Oldest 'Message in a Bottle' Found on Beach, Message on Scroll Tells 132-Yr-Old Story


Tonya Illman’s walk on a West Australian beach came to an interesting turn when a small antique bottle was found lying in the sand on Wedge Island, a small piece of land just north of Perth.

“It just looked like a lovely old bottle, so I picked it up thinking it might look good in my bookcase,” she said.

But Illman had no idea what it was that she had just discovered. As her son’s girlfriend went to tip out the sand trapped inside, Illman got a better idea just how lovely that old bottle really was.

A damp, rolled up scroll slid out of the bottle opening, still tied by a worn piece of string.

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“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,” she said.

The message was from June 12, 1886 and revealed it had been thrown overboard from a German sailing barque nearly 600 miles away.

Tonya Illman began researching. She was absolutely sure the bottle was a historical discovery, and if not, she had fallen for one of the best pranks she’d ever seen.

But it was not a prank.

Illman learned that thousands of bottles were thrown overboard from German ships. Each bottle would contain a form from the ship’s captain. He would write the date, the coordinates, and details about where the ship was headed.

It was part of a 100-year-old experiment by the German Naval Observatory to try to track and learn about ocean currents.

The bottles that were found contained specific instruction to write back where and when the bottle was found and return it to the German Naval Observatory.

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Tony Illman took the bottle to the only place she could think to take it — the Western Australian Museum. It was there that a series of investigations were conducted by archaeologist Ross Anderson who determined the bottle was a mid-century Dutch gin bottle. As for the paper? The same time period and 100% authentic.

Anderson then contacted German colleagues for help. They managed to locate the journal of the captain who claimed to be writing the letter. The handwriting samples were identical, but what they read next shocked them even more.

“Incredibly, there was an entry for June 12, 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. The handwriting is identical in terms of cursive style, slant, font, spacing, stroke emphasis, capitalisation and numbering style.”

The bottle was discovered 132 years after it was thrown from the ship and is the very oldest message in a bottle in the world.

Tonya Illman has allowed the Western Australia Museum to display the world’s oldest message in a bottle… but just for two years. Then the ‘lovely’ old bottle she admired so much laying in the sand will go on her bookshelf, just where she always wanted it.

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