Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

May 22 2015 12:52 PM

The Cabinet of Lost Noses in Copenhagen

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

As with clothing, museum curation endures trends that come and go. But unlike more traditional fashion, the consequences of styling in the art world can be drastically more permanent. 

Hidden within Copenhagen’s Glyptotek art museum is a curious cabinet filled with 100 plaster noses. Visitors who find it stare in wonder as a single body part has been arranged so meticulously that it would appear to be its own work of art. In reality, they’ve come face to face with the Nasothek, a piece of commentary on the history of art preservation.

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Known for its large body of Greek and Roman works of sculpture, the Glyptotek has witnessed its pieces break over the years. The most vulnerable place often fell on the statues’ noses. Particularly in the 19th century, it had been a common practice among conservators to apply a facsimile of the broken element, so as to re-complete what had been lost.

Today this benign act of “restoration” reads like a grand faux pas. In the midst of an era of “de-restoration”, museum staff has taken to removing fake noses and appendages from sculptures to which they’d been affixed for decades.

Hands literally full of noses that once graced some of history's most prized countenances, curators were to decide what to do with the physical evidence of their ancestors’ art crimes. Rather than bury them, the Nasothek was born, which takes its name from the Latin for “nose” and Greek for “container.”

In exchange, observant museum-goers have been given a rare glimpse into the face of authenticity in the art world, tucked into the corner of a museum teeming with perfectly imperfect creations. 

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May 21 2015 8:35 AM

The Soviet Military Secret That Could Become Alaska’s Most Valuable Crop

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

Al Poindexter’s front yard in the south-central plain of Alaska has been taken over by a spread of more than 2,000 cell trays, each growing dozens of plants that look “like something you’d expect from Mars,” he says. The little ones look like little nubs; the larger ones are no more than an inch tall and feature a spiral of fleshy leaves.

“I tried killing it—you can’t kill it. That’s my kind of plant,” says Poindexter. “It can go weeks without water. Moose don’t eat it, rabbits don’t eat it, weather doesn’t seem to bother it. It’s a real easy plant to grow.”

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This is Rhodiola rosea—golden root, rose root—a succulent that was used for centuries as folk medicine and once considered something of a Soviet military secret. Decades ago, the Soviets realized that Rhodiola could boost energy and help manage stress. These days, a small group of Alaskan farmers are hoping that it could enter the pantheon of plants (coffee, chocolate, coca) whose powers people take seriously—and, along the way, become Alaska’s most valuable crop.

In Alaska, farmers spend a lot of time trying to coax plants that would prefer to be growing elsewhere into surviving in Alaska’s tough conditions. Rhodiola, though, comes from Siberia’s Altai Mountains, and it seems right at home in the frigid ground.

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Rhodiola growing in a test plot in Alaska.

Photo: Stephen Brown

“It’s actually an environment that the plant wants to grow in, as opposed to everything else we grow in Alaska,” says Stephen Brown, a professor and district agriculture agent at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. “It’ll grow in the Arctic and sub-Arctic. It wants our long days. It’s already coming up out of the ground—and the ground’s still frozen."

In the northerly parts of the world, reports of rhodiola use go back centuries—long before Carl Linnaeus first named the plant in the 18th century. It was thought to boost strength and endurance, as well as help with altitude sickness. One analogy, Stephen Brown says, it that, if caffeine makes a person’s engine run faster, “Rhodiola gives you a bigger gas tank.”

For decades, Soviet researchers worked on divining the source and strength of the plant’s power. It’s not entirely clear when their investigations began: a significant portion, Rhodiola enthusiasts say, was never published but kept close in Russia government files. In 1961, one ecologist led an expedition to the Altai mountains to search for the source of the root, and by mid-decade, serious study into the plants’ effects had started, a group of researchers reported in the journal HerbalGram in 2002.

“It was considered a Soviet military secret,” says Dr. Petra Illig, the founder of Alaska Rhodiola Products, a cooperative of Rhodiola farmers. “Most of what was done back then was unpublished and hidden in drawers in Moscow. They used it for the physical and mental performance of their soldiers and athletes.” She and other investigators have confirmed that cosmonauts in the country's space program have also experimented with Rhodiola.

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Rhodiola growing in Norway.

Photo:Randi Hausken/Creative Commons

One of the first vocal advocates for Rhodiola in the United States was Dr. Zakir Ramazanov, a professor of plant biochemistry and co-author of the HerbalGram article. He first encountered it during his service in the Soviet-Afghan war—not through any official source, but a fellow soldier whose family sent him Rhodiola to make into energy-boosting tea. When he came to United States in the 1990s, he started importing the plant and would travel back to the former Soviet Union to try to collect the associated studies. He was able to trace the history of Soviet research back to the 1940s, Science News reported in 2007.

Dr. Illig, who’s “a standard show-me-an-x-ray-and-blood-test doctor,” as she puts it, first found out about Rhodiola from that Science News article. She had recently moved up to Alaska, and “had more time on my hands than money,” she says. She started looking into it, figuring that since Rhodiola grew in the Siberian mountains that it would also grow in Alaskan mountains. By 2010, she had given over her yard to Rhodiola seedlings—100,000 of them. She applied to the state for a grant to expand the operation, which is how Stephen Brown got pulled into the project.

“We get a lot of these application where someone is proposing these herbal medicines,” he says. “I would refer to them as ‘unicorn and rainbow’ applications”—filled with promises of cure-alls. Rhodiola, though, was different: it was backed by credible citations and peer-reviewed literature. Brown wasn’t convinced the plant actually had beneficial properties, but thought if there was a market for Rhodiola, it might be worth growing, regardless.

Now, though, he’s a convert. “I'm a marathon runner and I'm trying to do marathon in every state,” he says. “Normally, I hit the wall at mile 19.” But, then he decided to try Rhodiola. “I never had that sense of total exhaustion I normally get. That’s when I realized that there’s something to this.”

Among Rhodiola boosters, personal conversion stories like this one abound—though they’re quick to say that of course there needs to be more peer-reviewed research of the highest quality, including double-blind studies. The studies that have been published, however, do show that Rhodiola has extended the life of “flies, worms and yeast.” And it's been reported that sales are growing in American health food markets, and even faster in U.S. mainstream markets, where it’s been newly introduced.

What matters for Alaskan farmers is that, compared to crops like potatoes, Rhodiola has the potential to be sold at a much higher price per acre. “The big thing we’re trying to do right now is to expand the acreage,” says Brown. There are about five acres, in total, under cultivation right now. “At 200 acres, it would be the most valuable crop in the state.”

This article originally appeared on Atlas Obscura. Visit for more stories of the strange and wondrous.

May 19 2015 10:16 AM

The USPS Facility That Deciphers Your Illegible Handwriting

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

Since the world has not yet invented a robot capable of reading crappy handwriting, a team of the finest postal workers in the United States toils day and night in an effort to deliver the most indecipherable of mail.

Tucked away in a nondescript parking lot on the outskirts of Salt Lake City is the United States Postal Service Remote Encoding Center. All day, every day, workers inside sit at specialized stations as monitors present scanned pieces of correspondence with questionable addresses scrawled on their envelopes.

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Shifts last eight hours, and employees are trained to take 10 seconds or less with each piece of mail as it whizzes by on their screen. It’s their job to make an educated guess as to the intent of the sender before shuffling the once questionable piece of mail along on its route of delivery.

In an age of declining penmanship, more than 5 million pieces of mail pass under its roof every day. It seems absurd that this would be the only place in the nation where unreadable mail is deciphered, yet all but one of these specialized mail centers have closed over the years. This makes the Salt Lake depot the last hope for postal customers with shoddy handwriting.

Put simply: If you have poor penmanship, all your mail passes through here without exception. Maybe consider clearly addressing a thank-you note to the folks inside one of these days?

May 18 2015 9:59 AM

The Myra Necropolises: Turkey’s Ancient Houses of the Dead

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

Though archaeologists rank the exquisite necropolises at Myra in Turkey as classics of Lycian culture, the site's most beautiful elements are some of its touching, humanizing details. 

Dating back to the fourth century BC, the rock-cut tombs line the hills above Myra’s famed theater and the Church of St. Nicholas. These houses of the dead are divided into two main necropolises comprised of a mixture of house- and temple-style tombs: the ocean necropolis and the river necropolis. Colorful as they seem now, most have faded greatly over the years after having been painted brilliant shades of red, yellow, blue, and purple in their prime.

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The most famous example of this was documented by early explorer Charles Fellows during his visit in 1840. Named after the lion and bull adorning its facade, the Lion Tomb also contains 11 life-size stone figures thought to represent the grave owner’s family. A number of inscriptions in ancient Greek and Lycian appear carved throughout, including one that sounds as if it could’ve been written just yesterday: “Moschos loves Philiste, the daughter of Demetrios.”

Once exclusively the provenance of the upper and middle classes, Myra’s remarkable necropolises signal the residents’ former prosperity in addition to an ongoing sense of security that translated from this world into the next.

May 15 2015 11:23 AM

Kentucky Fried Headstone: The Grave of Colonel Sanders

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

Located in Kentucky's Cave Hill Cemetery, the grave of Colonel Harland Sanders, one of the most recognizable mascots in the entire world, honors the chicken man with a bust sculpted by his very own daughter. 

After working as a streetcar conductor, fireman, insurance salesman, and filling station operator, Harland Sanders was nearly destitute and living off a government pension when he finally decided to become a restaurateur at 62. After devising the concept of franchise restaurants, Sanders opened a small restaurant in Salt Lake City, Utah that would serve his "secret recipe" fried chicken that he had developed during his time serving it to travelers who passed through his filling stations. With his signature black glasses, slick white goatee, and long bow tie, the elderly entrepreneur soon became the face of his new business as he traveled the country selling his recipe to eateries like a door-to-door salesman.

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His franchise plan exploded thanks to his aggressive sales strategy and grandfatherly charm. Within years, his Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants were in every state across the country, and Sanders became a household name. By the time of his death from leukemia in 1980 at the age of 90, KFC was one of the most famous brands in the world, with over 6,000 franchises in 48 countries.

The Colonel was buried in Kentucky as one of its favorite sons. His grave was marked by a bust that was created by his daughter Margaret. He was dressed in his iconic white suit and string bow tie, looking like his marketing representation even in death.

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May 14 2015 12:58 PM

Brussels’ Zinneke Pis Statue Is a Canine Complement to the Famous Manneken Pis

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

Brussels' Manneken Pis statue is one of the most famous sculptural icons in the entire world. Recreations of the famed urinating baby can be found in gardens and fountains all over the world. Apparently, the appeal of a naked little boy draining the snake can not be underestimated.

Lesser known, however, is that the Manneken Pis not only has a female counterpart, Jeanneke Pis, but also a dog known as Zinneke Pis, who is forever lifting his leg onto a Brussels street pole. Zinneke Pis was installed in the center of Brussels, on the corner of Rue des Chartreux and Rue de Vieux-Marche, in 1998, centuries after his symbolic master was installed in the city in 1619. Like the little boy and the little girl, the pup was created life-size, but unlike its masters, the Zinneke Pis is not actually a pissing fountain, it is simply a bronze statue. Nonetheless, the metal canine is just as cute, looking a little guilty as he lets loose on the street corner.

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The creator of the dog also lives in the neighborhood, and he modeled it after his own pet, which can still be seen occasionally wandering the area. It is not known how often the real dog pees in the street, but it can be well assumed that it is not as often as the eternally micturating Zinneke Pis.

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May 13 2015 9:15 AM

One More Thing ... About Hungary’s Columbo Statue

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

Thanks to a tenuous familial connection, Budapest’s Falk Miksa Street is now home to a life-size bronze reproduction of Peter Falk as America’s favorite soft-spoken detective in the rumpled coat, Columbo.

Installed in 2014 at an estimated cost of $63,000, the bronze P.I. was part of an overall rejuvenation project in the area, although exactly why the figure was chosen is a bit of a mystery. According to a quote given to the Wall Street Journal by Antal Rogán, district mayor at the time, actor Peter Falk may have been related to the 19th-century Hungarian political figure Miksa Falk, for whom the street is named, although he concedes that this connection has yet to be proved. The American Falk is known to have had Hungarian roots through his grandparents on one side of the family, but has never been definitively linked to Miksa Falk’s family.

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Some have also questioned the timing of the statue’s installation given that Peter Falk died in 2011, meaning that it clearly was not meant to commemorate his passing either. Many believe that it was unveiled in time to garner votes in a general election that took place a few weeks after the figure was unveiled. Although this seems like it would have been a strange way to go about it. 

Just one more thing ... At the foot of the metal lieutenant’s feet is a bronze basset hound modeled after a local dog named Franzi, who even showed up for the unveiling. This is of course supposed to be Columbo’s droopy-faced pet, Dog. Unfortunately, the dog does not provide any further clues as to the decision-making process behind the statue’s bizarre existence. Maybe if Columbo were still alive, he could solve the case.

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May 12 2015 12:15 PM

MIThenge: The Solar Phenomenon of the Infinite Corridor

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Photo: Frank Hebbert/Creative Commons

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

Running nearly the entire length of the MIT campus from the east end to the west, the ambling hallway known to students as the "Infinite Corridor" is not only so packed that it has its own informal traffic laws, but, more spectacularly, is occasionally the site of a celestial phenomenon known as MIThenge.

The never-ending hallway threads 825 feet (or 127 smoots, to be more accurate) through each of the major buildings of the Massachusetts school, often being referred to as the complex's "spinal cord." With labs and classrooms radiating off of the main thoroughfare all the way down, it is not only one of the most direct routes to disparate parts of the school, but one of the most crowded. During peak times, such as when classes let out, the school has had to instruct travelers to increase their speed and stay to the right to keep from clogging the institution's main artery.

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When the corridor is not over-stuffed with bumping backpacks, a rather lovely occurrence can be observed a few times a year. Thanks to the hallway's nearly exact east-west orientation, it occasionally lines up perfectly with the sunrise and sunset in a display known as "MIThenge." During the alignment, which occurs twice a year, around January and November, students are asked to be courteous as to where they stand so that everyone can enjoy the blinding view.

Given the school's focus on engineering and industrial science, it seems strangely fitting that an exemplar of institutional building design should produce such a lovely show.

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May 8 2015 11:45 AM

The Spelunker’s Tram: Georgia’s Mini-Subway in the New Athos Cave

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 most of its known existence, the New Athos Cave was simply called the "Bottomless Pit." It has now been revealed to have limits to its depths, but the caverns are so vast that a metro train was built to traverse them. 

The giant cave system, located inside of Georgia's Mount Iberia, was known to locals before it was discovered by the world at large in 1961, when it was named after the nearby town. It was found to consist of nine massive chambers comprising a cumulative volume of over a million cubic meters, making it the second largest cave in the world. The cave proved to hold a number of features including underground rivers, staggeringly large stalactites and stalagmites, and deep ravines. Each of the giant sections was given a unique name and after the exploration was finished, the cave was opened to the public. Unfortunately, moving people through such a colossal space proved to be an issue. 

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To rectify the problem, a short railway was set up in the cave system in 1975, looking not unlike a metro subway. The train, known as "Turist," travels to three stops along its subterranean route, passing through huge, unfinished cave areas between stops. There are opportunities to exit the train and explore the caves via long railed walkways, which pass by rock formations that have been illuminated by colored lights.

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May 7 2015 9:15 AM

Fun and Games With the Oldest Deck of Cards in the World

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

What did people in the 15th century do for fun? It was not known as a real “party” era, as France and England continued the bloody Hundred Years’ WarJoan of Arc was burned at the stake, and the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople and ended the Roman Empire in a seven-week siege. Oh, and Spain began its Inquisition. But one relic of happier times has survived: the world’s oldest complete deck of playing cards.

Known alternately as the Flemish Hunting Deck, the Hofjager Hunting Pack, or the Cloisters Pack (it is held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cloisters location), the set of cards now recognized as the oldest in the world was originally thought to be just kinda historic. The oblong cards are made of pressed layers of paper decorated with stenciled and hand-drawn designs, and overlaid with silver and gold. The art on the cards is clearly medieval in origin, but the completeness of the deck, the resemblance to modern card design, and the nearly pristine condition had many appraisers questioning the actual age of the pack.

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The Met acquired the deck from an Amsterdam antiques dealer in 1983. It was once believed that the cards dated back to the 16th century, but the dealer thought they were even older, and purchased the whole set for a mere $2,800. After investigating the cards in detail (the dress of the Burgundian royal figures painted on the face cards, and a pair of watermarks found elsewhere in the deck), it came out that they were actually created between 1475 and 1480.  

Although now more than 500 years old, the game resembles a contemporary 52-card deck to a surprising degree. It’s certainly fun to look at, but we wondered: What would it be like to play a 15th-century card game?

According to playing card scholar David Parlett’s book A History of Card Games, it was during the early 15th century that mass-produced decks of cards first became a going concern. The main centers of playing card production were in Germany and France, although the trend soon carried across most of Europe.

Unlike the standard decks we know today, with their uniform quartet of 13-card suites, the decks produced in the early 1400s took on variations depending on the regions they came from. Some packs would contain a fifth suite (which may have been a backup), or the courtly face cards would have an extra rank, but the symbols used in the suites themselves were all over the place. Suitmarks ranged from birds to acorns to cups to helmets to flowers depending on the origin of the deck.

Such is the case with the Cloisters Deck, the theme of which seems to be falconry. The four suites consist of hunting horns, dog collars, hound tethers, and game nooses, which stand in for the modern-day hearts, clubs, diamonds, and spades. However, beyond these symbolic differences, the deck is remarkably similar to a pack of cards you might see on the tables of Vegas. Each suite still contains 13 cards, and the court cards are all recognizable as the King, Queen, and Jack (or Knave, in the case of the Cloisters Pack). For all intents and purposes, one could still use this deck to play a round of Texas Hold ‘em.

Of course, poker didn’t exist in the 15th century, so what were people doing with these cards? Given the pristine nature of the Cloisters Deck, it’s likely that it was never used for playing in a pub, but was instead a collector’s curiosity. We once again turned to David Parlett for answers:

It’s hard to specify what games were played where in 15th-century Europe. We have a number of references to various names of games, but they are not all identifiable for certain, as books of rules were not published till the 17th century. The earliest known trick-taking game is Karnöffel [...]. Gambling games would have included (at least in Germany) Bocken, the ancestor of Poker; perhaps Thirty-One, the ancestor of Blackjack; and the ancestors of what we now regard as simple games for children, such as Beggar-my-Neighbour. The French game of Triomphe, ultimate ancestor of Whist and Bridge, may possibly have been developing at this time.

So while we can’t be certain of the exact games the Cloisters Deck might have been destined for, we still wanted to answer the question: Was the deck any fun?

The museum would not let us play with the deck itself (full disclosure: it seemed silly to ask), so with the magic of glue and a color printer, we made our own Hofjager Hunting Pack and gathered Atlas Obscura staffers together to attempt to play the oldest card game we could find rules for, Karnöffel.

First recorded in Bavaria in 1426, Karnöffel is a game that seems like it must be one of poker’s ancestors. Essentially, players are given a hand of five cards, and then play each card against their opponents, trying to bluff and raise the point value with each trick. The specific rules can be found here.

The hardest part of the game to our modern minds was the hierarchy of trump cards. It follows a logic that is only barely based on the actual card numbers. As Atlas Obscura staff writer Sarah Laskow explains:

"The best/most confusing part of the old game was the relative strength of the cards. The devil beat 6, which stood for the pope. But 6 beat the king. And 3 was more powerful than 8 for some reason."

This likely made sense to seasoned players at the time, but to two Internet writers, it was a bit baffling.

Nonetheless, we made our way through three hands of the game, and by the end of the third we had a pretty good handle on the archaic mechanics. And frankly it was getting pretty fun.

It seems that betting, bluffing, and getting the upper hand on your opponent are just as satisfying today as it was in the 1400s.

The Hofjager Hunting Pack can currently be viewed at the Cloisters in Manhattan.

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