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5 More Ancient Mysteries We Still Haven’t Solved

A while ago, we gave you a video discussing five unsolved historical mysteries, ranging from thousands of years ago to… well, not thousands of years ago. Today we have a continuation of that topic for you, because as it turns out, there’s more than just five things that don’t really add up in the historical record. These are five more historical mysteries we still haven’t solved.

The Death of Cyrus the Great

Cyrus the Great
Cyrus the Great by Arya.Go is licensed under CC-BY-SA

In the last video, we talked about Zoroaster, and mentioned in passing his probable patron, Persian emperor Cyrus the Great. Well, today he’s getting his own section. Cyrus was the founder of the first Persian empire, the Achaemenids, and he lived from around 600 BCE to 530 BCE. He was born to the son of a local king, and like any kid born to well-off parents, he leveraged his advantageous position to do even better and create what was at the time the largest empire in the world.

Basically every source we have of Cyrus describes him as an incredible man – intelligent and athletic, religiously and culturally tolerant, a military genius, and politically astute. And he was easily one of the most prominent figures in ancient history; he shows up everywhere. Anti-Persian historians like the Greeks Herodotus and Xenophon, the latter of whom spent part of his life fighting the Persian Empire, describe Cyrus as a “perfect king”. Alexander the Great, who would go on to destroy the Achaemenids, was a little obsessed with Cyrus from a young age. He’s even mentioned in the Old Testament as the man who freed the Jews from Babylon, supposedly chosen by God for the task. But we don’t have to stop at ancient history: the American founding father Thomas Jefferson supposedly took some influence from Cyrus’ history when he was drafting the American Declaration of Independence, and the first Israeli prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, considered Cyrus a personal hero, something all the more interesting considering present-day international politics. In Iran, Cyrus is something of a cult figure and even today his supposed tomb is a place of reverence for millions of people.

So in summary, Cyrus the Great has become something of a legendary figure, transcending worldly politics to become a sort of ideal in the mind of people everywhere. So, what’s the mystery, then? Well, aside from the fact that ancient history is prone to embellishment and so anything concrete about Cyrus is difficult to say, by far the most disputed part of Cyrus’ life is how it ended. If you go off of Herodotus (and Civilization 6), Cyrus died in battle with the Scythians, specifically the Massagetae, in present-day Uzbekistan. Yet even Herodotus admits that this was just one of many versions of Cyrus’ death that he’d heard about, and Xenophon says that Cyrus didn’t die in battle and returned to the capital afterwards. There are other stories, but from here the detail get hazy. It’s not even sure where his body was buried; the aforementioned Tomb of Cyrus is the best candidate, but like we said, concrete details in ancient history are difficult to come by, and even the historian who first suggested that the tomb belonged to Cyrus was a little hesitant to say so. Whatever the case, we’ll move on for now and leave you with one last cool piece of history about Cyrus – his epitaph.

“O man, whoever you are and wherever you come from, for I know you will come, I am Cyrus who won the Persians their empire. Do not therefore begrudge me this bit of earth that covers my bones.”

The Disappearance of Abu Bakr II

Mansa Musa Ilustration
Mansa Musa Ilustration

Swinging around the timeline for a moment brings us to West Africa in the 14th century. Some of you watching this have probably heard of a king named Mansa Musa, described by some as the richest man to have ever lived. He got that way by being the ruler of the Mali Empire, a state in West Africa which was famous for being one of the primary suppliers of gold to Europe and the Middle East for hundreds of years during the late Middle Ages. Gold back then was like, the most valuable thing you could have, and as such this gold brought the kingdom a great deal of wealth, turning Mali into a cultural and religious center of the Islamic world. It was visited by the Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta, who travelled over the Saharan trade routes that first brought Islam to the region, who described the kingdom as incredibly safe and harmonious, with adherents of Islam and traditional West African faiths living together peacefully. Ultimately, the empire would last for more than four hundred years; for reference, Cyrus’ Achaemenid Empire lasted just over three hundred. History’s not fair, is it?

With that context out of the way, let’s swing back to Mansa Musa – or rather his predecessor. Before Mansa Musa became the ruler of Mali, the empire was ruled by a man named Abu Bakr II. Not much is really said about his actual reign, but the great mystery surrounding him is this: some time into his rule as Mansa, Abu Bakr II developed a desire to explore the seas. According to a supposed conversation between Mansa Musa and the ruler of Egypt, Abu Bakr became convinced he could find the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, although it’s basically impossible to prove. To that end, Abu Bakr outfitted two naval expeditions, consisting of dozens of ships, and set out into the Atlantic. The first of these apparently went okay, but after he left for the second one, Abu Bakr was never seen again.

What happened to him? We can probably guess. The most likely scenario is that he and his fleet perished in the violent Atlantic waters, since Columbus barely made it to the Caribbean using giant sailing ships and Abu Bakr was using canoes. There’s a very shaky idea that Abu Bakr actually made it to the New World, but due diligence requires us to mention that there is absolutely zero material evidence of that happening – no artifacts, no sources, it’s all hearsay basically. Even so, of all the “what if” scenarios in history, this one is probably one of the most interesting. Can you imagine how different the modern world might be if it had been a wealthy West African empire that first found the Americas? It’s true that not much might be different – but it could’ve also been, pardon the pun, a sea change.

The Voynich Manuscript

Our next section takes us to central Europe, in the year 1912. A library known as the Collegio Romano, originally founded by the Society of Jesus, was short on cash and decided to sell some of its contents to the Vatican library. But for some complex reasons, not all of the material sold to the Vatican actually ended up there. One of these pieces was a book that ended up in the hands of Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish bookdealer. Voynich discovered that this book, which did not have a title or an author, was around 240 pages of… gibberish. At least, that’s what it looked like on a first glance. Across the pages were odd scripts, drawings of plants and animals, and just general nonsense.

Nevertheless, Voynich was intrigued by this book, and decided to devote more time to it. He spent the next two decades trying to get scholars interested in studying it, to see if they could possibly decipher the meaning of this text. Was it encoded, perhaps? Was there some secret hidden within those words?

Voynich died in 1930, and would never get an answer to those questions. But after his death, the fame of this mysterious codex continued to grow, particularly in the years following World War 2. Allied codebreakers took a crack at deciphering it, but didn’t get very far, and soon afterwards a series of scholars would each take turns at trying to crack the script – if it was even enciphered at all. In the time since all of this research has been done, a dozen or so theories have been put forward and subsequently torn apart by the academia on what this book actually says. One theory says its abbreviated Latin, another that it’s a vowelless Ukrainian, and still others think that the whole thing is a hoax that Voynich himself made up for attention.

That previous theory, however, was proven wrong when carbon dating of the book put it somewhere in the ballpark of being written between 1404 and 1438, right around the time of the Italian Renaissance. So, someone had to sit down and write this book… for some reason. But why? At least for now, the best guess that we have is that part of this book is intended to be some kind of medicinal herb guide, but beyond that we really have no idea. It could be that this book really is just a bunch of gibberish, and that there’s no real way to decipher a text that has no meaning in the first place. Whatever the case, the Voynich Manuscript has excited the popular imagination to the point where it’s been included in several fictional novels and, in a probably more relatable manner, an Assassin’s Creed game. …So yeah, it probably is just gibberish.

The Olmec Colossal Heads

Olmec Head, Mexico 1960 documentation
Olmec Head, Mexico 1960 by Carptrash is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Moving on, we next find ourselves in central Mexico, in a place called Tres Zapotes. In 1862, a Mexican archaeologist discovered a large stone sculpture, depicting the face of an unknown person, partially buried in the ground. His discovery didn’t really catch on outside of Mexico, but in 1938, an American archaeologist discovered the exact same head, and it caused a wave of attention. Because, of course.

Cultural issues aside, the discovery of this head led to the excavations of the surrounding area to see if there was anything else of note. Soon, the excavation found another head. Then another. Then, fourteen more, for a total of seventeen giant boulders carved into the rough shape of human heads. These discoveries were the first archaeological findings of the Olmecs, the earliest known Mesoamerican culture.

The heads themselves range anywhere from being 1.17 to 3.4 meters tall, and weigh anything from 6 tons to almost 50. Yes, 50 tons. But that’s not all – these boulders are all made of basalt, which is mostly only found near volcanoes, and the nearest volcanoes are in the nearby mountain range of Sierra de Los Tuxtlas – 150 kilometers away from where most of these heads were actually found. These boulders, in all their massive weight, were moved an absolutely huge distance to be carved into the shape of some long dead, long forgotten likeness.

So, what were these heads carved for? We can put two and two together and say that the most likely explanation is that they were carved as monuments to Olmec rulers, who would’ve been the only people able to mobilize the resources to transport and carve such massive boulders into the heads we see today. But aside from that, we haven’t found any rock-solid (get it?) details about them. Even dating the heads is a challenge because many of them were moved from where they were originally, prior to being excavated in the 20th century. The best we can do is say that most were carved between 1500 and 1000 BCE, and others were carved between 1000 and 400 BCE. And hey, they’re still around, so clearly it worked out for them. Maybe there’s a lesson, here, that trying to make fancy monuments like your Colossus of Rhodes and your Lighthouse of Alexandria is doomed to failure and you should just stick to what nature already does best. You know what they say – when life gives you boulders, make colossal heads.

The Mary Celeste

The mary celeste
The mary celeste

The final entry on our list takes us to the Atlantic Ocean, in the 19th century. On December 4th, 1872, a Canadian brigantine named the Dei Gratia was sailing for the British port of Gibraltar when the helmsman reported a vessel some distance away, heading straight for them. The captain, David Morehouse, noted that the ship was moving erratically, and its sails were in an odd position; he suspected something was wrong. Captain Morehouse saw nobody on the deck of the ship, and so sent two of his crew on board to investigate. They found an eerie scene – the ship, named the Mary Celeste, was abandoned. Even more ominously, the ship’s lifeboat was missing.

The crew conducted a quick investigation to see if they could find any clues as to what happened, and they discovered the ship’s log with its last entry dated nine days earlier, and 400 nautical miles from where the ship currently was. But other than that, there weren’t really any clues as to what had happened; the navigational instruments and charts were missing, the equipment was more or less neatly stowed away, and there was no food being cooked or prepared at the time – everything seemed to point to a relatively orderly evacuation, via the lifeboat. The ship itself was a little waterlogged and battered from the sea, but otherwise in decent condition for being a derelict.

Captain Morehouse decided to bring the ship into Gibraltar for salvage, and arrived with the Mary Celeste in tow just under two weeks later. The salvage hearing was conducted by a man named Frederick Solly-Flood, whom we only mention because a historian once described him as, “a man whose arrogance and pomposity were inversely proportional to his IQ”. After Flood spent some time ranting in court about how it must have been a murder, or piracy, or insurance fraud, the rest of the Admiralty Court sort of rolled their eyes and awarded Morehouse and his crew £1700 for their trouble.

But the question still remained: what happened to the crew? The Mary Celeste had been captained by the American Benjamin Briggs, along with seven others. The only logical explanation was that they had taken the lifeboat, but why do that when there’s plenty of provisions and nothing evidently wrong with the ship?

A number of theories have been put forward. There’s the foul play theory, as put forward by Mr. Flood earlier, but there was basically no signs of a struggle or violence at all. He said the crew must have gotten drunk off of the Mary Celeste’s cargo of denatured alcohol and murdered each other, until someone pointed out to him that denatured alcohol is industrial in nature and not in any way drinkable. Other theories suggest that the crew ran into a bad storm, and they went to the lifeboat for temporary safety. But as the Titanic showed, lifeboats at this time weren’t really all that safe, so that wouldn’t make sense, either.

The only explanation that really satisfies the logic test is that the crew must have believed that the Mary Celeste was in imminent danger of sinking, and the decision was made to quickly abandon ship. One theory puts forward the idea that a waterspout – essentially a tornado over water – passed over the ship; this would explain the ship being so waterlogged when it was found. In addition, some natural science wizardry having to do with barometric pressure might have caused water from the pumps to blow out into the ship, which might cause the crew to think, in the chaos of the moment, that the ship was sinking.

Another explanation has to do with aforementioned alcohol cargo. The Mary Celeste was originally delivering around 1700 barrels of denatured alcohol to the port of Genoa in Italy. You can probably guess how cargo of that kind can be rather hazardous. It is possible that captain Briggs believed, after some chaotic event, that the cargo of the ship was damaged and all that alcohol was about to explode. This would explain the seeming speed with which the ship was abandoned, although the cargo itself was in generally good condition when it was found.

In short, we will probably never know for sure what happened to Captain Briggs and his crew. But it probably wasn’t a drunken killing frenzy like Mr. Flood said, a claim only believable if you yourself were drinking denatured alcohol.

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