(BBC) A Perth family has found the world’s oldest known message in a bottle, almost 132 years after it was thrown into the sea, Australian experts say.
Tonya Illman picked up the bottle while going for a walk around sand dunes on a remote beach in West Australia.
Her husband Kym Illman told the BBC they found some paper in the bottle but had “no idea” what it was until they took it home and dried it in the oven.
Experts have confirmed it is an authentic message from a German ship.
The note in the bottle, which was dated 12 June 1886, was jettisoned from the German ship Paula, as part of an experiment into ocean and shipping routes by the German Naval Observatory.
‘Rolled up cigarette’
The Illman family were driving through a beach north of Wedge Island on 21 January when the car became bogged down in the sand, and Mrs Illman and her friend decided to go for a walk.
“Tonya saw a whole lot of rubbish on the ground, and thought she’d help pick up some rubbish,” Mr Illman told the BBC.
She found and picked up the bottle, thinking it would be nice for her bookshelf, he added.
Mr Illman said his wife passed the bottle “to our son’s girlfriend, who saw what she thought was a rolled-up cigarette, and tipped it out with the sand”.
“Tonya tried to untie the string around the paper, but it was rather fragile, so we took it home and put it in the oven for five minutes to dry up the moisture.
“Then we unrolled it and saw printed writing. We could see the hand written ink at that point, but saw a printed message that asked the reader to contact the German consulate when they found the note.”
Later, they also noticed faint handwriting on the note, with a date of 12 June 1886 and the name of the ship, Paula.
When they saw the date they thought it was “too far-fetched” to be real, Mr Illman said – but they researched the bottle online and took it to experts at the Western Australian Museum.
Dr Ross Anderson, Assistant Curator Maritime Archaeology at the WA Museum, confirmed the find was authentic after consulting with colleagues from Germany and the Netherlands.
“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,” Dr Anderson said.
The handwriting on the journal, and the message in the bottle, also matched, he added.
The bottle was jettisoned in the south-eastern Indian Ocean, and probably washed up on the Australian coast within 12 months, where it was buried under the sand, he wrote in his report.
Thousands of bottles were thrown overboard during the 69-year German experiment but to date only 662 messages – and no bottles – had been returned. The last bottle with a note to be found was in Denmark in 1934.
The bottle found on Wedge Island was found “mostly exposed without any form of cork or closure, and was about a quarter full of damp sand”, and the bottle appeared to have lain “buried or mostly buried”, partially filled with damp sand, Dr Anderson added.
Sand dunes in the area are quite mobile during storm events and heavy rain, so the bottle could have been subject to “cyclical periods of exposure” which could have led to the cork in the bottle drying out and becoming dislodged, “while the tightly rolled paper along with a quantity of sand remained inside preserved”.
“The narrow 7mm bore of the bottle opening and thick glass would have assisted to buffer and preserve the paper from the effects of full exposure to the elements, providing a protective microenvironment favourable to the paper’s long-term preservation,” the report added.
The Illman family have loaned the find to the Western Australian Museum for the next two years, and it will be on display to the public from Wednesday.
WA Minister for Culture and the Arts David Templeman said he was “delighted” with the loan, adding: “It is truly an impressive find and thanks to the wonderful international and interdisciplinary cooperation of science and research, it can now also be shared with the world.”
“To think that this bottle has not been touched for nearly 132 years and is in perfect condition, despite the elements, beggars belief. I’m still shaking.”
Reporting by the BBC’s Helier Cheung.