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Century-old message in a bottle

News story

More than 120 feet below the waves in the Firth of Clyde, the largest and deepest coastal waters in the British Isles, a corked bottle was discovered in a shipwreck. For a century, the bottle had lain hidden beneath a metre of black silt in the hold of sunken steamer, the Wallachia, while high above it, on the surface of the sea, the world moved on.

Professor Stuart Johnson examining the bottle.

Another twenty years passed and by 2016, the unopened bottle had travelled across land and sea in the possession of Jon Major, the amateur deep-sea diver who discovered it, and eventually made its way into the hands of Professor Stuart Johnson, a food technology research academic at the Curtin Health and Innovation Research Institute (CHIRI), where it underwent a battery of tests.

So what historical secrets could this glass time capsule tell us? And what, exactly, was in it? When the bottle first arrived at Curtin, it was believed to contain beer, but the results have since proved otherwise.

“When I first opened the bottle, a rich, strong alcoholic aroma came from it,” says Professor Johnson.

A beaker containing some of the bottle's contents, and its disintegrated cork in the foreground.

A beaker containing some of the bottle’s contents, and its disintegrated cork in the foreground.

Johnson tested the liquid for alcoholic content and discovered that the alcohol level was very high – nearly 30 per cent as determined by gas chromatography – leading Johnson to believe the bottle content wasn’t beer but more likely a dry fortified wine or a kind of low alcohol spirit.

“The sugar levels were low, just a trace of glucose and sucrose, suggesting a very dry fortified wine or distilled spirit,” says Professor Johnson.

Other testing of the liquid revealed that no live yeasts or other microorganisms were present. It is possible in some cases with old unopened bottles of beer to re-culture the yeast and reenact the fermentation that happened hundreds of years ago.

Though it is not the first bottle to be found at the depths of the sea, it can nevertheless add to scientific research on historical food content, and appeal to our insatiable desire to know what life used to be like.

“When I heard the story [of its discovery] I was quite fascinated,” says Professor Johnson. “There is an interest in understanding the storage and shelf life of many foods, and this example is quite unusual because the material was in very cold water in the dark, right at the bottom of the ocean off [the coast of] Scotland, so it’s great to understand how and what ageing processes occur in these conditions.”

“I’m also a collector of antique bottles as well, so it’s quite interesting from that point of view … but I’m also interested in trying to understand what happened historically. This bottle can tell us what people were drinking on the ships, and the kind of rations they had.”

Despite never reaching its intended destination, the bottle’s journey has been a long and fascinating one, and is reflective of the part history still plays in society today.

“I think these kinds of finds are so interesting to the public because many people associate a range of beverages – alcoholic and non alcoholic – with their cultural background,” says Professor Johnson.

“A lot of people in Australia also have a cultural heritage in that part of the world [Scotland] and I think discoveries like these provide that link to the past and our ancestors.”

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