Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

March 12 2015 10:51 AM

Imprisoned in Ash: The Plaster Citizens of Pompeii

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Those that did not flee the city of Pompeii in August of 79 AD were doomed. Buried for 1,700 years under 30 feet of mud and ash and reduced by the centuries to skeletons, they remained entombed until excavations took place in the early 19th century.

As excavators continued to uncover human remains, they noticed that the skeletons were surrounded by voids in the compacted ash. By carefully pouring plaster of Paris into the spaces, the final poses, clothing, and faces of the last residents of Pompeii came to life.

Their last days began on Aug. 24, 79 AD, the day after the Roman holiday of Volcanalia, dedicated to the god of fire. At noon Mount Vesuvius roared to life, spewing ash hundreds of feet into the air for 18 hours straight. The choking ash rained down on the cities in the surrounding countryside, filling courtyards, blocking doors, and collapsing roofs. In the only known eyewitness account to the eruption, Pliny the Younger reported on his uncle’s ill-fated foray into the thick of the ash from Misenum, on the north end of the bay:

... the buildings were now shaking with violent shocks, and seemed to be swaying to and fro as if they were torn from their foundations. Outside, on the other hand, there was the danger of failing pumice stones, even though these were light and porous; however, after comparing the risks they chose the latter. In my uncle’s case one reason outweighed the other, but for the others it was a choice of fears. As a protection against falling objects they put pillows on their heads tied down with cloths.

And then: “You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.”

The next morning the cone of the volcano collapsed, triggering a hundred-mile-an-hour avalanche of mud and ash that flooded Pompeii, just a little over 5 miles away, destroying everything in its path. Pompeii and its smaller neighboring village of Herculaneum disappeared, and were only discovered by accident during the construction of Charles of Bourbon’s palace in 1738. Miraculously, the two cities were nearly perfectly preserved under layers of ash.

About three-quarters of Pompeii’s 165 acres have been excavated, and some 1,150 bodies have been discovered out of about 2,000 thought to have died in the city when it was destroyed. This means that the vast majority of the city of 20,000 fled at the first signs of the volcanic activity. The plaster casts of the men, women, children, and animals of Pompeii were primarily made in the mid-1800s. The building they were originally housed in suffered extensive damage in World War II, and they are now located in several places around the city.

The Antiquarium, near the Forum, once held most of the plaster casts. It was damaged during Allied bombing in 1943, and has been closed since 1978 for restoration.

The Garden of the Fugitives holds the largest number of victims found in one place, where 13 people sought refuge in a fruit orchard. Nine sets of remains were found at the House of Mysteries, where the roof collapsed, trapping them inside. One plaster cast can be seen inside the Caupona Pherusa tavern.

The Stabian Thermal baths and the Macellum (fish market) both house two plaster casts, and the Horrea (granary) and Olitorium (market) holds several more, including a pig, and what may be the most famous cast of all, of a small dog in a collar, writhing on its back.

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March 11 2015 11:26 AM

This Humble-Looking Hill Is Made of Precious Remnants From the Roman Empire

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

It’s been the site of jousting knights and frolicking revelers in carnival celebrations. Garibaldi defended Rome from the top of it, while wine cooled in caves under it. It has stood in for Golgotha in passion plays, and hosted picnicking lovers for generations. But this hill is not one of Rome’s famous seven sisters. It is, instead, an ancient garbage heap.

For more than 250 years, the ancient Romans methodically piled up broken terracotta amphorae, or oil jars, creating Monte Testaccio.

Also known as Monte dei Cocci (literally meaning Mount of Shards), the mountain of jars is located right next to the ancient Tiber River port, and the Horrea Galbae warehouses, which would have been used to store imported goods like olive oil.

The Romans obviously had an enormous appetite for olive oil, far outstripping local resources. As a result, oil was imported from all across the far-flung empire, and markings known as “tituli picti” on the jars show that they originated primarily from Spain, Libya, and Tunisia. As many as 80 million pots make up the hill, which now stands 115 feet high, with an additional 45 feet under the modern street level. The tituli picti have given archaeologists rare insight into trade in ancient Rome, as the markings not only show the port of origin, but also indicate the origin of the oil contained, along with quality control marks and occasionally the name of the maker of the jars.

Excavations in the 1990s showed that the hill was created carefully and intentionally, not merely as a dump. The height was built up in a series of terraces, with jars carefully cut in half in order to nest into one another. Most of the jars examined date from 140 to 250 AD, but it is possible that the earliest layers date back much earlier, possibly to the first century. As it is, it is one of the largest and best-preserved ancient dump sites.

In 1931 the area became a public park, and thanks to the efforts of architect Raffaele De Vico, Monte Testaccio was, for a short time, a beautiful green area with meadows and hedges, containing a fountain surrounded by a semicircular bench at the top of the hill. However, low budgets and technical difficulties in maintenance soon left this place abandoned again.

Today it could be just another grassy knoll, until you look more closely.

Examples of Roman Empire amphorae. These are at Herculaneum, a city destroyed during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.

Photo:Jerzy Kociatkiewicz/Creative Commons

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March 10 2015 8:12 AM

The Towers of Svaneti, Built to Dissuade Invading Hordes

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Life was never easy in the high Caucasus. Nomads from northern steppes eager to get their hands on the riches of Mesopotamia, and empires battling for supremacy—Assyrians, Macedonians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks, and Mongols—all clashed with the locals. 

Svans—a subgroup of Georgians who speak their own unwritten Svan language, practice life-for-a-life blood revenge, and sing complicated polyphonic songs—were the traditional gatekeepers of mountain passes, and since time immemorial have been hardy survivors, the archetypal highland warriors. Villages in these rugged landscape were often too scattered to be encircled with a protective wall. Each individual house thus had to be separately fortified against invading armies.

The tower homes in Georgia’s northwestern province of Svaneti were at the same time familial living quarters, fortresses of defense, and personal treasuries. They offered protection to their owners and to their livestock, and also served as shelters for the most valuable possessions of every family, as well as copies of holy scriptures and religious icons and relics. Most of the towers date back to between the ninth and 12th centuries.

The turbulent history of the region ensured that these fortifications remained in use long after similar defenses become redundant elsewhere in Europe. In recent times, families have slowly begun moving out into more comfortable living spaces. However, many Svan towers still remain in use, and the village of Chazhashi boasts as many as 200.

Similar dwellings can be found in a much wider area all over Caucasus. However, the typical Svaneti towers are concentrated in the Mestia district, 80 miles northeast of the regional capital of Zugdidi. Anyone wishing to see the towers should head to the remote village of Ushguli.

With an elevation of 6,844 feet, Ushguni is one of the highest inhabited places in Europe. According to local lore, in the Middle Ages it served as a summer retreat for fabled Queen Tamar. Since 1996 the traditional towers of upper Svaneti have been protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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March 9 2015 8:44 AM

Inside the Ancient Underground Cisterns of Istanbul

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

A Frenchman visiting Constantinople in the 16th century heard strange stories of locals drawing up fresh water and even fishing from holes in their cellars. Intrigued by these stories and the legends of great underground temples, he decided to explore. 

Upon further investigation, he rediscovered a subterranean marvel, the largest of the long-forgotten palatial cisterns of the Byzantine Empire. Fish swam in an artificial freshwater lake the size of two football fields, and the vaulted brick ceilings were held up by 336 30-foot pillars scavenged from nearby Roman ruins.

Amazingly preserved despite centuries of conflict and siege, the cistern was built in 532 AD by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I to store fresh water for the palace and nearby buildings. Nicknamed Yerebatan Sarayi, or “the Sunken Palace” in Turkish, it is known in English as the Basilica Cistern because of its location on the site of an ancient basilica. 


Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

When Justinian undertook the building of the cistern, Constantinople was still in the shadow of the devastating Nika Revolt, which took place in January of that year. The Byzantine equivalent of soccer riots gone massively out of control, the revolt took place in the wake of a hotly contested chariot race and culminated in the burning of much of the imperial city, and the killing of 30,000 rioters by Justinian’s troops. The cisterns were built as part of the rebuilding efforts in the aftermath. 

In the past, visitors could rent a rowboat to float past the columns in the dripping gloom. Restorations in the late 1980s dredged the silted-in floor and added lighting, elevated walkways, and a cafe for visitors. There are still fish in the now-shallow water, helping to keep the water clear. 

The two giant Gorgon-head pillar bases at the far end of the cistern are an intriguing mystery. It is suspected that they may have been pulled out of an older pagan temple, where motifs of the famous Gorgon Medusa were used as a protective emblem. It is possible that the placement of these two faces—upside-down and sideways, at the base of pillars—may have been a deliberate display of the power of the new Christian Empire. Or it’s possible that the stones were just the right size.


Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

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March 6 2015 9:01 AM

Incredible Hulks: The Ship Graveyard of Mauritania

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

The view off the coast of Mauritania’s Bay of Nouadhibou is spotted with rusting hulks in every direction, ships that were cheaper to illegally abandon in the harbor than to correctly dismantle.

The city of Nouadhibou is the second-largest settlement in Mauritania, but due to limited employment, it is also somewhat poor. This economic hardship, as is often the case, led to widespread corruption in the local government. Dismantling large boats is a costly procedure, and many unscrupulous owners found that for a comparatively small bribe they could simply abandon their unwanted sea hulks in Nouadhibou’s bay. Ships were brought from all over the world to be left in the shallow waters, with a particular boom during the 1980s. Fishing trawlers, cargo vessels, and naval cruisers are just some of the varied types of boats among the more than 300 rusting ships that have accumulated over the years like coral.

Despite the environmental concerns of toxic oils, paints, and rust seeping into the waters of the bay, the rotting ships have produced a few surprising benefits. In addition to a continuing salvage industry that has sprung up around the wrecks, their deteriorating hulls have actually provided new habitats for fish and undersea life, giving the city’s vital fishing industry a much-needed shot in the arm. 

With little economic reason to stop the illegal ship dumping, the Bay of Nouadhibou Ship Graveyard continues to grow to this day, creating an ever-evolving naval necropolis.

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March 5 2015 12:57 PM

The Star-Shaped Sand of Okinawa

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Thinking about grains of sand as stars in the sky is a common way of trying to visualize the enormity of the universe. But at a few beaches in Japan's Okinawa prefecture, the sand grains really are stars.

Take a stroll along Hoshizuna no Hama (Star Sand Beach), located on Iriomote Island, and your feet will become encrusted with tiny star-shaped "tests," or shells, produced by microscopic, unicellular protists known as Foraminifera. When Foraminifera die, their shells remain in the sea and the tide brings them ashore. In the case of Hatoma, Iriomote and Taketomi islands in Okinawa, this results in beaches sprinkled with star sand.

The Foraminifera phylum includes some 10,000 species that create shells of various designs. Star-shaped shells, such as the kind above created by the Baculogypsina sphaerulata species, are rare.

Spot the star sand at Hoshizuna.

Photo: Geomr/Creative Commons

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March 4 2015 8:18 AM

Zwentendorf: The Power Plant Completed Just in Time to Be Abandoned

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

For a brief moment in the 1970s, it looked like the future of Austria’s power production was going to be in a handful of massive nuclear plants, before the entire vision was put down by massive public outcry. However, before the people could vote down their nuclear future, one plant was completely finished—they just never turned it on.

Built in the mid-to-late 1970s, the plant in Zwentendorf, 25 miles west of Vienna, cost about a billion euros. The tall, monolithic building was outfitted with a modern-at-the-time boiling-water reactor complete with a huge chimney tower scraping the sky next to the central building. The facility was even outfitted with the dangerous radioactive nuclear rods; all it needed was the go ahead to turn the lights on. Then the public had its say.

Looking down into the reactor pressure vessel.

Photo: DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images

The Zwentendorf facility was just the first of a number of planned nuclear plants in the country, but anti-nuclear sentiment exploded during its construction. In a referendum passed in 1978, the Austrian people voted by a margin just over 50 percent to ban all nuclear power plants. And with that, the new plant was dead in the water.

After the law was passed, the Zwentendorf plant was partially dismantled and the facility was used as a sort of spare-parts warehouse for compatible plants in Germany. In addition, the space has been used for film shooting and security training. However, more than anything, the massive empty complex stands as a reminder of a pivotal moment in the country’s history.

The area under the reactor core at the Zwentendorf plant.

Photo: DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images

Visitors on a guided tour of the Zwentendorf plant in March 2011.

Photo: DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images


Photo: DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images

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March 3 2015 10:01 AM

Humans Dressed as Animals Dominate Ueno Zoo’s Emergency Drills

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Every February the staff at Ueno Zoo in Tokyo get attacked by rhinos, zebras, and gorillas. The whole thing is very orderly—it’s part of the zoo’s annual Escaped Animal Drill, which helps train staff for emergency situations such as earthquakes and other natural disasters.

During the drill, zoo employees climb into papier-mâché rhino costumes, two-person zebra outfits, and fluffy gorilla suits. As they attempt to storm the gates and wreak havoc on the streets of Tokyo, their colleagues deploy giant nets and wrestle them to the ground. It’s a spectacle enjoyed by many, including school kids and tourists. Some zoo workers really get into the performance, playing dead or feigning injury to heighten the drama. Though big sticks and tranquilizer guns are involved, no one gets genuinely hurt.

A zebra gazes at a fake zebra, which made a break for freedom.

Photo: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

A zoo employee dressed as an escaped gorilla gets captured.

Photo: Koichi Kamoshia/Getty Images

Zoo employees attempt to capture two other employees dressed as an escaped rhinoceros.

Photo: Koichi Kamoshia/Getty Images

A zoo employee dressed as an escaped gorilla pretends to attack a zoo warden.

Photo: Koichi Kamoshia/Getty Images

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March 2 2015 10:12 AM

A Towering Legacy: The Massive Head of Chairman Mao

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Mao Zedong took an active interest in radical politics from an early age. Many of his first forays into communist thinking began in the south-central Chinese city of Changsha, where he is now honored with a massive granite version of his head.

Unlike most representations of China’s Great Leader, the 105-foot-tall sculpture built on Changsha’s river-bound Orange Island remembers the controversial figure as a man in the full blush of youth. With stone hair looking as though it is playing in the wind, and the smooth features of a dashing rogue, the bust, built in 2007, is based on Mao’s look circa 1925. This differs from the usual portrayal of an elder statesman, or “helmsman” of the country.

The statue stands out not just for its size but its bold presentation. This being the case, the piece was not without its critics. Given the estimated cost of $300 million, many people found the tribute wasteful. However, Changsha’s pride in Mao’s history with the city was so great as to overcome any objections.

No matter how one feels about the great leader, or communism in general, Changsha’s towering piece of hero worship is an impressive sight and an indelible reminder of the man’s continuing influence in Chinese culture.   

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Feb. 27 2015 12:41 PM

Tuptim Tribute: The Phallic Fertility Shrine in a Hotel Parking Lot

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Accompanying the jasmine, lotus, and incense gifts left at this humble Bangkok shrine are thousands of phallic offerings. Some are well over 6 feet tall, made of stone, but many are small wooden carvings, colorfully painted, left in bouquets around the site. The result is an extraordinary penis forest found in a quiet corner of the Swissôtel Bangkok parking lot.

The fertility shrine was established in the early 20th century by Thai developer and investor Nai Lert for a spirit inhabiting a ficus tree, the goddess Chao Mae Tuptim. Her nature remains somewhat obscure: it has been suggested that her name comes from the Thai for pomegranate (taptim), evoking fertility. This fruity connection might explain the bright red coloring of many of the offerings left here.

Spirit houses and shrines have sprung up all over Bangkok, and leaving offerings of flowers or coins is an everyday part of spiritual life in Thailand. A place of devotion can appear anywhere, and the explicit fertility offerings left at this particular shrine may well be blush-inducing for the owners of the nearby hotels, but it would be catastrophically bad luck to remove them. It’s unlikely that the hotel owners themselves will advertise this shrine, but take a discreet stroll and you will find this astonishing phallic forest.

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