Other than finding a live member of the species, what would you say is the ‘Holy Grail’ of Tasmanian tiger (thylacine) hunters? If your answer was “a 200-year-old clay pipe with an image of a thylacine on it,” you’re obviously an archeologist, since that’s what researchers are calling a pipe fitting that description bought at an auction. Really? What were they smoking in that pipe?
“There's quite a buzz in the archaeology and academic community about this particular pipe.”
You don’t put the words “buzz” and “pipe” in the same sentence unless you’re excited, and that’s the case with Darren Watton, the Principal archaeologist with Southern Archaeology, a “fully outfitted archaeology and heritage expert with industry relationships” located in Tasmania. The clay pipe was originally discovered in 2016 by a bottle collector who found it in a bottle dump near Launceston. Bottle dumps are ancient piles of solid refuse, often at the site of a kitchen, that are treasure troves for both collectors and archeologists. This particular one contained bottles from around 1830, which put the pipe at least 190 years old.
"It's got some really special attributes which we don't usually see. It indicates it was a local person making it, perhaps for themselves. It could have also been a convict."
Watson tells ABC Australia why he’s so excited at the find and hints at its Holy Grail-ness. Pipes from this period are normally from the UK Or Europe, while this one was made from local river clay. However, that’s not what attracted Stephen Sleightholme, Project Director of the International Thylacine Specimen Database, who bought it at an auction and recently delivered it to Watson.
"The rendering of the thylacine, with its distinctive striped coat on the bowl of the pipe does not appear to relate to any 19th century image that could have been used to assist in the modelling. So the somewhat naïve artwork appears to be original. Consequently, the image is one of the earliest depictions of a thylacine we have on record."
For this pipe to have survived intact with its image of a thylacine so clear is remarkable, considering these early nicotine delivery systems were one of the first disposable products – used a few times and then thrown away until someone invented rolled cigarettes. (a closeup of the thylacine image can be seen here.) But wait … there’s more! The stem of the pipe has a rendering of what appears to be a kookaburra – a bird not found in Tasmania until 1902. This either means the person who molded it was familiar with mainland Australia wildlife or the bird on the pipe is a poorly drawn Tasmanian kingfisher.
Is that enough to put this pipe in the ‘Holy Grail’ category for Tasmanian tigers? The fact that it is the first known image of one certainly makes it unique. The story of its accidental discovery makes it unusual. The fact that it’s local to Tasmania makes it rare. That’s enough for Watton.
"In terms of Tasmanian archaeology, it's the holy grail."
That settles it ... until someone takes a current picture.