From Vanessa Vaselka for the Smithsonian: “Baron Franz Nopcsa von Felso-Szilvas, an Austro-Hungarian aristocrat born in 1877, was a notorious figure in his day. A wild genius with a flair for the dandyish and the dramatic, he was an explorer, spy, polyglot and master of disguise. He crossed the Albanian Alps on foot, and was nearly crowned King of Albania. Later in his life, he was known for chasing villagers from his estate with a pistol. But the baron was also one of the great scholars and scientific minds of his time. He was one of the first scientists to look at fossilized dinosaur bones and see a living creature. And he was a staunch believer in the relationship between birds and dinosaurs, decades before the idea became widely accepted among paleontologists.”
Why you might find a shoe hidden inside the walls of your house
From Katrina Gulliver for JSTOR Daily: “If you live in an old house, there may be more than you realize behind its walls or under its floors. For centuries, there was a custom in Great Britain (which spread to Britain’s colonies in the Americas) of ritual concealment, placing objects in different parts of the house as totems. The practice seems to have been widespread in Britain from the medieval period into the twentieth century. Often, the concealed object was a shoe. The oldest such hidden shoe was found at Winchester Cathedral and dated to 1308. Cases of hidden shoes also “abound” in New England. John Adams Birthplace, a house built by Joseph Penniman in 1681, contained an incredible forty-four shoes and boots, discovered during restoration.”
Note: This is a version of my personal newsletter, which I send out via Ghost, the open-source publishing platform. You can see other issues and sign up here.
After 50 years, the mysery of the old man on the Led Zeppelin album has been solved
From Claire Moses for the New York Times: “On Nov. 8, 1971, Led Zeppelin released its iconic fourth studio album, which was untitled but is widely known as “Led Zeppelin IV.” It features the band’s major hit “Stairway to Heaven,” and the wordless cover shows the framed image of a bearded, older man with a large bundle of sticks on his back against the backdrop of a decaying wall. Now, 52 years later to the day, a minor mystery about that cover has been solved. Sometimes thought to be a painting, the image, it turns out, was a Victorian-era photograph of a man who made thatched roofs for cottages in Wiltshire, a rural county in southwestern England. His name was Lot Long and he was 69 at the time, according to Brian Edwards, a researcher who found the photo.”
Editor’s note: If you like this newsletter, I’d be honoured if you would help me by contributing whatever you can via my Patreon. Thanks!
The world’s oldest pyramid isn’t in Egypt, it’s in Indonesia
From Jennifer Billock for Atlas Obscura: “A team of archaeologists, geologists, and geophysicists recently published a paper suggesting that Gunung Padang in the Cianjur District of the West Java Province is not actually the naturally occurring hill that everyone thought it was. Instead, they say it’s actually an ancient man-made structure. Previously, Gunung Padang referred only to the megalithic stone complex that sat on top of the hill, which some archaeologists believe was used as a celestial calendar (though the actual use is still unknown). But the team’s research shows that the entire structure—complex and hill itself—was sculpted by humans beginning about 25,000 years ago.”
The mystery of Drew Allan Kaplan and the golden age of gadget catalogs
From Cabel Sasser: “As a kid, I didn’t really read sci-fi novels, I’ve never read a single word of J.R.R. Tolkien, and I mostly used the encyclopedia to look up funny words. What I did read as a kid, over and over again, were game/computer magazines… and the DAK Catalog. Once you open it up, you’re greeted with a daisywheel printed just-for-you welcome message from a guy named Drew Alan Kaplan. That’s right, the D.A.K. himself. Here’s a catalog, from a guy who chooses cool gadgets, and writes about them in great detail, every word his own. Sounds fun. And then, you dig in. quite like it. First, a strange, catchy, probably-confusing headline gets you in. Then, a single item is given an entire page of attention. And most of all, the gadget is described and sold almost as if a friend is telling you all about it. That’s the DAK Catalog.
A Dutch tradition known as the Lonely Funeral Foundation
From Dan Lewis at Now I Know: “About twenty times a year, someone in Amsterdam dies without next of kin or somebody to claim the deceased’s body. Which means that these people are buried without anyone noticing. For roughly 25 years, a man named Ger Frits has made sure that doesn’t happen. With the blessing of Amsterdam’s city services, Frits became a one-man funeral gathering. After the city notified him that someone had died leaving no one behind, Frits would go to that deceased person’s apartment to get a feel for that person’s life, desires, and interests. Then, based on the information he gathered, he’d select some music to play at the funeral — a funeral only he’d be attending. He brought flowers with him to leave at the grave site, as well.”