Much like its predecessor, 2021 was one for the history books. The year began with a violent assault on the United States Capitol that left five dead and underscored the nation’s deep political ruptures. Two issues that dominated news coverage in 2020—the Covid-19 pandemic and the ongoing fight against systemic racism—continued to make headlines: As the global health crisis headed into its second year, the world welcomed the rollout of life-saving vaccines and warily monitored the emergence of viral variants. This fall, an installation on the National Mall offered a stark visualization of the disease’s death toll, with 695,000 white flags representing the 695,000 Americans who had died of Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. Three months later, that figure has surpassed 800,000.
2021 also brought a number of joyous developments, including the return of cultural traditions like the Olympics and public performances and incremental but measurable progress in the struggle for racial equality. President Joe Biden and Congress designated Juneteenth, a longstanding commemoration of the end of slavery in the U.S., a federal holiday, and local officials across the nation sought the removal of dozens of monuments honoring slaveholders, the Confederacy and other controversial figures.
Smithsonian magazine’s coverage of the second year of the decade (or the first, depending on who you ask) reflected the eclectic interests of our readers—and the possibilities opened up by the lifting of Covid-19 lockdowns around the world. We chronicled intriguing finds like a pregnant Egyptian mummy, hidden inscriptions in Tudor queen Anne Boleyn’s prayer book, a Vesuvius victim’s remains and an Aztec golden eagle sculpture. We also paid tribute to towering figures who died in 2021, including feminist scholar bell hooks, statesman Colin Powell and English royal Prince Philip. From an Egyptian queen’s tomb to a Viking mystery to crocodile evolution, these were Smithsonian’s ten most-read stories of 2021.
1. An Archaeological Dig Reignites the Debate Over the Old Testament’s Historical Accuracy
For decades, scholars believed that ancient copper mines discovered in Israel’s Timna Valley during the 1930s were King Solomon’s Mines of popular lore. But later excavations disputed this identification, arguing that the mines predated the biblical king by hundreds of years, dating instead to an Egyptian expedition in the 13th century B.C.E.
More recent research conducted by archaeologist Erez Ben-Yosef indicates that both groups might be right. As Matti Friedman reports in Smithsonian’s December 2021 cover story, physical evidence found at the site suggests that while ancient Egyptians may have started the mines, the operation truly reached its heyday around 1000 B.C.E.—the biblical era of David and Solomon. “For a moment we thought there might be a mistake in the carbon dating,” Ben-Yosef says. “But then we began to see that there was a different story here than the one we knew.”
The archaeologist’s polarizing conclusion—that an enigmatic, semi-nomadic rival of ancient Israel known as the kingdom of Edom ran an advanced mining operation at Timna and traded its copper across the ancient world—doesn’t claim to verify or refute the Old Testament’s accuracy. Instead, writes Friedman, Ben-Yosef argues that archaeology “has overstated its authority. Entire kingdoms could exist under our noses, and archaeologists would never find a trace. Timna is an anomaly that throws into relief the limits of what we can know.”
2. ‘World’s Worst Invasive Weed’ Sold at Many U.S. Garden Centers
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, cogongrass, a perennial grass species accidentally introduced to Louisiana in 1912, is one of “the world’s most invasive weeds.” Given its potential for destruction, the plant is illegal to import or transport between states without a permit—but that hasn’t stopped nurseries, landscaping centers and online retailers across the U.S. from selling the invasive species to unwitting gardeners.
This finding was one of the main takeaways from an August study published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. Researchers tracking the sale of invasive plants, including 20 that are illegal to grow or sell under federal law, reported that more than 60 percent of 1,285 invasive species are widely available for purchase in the U.S. “We’ve known for decades that many gardening and landscaping plants are invasive,” said senior author Bethany Bradley, an environmental conservation expert at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, in a statement, “but we’ve done little to stop propagating them. We can do better.”
Thankfully, the news wasn’t all negative: Per correspondent David Kindy, the study has prompted interest from state regulators hoping to crack down on illegal sales. Coupled with broader public awareness, increased vigilance by these enforcement agencies could prevent invasive plants from taking over the nation’s gardens.
3. Archaeologists Unearth Egyptian Queen’s Tomb, 13-Foot ‘Book of the Dead’ Scroll
Located some 20 miles south of Cairo, the Saqqara necropolis—a sprawling burial ground used by Egypt’s elite for more than 3,000 years—has yielded an array of archaeological treasures in recent years. Last fall, authorities displayed dozens of sealed sarcophagi found stacked in burial shafts at the ancient cemetery. Just last month, researchers unearthed the tomb of Ptah-M-Wia, who served as head of the treasury under pharaoh Ramses II.
But it was a discovery unveiled at the start of 2021 that most captured Smithsonian readers’ fascination: As writer Isis Davis-Marks reported in January, archaeologists with Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities discovered a funerary temple dedicated to Old Kingdom queen Naert, a 13-foot-long Book of the Dead scroll and more than 50 wooden coffins dated to the New Kingdom era. The sarcophagi were the oldest found at the site to date, predating the sealed coffins revealed in 2020 by some 500 years. In addition to these artifacts, researchers discovered a set of wooden masks, a shrine to the god Anubis, bird-shaped artifacts, games including Senet, a bronze ax and paintings.
4. Amateur Treasure Hunter Unearths Missing Centerpiece of Henry VIII’s Crown
Few royals fascinate as much as Henry VIII, the Tudor king whose six wives cemented his place in history books and popular culture alike. In February, Smithsonian covered a rare find linked to the mercurial monarch: a 2.5-inch-tall gold figurine that may have formed the centerpiece of a dazzling crown. Historian Leanda de Lisle announced the discovery on her website late last year, identifying the statuette as a likeness of the pious—and infamously incompetent—15th-century king Henry VI.
Metal detecting enthusiast and classic car restorer Kevin Duckett spotted the artifact while searching for treasure in an English field in 2017. It was one of three miniature sculptures of royal saints featured in the crown, which also boasted 344 rubies, sapphires, emeralds, diamonds and pearls. Duckett speculates that one of Henry VIII’s successors, Charles I, dropped the figurine while fleeing from the June 1645 Battle of Naseby. Prior to Duckett’s lucky find, scholars believed that the diadem was lost, its precious metals melted down to make coins and its jewels sold piecemeal following the fall of the British monarchy in 1649.
5. How the Ancient Romans Went to the Bathroom
In this excerpt from her book The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste Into Wealth and Health, journalist Lina Zeldovich vividly traces the ancient Romans’ bathroom habits, detailing the lack of privacy afforded by centuries-old toilets and spotlighting the Roman equivalent of toilet paper: a tersorium, or sea sponge attached to a stick.
Zeldovich’s interest in the subject stems from a visit to Ephesus, in what is now Turkey, where she stumbled onto a marble bench outfitted with holes. “Over a lovely conversation about bodily excretions, chamber pots, butt-wiping habits, sewer vermin and other equally unappetizing topics, the ancient Romans’ views on waste, hygiene and toilet habits [began] to take shape,” the journalist writes. Among the insights shared by Zeldovich: Roman elite refused to use public toilets, instead preferring private facilities in their homes, and rats, snakes and spiders often crawled up into latrines from the sewers below.
6. Rare Owl With Bright Orange Eyes Seen for the First Time in More Than 125 Years
Andy Boyce, an ecologist at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, was conducting research in Malaysia in May 2016 when he and a colleague encountered an unusually large owl with bright orange eyes. As the researchers reported in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology this April, the bird was a member of the Otus brookii brookii species, also known as the Bornean Rajah scops-owl. It was the first of its kind documented alive in the wild since 1892 and the first ever photographed in life. Boyce and his team observed the bird, recording as much information as possible before it flew away. Despite the scientists’ best efforts, they failed to spot the owl again after its initial departure.
“If we didn't document it right then and there, this bird could disappear again for who knows how long,” Boyce told Smithsonian reporter Gia Yetikyel in May. “It was a really rapid progression of emotion. There was nervousness and anticipation as I was trying to get there, hoping the bird would still be there. Just huge excitement, and a little bit of disbelief, when I first saw the bird and realized what it was. And then, immediately, a lot of anxiety again.”
7. Did a Viking Woman Named Gudrid Really Travel to North America in 1000 A.D.?
Viking lore suggests that Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, the Icelandic-born wife of Leif Erikson’s younger brother, Thorstein, was one of the first Europeans to explore North America, arriving in Newfoundland some 500 years before Christopher Columbus set sail. She and her second husband, Thorfinn, supposedly settled in what was then known as Vinland around 1000 C.E., remaining there for three years before returning home to Iceland. The trip wouldn’t be Gudrid’s last sojourn to the New World: “Ultimately,” wrote contributor Sarah Durn in March, “she made eight crossings of the North Atlantic Sea and traveled farther than any other Viking, from North America to Scandinavia to Rome—or so the Viking sagas claim.”
Durn’s article outlines the case for Gudrid’s existence and travels, juxtaposing accounts of her life found in the so-called Vinland sagas with archaeological evidence discovered at L'Anse aux Meadows, the only known Viking settlement in North America. In 1976, researchers unearthed a Viking-era spindle whorl, or small stone that was fixed to the end of a rod used to spin thread, at the site; since spinning was, by every indication, women’s work in the Viking world, the discovery seemingly proved that at least one woman—and likely more—lived at L’Anse aux Meadows during Gudrid’s lifetime. (A study published in October offered additional support for Gudrid’s presence at the Newfoundland settlement, drawing on an analysis of wooden artifacts to show that “Vikings lived, and felled trees, on North American soil exactly 1,000 years ago—during the year 1021 C.E.,” according to science correspondent Brian Handwerk.)
“[A]sking not ‘Are the sagas true?’ but ‘Are they plausible?’” is perhaps the best approach to examining the veracity of Gudrid’s story,” wrote author Nancy Marie Brown in the 2007 book The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman. Speaking with Smithsonian, Brown added, “Viking women were as courageous and as adventurous as Viking men, and … there were far fewer limitations on the life of a woman in those times than we may think.”
8. This High Schooler Invented Color-Changing Sutures to Detect Infection
In January, the Regeneron Science Talent Search—the U.S.’ oldest and most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors—named Dasia Taylor of Iowa City as one of its 40 finalists. Her color-changing sutures, which also nabbed top honors at a state science fair, run on a surprising ingredient: beets. As Taylor told Smithsonian’s Theresa Machemer in March, she realized that beet juice changes color at different pH levels, transforming from bright red at a pH of five (the same pH value as healthy human skin) to dark purple at a pH of nine (the pH of infected skin). Capitalizing on this natural phenomenon, Taylor developed a beet juice–infused cotton-polyester suture thread that darkens when wounds become infected.
While the suture thread needs further development—it may detect an infection in the body only after it’s reached later stages—Taylor is collaborating with microbiologist Theresa Ho to explore beet juice’s antibacterial properties and address potential obstacles to the invention’s implementation.
9. The 15 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2021
This year, our annual list of the best small towns to visit across the nation spotlighted places that embodied “perseverance and preservation,” in the words of travel correspondent Laura Kiniry. Selections ran the gamut from Nevada City, a well-preserved Gold Rush town in northern California, to Litchfield, Connecticut, home of the country’s first law school and the birthplace of abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe. Other picks for 2021 included Dyersville, Iowa, where the 1989 movie Field of Dreams was filmed; Hatch, an agricultural village in New Mexico that’s known as the “Chile Capital of the World”; and Fayetteville, West Virginia, a “laid-back, tight-knit community … where [outdoor] adventure reigns,” according to Kiniry.
10. Modern Crocodiles Are Evolving at a Rapid Rate
“Crocodylians just seem ancient and primordial and look a bit like Hollywood dinosaurs,” Ryan Felice, an anatomist at University College London, told science correspondent Riley Black in October. But appearances can be deceiving: As Black explained, modern crocodiles are actually evolving at a surprisingly speedy rate. “[These] species look so similar not because of conserving ancient traits, but because crocodiles are evolving the same skull shapes over and over again through time.”
Felice and his colleagues shared this surprising finding in Proceedings of the Royal Society B in July. For the study, the team compared the skulls of 24 living crocodylian species—including alligators, crocodiles and gharials—with 19 fossilized skulls from the reptiles’ long-dead ancestors. Their analysis showed that crocodiles with the same skull shapes aren’t necessarily closely related. “Instead,” wrote Black, “distantly related crocodiles are converging on the same skull shapes because they’re feeding on similar prey and living in similar habitats, with an array of species repeating a small number of skull shapes.”