Throughout history we have been presented with mysteries that have lacked explanations, at least as far as explanations with any real consensus go. Over the years, some of these mysteries have investigators proposing their own theories; the older the mystery, the more theories that have been presented. Most scientists will tell you, though, that we are no closer now to ascertaining the truth than we were years ago. That hasn’t stopped investigators, professional and amateur, from prodding away in hopes that they will be the ones to find that one piece of elusive evidence.
Some of these mysteries from history are just oddities that make us wonder. Other mysteries are larger and if we ever discover the answers; it could have lasting effects on how we view our history. Are the answers to history’s greatest unexplained mysteries even something we can comprehend? Let’s face it; do we really want to solve some of these mysteries? Isn’t the mystique of the unknown more fascinating than the answers; especially if that answer is so mundane that many of us won’t even accept it anyway.
Presented here, in no particular order, are fifteen of the most astonishing unexplained mysteries from history, from around the world. These have all defied explanation, despite numerous investigations, past and present. In fact, some of these have persisted for thousands of years and many may never be conclusively solved.
15. Did Giants Actually Exist?
So let’s break it down: Giants were either a real race of ancient humans, or just very tall people from throughout history. Very tall people do exist and modern science recognizes that they suffer from a rare pituitary condition. Modern medicine can treat this now and stop their uncontrollable growth. It is safe to assume that one hundred years ago and before, there was no treatment and those afflicted continued to grow until their inevitable death. We know this occurred also as the tallest scientifically confirmed giant, Robert Wadlow, was still growing when he died at the young age of 22. He was an unbelievable 2.72 meters tall (8 ft, 11.1 in).
One of the earliest accounts of giants is mentioned in the King James Version of the Old Testament, “There were giants in the earth in those days…” Greek legends tell of giants, as do Middle Eastern, South American, and Australian stories. These legendary giants were too immense to have been human. Between the myths and legends, there is simply nothing in the fossil record as of yet that proves their existence. Over the years, some of these stories have been accompanied by photos depicting enormous skeletons. One such account was in 1869, George Hull and his “Cardiff Giant,” of New York. It turns out he constructed a fake 3 meter tall mummy. He eventually confessed to his hoax, but that didn’t stop people from coming to see it. Aside from very tall humans, the only other proven giant hominid in the fossil record was the great ape, Gigantopithecus blacki. This giant gorilla stood over 3 meters tall and is believed to have gone extinct about 100,000 years ago. That means they lived alongside Homo sapiens! Could these giant apes have been the basis for the giant legends?
14. The Ice Woman
This mystery is more recent and even more baffling than the case for giants. On December 20, 1980, on a cold night in Lengby, Minnesota, a 19-year-old woman, Jean Hilliard was driving down a frozen road. She lost control and ran off the road, getting stuck. With the temperature -25 ̊F (-31 ̊ C), she desperately needed to reach her neighbor’s house. She didn’t make it. The next morning, the neighbor opened his back door and found Hilliard frozen solid in the snow. Emergency services took her to a local hospital where the nursing staff was shocked. Hilliard’s body was stiff and her face white as snow. Doctors couldn’t even penetrate her skin with needles and her body temperature was so low it didn’t even show up on thermometers. Her eyes were frozen solid. Dr. Ryan Kelly arrived and recalled Hilliard was severely frostbitten. It was evident that ice crystals had already formed in the cells of her extremities. This was just the initial stages as her core temperature was dropping and her internal organs would soon shut down. The hospital staff tried to gradually heat up her body but it didn’t look good. They knew she needed a miracle if she was to survive.
After receiving approval from her family, a prayer chain was started. The odds against her survival were vast; however, two hours later, Hilliard began to go into violent convulsions, and then regained consciousness! The doctors were sure that she must’ve suffered brain damage, and would no doubt have to have her legs amputated. But miraculously, her body began to heal, the blackness of her frostbitten limbs dissipated, and her brain was just as sharp as it ever was. Hilliard spent 49 days in the hospital and, despite her prognosis, recovered completely!
13. The Princes in the Tower
In 1483, King Edward IV of England died, leaving his sons, 12-year-old Prince Edward V of England and 9-year-old Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, as his heirs to the throne. The two princes had been placed under the care of their uncle, the Lord Protector, Richard, Duke of Gloucester. As a precautionary measure, Richard had the princes sequestered in the Tower of London, supposedly to prepare for Edward’s coronation as king. However, the prince’s uncle took the throne for himself as Richard III, the last of the Plantagenet Kings of England. The two princes were never seen again. Their fate was never known, though many believe Richard III eventually had them murdered. No evidence has ever been uncovered to attest to that assumption.
In the 17th century, a box containing two small human skeletons was found near the White Tower and many believe that those are the remains of the princes. However, no one knows exactly what fate befell them or by whose hand. The most likely suspect has always been the King himself, but he was not the only one who would’ve benefited from having the princes out of the way. Over the years there have been a few different theories and as many suspects. Ultimately, we might never know what happened to the young royals. As for Richard III, his skeleton was uncovered in 2012, found buried beneath a parking lot in Leicester; a less than dignified end for a ruler whose legitimacy has been questioned.
12. The Bouvet Island Boat Mystery
Bouvet Island is a small 49 square km (19 square miles) piece of land in the South Atlantic, covered in glacier ice and completely uninhabited. It is known as the most remote island on the planet. The closest neighbor is a part of Antarctica called Queen Maud Land, which is over 1600 km (1000 miles) away. In the 1950s, the South African government was conducting some site surveys hoping to find suitable locations for a future manned station. The island was all wrong for their needs, so they abandoned it. Then, in 1958, an American icebreaker discovered that a small volcanic eruption occurred on the island, resulting in the formation of a low-lying lava plateau.
The South Africans heard about the new land and, in April 1964, they returned to finish their study on this new part of the island. What they found was an interesting anomaly. In a small island lagoon, guarded by a group of seals, they found a small boat with two oars. The boat had no markings and there were signs that people had been on board. However, a search revealed no signs of any human remains, or any supply remnants or burned out fires. The boat must have arrived on the island sometime between January 1955, when the South Africans last surveyed it, and April 1964, when they returned. What was a small row boat doing over 1600 km from civilization? What became of the crew? There were no trade routes nearby so where did they come from? Fifty years later, we’re still no closer to knowing the answer.
11. The Gardner Museum Heist
On March 18, 1990, as St. Patrick’s Day festivities were winding down, two unknown thieves robbed the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and got away clean with an astounding collection of masterpieces by masters, including Rembrandt and Vermeer. The stolen pieces are valued in excess of $500 million. It was the largest art theft in history. Today, after twenty years and millions spent on investigating the heist, there has never been an arrest and the theft remains one of the most extraordinary unsolved crimes in history.
It all began at 1:24 A.M., when two men, dressed as Boston police officers buzzed the museum’s service entrance. They told security that they were responding to a reported disturbance and needed to look inside. The young security guard, against policy, allowed them in. Thus began the “perfect crime.” Once inside, the men quickly overpowered the two security guards, bound them with duct tape, and handcuffed them in the basement. The guards never had the chance to push the panic button, allowing the thieves to roam the museum freely. The museum’s motion detector tracked the thieves’ movements and showed they immediately went to the second floor, and then split up. One headed into the Dutch Room, the other to the Short Gallery. They took a total of 13 incredibly valuable works of art: 1 Vermeer, 4 Rembrandts, 5 Degas, 1 Flinck (former attributed to Rembrandt), 1 Manet, and a Chinese Bronze beaker from the Shang Dynasty. The thieves were in and out in 81 minutes. Despite a $5 million dollar reward, and even promised immunity and confidentiality in exchange for return of the artwork, neither of the thieves nor any of the stolen works of art has ever surfaced.
10. The Abduction of Betty and Barney Hill
Abduction reports are hard to judge: the abductees have a very active imagination, they are hoaxers, or they really were abducted by extraterrestrials. What makes the Hill story so unique is they were the very first to ever report that they had been abducted by aliens. In the many years since their report it appears their case is still the most convincing. It was the early hours of September 20, 1961; the Hills were on vacation. They were driving from Niagara Falls to their home in New Hampshire, when they sighted a strange object in the sky. Barney pulled out his binoculars and viewed the object before panicking and driving quickly away. They remembered hearing a beeping sound and then, instantly, they found themselves some 35 miles further down the road, hearing the same beeping sound again. Once home the couple experienced anxiety and nightmares; they wanted to know what occurred during that lost 35-mile trek that they couldn’t recall.
The couple agreed to being placed under hypnosis and recalled what happened during their missing time, which was actually two hours. In separate sessions, Betty and Barney recalled vividly being followed by the object in the sky and eventually stopped, pulled from their vehicle by some alien creatures and given medical examinations before being placed back into their car. The Hills recalled that the aliens were not malicious but fascinated by many little things, such as Barney’s false teeth, wondering why Betty didn’t have the same fixtures. Betty reported that the aliens communicated where they were from and she drew a map that she gave to investigators. The map was a mystery for many years until astronomers discovered it matched exactly to a star chart diagram of the Zeta Reticuli system, which wasn’t discovered until 1969. It makes you wonder…
9. Who was Robin Hood?
Everyone knows the story of Robin Hood. He was a legendary rogue with a heart of gold, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. His story has become the basis for an archetype. Books have been written about him and he’s been the subject of so-so movies released every decade or so. However, we really don’t know how the legend of Robin Hood came about or rose to such cultural importance. We don’t even know if he really ever existed.
Legend says he lived during the reign of the Plantagenet monarchs. He was an ally to Richard the Lionheart, King of England, and a foe to the King’s greedy brother, Prince John. King Richard ruled England for ten years, 1189 to 1199, with John ruling from 1199 to 1216. Most stories put Robin Hood’s heyday during the Third Crusade (1189-1192), when John ruled England while Richard was off fighting the Crusades. However, actual evidence uncovered puts the actual exploits of Robin Hood all over the historical map leading many researchers to believe that in actuality many heroic men could have collectively been the inspiration for the legend. We might never know if Robin Hood was a real outlaw or just a fusion of chivalric ideals and peasant hopes that arose from living in difficult times, but it’s a good story nevertheless.
8. Did King Arthur Really Exist?
Most have heard of the once-and-future king, Arthur. There have been plenty of movies, including the definitive version, John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981). If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out. Some dismiss the legend as just stories, but others are convinced that the mythic king was real. Medieval stories record that King Arthur united England and led the defense against Saxon invaders in the 6th century CE. The most famous tales come to us from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s popular 12th century manuscript Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), and Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur; however, the earliest known references to King Arthur can be found in the 6th century writings of the monk Gildas and in the bard Aneirin’s poem, “Y Gododdin.” The earliest tales say that Arthur is the son of Uther Pendragon, and mentored by the wizard Merlin. He pulls the mystical sword Excalibur from the stone making him the rightful king of England. He rules from beautiful Camelot, with his wife, Guinevere. He later engages in mortal combat against Mordred at Camlann, where he is killed and laid to final rest in Avalon, where it is said he will rise again when England needs him. Elements about Sir Lancelot and the Holy Grail were added later in future stories.
Researchers have studied the legends in an attempt to ascertain the real identity of King Arthur. While some believe it’s just a myth, others point to evidence that Arthur could actually be based on real military leaders of the period, the most prevalent being a Roman commander named Lucius Artorius Castus, who fought in the 3rd century CE. Others are certain King Arthur is real and actively search for his burial place in Britain. We might never really know for sure.
7. The U.S.S. Scorpion Wreck
The USS Scorpion (SSN-589) was a 76.5 meter long (251 foot) United States Navy nuclear submarine that disappeared at sea mysteriously, with all 99 sailors. On February 15, 1968, the Scorpion departed Norfolk, Virginia, for a three-month deployment in the Mediterranean. The submarine was tasked with conducting covert reconnaissance of Soviet naval units. They completed their mission on May 17, and began the voyage home. The sub’s skipper, Commander Francis A. Slattery, radioed submarine headquarters and reported that they would be arriving on May 27, 1968, at 1 P.M. The Scorpion never arrived. Once declared overdue, a task force of nearly sixty ships and submarines and dozens of aircraft were dispatched to scour the seas. They searched for nine days, from the continental shelf to the Azores, and failed to locate a single clue. A few days later, Scorpion was declared lost.
Three months later, the U.S. Navy reported the discovery of the wreckage of the Scorpion scattered on the ocean floor. Reportedly, they still had no explanation for what happened to the sub. In 1985, ocean explorer Robert Ballard investigated the wreckage and was unable to come to a conclusion about the fate of the Scorpion. Within a few months Ballard would discover the wreck of the Titanic, and his Scorpion investigation was closed. Investigators have renewed calls for an inquiry into the mystery of the Scorpion; however, as of yet, those calls have been denied. Why? Most researchers believe the U.S. Navy is covering up the fact that the sub was sunk in a skirmish with a Soviet attack sub. Others believe the Navy doesn’t want to admit the sub sank due to a torpedo system malfunction where basically the Scorpion sunk itself. We might never know what occurred as the U.S. Navy has refused to offer any additional information on the wreckage.
6. Tunguska Blast
The blast occurred on June 30, 1908, in the Tunguska region of remote Siberia. It was the biggest explosion in recorded history and we know about as much now about this mystery as we did then. What we do know is that on that date some kind of explosion blew the sky open above an isolated forest near the Podkamennaya Tunguska River. Eighty million trees were instantly flattened, depleting 2,000 sq km of the Taiga Forest. The ground quaked and windows were shattered in a town over 60 km (35 miles) away, with rumbling even felt as far away as England. Residents there reported that they could even feel the heat and some were blown off their feet by the blast wave. The area of the blast is unpopulated so aside from hundreds of incinerated reindeer there was only one human casualty: a local deer herder who was killed when the blast blew him into a tree.
Some scientists estimate that the blast produced approximately 185 times more energy that the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in World War II. Scientists initially believed that the explosion was most likely the result of a comet or asteroid exploding in the atmosphere, but no evidence has been located and there is no crater. That has led others to suggest that it must’ve been some sort of supernatural activity, an exploding alien aircraft, or even a black hole opening up in the sky. A hundred years later we still don’t exactly what occurred that day in Tunguska, devastating an area about the size of the state of Rhode Island.
5. The Uffington White Horse
In the English county of Oxfordshire, visitors can see many ancient horse hill figures at least thirteen in the region, with twenty-four total throughout Great Britain. However, only one is said to be prehistoric in origin and possibly the inspiration for the creation of all the others. It is called the Uffington White Horse and it was initially believed to date to the Iron Age, but more recent studies by the Oxford Archaeological Unit place it in the Bronze Age, approximately 3,000 years ago. The Uffington White Horse is located elevated on an escarpment of the Berkshire Downs below Whitehorse Hill, just over a 2 km (1.5 miles) south of the village of Uffington. The figure measures almost 114 meters (374 feet) in length, and was created by digging furrows into the earth, some of which are over 3 meters (10 feet) wide. This exposed the white chalk bedrock below, giving the figure its distinctive look.
The actual shape of the horse figure has changed over the many years. Aerial photography reveals that a much larger horse shape lies beneath the current one. The alteration of the shape is caused by slippage of the top soil. Unlike the other horse figures in Great Britain, this one is best viewed from the air. The mystery is that we still don’t know who made it, why, or exactly when? Some researchers believe the horse figure is a representation of a horse goddess of the local Belgae tribe, others say it is the Celtic goddess Epona, the protector of horses. Still others say it isn’t even a horse at all, but the fabled dragon slain by Saint George in English lore. After a few millennia, we are no closer to knowing the answers to any of these questions.
4. The Oak Island Money Pit
Throughout history, we’ve always been in love with the idea of buried treasure. There are numerous legends that have kept treasure hunters busy for generations. One of the best mysteries about buried treasure comes from the small, forested Oak Island, in Mahone Bay, off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada. This tiny island is the home to what has become known as the Oak Island Money Pit, a really deep hole that was elaborately constructed. It was discovered in 1795, and set off over 200 years of costly excavation and investigation. However, as of yet, no treasure has been found. What has been found are more questions and a deep fascination for what is at the bottom of the pit and who put it there?
Digging down into the pit has uncovered flagstones, inscribed rocks, oak logs, and a series of wooden platforms. Once diggers reached about 27 meters (90 feet), they triggered a booby trap that unleashed a flood of water that filled up the pit. The channels feeding the pit were intricately dug and filled the pit with water as quickly as diggers could remove it. The mystery of the pit has attracted high-profile interest, including famous actor John Wayne and an investigation by the esteemed Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Even former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt spent one summer in his youth working on the pit. Six people have died attempting to excavate the Money Pit. Whatever is down there was put there with the expectations that no one would ever retrieve it. Theories abound that at the base of the pit lies the lost treasure of the Knights Templar, the Holy Grail, pirate booty, or just the biggest April Fools’ Day joke ever undertaken! After two centuries, we are no closer to learning the truth.
3. The Shroud of Turin
Measuring almost 5 square meters (53 square feet), this rectangle of linen known as the Shroud of Turin is venerated by millions of Christians around the world as one of the most sacred religious icons ever. Held in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Turin, Italy, it is believed that it is the actual burial cloth of Jesus of Nazareth. It is also one of the most hotly debated subjects in modern science and remains a mystery that has defied solving.
It all began in 1898, when Italian photographer Secondo Pia was examining the reverse negative of a photo of the shroud and saw something extraordinary. To the human eye, the shroud appears to contain the vague image of a human body, but when a negative image was examined a detailed figure of a bearded man with extensive wounds across his body is revealed; wounds consistent with being crucified. For almost 120 years, forensic pathologists, microbiologists, botanists, and others have investigated the bloodstained image, along with specks of dirt and pollen that can be found on the shroud. Analyses can find no indication of artificial pigments, meaning that the image on the shroud is that of a real human body and that the blood is indeed blood. Even today, scientists are unable to verify that it is indeed the burial cloth of Jesus Christ, nor say that it is a forgery.
2. The Sphinx
It is called the Great Sphinx of Giza and it is easily recognizable as one of the most famous monuments of ancient Egypt. It measures 73 meters (240 ft) long and stands 20 meters (66 ft) high, and is oriented on a direct west-to-east axis. The great sculpture of a resting lion with a human face was carved out of limestone on the Giza plateau. Of course, Sphinx isn’t its true name. That word is Greek and comes from a translation of the word used by ancient Egyptians to refer to representations of royalty, shesep-ankh, “living image.” In Greek mythology, a sphinx was a beast with a woman’s head. Early Greek visitors who gazed upon the great sculpture mistook the striped head cloth for a woman’s long hair.
Some researchers believe it was carved during the reign of the pharaoh Khafre during the Old Kingdom (c. 2613-2181 BCE), although some claim it is much older. There might not be a consensus about when it was created, or by whom, but they all agree that it is a magnificent relic and one of the largest sculptures in the world. We don’t even know why it was built. Egyptian writings tell us about the building of the pyramids, who built it, why, where the builders slept, what they ate, and so on, but there has absolutely been nothing found about the Great Sphinx. Recent ground scans have uncovered that there are numerous chambers located beneath the sculpture but permission to excavate has been denied. For generations, archaeologists, geologists, and Egyptologists have studied the vexing sculpture in hopes of unlocking the riddle of the Sphinx and we are no closer to solving it as we were when it was first gazed upon by modern civilization.
For thousands of years, Stonehenge has stood a mystery. Believed to have been built between 3000 and 2000 BCE, we know it is a monument of some sort and built by enormous rock slabs that were somehow manipulated into place. Remarkably the monument highlights astronomical events, solstices, eclipses, and the like. It is therefore believed that its purpose might have revolved around worshipping or possibly measuring of some sort. So, ultimately, we really don’t know much. Who built it or what was its function is still a mystery; however, we do know that thousands of tourists every year flock to gaze upon its magnificence silence.
After years of excavations we have begun to learn some small details. It is believed that the structure was built in four stages. The first was around 3100 BCE, with a series of holes being dug for possible religious ceremonies. Then, about 1,000 years later, the huge stones from mountains in Wales were somehow transported to the site and erected. How they did this before the invention of the wheel is incredible. The stones were set up in a double circle and aligned precisely with the midsummer sunrise. The third stage was around 2000 BCE, when more stones were brought in from the area of Marlborough Downs. Then, finally, 500 years later, the massive stones were arranged into the recognizable horseshoe pattern that we have today. And that’s about it. Why this massive undertaken was done, or by whom, is still a mystery. It could’ve been a temple, a burial ground, a calendar, an observatory, who knows! It could’ve been all of the above or none at all.