Atlas Obscura - Latest Articles and Places
The Enduring Legacy of the Worcester Whirlwind
June 26th, 2017, 06:02 AM

Every year near the end of July, a high-spirited group of cyclists gathers at the bottom of George Street in Worcester, Massachusetts. One at a time, each athlete eases up to the starting line, cranes his or her neck up at the steep incline ahead, waits for the honk of an air horn—and then pedals like mad, straight uphill. "We've had a unicycle, tandem bikes, a three-seater bike," recalls Lynne Tolman of the Major Taylor Association, who runs the event. "BMX bikes, road bikes, mountain bikes." No one is turned away.

The George Street Challenge—an uphill sprint that tends to take anywhere from thirty to sixty seconds, Tolman says—is a far cry from most bike events, which usually go at least a few miles. But it's a fitting tribute to the athlete it honors: Marshall W. "Major" Taylor, an African-American speed cyclist who was, for the first decade of the 20th century, the fastest man in the world. A longtime Worcester resident, Taylor himself biked up George Street as part of his training.

More than that, the requirements of the race—all alone, straight uphill, as fast as you can—aptly parallel what Taylor had to do to achieve success, in a time of Jim Crow laws and violent discrimination. "Some people call him the Jackie Robinson of cycling, but this was fifty years before Jackie Robinson," says Tolman. "We say it should be the other way around—Jackie Robinson was the Major Taylor of baseball."


Taylor was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1878, and from an early age he found that cycling opened doors. He got his first bike at eight years old, a gift from his father's wealthy employers so that he could keep up with his best friend—their son Dan—and the rest of a gaggle of local kids. After Dan and his family moved to Chicago, the newly lonely Taylor began working as a delivery boy and teaching himself a variety of bike tricks in his spare time. By the time he was a preteen, he had landed a job at a local repair shop—sweeping the store in the morning, and performing a stunt show on the sidewalk every afternoon. (His employer dressed him in a military uniform for these shows, which is how he earned the nickname "Major.")

Some doors, though, remained firmly shut. Despite his dedication to athletics, he was barred entrance from the local Y.M.C.A. "It was there that I was first introduced to that dreadful monster prejudice, which became my biggest foe," Taylor wrote in his 1928 autobiography, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World. "How my poor little heart would ache to think that I was denied an opportunity to exercise and develop my muscles in the same manner as [my friends], and for really no reason that I was responsible for."

The inability to train like the others made the young biker less-than-confident in his racing abilities. Soon afterward, though, those abilities were tested—by accident. When Taylor's boss saw him among the crowd of spectators at the city's annual ten-mile road race, he gestured the young athlete to the starting line. "Just ride up a little way, it will please the crowd, and you can come back as soon as you get tired," Taylor remembered his boss saying. He got tired—but he kept going. Despite his youth, he beat the field by six seconds, and went home with the first of what became scores of gold medals.


Taylor never looked back. Throughout the next few years, he entered any race he could find, winning at distances ranging from to one to 75 miles. He soon found a mentor in Louis D. "Birdie" Munger, an accomplished racer who had recently retired to start a bicycle-building company. Munger built the young speedster a state-of-the-art racing bike, and brought him to work out with local high school teams.

But the more his star rose, the more some people tried to cloud it over. Taylor was barred from certain competitions, and all local bicycle clubs, due to his race. "He was killing it in all the black races, but he didn't want to be only the black champion," says Tolman. "He wanted to be the fastest of all." So in the fall of 1895, when Taylor was 17, he and Munger moved to Worcester. There, Taylor joined the all-black Albion Cycle Club, began piling up wins in local races, and worked out at the Y.M.C.A. with no problems. "I shall always be grateful to Worcester, as I am firmly convinced that I would shortly have dropped riding … were it not for the cordial manner in which the people received me," he later wrote.


The next year, at age 18, Taylor went pro. The life of a star cyclist was exciting: Taylor raced for huge crowds at Madison Square Garden, and gained a number of famous fans, including Teddy Roosevelt. It was lucrative: by 1900, he was earning $30,000 a year, far more than most athletes of the day.

But it was also a dangerous life—far more so for Taylor than for his white competitors. Besides sports-related threats—such as the hallucinatory fatigue that set in during a six-day endurance race—Taylor faced discrimination from cycling groups and violence from fellow riders. Members of one major racing association, the League of American Wheelmen, tried to ban him from all tracks under their jurisdiction. While they did not succeed, individual arenas from Philadelphia to Indiana refused to let him race.

Other cyclists elbowed or shoved him during races. After one Bostonian rival, W.E. Becker, lost to him, he threw Taylor from his bike and choked him "into a state of insensibility." Persistent threats meant that Taylor was sometimes reluctant to ride at all. Once, a training stint in Georgia was cut short after he received an intimidating letter, illustrated with a skull and crossbones, from an anonymous group of "White Riders." Hotels and restaurants also regularly barred him entry, which meant that while his competitors were relaxing and refueling, he would be searching a city for a bed and a meal. "It would be difficult for me ... to call to mind all the vicious attempts that were made in vain to eliminate me from bicycle racing," Taylor wrote.


Despite this adversity, Taylor continued to tear up the track and earning his sobriquet, the Worcester Whirlwind. He racked up world record after world record—at one point, he held seven of them, in events ranging from the quarter-mile to the two-mile. In 1899, he won the one-mile sprint at the ICA Cycling World Championships in Montreal, making him the first ever African-American world champion athlete. In 1902, he set off on a tour of Europe and Australia, leaving a string of fans in his wake. At the time—before automobile and airplane races replaced bicycling as the speedy spectacle of choice—watching him was an unmatchable thrill. "He was really the fastest human on the planet," says Tolman.

By the time he retired—in 1910, at the age of 32—he had married and had a daughter. He had saved a lot of money. He was ready to prop up his legs (which had been sore pretty much continuously since that first race, when he was 13) and relax at his home in Worcester. But it was not to be. Lacking a high school degree, he was denied admittance to Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The stock market crash of 1929 wiped out most of his savings, and his marriage broke up. He spent six years writing his autobiography, and many more selling it out of the back of his truck, before he died at 53 in a Chicago hospital. He was buried nearby at Mount Glenwood Cemetery, in an unmarked grave.


A few years later, some of his former competitors got together and had a proper marker put at the site. "Still, he remained forgotten for much of the 20th century," says Tolman. It's only in recent decades that his contributions to the sport of cycling—and to American history—have begun to gain wide recognition. In 1982, Indianapolis unveiled the Major Taylor Velodrome, an open-air bicycle track that hosts races every summer. Fans across the country, from Pittsburgh to San Diego, have started Major Taylor Cycling Clubs—"not only remembering Taylor and his story, but also working towards diversity and equity in cycling," says Tolman.

Thanks to the efforts of the Major Taylor Association, Worcester is now home to a bronze statue of Taylor (the first statue of an individual African American in the entire city) as well as a Major Taylor Road. And then there's the George Street Challenge—a fitting way to pay tribute to a great man, by putting oneself ever-so-briefly in his cycling shoes.

The annual George Street Challenge starts at 10:00 a.m. on July 23, 2017, at the intersection of Main and George streets in Worcester, Massachusetts. Tickets are available here.

Georgetown University Maintenance Tunnels in Washington, D.C.
June 26th, 2017, 06:02 AM

A maze of tunnels underneath the Georgetown University campus provides easy access to basement boiler rooms and a dark sneakaway for student adventurers. The tunnels likely date to a 1926 renovation of Old North Hall, and have been successively expanded to connect with newer buildings on campus.  

The tunnel entrance looks like any other service door, and you can generally find it dead-bolted open. Inside, the hissing pipes convey hot water and cook the air to peak humidity. The twisting layout is disorienting, but walk in any direction and you will invariably find yourself in one of the campus’s many boiler rooms.

In 2005 a student reporter spent 24 hours inside the tunnels to suss out the truth behind rumors of secrecy and intrigue. The unnerved article in the Georgetown Voice was the stuff of urban explorer pipe dreams. “The steam pipes all around you emit a high, insistent whine punctuated by the occasional blast from a half-open valve” the Voice recalled. At nearly 11:00 pm, “a bank of fluorescent light bulbs just turned on completely by itself above a pressure gauge,” and shortly thereafter, "The fluorescent lights just turned off again all by themselves."

The various wings of tunnels run the gamut from well lit to pitch dark. In one intriguing corner of the tunnels, you can find a valve about four feet above the ground, under which visitors will find themselves in an otherworldly spot. The hissing is still there, the smell of weed is noticeable—but not overpowering, the boiling temperature is at least in the low hundreds, and the ground feels less well traveled. There is some graffiti, mostly fraternity names, crude anatomical sketches, and a few seemingly random biblical references. Explore at your own risk.

Roman Subway Dig Reveals Remains of an 1,800-Year-Old Dog
June 26th, 2017, 06:02 AM

Another victim of the fires of ancient Rome has finally been unearthed, and this time it was a just a poor little doggie.

While work continues on Rome’s new subway extension, workers continue to find a wealth of archaeological wonders, including the remains of a canine that seems to have perished in a fire around 1,800 years ago. According to the Associated Press, the remains of the dog were actually discovered in May, but the findings were just released.

The dog’s bones were found in a crouching position in a scene that the officials compared to Pompeii, which was famously destroyed after Mount Vesuvius erupted. The pup perished within a structure that is thought to have been either a wealthy citizen’s home, or a barracks that was found during digging in 2016. The remains of the dog were found near a doorway.

Authorities also found a table leg, a small table, and a wall covered in frescos, all of which are well-preserved, having been hardened by fire. Together, the scene provides researchers with a good look at the domestic layout of the time. Even if the tale it is telling is a bit sad.

Vandals Have Destroyed Norway's Most Phallic Rock
June 26th, 2017, 06:02 AM

Trollpikken, which Google translates as "Troll the cock," was a rock formation in Eigersund, Norway, about 200 miles southwest of Oslo. The rock, you'll notice, resembled a penis.

But on Saturday a jogger discovered that Trollpikken was no more, having been felled by an apparent vandal. The video below shows grooves in the rock that appear to be from a drill, as Trollpikken rests sadly on the ground.

Who could've done such a thing? Police don't have any suspects, but are looking for tips from the public, according to The Guardian.

Locals, meanwhile, have been busy raising money to have the rock repaired, getting the equivalent of $20,000 already, according to HuffPost, or about two-thirds of what they requested.

Which means that, soon enough, Trollpikken will probably be back, with the aid of some helicopters, bolts, and mortar.

And while the vandal may never be caught and their intentions remain unknown, they've assured that Trollpikken is now more famous than it's ever been, meaning that Eigersund's plan to use the rock to attract tourists just got a huge boost.

St. Luke's Place Coal Hole Covers in New York, New York
June 26th, 2017, 06:02 AM

The Farrin and McCullough coal hole cover

Today, most manhole covers around New York are relatively uniform: Some bear the ConEdison name, while others are etched with "NYC Sewer" or the leaf logo of parks and recreation. Those with an eye for urban infrastructure, however, will find that scattered throughout the five boroughs are a selection of older, weirder covers that remain in use.

The insignias and inscriptions on these manholes all tell stories about long-forgotten layers of the city that still exist underneath the sidewalk. Coal holes are one of the most fascinating of these forgotten layers.

A common addition to stately 19th-century row houses in the era of coal heating, coal holes were subterranean passages that extended from a home's basement to out underneath the sidewalk, where they would be accessible by manhole. In this way, coal could be lowered down into the hole and transported by workers to the house's furnace without dirtying the main entryway or living area. The hole covers were provided by local coal providers and iron works, whose names still adorn them, even though most of the companies are long defunct. 

Solitary coal hole covers can still be found scattered throughout New York City (look for them on any street in Manhattan or Brooklyn lined with 19th-century brownstones), but Saint Luke's Place in the West Village is notable for its two perfectly preserved covers sitting side-by-side. Saint Luke's Place, which is really just a name for one part of Leroy Street between 7th Avenue and Hudson Street, is a quiet, curved block lined with trees and beautiful brick row houses. The coal hole covers sit close to where the street curves, in front of house number 17. One is adorned with a sunflower and reads "Farrin and McCullough. 71 Watts St" (this nearby address is now an entrance to the Holland Tunnel). The other, a few feet away, is inscribed with "Abbot Hardware Company - Ironworks - 636-8 Columbus Ave." A large apartment complex now sits at that address. 

Saint Luke's Place is a great place to see a concentration of coal hole covers, but if you begin to look hard enough while walking around the city, you can spot many more of these relics of New York's forgotten public infrastructure. 


The Dormouse-Fattening Jars of Ancient Rome
June 26th, 2017, 06:02 AM

The ancient Romans consumed some strange foods, ranging from sow’s womb to dormice, which were known as glires in Latin. Astute Italians got their rodents mouth-ready by sticking them in a special container called a glirarium or vivarium in doliis (enclosed animal habitats in jars); it was designed to be a temporary home—a rodent Airbnb—where the animal could pig out. Humans would then cook up the dormouse once they judged it to be at prime plumpness.

Just a note: Romans didn’t eat the kind of mice that gnaw your wires. Instead, they chowed down on “edible dormice,” which were a lot bigger and substantive than their modern house-mouse counterparts. These were long considered extravagances; in 115 BC, consul Marcus Aemilius Scaurus passed a law that prohibited serving exotic avians, mollusks, and dormice, according to Pliny the Elder. But it’s likely that nobody listened to Scaurus’ legislation—the rodents were too tasty.

On their country estates, prominent Romans reared some animals just for consumption. In his On Agriculture, Roman scholar Varro noted that country gentlemen raised tiny critters like snails to eat, bees for honey, and dormice inside their villas. Ancient gourmand Fluvius Hirpinus (whose name was probably a misspelling) popularized eating snails and started the practice of fattening dormice for the table in the mid-first century BC.

Dormice became a food of the upper classes. Varro cites the example of a rich guy named Titus Pompeius, who had a vast domain in Transalpine Gaul (modern France/Belgium), probably sometime in the first century BC. On his private hunting preserve, Pompeius bred captive critters in a four-square-mile enclosure, in which there were “usually kept places for snails and beehives, and also casks in which dormice are kept confined.” This was an ancient version of farm-to-table eating, in which you bred, raised, and slaughtered your own food. Archaeological evidence indicates that Average Joe farmers might have raised dormice on their own properties, then sold them to rich people as a side-hustle.


In On Agriculture, Varro describes the unusual quirks of a glirarium. It looked like a regular, short storage vessel on the outside and resembled an artificial burrow on the inside. When building clay containers for dormice, potters used a different plan than when making regular ones; for one, the dolium, or jar, was ventilated. In addition, there were “channels along the sides” and “a hollow for holding the food.” These food trays could be refilled from the outside, with light and air holes to keep the dormice alive.

The channels allowed the dormice to scurry along the sides of their new home (as classicist Mary Beard quipped, they created an ancient version of a hamster’s wheel). To fatten the dormice, “in such a jar acorns, walnuts, or chestnuts are placed; and when a cover is placed over the jars they grow fat in the dark.” That made sense, since all the dormice could really do in that restricted habitat was eat, jog a bit, and sleep.


Once the dormice were deemed sufficiently chubby, they were killed and cooked up for banquets. Ammianus Marcellinus reported that, at dinner parties, hosts would order their fish, dormice, and other meats to be weighed on scales and the results recorded. As many as 30 scribes would jot down and drone on and on about the animal weights at any given feast. Heavy meats were points of pride for rich Romans; the fatter your dormice, the more money you were able to spend on idle pursuits, and the wealthier you were.

A number of ancient Roman recipes and dormice dish descriptors still survive. In a famous banquet scene the Satyricon, one of ancient Rome’s first novels, hosted by the nouveau riche Trimalchio, “dormice seasoned with honey and poppy-seed” were served as hors d’oeuvres. De Re Coquinaria, one of the world’s oldest surviving cookbooks—attributed to ancient foodie Apicius—lists some tasty dormouse recipes. There’s dormouse stuffed with pork and its own trimmings, then pounded out with pepper, laser (the juice of a giant fennel plant), broth, and nuts; after, this concoction is put in a casserole dish, roasted, or boiled. Not a bad way to chow down—especially considering the mice were extra-succulent after hanging out in their own special jar.

Uranus's Strange Magnetic Field Cartwheels Around All Willy-Nilly
June 26th, 2017, 06:02 AM

Every planet in our solar system has quirks, but Uranus seems to have more than its fair share. For one thing, it rotates on its side because its axis is 98 degrees from vertical. It basically rolls drunkenly around the sun, and this unusual configuration means that its poles go through 42-year periods of light and darkness. The planet's magnetic field is another oddity.

Compasses work on Earth because our magnetic field more or less lines up with our axis of rotation—geomagnetic north happens to be fairly close to the physical north pole (most of the time it's only off by about 10 degrees). But trying to navigate by compass on Uranus would be a lost cause, because the magnetic field there is offset from its axis of rotation by about 60 degrees. As a result, its magnetic field "tumbles very fast, like a child cartwheeling down a hill head over heels," said Carol Paty, coauthor of a new study, in a press release. "Uranus is a geometric nightmare."

Most of the time Earth's magnetic field is "closed," meaning it deflects the solar wind of charged particles that flows through the solar system. Uranus, again, is perfectly different—it's magnetic field flips open and closed like a giant cosmic strobe light. Paty, along with Xin Cao, a Ph.D. candidate at Georgia Institute of Technology, used data from Voyager 2 (the only satellite to visit Uranus, back in 1986) to simulate the icy planet's magnetic field. Thanks to its strange rotational behavior, the field "goes from open to closed to open on a daily basis," said Paty—regularly allowing the solar wind to sweep in to the surface, causing auroras far away from the poles.

We've spotted similar ice giants outside our solar system, so understanding how Uranus's magnetic field works could help us understand these other planets. It may turn out that Uranus isn't that weird after all.

Even in the 1700s, Book Clubs Were Really About Drinking and Socializing
June 26th, 2017, 06:02 AM

In theory, book clubs are supposed to be about reading and discussing books. In practice, they are often more about hanging out with a group of people, drinking, gossiping, and generally having a nice evening. Depending on the percentage of the group that has actually read the book, it may be discussed, or it may not. The book is the excuse, not necessarily the point.

It turns out it’s always been this way.

Ever since the advent of book clubs in 18th-century England, when books were scarce and expensive, these organizations have been about more than reading. Book clubs were organized to help members gain access to reading material and to provide a forum for discussion of books the club held. But they were also about gossip and drinking. As the University of St. Andrews’ David Allan writes in A Nation of Readers, “In most cases, food and alcohol in copious quantities, accompanied we may suspect by a considerable element of boisterous good humour, played an important part in the life of the book clubs.”


In 18th-century England, book culture was blooming as ever more volumes were printed. As more books appeared, people invented new ways of accessing them. Libraries began to open, many of which were commercial circulating libraries that required a fee to join. As Abigail Williams reports in The Social Life of Books, published this month, these libraries had become fixtures by the 1740s. As urban literary culture spread through England’s more provincial places, there may have been two hundred of them—or a thousand. (Estimates vary.)

These libraries weren’t just places to find books, but social institutions as well. One famous library also had a billiard room, a public exhibition room, and a music library. “They were not the hushed environments that we now associated with libraries, but, at their best, elegant spaces full of people to converse with,” Williams writes. Libraries even had a touch of controversy, as they gave people of different social classes access to books and offered women a place to congregate outside the home.


Book clubs were part of this literary culture. In book clubs today every member might buy his or her own copy of a book, but in the 18th century, part of the point of the clubs was to pool resources in order to buy more books. Belonging to a book club meant having a larger personal library than you might otherwise have access to—you just had to share. There are few records of the activities of these early book clubs, but those that survive indicate that, as with today’s book clubs, members intended to get together and talk about books, but social aspects were key selling points. As Williams writes, “Members often met in inns or public houses or coffeehouses, and the clubs were clearly perceived to offer more than merely access to texts, because even readers with substantial book collections joined them.”

In fact, in some cases, the social side may have been the primary attraction. In the 1960s, Paul Kaufman, a retired professor who became a bibliography consultant for the University of Washington, made an extensive study of 18th-century English libraries and book clubs, and found that, in at least a few cases, monthly dinners were a key feature and a factor that distinguished them from other libraries or subscription societies.


One club, for instance, had 22 members (including Branwell Brontë, the sole brother of the literary siblings) and met for monthly dinners. “A broad hint of conviviality is given in the rules,” writes Kaufman, “which imposed fines for swearing, for being drunk ‘so that a member be offensive to the company,’ and for unseemly scrambling for books to borrow!” Another society, founded in 1742, lasted for decades, and the dinners were a key feature for it as well. “Article XV of the Regulations emphasizes in detail the monthly dinners, specifying—with elaborate exceptions—the Tuesday before the full moon,” Kaufman reports. A member who missed the dinner had to pay a shilling. For other misdemeanors, which included letting a dog into the club room or revealing his vote for or against a potential new member, members had to contribute a bottle of wine.

The reputation of these clubs was such that, in 1788, Charles Shillito wrote a satirical poem depicting “The Country-Book Club” where members gathered to “taste the sweets of lit’rature—and wine.” Shillito took a dim view of the country doctor, squire, and vicar who gathered to drink and gossip at a meeting “that leaves no vacant time to think, or read.” The meeting of the fictional club gets more and more rowdy, until finally:

Thus, meeting to dispute, to fight, to plead,
To smoke, to drink—do anything but read—
The club—with stagg’ring steps, yet light of heart,
Their taste for learning shown, and punch—depart.

There is a certain snobbery to this poem—what’s so great about you and your literary friends, Charles Shillito?—and it shouldn’t be taken as an accurate report on 18th-century book clubs. But it does have a ring of truth: Even today, as The New York Times once reported, this is the “great divide” in book club culture. Are these meetings meant for discussion of literature, or are they social events? It is, apparently, a distinction as old as book clubs themselves.

Kokino Observatory in Macedonia
June 26th, 2017, 06:02 AM

The site is located at an elevation of over 3300 feet.

The science of observing the sky and measuring time based on its changes is almost as old as civilization itself. Many early  societies had their own calendars, and archaeologists continue to find evidence of this at various sites. 

In 2001, the ruins of a Bronze Age settlement were found outside the small Macedonian village of Kokino. Amid the signs of occupation like pieces of vessels and weapons, researchers also discovered giant stones arranged in puzzling patterns, at an elevation of over 3,300 feet. With further study, they identified these as stone markers used to track the patterns of the sun and the moon, making the site an ancient megalithic observatory, dating back nearly 3,800 years.

Two platforms, separated by a height of around 62 feet, are located at the center of the observatory’s remains. Four massive stone thrones, facing the direction of the east, make up the lower platform. The higher platform consists of markers carved into malleable andesite rocks, that indicated significant astronomical events like the summer and winter solstices, as well as the spring and autumn equinoxes.

While seated on the thrones, particularly the second one, the exact movement of light during these days could be seen. The most powerful member of the community usually took his place on this special seat, and observed the light that streamed through the carved markers, and soaked in the energy of the sun. Rituals based on these solar changes were held at the observatory.  

Information about the change in seasons was conveyed through a huge fire, visible to people living in surrounding areas. The appearance of this blaze told people when it was time to start planting, ploughing, or harvesting, allowing them to plan their agricultural calendar. Their lunar calendars followed a 19-year cycle, where, for the first 12 years, each year had 12 months—6 summer months, and 6 winter months. The remaining 7 years were divided into 13 months each.

Kokino, with its dual function as a scientific and ritual site, is of great interest to archaeoastronomy researchers, who study the sky-based rituals of ancient societies through the lens of anthropology and modern astronomy.

These Hoods Made of Spider Webs Have Long Been Misunderstood
June 26th, 2017, 06:02 AM

Set in a clutter of artifacts and ornaments at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England, the mask from Malakula, Vanuatu is easily missed. At first, it’s hard to know why, amid so many other treasures, you’d look twice at it at all.

Shift your gaze from the swooping tusk extending from its forehead and look down to the scrubby brown cloth beneath it. Though it may look like a piece of old felt, the clue is in the caption: “Mask of clay and fibre on a sheet of matted spider’s web.

The tiny island of Malakula has a lot of “onlys” for a place of barely 25,000 people: the only place where, until recently, infants’ heads were bound so they grew into cone shapes. The only place where the names of its tribes, Big Nambas and Small Nambas, come from the size of their banana-leaf penis sheaths. And the only place in the world where the webs of the golden orb spider, Nephila, are traditionally felted together—into a strong, silky, waterproof cloth that lasts for decades.


Malakulan spider-web cloth can be found in museums across the Western world—in Germany, France and the UK. It has often been used to make ceremonial caps, sometimes up to a meter in length, with strings at their peaks. But for almost every museum where these are found, there’s a spurious, even harmful, explanation for their original use.

Because some South Pacific Islands did have practices in which widows were killed at their husbands’ funerals, many puzzled early curators or collectors took one look at these caps, with their arachnid origins, and spun their own particular yarn. At London’s Science Museum, the cap is described as a “smothering hood”; the Pitt Rivers calls it a “cap of death,” “drawn over widows’ eyes when they were strangled at the husbands’ funeral,” like a snuffer over a candle flame.

Other museums have been more circumspect: the British Museum calls it a “night cap,” while another hesitantly describes it as “a (smoking?) cap.”

But artist and researcher Eleanor Morgan, author of Gossamer Days: Spiders, Humans and Their Threads, says there’s no evidence to suggest that these caps were ever used for anything so sinister.

To begin with, the silky spider-web fabric certainly wouldn’t be effective in suffocating anyone, she says. “It isn’t going to stop you breathing. Just practically, that’s not going to make sense.” Instead, she believes these caps were used by male secret societies as a symbol of seniority. “The longer the tail at the back of the cap, the more senior you are.”


Male seniority rituals in Malakula, in which these caps played a part, are clandestine and complicated. They might involve sacrificing as many as hundreds of pigs over one’s lifetime. Important members of the community are seen as being already partly dead, spending part of their time among the spirits, who in turn convey messages to the living. The length of their spider-web hood helps communicate that seniority.

But how are they made? In Gossamer Days, Morgan describes a morning’s work. Armed with a bamboo cane frame, shaped like a cross between a rake and a funnel, the men “use a winding twisting motion [to] collect the spiders webs they pass until a thick felt-like fabric has been formed.” The strands are wrapped around the cane like cotton candy fibers around a stick. The golden orb spider is barely the size of a bean, but its web is vast, stretching out for meters in diameter, with more strands extending back behind it. As more webs are collected, they stick to one another, meshing together into a thick piece of cloth.


Eventually, the fabric is knotted together and removed from the frame. It’s now in the shape of a tapered bag, which can easily be turned into a conical headdress. To make larger pieces of fabric, either for backing masks or making larger items of clothing like tunics, these are beaten together with other webs.

Though Morgan wore gloves to handle the caps, she couldn’t resist brushing the fabric against her wrist, to feel it against her skin. “It feels incredibly soft,” she says. “But because it’s layered spider webs, it’s obviously got the bits of stuff, whatever the spider caught in its web that night, so it also has little scratchy bits of wood and dust and beetle-wing and fly.”

That slight tackiness doesn’t go away: over time, the fabric thickens as hair or dust adheres to it, even within its museum glass cases. In the men’s huts, campfire soot blackens the caps over time, as they are handed on from generation to generation until they fall apart.


The potential for weaving with golden threads of the Nephila spider has fascinated humans across the Pacific and the centuries—the French colonial government in Madagascar apparently had a full-blown silk spinning operation, while artist Simon Peers used the silk of over a million spiders to create a dazzling gold cape, exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2012.

Eight spiders at a time were loaded into a guillotine-like trap, while their silk was pulled from their bodies onto bobbins, like silk from a spool.

The golden orb spider lives barely a year—each evening, it weaves a new web, which it takes down again at dawn. Peers’ cape, like the Malakulan spider web caps, makes those evanescent threads and makes them permanent. This, he told the Financial Times in 2012, “is the antithesis of the brief, ephemeral life of a web.”

The Body of Salvador Dalí Will Soon Be Exhumed
June 26th, 2017, 06:02 AM

Salvador Dalí had a very complicated sex life. Some believe he may never have had sex at all, preferring masturbation partially because, as he wrote of his diminutive genitals in his memoirs, he had convinced himself at an early age that he would "never be able to make a woman creak like a watermelon."

Perhaps because of this, Dalí also never fathered a child, or at least not one that anyone knows about. But, in 2015, a Spanish tarot card reader filed a paternity suit against the Spanish government, claiming to be Dalí's daughter.

On Monday, a judge in the case ordered Dalí's body to be exhumed, a step made necessary, the court said, because there are no other items from which Dalí's DNA can be extracted, according to the BBC.

The exhumation could happen as early as July.

Maria Pilar Abel Martínez has said that her mother had an affair with Dalí in 1955, while he was in the midst of a 48-year marriage to his muse Gala. Two previous paternity tests were inconclusive, she told The New York Times in 2015, which is in part why she filed the suit, to force the exhumation of Dalí's body.

What does she want? The right to use Dalí's name, presumably, and at least part of his estate, which is owned by the Kingdom of Spain and worth over $325 million.

Dalí is buried at the Dalí Theatre and Museum in Figueres, Catalonia, his hometown, where his body rests in a crypt beneath the stage.

Meet the Belfast 'Fatberg,' the Grossest Thing You'll See All Day
June 26th, 2017, 06:02 AM

At some point over the past couple of months, a fry cook in Belfast poured some extra grease down the drain. Then another cook, pressed for time, emptied her own tray into the sink. Around the same time, a harried parent disobeyed a bathroom sign and flushed some baby wipes.

Unseen, below the streets, these small decisions built up. Hot grease cooled in the pipes and congealed. Baby wipes and tampons stuck to the growing mass. And a gross, smelly villain slowly took shape: a fatberg, the scourge of sewers everywhere.

The term "fatberg"—a portmanteau of "fat" and "iceberg"—is used by Thames Water authorities to describe the big globs of refuse that build up inside sewers when people flush things they shouldn't.

They have the potential to get very big and very gross. In August of 2013, a record-setting fatberg wrestled out of a sewer in London ended up being the size of a bus. A year later, that record was broken by another London 'berg, this one the size of a Boeing 747.

As the BBC reports, this particular fatberg has made its home in a sewer beneath Dublin Road, and had nearly broken free onto the street by the time it was discovered. Crews from Northern Ireland Water have worked to remove it for six straight Sundays, and have already pried out "a couple of hundred tonnes" of grease, the outlet says.

The discovery inspired NI Water to release a kind of sewer-system audit: a list of everything weird they've found down there in the past. It's a good read, and reveals that at least one fatberg was providing food for "a family of frogs."

It will likely take a few more weeks to get the fatberg out completely. And then—if people don't change their habits—the slow drip of grease and sanitary products may start the entire process over again.

Every day, we track down a fleeting wonder—something amazing that’s only happening right now. Have a tip for us? Tell us about it! Send your temporary miracles to

The 1929 Plane-Train Hybrid That Almost Was
June 26th, 2017, 06:02 AM

George Bennie wanted to revolutionize transport. In 1920, while examining an early engine, he decided that trains would move more efficiently if they abandoned coal power for propellers. Further: he wanted this new vehicle to ride above the ground, so that other traffic could not slow it down.

Nine years later, in the heat of a massive advertising blitz, Bennie began testing his eponymous George Bennie Railplane outside of Glasgow. Two propellers, one on each side, pushed the Railplane, while two bogies—frameworks with wheels, also known as "trucks"—attached to the top rail held it in place. A series of electric motors provided the power. To brake, the propellers would be reversed, and the Railplane would slow to a halt.

Though the test track proved too small to allow such speeds, Bennie estimated that, in full operation, his invention could reach 120 miles per hour, meaning that the Railplane could shuttle passengers between Glasgow and Edinburgh in 20 minutes—quite a feat, considering even today that trip takes 50 minutes by train.


There were also plans to extend the Railplane into London, even into Paris. One such proposal boasted a three-and-a-half hour trip between London and Glasgow—two hours faster than it takes by rail today.

The fact that Bennie planned to build his Railplane above existing train lines would have also minimized both the cost and the environmental implications of the project, and would have allowed Railplane passengers to avoid the congestion caused by freight trains on the more typical rail lines.

Bennie’s Railplane even promised luxury: it had carpets, plush chairs, carpets, and curtained, stained-glass windows.

But the project never received the financing it needed to take off. Apparently, one reason is that railroad companies feared Bennie’s invention was too efficient, and they fretted over the potential revenue hit their other lines would take.

By 1937, Bennie had spent all of his own money promoting the Railplane, eventually going into bankruptcy. Though the test track has since been scrapped, the shed in which the Railplane was first built still stands today—with a plaque in Bennie's honor.

Video Wonders are audiovisual offerings that delight, inspire, and entertain. Have you encountered a video we should feature? Email

Hunot Gorge in Şuşa
June 26th, 2017, 06:02 AM

"The Umbrella" at the base of the gorge

The Hunot Gorge is cut through by the Karkar River, along which Hunot village was founded in the 18th century. The village provided flour to the fortress city of Shushi for over a century until it was abandoned in 1930. But the ruins remain: Twelve of the Hunot flour mills are preserved along the river in the now state-protected canyon.

The walls of the gorge are more than 800 feet high, and from the highest point, known as the Jdrdyuz Plateau, visitors can enjoy the breathtaking view of the gorge before following one of several trails down into it. Stone Age caves and historic bridges (one of which, built in 1720, is still used) add to the beauty of the heavily forested canyon. 

At the bottom of the gorge, overlooking a natural swimming pool, is the base of a waterfall known as Mamrot Qar, which means “Umbrella,” in reference to the shapes of the moss-covered rocks the water falls over. This waterfall is the entrance to a grotto beneath the “umbrellas,” and simple bridges made of logs and large sticks allow access to the grotto from across the river.

Found: A Remarkable Trove of Medieval Pottery
June 26th, 2017, 06:02 AM

Close to a century ago, in 1920, the people of Newport, Wales, found a pair of medieval kilns while they were working on the construction of their town’s Memorial Hall. Although one of the kilns was preserved, over the years, they were neglected and more or less forgotten; now the town is cleaning up and re-excavating the site.

Since they began the project, they’ve found not one but both of the kilns, which date back to the 15th century, when this area had a thriving pottery industry. Now, reports the BBC, the excavators have found about 10,000 piece of pottery dating back 500 years at the site.

Archaeologist Nick Taverner said he had recovered more in 10 days than in a 40-year career in the field,” the BBC says.

These are small pieces of what were once pots and jugs; some even have the fingerprints of the medieval potters preserved on them. There are so many artifacts at the site that the team is hoping for volunteers to help wash and preserve them, to keep alive the memory of one of the best preserved medieval kilns in all of the United Kingdom.

Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Center Point, Indiana
June 26th, 2017, 06:02 AM

King enjoying a cat nap

When Joe Taft founded the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Center Point, Indiana, in 1991, he had 15 acres and three cats. Over the past 26 years, the center has grown to 108 acres and over 200 cats, rescued from 24 states.

The nonprofit rescue center’s tenants include lions, tigers, leopards, servals, pumas, bobcats, Canada lynxes, ocelots, Geoffroy’s cats, and Asian leopard cats. Reasons for their rescue range from being abused at circuses or roadside zoos to being owned illegally.

Many of the big cats found their way to the center when someone called the USDA, the Fish and Wildlife Service, or the Department of Natural Resources about a cat in need, though the center has had to turn down more animals than it has been able to take in.

A mix of employees, volunteers, and interns take care of the cats. Between 3,000 and 4,000 pounds of meat are fed to the cats every day, and their habitats, which can be as large as an acre and include towers and toys so the cats can play, are regularly cleaned. There is an on-site veterinary clinic for check-ups and medical procedures.

Nearby universities have used the exotic feline population for research, and part of the mission of the center is to educate the public about big cats, emphasizing how dangerous they are and that, despite the temptation, they do not make good pets.

The Floating Masses of Fire Ants That Could Be in Tropical Storm Cindy's Wake
June 23rd, 2017, 06:02 AM

For the past few days, Tropical Storm Cindy has been raining down huge amounts of water on Gulf Coast states, most heavily on Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Twelve inches alone have come down on Ocean Springs, Mississippi.

In many places that rain has created flooding, a phenomenon residents down south are all-too-familiar with. They may be less familiar with floating masses of fire ants, which authorities recently warned also may be happening this year.

The masses form when red ants' natural homes—soil—become overrun with water, which leads ant colonies to make themselves into floatable balls, which then drift on top of the water, hoping to reach dry land.

"These amoeba-like masses contain all of the colonies’ members—worker ants, brood (eggs, larvae, pupae), winged reproductive males and females, and queen ants," the Alabama Cooperative Extension System said on its website.

Fire ants can be deadly in the most severe cases but usually aren't, though as ACES says, "If ants contact the skin, they will sting."

So, what to do? Don't touch them, obviously, but also don't touch them with your oar if you're in a rowboat. And wear rubber boots and gloves if you're walking in flooded areas or in structures that were recently flooded, since the ants may have transplanted and found new (indoor) homes while you were gone.

One expert told the Washington Post that the ants can stay in a ball for up to 12 days—which means that residents may have to stay vigilant until early July.

Be careful out there.

Rooftop Terrace at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, Scotland
June 23rd, 2017, 06:02 AM

Close-up views of Old Town buildings

The National Museum of Scotland has been enchanting children and adults alike ever since it opened in the late 1800s, and these days it's one of the most visited attractions in the country. But not all visitors know about its hidden gem.

The grand, airy Victorian building is home to thousands of artifacts from around the globe and natural world collections. And following the opening of the adjoining modern building in 1998, visitors can also learn about Scotland’s long and colourful history, inventions through the ages, plus science, technology and design. The museum is home to both a T-Rex skeleton cast and Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal ever to be created from an adult cell.

When you visit, don't forget to take the lift all the way to the 7th floor. You’ll exit onto the rooftop terrace, well worth checking out for its panoramic view.

Sure, there are wonderful vantage points from plenty of places in Edinburgh, not least the city’s seven hills, but not many are slap bang in the middle of the Old Town. Unless you’re lucky enough to be staying in accommodation nearby, this is one of the best places to enjoy a view right in amongst Auld Reekie’s rooftops and to the busy streets below, and to admire the wide vistas across to the Edinburgh Castle, the New Town, the Braid Hills and the Firth of Forth. You even get an elevated peek into Greyfriars Kirkyard.

The terrace was designed by sculptor Andy Goldsworthy in honor of Edinburgh-born James Hutton, known as the founder of modern geology. Sandstone blocks sit on the decked platform and plant life along the edge of the terrace represents different aspects of Scotland’s landscape, from coastal plants to grassland vegetation.

The minimalist design helps put the focus on the dazzling views from all four sides of the terrace. It’s a great place to escape the crowds below during the tourist months and to get a different perspective on the city. And, since in any season in Edinburgh there is often a stiff breeze coming in from the coast, it will almost certainly blow away any cobwebs.

Odd Fellows Home in Liberty, Missouri
June 23rd, 2017, 06:02 AM

The Odd Fellows Home.

The oddly named Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) was formed in the United States in 1819, and grew from the original order that came up in England in the 18th century. It aimed to provide shelter and care to those in need, such as the elderly, widows, and orphans.

The fraternal order came first came to Missouri in 1935, and by the end of the century, they built the Odd Fellows Home, a 240-acre complex. It was a form of health and life insurance, and as long as members had a good record, they could depend on the Odd Fellows for help. The complex had its own farm and expected those who could to work. It also had its own hospital, an orphanage, school, nursing home, and a cemetery.

The society, like other fraternal organizations, conducted secret rituals, and one of the most important ones was the initiation. A key symbol in this ceremony was a skeleton, which served as a reminder of mortality. Today, a small room in the complex houses some interesting artifacts that the IOOF left behind, including "George", the skeleton of an Odd Fellows member who died in the 1880s and donated his body to science. When the body was no longer needed for teaching, the bleached and articulated bones were returned to the IOOF, as per his agreement, for use in their initiation rituals. (All of the skeletons used by various IOOF halls are named George, so that is not the original member’s name.) The display also includes other curious objects left behind such as masks, books, and swords. 

Now consisting of four buildings and a few small outbuildings, the Odd Fellows Home sits on 36 remaining acres and has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1986. Three of the red-brick buildings exhibit the Jacobean-Revival style and well-known architect, William Ittner, designed one of these structures, the Administration Building. The buildings are in a state of deterioration, with broken windows, doors, and damaged roofs. However one of the most impressive buildings, the Belvoir Winery and Inn, has renovated the first floor, and it is now a tasting room and event space for the winery.

The Alpine Wall in Italy
June 23rd, 2017, 06:02 AM

Bunker in Monte Croce Comelico Pass

Similar to the Maginot line of France, the Alpine Wall was built as a defense for Italy in preparation for World War II. There was concern that the natural defense of North Italy’s mountainous terrain was not enough as tensions rose with its neighbors along the top of the "boot"—France, Switzerland, Austria and the former Yugoslavia.

The mountains were enhanced with lookout posts and fortifications all along the passes, stretching over 1,100 miles. The Alpine Wall fortifications varied between three designs: large mountainside forts, rallying points and bunkers, and point-defense fortifications. Many of these can still be seen today.  

Despite the economic burden of building them, these fortifications were barely used during the war. Few saw conflict and many were destroyed or later given to Yugoslavia as a part of war retributions. Later, when the Cold War ended, the Alpine Wall was abandoned and sealed.

Today these fortifications still serve a function: as a place of exploration. Visitors can walk back into the memories of the Second World War. These abandoned, austere concrete shapes adorn the melancholy, natural landscape of North Italy—a juxtaposition of the beauty of Earth along the horror of war.

Masada in Masada, Israel
June 23rd, 2017, 06:02 AM

A aerial view of the Masada fortress.

Soldiers being inducted into the Israeli Defense Forces take their oath at different places in the country, but the pledge always ends with the line, “Masada shall not fall again.”

The story behind this inclusion dates back 2,000 years, all the way to the first century. Masada, a stunning natural fortress in Israel's Judean desert, was built in the Roman style by Herod, the king of Judea sometime between 37 and 31 BC. Perched nearly 1,500 feet above the Dead Sea on one side and flanked by the desert on the other side, the daunting complex was meant to be the king's refuge. It was designed to include a private palace for him, as well as administrative centers, storehouses, and an armory. 

Several decades after Herod’s death, a group of Jews that were revolting against the Romans stormed the Roman garrison at Masada and set up base there. They were joined by the families of Jewish Zealots who were fleeing from trouble in Jerusalem. For three years, the group managed to defend the fortress against the Romans, but in year 73, the Romans laid siege to Masada, building a ramp around the walls, and battering the barriers until a hole was created.

The population of Jews inside knew they had no means of escape and decided to kill each other to avoid being captured by the enemy. They drew lots to decide who would kill whom, until only 10 men were left alive to kill the rest, and then themselves. When the Romans finally entered the complex, they found nearly 1,000 corpses. The Siege of Masada, as it was called, was one of the final events in the first Jewish-Roman war. 

After being used briefly as a retreat for Byzantine monks in the 6th century, the fortress remained untouched for more than 13 centuries, and all signs of human habitation slowly disappeared. It wasn't rediscovered until the 19th century, and detailed excavations were carried out even later. The site has come to be a poignant symbol for the struggle of the Jewish people against oppression. 

The remains of many buildings in the complex have been restored, including Herod’s private palace with its hanging terraces, bathhouses with preserved mosaics and murals, a synagogue, and the siege ramp and camp set up by the Romans. They stand testament to the fortress’s role in history.

Washington Aqueduct Emergency Pumping Station in McLean, Virginia
June 23rd, 2017, 06:02 AM

In 1927, the Dalecarlia Water Treatment Plant opened in the leafy Palisades neighborhood above northwest Washington, D.C. The supervising Army Corps of Engineers were surprised to discover that their aqueduct worked a little too well and was delivering more water than they knew what to do with.

Rather than flush the excess inflow down the drain, the Engineers devised a method of harnessing it to generate electricity, which promised considerable savings on Dalecarlia’s utility bills. Surplus water was channeled downhill through 42-foot pipes and into a small hydroelectric plant. Once it went through the generators it flowed out into the Potomac over a 800-foot “tailrace” spillway.

Over the next four decades the power plant hummed away as planned, but year after year the population of Washington grew, demand increased, and the flow of water down the surplus spillway dropped from a gush to a trickle.

Events escalated to a crisis level on September 9, 1966 as Washington baked under a month-long, late-summer drought. According to Washington Aqueduct General Manager Tom Jacobus, that day, “No water flowed over the Little Falls Dam [intake valves] after the withdrawals upstream and once the Aqueduct’s needs were taken care of. That got people’s attention.” D.C. only had a few-day supply of reservoir water at the time, and if the drought went on much longer water restrictions would be required—a political nonstarter at the time.

Casting around for an emergency stopgap solution, the Engineers’ gaze fell once again on the now-empty hydroplant pipes. Perhaps it would be possible to reverse the thing, install a pump at the bottom and use it as a way to boost the Dalecarlia intake levels. The idea seemed perfect because the spillway connected to the Potomac far enough down river where the water was tidal and it never went dry. 

The 1966 drought ended before construction on the new intake began, (“Blessed Rain,” the Washington Post sighed with relief) but construction proceeded because the project seemed like a prudent idea. The Army Corps of Engineers also proceeded with a longer term reservoir construction program across the city to boost emergency stockpiles.

Back at Dalecarlia, pipes were laid underneath the old spillway that extended the hydroplant’s connection to water’s edge. “A large chamber was blasted into the riverbed and a concrete [slab-like] structure was built around it,” explains Jacobus. In the event of an emergency, generators would be wheeled out onto the concrete pad to feed electricity to submersible pumps down below. Luckily, the long-term expansion of the reservoir system was completed before the Emergency Pumping Station was ever drafted into use, and the pumps were never turned on. 

Its lifecycle as a water outlet and later as an inlet complete, the concrete deck now sits abandoned, slowly crumbling into Mother Potomac. According to Jacobus, "The pad there in the river is mainly used for fishing now, but the Army still owns it."

Khamriin Khiid in Urgun, Mongolia
June 22nd, 2017, 06:02 AM

The Shambala.

According to Mongolian Buddhism, a spot in the middle of the Gobi desert is where the strongest spiritual energy in the world converges. To mark the location, the monastery complex was built in the 19th century, Khamriin Khiid.

The original Khamriin Khiid monastery was founded in 1820 by Danzanravjaa, known as the Terrible Noble Saint of the Gobi, who observed the location's tremendous energy. At its peak, the monastery housed up to 500 monks, and included more than 80 temples within the complex. 

Danzanravjaa was a great scholar and practitioner of the arts, as well as a social reformer. He set up a theater at the monastery for people to develop their singing and acting skills, and a public school, which encouraged education for both men and women.

The lively and productive monastery was destroyed in 1937, in the wake of the Communist purge against religions, and Khamriin Khiid in its current form was reconstructed in 1990. Today, hundreds of pilgrims visit the site every day at dawn to benefit from the spiritual energy that is believed to radiate as a new day is born.

Shambala, the centerpiece of the complex, is surrounded by 108 stupas, encircling other holy monuments and temples, the most prominent of which has a large pair of eyes staring at visitors. The enclosed space is said to be warmer due to the energy that emanates from Shambala, and it is not uncommon to see pilgrims taking off their shoes to better absorb the energy.

Another form of worship is the throwing of rice, millet, milk and vodka on monuments. Other visitors walk around singing a song composed for Khamriin Khiid. Outside the enclosure are the series of caves where Danzanravjaa and other monks meditated for 108 days, two huge breast-shaped mounds covered in milk, a wind-activated bell, and the actual monastery. 

Chapel of Nossa Senhora das Vitórias in São Miguel, Portugal
June 22nd, 2017, 06:02 AM

Capella de Nossa Senhora das Vitórias.

At the edge of the tropical tree line of Lagoa das Furnas there is a charming lake in the middle of São Miguel Island. Emerging from this fairytale landscape is the slim tower of a neo-Gothic church that dates to 1882. What began as a testament to the ailing wife of a wealthy Azorean gardener and amateur botanist, ended up as one of the most evocative churches in the whole archipelago.

Capella de Nossa Senhora das Vitórias, Chapel of Our Lady of Victories, was intended to honor Maria Guilhermina Taveira de Brum da Silveira, the wife of a local landowner named José Do Conto. She had fallen tragically and terminally ill, and her husband took it upon himself to create this magical lakeside chapel. Calling on his renowned design and landscaping talents, despite the structural elements the whole endeavor feels more like the soft-focus of magical realism than hard-edge gothic.

Do Conto didn’t actually finish the work himself, but compelled it to be done before he passed away in 1898. Living to see its completion, his wish to be buried next to his wife was fulfilled, and both are there in the Chapel. There are 18 windows, mostly filled with bright stained glass that shine down colorful gospel depictions on the couple’s final resting place. 

There are no services held here, which gives it an ancient, abandoned, and even timeless feeling as the natural elements take over. It stands like an old tree, firmly rooted and infused into the forest. Between the Chapel, the gardens, the lake, and the surrounding mountains, it stands out as one of the most endearing and rustic places in the Azores.