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In mid-January, while exploring the white sands of the beach-side dunes just north of Western Australia’s Wedge Island, Tonya Illman came across an “interesting” bottle. Little did she know that inside the glass container lay an invaluable treasure — a 131-year-old note, the oldest message in a bottle discovered to date!
Tonya, who is still “shaking” with excitement at her fortuitous find, says, “I picked it [bottle] up thinking it might look nice on display in my home, and when I got back to the car, I handed it to my son’s girlfriend, Bree Del Borrello, to mind while I helped my husband get my son’s car out of the soft sand.” When Bree peered inside the lidless bottle, she noticed it contained something. Curious, she turned it upside down and out came a damp, neatly rolled piece of paper that had been carefully tied with some twine. To avoid damaging it, Tonya took the wet scroll home and placed it in the oven to dry for a few minutes before carefully unfurling it.
Kym, her husband, says, “The first thing that caught my eye was the year field, 18__.” Though initially skeptical of finding something this old so easily, things changed as he continued reading. It began with some coordinates and the word “aula,” Below that, in German, was a request asking the bottle’s finder to jot down the date and location of where it was found at the back of the note and return it to the German Naval Observatory or the nearest German embassy.
Wondering if they had stumbled upon a genuine ancient artifact, the Illmans took the note to Ross Anderson, a curator at the Western Australian Museum. Within a day, Anderson called back to let them know that he had been able to locate a 19th-century ship named Paula in the Lloyd’s Register, which maintains a list of merchant ships all the way back to the mid 18th-century. Even more exciting was that experts in Germany were able to track down Paula’s meteorological logbooks and find an entry by a “Captain O. Diekmann,” which confirmed that a bottle had been tossed overboard on June 12, 1886 – the date on the message. The sailor had also listed the coordinates of the ship’s location, which matched the ones on the note. The ultimate proof of the note’s authenticity was the logbook’s neat script, which paired perfectly with that of the handwritten message. The records also indicated that the bottle was one of the thousands tossed by the seamen as part of an experiment to track the water currents. Before the latest discovery only 662 had been located, the last in 1934!
Anderson believes the note remained intact because it was encased in a durable bottle with a narrow opening which allowed little moisture to seep inside, even after the lid came off. The expert speculates it most likely washed ashore within 12 months after being tossed and remained buried in the thick sand until it was brought to the surface by the upheaval caused by a recent cyclone.
The 131-year-old parchment, which now lies in its new home in the Western Australia Museum, was confirmed as the oldest message in a bottle ever discovered by the Guinness World Records on March 8. It surpasses the previous record-holder, a 108-year-old note found in Germany in 2015, by an astounding 23 years!
Resources: Smithsonian, org, kymillman.com