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Getting a handle on it: Solving the mystery of figurines recovered from the wreck of the Dunbar

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Australian National Maritime Museum

The Conservation team at the Australian National Maritime Museum have solved the mystery surrounding the purpose of 6 animal figurines discovered amongst the remains of the 1857 wreck of the Dunbar and are now seeking anyone who may have these curious objects in their homes.

The objects from the museum’s Dunbar collection are some of the personal items and commercial stock that were being transported from England to Australia prior to the devastating loss of the vessel near the entrance to Sydney Harbour in 1857. With no official manifest and centuries of ocean driven degradation, many of the more unique objects have lost their identity and purpose outside of their connection to the Dunbar.

First thought to be decorative umbrella handles, riding crop knobs, or accessories for walking sticks and/or canes, these objects are now believed to be ornate cabinet knobs, iconic symbols of Victorian aristocracy during the late 19th century, very likely cast in England.

The removal of minute corrosion deposits revealed threading at the base of each of the figurines and a distinct purpose associated with the objects, narrowing the seemingly limitless possibilities to a handful.

This discovery was made almost entirely by coincidence with the use of microscopes and specialised probes not easily accessible when the collection first came to the museum in the 1990s.

Does anyone have one of these in their home? Museum keen for answers.

Museum Director and CEO Ms Daryl Karp has said, ‘This fascinating discovery has piqued the curiosity of all at the Museum, and we are now turning to the public and asking anyone who may own these ornate cabinet handles to please reach out to us so that we might be able to confirm this discovery.’

If you believe you may own these cabinet handles, please reach out to media@sea.museum with relevant information and images.