If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.


Art & Artifacts


Oldest message in a bottle discovered, and an ancient medical text revealed

by Corinna Wu
April 9, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 15


Photo of a brown bottle on a sandy beach with the ocean in the background.
Credit: Copyright
Record-setting jetsam: A 132-year-old message in a bottle was found on an Australian beach.

World record set for oldest message in a bottle

For Tonya Illman, a stroll on an Australian beach in January yielded a spectacular souvenir: a 132-year-old message in a bottle—the oldest such bottle ever found.

Photo of a 132-year-old message slip from a drift bottle experiment written in German.
Credit: Copyright
Return to sender: A bottle from a 19th-century German ocean current experiment contained this message slip.

She saw the dark glass container sticking out of the sand on the western coast of Australia, about 180 km north of Perth. A tightly rolled piece of paper was inside, tied with a piece of twine.

The message wasn’t a cry for help from an island castaway or a love letter from a grieving widower. Rather, it was a form, in German, filled out with the details of how the bottle came to embark on its oceanic journey. The bottle was jettisoned from a German sailing ship, Paula, on June 12, 1886, 950 km from the spot where it was eventually found.

From 1864 to 1933, the German Naval Observatory ran a drift bottle experiment to trace ocean currents. At predetermined times, ship captains dropped bottles containing a slip that asked the finder to fill in the date and location of where the bottle washed up and to return the slip to the naval observatory in Hamburg or the nearest consulate. Thousands of bottles were jettisoned, but fewer than 10% made their way back to Germany.

To learn more about their bottle, Illman and her husband, Kym, approached the Western Australian Museum, where curators confirmed the message’s authenticity. The Illmans’ discovery is now in the book of Guinness World Records and on display at the museum for the next two years.

The last such message slip returned to Germany was in 1934, says Ross Anderson, the WA Museum’s curator of maritime archaeology. “The Paula bottle and message slip is an exceedingly rare find to make in the 21st century.”

X-ray imaging reveals an ancient medical text

Photo of an aluminum frame holding a large page of a manuscript vertically in front of an X-ray synchrotron beamline.
Credit: Mike Toth/R.B. Toth Associates
Reading the palimpsest: X-ray fluorescence imaging reveals hidden text in a 6th-century manuscript.

Meanwhile, scientists at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have gone overboard to read an even older message—the words on a 6th-century manuscript called the Syriac Galen Palimpsest. The Syriac Aramaic manuscript is a translation of a Greek pharmaceutical text, “On the Mixtures and Powers of Simple Drugs,” written by a Greco-Roman physician named Galen of Pergamon. In the 11th century, scribes erased the text and wrote over the parchment with religious hymns.

To reveal the underlying writing, the SLAC team used the lab’s synchrotron light source to do X-ray fluorescence imaging for the first time on pages from the manuscript. Previous attempts used multispectral imaging. They spent 10 days scanning the pages and are using machine-learning techniques to pull out Galen’s original text.

The effort is a multidisciplinary collaboration among scientists, librarians, conservators, and scholars, says Uwe Bergmann, who is leading the X-ray imaging effort at SLAC. While Bergmann will help bring the old text to light, its meaning will be comprehensible only to the team’s Syriac specialists. Perhaps this provides ancient evidence for the notion that doctors’ notes are tough to decipher.


Corinna Wu wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to


This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.