A hotter than average summer brought an unexpected discovery recently. In the melt of a retreating glacier, Italian officials found the remains of 24 year-old Canadian Gregory Barnes who had gone missing in 1980 while skiing in the Italian and Swiss Alps.
For his family who had wondered about his fate, this brought long overdue closure. For me, it was a reminder that strange, beyond-our-control circumstances have often been sources of unexpected discoveries. Here are 5 accidental finds that owe their existence not so much to normal logic as they do to unpredictable weather conditions.
When paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson awoke on the morning of November 30, 1974, he had a hunch “something terrific might happen.” In a region he’d searched before, he walked along a gully recently created by a flash flood. Among the churned stones and debris, he spotted a fossilized arm bone and several other bone fragments, all of them human-like and very old. They proved to be the remains of an adult female who lived millions of years ago. Named Lucy after a popular Beatles song, it was the oldest and most complete human discovered up until that time.
1986 – Sea of Galilee, Israel
After a severe drought, the water level in the Sea of Galilee dropped, exposing areas of sea floor never seen before. Two brothers, Yuval and Moshe Lufan, spotted a murky outline in the mud along that shoreline. It turned out to be a fishing boat built 2000 years ago that had been preserved in the mud. Composed of twelve different kinds of wood, including sycamore, laurel, oak and cedar, the vessel matched descriptions of fishing vessels given in the Bible, and was likely the kind of craft used to sail the sea during the time of Jesus.
1991 – Italian Alps
Following a summer of unusual heat, two German hikers – Helmut Simon and his wife, Erika- discovered a body embedded in a slowly melting glacier. Thinking it was an unfortunate hiker who had slipped and fallen to his death, Helmut took a photo of the body before continuing down the mountain to alert authorities. What the Simon’s found instead was a 5000 year old mummy, one of the oldest and best preserved ever discovered. Nicknamed Otzi the Iceman, the mummy is now on display in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy.
1994 – St. Lawrence River
After a strong storm swept through the area near his cottage along the St Lawrence River, Marc Tremblay spotted pots, rifles, axes, bottles and the timbers of a ship half-buried in the sand. Called to investigate, archaeologists discovered the wreck of the Elizabeth and Mary, one of 32 English ships that led an attack on Quebec City in 1690 and then sank in a wild storm while making a hasty retreat.
2004 – Florida
After Hurricane Jeanne slammed the Atlantic coast, scraping away sand and relocating dunes, archaeologist Joel Ruth used a metal detector to comb the shoreline. He spotted a Spanish silver coin on the beach. “I grabbed it and then every foot it was – bam, bam – another hit,” he reported. After 4 hours of searching, the batteries of his metal detector died, but not before Ruth had found more than 180 silver coins worth more than $40,000.