There’s been an unprecedented upsurge of interest in the so-called ‘paranormal’ during pandemic. Writer at Large Neil Mackay explores the world’s strangest mysteries and uncovers the not-so-otherwordly truth

FASCINATION with all things weird and strange has boomed under the pandemic. Sales of occult paraphernalia like tarot cards are on the up, while internet searches of everything from astrology and magic to aliens and ghosts proliferate daily.

The trend reflects how many people across the western world are confused, scared, and looking for answers wherever they can find them - even in the most unlikely of places. Interest in spiritualism and new age religions has risen during coronavirus.

Curiosity about the paranormal isn’t just confined to the outer reaches of the internet though - these odd ideas have gone mainstream. Sky is currently airing the series Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation - it’s got a big cult following and is produced by Tom DeLonge, once frontman of the pop-punk band Blink-182. The documentary series Ancient Aliens - which peddles junk-science claims that humans were created by extra-terrestrials - is watched by millions every day.

Buried within this mountain of conspiracy theories, though, are some genuinely fascinating mysteries which centre on a number of truly bizarre real life objects - from ancient machines and prehistoric buildings, to bizarre video footage and unexplained computer data.

These objects and the enigmas they represent don’t point to the existence of ghosts or UFOs, however - there’s nothing supernatural or otherworldly waiting to be uncovered - rather, these strange artefacts prove just how little we know about humanity’s past and the physical universe around us.

Either that or they’re just hoaxes, innocent misinterpretations, or the result of good old fashioned stupidity, of course…

1 The Antikythera Mechanism

In 1901, divers exploring a shipwreck off the coast of the Greek island Antikythera discovered a hunk of metal which when x-rayed turned out to be a computer from around 100BC. The device, composed of bronze gears, is a highly sophisticated clockwork mechanism which is believed to have been used to calculate astronomical events such as eclipses and the orbit of the moon. The discovery proves just now advanced ancient science was - and just how little we credit our ancestors for knowledge and technology they discovered long before us.

2 The Baghdad Battery

This seems to be another technological achievement that came long before the advances of modern science, but was also lost to the mists of time. The ‘Baghdad Battery’ was found in 1938 in Iraq and is around 2000 years old. It comprises a clay pot, a copper tube and an iron rod. Although it’s still unclear exactly what the artefact was for, there’s speculation it was a galvanic cell - a basic battery - that might have been used to electroplate gold onto metal. However, as there are no electroplated objects from this period of antiquity as yet discovered, others speculate the device involved some form of electrotherapy. Reconstructions of the Baghdad battery show it’s capable of producing a small electrical current, when an acidic liquid is used as an electrolyte solution. Tests have shown that wine or vinegar had at one point been present in the device. Other more sceptical and prosaic explanations claim it could simply be a container for scrolls.

3 Gobekli Tepe

Just north of the Syrian border, near the Turkish city of Urfa, lie the ruins of the oldest temple in the world - Gobekli Tepe. The site - comprised of carved pillars and sophisticated stone circles - was built before the 10th millennium BC. To put that in context, the earliest construction date for Stonehenge is 3000BC - and Stonehenge looks positively lacklustre when compared to the scope and style of Gobekli Tepe. However, what makes Gobekli Tepe truly remarkable is the way it rewrites human history. The structure was built by hunter-gatherers before the invention of agriculture. Until the discovery of Gobekli Tepe in 1963, it was accepted as fact that agriculture prompted humans to settle down and build permanent dwellings like temples which eventually turned into the cities. Gobekli Tepe indicates the reverse: that creating a ritual centre sparked the development of agriculture to sustain builders and worshippers. So, did Gobekli Tepe lead to agriculture and therefore civilisation as we know it? Certainly, the site proves that prehistoric society was much more advanced - both socially and technologically - than we ever imagined.

4 Atlantis in the North Sea

When a North Sea fishing trawler dredged up a spear made from antler in 1931, it heralded the start of a haul of prehistoric artefacts from deep underwater, including mammoth and lion bones, and Stone Age tools. Where were they coming from? The answer was Doggerland - a lost land between Britain and northern Europe which vanished below the waves thanks to a giant tsunami and rising sea levels after the Ice Age. By 2007, underwater Doggerland had been mapped, and by 2012 scientists from St Andrews, Dundee and Aberdeen universities completed the first major study of “the ancient people that lived there”. The discovery of Doggerland poses the questions: what other archeological treasures are lost under the oceans, and what could such discoveries teach us about our ancient ancestors?

5 The face of Akhenaten

Ancient sculptures of great kings self-evidently tended to flatter their subjects. So why do statues of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten make him seem ugly, even deformed? He’s depicted with a long thin face and larger than normal features, spindly legs and big thighs and hips, a fat stomach and breasts. The key to understanding Akhenaten is that he’s the man who tried to throw the old gods out of Egypt during his reign between 1353-1336BC in order to introduce monotheism - the belief in one god. After his death, though, Egypt reverted back to its old religion. It’s thought Akhenaten may have suffered from some form of illness that changed his physiognomy - Fröhlich’s syndrome and Marfan syndrome are just two suggestions. Could illness have affected his mental health, leading to some form of religious mania? Alternatively, the androgynous sculptures of Akhenaten may have reflected the concept of monotheism - that the one god represented both men and women. Whichever explanation is true, the face of Akhenaten represents probably the biggest revolution in human religious history to date.

6 Wow!

In August 1977, astronomer Jerry Ehman was looking through computer data from Ohio State University’s Big Ear radio telescope - part of the SETI experiment searching for extra-terrestrial life. One small section of data showed a huge radio signal spike coming from the constellation of Sagittarius. Ehman was so shocked that he wrote ‘Wow!’ on the computer printout. The signal lasted 72 seconds and has not been observed since. Many leaped on the finding as proof of alien life, although Ehman himself once suggested “it was an Earth-sourced signal that simply got reflected off a piece of space debris”. Today, there’s still no accepted scientific explanation. Whatever the Wow signal was, in scientific terms it remains relatively meaningless unless replicated. All we can say is that the phenomenon underscores just how little we know about the universe.

7 What’s circling KIC8462852?

Astronomers are befuddled by strange fluctuations in the light from the star KIC8462852 in the Cygnus constellation, 1470 light-years from Earth. KIC8462852 starlight dims by up to 22% and as yet there’s no accepted explanation why. The strangest hypothesis, which some scientists support, is that the star is surrounded by an alien megastructure known as a Dyson Sphere - a hypothetical construction that scientists have speculated could be used by an alien civilisation to harness the entire power of a sun. However, a much more likely - and less scary - explanation for the light fluctuations is that there’s a ring of dust around KIC8462852. It could also be down to a swarm of comets. More proof, if needed, that our understanding of the universe is in its infancy.

8 The Pentagon’s UFO videos

This sounds like something straight out of the Pocket Guide to Conspiracy Theories - and the crazy speculation hasn’t been helped by the US military doing little to dispel the wildest flights of fancy. In 2017, footage leaked of three cockpit recordings from US navy fighter jets which showed strange objects moving fast in the sky. The videos came with the voice recordings of bewildered pilots. One can be heard saying: “What the f**k is that … oh gosh, dude.” But there’s plenty of mundane explanations aside from ETs: an aerial device like a balloon, a bird, another aircraft, and instrument malfunction are just some of the theories. For all we know, the videos could have captured the testing of new spy drones, or as the Senate Intelligence Committee chair has speculated military hardware operated by Russia or China.

9 The Voynich Manuscript

Sometime in the 1400s an unknown writer sat down and composed a beautifully illustrated book hundreds of pages long - the only problem is nobody has any idea what it says as the text is in a secret code which has never been broken. The book is named after Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish book dealer who bought the manuscript in 1912. It’s been carbon-dated to the 15th century, and subjected to the work of intelligence service codebreakers but to no avail. Some of the drawings are botanical, some astronomical - so could it be some coded science manual? Maybe, but it could also be a meaningless work dreamt up by a lunatic. Nevertheless, it remains one of the world’s most enduring mysteries and who knows what secrets might be contained if its coded text is ever deciphered.

10 The monolith on Phobos

UFO conspiracy theorists are as obsessed with monoliths in outer space as JKF nuts are with a second gunman - so it was with obvious delight that they greeted images of what appeared to be a monolith on Phobos, one of the moons of Mars. In 2009, Buzz Aldrin - the second man on the moon - added fuel to the fire when he said of the structure: “When people find out about that they are going to say, 'Who put that there?’.” Like the so-called Face on Mars and the Canals of Mars, there’s a sensible explanation, however. The monolith appears to be a tall, straight, hand-made construction about 90m tall like the Washington Monument or Cleopatra’s Needle in London - but actually it’s either a huge chunk of rock that fell from a nearby cliff, or part of Phobos’s bedrock which has become exposed. Photographs can be deceiving, especially in space. However, the unusual shape of the monolith most likely holds clues to the origin of Phobos itself - and may reveal, if we ever get to study it, that Phobos is an asteroid which got sucked into the gravitational pull of Mars.

11 The London Hammer

In 1936, part of a hammer was apparently found in London, Texas, embedded in rock that was said to be millions of years old. The tool, it was claimed, was a fossil. Creationists jumped on the find as proof of a pre-flood civilisation. The only problem is the hammer is identical to those produced in America in the late 1800s and it’s entirely probable that it appears encased in rock because soluble minerals in limestone closed around it. It was most likely dropped by a miner and subjected to natural geological phenomenon. The object - known as an ‘out-of-place artefact’ - can be found today at the Creation Evidence Museum in Texas. Significantly, it hasn’t been subject to carbon dating.

12 Hieroglyphics in Australia?

Australia is full of rock art by aboriginal people, but in Gosford, New South Wales, there’s a series of stone carvings which are said to be proof that ancient Egyptians travelled the seas, went down under, and doodled on stones. These Australian hieroglyphs apparently depict animals, boats, birds, people and even the names of ancient Egyptian rulers. However, the hieroglyphs aren’t cut like they would have been by ancient Egyptians, and they are chronologically absurd - like reading modern English alongside ancient Greek. The smart money is on the drawings being made by some bored Aussie soldier on his return from being stationed in Egypt during the First World War.

13 The Tamil Bell

In 1836, a Christian missionary in New Zealand noticed Maori women boiling potatoes in a strange pot. It turned out to be a broken bell that was around 500 years old - and it had an inscription written on it in ancient Tamil, whose speakers live in places like Sri Lanka. Its discovery seems to rewrite the understanding of ocean travel before the modern era. Seafarers from Sri Lanka may have reached New Zealand long before it was thought possible. However, the bell could also, of course, have been washed up in a shipwreck, or come with European explorers and been handed on or traded to Maori people.

14 Druids in America?

Some mysteries point more to human prejudices than any uncanny explanation. Take the so-called ‘Druids in America’ theory. Across New England there’s hundreds of stone chambers resembling structures built by the inhabitants of ancient Britain and Ireland. There’s long been speculation that these chambers are proof of ‘druids’ sailing to America millennia ago. Of course, that excludes the much more obvious explanation … that Native American people built the chambers, probably to store winter food, or for some other religious or social purpose.

15 Alien antenna

Other mysteries are just plain daft - like the Eltanin Antenna, captured in a photograph taken in 1964 by the research vessel Eltanin, apparently showing an antenna on the seabed. Cue hysteria from ufologists convinced it was proof of a downed alien craft off Cape Horn. It later transpired the antenna was actually a sea sponge of very earthly origin.