Voyages of Grand Discovery
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In Search of the Great Southland
Past Before Time
Dirk Hartog
Willem de Vlamingh
William Dampier
Nicolas Baudin
Saint Alouran
Matthew Flinders
de Freycinet
Lines of Fate
The Museum at Work: Dirk Hartog Island 2006
The north end of Dirk Hartog Island is one of two maritime sites in Western Australia placed on the National Heritage List by the Commonwealth Government. This place has national significance due to the number of explorers and scientific expeditions that have been drawn to the Island and have left behind relics of these journeys.

The Western Australian Museum had spent over thirty years undertaking fieldwork on Dirk Hartog Island and Shark Bay. In 2006 the Museum’s maritime archaeologists received a grant under the Federal Government’s Gift to the Nation Scheme to make an archaeological survey and excavation of the area. Led by Jeremy Green, a group of Museum staff, contract specialists and volunteers undertook an intensive three week survey and excavation of the area.

This dig did not find any new evidence, however. The team concluded that the first coin and cap were not found in their original location and could have been discarded by a fossicker. The bottle that contained the annexation document seemed long gone. In contrast, the evidence showed that the bottle found in April 1998 by the Museum had not been disturbed and lay where it had been buried by the French explorers.

St Alouran's Bottle
On 29 March 1772 the Gros Ventre commanded by Louis de Saint Aloüarn anchored off Turtle Bay at the north end of Dirk Hartog Island.

Above: Expedition artefact manager Richenda Prall records finds, while other museum staff, contract archaeologists and volunteers excavate the annexation site.

Next morning, Saint Aloürarn sent a boat with an officer, boat crew and five soldiers to reconnoitre the land. They walked inland for over 14 kilometres, finding no one. Returning to the coast they took possession of the land. A flag was raised, a prepared document read aloud followed by cries of “Long live the King” and a volley of musket shots.

Gross Ventre

: The Gros Ventre at Port Louis, Mauritius, where she ended her career. Watercolour by Frédéric Roux (1828).
The document was put in a bottle and buried at the foot of a small tree. Two coins, or écus, of six francs each were placed nearby. The ship’s log refers to the bay as ‘Baie de Prise de Possession’.

After the coin was found at Turtle Bay in 1998, the Museum sent an expedition to search for the bottle.

On 1 April 1998 Bob Sheppard, Bob Creasy and Dr Michael McCarthy discovered an intact bottle with a lead seal similar that found by the French team in January.

The bottle was carefully excavated by archaeologist Rodney Harrison. The flower pot shape of the bottle showed that it had probably been made in France in the mid 18th century. However the bottle appeared not to contain the annexation document.

Conservation Treatment
Non-invasive investigations
To determine if there was a document in the bottle, a series of CT Scans (Computer Tomography) were taken by the Department of medical Imaging at Royal Perth Hospital. Dark shadows in the sand indicated the presence of organic material which could have been paper or parchment. A cork in the neck of the bottle was also identified.

Removal of the lead closure
The iron wire securing the lead closure had to be removed before the contents of the bottle could be examined. The microscope revealed several small fractures which allowed segments of the wire to be carefully detached.

The brittleness of the lead meant it had to be gently warmed to make it more malleable. A fragment of lead sheathing from Cook’s Endeavour and a hair dryer was used to test the amount of heat required. This method was then applied to the bottle closure. Conservators gently prised open two of the warmed ‘lugs’ and easily lifted the closure free.

Right: Lead closure with silver écu dated 1767. Red deposits on the cork, coin and rim of bottle contained cinnabar.

Popping the cork
The cork was firmly fixed inside the neck of the bottle. Sand around the cork’s edges was gently removed with fine dental instruments to create enough space for a thin brass shim to pass between the cork and the glass. The cork could now be carefully pulled from the bottle.

Deposits of red material on the top of the cork, rim of the bottle and surface of the coin indicated that the coin had been originally sealed with wax. Samples were sent for analysis and found to contain cinnabar, a red pigment used to colour wax. Possibly the seal was eaten by insects entering the gaps in the lead enclosure. The inner end of the cork had clearly been attacked by insects.


Above: Dr Simon Turner and museum curator Myra Stanbury examining the contents of the bottle

Investigating the bottle contents
To examine the inside of the bottle conservators called in Dr Simon Turner and Chris Papadopolus Stryker Division of Stubber Medical Pty Ltd. Using a fine cystoscope connected to a digital camera and computer, Dr Turner was able to examine the contents of the bottle.

There was no evidence of paper or parchment, only sand was found inside. Microscopic examination of the sand revealed remnants of plant material, pollen grains, spores and chitins (insect parts).

What happened to the annexation document remains a mystery.

French Coin
In January 1998, a team led by French historian M. Philippe Godard, including Geraldton residents Max Cramer, Kim Cramer, John Eckersley, Tom Brady and Chris Shine, discovered a French écu of 1766 with the bust of King Louis XV at a site on the cliff top overlooking Turtle Bay, at the north end of Dirk Hartog Island.

The silver coin was encased in a lead capsule, possibly a seal taken from a bale of cloth. The bottle and the annexation document were not found.

The significance of the discovery prompted the Western Australian Museum to send an expedition to the site in March 1998.

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