Oldest Message in a Bottle Found on Australian Beach

March 6, 2018 Last Updated: March 6, 2018

The world’s oldest known message in a bottle has been discovered by a couple in Western Australia.

Tonya Illman picked up the 132-year-old bottle of gin while walking on sand dunes because she thought it might “look good on a bookshelf.”

Experts from the Western Australian Museum verified that the message and bottle were authentic and jettisoned from a German ship.

Inside the bottle was a roll of paper printed in German, dated June 12, 1886. It’s believed that the bottle and note were washed up within a year but lay preserved under a layer of damp sand.

The previous world record for the oldest message in a bottle was 108 years.

‘Something Sticking Out of the Sand’

The bottle caught Tonya Illman’s eye while she was taking a walk with a friend on a beach near Wedge Island in January, as her son’s car had just got bogged down in the soft sand.

“I saw something sticking out of the sand so I went to take a closer look,” she said. “It just looked like a lovely old bottle so I picked it up thinking it might look good in my bookcase.”

She said that the note was damp, rolled tightly and wrapped with string.

“We took it home and dried it out, and when we opened it we saw it was a printed form, in German, with very faint German handwriting on it.”

The Illmans decided to take their find to the Western Australian (WA) Museum to check its authenticity.

‘Incredible’ Evidence

“Extraordinary finds need extraordinary evidence,” said Dr. Ross Anderson, assistant curator maritime archaeology at the WA Museum.

Anderson consulted with colleagues in the Netherlands and Germany for more information.

“Incredibly, an archival search in Germany found Paula’s original meteorological journal and there was an entry for 12 June 1886 made by the captain, recording a drift bottle having been thrown overboard. The date and the coordinates correspond exactly with those on the bottle message,” he said.

He added that the handwriting from the journal and the message also matched.

The message, translated into English, reads:
“This bottle was thrown overboard on June 12, 1886, at latitude 32° 49′ South and longitude 105° 25′ from Greenwich East.
From: Bark Ship Paula, Port: Elsfleth, Captain: D [illegible], On her journey from Cardiff to Macassar.
The finder is requested to send the slip in the bottle to the German Naval Observatory in Hamburg or the nearest consulate for the return to the same agency after filling in the information on the back.”

The German merchant sailing barque Paula in 1880. (Deutsches Schiffahrtsmuseum-Unterweser)

Between 1864 and 1933, thousands of bottles were thrown from German ships into the world’s oceans. The captain would write details including the date, the coordinates at the time, and name of the ship on the note inside the bottle.

The Illmans have loaned their find for display to the WA Museum for two years.

WA Minister for Culture and the Arts David Templeman said it was “truly an impressive find.”

He added, “Thanks to the wonderful international and interdisciplinary cooperation of science and research, it can now also be shared with the world.”

 

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