Where to See the Oldest Artifacts in the World

From a royal soccer ball to a very old book, see humanity’s history of innovation in ten amazing everyday objects

Oldest photograph
The earliest surviving photograph, taken in 1826 or 1827, titled View from the Window at Le Gras. Wikipedia

If you want to feel connected to ancient history, just take a look at your shoes, listen to some music played on a flute or take a sip of wine—it turns out that some of the oldest items humans have made are remarkably similar to things we still use today. By examining some of the oldest artifacts, it's amazing to see how far society has come (the first photograph, for example, took hours to make and looks a lot more abstract than most cell phone photos) and yet how similar certain items remain (sure, we don't inflate soccer balls with pig bladders anymore, but the basic premise remains unchanged). Want to explore the history of humanity through some of its original innovations? Here's a list of ten of the world's oldest everyday objects—from an ancient leather shoe to the oldest Apple computer—and where you can go to see them.

Oldest Leather Shoe

History Museum of Armenia; Yerevan, Armenia

In 2010, archeologists found an extremely well-preserved, moccasin-like leather shoe in an Armenian cave. The shoe—which was stuffed with grass and preserved in sheep dung—fits a modern women's size seven, though archeologists aren't sure which sex the shoe was intended for. While the shoe isn't the oldest ever found (that honor goes to a 10,000-year-old shoe made of sagebrush fiber found in Fort Rock Cave, Oregon) it is the oldest leather shoe ever found (and the oldest shoe on display).

What makes the Armenian shoe remarkable, scientists note, is its wholly modern design—it's made from a single piece of cowhide, a technique that fetches top dollar in today's shoe market. The two layers of leather seem to have been cut to fit the foot, then stitched with more leather, resulting in a shoe that looks like a traditional Balkan shoe known as an opanke (still worn for special festivals).

Oldest Instrument

(The world's oldest instrument, a bone flute, on display at National Museum of Slovenia. Credit: Flickr user Jean-Pierre Dalbéra)

National Museum of SloveniaLjubljana, Slovenia

In 1995, a man exploring the Divje Babe cave in northwestern Slovenia came upon a tiny—but monumental—find: a portion of a juvenile cave bear's femur, pierced with what appeared to be handmade holes. Though broken on both ends, the bone also shows the remnants of two other holes, accounting for at least four holes, in total, on the original bone structure. Archeologists examined the bone, wondering whether the holes were indeed handmade, and if so, what they might have been used for. Some archeologists came to a surprising hypothesis: the bone had been used by Neanderthals as an instrument—evidence of music in culture more than 40,000 years ago.

Whether or not the bone fragment was actually used as a prehistoric instrument is the subject of debate, but musicologists have shown that the wind through the holes creates a musical scale, and the odds that naturally created, randomly spaced holes (as opposed to holes deliberately placed by humans) would create the same effect are one in several million.

Oldest Bottle of Wine

(The world's oldest grape-based wine, at the Pfalz Historical Museum in Speyer, Germany. Credit: Wikipedia)

Pfalz Historical MuseumSpeyer, Germany

Fine wines are supposed to get better with age, but historians aren't so sure that the world's oldest bottle of wine, which has been on display for more than a century at Germany's Pfalz Historical Museum, adheres to that rule.

The wine was bottled 1,650 years ago and buried with a Roman nobleman. Because the bottle was topped with a slick of olive oil and sealed with hot wax, a tiny portion of wine has remained in a liquid state (the rest of the bottle is filled with a hard resin-like mixture). The Pfalz region of Germany is known as one of the country's best wine-producing regions, leading historians to believe that the wine contained in the bottle was produced nearby.

The bottle was discovered in 1867 during a grave excavation in Speyer, but remains unopened—and historians believe it should stay that way, since the fragile liquid might not survive exposure to the air.

Oldest Counting Board

(The Salamis tablet—the world's oldest surviving counting board, which was a precursor to the abacus—on display at the National Museum of Epigraphy, in Athens. Credit: Wikipedia)

National Museum of EpigraphyAthens, Greece

Before the calculator, there was the abacus—and before the abacus, there were counting boards, early versions of the abacus that used painted lines or grooves and stones or pebbles to count large numbers. 

The oldest surviving version of a counting board is known as the Salamis tablet, used by Babylonians around 300 BC. The tablet was discovered in 1846 on the island of Salamis. The tablet is made of white marble, and measures almost five feet in length.

Note: An earlier version incorrectly stated that Salamis Island is located off the eastern coast of Cyprus. The sentence has been changed to reflect that.

Oldest Seagoing Boat

(The world's oldest seafaring boat, the Dover Bronze Age Boat, on display at the Dover Museum. Credit: Flickr user mari)

Dover Museum; Dover, United Kingdom

In 1992, construction workers in Kent, England, were working on building a road between Dover and Folkestone when they discovered something that would shake the archeological community: the remains of a large, well-preserved prehistoric boat, which tests dated back to roughly 3,500 years ago, making it the oldest known seafaring boat ever discovered (the oldest intact boat, however, is the Khufu ship, built in ancient Egypt and used in burial rituals). 

The Dover Bronze Age Boat, as it came to be named, attracted the attention of the archeological community, which clamored to excavate and preserve it. Learning from past excavation attempts on other Bronze Age boats, archeologists decided to cut the vessel—made from oak and held together with little more than wedges and flexible plant stems—into pieces, and reassemble it after it was removed from the ground, a technique that proved very successful. After seven years of research and conservation, the boat went on display at the Dover Museum.

Oldest European Book

(The front cover of the St. Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest surviving bound book from the Western world. Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The British Library; London, England

Made in the late seventh century, the St. Cuthbert Gospel is the oldest European book still in existence. The book was stored in the coffin of St. Cuthbert, an early Christian leader and one of the most important medieval saints, who was buried on the island of Lindisfarne around 698 AD. When Viking raiders came to the island, the coffin was moved to Durham, England. In 1104, the coffin was opened in the Durham Cathedral—and the book, still preserved in its original red leather cover, was rediscovered. The book is a copy of the Gospel of St. John, and is extremely well-preserved, from the cover to the binding. 

In 2012, the British Library in London mounted a massive fundraising campaign to purchase the book. It has toured throughout England—making stops in Durham and Newcastle—but is usually on display at the British Library.

Oldest Soccer Ball

Smith Museum; Stirling, Scotland

Modern soccer balls blend design and technology in increasingly innovative ways, but the world's oldest soccer ball recalls a simpler time, when balls were made from cow leather stretched over a pig's bladder. Discovered in the 1970s behind paneling in the Queen's chamber in Scotland's Stirling Castle, the world's oldest football wouldn't be much fun for a modern soccer team—but it might have been perfect for a young Mary, Queen of Scots, who was known to enjoy sports, and in whose chamber the ball was discovered. Historians believe that the soccer ball, which dates to at least 1540, was once kicked high into the chambers' rafters, where it was eventually covered by ceiling panels and left undisturbed for centuries.

Oldest Steam-Powered Locomotive

Science Museum; London, England

During the Industrial Revolution, "Puffing Billy," an 1813 steam-powered locomotive, transported coal from the mines of Wylam Colliery to Newcastle upon Tyne's Lemington Staithes, where the coal would be exported*. The steam-powered locomotive changed the way the world thought about industrial transportation, allowing heavy coal to be shipped from mines more efficiently than the technology used before it—a horse and a wagon. Throughout England, steam-powered locomotives transformed towns into centers of industrial power. Puffing Billy was used until 1862, and steam engines went out of favor in the late 1800s when diesel-powered engines began to take over a steam-powered world. 

Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Lemington Staithes as a power plant.

Oldest Photograph

Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin; Austin, Texas

Sometime in 1826 or 1827 (no one knows for sure) Joseph Nicéphore Niépce looked out the window from an upstairs room in his Burgundy estate and did something incredible: he took a picture of what he saw. The resulting photograph, View from the Window at Le Gras, is now the world's oldest surviving photograph.

Niépce, considered the father of photography, invented the camera out of necessity because he couldn't seem to master drafting images by hand. As early as 1793, Niépce talked about the possibility of capturing images through light. By using a mixture of bitumen of Judea, which hardened and became insoluble after prolonged exposure to light, Niépce was able to capture the first photograph from a camera onto a pewter plate.

Oldest Apple Computer

Henry Ford Museum; Dearborn, Michigan

Today, amid the popularity of Mac computers and iPhones (and with the tech world abuzz about the impending release of the Apple Watch), Apple technology might seem ubiquitous, but in 1976, the company only made a single product. The Apple-1, Apple's oldest iteration of the personal computer, sold for $666.66 when it was first introduced in July of 1976. Of the few hundred Apple 1 computers produced, fewer than 50 are believed to still exist.

Though many of those computers belong to private owners, one remaining Apple 1 will soon be on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. The museum purchased the computer in late October 2014 for a whopping $905,000 at a New York auction. Details have yet to be released about when the computer will go on permanent exhibition, but in the near future, interested visitors will be able to see the genesis of the Apple empire in the Michigan museum.

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