What have we lost forever?
January 8, 2008 3:14 PM   Subscribe

What significant items have been irretrievably lost?

Back in 1906 a fire in San Francisco caused by a huge earthquake destroyed the Levi Strauss headquarters and factories; taking along with it many original designs.

Last Fall the fires in North San Diego destroyed the house of Paul Kassel who owned Mickey Mantle's last baseball jersey.

Is there a list out there that has compiled items or collections lost forever? For example irreplaceable items lost in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001?
posted by MrBCID to Grab Bag (85 answers total) 78 users marked this as a favorite
Not a list, but...the Library of Alexandria.
posted by lhall at 3:17 PM on January 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

Not a list either, but I believe that there was an archive (not her entire collection) of Helen Keller papers at the WTC, stored there by the American Foundation for the Blind, which is located in NYC also.
posted by Melismata at 3:20 PM on January 8, 2008

A fire in 2005 destroyed much of an Aardman Animations warehouse, including all the sets, models, and props from the original Wallace & Gromit films.
posted by Robot Johnny at 3:25 PM on January 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

Virtually all of the books written by the Maya. When the Spanish conquered Mexico, the Conquistadores burned every book they found. Only four survived, even in part.

I consider that a lot more significant than such trivialities as a baseball jersey.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:27 PM on January 8, 2008 [12 favorites]

The Library of Congress has been set on fire twice. I'm sure a lot of good stuff was lost. Wikipedia has more details.
Offtopic: This topic reminded me of a comic by Lung_Bug
posted by theiconoclast31 at 3:27 PM on January 8, 2008

Butch Walker of Marvelous 3 was staying at Flea's house (of RHCP) when the last round of fires hit. He had all of his masters with him, and apparently a bunch of M3 memorabilia and so forth. Our local radio station (99X) has been asking for people to send stuff (bootlegs, memorabilia, whatever) so that they can help him rebuild what he lost.
posted by Medieval Maven at 3:29 PM on January 8, 2008

By the way, one of the best of the "Uncle Scrooge" treasure hunt comics concerned his efforts to track down just what had become of the Library of Alexandria. He kept finding places where people had taken it, and then distilled it down into smaller and smaller collections of books.

In the end it was revealed that the final distillation had yielded a single volume: the Junior Woodchucks Guidebook.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:32 PM on January 8, 2008 [4 favorites]

In 1922, in the middle of the Irish Civil War, the Public Records Office in Dublin burned down, destroying almost all 19th century Irish census returns and a lot of other documents from Irish history. There's a lot of stuff about Irish social history that can't be known, because the sources are gone.

There are tons and tons of cases of important people's personal papers being lost in fires or destroyed after their deaths by relatives.
posted by craichead at 3:34 PM on January 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

The Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, although apparently they want to rebuild them now? Don't know if that counts.
posted by Muffpub at 3:34 PM on January 8, 2008

When the Serbs bombed the National Library in Sarajevo, they destroyed thousands and thousands of one-of-a-kind books and manuscripts important to the history of the Balkans, quite a lot of historical records and irreplaceable books relating to Jewish history, the entire existing handwritten manuscripts of many Serbian Turkish, Croatian, Bosnian Muslim and Jewish writers, and much much more. It was the best library in the world for many areas of studies, and the complete collections relating to certain areas of study were irretrievably lost, bombed into oblivion by idiots.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 3:35 PM on January 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

Works by Louise Nevelson and other prominent art collections at the WTC were destroyed.

Iraq has lost artifacts -- hopefully they will be recovered.

Bamiyan Buddhas.
posted by bonobo at 3:38 PM on January 8, 2008

A fire in 1982 destroyed much of the contents of Mexico's National Film Archive.

Right after we invaded Iraq, there was a lot of coverage of looting of invaluable artifacts. I remember in the months following there being some success recovering some of it. I couldn't find anything more recent discussing how much is still lost. (er, what bonobo said).
posted by gauchodaspampas at 3:39 PM on January 8, 2008

Not a list either, but I believe that there was an archive (not her entire collection) of Helen Keller papers at the WTC
You know, I haven't thought about this in years, but at the time I wondered what happened to the Five Points Archeology Project, which was also housed in the WTC. It looks like most of the artifacts were destroyed.
posted by craichead at 3:41 PM on January 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Lost films, lost art, lost history, and lost work (lit) via Wikipedia.
posted by bonobo at 3:43 PM on January 8, 2008 [5 favorites]

There are also many lost Greek dramas, some of which we know only titles, some we know about third-hand from letters, etc.
posted by ktoad at 3:44 PM on January 8, 2008

And, I forgot about Beowulf.
On 23 October, 1731, Ashburnham House was ravaged by a fire that destroyed or damaged a quarter of Cotton's library. 'Beowulf' was saved with other priceless manuscripts, but not before its edges were badly scorched.
My understanding is that there is sort of no real idea of what was lost in that fire - Beowulf is the "first" manuscript of its type to some extent because it was the only. This account correlates to what I was told in class - that many items from the Cotton library were saved only by throwing them out the windows.
posted by Medieval Maven at 3:46 PM on January 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Um, the Holy Grail?
posted by Camofrog at 3:53 PM on January 8, 2008

Which is, after all, the Holy Grail of all lost items.
posted by Camofrog at 3:54 PM on January 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

In 1993, the Uffizi was car-bombed. Its frescoes were irretrievably damaged.

On a much more trivial level, I remember in the late 70s/early 80s, a plumbing mishap at the Chicago Historical Society flooded the lower level. I have no idea how many artifacts were lost, but it must have been substantial.
posted by adamrice at 4:03 PM on January 8, 2008

But did the Holy Grail actually ever exist? Along those lines, did/does the Ark of the Covenant exist? Of those cultures that believe in it, is it extant or lost forever? Riddles abound!
posted by bonobo at 4:03 PM on January 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

A lot of Louis Sullivan buildings in Chicago have been torn down. Chris Ware animated a wonderful story for This American Life about boy inspired by Sullivan's work to grow up to be preservationist. Here's a preview. Sadly, even with preservationists, we keep losing them.
posted by hydrophonic at 4:03 PM on January 8, 2008

The Amber Room of the Tsars was lost after the Nazis looted it during World War II.

And one more page from Wikipedia: Lost Works. Between this page and those that bonobo gave, it's quite a list.
posted by smackfu at 4:06 PM on January 8, 2008

The 1890 US Census - which recorded the largest influx of population into the country and was a technical triumph in data processing at the time - was destroyed partially by fire and mostly by incompetence in 1933. Of the 62 million people recorded in the census, information for only 6,000 individuals survive.
posted by disclaimer at 4:07 PM on January 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Many old BBC programmes. Most notably Doctor Who, but also some other series.
posted by grouse at 4:09 PM on January 8, 2008

When the Serbs bombed the National Library in Sarajevo, they destroyed thousands and thousands of one-of-a-kind books and manuscripts important to the history of the Balkans, quite a lot of historical records and irreplaceable books relating to Jewish history, the entire existing handwritten manuscripts of many Serbian Turkish, Croatian, Bosnian Muslim and Jewish writers, and much much more. It was the best library in the world for many areas of studies, and the complete collections relating to certain areas of study were irretrievably lost, bombed into oblivion by idiots.

There was a recent New Yorker article giving the story of how one particularly important book, the Sarajevo Haggadah, made it through the war; it's survival underlines the losses that Dee Extrovert describes. (Here is a NYTimes article from 1995 that I found while looking for the link to the New Yorker piece.)

It's less of a material "thing," but virtually all of the descendants of the Africans brought to the New World as slaves lost their family names and histories; fragments of languages and religions survive, but mostly intermittently and in geographically disconnected ways. As in other attempts at cultural genocide, it is the destruction of memory that seems to me the worst crime.
posted by Forktine at 4:17 PM on January 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Byron's prose autobiography, reportedly so lurid and scandalous that his friend Thomas Moore burned it shortly after Byron's death.
posted by jayder at 4:29 PM on January 8, 2008

Mayan codices.
posted by dilettante at 4:33 PM on January 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

This list is endless, of course.

The Ark of the Covenant is, possibly, not lost at all but kept in Aksum, Ethiopia.
posted by beagle at 4:36 PM on January 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Are you specifically wanting man-made items, or are you just trying to dig into the idea of "irretrievable loss" in general? I think it's beyond question that the most unique, valuable, irreplaceable things that we have lost in human history are the various species that have gone extinct (whether through our actions or not). The information content in a critter that's been battered by natural selection for a billion years and survived is not something that's easy to wrap your head around.
posted by madmethods at 4:42 PM on January 8, 2008

Items: the Amber Room, Noah's Arc (possibly frozen in a Turkish mountain), Amelia Erhart's plane, many works by Cicero

Artifacts from: Atlantis, the City of Z in the Amazon, Pompeii

Were the Lindbergh baby, Anastasia Romanov, or Olivia Newton John's boyfriend ever found?
posted by HotPatatta at 4:48 PM on January 8, 2008

Kusanagi, the sword that is a part of the Imperial Regalia of Japan, was probably lost in a battle at sea.
posted by CrunchyFrog at 4:48 PM on January 8, 2008

The Old Man of the Mountain
posted by pupdog at 4:49 PM on January 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Not entirely lost, but the Parthenon was recklessly used as an ammunition dump in the 17th century. Indeed, almost all the original Seven Wonders are gone.

The original Penn Station, which was obliterated by the present Madison Square Garden (but may be resurrected after a fashion).

Chicago's old Federal Building, probably my favorite lost edifice.

The second book of Aristotle's Poetics, on Comedy.

Other losses at WTC:
* Cloud Fortress (probably unnecessary, as it survived the attacks intact; it may have been stolen, though)
* The JFK photo archive (which also may have been stolen)
posted by dhartung at 4:54 PM on January 8, 2008

Nobody knows for sure how many of the "Seven Wonders of the Ancient World" were real, and how many were mythological, or simply grossly exaggerated. The Colossus of Rhodes can't possibly have been the way it was claimed to be, but it seems likely that the Lighthouse of Alexandria was real. Regardless, six of the seven are gone.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:54 PM on January 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Do things rocketed into space count, like the Pioneer and the Voyager probes? If so, that list would be fairly long...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:56 PM on January 8, 2008

There was a recent New Yorker article giving the story of how one particularly important book, the Sarajevo Haggadah, made it through the war; it's survival underlines the losses that Dee Extrovert describes.

The story of the "Sarajevo" Haggadah is pretty amazing. Most experts in Judaica consider it to be one of the most beautiful and important Jewish manuscripts in existence; it was once valued at $700 million dollars were it to be sold, though of course it's irreplaceable and in that sense, priceless. As a Sarajevan, I am proud of how the Haggadah survives because of centuries of cooperation between Jews and Muslims.

The Haggadah comes from the period in Spain's history when Jews and Muslims lived in relative peace. When Jews were tortured and forced into conversion to Christianity during the Inquisition, Ottoman rulers in the Balkans invited the Sephardic Jews to settle in their region. Many come to Sarajevo, and eventually the Haggadah followed.

The Nazis wanted it, but a historian from the National Museum (a Muslim) arranged to have it hidden in the town of Zenica by a Muslim cleric - at the risk of both of their lives. After the war it was returned to the museum. When the Serbs attacked Sarajevo in the 1990's, the Haggadah was again put away for safety. Many Jewish organizations offered aid to the (by then) mostly Muslim population during the war. A rumour was spread by the Serbs that the Muslim-led government in Sarajevo had sold the Haggadah to pay for desperately needed armaments. (The arms embargo during the war essentially preserved in inequity; the Serb army got to keep their arms, with which they were plentifully stocked prior to the war. The multi-ethnic Bosnian forces fighting the invasion, which didn't exist before the war, had no arms. Hence the bloodbath against civilians which occurred.) Presumably this was down to decrease aid sponsorship from Jewish-led organizations.

This rumor was not true though, and shortly after the war, the president of Bosnia symbolically returned the Haggadah to the Jewish community in Sarajevo at a seder.

The Haggadah now sits in a special illuminated room in the National Museum. At night, when one passes the museum, one can see the special glow coming from this room. Many people driving by (the museum's on a main road) say a special prayer in Arabic as the pass. Although Sarajevo's Jewish community is now very small (and generally elderly), the majority of Sarajevo's residents, whether Muslim or Catholic or Orthodox, see the Haggadah as a symbol of the city's centuries-old multi-ethnic and tolerant nature. Despite most of the city having lost most of the precious historical artifacts relating to "their" ethnicities, most Sarajevans take immense pride that the most important cultural artifact in their city survived, especially because it's of greatest importance to the tiniest minority in the city, "proof" that Sarajevo still exists as a special place of tolerance.

Interestingly, the Muslim historian who saved the Haggadah during the war also successfully sheltered a Jewish girl named Mira. After the war, Mira made it to Israel. During the Serb assault on Sarajevo, Mira repaid the favor by helping to rescue the daughter of the man who'd rescued her decades earlier.

It's easy to focus on the many happy moments of the story of the Haggadah, but of course, the story is special in part because so much else was lost.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 5:07 PM on January 8, 2008 [37 favorites]

Not a list either, but I believe that there was an archive (not her entire collection) of Helen Keller papers at the WTC, stored there by the American Foundation for the Blind, which is located in NYC also.

I don't think this is the case. I was their librarian for several years just leading up to Y2K, and still in touch with many former coworkers during 9/11. While my main concern was if my friends were all ok, I'm certain someone would have told me if the collection I used to take care of had perished. (FWIW, AFB was at Penn Plaza at the time, and had a special secure vault for the HK/ASM collection.)

Not saying that part of her writings aren't gone - she was a powerfully prolific writer, and her papers are scattered across several organizations in several states. I'm just not under the belief that the AFB collection was damaged.
posted by librarianamy at 5:34 PM on January 8, 2008

Virtually all of the books written by the Maya. When the Spanish conquered Mexico, the Conquistadores burned every book they found. Only four survived, even in part.

It wasn't the conquistadores, it was a "do-gooder" priest and if you think there are only four left in the world then you don't know the Maya very well.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:35 PM on January 8, 2008

I guess this is the list. I will add to it the incredible Joan Miro tapestry that hung in the World Trade Center.
posted by ubiquity at 5:43 PM on January 8, 2008

I linked to but didn't identify this article on "Cultural Loss in Lower Manhattan," Librarianamy, from the Archaeological Institute of America. It says that "the archives and records of the Helen Keller International Foundation" were destroyed. That's probably what Melismata was thinking of.
posted by craichead at 5:43 PM on January 8, 2008

Craichead - you're right - it was the HKI collection. I hated to split hairs on something like that, but my heart sunk at the thought that "my" collection was gone. (Imagine a new librarian, first job out of grad school being entrusted with a collection that included correspondence between Helen Keller and John F. Kennedy? I've been gone for years, but there's still a sense of ownership...) I've spent the time since my hasty post looking online to make sure I wasn't just spouting off in a passionate denial. So yes, the letters at the Helen Keller International collection are gone. Thanks for helping...
posted by librarianamy at 6:00 PM on January 8, 2008

I watched Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" recently and apparently whole scenes of the film have been lost irrevocably. Though, if you've sat through the film, it kind of helps shorten the movie to a more reasonable duration.

DB Cooper, the mysterious criminal who hijacked an aircraft, collected the ransom money, and parachuted into the wild has never been adequately found, along with the money.
posted by Doctor Suarez at 6:04 PM on January 8, 2008

Some of the "D.B. Cooper" money was found.
posted by bonobo at 6:07 PM on January 8, 2008

Off the top of my head:

Most of William Pitt the Younger's correspondence was torched after his death by his former tutor, George Pretyman.

The British Library lost a chunk of its collection during the Blitz.

On a more pop-cultural note, many soap operas pre-1980 have either disappeared entirely or exist in only a handful of episodes. This is mostly an issue with live soaps like The Edge of Night, but nearly all of All My Children prior to 1979, for example, was taped over.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:11 PM on January 8, 2008

James Jamerson's 1962 Fender Precision Bass, arguably one of the most-heard instruments in history, was stolen shortly before his death in 1983 and remains missing. It can be heard on the majority of these recordings. I've heard that it appeared on more number 1 hits than any other instrument, but I can't find a citation for that.
posted by Benjy at 6:14 PM on January 8, 2008

I wonder if the 2001 attack on the WTC also destroyed the records belonging to US Customs and Immigration (debarkation cards, etc.) which, as I recall, had been stored in a basement area of the WTC complex... I remember reading that some of those records had been lost or damaged as a consequence of the 1993 basement parking area bombing, so I wonder what the 2001 attack did as far as that archived information was concerned and how complete and accurate the USA's departure and re-entry records currently happen to be...
posted by bunky at 6:30 PM on January 8, 2008

An enormous chunk of cinema history is gone forever due to the use of nitrate film stock right up through the early 50's.

Some movies are completely gone. No prints or negatives survive. Others are a mixed bag. The original negative for Citizen Kane, for instance, burned several years ago. Only prints remain. You will never again be able to see Gregg Toland's gorgeous camera work exactly as filmed.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:33 PM on January 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

On a much more mundane level, it is very very very common for new management or the purchaser of a bankrupt manufacturer to simply dump company records, engineering drawings, prototypes, etc. in the trash. Some that survive only do so because of dumpster diving.

In some ways, we always have a slightly distorted view of the past, as the most likely artifacts to survive are the luxury goods, whether clothes, cameras or what-not.

The urge to destroy from spite or misunderstanding, or to simply wipe the slate clean, plus natural calamities guarantees and degredation insures that even treasured artifacts like every van Gogh will eventually disappear.

There are always plenty of people who see things like the statue of liberty in terms of the scrap value of the bronze and an old-growth forest as so many board-feet. They always get their chance, they only need patience or a bit of cunning.
posted by maxwelton at 6:34 PM on January 8, 2008

A guy burned down a Subway sandwich place and Terrence McKenna's personal library,old alchemy texts collection were lost,some papers survive at Esalen.
posted by hortense at 7:02 PM on January 8, 2008

After the death of Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton his wife, Isabel, burned many of his papers and manuscripts.
posted by prjo at 8:13 PM on January 8, 2008

I immediately thought of The Bone Wars. Hard to tell what was lost exactly, but many potentially useful fossils were thought to have been blown to smithereens with dynamite as these two archaeologists fought with each other. Lots of irretrievable damage there.
posted by BenzeneChile at 8:20 PM on January 8, 2008

The 8 copies of the Treaty of Waitangi, arguably the founding document of New Zealand are all either missing or severly damaged.
posted by scodger at 8:26 PM on January 8, 2008

Many works of ancient authors - notably Aristotle's works that were meant for the general public. All that we have today are (roughly) notes from his lectures, which are terse and not easy to read, so Aristotle has a reputation for being very difficult -- ironic because in ancient times he had a reputation as a wonderful prose stylist. Of the influential Presocratic philosophers we have only a few scraps, etc.

In a way, the question about ancient texts can only be partially answered because for most of the things that have been destroyed or lost, we've got no record of their ever existing in the first place. For someone like Aristotle, we've got a fair sense of how much he wrote that we don't have, but for figures who were seen as more minor (by scholars and monks of the middle ages in Europe and the middle east), we may have no idea what they wrote.

You could probably have a separate category for items destroyed in the great wars of the 20th century. WWII: The Blitz of London, the bombing of Dresden, destruction of many churches and libraries throughout Europe just for starters.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:33 PM on January 8, 2008

In "A Short History of Nearly Everything," Bill Bryson refers to a story of an archaeologist who enlists a bunch of locals for help finding bones of early hominids. I don't have the book with me now, but the gist is that the archaeologist offered the locals a certain amount of money for every bone fragment they brought in. He was later devastated to find that people had been breaking big (i.e. easy to reassemble and study) pieces of bone into tiny bits in order to make more money. Given the sparsity of our collections of human-ancestor bones, this is pretty tragic. I think the story was somewhere in the pacific islands, but I don't remember... Maybe somebody else can back me up with details.
posted by vytae at 8:44 PM on January 8, 2008

The original "Peking Man" Homo erectus fossils disappeared in 1941 while en route from Japanese-threatened Beijing to the United States for safekeeping. They have never been found.
posted by Rumple at 8:50 PM on January 8, 2008

The Antikythera mechanism is not lost - but it makes me wonder what we've lost that we don't even know ever existed.
posted by Tomorrowful at 9:16 PM on January 8, 2008

All of the pre-1970 videotaped episodes of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson are gone forever, because NBC reused the master tapes to save money on stock.
posted by melorama at 11:26 PM on January 8, 2008

One that's more along the lines of the discussion than my previous: the high-quality tapes of the first moon landing are still missing.

One that isn't: many human languages are gone forever or are in danger of becoming so unless someone saves them somehow.
posted by madmethods at 12:26 AM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Cambodia went through one of the worst instances of biblioclasm. It's not that long ago that Cambodia had a rich culture with a large number of well educated people, though that's not how people think of it now.

Basically any time there's genocide, there is also biblioclasm - which is like total genocide. "Not only will we slaughter you wholesale, we will erase all memory of your existence"

There's a very good book on this topic by Rebecca Knuth if you want to know more Burning books and leveling libraries

Also check out the UNESCO project Memory of the World. A recent project of theirs was to find, identify and preserve founding documents of pacific island nations.

On a lighter note, Nicholson Baker has written some interesting stuff about the loss of old card catalogues and newspaper collections. There's a couple of New Yorker articles from the 1990s. The librarian argument is that Baker misunderstands collection management. Baker argues for the Derridaian urge to destroy.

I don't have much confidence in the preservation of digital objects. I don't think very much, if any, of them will survive. I'm more in the digital dark age camp than the technology will find an anwser. Sure the argument has moved on since Kuny but none of the issues raised have been addressed yet.

Incidentally, for those of you interested in the World Trade Centre and archives, check out 911 digital archive. It's no compensation for what was lost but it is an interesting collection of material spurred by the event.
posted by BAKERSFIELD! at 2:56 AM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hey, nobody said innocence!

The Raiders of the Lost Ark warehouse seems appropriate to mention here. I always thought that it would have been more realistic (though also more depressing) to have the Ark shown being accidentally thrown out as a fake, or something on that order. There's so much casual destruction that you see when you're trying to thread history together.

My hometown has a major street that is about 1.5 miles long of 19th century commercial buildings. The trouble is, on one side of the river, only the south streetscape is intact, and on the other, only the north. A downtown "Corn Exchange" triangle had an intact streetscape on all three sides, but was obliterated to make a bank drive-through and parking lot. That bank's beautiful building had an oddly compatible 1970s wing added for the drive-through, and in the 1980s, they covered over the original exterior with something resembling stucco, so they would "match". A hospital decided to expand, and in the process turned the surrounding residential neighborhood into parking lots and essentially unused landscape features -- about 100 houses, including a gorgeous brick pile that faced the most historic house in town. The current city administration is somewhat mindful of preservation issues, but still thought to build a new police station they had to tear down the entire block. And there's a fantastic railroad hotel that sits empty and may get rehabbed, but according to some proposals the commercial district around it should be razed and turned into landscaping (and the ugly 1960s furniture store across the street? that would be saved as a convention center). If you love architecture in the slightest, a lifetime is a litany of loss.

If we're going to talk about less concrete things, one of those that I mourn is some of the ethnic outliers, such as the Greek civilization in Asia Minor (Smyrna, Trebizond) and the various European trading communities in Russia (which included Greeks, Germans, and Norse). The wholesale migrations of the 20th century, some of them involuntary or necessary due to conflict, displaced peoples who had lived in some places for dozens of generations.

There are also the civilizations and communities lost that Jared Diamond documents in Collapse such as the Greenland Norse or the Anasazi.

And as global warming continues, not only will we lose numerous coastal areas to rising sea levels, including whole islands in the Indian and South Pacific Oceans, we'll lose such things as the climate record contained in the icecaps that are melting away (a fair bit of irony, that).

Steven: There's plenty of evidence that the Seven Wonders existed in some form. The Colossus, for example, was attested to as a pile of scrap for centuries. The idea that it ever straddled the harbor entrance was invented much later.
posted by dhartung at 3:21 AM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

The original crown jewels of England, lost in the Wash in the 13th century.
posted by biffa at 3:23 AM on January 9, 2008

Many Chinese artifacts were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.
posted by goo at 5:33 AM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Humanity's history before the 3000 BCE or so. The early parts of many myths descend from those times and are the only record we have of them, such as the flood myth. But if someone wanted to recover them...

Pair the DNA work Spencer Wells is doing with the cultures that have a certain myth. You can follow the journey back in time until the descendants of one split don't have that myth, and bang, you've got a rough date for that event thanks to the DNA dating techniques.

Case in point, the Irish and Hindi both split off the same group and have strikingly similar traits and myths, including a flood myth. The aborigines, which split off 15,000 years previously, do not. So the great flood happened between 60,000 BCE and 45,000 BCE.
posted by jwells at 5:58 AM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'd like to second the extinct species and the Cultural Revolution. Also the Burning of the books and the burial of the scholars.
posted by ersatz at 6:24 AM on January 9, 2008

Hemingway famously lost his first novel on a train.

The film "All Rendered Truth" documents several folk art installations in the Southeastern US that have since been destroyed.

The paintings from the Gardner Heist are assumed destroyed.

And yes, the fallout of the 1966 Florentine floods are still being debated in Art History circles, in some cases only black and white photos remain of works that are considered part of the art canon.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 8:09 AM on January 9, 2008

All US patents (about 10000) granted between the founding of the patent office in 1790 and a fire in 1836 burned in the fire. Some of them have been retrieved because people had copies, but many are lost forever. In fact, the patent office simply restarted the numbering sequence with US patent 1 after the fire. (Those from before the fire which have been recovered are typically now referred to as Xnumber to distinguish them.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:32 AM on January 9, 2008

Would you want to include the building of dams (Hoover, Three Gorges)?
posted by brent at 10:15 AM on January 9, 2008

While looking for a link to Hemingway losing a manuscript (as 1f2frfbf noted), I found a whole blog called Lost Manuscripts (which 1f2frfbf linked to for the Hemingway story.)

It's supposed that at least a couple of Shakespeare plays were lost.

The PRC destroyed huge amounts of Tibetan art and manuscripts. (Invaders destroying the cultural artifacts of the invaded is an old, old story, of course.)

Many plants and animals have gone extinct. The ones that have gone extinct in the last quarter million years (while humans have been on the scene) might be considered lost. (Not that humans caused all of the extinctions -- just that sharing the planet with those organisms was something lost to us.)

Many languages have died.

The original art for huge numbers of comic books has been lost.

The recipe for Greek fire is lost.

The plans for building the Saturn V are lost.

The survivors of Pacific Air 815... oh, never mind.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 11:48 AM on January 9, 2008

Er, Oceanic Airlines Flight 815. My geek cred has been lost.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 11:52 AM on January 9, 2008

You might get a more targeted response if you were to specify what you mean by "irretrievably lost" -- your examples suggest you're focusing on destroyed, as opposed to misplaced.

Your examples also suggest you're focusing on the modern era, and man-made objects. If we go back beyond a few hundred years, it might be easier to list the number of significant items that have survived.

P.S. Of course, some of this stuff never existed in the first place.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 2:48 PM on January 9, 2008

The paintings from the Gardner Heist are assumed destroyed.

By whom? Nothing in the linked story says so.
posted by beagle at 4:50 PM on January 9, 2008

The Breitwieser thefts. His mother, probably trying to destroy evidence, chopped masterpieces into bits and threw some into a canal.
Note amusing double correction in NYT article.
posted by dhartung at 12:09 AM on January 10, 2008

Beagle: On reread, you're right. However several art historians I've dealt with generally refer to them as gone for good as nothing has come to light in almost 20 years. However, they could return, but I don't think it's very likely at this point. Short of a super villain buying them to decorate his hideout, they are far too incriminating for anyone to risk being in possession of them.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 6:56 AM on January 10, 2008

i dont know about significant, but i immediately thought of this techtv clip
posted by rux at 1:03 PM on January 10, 2008

How about the cultures around the world that have been supplanted or obliterated by western influence and expansionism, creating a world of homogenized peoples? The diversities of perceptions of how the world works seem much more striking than old Tonight Show tapes.
posted by ZaneJ. at 7:09 PM on January 14, 2008

MrBCID specifically queried about objects & collections of objects ("items") that are lost.

As a former student of cultural anthropology and as a current human being, I, as well as other respondents, am/are aware of the other types of losses and gains.

[I do not entirely agree with your statement about "cultures around the world that have been supplanted or obliterated by western influence and expansionism," ZaneJ. Your/my civilization|culture would not exist in the way that you or I know it if so-called humans did not learn from/were not "beaten" by/did not meld with other people. Eastern civs exist because of the same behaviors.]
posted by bonobo at 8:27 PM on January 14, 2008

Perhaps one more thing.
posted by TedW at 6:11 PM on January 16, 2008

In what was surely as significant a loss as the Library at Alexandria and the Amber Room of the Tsars, let me offer Bono's original lyrics for U2's album "October," swiped backstage at a show while they were preparing to go into the studio, and the reason behind all the muttering on the album. On preview, I googled for details and discovered that the notebooks were apparently returned! So, y'know, there's still hope for the Amber Room, huh?
posted by incessant at 3:00 AM on January 27, 2008

The Marx Brothers' first film, Humor Risk (1921), is considered lost forever. It was possibly destroyed by Groucho himself.
posted by Neilopolis at 12:15 PM on July 5, 2008

I watched Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" recently and apparently whole scenes of the film have been lost irrevocably. Though, if you've sat through the film, it kind of helps shorten the movie to a more reasonable duration.

This actually has a happy ending - a complete version of the film was found earlier this summer.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 11:14 AM on July 29, 2008

More Wiki: a list of destroyed landmarks.
posted by Neilopolis at 11:51 AM on August 1, 2008

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