5 Familiar Items That Couldn’t Be Destroyed - Atlas Obscura

5 Familiar Items That Couldn’t Be Destroyed

Extraordinary survival stories of ordinary objects.

The Lewis Chessmen, on display at the British Museum.
The Lewis Chessmen, on display at the British Museum. Rob Roy

How many of your most treasured possessions are built to last? Would they make it through a fire? How about a flood?

There are a few rare items in history that have proved capable of making it through the incredible trials the world has thrown at them. The fact that the circumstances of their survival are often tragic only makes their seeming indestructibility more poignant. Whether they’ve withstood the trials of time, trouble, or both, the artifacts below are striking reminders of the lives their owners lived, as well as of the incredible craftsmanship and engineering that built them.

Wallace Hartley's violin
Wallace Hartley’s violin Titanic Belfast

The Titanic Violin

If you’ve seen Titanic, you know the story of Wallace Hartley, the violinist who famously urged the band to keep playing even as the ship began to sink. While many might imagine this story to involve a bit of artistic license on the part of the screenwriters, it’s actually fairly accurate to the historical record. And we still have the violin to prove it. Amazingly, Hartley’s actual instrument is one of the most notable items to survive the disaster with little damage, both because of the uncanny strength of the glue holding its pieces together as well as the leather valise that was able to protect it from many of the ravages of the undersea. The violin was sold at auction for a whopping $1.7 million in 2013.

A depiction of the 1814 burning, from the book from the 1816 book <em>emphatic</em>The History of England, from the Earliest Periods, Volume 1<em>emphatic</em>.
A depiction of the 1814 burning, from the book from the 1816 book emphaticThe History of England, from the Earliest Periods, Volume 1emphatic. Public Domain

Mary Latrobe’s Tea Box

These days, if you ask an elementary school kid to tell you about the War of 1812, the most you’ll probably get out of them is that it…happened in 1812. But although it’s a war that has receded in many ways into the dusty annals of history, it’s also one that saw some serious damage–for instance, the total destruction of the White House after British soldiers marched into Washington in 1814 and burned the place to the ground. The destruction wrought by the fire was severe enough that we now have very little evidence as to what the interior of the original first abode may have looked like, but one rare clue lies in a Chinese lacquer tea box. The box, which was a gift from First Lady Dolley Madison to her friend Mary Latrobe, was lined with a swatch of the same French wallpaper that hung inside the residence, making it one of the few surviving artifacts from the historic building.

Ilan Ramon’s Diary

The crash of the Columbia space shuttle in 2003 stunned the world. While all seven crew members aboard the shuttle were tragically killed when it disintegrated upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, one unlikely item managed to make it through both the explosion and a 37-mile free fall to Palestine, Texas. This item was the diary of Ilan Ramon, an Israeli-born fighter pilot and NASA astronaut who was a payload specialist aboard the spacecraft. While the curator at the Israeli Museum in Jerusalem, where a portion of the diary is on display, describes the item’s survival as “almost a miracle,” others have chalked its unlikely survival up to a combination of aerodynamics, the book’s location in the cabin, and the slow process by which the shuttle disintegrated. Either way, its serves as a moving reminder of an extraordinary life.

A close-up shot of one of the set's rooks.
A close-up shot of one of the set’s rooks. Rob Roy

The Lewis Chessmen

That dusty old Scrabble set in your closet may be 20 years old at this point, but what are the odds of it hanging on for another 900-plus years? We’re guessing pretty low. The Vikings, on the other hand, crafted their games with an eye toward longevity—at least in the case of the Lewis Chessmen, a collection of chess pieces carved from walrus ivory that are believed to have originated in Trondheim, Norway, in the 12th century. The iconic, and slightly silly-looking figures were discovered on the island of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, and are now on display in the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland. How did they manage to survive for over 900 years?

The Ocean of Lost Toys

In 1997, a ship containing more than 5 million Legos was struck by a freak wave, causing it to accidentally drop its precious plastic cargo off the coast of Land’s End at the westernmost edge of England. Now, more than twenty years later, the nearby beaches of Devon and Cornwall are still bejeweled with thousands of the distinctive, yellow-headed figures and their related doodads, all of which are avidly collected by visitors (not to mention cursed by local conservationists). If you plan to go beach-combing, make sure to wear shoes. Indestructibility comes with a price: those things hurt.

Most items manufactured today won’t still be ticking when the archaeologists of the future dig them up. That’s why Citizen Promaster is the wristwatch of choice for people who brave the elements every day in their careers. View the video below to see how a forger harnesses earth, wind, fire, and water to create a blade–all while wearing a Citizen Promaster Tough watch.

This post is presented by HISTORY and Citizen.