Rare 200-Year-Old Clay Pipe Depicting Tasmanian Tiger Dubbed 'Holy Grail' Of Tasmanian Archaeology


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A 200-year-old clay pipe — sold as an unwanted item by a bottle collector at auction — has been described as the "holy grail" of Tasmanian archaeology.
Rare 200-year-old clay pipe depicting Tasmanian tiger dubbed 'holy grail' of Tasmanian archaeology
A clay pipe found near Launceston depicting a Tasmanian tiger is believed
to be at least 190 years old [Credit: Darren Watton/ABC]

The intact pipe has a motif of the Tasmanian tiger, and is thought to be one of the earliest European depictions of the extinct creature.

Principal archaeologist with Southern Archaeology, Darren Watton, said it was a very exciting find.

"It's hard to contain myself as to how exciting it is," he told Helen Shield on ABC Radio Hobart. "In terms of Tasmanian archaeology, it's the holy grail."

Clay pipes were used before cigarettes, and were mass produced through moulds and designed to be used and discarded.

The pipes were generally made in the United Kingdom or other parts of Europe and imported to the colonies. But this pipe was handcrafted locally using river clay.

"It's got some really special attributes which we don't usually see," he said. "It indicates it was a local person making it, perhaps for themselves. It could have also been a convict."

The pipe was found in a bottle dump near Launceston, with the bottles dated at about 1830, making the pipe at least 190 years old.

An original tiger design

Mr Watton was alerted to the pipe a few months ago, after an avid collector of Tasmanian tiger paraphernalia bought the pipe at auction.

Rare 200-year-old clay pipe depicting Tasmanian tiger dubbed 'holy grail' of Tasmanian archaeology
Clay pipes are rarely found intact, and there are no records of pipes
made locally until now [Credit: Darren Watton/ABC]

He has since got second opinions on it. "There's quite a buzz in the archaeology and academic community about this particular pipe," he said. "It conjures up all these sorts of ideas about where it was made and who made it."

The pipe's finder was an amateur bottle digger who found it sandwiched between two larger bottles at the base of a pit on a private property near Launceston in 2016. The collector then sold the pipe as an unwanted item.

Stephen Sleightholme, from the International Thylacine Specimen Database, snapped up the pipe at auction.

"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," Dr Sleightholme said. "So the somewhat naive artwork appears to be original. Consequently, the image is one of the earliest depictions of a thylacine we have on record."

Mystery deepens with kookaburra

Adding to the mystery, the pipe also has a motif of a kookaburra on it.

Rare 200-year-old clay pipe depicting Tasmanian tiger dubbed 'holy grail' of Tasmanian archaeology
Adding to the mystery is the motif of a kookaburra — a bird which was
not found in Tasmania until 1902 [Credit: Darren Watton/ABC]

The birds were not introduced to Tasmania until 1902, suggesting the maker spent time on the mainland before moving to Tasmania.

Another theory is that the bird is actually a Tasmanian kingfisher, or a generic bird.

The find will be published in an archaeology journal.

Author: Georgie Burgess | Source: ABC News Website [May 09, 2020]