Bottle petrified under the ocean and recovered from HMS Birkenhead in 1986.

An old bottle, entombed in conglomerate rock (below right), has a surprising message for visitors to the Maritime Museum in Cape Town, South Africa.1

In 1986, divers salvaged this glass treasure, along with other historic items, from the wreck of the British troopship, HMS2 Birkenhead. Around 2:00 am on the dark morning of 23rd February 1852, her metal hull ripped open on a treacherous rock pinnacle some 150 km (100 miles) south-east of Cape Town. Within 20 minutes, she broke apart and sank in roughly 30 metres (100 feet) of water about 1.5 km (one mile) off Danger Point. Sadly, 445 of the 638 people on board perished — most of them young soldiers headed for the frontier in Eastern Cape.3 But the bottle does not just speak of the fragility of life.

What is remarkable is that the bottle is firmly embedded in a solid rock-like mass. Bits and pieces from the ship have mixed with material from the ocean bottom, and been cemented together. On closer inspection, it can be seen that the ‘rock’ comprises a ceramic jar, basketware, iron corrosion products, pebbles and shell fragments. Impressions of other bottles are also visible in the conglomerate. It has obviously formed since the ship came to rest on the ocean floor on that fateful night….

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