyscraper is both a tourist attraction and the site for a local antique shop, The Antique Wood.



“Littlest Skyscraper,” BYSP Architects. November 30, 2015.

Stowers, Carlton. “Legend of the World’s Littlest Skyscraper.” July 2008. Texas Co-op Power. November 30, 2015.

“The World’s Smallest Skyscraper.” Retrieved November 30, 2015.



Edinburgh’s Folly–The Half-Finished National Monument of Scotland

"'Edinburgh's Disgrace,' Calton Hill - - 185368" by Tim Hallam. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“‘Edinburgh’s Disgrace,’ Calton Hill – – 185368” by Tim Hallam. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Monuments are enduring symbols of what a culture values, and are of vast importance to archeologists studying ancient cultures. Given the vast amount of labor and resources required to make them, monuments can tell archeologists a lot about the cultures that built them. Sometimes, all the remains of a culture is its monuments, mysterious reminders of a time long past and a people long dead.

Most of the best known monuments around the world have mysteries of some sort surrounding them. By way of example, the moai of Easter Island have been extensively studied, but only now are archeologists beginning to understand them in greater detail. No one even agrees exactly why they were built, or how much impact if any they had on the catastrophic collapse of Easter Island’s once thriving civilization.

A more modern but probably less well known monument, the Georgia Guidestones, remains an enduring mystery even though it was only built forty odd years ago. The site has stirred up some controversy due to its advice for rebuilding society after an apocalypse, mostly due to the fact that one key tenet of the mysterious builder’s idea for an ideal society involves extensive population control.

One structure that may cause head scratching to future archeologists does not provide advice to future generations, and is no mystery to today’s society. Located on Carlton Hill in Edinburgh, Scotland, the twelve pillars of Scotland’s National Monument stand as a visible symbol of an ambitious project that flopped for the painfully mundane reason that kills many a grand plan: lack of funding.


The Scottish Parthenon

Scotland in the 18th and early 19th centuries was a hotbed of Enlightenment thinking, attracting intellectuals of all stripes from around Europe to discuss exciting new ideas. The city of Edinburgh was in a boom, with construction projects popping up all over the city. One such project was the National Monument of Scotland, later dubbed “Edinburgh’s Disgrace.”

The project had its origins in an 1816 meeting of the Highland Society, when members proposed a monument should be built for Scottish soldiers who fell during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815.) The society nominated Charles Cockerall as architect, and William Henry Playfair as his assistant.

The duo dreamed up an ambitious monument modeled after the Parthenon in Athens. It would consist of an upper building with classical columns, which would house a church. They planned to excavate a massive catacomb beneath the temple that would house Scotland’s best and brightest in death.

In total, the project would cost £42,000, a huge sum for the day. The Society planned to raise the money by appealing to the public, especially the wealthy aristocrats who may wish to populate the catacombs one day. Such luminaries as Sir Walter Scott, Lord Elgin, and Lord Cockburn backed the project.

Despite the support of these wealthy men, the project was only able to raise £16,000. Edinburgh’s public works boom was to blame; simply put, there were too many projects needing support, and something had to fall by the wayside. Despite this, supporters of the monument pushed forward. In 1822, the Duke of Hamilton laid the foundation stone and construction began. The first phase lasted from 1826 to 1829, when the twelve pillars that stand today were raised at a cost of £13,500. Once the funds ran out, supporters had trouble finding anymore backers. With no funds, the monument stood half-finished, as it would remain for the next 200 years.


Plans to finish the monument fall through

In the years since funding petered to nothing, some suggested that Edinburgh’s Folly was planned to be just that–a folly. However, plans from the era show that the architects did indeed plan a grand Greco-Roman style monument where only half of one stands today.

The centuries since have produced plans to complete the monument, some stranger than others. One plan put forward in 2004 by Malcom Fraser called for 150 flagpoles to be erected on the site. He wanted to have school children write prayers and messages of good will on the flags to be hoisted onto the poles, so that their well-wishes could be borne on the wind to the rest of the world. He said he was inspired by Tibetan prayer flags, which basically operate on the same principle.

Like every other proposal to finish the structure, Fraser’s met with a mixed response and ultimately failed. As it stands, the monument is both a tourist attraction and a point of pride for Edinburgh’s citizens. Since the people of Edinburgh seem perfectly content with their half-finished monument, it will likely stay that way for years to come.




“Architect flags up plan to finish ‘Edinburg’s Disgrace.”. April 20, 2004. The Scotsman. March 30, 2015.

McManus, David. “National Monument Edignburgh: Architecture Information.” April 8, 2010. Edinburgh Architecture. March 30, 2015.

McLean, David. “Lost Edinburgh: Edinburgh’s Disgrace.” February 17, 2014. the Scotsman. March 30, 2015.



Soviet Climate Engineering: The Communist Plan to Dam the Bering Strait

Satellite image of the Bering Strait. The Soviets wanted to build a dam across this huge span.

Satellite image of the Bering Strait. The Soviets wanted to build a dam across this huge span.

One of the more controversial topics in the modern world is global warming. Every year we hear how it seems that the northern ice sheets cover less and less area than years before, thanks to subtle warming of the global climate due to an insulating blanket of CO2 and other gasses produced by human activity.  The dangers of a steadily warming world are slowly dawning on both the scientific community and the public at large, as more worrying  reports about potential harm come to light. Many still have their heads buried in the proverbial sand, but before long the harsh realities of a warming world will be too much for even the staunchest denier to ignore.

In the middle of the last century, however, the concept of global warming was far from everyone’s mind. In fact, for Soviet scientists the current state of affairs would not go far enough. They envisioned not trying to curb the melting of the ice a the North Pole, but rather engineering deliberate ways to encourage it. To do this, they called for nothing less than reworking the entire climatological system of the planet by building a gigantic dam across the Bering Strait.


Crops in Siberia and grass in the Sahara

Russia is a famously cold place. her brutal winters foiled invasion attempts by both Napoleon and the Nazis. While the quirks of Russia’s climate makes it ideal for fending off invaders, the brutal cold in areas such as Siberia make accessing the country’s rich natural resources difficult if not impossible. Large Swaths of the land are basically useless for agriculture because they are covered in a year round layer of frozen ground called permafrost.

This was not always the case. About 5000 years ago, Siberia was warmer, and some parts of now former Soviet states in middle Asia were tropical climates. Humans in the region successfully practiced agriculture across wide swaths of what would become the Soviet Union, with less fear of frost and drought than their modern counterparts. Soviet Climatologists believed it might be possible to return to what they saw as more favorable climatic days, by reworking the flow of ocean currents to the Arctic.

The key current Soviet scientists looked into was the Gulf Stream, which brings warm waters from the equator far north. the warm waters flow north, carrying their heat with them, and eventually sink beneath the lighter arctic waters due to higher salinity. This system gives Northern Europe its relatively warm climate.

The Soviets envisioned a way to drive this current further north, bringing the warm water from the equator to the roof of the world. To do this would significantly increase temperatures in northern latitudes. Siberia would thaw for the first time in centuries, opening up new frontiers for human exploitation. Polar ice sheets would recede, revealing more opportunities to exploit fossil fuels deep under northern oceans (something happening on a less grand scale today.)

Not only would northern areas be effected, but the climate of the entire world would shift. Global ocean temperatures would increase, as would the rates of evaporation. More rain would fall on the continents, including places like the Sahara that get little rain during the year. They predicated that grass would sprout on the Sahara for the first time in more than 10,000 years.


Dam the Bering Strait!

These vast changes would be achieved by an appropriately massive engineering project. The centerpiece of the project would be the before mentioned dam across the Bering Strait, a 55 mile long behemoth of a structure. The dam would be tethered to a depth of about 200 feet. It would block the cold waters of the arctic from seeping into the northern Pacific, allowing warmer Pacific currents to creep north, while a massive atomic powered pumping station would pump warm pacific water north creating what would amount to an artificial version of the Gulf Stream.

The dam would be built of 250m sections of pre-stressed ferro-concrete floated into position on pontoons. The innards of the dam–power stations, floodgates, and the like–would be anchored to the ocean bottom by pilings or drilling, depending on conditions on the ocean floor in the local area. A five mile causeway connecting Alaska to Russia would also be built over the dam. Constructing such a massive building would require not only the cooperation of the US and the Soviet Union, but all of their allies as well. It would have truly been a global effort.


Doable, but not practical

While there was evidently enthusiasm among Soviet climatologists, their American counterparts were less than ecstatic. They had no doubt that the dam could be built, but the costs of the project would be astronomical. Many doubted that the Soviets were even serious about the project, believing they were using the project as a form of propaganda.

There lay one of the fundamental problems with the dam project. It was a political nonstarter. Building such a mammoth structure would require not only the two superpowers working together, a dicey proposition at best, but the cooperation of other powers as well. They would all have to commit vast amounts of resources to a plan that worked on paper but had no other way of being tested outside of the hypothetical until it was completed. It was not clear just how the rest of the world was supposed to benefit from the vast project, other than the vague promises of warmer climates, more rain, and more access to hydroelectric power from higher water flow due to more rain. Russia would see the most immediate benefit, and the US was not likely to sign up to give its biggest rival access to more arable land and fossil fuels.

Politics aside, even with the less sophisticated climatological knowledge of the day, most scientists grasped that tweaking the vast system that effected everyone on earth was probably a bad idea. There are too many variables to account for, and too many things that could go wrong. Current thought would say that the consequences would would have been catastrophic, resulting in massive sea level rise and runaway global warming as greenhouse gasses locked in the permafrost vented into the atmosphere. Basically, the project could have brought about what today is regarded as the worst case scenario of a world with a changing climate.

There is some irony there. The Cold War was characterized by weapons that could destroy civilization as we know it, and yet a project meant to better the lot of many people in the world and requiring the cooperation of deadly rivals would have almost certainly ended the world as we know it. The road to hell truly is paved with good intentions.



Borisov, P.M. “Can we Control the Arctic Climate?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. March 1969. Vol. 25. No.3 pg 43-48.

“Ocean Dams Would Thaw North.” Popular Mechanics. June 1956. pg 135

Ancient Rock in a Modern City–The London Stone

"LondonStone". Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“LondonStone”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

England is home to many wondrous and strange bits of history. Spring-heeled Jack–a mysterious figure well known for his propensity to spit blue fire and leap over walls in a single bound–prowled the area around London nearly two hundred years ago (and some say he does until this day.) London was home to Jeremy Bentham, a noted philosopher, whose remains still reside within the city limits to this day. And there was the story of Samuel Pepys, whose diary helped reconstruct events of the Great Fire of London, and his wheel of cheese.

There are far older things in London, though, things of which very little is known. Take, for example, the London Stone. The hunk of limestone, about 27 inches wide, 17 inches high, and 12 inches front to back, now resides behind a grate attached to, of all things, a sporting goods store. A rather inglorious fate for something whose destruction, according to legend, would mean the end of London.


Mysterious origins

The earliest mention of the London Stone comes from around 1100, when it was known as “Londenstane.” But even then, the stone was considered ancient and was believed to have some sort of mystical power. At the very least, it was considered the heart of ancient London.

In more recent times, experts have postulated that the stone might be the remains of an important Roman building. It may also have been the central milestone of Britannia, from which all others were measured. Some have suggested that it might be an Anglo-Saxon way marker or the remains of a stone cross. Others say it was placed in the center of London by Brutus the Trojan, the legendary founder of London. No one really knows for certain how old the stone even is, as even today there is no way to date it.


A link to London’s ancient past

"Jack Cade on London Stone" by editor:Howard Staunton; artist Sir John Gilbert (1817-1897) - Works of William Shakespeare (London:Routledge, 1881) vol 8. Licensed under Public domain v

“Jack Cade on London Stone” by editor:Howard Staunton; artist Sir John Gilbert (1817-1897) – Works of William Shakespeare (London:Routledge, 1881) vol 8. Licensed under Public domain

For as little as is known about the stone, it still bears the weight of history. The stone could well have been a part of London since its start. At the very least it has survived civil wars, fires, two world wars, the Cold War, and still exists into the 21st century. Shakespeare mentioned the stone in several of his plays, including one involving the Kentish rebel Jack Cade, who entered London with his followers and struck the stone with his sword, proclaiming himself “Lord of London.” Grooves remain on the stone where Cade allegedly struck it.

After the Great Fire of London, Christopher Wren spotted foundations below the stone, and was convinced it was merely a part of a much larger structure. While today that idea is regarded as fanciful thinking, it shows just how much the London Stone has inspired the imagination of generations of people. Even the bit about the stone being linked to the fate of London (“So long as the Stone of Brutus is safe, so long will London Flourish.”) comes to us from 1862; hardly an ancient prophecy.

But then the stories themselves are what make the Stone, which is really nothing more than a big hunk of limestone, so fascinating. It is a tangible link to London’s ancient past, a reminder of the ages since a tiny town built in swampy land became a metropolis respected all around the world.



Coughlan, Sean. “London’s heart of stone.” May 22, 2006. BBC News. September 27, 2014.

“London Stone.” Museum of London.

Mystery from the Bronze Age: The Uffington White Horse

Uffington-White-Horse-satOur world is dotted with mysterious structures built by our ancient ancestors. These buildings often remain enigmas, as the people who built them have long since passed into history and, in many cases, didn’t leave written records to explain themselves.

England is no stranger to such odd structures. Stonehenge is perhaps the most famous, but the British Isles are dotted with many ancient stone circles. The ancients who inhabited the area left their mark on the land in many ways, including massive horses carved out of chalk. The strangest of these massive glyphs is the highly stylized Uffington White Horse.


An ancient secret

Wiltshire is home to four white horses, but the Uffington White Horse is the most eye catching. The other three more closely resemble an actual horse, but the Uffington white horse is stylized, and could possibly have been meant to represent something else entirely. However, the hill has been known as “White Horse Hill” since the 11th century. The figure is composed of ten feet wide curving lines, and measures around 365 feet long, twice the length of the rest of the horses in the area.

No one knows exactly why the horse was carved out of the Earth. It could have been meant to mark the territory of a local tribe. Or it could have been the work of a cult devoted to the horse goddess, Rhiannon. Another possible explanation is that the horse could be an homage to the sun god Belinos, who was often depicted on horseback or in a chariot.


Dates, revised

For a long time, archeologists believed that the Uffington White Horse dated to the Iron Age. However, a dating technique developed in the 1990s changed that perception. Optical stimulated luminescence dating (OSL) is used to show how long its been since soil has seen sunlight. The horse was made by digging out soil from the hillside and filling the resulting trench in with chalk. Testing of the underlying soils dates them to between 1200 BC and 800 BC, putting the mystery structure in the Bronze Age. As for any other insights, no more seem to be coming. The White Horse will remain an enigma for years to come.



“The Uffington White Horse.” May 6th, 2014. Wiltshire White Horses. September 18, 2014.


The Moai of Easter Island–Mute Monuments of a Bygone Era

640px-Moai_Rano_rarakuFew structures capture the imagination the same way as the moai of Easter Island. The structures average about 13 feet tall and weigh in at about 13.8 tons, although the largest could be far more massive. Planted on stone platforms, they have watched over the remote flyspeck of land dubbed Easter Island (known to inhabitants as Rapa Nui, “The Navel of the World”) for hundreds of years. The prevailing thought is that they were carved in the likeness of powerful  chiefs and respected ancestors. They bore witness to the collapse of a once thriving culture, and inspired awe in subsequent explorers, who wondered how people with Stone Age technology managed to carve, transport, and erect such massive structures.

Naturally, some assumed that it was impossible, and guessed that aliens did the deed. However, no serious scholars give any weight to that notion. What has emerged in recent years are two contradictory views of the moai and their construction: either the moai‘s construction was responsible for the ecological devastation that swept across the island, or they bore mute witness while more complex causes resulted in the island’s destruction.


Moai and the collapse of Easter Island

"Hodges easter-island" by William Hodges - National Maritime Museum, London - reproduction from art book. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“Hodges easter-island” by William Hodges – National Maritime Museum, London – reproduction from art book. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

The standard view of Easter Island is that it is a classic story of a civilization that overstretched its natural resources. The resulting collapse was almost wholly self inflicted, and resulted from almost criminal mismanagement of the local ecology. This hypothesis was put forward in Jared Diamond’s 2005 book, Collapse (which is a very eye opening read by the way.)

This viewpoint hinges on the idea that the construction of the moai was directly responsible for the destruction that would follow. The conventional timeline of settlement of Easter Island has colonists arriving in 800AD. As the population grew, they began to exploit the native resources, particularly the Easter Island Palm, a slow growing variety of palm tree native to the island. While the island appeared to be a garden of Eden, it hid a secret. The soil was actually very poor, relying on wind blown volcanic ash and bird droppings to maintain its fertility. This thin soil was held in place by the trees.

Soon, however, the locals began to exploit birds for food, taking away their valuable contribution to the island’s fertility. In addition, they began increasingly to use the trees in the construction of massive statues, cutting them down to build sleds to drag the massive structures to their final homes, often on the other side of the island from where they were  carved. What followed was a building frenzy, with chiefs trying to one up each other in terms of the size and quality of their statues. Eventually, this frenzy stripped the island of all its trees, which led to soil erosion and agricultural failures. Society collapsed, leading to civil war and, some say, cannibalism. When Europeans arrived in the 1720s, they discovered a civilization that had somewhat stabilized, but was still very near the brink. European diseases and the slave trade shrunk the population further, until at one point only 118 natives lived on the island.

In this view, the island stands as a warning to the world at large. Isolated, with limited resources and no help coming from outside, Easter Island is a microcosm of our Earth, and a frightening warning of what could happen to the whole world if our civilization does not change its habits.


A new story emerges

Could this little guy have destroyed Easter Island? "Pacific rat" by Cliff from Arlington, VA, USA - Polynesian rat (Rattus exulans). Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Could this little guy have destroyed Easter Island?
“Pacific rat” by Cliff from Arlington, VA, USA – Polynesian rat (Rattus exulans). Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Easter Island natives don’t necessarily buy into the notion put forth by Diamond. Certainly they agree that the island suffered a massive collapse–nobody is disputing that. They disagree with the means that were used to move the moai. Islanders have always adamantly held that the island’s most famous features walked to their current locations. Two archeologists–Terry Hunt of the University of Hawaii and Carl Lipo of California State University Long Beach–tested that viewpoint by devising a system that used only ropes to “walk” a model statue. With some modifications, they discovered a system that worked, and would allow a team of only 18 men to move an average sized statue. The method involves basically rocking the statue back and forth, walking it across the island as a person might walk a heavy peace of furniture they can’t lift themselves. No elaborate sleds or deforestation required.

If this method is how the moai were moved, and it seems plausible, given the folklore surrounding the statues, it would fundamentally change how the story of the island’s collapse played out. Lipo and Hunt paint a rosier picture of the islanders, pointing to them as conservation minded farmers whose collapse came not out of a building frenzy, but at the paws and teeth of an animal they introduced as a foodstuff–the Polynesian Rat. The rats would have decimated the local bird populations, not to mention that they feasted on palm nuts, ensuring that the slow growing palms could not replace themselves and dooming the island in the process.

The pair also argue that the island was settled far later than was originally believed. Evidence suggests the first colonists arrived in 1200AD, too late, they argue, to destroy the island ecology all on their own. They point to the Rapanui’s stone gardens as evidence of their ingenuity and sustainable farming methods (to be fair, Diamond did the same in his book.) These stone gardens would protect crops from wind erosion, and volcanic rock mulch served to fertilize land and protect seeds.

This argument doesn’t contend that a collapse didn’t happen; it simply says that the collapse wasn’t the direct result of the Rapanui’s actions. Rather, it was mostly predicated by an invasive specie.

While this view is gaining ground, many are cautious in following these assertions. Probably the truth lays somewhere between the two theories, allowing for both invasive species and the actions of the humans who brought them. Easter Island plays her secrets close to the chest, and the island will continue to mystify for centuries to come.



Bloch, Hannah. “If They Could Only Talk.” July 2012. National Geographic. August 16, 2014.


Lovgren, Stefan. “Easter Island Settled Later, Depleted Quicker Than Thought?” March 9, 2006. National Geographic. August 16, 2014.


National Geographic Staff. “Easter Island Mystery Solved? New Theory Says Giant Statues Rocked.” June 22, 2012. National Geographic. August 16, 2014.


Not Exactly Pocket Change: The Giant Stone Currency of the Yap

Stone money on bamboo pools.

Stone money on bamboo pools.

Mysterious stone structures dot this world, inspiring awe in anyone who happens to stumble across them. Today, the people who built them are often long since gone, leaving archeologists to piece together their purpose from what remains. For example, in Costa Rica, workers on banana plantations began to discover strange stone balls as they cut back the jungle to clear land for planting. First studied in 1930, the stone balls are as mysterious today as when they were first uncovered. Several hundred have been found, but even now their purpose for being built is unclear.

Older and more famous than the stone balls are the moai of Easter Island. These mute stone monoliths, most likely carved in the likeness of great chiefs, stand in lonely vigil over a ruined island. It is widely believed that the construction of the moai was what brought about the ecological devastation that ended the once thriving civilization of Easter Island.

Of course, not all mystery structures bring about the end of the civilization that builds them. A more modern megalith, built right here in the United States, was designed to survive the end of the world. The Georgia Guidestones are massive concrete slabs that are covered with instructions, written in several languages, for restarting  civilization. Very little is known about who constructed them or why, proving that mysteries don’t have to be ancient to be puzzling and nearly unsolvable.

The stone wheels of the Yap, a people who live on a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean, would on the surface seem to be a mystery on par with the moai or the stone balls. Flat disks carved out of limestone, measuring anywhere from a foot to twelve feet in diameter and weighing up to as much as a car, these structures litter the island. However, there is no mystery to their usage, in part because the people of Yap still remain to tell us what they were used for. Strange as it sounds, the Yap used the giant stones for a startlingly mundane use: money.


Presentation of Yapese stone money for FSM inagauration.

Presentation of Yapese stone money for FSM inagauration.

Hard currency

Hundreds of years ago, Yap explorers ventured out across hundreds of miles of ocean in their bamboo canoes. It isn’t clear what they were seeking, although Polynesian cultures have a long history of exploration (which explains how they ended up living in some of the most remote places on earth.) What they found was the island of Palau, and a beautiful substance they had never seen before: limestone. The Yap secured rights to a limestone quarry from the people of Palau, and began to quarry the limestone with sea shell tools. The stone disks they produced–called “rai”–featured a large hole in the center, allowing bamboo poles to be inserted for transportation to their canoes.

The giant disks caused quite a stir back on their home island. The Yap decided the beautiful new objects would be a form of currency, a sign of wealth and status. They began to be “exchanged,” mostly for large deals like wedding dowries or as parts of political deals between villages. They rarely traded hands in reality though–the owners would agree that the rai had changed hands, and everyone would accept that the stone sitting in the village square (or wherever it happened to be) now belonged to a new owner.

A rai didn’t have to be in the village to be traded on the market. The Yap tell of one rai, of extraordinary size and quality, that was lost during transport. A storm kicked up while the disk was being moved from the quarry at Palau to Yap, and the men moving it were forced to cut it loose to survive. When they returned home, they told the story and everyone accepted it as true. So, a family could own this rai that was now under hundreds of feet of water. In fact, it was more valuable because of the story behind it. The value of a rai was determined not only by its size and beauty, but by the story behind it. If the disk was particularly difficult to move, or if people died while it was being quarried or transported, it was worth more.


Basically the same as stone money, just a lot more portable.

Basically the same as stone money, just a lot more portable.

Not as strange as it sounds

It’d be pretty easy for a modern American to mock the Yap for their strange form of currency. After all, why would you want to use giant rocks for currency? After all, they’d be pretty difficult to carry with you to, say, the grocery store when it was time to restock the cupboards. Cashiers would have to either use a forklift or be power lifters in a world where rai were money!

But that is because we are used to using dollars and change as our unit of exchange (also add to that the fact that moderns tend to look down on more “primitive” cultures.) But, really, our system of currency isn’t all that much different. When you store your money in a bank, it isn’t sitting in a safe with your name on it waiting for you to return. Banks use that money to lend to other people; your bank account is just an agreement between you and the bank that “x” amount of money is yours. You take it on faith that the bank will have that money. It’s the same with stocks–you buy a share in a company, but it isn’t as if you can go up to, say, Google Headquarters, and lay claim to a corner of the building as “yours.” It’s just an agreement between you and the company that you own “x” amount. It’s the same with bonds and other financial instruments.

But everyone knows that, right? What about supposedly more tangible assets, like gold? Gold is rare, shiny, and doesn’t corrode. People have drooled over it for thousand of years, coveting it as an incredibly valuable substance. It has been the basis of currency for many cultures for thousands of years. But why is it valuable? Again, it’s rare, people like how it looks, and it stays looking good for a long time. The same could be said for limestone among the Yap–many of the stones have been passed down from family to family for generations. It “holds its value,” making it like gold to the Yap. Limestone can’t be found on Yap, but can only be transported from Palau with a great amount of effort, so it is definitely rare. Basically, the rai are the Yap’s version of gold.

So, the rai system is not as strange as it looks on the surface. The Yap developed an economic system similar in a lot of ways to our own, just with an emphasis on a different type of material. These days, though, the Yap mainly use the American dollar for their monetary needs. The rai are only exchanged as part of traditional ceremonies. And yes, someone still owns that rai sitting there on the bottom of the ocean.



Atlas Obscura, “Cash, Card, or Car-Sized Stone: Payment Options on the Island of Yap.” Slate, June 25, 2014.

Friedman, Milton. “The Island of Stone Money.” Working Papers in Economics E-91-2 (1991).

Goldstein, Jacob. “The Island of Stone Money.” December 10, 2010. NPR. June 25, 2014.