The Burke Museum’s mystery vessel

The mystery vessel washed up on the coast in 2003. Credit: Courtesy of the Thomas Burke Memorial Washington State Museum

Many strange items have been found on Northwest beaches: Chinese porcelain, beeswax from the Philippines, Japanese tsunami debris, tennis shoes with feet inside, and sometimes even Asian castaways.

One interesting item has recently found its way to The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington. It sits, swaddled in padding, in a plastic laundry basket in a back room in the archaeology department, looking a bit like an oversized baby in a bassinet. It’s a large clay jug half-covered in barnacles. It’s the size of a small beer keg, has a sealed ceramic cap on top and ceramic lines that wind around it suggestive of a kind of netting. Something’s in the jug — a liquid, but also something that reportedly rattles like a pebble.

It’s heavy, its age undertermined. It looks old. To the untrained eye, it could be 10 years or 10,000 years old. Two obscured Chinese characters have been identified on it. The Burke says one has been translated as “ ’sheng’ which means to rise.” 

What the heck is this mystery vessel?

That’s what its finders wanted to know. According to the museum, it was picked up by a man named Stephen Sypher at North Cove in Grayland in 2003, and was donated to the Burke in the summer of 2011. The museum often invites the public to bring in objects for identification, but this one proved to be a puzzle to the staff. So the Burke has decided to invite the public to help solve this particular mystery by crowdsourcing a solution. It’s a way to turn a conundrum into an opportunity to get the public involved in research — and a way to help fund a special project. In this case, one with the allure of opening a floating ceramic time capsule.

How old is it? What’s inside? What was it used for? Where did it come from? The Burke wants to use scientific techniques to answer such questions and its archaeologist are leading the effort. In outlining their approach, the Burke suggests it might use x-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis to determine the composition of the vessel. Thermoluminescence is a method that might reveal the jug’s age, and x-rays might show what’s inside.

The Burke estimates that the research budget for the vessel would be $2,100, which they hope to raise through an about-to-debut (in early April) research-oriented crowdfunding website microryza.com. In its research outline, the museum says “The Burke invites YOU to provide expertise — have you seen anything like this? Crowdsourcing will be a critical aspect of quickly and efficiently honing in on possible original place of manufacture.”

Asking around has provided some clues. The Burke says someone at Seattle’s Wing Luke Museum thinks it is a food container. I contacted Curtis Ebbesmeyer, our local world expert on flotsam and jetsam, who says that it resembles similar jugs that have been found here over the years. He has recorded some 80 containers that began coming ashore in 1961. He’s been studying the phenomenon and guesses that this one might have come from the cargo of a ship that was lost off Japan during a typhoon in 1959. It could have floated here a few years later, got stuck in the sand, then come loose to be found by beachcombers years later. Ebbesmeyer says he hopes to do a paper on the subject.

Reviewing research and literature, checking with museums and experts, asking beachcombers to weigh in, casting the net to catch local knowledge are all part of the more comprehensive effort to answers the questions of the jug. Solving the mystery is in keeping with the Burke’s mission. More than a museum that stores and displays cool stuff, the Burke is a research center with a focus on natural history and the cultures of the Northwest and Pacific Rim. (See my previous stories about the museum, including a behind-the-scenes tour “In the Belly of the Burke,” and a report on their discovery of a new species of spider in the Arboretum, “A new spider species discovered in Seattle?”.)

The vessel could be an amazing find, or wind up as to be a bit of a let-down, like Al Capone’s vault. Still, the very fact that it is sealed appeals to the Pandora in all of us, and reminds in a small way of why might lie in sealed places (see the Pacific Science Center’s upcoming King Tut exhibit for an example of hitting the jackpot).

Whatever is inside, the chase itself will be instructive. The issue isn’t so much what’s in it, but what disciplines like archaeology, ethnology, oceanography, and anthropology can tell us about it. And crowdsourcing scientific research is an intriguing new model, both as a funding mechanism and as a kind of transparent, public participation element in the research process itself. “The more interest, the better,” says the Burke’s archaeology collections manager Laura Phillips, which doesn’t reflect the view of all scholars, who often prefer to work in concentrated isolation. Phillips, on the other hand, is excited about getting others involved. Maybe amateurs can help. If nothing else, they can learn and see how their donations are being used. 

Plus, there’s nothing more fun than solving a mystery. Maybe the Burke should create a new TV show: Artifact Detectives.

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