A Statue For a Soldier Bear
Wojtek the bear's unlikely journey to Scotland—and into the annals of military history—began in Iran in 1943, when a group of Polish soldiers adopted an orphaned brown bear cub.
The soldiers were members of the Polish 2nd Corps, a military unit consisting of Polish political prisoners released from Soviet gulags by Stalin after the Nazi invasion of the USSR. As they left their places of internment and moved west to join the fight against the Axis, the bear cub they adopted quickly became a popular and important boost to morale. By the time the 2nd Corps reached Egypt and prepared to transfer to the Italian war zone, the now-fully-grown bear had learned to salute and carry supplies, and enjoyed drinking beer, eating cigarettes, wrestling with the soldiers, and swimming whenever he had the chance.
Going into active combat, however, presented a problem, as soldiers were forbidden from bringing pets into theaters of operation (and by this point the bear had, by all accounts, thoroughly imprinted on the soldiers who had raised him). Thus, the bear was enlisted into the 22nd Artillery Transport Company of the 2nd Corps, and accordingly given an official number, the rank of private, and the name Wojtek—a common Polish name meaning “joyful warrior”.
Private Wojtek served for the remainder of the war, most notably during the Battle of Monte Cassino, in which he helped to move crates of ammunition — with two hands, while standing upright, because he thought he was people. The Battle of Monte Cassino opened the road to Rome for the Allies. Wojtek was so popular among his fellow soldiers that a graphic of a bear carrying an artillery shell became the official emblem of the 22nd Company.
After the war ended, Wojtek’s company was transferred to southeastern Scotland. Having experienced Soviet repression first-hand, most of the soldiers refused to return to Poland after the Iron Curtain fell, and chose instead to remain in Scotland in exile. Once the 22nd Company was demobilized in 1947, Wojtek was moved to the Edinburgh Zoo. His old Polish brothers-in-arms visited him regularly, as did the scores of new admirers he gained during the remainder of his life. He died in 1963, at the age of 22.
Unveiled on November 7th of this year, the bronze statue in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh commemorates not only the much-beloved bear, but also the Polish soldiers who bravely shared the same harrowing journey and ultimately found refuge in Scotland. Commissioned by the Wojtek Memorial Trust, the project likewise pays tribute to the resultant close ties between Scotland and Poland.
Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor davidkmcw.
More wonders to explore:
- These tombs in Turkey were built into the side of a mountain so that ancient angels could reach the dead.
- Desert Breath: a massive work of modern art appears to be a crop circle in the middle of the desert.
- This UFO landing strip was created by a charitable Wyoming city that was worried about residents of Jupiter.
Walk Around the World at Verdenskortet
Circumnavigating the globe on foot sounds like a tall order—requiring commitment of years of one’s life, some serious logistics planning, and an unshakeable determination to put one foot in front of the other for as long as it takes. For those keen on the idea but not the long haul, there’s Verdenskortet (Map of the World) in Denmark.
At the Verdenskortet attraction, visitors can march across all the world’s countries in a matter of minutes and then have a cup of coffee and a pastry at the adjoining cafe. Amazingly, the outdoor atlas was constructed entirely from soil and stone. Even more amazingly, it's all the work of one man.
Soren Poulsen was born in 1888 on the property and moved to the United States when he was a young man. After 20 years abroad, he moved back to the family farm on the banks of Lake Klejtrub. Following a failed orchard grove venture, he turned his attention in 1944 to the project that would consume him until his death at 81 years old in 1969.
Always interested in geography, Poulsen decided to lay out the entire world through shaping a small peninsula on the lake. He did so with the use of a few simple tools (a wheelbarrow, a pushcart, handtools) and a whole lot of ingenuity—some of the stones he single-handedly hauled to the site weigh more than a ton.
The finished map measures 45 by 90 meters and is entirely to scale—each 27 centimeters corresponds to 111 real-world kilometers. It has become a popular family attraction in the Viborg area, as visitors take the opportunity to play minigolf along the shore and paddle rowboats in the miniature Pacific Ocean. It’s certainly a charming site, and an Atlas Obscura if we ever saw one.
Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor basaltena.
More wonders to explore:
- Once the "Eighth Wonder of the World," the iron railroad bridge known as Kinzua Bridge was decimated by a tornado.
- Villa Rebar: This former estate of a fascist leader is now a burnt out ruin leading to a system of secret tunnels.
- A series of Baroque passageways in Vienna's cultural center mix old architecture with modern art.
The Last Tree of Ténéré
A recent study estimated that there are around 3 trillion trees currently on earth.
This is down by about 46 percent over the last 12,000 years as human populations have expanded. Three trillion is still a lot of trees, though. Among those 3 trillion trees are a very small handful of celebrities—trees famous for their very old age or their great size or, as in the case of the last tree of Ténéré, their tenacity to survive.
The last tree of Ténéré's brother from another arboreal mother is the Tree of Life in Bahrain. Also known as the Sharajat-al-Hayat or Tree of Life, it has stood as the only tree in a remote and harsh desert environment for over 400 years. Said to survive without a water source it is seen as miraculous. The tree has been cited as the location of the Garden of Eden.
It's not the only tree with a claim on the Garden of Eden. In the Iraqi city of Qurna, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is claimed to be the tree that Eve plucked the fated apple from. It is dead now but does not appear to have been an apple tree in life. (God works in mysterious ways.)
In another apparent miracle in Buford, Wyoming, a tree has sprouted from a rock. The tree was discovered by railroad workers in 1860. One hundred and fifty years later it's still there, in the median between road lanes, surrounded by a small fence, growing stubbornly out of the middle of a large boulder. It now boasts a historical plaque.
Trees can grow in a number of odd places, including on other trees. The Bialbero Di Casorzo is one such tree. A fully grown cherry tree growing on top of a fully grown mulberry tree, it too has been given a small fence in its honor. In Atlanta, Georgia, there is the Tree That Owns Itself, perhaps the only tree in the world with its own legal rights. In Belgium, there is the well-known "tree that Caesar tied his horse to" that Caesar almost certainly didn't tie his horse to.
Of course, there are also actual "last trees." Found on a hill called the Piton Grand Bass, in the cloud forest of the island of Mauritius, are the last two Bois Dentelle trees, which are exactly what they sound like. Wavering on the very edge of extinction, the trees have since been saved and a nursery to grow more Bois Dentelle trees has been established.
Finally there are the trees that were just too beloved in life to give up on in death. The last tree of Ténéré was dutifully moved to the National Museum of Niger, where its dead trunk stands in its own small enclosure. Same for the Burmis Tree in Alberta, Canada. The Burmis tree died in 1978, the final symbol of a mining town that had died long before. Instead of turning it into firewood, the town has been lovingly caring for the dead trunk since. The tree was blown over in a storm in 1998 and promptly placed back up with new supports to keep it standing. In 2004 someone sawed off one of its branches. The branch was recovered, reattached with glue and and given a crutch to support itself.
Tree love transcends tree death.
The Pirate Cemetery of Madagascar
On the small island of Ile Sainte-Marie, four miles off the coast of eastern Madagascar, lie the bones of pirates who terrorized the seas during the 17th and 18th centuries.
For around 100 years, Ile Sainte-Marie was the off-season home of an estimated 1,000 pirates. A recently discovered map from 1733 refers to it simply as “the island of pirates.” Situated near the East Indies trade route, the beautiful tropical island’s numerous inlets and bays made it the perfect place to hide ships. Pirates from all over the world lived in wooden huts, adorned with flags that signified which captain’s “crew” they belonged to. It was a pirate’s paradise. There were local women to satisfy their lust and plenty of tropical fruit to satisfy their hunger.
When one of the pirates died, he was buried on a scenic, palm shaded hilltop cemetery overlooking the water. Today, 30 headstones remain, including a few sketched with a skull and/or cross bones, the international symbol of piracy. Legend has it that the notorious William Kidd is buried in a large black tomb in the cemetery, sitting upright as punishment for his dastardly deeds. He was actually buried in England, but his legendary ship, the Adventure Galley (rediscovered in 2000), was left docked near the Island, and his booty is said to be buried somewhere in the surrounding sea. In fact, the prospect of undiscovered treasure, from at least half a dozen documented shipwrecks off the coast, continues to lure adventurous explorers to this very day.
The pirates were off Ile Sainte-Marie by the late 1700s, when the French forcibly seized the island. It was returned to Madagascar in 1960. Today, Ile Saint-Marie is a thriving tourist destination. The crumbling cemetery, its graves half covered by tall, swaying grass, is open to the public. It is an ironically peaceful and still place, filled with the bones of violent and restless men.
Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor samreeve.
More wonders to explore:
- An ancient quarry rediscovered by a dog and claimed by Biblical kings, a German cult, and the Freemasons.
- The Soviet Lifestyle Museum: a nostalgic museum full of USSR cultural artifacts from the 1970s and 80s.
- This donated headstone in Massachusetts marks the grave of a pair of elderly women who were mysteriously murdered.
Michigan’s Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Ever since the mid-19th century, the Thunder Bay region has been a heavily trafficked waterway, sitting as it does on shipping lanes that carry cargo between the upper and lower Great Lakes. And since well before that—as its name suggests—it has been home to capricious weather and treacherous shoals.
Various misfortunes have caused over 200 vessels to sink beneath the waves in and around Thunder Bay, nicknamed "Shipwreck Alley." Thanks to the resulting treasure trove of historic artifacts, the state of Michigan created a 290-square-mile underwater preserve in the area in 1981; this state preserve became a 448-square-mile national marine sanctuary in 2000. After being enlarged again to 4,300 square miles in 2014, it now encompasses essentially all of the waters from the shores of northeastern Michigan to the U.S./Canada border.
Almost 100 shipwrecks have been discovered and identified within Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The known wrecks range in date from 1849 to 1966 and represent a physical timeline of the development of Great Lakes maritime vessels, from wooden schooners and early steamboats to modern steel-hulled freighters. The cold, fresh water has kept this impressive historical cross section of watercraft extraordinarily well-preserved, with many wrecks exhibiting structural and mechanical components as well as sailors’ personal effects that have remained largely unchanged since coming to rest at the bottom of Lake Huron. Unfortunately, invasive species are causing deterioration heretofore unseen in the protected site, with zebra and quagga mussel colonization hindering ongoing archaeological documentation.
Visitors to Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary are afforded unrestricted access to explore the shipwrecks, whether via diving or snorkeling, canoeing or kayaking through partially submerged wrecks, or taking glass-bottom boat tours. Artifacts collected during archaeological visits can be seen at the nearby Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center, as well as the Jesse Besser Museum. If you don’t happen to find yourself in northeastern Michigan, 3-D models have been created for seven of the wrecks, which can be explored online in warm, dry comfort.
Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor Nehalennia.
More wonders to explore:
The Elephant Buried Under the Vatican
In February 1962, while digging up the Vatican's Belvedere Courtyard to modernize a heating and cooling system, a group of Italian workers hit bone. There was a large tooth and four pieces of a giant jawbone, and at first they thought they had found a dinosaur.
But the bones were not fossilized, and when the custodian of the Vatican Library collection had them examined, he learned that they belonged to a much more modern mammal—an elephant.
For decades, no one inquired further into the provenance of the elephant skeleton buried beneath the Vatican, until in the 1980s and ’90s, the Smithsonian's Historian Emeritus, Silvio Bedini, uncovered the elephant's history. He published the results of his research in 1997, in "The Pope's Elephant", the most thorough study to date of the elephant that lived in the Cortile del Belvedere.
His name was Annone—or, once anglicized, Hanno—and he belonged to Pope Leo X, who was elected pope in 1513. Hanno was not just a pet: He played a part in the politics of Portuguese expansion and made a cameo in the Protestant Reformation. But above all, Hanno was a wonder. No elephant had been in Italy since the Roman empire fell, and the entire country clamored to get a glimpse of him.
Hanno the Elephant arrived in Italy in the winter of 1514, and on his slow march to Rome, he left a path of destruction in his wake. He wasn't such a large elephant (his shoulder reached about four feet tall), and he did not move very fast, especially on the hard Italian road, which hurt his feet. But wherever the elephant went, people wanted to see him, and they trampled fields, crashed in roofs, and tore through walls in order to get a glimpse.
Hanno had come from India, by way of Portugal. In the early 16th century, the Portuguese monarchy was expanding its reach throughout the world, trading with India and the East Indies, and consolidating control over the spice trade. As part of this commercial enterprise, the menagerie in Lisbon was filling with strange creatures from across the globe, and a decade before Hanno came to Italy, Portugal had sent a previous pope parrots, mandrils, leopards and a whole bunch of monkeys.
At the time that Giovanni di Lorenzo de'Medici (of the famous Florentine Medici family) became Pope Leo X, the Portuguese king, Manuel I, was working to solidify his country's hold on the spice trade. The Portuguese expansion over the oceans had threatened the monopoly that overland traders had held, and Egypt, which had long benefited from that monopoly, was pushing the Pope to pull back on Portugal. Egyptian leaders did have leverage: They controlled Jerusalem and could destroy Christian holy sites if the Pope sided against them.
It was traditional for Christian rulers to send a gift to a new pope upon his election, and Manuel I knew that this was a political opportunity, as well. He could ask for money, to expand his fleet of ships and artillery, and he could obtain the Pope's blessing for Portuguese expansionism. He carefully planned what he would send—textiles, a gold chalice, a brocade altar cover, and other treasures wrought with gold and jewels. He sent a cheetah, leopards, parrots, strange dogs, and a Persian horse. And he sent Hanno.
Italians knew that elephants existed: Hannibal had famously crossed the Alps with war elephants, and Roman consuls had kept them in wealthier times. Every few hundred years or so, for the previous millennium, an elephant had appeared in some European court. But Hanno was the first to come to Italy in centuries, making him the ultimate must-see attraction across the empire.
On the 70-mile journey from the Port of Hercules to Rome, Bedini wrote, “the caravan that was following behind daily increased in size, supplemented by workers from the towns, peasants from the fields, and gentlemen from their villas. All were curious, avidly seeking a view of the great animals and the strangers speaking a strange language who accompanied it.” The elephant had to spend the night in a piazza so that curiosity seekers wouldn't storm the stable it was supposed to stay in, and all along the way, wealthy noblemen tried to convince the elephant's handlers to take a detour to their castles.
Hanno arrived in Rome just before he was scheduled to appear before the Pope. And in his first official appearance, he made an equally dramatic impression. Walking through the streets of Rome adorned with handsome vestment and with a silver tower on his back, Hanno dropped to his knees and bowed his head low upon reaching the Pope, before lifting back up to trumpet three times in the air. Then he sucked water into his trunk and sprayed water down on everyone assembled—including the Pope, who thought the whole of the elephant's performance delightful.
Sadly, though, Hanno's time in Rome was short. He was 4 years old when he arrived, and he lived to be 7. But immediately, he became a favorite of the pope, who wrote to King Manuel I:
It was the elephant which excited the greatest astonishment to the whole world, as much from the memories it evoked of the ancient past, for the arrival of similar beast was fairly frequent in the days of ancient Rome ... One is almost tempted to put faith in the assertion of the idolators who pretend that a certain affinity exists between these animals and mankind. The sight of this quadruped provides us with the greatest amusement and has become for our people an object of extraordinary wonder.
The pope built a special building to house the elephant, on the Courtile de Belvedere, and allowed the people of Rome to visit him each weekend. And on occasion, he was paraded through Rome.
Not that this generally went well. Once, the Pope had a famous poet dressed in Roman clothing, and perched on Hanno's back as part of a parade through the city. But the noise of the parade—the trumpets, the drums—made the elephant panic, and eventually, he threw his rider. Another time, a cannon spooked him, and he stampeded, injuring some of his fans. And at one viewing, the crowds were so tight that nobles on horseback ended up crushing less wealthy people to death.
Hanno almost had competition as the strangest and most wondrous animal to live in 16th-century Rome. In the winter of 1515, two years after he had sent Hanno to the pope, Manuel I decided to send another animal—a rhinoceros.
The rhinoceros, another gift from India, had been living in Lisbon, as part of the royal Portuguese menagerie. And in some ways, it was even more marvelous than the elephant. While the Portuguese fleet had brought back a few elephants from overseas, there was only one rhino—and when it had been pitted against an elephant in an arena, it had lowered its horn, made preparations to attack, and scared the elephant so badly that it had torn through an iron gate and run back to its stable.
In December, the Portuguese packed the rhino on a ship and sent it toward Rome. And while the rhino made a few appearances along its route, the ship sank before it could reach Rome. Rhinoceri can swim, but this one was shackled to the deck of the boat, and it drowned. Its carcass eventually washed ashore at Villefranche, on the French coast, and, undeterred, the Portuguese king ordered that it be stuffed, mounted, and sent on to Rome.
It's not clear, though, what happened to the rhinoceros. In his book, Bedini investigates rumors that the pope sent it to family in Florence and that it was kept in a museum there until relatively recently. But his research into the museum's papers did not turn up a record of the rhino carcass. Even at the time that the rhino was lost at sea, there were rumors that it was never sent; some people claimed to glimpse it in Portugal years after it was supposedly dead and on display.
Hanno's end was less mysterious, if similarly horrific.
In 1516, he started having trouble breathing and was clearly in pain. Doctors were called in, and they determined that the elephant was constipated. They put together a plan of treatment— a suppository with a high dose of gold, a common treatment at the time. It quickly killed him.
There was an element of mysticism to the elephant's death. Not long before, a Franciscan monk who traveled with 20,000 followers predicted the deaths of a number of Church leaders, up to and including the pope. He also prophesized the death of Hanno, and his keeper. The elephant died within the prescribed period; so did the keeper, although his death got much less attention.
The pope mourned Hanno, writing a paean to the dead elephant. When he commissioned a mural commemorating the animal, he insisted that it be drawn by the artist Raphael himself, not just his studio.
This affection didn't escape the attention of the papal satirists. "The subject formed the basis for one of the first published criticism leveled against him by German supporters of Martin Luther," Bedini writes. (Luther's 95 Theses would not appear until the following year.) And Pietro Aretino wrote The Last Will and Testament of the Elephant Hanno, a document that calls out particular people in the hierarchy of Rome. Just as the relics of saints were parceled out among the churches of Europe, Hanno detailed which cardinals should receive his body parts, including his skin, tusks, knees, tongue and, even, his penis.
But in reality, most of Hanno's body remained in the Vatican. His tusks were removed and stored elsewhere, but the rest of him was buried beneath the courtyard where he had lived—and where his bones still lay today.
More wonders to explore:
The Canadian City of Lloydminster Is Actually Two in One
"Where is Lloydminster?" is a harder question to answer than you'd think.
The short answer is that it's located in both Saskatchewan and Alberta. It is Canada’s sole “border city,” with the provincial border running through the centre, creating a unique living experience for its residents. They live in either Alberta or Saskatchewan, depending on their address, and pay taxes and medical fees accordingly.
The town was founded in 1903 by British immigrants, near the Fourth Meridian of the Dominion Survey. The founders sensed that provinces (which hardly existed at that point) were inevitable, but assumed that only one would form around their region. When the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were created two years later, Lloydminster was halved into separate towns with separate municipalities. It wasn't until 1930 that the government agreed to fuse the two half-cities, and in 1994 a 100-foot survey marker was erected to commemorate the city's unique status.
Another unique feature of the city's placement is its timezones—Saskatchewan doesn't observe daylight savings time, unlike the rest of the country. In order to keep things even, Lloydminster, including the Saskatchewan side, remains on Alberta time.
Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor samreeve.
More wonders to explore:
- Over two centuries old and counting, Madrid's massive botanical garden contains one of Europe's only desert environments.
- Rome's Gladiator School churns out warriors that may very well have had a fighting chance in the city's pits of the day.
- Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Lake Huron contains some of the world’s best-preserved shipwrecks.
Concrete Cartography: The Great Polish Map of Scotland
Sitting just off to the side of Scotland's Black Barony, a hotel that was formerly known as Barony Castle, is what appears at first glance to be a field of low-lying boulders covered in lichen and moss, but this is in fact a small model of Scotland.
The Great Polish Map of Scotland, as it is known, may be the world's largest terrain relief map, but it all started as a gift from a grateful Polish soldier. Barony Castle, near the Scottish burgh of Eddleston, was requisitioned by the Polish army in World War II for training. Jan Tomasik, a Polish sergeant with the armored division, was stationed nearby helping to defend Scotland from the Germans. After WWII, Tomasik decided to remain in Scotland, reluctant to go home due to the new political regime in Poland. After the war, Barony Castle was turned into a hotel and in 1968, Tomasik actually purchased the castle and renovated it.
With a keen interest in topography, Tomasik wanted to build a scale map of Scotland on the grounds of the castle, as a thank you to the state that had become his new home. So he envisioned the Mapa Scotland, as the Great Polish Map of Scotland is also known. Construction began in 1974 and was completed in the summer of 1979. The map ended up being highly accurate despite its epic scale, measuring over 160 feet by over 130 feet, and ringed in by a squat wall. It also had running water in its rivers and lochs that was supplied by a system of pipes.
Tomasik hoped the map would bring new visitors to the castle, including royalty. Sadly this was not the case, and after Tomasik’s death, the castle was again sold and the huge concrete map fell into obscurity and neglect. The water features dried up and the continents began to be lost beneath weeds and moss.
Finally, in 2010, a group was formed called "Mapa Scotland" to bring the colossal model back to life. They received a small heritage grant and work began. Today, volunteers have gotten the map to a viewable state. While it no longer features the original painted colors or flowing rivers, the Great Polish Map of Scotland can still make visitors feel like Celtic gods.
Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor stevied.
More wonders to explore:
- This former small-town cinema palace was built with the remains of a luxury liner.
- Great Swamp Fight Monument: Off a hiking trail in Rhode Island stands a picturesque memorial to a long forgotten war.
- Grand Matsu Temple: Only through deep darkness and tragedy did this elaborate royal palace become a sacred temple.
This New Jersey Bridge Has Something to Say
The Lower Trenton Bridge, full name: Lower Trenton Toll Supported Bridge, is a rather mundane bridge save for the huge, and hugely catty-sounding, slogan on its side.
More commonly known as the "Trenton Makes" Bridge, this bridge crosses the Delaware River to connect New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but despite its name, no toll is collected on the bridge. It is the southernmost free crossing of the Delaware River. When it opened to traffic in 1806, the bridge was the first to cross the Delaware, and it was made mostly of wood. The masonry of the substructure is original, and dates back to 1804. Before the bridge was even put in place, the Delaware had been crossed in this general location for many years. In fact, Washington's famous Crossing of the Delaware was also somewhere near there. The current bridge is 1,022 feet in length and is a five-span design from 1928. The bridge was the first bridge open to automobiles for interstate traffic.
In 1935, the words "TRENTON MAKES THE WORLD TAKES" (the Trenton slogan) were installed in big letters on the south-facing side of the bridge. The original slogan for Trenton was "The World Takes, Trenton Makes," thought up by S. Roy Heath in 1910. At the time the city adopted the slogan, Trenton was a major manufacturing center for china, rubber, wire rope, and cigars.
The message is clearly visible when riding the train between Philadelphia and New York City, letting the world know that old Trenton would like a little respect.
Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor lex.
More wonders to explore:
How Marshall Islanders Navigated the Sea Using Only Sticks and Shells
If you live in a country consisting of over 1,100 islands spread across 750,000 square miles, how do you navigate the sea in between? Easy: with sticks and shells.
The stick charts of the Marshall Islands, in use since they were first inhabited in the 2nd century B.C., are simple-seeming navigational tools that look like little more than a bunch of twigs arranged into a loose lattice. They guide voyagers by depicting the waves and islands they are likely to encounter along the way. But unlike most maritime maps as we understand them today, the delicate stick charts were not brought on sea voyages. Instead, they were studied by the sailors prior to the trip. The directions and swells would be memorized by the mariners, who would then navigate without them.
The use of Marshallese stick charts was not brought to popular modern attention until a missionary’s report in an 1862 edition of the Nautical Magazine. In the piece, American Protestant missionary Reverend L.H. Gulick described the island inhabitants creation of “rude” maps that described the location of other islands, nearby and afar, using stick formations to delineate wave patterns and oceanic activity.
While Gulick was correct about the charts describing wave activity, they were not made out of sticks per se. The charts were traditionally made from coconut fibers, the sturdy midsection of coconut tree fronds, and small shells like cowries. Gulick undoubtedly used navigational charts, sextants, and other complex Victorian tools of the day to reach the islands, but the rustic charts he discovered among the Marshall Islanders may have been just as complex, if not moreso.
The “stick charts,” as they are popularly known regardless of actual make-up, can be broken up into three distinct categories, all of which are dependent on swells, or dependable wave activity not caused by local winds but by the interaction of static currents and land which deforms the waves. To put it simply, the charts told people where to go based on reliable ocean movements instead of landmarks like on land.
The first type of chart was known as a mattang. These charts were generally smaller and used mainly for instruction in the swell patterns of specific voyages or in how to read a specific swell. These were often more abstract and symbolic, made by specific sailors for personal use, making them a bit more esoteric to the outsider. In these, as in all stick charts, the lines could be straight or curved or intersecting to represent the motion of the waves.
The second type of chart was the medo chart, which generally showed the relative position of a small number of islands to one another and how their landmass’ swells presented and/or interacted. Unlike the mattang chart, the medo was more concerned with the concrete position of islands, although again the oceanic swells were used to aid in navigation.
Finally the most far-reaching type of stick chart was the rebbelib, which covered a much wider area, and a great many more islands. These charts, with their greater number of intersecting points often looked like a loose mesh of criss-crossing lines, dotted with shell markers. Some of these charts, which were not made to scale, could cover nearly the entirety of the Marshall Islands, which are spread over 750,000 square miles of the Pacific.
The stick charts, their language and craft dating back centuries, are impressive both for their complexity and their accuracy. While they can be interpreted by outsiders, they are all but unreadable from a practical standpoint by those who did not grow up on the Marshall Islands, sailing the waters between the little bits of land. Even among islanders, the skills of making and reading the charts were held among select members of each community who would lead large sailing parties.
According to a 2015 Smithsonian article, in 2005, a graduate student studying the stick charts was taken out to sea by a navigator from the Marshall Islands, who asked him if he could feel the subtle swells as they passed over them. The student could not. It is this understanding of oceanic activity as topography that makes reading the stick charts even more challenging.
After centuries of use among the indigenous people of the Marshall Islands, the creation and use of stick charts began to dwindle in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as more modern forms of navigation from sextants to GPS made their way to the islands. The decline of the tradition was also helped along by the stringent information control surrounding the traditional navigation techniques. Since the knowledge was limited to only a few members of each community, as they died, so did their unique understanding of the craft.
Navigation by stick chart may be a mostly forgotten art, but many of the delicate navigational tools have survived. The Science Museum at the University of Cambridge has a collection, as does the British Museum. Stateside, you can find stick charts at the Met in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, while, in the southern hemisphere, the National Library of Australia and New Zealand's Te Papa Museum both have them in their collections.
More wonders to explore:
- At the Light Gate in Manhattan Beach, California, the sun acts as a key that only fits this giant keyhole twice a year.
- A few stone foundations and an old graveyard are all that is left of the once thriving settlement of Bara-Hack in the wilds of Connecticut.
- Dunnottar Castle: The ruins of this gorgeous clifftop castle look like something from a fantasy novel.