Whilst today we take for granted the idea that all we produce will be stored indefinitely, whether on the cloud or in some digital format hidden away and archived in perpetuity, this comforting (and also somewhat oppressive) truth of being cannot be said for previous generations. As difficult as it might be for a modern audience to understand, the simple act of writing a book, let alone building a structure, in antiquity carried no surety said work would even reach a tenth birthday let alone two thousand. Consequently, whilst some treasures from our species’ past have endured to be enjoyed by the modern day, many known works of art and wonder have unfortunately been lost to the mists of time and can only be imagined in their former glory.
Here are 20 incredible works of art that did not deserve to be lost to history:
20. Love’s Labour’s Won and The History of Cardenio – works by legendary dramatist William Shakespeare
A lost play attributed to William Shakespeare, believed to have been written before 1598 and published by 1603, Love’s Labour’s Won has faded into history following the disappearance of all known copies. First mentioned during Francis Meres’ list of plays dating from 1598, scholars have persistently debated whether or not the play was indeed lost or merely renamed to become another of the Bard’s famous repertoire. Initially suggested as The Taming of the Shrew, following debunking of this theory opinion has coalesced either around Much Ado About Nothing or, more likely, that the play was indeed a unique piece designed as a sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost.
Not the only lost work from the legendary playwright, The History of Cardenio is known to have been performed by the King’s Men – the company to which Shakespeare belonged – in 1613. Attributed in a Stationer’s Register entry from 1653 as co-authored by Shakespeare and John Fletcher, it is thought the play was based on the eponymous character from Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote and his subsequent madness. Although uncertain, with some historians claiming the entry falsely appropriated Shakespeare’s authorship to increase attention, the legitimacy of the lost work is widely accepted by scholars.
19. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were not only an advanced technological marvel but allegedly one of the most beautiful man-made structures from all of history
A staggering feat of engineering, far surpassing the general capabilities of the age, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were among the greatest wonders of the ancient world. Constructed in the eponymous city from antiquity, situated at present-day Hillah in modern Iraq, according to legend the structure was located alongside a grand palace known as The Marvel of Mankind and built upon the orders of the Neo-Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II as a gift for his wife. Dating the wonder to between 605 and 562 BCE if correct, alternatively the gardens have been equally attributed to Queen Semiramis who reigned during the ninth century BCE.
The only one of the Seven Wonders whose location has not been manifestly established, no definitive archaeological evidence has been found in Babylon and surviving texts offer limited insight. Whilst some historians have suggested the lack of proof as evidence of mythical status, it is far more likely the altered flow of the Euphrates River has eradicated the ancient site. Described as resplendently beautiful as well as architecturally astounding, the gardens supposedly consisted of an ascending series of tiered gardens comprising a wide variety of imported shrubbery, vines, and plants to create a new Eden.
18. The Yongle Encyclopaedia was comprised of more than twenty-three thousand chapters, of which only eight hundred have survived intact to the modern age
Although predominantly known for his military endeavors, the Yongle Emperor – who ruled China as part of the Ming dynasty from 1402 until 1424 – was also a passionate intellectual. Commissioning a year after his coronation a mighty manuscript, entitled A Complete Work of Literature, upon its completion in 1404 the Emperor rejected the finished product as insufficient and demanded more volumes. Expanding the pool of writers from one hundred to more than two thousand, these scholars spent the next four years accumulating knowledge from across the nation and compiling this information into a singular text.
Completed in 1408, the Yongle Encyclopaedia can only be described as the most all-encompassing epic work of literature in human history. Comprising almost twenty-three thousand chapters, totaling more than three-hundred-and-seventy million characters and occupying forty cubic meters, the encyclopedia included the totality of knowledge as of the fifteenth century. However, although narrowly saved from a fire in 1557, for unknown reasons but likely involving unintentional burning, the original text has not survived. Instead, fewer than four hundred copied volumes, entailing eight hundred chapters, have endured to the modern day, comprising just three-and-a-half percent of the original work.
17. The Battle of Anghiari was reputedly a masterpiece of Renaissance art until its destruction during renovations
Commissioned in 1504 by Piero Soderini to decorate the Hall of Five Hundred, in the only occasion the legendary pair ever worked together Michelangelo was hired to paint one wall and Leonardo da Vinci the opposite. Whilst Michelangelo elected not to complete his masterpiece depicting an episode from the Battle of Cascina, being invited to Rome to construct the Pope’s tomb a year later, da Vinci inadvertently spoiled his own creation. Designing an ingenious scaffold capable of being raised or folded, da Vinci embarked on an immense dedication of the Battle of Anghiari which would have been his largest work.
Experimenting with a thick undercoat following his poor experiences with oil colors during The Last Supper, da Vinci discovered that subsequently applied paint dripped before drying. Despite his best efforts, da Vinci could only save the lower part of his masterpiece and abandoned the project in a fit of auteur rage. Despite being incomplete, the mural became one of da Vinci’s most acclaimed paintings, celebrated for decades as a passionate work of genius. Sadly, however, during renovations of the room in the mid-to-late sixteenth century, both unfinished works were destroyed, with only copies of da Vinci’s masterpiece remaining to offer a glimpse into his flawed creation.
16. The Margites is a lost epic comedy by Homer that disappeared thousands of years ago
Commonly attributed to the legendary Greek author Homer, with its existence and authorship testified to by Aristotle in his Poetics, the Margites is an ancient epic play that has since been largely lost. Believed to follow the story of an eponymous central character possessed with exceeding stupidity, who was unaware which parent had given birth to him, little about the comic mock-epic has survived to the modern day. Written in mixed hexameter and iambic lines, only four sections of verse as quoted by ancient contemporaries of the play provide us any insight into the nature or context of the classical work.
Unquestionably famous throughout the ancient world, with the phrase “mad as Margites” becoming a known saying within the Hellenistic sphere, as Aristotle poignantly described Homer’s lost creation: “as are the Iliad and Odyssey to our tragedies, so is the Margites to our comedies”. Given the illustrious reputations of Homer’s other epic works, notably the aforementioned Illiad and Odyssey, which stand among the greatest works of the ancient world, the loss of a further cultural masterpiece reputedly by the same author which arguably laid the foundations of future works of its genre is a tremendous loss to classical literature.
15. The Amber Room was most likely destroyed towards the end of the Second World War
Originally intended for Charlottenburg Palace, the Amber Room, designed by Andreas SchlÃ¼ter and constructed from 1701, was eventually installed at the Berlin City Palace. Admired greatly by Peter the Great during a visit to Berlin, in 1716 Frederick William I of Prussia offered the room as a gift to the Russian monarch as part of the Russo-Prussian alliance against Sweden. Relocated to Russia, where Peter’s daughter, Elisabeth, resolved the inestimable treasure should be installed at Catherine Palace, the original design of the Amber Room was reworked and expanded upon across the following decades.
Ultimately comprising more than fifty-five square meters, containing more than six tonnes of amber, the illustrious and decadent Amber Room was widely considered an “Eighth Wonder of the World”. Attempting to disassemble and evacuate the room following the German invasion of the Soviet Union, unable to move the amber without damaging it, efforts were made instead to conceal the treasure behind wallpaper. Unsuccessful, however, the ruse was discovered by Army Group North, who took apart the priceless room in less than thirty-six hours and sent it to KÃ¶nigsberg. Firebombed in August 1944 by the Royal Air Force, as well as suffering under intense artillery fire from the Red Army in April 1945, it is believed the Amber Room was lost forever as a result of the conflict.
14. The HonjÅ Masamune was revered for more than five hundred years until it vanished at the end of World War II
Widely acknowledged as the greatest swordsmith in Japanese history, Masamune is believed to have been active in Sagami Province during the latter years of the Kamakura period of the late-12th and early-13th centuries. Producing several famous blades throughout his lifetime, the HonjÅ Masamune is considered by many to have been his finest creation and among the greatest swords ever made. Obtaining its name likely due to a connection to HonjÅ Shigenaga, according to legend Shigenaga was attacked in battle by Umanosuke. Splitting his helmet with the legendary blade, Shigenaga nonetheless survived and claimed the sword as his prize.
Later forced to sell the sword to Toyotomi Hidetsugu for thirteen large gold coins, despite being valued at more than one thousand, after exchanging hands several times by the Edo period the blade had passed to the Tokugawa family. Remaining in their possession until the end of World War Two, with Tokugawa Iemasa the last known owner of the sword, following Japanese defeat and occupation the United States ordered the surrender of all edged weapons. Presenting the HonjÅ Masamune in December 1945 to the authorities, the blade subsequently disappeared without explanation, with theories ranging from theft to inadvertent destruction by uninformed Americans ignorant of its value and historical significance.
13. The earliest editions of the canonical gospels of Christianity have been lost to history
Dating from the latter half of the first century of the Common Era, the three synoptic gospels, attributed to Matthew, Mark, and Luke but anonymously authored, as well as a fourth canonical text by John, provide the foundational basis of the Christian doctrine. The first to be written, the Gospel of Mark most likely dates from between 66-70, whilst Matthew and Luke are believed to originate around 85-90 and John 90-110. Despite providing first-hand accounts, none of these religious writings were penned by actual eyewitnesses to the events detailed, due in large part to a belief by the earliest of Christians that Jesus’ return would be imminent and thus there was no need to record for future generations.
Consequently only appearing a generation after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, as his followers settled into a longer wait and living memory began to fade demanding enduring written accounts, in spite of the presumed age of the religious texts the oldest surviving copies of the canonical gospels date to only the second century of the Common Era. As is known concerning future revisions and selective inclusions of subsequent Christian texts, with several alternative gospels excluded from the canon by religious authorities for various (and often political) reasons, the loss of these first drafts has precluded access to the definitive and least politicized or manipulated versions.
12. Although the Colossus of Rhodes was brought down by an earthquake, it remains one of the greatest engineering feats of the ancient world
Besieged by a giant army led by Antigonus I Monophthalmus in the late-4th century BCE, following a relief force sent by Ptolemy I of Egypt, Rhodes emerged ultimately victorious in 304 BCE. Selling abandoned enemy equipment, the Rhodians elected to use the accumulated money to construct a colossal statue in honor of their patron god, Helios: the divine personification of the Sun. Overseen by Chares, construction began in 292, with the edifice, measuring approximately thirty-three meters tall – equal in height to the modern Statue of Liberty – and standing atop a fifteen-meter-high marble pedestal, believed to have been situated near the Mandraki harbor entrance.
Completed twelve years later, the structure was a feat of engineering genius resulting in widespread acclaim throughout the ancient world. However, although undeniably marvelous, classical understandings of earthquakes were limited and only fifty-four years later, in 226, Rhodes was struck by a massive earthquake. Dealing significant damage to large portions of the city, the natural disaster snapped the Colossus at its knees and caused it to come crashing to the ground. Despite an offer by Ptolemy III to pay for reconstruction, the Oracle of Delphi declared the Rhodians had offended Helios and they consequently declined the offer to restore the legendary monument.
11. Only approximately one-quarter of Livy’s colossal history Ab Urbe Condita Libri has survived
Born a little over half a century before the start of the Common Era, Titus Livy experienced first-hand the turbulent last years of the Roman Republic and became intimately friendly with Augustus as well as the wider Julio-Claudian imperial family. Using this experience and privileged connection, as well as an unknown source of independent wealth, Livy embarked upon a monumental and detailed account of the history of Rome known as Ab Urbe Condita Libri (Books from the Foundation of the City). Written between 27 and 9 BCE, the work starts at the very beginnings of Rome’s legend, with the arrival of Aeneas and the refugees from the fall of Troy in 753 BCE.
Following the narrative history of Rome, through the Expulsion of the Kings in 509 BCE and the formation of the Roman Republic, all the way through to the reign of Emperor Augustus, Livy penned dozens of books gradually coalescing the legendary history of the great city into a single source. Predominantly lost to the mists of time, only twenty-five percent of Livy’s epic history has survived to the modern day. In spite of historical disputes concerning the validity and accuracy of the text, the work nevertheless offers insight into otherwise lost history as well as into the minds of how the Romans perceived their own culture and nation, with the disappearance of the remainder a major blow to classical history and literature.
10. The Sarcophagus of Mankaure was lost at sea during its transportation to London the following year
An ancient Egyptian pharaoh belonging to the fourth dynasty of the Old Kingdom, Menkaure is thought to have reigned for between eighteen and twenty-two years beginning in 2530 BCE. Although limited information is known about the Egyptian monarch, with surviving understandings offering only vague insights into his reign and even his parentage is unclear, Menkaure has become one of the most famed rulers of the ancient kingdom via his extravagant tomb design. The smallest of the three pyramids at Giza, measuring a nonetheless impressive 103.4 meters at the base and 65.5 meters in height, the Pyramid of Menkaure – also known as Netjer-er-Menkaureor or “Menkaure is Divine” – was built to serve as his illustrious resting place.
Situated several hundred yards southwest of its larger neighbors, the Pyramid of Khafre and the Great Pyramid of Khufu, Menkaure’s pyramid was opened for excavations in 1837. Led by Englishmen Richard William Howard Vyse and John Shae Perring, the duo discovered a large stone sarcophagus carved from basalt. Uninscribed but decorated in the style of a palace facade, the sarcophagus offered the potential to better understand the ancient culture and an otherwise relatively unknown period of history. Removed from the pyramid and placed on the Beatrice – a merchant ship – for transport to the British Museum in London, the ancient relic was lost following the disappearance of the ship near Malta on October 13, 1838.
9. Only an estimated one-third of Aristotle’s vast output of works have actually endured to the modern day
One of the most acclaimed and celebrated figures of the classical world, Aristotle – a student of Plato and later the teacher of Alexander the Great – stands as a giant of ancient philosophy and intellect. Producing a colossal body of work, spanning subjects from physical and natural sciences including zoology, biology, and physics, as well as cultural pursuits such as rhetoric, philosophy, and aesthetics, in addition to amassing a vast output on politics, philosophy, and economics, Aristotle exerted a unique degree of influence on virtually every form of knowledge throughout the world
Despite spending the preponderance of his life writing, residing for two decades at Plato’s Academy and later founding his own school as Lyceum, Aristotle did not actually intend any of his writings to ever reach publication, suggesting a humility far beyond the comprehension of most humans. In no small part a result of this modesty, only approximately one-third of Aristotle’s original output has survived to the modern day. Capable of transforming human understanding and knowledge for thousands of years, influencing both early Christianity and Islam as his works diffused across the world, one can only imagine the impact his full body of work might have achieved.
8. Herman Melville’s Isle of the Cross is believed to have been destroyed by the American novelist following rejection by publishers
One of the most acclaimed novelists and poets of the American Renaissance, Herman Melville is best remembered for his romantic account of his experiences of Polynesian life in Typee and for his universally celebrated whaling epic Moby Dick. However, although today recognized as one of the greatest novels ever written, upon publication in 1851 Moby Dick was not well received by Melville’s contemporaries and was a commercial failure. Believed to have penned Isle of the Cross just two years later, it is thought New York publishers Harper & Brothers rejected the manuscript out of concern for another loss-making venture.
Recounting the story of Agatha Hatch Robertson, a Nantucket woman who had cared for a shipwrecked sailor, bore his children, and was subsequently abandoned by the man she saved, the novel would have been Melville’s only piece to present a female central character. Exploring nuanced themes from a new perspective for the talented author, what precisely became of the manuscript is unclear. Whilst some scholars claim it never existed, or that Melville incorporated it into other works, the most likely and accepted opinion is that the discouraged and frustrated author simply destroyed his work in despair.
7. The menorah from the Second Temple was taken by the Romans from Jerusalem before being lost after the Sack of Rome
Described in design and construction in Exodus, following Moses’ conversations with God, the menorah – an ancient Hebrew candelabra consisting of seven lamps held across six branches – stood, according to the Jewish oral tradition, at over five feet tall and was placed in an antechamber of the Temple sanctuary. Using fresh olive oil, the relic was burned from evening until morning daily and remains to this day one of the foremost symbols of Judaism. Although unclear in its history, with it unknown whether the menorah was captured and recovered during the Babylonian invasion, it is believed that as of 70 CE such a holy lamp was located at the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
Seized during the conquest of Jerusalem in the course of the First Jewish-Roman War of the same year, according to Josephus the menorah was carried to Rome as part of the triumph of Vespasian and Titus. A bas relief on the Arch of Titus similarly supports this interpretation, with Roman soldiers clearly carrying away a menorah as part of the spoils of war. Displayed as a war trophy at the Temple of Peace, the fate of the menorah following the Sack of Rome in 455 is unclear. Although some claim it was saved in secret and housed today in the Vatican, it is far more likely the relic was melted down for its valuable gold composition and dispersed beyond recovery.
6. The world’s first feature-length film, less than one-third of The Story of the Kelly Gang has survived following theatrical release in 1906 by the Tait family
Unaware during production of the enormity and historical significance of their labors, in 1906 the Tait family embarked upon an attempt to create a sixty-minute long narrative film entitled The Story of the Kelly Gang. Directed by Charles Tait, with his brother John and sister Elizabeth in leading roles, as well as being produced and distributed by their brother Nevin, the familial effort stood in stark contrast to the standard length of silent movies of between five and ten minutes at the time. Borrowing costumes and collaborating to create ingenious practical effects, their creation was eventually ready for release on December 26, 1906.
Banned in “Kelly County” for the glorification of criminality, made just twenty-six years after the execution of Ned Kelly for his crimes, the film nevertheless proved a critical and commercial success. Touring Australia, as well as Britain, Ireland, and New Zealand, over the next twenty years, it is thought the film returned in excess of Â£25,000 on its costly budget of Â£400-1,000. Thought lost in its entirety, in recent decades various segments of footage, totaling seventeen minutes and including the key scene of Kelly’s last stand, have been uncovered, but it remains nevertheless a tremendous loss to film that the majority was carelessly discarded.
5. Leonardo’s Medusa were widely regarded as among his finest creations
Detailed in Giorgio Vasari’s Vita di Leonardo (Life of Leonardo) from 1568, Vasari recounts in detail how a young Leonardo produced a masterpiece representing the monstrous head of the Gorgon Medusa on a buckler as a favor for Ser Piero da Vinci. Allegedly terrifying Ser Piero upon first glance, the appreciative nobleman secretly sold the work of art to some merchants in Florence for a hundred ducats who in turn sold it on to the Duke of Milan for three hundred. Although unknown what happened to this shield, with some art historians disputing the veracity of Vasari’s anecdote, a succession of 17th-century painters sought to copy Leonardo’s work after observing it suggesting at least some truth to the story.
Following this successful endeavor as a young amateur, Vasari alleged an older Leonardo was one day taken by fancy to “paint a picture in oils of the head of Medusa”. Remaining unfinished, but nonetheless “the most strange and extravagant invention that could ever be imagined”, Vasari claimed the work was in the possession of the Duke of Cosimo. Thought to have been discovered in 1782 at the Uffizi, the supposed masterpiece was celebrated throughout the 19th century as one of Leonardo’s finest. However, in the 20th century it was proven to not be the work of Leonardo, dating instead from approximately 1600 and is today attributed to an anonymous Flemish painter.
4. The Great Library of Alexandria housed hundreds of thousands of texts detailing the entirety of human understanding
Although not the first library of its kind, with a tradition of the institutions a longstanding practice throughout both Greece and the Near East in ancient times, the Library of Alexandria was nevertheless unprecedented in its scale and scope of ambitions. Believed to have been first proposed by Demetrius of Phalerum, an Athenian in exile, to Ptolemy I Soter, it would not be until the reign of his son, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the Great Library, as the structure would come to be known, would be constructed. Comprising between 40,000 and 400,000 texts at the height of its prominence, the site became the benchmark of knowledge in the ancient world and elevated the city of Alexandria to become regarded as the capital of learning.
Whilst it is common popular belief today that the Great Library was destroyed as a result of a singular cataclysmic burning, the institution actually endured a slow period of gradual decline which begun with the purging of intellectuals from Alexandria in 145 BCE under the reign of Ptolemy VIII Physcon. Indeed burned by accident by the forces of Julius Caesar during his civil war in 48 BCE, the library continued to decline during the Roman Period due to lack of funding. Ceasing to operate by the mid-third century of the Common Era, it is thought the final vestiges of the once great structure were destroyed between 270 and 275 during a rebellion.
3. The Ark of the Covenant nonetheless remains one of the most iconic religious artifacts from history
Constructed to house the Tablets of Stone upon which Moses carved the Ten Commandments, the Ark of the Covenant was designed based on specific guidance offered to the religious leader by God during his forty-day stay atop Mount Sinai. Gilded with gold and ornately illustrated, the Ark was to be covered as a sign of respect by a veil and is believed to have also contained Aaron’s rod and, according to the Jewish tradition, a pot of manna. Captured by the Philistines following a battle at Eben-Ezer, the Ark was later returned to the Hebrews after enduring a period of disaster and ill-luck attributed to divine disfavor.
Placed in a special room of Solomon’s Temple – the Holy of Holies – in 587 BCE the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, including the temple, after which the location of the Ark fell out of recorded knowledge. Whilst some allege it was carried off the Babylonians to be lost during the collapse of their own civilization, others contend the Ark was hidden in advance of the defeat in order to prevent its capture. With several locations proposed as the secret resting place of the Ark throughout history, ranging from Mount Nebo to Rome, the inestimably valuable relic was more likely been destroyed along with any chance to understand one of the foundational items of the Judaeo-Christian narrative.
2. Only one complete poem by Sappho has survived the two-and-a-half thousand years to the modern day
A poet from the island of Lesbos, Sappho was widely celebrated as one of the greatest lyric poets – a poet whose works were designed to be sung whilst accompanied by a lyre – from the ancient world. Although little is known about Sappho’s life, it is thought she stemmed from a wealthy family before being exiled to Sicily around 600 BCE at the age of approximately thirty. Continuing to work for the next thirty years, throughout her lifetime it is thought Sappho, who allegedly was a prolific artist and workaholic, composed more than ten thousand lines of poetry which were dispersed and admired throughout antiquity.
Despite this inordinate output, the vast preponderance of Sappho’s collected works have not survived to the modern day. Only one complete poem – Ode to Aphrodite – as well as fragments of verse from other pieces, have endured, with the ultimate fate of the great writer remaining unknown. Remembered today as the origin of the words sapphic and lesbian, with the latter due to her becoming synonymous with love between women, the loss of Sappho’s immense and acclaimed repertoire has deprived our understanding of classical literature and appreciation of ancient poetry beyond measure.
1. The greatest library in the world, the House of Wisdom, was utterly destroyed following the Mongol sack of Baghdad
Often cited as both the beginning and end of the Islamic Golden Age, the House of Wisdom, as well as the host city of Baghdad, was founded following the ascension of the Abbasid Caliphate over the Umayyad and the rise of al-Mansur in 762 CE. Instituted either as a private library for the collections of the caliph, or alternatively as a public academy as it later would become, the House of Wisdom would occupy a position at the center of the Translation Movement: a period in which classical works, such as that of Galen and Hippocrates, were en masse converted and consumed by Islamic scholars as part of one the greatest moments of scientific learning in history.
Becoming perhaps the foremost center of education in the known world, by the latter half of the ninth century it is thought the House of Wisdom comprised the greatest collection of books anywhere on Earth. Fluctuating in importance and support depending upon the whims of successive caliphs, the invaluable library came to an abrupt conclusion with the Siege of Baghdad in 1258. Although Nasir al-Din al-Tusi rescued an estimated 400,000 manuscripts before the attack, following the fall of the city the House of Wisdom was utterly destroyed, with its remaining books thrown into the Tigris River “in such quantities that the river ran black with the ink”.
Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources: