6 Priceless Treasures Lost in Shipwrecks

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In the lore around treasures lost at sea, most of the excitement goes to pirate’s gold and the sunken luxuries of the Titanic. But in the centuries of human seafaring, many lesser-known priceless objects, from literary manuscripts to scientific research, have been claimed by the depths. Here are some tales of those losses, from a lifetime of work by a 19th-century woman who was an expert in cephalopods, to a rare book by Dickens that went down with the Lusitania.

1. LOUIS DE JAUCOURT'S ANATOMICAL LEXICON

Always, always, always back up your work. Of course, that's easier now than it was in the 18th century, when French scholar Louis de Jaucourt dispatched his six-volume Lexicon medicum universale to his Amsterdam publisher, a move intended to evade French censorship. The medical dictionary, on which he'd spent 20 years, was completely lost when the ship it was on sank off Holland's coast. Luckily, Jaucourt rebounded when Denis Diderot asked him to contribute to the Encyclopédie, now considered one of the greatest works of Enlightenment thought, for which he used his notes from the lost manuscript. Jaucourt became the publication's most prolific author, penning 40,000 articles—so many he was nicknamed l'esclave de l’Encyclopédie, or the "slave of the Encyclopedia."

2. THE FIELDWORK OF ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE

Portrait of Alfred Russel Wallace, Welsh naturalist and explorer
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1852, following four years of research in the Amazon, the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace was ready to return to England. He loaded his copious notes, animal and plant specimens, and drawings onto the brig Helen. Just 26 days into the voyage, the vessel caught fire. Wallace only had time to hastily fill a tin box with a few drawings of fish and palms and some scientific notes before joining the crew in the lifeboat. After 10 days marooned at sea, they were rescued by the brig Jordeson—but most of Wallace's work was gone forever. As he lamented in an October 19, 1852 letter, "The only things which I saved were my watch, my drawings of fishes, and a portion of my notes and journals. Most of my journals, notes on the habits of animals, and drawings of the transformations of insects, were lost.” While he continued as a leading naturalist—albeit one overshadowed in his evolution research by Charles Darwin—Wallace was never able to reconstruct those years of fieldwork.

3. THE CEPHALOPOD RESEARCH OF JEANNE VILLEPREUX-POWER

Before Jeanne Villepreux-Power’s 19th-century research, most scientists thought the Argonauta argo, or paper nautilus, scavenged its shell from other animals. But by inventing the modern aquarium, Villepreux-Power could study the species first-hand, and witness how it grows and repairs its own shell. The breakthrough was one of many discoveries made by the pioneer in cephalopod research, one of the few women to achieve prominence in Victorian science. She might be better known today if it weren't for the fact that when she and her husband decided to move from Sicily to London, the vessel on which they’d shipped their possessions—including the majority of her drawings, notes, and equipment—foundered off the coast of France in 1843. After the devastating loss, she never published again.

4. A COPY OF A CHRISTMAS CAROL OWNED BY CHARLES DICKENS

Sinking of the Lusitania
Three Lions/Getty Images

When Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat realized the RMS Lusitania was doomed that fateful day in 1915, he dashed to his cabin, using the light from a few matches to try to find the literary treasures he’d brought aboard. These included original drawings by Vanity Fair author William Makepeace Thackeray, as well as an edition of A Christmas Carol owned by Charles Dickens himself. The edition was irreplaceable, since it included Dickens’s notes related to his 1844 copyright suit against the illicit republishing of his story. In the book Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Erik Larson vividly describes Lauriat’s harrowing experience when the ocean liner was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland: Lauriat grabbed the leather briefcase containing the Dickens, but left the Thackeray sketches behind. Rushing out to the deck, he saw a lifeboat packed with women and children that was being dragged down by the sinking ship. He jumped in with the briefcase, yet was unable to free the lifeboat, and in the escape into the water he lost the precious cargo. Out in the waves, he managed to evade entanglement with an antenna, swim to a collapsible lifeboat, and survive. One of the few items he managed to save were photographs of his baby, which he told his wife were his "mascot."

5. WRITINGS OF JOSÉ ASUNCIÓN SILVA

Portrait of José Asunción Silva

Many Colombians can recite the first lines from the influential Modernist poet José Asunción Silva's "Nocturne III"—"A night / A night full of hushings, of the curled wool of perfume / And incanting wing"—and it’s even printed in microtext on the 5000 Colombian peso bill. The poem, written in 1892, is believed to be a tribute to Silva’s half-sister. Silva suffered another blow in 1895, when many of his manuscripts, including a draft of a novel, were lost in a shipwreck. He left his diplomatic post in Venezuela, and dedicated all his time to reconstructing the drowned novel. But his melancholy continued: After visiting a doctor to ask the exact position of his heart, he shot himself in 1896. His rewritten novel—After-Dinner Conversation (De sobremesa) —wasn’t published until 1925.

6. THE ART OF GIOVANNI BATTISTA LUSIERI

The South-east Corner of the Parthenon, Athens by Giovanni Battista Lusieri
Giovanni Battista Lusieri, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Giovanni Battista Lusieri was a meticulous painter of the Italian landscape, particularly its classical ruins. In large panoramas and more compact watercolors, he depicted the Acropolis, views of Rome and Naples, and, his favorite, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Some of his most striking works captured the volcano at night, illuminating the darkness with its orange glow. Lord Byron called him "an Italian painter of the first eminence." Yet his name is now obscure. This is partly due to the years he stopped painting to help Lord Elgin remove and ship the Parthenon Marbles to London. But when Lusieri's artwork was being sent home from Greece after his death in 1821, a shipwreck destroyed nearly half of it (including a spectacular 25-foot-long panorama of Athens), helping to ensure his fall from fame.

BONUS: PEKING MAN

A replica of the Peking Man Skull
A replica of the Peking Man Skull

When paleontologists discovered the bones of "Peking man" in a dig near Beijing in the 1920s, they were the oldest hominid fossils ever found. However, scientists can now only study the bones—thought to be about half a million years old—from casts. The Peking Man fossils were last seen in December 1941, but vanished during the Japanese occupation of China while they were being sent to the United States for safekeeping. There are many conjectures on their fate, from being secretly stored away in Japan, to being under a parking lot in China. Yet one enduring theory is that they were lost at sea on the Japanese freighter Awa Maru: In 1945, the ship was torpedoed in the Taiwan Strait by the USS Queenfish despite being guaranteed safe passage by the United States, leading to the loss of more than 2000 lives—and, it's said, the priceless Peking fossils [PDF].

13 Facts About the Chauvet Cave Paintings

A view taken on June 13, 2014 shows paintings of animal figures on the rock walls of the Chauvet Cave in Vallon Pont d'Arc.
A view taken on June 13, 2014 shows paintings of animal figures on the rock walls of the Chauvet Cave in Vallon Pont d'Arc.
Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

Discovered by accident in 1994, the cave paintings adorning the walls of Chauvet Cave in France are among the oldest and most beautiful figurative art in human history. About 36,000 years ago, the ancient artists drew lifelike beasts that seem to gallop, crawl, and frolic through the cave’s chambers. In one stunning triptych, 50 drawings of horses, lions, and reindeer cavort across 49 feet of limestone wall. The cave paintings even impressed filmmaker Werner Herzog enough to make a documentary (available on Netflix). Here are a few more facts about the Chauvet Cave paintings.

1. The Chauvet Cave paintings were discovered by three local explorers.

It was December 18, 1994. French cavers Jean-Marie Chauvet, Éliette Brunel Deschamps, and Christian Hillaire had spent the day exploring the Pont d’Arc caves in the Ardèche region in southern France. They came upon an array of fallen rocks and noticed a gentle woosh of air from beneath the rock pile. Prying aside the stones, they found an aperture and dropped down into a large chamber with a high ceiling that appeared to branch off into other chambers. Their headlamps illuminated several handprints and a red ochre painting of a mammoth on the wall of one chamber. At that moment, they knew they had stumbled onto a major archaeological discovery.

2. Chauvet Cave was formed by an underground river.

Replica of the Chauvet Cave paintings
A detail of the full-scale reproduction of frescos found at the cave of Pont-D'Arc, also known as the Chauvet Cave, on April 8, 2015 in Vallon Pont D'Arc. The frescos were reproduced by French graphic artist and researcher Gilles Tosello to replicate the Chauvet Cave, which is located in the Ardèche region of southern France.
Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

Subterranean rivers flowing through the area's limestone hills created Chauvet Cave, along with hundreds of other gorges and caverns in the Ardèche. Chauvet Cave is about 1300 feet (roughly a quarter-mile) long with 14 chambers branching off the largest room, the Chamber of the Bear Hollows—the first one discovered by Chauvet, Brunel Deschamps, and Hillaire. This chamber, closest to the entrance, features no cave paintings; flooding is thought to have washed away any artwork. The most decorated vestibules are farthest from the entrance and include the Hillaire Chamber, Red Panels Gallery, Skull Chamber, the Megaloceros Gallery, and the End Chamber.

3. The Chauvet Cave painters were Aurignacians.

Aurignacians, the first anatomically modern humans in Europe, lived during the Upper Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, between 46,000 and 26,000 years ago. (Aurignacian also refers to this time period.) Aurignacian culture is characterized by the first figurative drawings and carvings, the invention of a flaked stone tool called a burin used for engraving, bone and antler tools, jewelry, and the oldest-known musical instruments.

In addition to the Chauvet Cave paintings, Aurignacian animal and human figurines have been found in other parts of Europe. At the Hohle Fels cave in southwestern Germany, archaeologists discovered the oldest known Venus statuette, dating from 40,000 to 35,000 years ago, and some of the oldest known bone flutes from the same time period. In Southeast Asia, a cave in Borneo bears the oldest known figurative painting, created at least 40,000 years ago.

4. Ancient humans visited Chauvet Cave during two separate millennia.

A reproduction of a hand stencil found in Chauvet Cave
Picture taken on October 12, 2012 in Vallon-Pont-d'Arc of the facsimile of the Chauvet cave.
Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

According to paleontologist Michel-Alain Garcia in Chauvet Cave: The Art of Earliest Times, radiocarbon dating of organic materials in Chauvet Cave suggest people used the cave during two different time periods. In the first, about 36,500 years ago during the Aurignacian, artists drew the majority of the Chauvet Cave paintings. They brought wood into the cave and burned it to create light and charcoal for drawing. Then, for an unknown reason, the Aurignacians abandoned the cave for about five or six thousand years, and it was taken over by cave bears. In the second instance of human use, about 31,000 to 30,000 years ago in the Gravettian period, humans left behind footprints, scorch marks from torches, and charcoal, but no artwork.

5. Fourteen animal species are represented in the Chauvet Cave paintings.

The most common animals in the Chauvet Cave paintings are cave lions, mammoths, and woolly rhinoceroses; all coexisted with the Aurignacians in Europe, but are now extinct. Along with depictions of cave bears, the four species make up 65 percent of the species in the paintings. The other are bison, horses, reindeer, red deer, ibex, aurochs (an extinct wild ancestor of domesticated cattle), the extinct Megaloceros deer (also called the Irish elk or giant deer), musk ox, panthers, and an owl. The paintings are notable for depicting not just figurative representations of the animals, but actual scenes that reveal the animals’ real behavior—like two woolly rhinoceroses butting horns, and a pride of lions stalking a group of bison.

6. Non-animal themes also pop up in Chauvet Cave paintings.

Palm prints in red paint found in Chauvet Cave
A view taken on June 13, 2014 shows paintings on the rock walls of the Chauvet cave, in Vallon Pont d'Arc.
Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

In the middle chambers of Chauvet Cave, several walls and overhanging rocks are decorated with red dots made by human palms and stencils of human hands. In the farthest galleries of the cave, five triangular representations of a woman’s pubic area are scratched on to the walls, and one picture of a woman’s lower body similar in profile to Paleolithic Venus figurines is drawn on a stalactite-like rock pendant. Anthropologists are not sure what they’re meant to symbolize.

7. A prehistoric child’s footprints were discovered in Chauvet Cave.

A single track of footprints measuring 230 feet long was found in the soft clay floor of the cave’s Gallery of the Crosshatching. Researchers analyzed modern European feet that were estimated to be roughly equivalent to those of European Early Modern Humans and determined that the track was probably made by a young boy about 4.5 feet tall. Scientists were able to date the prints based on the marks left by a burning torch on the roof of the gallery. “The child regularly wiped his torch on [the vault] above his path. These charcoal marks, dated to 26,000 years ago, seem to have been placed contrary to the direction of progress on purpose, as if to mark the way back,” Garcia writes. Two bits of charcoal were retrieved from the substrate and dated to a period between 31,430 years and 25,440 years ago.

8. The child might have had a pet dog.

The adolescent boy’s footprints are near those of a large canid—possibly a wolf. When Garcia took a closer look, he noticed the length of the middle digit was shorter than a wolf’s, a trait more typical of a domesticated dog. But in the 1990s, when Garcia made the find, the oldest undisputed fossil evidence of a domesticated dog dated back only 14,200 years before present.

A 2017 study that built on previous research, however, compared genomes of three Neolithic dogs with those of more than 5000 canines, including modern wolves and dogs. The researchers concluded that dogs and wolves split genetically sometime between 41,500 and 36,900 years ago, and a second divergence of eastern and western dogs occurred between 23,900 and 17,500 years ago. That puts the window of domestication between 40,000 and 20,000 years ago—the same time as the Aurignacian child and his very good boy were walking through Chauvet Cave.

9. Chauvet cave provided shelter for bears.

Outline of a cave bear head in Chauvet Cave
A view taken on June 13, 2014 shows paintings on the rock walls of the Chauvet cave, in Vallon Pont d'Arc.
Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

Larger than modern grizzlies, cave bears spent winters in Chauvet Cave for thousands of years before humans began painting in it. They left claw scratches on the walls and dozens of tracks and footprints in the floor. In the Chamber of the Bear Hollows, researchers have found more than 300 hollows (sleeping spots that bears wore into the cave floor) and dozens of bear tracks and paw prints, made after humans stopped visiting the cave. About 2500 cave bear bones and 170 skulls were scattered throughout the cave’s main chambers. When scientists first investigated the cave in the mid-1990s, they found a cave bear skull carefully placed on a large stone in the middle of a deep chamber, in a way that only humans could have done.

10. The cave also provided shelter for a lot of wolves.

The floor of the Brunel Chamber, directly south of the Chamber of the Bear Hollows, showed multiple wolf prints that indicated a large number of “fissipeds” (pad-footed carnivores) had trampled the ground. Bear prints were superimposed on the wolf prints, suggesting that the bears came in after the wolves.

Not only large carnivores occupied the cave—judging from the variety of bones, it was practically a prehistoric zoo. In addition to the wolf, ibex, and bear bones, prehistorian Jean Clottes reported finding those of foxes, martens (a kind of weasel), roe deer, horses, birds, rodents, bats, and reptiles. And, yes, he also found fossilized wolf poop, indicating the wolves probably went into the cave in search of carrion.

11. No one knows why the Chauvet Cave paintings were created.

Chauvet Cave paintings
A detail of the full-scale reproduction of frescos found at the cave of Pont-D'Arc also known as the Chauvet cave, on April 8, 2015 in Vallon Pont D'Arc. The frescos were reproduced by French graphic artist and researcher Gilles Tosello to replicate the Chauvet Cave, located in the Ardèche region of southern France.
Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

The purpose behind the Chauvet Cave paintings is a mystery, but some characteristics of the artwork may offer clues. Researchers have noted that the primary species depicted—cave bear, lion, mammoth, and rhinoceros—were not prey species that Aurignacians pursued for food, possibly suggesting that the paintings weren’t meant to ensure bountiful hunting.

A 2016 study hinted that the Chauvet Cave artists may have been recording contemporary events. Jean-Michel Geneste and colleagues proposed that a spray-like design in the Megaloceros Gallery was a faithful depiction of a volcanic eruption that occurred in the nearby Bas-Vivaris region between 40,000 and 30,000 years ago. If that is true, Chauvet Cave boasts the oldest known painting of volcanic activity, smoking the previous record holder—a 9000-year-old mural in central Turkey—by 28,000 years.

12. When Werner Herzog entered Chauvet Cave, he was overwhelmed.

Filmmaker Werner Herzog accompanied researchers into the depths of the cave system to make his 2010 documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams (available to stream on Netflix). Herzog’s grandfather was an archaeologist, and Herzog himself once earned money as a ball boy at a tennis court to buy a book about cave art. “Even though in a way I knew what was waiting for me because I had seen photos, I was in complete and overwhelming awe,” Herzog told The A.V. Club in 2011. “The mysterious origins of it—we don’t know why they were made, and why in complete darkness and not next to the entrance.”

13. You can visit a scale replica of the Chauvet Cave paintings.

The world-famous Paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux, not far from Pont d’Arc, were damaged by the exhalations of thousands of visitors after the cave was opened to the public in 1948. So, immediately after Chauvet Cave was discovered, scientists moved to protect the fragile paintings and closed it to the public; now, only scholars are allowed in during brief windows of time. But that doesn’t mean you can’t see a simulation of the artwork up close. In 2015, a scale replica of the Chauvet Cave paintings, dubbed the Caverne du Pont d’Arc, opened near the site of the actual cave. Engineers and artists faithfully recreated not just the dazzling paintings, but also the temperature, dampness, murk, and funky smell of the original.

The Person Who Solves the Mysterious Inscription on This French Rock Will Be Awarded $2200

iStock.com/GAPS
iStock.com/GAPS

In the village of Plougastel-Daoulas in the Finistere region of Brittany, France, there's a boulder that's only uncovered at low tide. When waters recede, a mysterious inscription carved into one side becomes visible, and though it's written in the Latin alphabet, no one has been able to decipher the message. The only scrutable components are the years 1786 and 1787—suggesting the carving is at least 230 years old. Now, The Local France reports that the village is offering €2000 (roughly $2242) to anyone who can break the code.

According to the mayor of Plougastel-Daoulas, the cipher was discovered on the town's shore a few years ago. The letters, most of which are capitalized, look like they might spell clear words from far away, but upon closer inspection they seem to be arranged in no apparent order. Lines contain nonsense like "DRE AR GRIO SE EVELOH AR VIRIONES BAOAVEL," and "R I OBBIIE: BRISBVILAR." There are also pictures of objects like sailboats etched into the stone.

If the message was written in the late 18th century as the dates indicate, various artillery batteries would have been stationed on Brittany's coast, including at Corbeau Fort which is beside the site. Beyond that, town authorities have no clues as to the inscription's origins. Some people think it's written in Basque or old Breton, but the town wants to hear what a professional code-breaker has to say.

Plougastel-Daoulas is calling on linguists, historians, academics, students, and hobbyists to examine the carving and determine its meaning. When all the translations are submitted, a jury will convene to select the most likely possibility and award the code-breaker the €2000.

In some cases, even years worth of studying ciphers isn't enough to crack a code. A code found in the pocket of a murder victim stumped the FBI for more than a decade, and the centuries-old Voynich Manuscript is still undeciphered.

[h/t The Local France]

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