14 Historical Mysteries That We'd Really Like Answers To
Photo: Андрей Андреевич Зеест / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

14 Historical Mysteries That We'd Really Like Answers To

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Vote up the most puzzling mysteries of the past.

Just because the past already happened doesn't mean we know all of its secrets. In fact, there are many enduring mysteries from history for which we still have no answers.

Like unsolved ancient mysteries, this collection of unsolved historic mysteries includes stories of inexplicable disappearances, puzzling objects, and missing artwork. Some unsolved mysteries from the past involve mystifying occurrences, while others are the result of lost knowledge, paperless trails, and long-gone evidence.

Why did people abandon a Mesoamerican city? How did an entire room mysteriously disappear? Who erected a monument containing a modern-day 10 Commandments - and why? From lost burial sites to unexplained cryptozoological phenomena, these historic mysteries prove that there's always something new to uncover about the past.

  • What Happened To The Crew Of The Ghost Ship 'Mary Celeste'?
    Photo: Unknown author / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    1,455 VOTES

    What Happened To The Crew Of The Ghost Ship 'Mary Celeste'?

    The Mary Celeste departed New York City on November 5, 1872. The ship was bound for Genoa and had 10 people on board: Captain Benjamin Briggs and his seven crewmen were joined by Briggs's wife and daughter. 

    A month later, the crew of the Dei Gratia spotted the Mary Celeste drifting near Portugal. Alarmed, they approached the Mary Celeste and discovered that the ship was empty. They also determined that the ship was seaworthy - evidently, Briggs's family and the crew hadn't abandoned the ship because it was sinking, and the last Captain's log indicated no issues. Where had everyone gone, and why?

    The Briggs family and the Mary Celeste's crew have never been found. Though it's likely that everyone on board escaped the ship on a lifeboat - which was missing - it remains unclear why they abandoned ship and what happened to them in the Atlantic. As Briggs and his wife had a son back in New York, who they presumably would have contacted if they survived the ordeal, it's highly likely that their lifeboat never made it to land. 

    Many theories of what transpired have been proposed over the years, ranging from sea monsters to pirates. Initial investigations looked into foul play and possible mutiny, but there's little evidence to support this. Among the more credible explanations: A chemical explosion may not have damaged the ship, but it could have been enough to spook everyone off of it. Additionally, while the ship wasn't sinking, there was a low level of water onboard. Another theory holds that the ship may have encountered a waterspout. Some waterspouts are essentially terrifying tornados on water, while fair weather waterspouts can form even in light winds. Encountering a waterspout could have caused the water onboard the ship. Due to a malfunctioning pump, Captain Briggs could have thought the ship was taking on water much faster than it actually was.

    Every theory seems to have some holes, however, and no one can say for certain what happened to the 10 people on board. Whatever it was, it seems Captain Briggs, who was by all accounts a solid and rational captain, would have had to have been extremely panicked to abandon the ship so suddenly.

    1,455 votes
  • 2
    1,174 VOTES

    Who Built Teotihuacan - And Why Was It Abandoned?

    Before the arrival of Spanish colonizers in the 16th century, Mesoamerica brimmed with complex civilizations. But scholars still don't know everything about these cultures. Among the most mysterious: Teotihuacan, the ruins of an impressive city built by unknown people.

    At its height of influence between 350 and 650 CE, Teotihuacan may have been home to upwards of 200,000 people. It not only boasted large temples and palaces, but it also relied on sophisticated urban planning. Indeed, the standard of living for residents in Teotihuacan seems to have been relatively high, since, despite the size of the city, everyone appears to have had a lot of space.

    But scholars have no idea who actually built and lived in Teotihuacan. For example, it wasn't the Aztecs, since they didn't arrive in the Valley of Mexico until sometime around the 1200s. Which civilization made its home at Teotihuacan?

    Researchers technically don't even know what the city's inhabitants called themselves. The Aztecs called the city Teotihuacan - which translates to "the city of the gods" in Nahuatl - and so the name stuck into the modern world.

    An equally tantalizing mystery: why was the city abandoned? At some point, all of the residents just left Teotihuacan. Researchers still don't know why. But as they turn up more clues - like a tunnel that may lead to a collection of royal burials - some answers may begin to emerge.

    1,174 votes
  • Where Did The Amber Room Go?
    Photo: Андрей Андреевич Зеест / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    1,107 VOTES

    Where Did The Amber Room Go?

    WWII wasn't kind to the art world. Countless works of art were looted, went missing, or were destroyed. Among them: an entire room. The so-called Amber Room, an 18th-century room that was installed in Russia's Catherine Palace, hasn't been seen since the war. Heralded as an 18th century "wonder of the world," the room was decked out with amber and gold leaf. 

    Shortly before Germany's siege of Leningrad in WWII, Catherine Palace curators attempted to hide the room by covering up the walls with ordinary wallpaper. The ruse didn't work though. Nazis looted the room, disassembled it, and reinstalled it in Königsberg Castle, which was then bombed in 1944.

    That's the end of the line for the Amber Room, right? Well, maybe not. Some claim that the Amber Room may have survived the flames - or at least its furnishings did. After all, when the Soviets surveyed the castle's ruins in 1945, they couldn't find any remains of the room.

    If the room and/or its furnishings did survive, what happened to them? Nobody knows for sure. Some claim that Stalin had a second amber room, and the room the Germans looted in Leningrad wasn't the real thing. Others say that it was hastily taken out of Königsberg Castle before the bombings, where it was possibly loaded onto a ship and ended up at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. In 1997, German art detectives heard a tip that someone was trying to sell a piece of the Amber Room. They tracked down the seller, and a mosaic panel from the room, but he was the son of a deceased soldier and didn't know where the panel had originated.

    In 2020, researchers were hopeful about finding pieces of the Amber Room after the discovery of the wreck of the Karlsruhe - a German ship that sank in 1945. But in 2021, divers announced they'd found nothing related to the room, though portions of the wreck are too deep to salvage.

    1,107 votes
  • Why Was Nefertiti Erased From History?
    Photo: Philip Pikart / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0
    1,220 VOTES

    Why Was Nefertiti Erased From History?

    Queen Nefertiti of Egypt is remembered for her beauty and power, especially after her bust was discovered in 1912. But much of her life remains unknown. What historians usually agree on is that Nefertiti was married to Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, who later assumed the name Akhenaten, and evidence suggests that theirs was an affectionate, loving relationship.

    Though Akhenaten ruled from 1353 to 1336 BCE, the historical trail about Nefertiti comes to a dead-end in the 12th year of his reign and evidence of Nefertiti disappears. What happened to her? How did she vanish from history?

    Scholars have put forward various explanations, but none of them have been definitively proven. Some suggest she passed as a plague swept through Egypt, or fell out of favor; others allege she was actually elevated to become her husband's co-regent under a new name.

    Adding more mystery, a rock with an inscription discovered in 2012 mentions Nefertiti’s name as "Great Royal Wife" and dates back to the 16th year of Akhenaten's reign. This new evidence goes against the theories that Nefertiti passed or lost power in the 12th year. It also suggests that Nefertiti may have outlived her husband by several years (he passed in the 17th year of his reign) and may have even ruled Egypt in her own right.

    1,220 votes
  • Where Is Cleopatra's Tomb?
    Photo: Otto Nickl / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0
    1,023 VOTES

    Where Is Cleopatra's Tomb?

    Cleopatra VII of Egypt is one of the most storied figures of the ancient world. Her passing in 30 BCE - perhaps by her own hand - ended her kingdom's autonomy and chained Egypt to the Roman Empire.

    But what happened to Cleopatra's body? Was she entombed? And, if so, where?

    The prevailing theory has been that Cleopatra's tomb is at the bottom of the sea. It seems logical that Cleopatra would have wanted to be buried in Alexandria, her home. Unfortunately, the Ptolemaic royal complex is now at the bottom of the Mediterranean - in 365 CE, an earthquake caused a tsunami, and the sea eventually claimed Alexandria's royal buildings.

    But not everyone is convinced that Egypt's most famous queen ended up at the bottom of the sea. An alternate theory claims that Cleopatra's body was taken out of Alexandria and laid to rest at a temple outside the city, where it would be protected from Roman desecration. As of 2020, archaeologists are excavating Taposiris Magna, an ancient temple outside of Alexandria, in the hopes of finding the queen's ancient tomb there. Archaeologist Kathleen Martinez believes Cleopatra "outsmarted everyone" by hiding her final resting place from the Romans.

    1,023 votes
  • 6
    1,091 VOTES

    What Happened To The Colonists Of Roanoke Island?

    It's one of the enduring mysteries of the early history of the United States of America: what happened to the people who were colonizing Roanoke Island?

    Located in present-day North Carolina, Roanoke Island has been remembered since the 1830s as "the lost colony." Sir Walter Raleigh established it in 1585, intending it to become the first English settler colony in North America. Around 120 people reached the island two years later. 

    They didn't have an easy time at first. Colonists struggled with a lack of supplies. John White, governor of the settlement, returned to England to get aid and assistance for the community.

    When White finally made it back to Roanoke Island in 1590, no one was there - the entire settlement was empty. All that greeted him was a single word carved into a post: "CROATOAN." What did it mean? And what happened to the people who had been living there?

    No one knows for sure what happened to the colonists, but several theories have been put forward. "Croatoan" likely referred to a Croatoan Native American community on Hatteras Island, near Roanoke. Some scholars believe that the colonists - or at least some of them - abandoned their settlement and integrated themselves into the neighboring Croatoan community.

    But that's not the only explanation scholars have proposed. Others allege that the Roanoke colonists may have simply moved their settlement to a new site. Still others propose a grimmer end for the colonists: they may have been slain by Native Americans or hostile Spaniards, or been wiped out by disease, starvation, or a deadly storm.

    1,091 votes