Mysterious Tjipetir Blocks Are Appearing on European Beaches
A woman was walking along the beach in Cornwall, England in 2012, when she by chance spotted a dark tablet in the sand. On closer inspection she noticed it was inscribed with a strange word, but shrugged off her discovery as a curiosity. Nevertheless, a few weeks later she discovered another tablet on a different beach. Without knowing it at the time, she’d stumbled upon a phenomenon that others have been experiencing across Europe for decades known as the mystery of the Tjipetir blocks.
Beachcomber Tracey Williams, with her Tjipetir block discoveries. (Tom Quinn Williams / Tjipetir Mystery Facebook)
The Backstory of the Tjipetir Blocks
Not knowing how the rubber-like slabs might have come to be on various beaches, and confounded by the word punched into them – TJIPETIR – beachcomber Tracey Williams began some research into the origins of the dark, rubbery blocks. On further investigation, Williams found that Tjipetir (pronounced cheep-a-teer) is a village in West Java, Indonesia.
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Now named Cepetir, it was once the site of a Gutta-percha plantation during the late 19th and early 20th century. Gutta-percha “plates” were made from the gum of the Palaquium tree. The dark colored, rubbery latex substance was used widely in the manufacturing of items such as toys, golf balls, false teeth, surgical devices, jewelry, furniture, and was key in the development of underwater telegraph cables. In Malaysia, the indigenous people would use the wood and gum of the tree for making knife handles and walking sticks long before it was adapted by the Western world.
Late-19th-century Indonesian gutta-percha plantation with stacks of rubber-like blocks. (Tropenmuseum / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Are the Curious Tjipetir Blocks Coming from a Shipwreck?
For decades, people had been finding the inscribed plates washed up on beaches across the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Spain, Netherlands and Sweden. But the question remained: how had the plates made their way from Indonesia to the beaches of Europe? The answer is still not certain, but it is speculated that the blocks may have spilled into the ocean in 1912, as the infamous sunken ship, the Titanic, had Gutta-percha tablets and bales of rubber listed on the ocean liner’s cargo manifest.
Engraving of the doomed Titanic, from circa 1912, which had the Tjipetir blocks on board according to the cargo manifest. (Public domain)
Alternatively, the tablets might have come from another sunken ship, a Japanese passenger ship named Miyazaki Maru. The Miyazaki Maru was said to have been carrying the rubber plates from Yokohama to London, but was sunk by a German submarine torpedo in May 1917. In reality, the plates could be still coming from any number of wrecks, floating to the surface as the sunken cargo ship breaks up below.
Could the ill-fated ship, Miyazaki Maru be the source of the Tjipetir blocks? (Uboat.net)
“A Fabulous Gift from the Ocean”
As it takes some 25 years for floating debris to go around the world via currents, it may prove impossible to confirm the truth of the origins of the Tjipetir blocks, which by now have been at sea for over a century. As they are a natural product, over time the blocks will degrade and eventually return to nature.
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Not considered mere flotsam by those who are lucky enough to stumble across them, the Gutta-percha plates from the Tjipetir factory are held in special regard by their new owners. These unlikely pieces of history are described by Marina de Jesus on the Tjipetir Mystery Community Facebook page as “a fabulous gift from the ocean.”
Undoubtedly the slabs will continue to be retrieved from beaches by the curious, and will serve to unite people in history. Yet many Tjipetir blocks will remain undiscovered, traveling the seas and drifting ashore once in a while, only to return to the waters by the pull of tides.
Top image: Curious Tjipetir blocks have been turning up on beaches across Europe for decades. Source: Tom Quinn Williams / Tjipetir Mystery Facebook page
By Liz Leafloor
Cacciottolo, M. 2014. Tjipetir mystery: Why are rubber-like blocks washing up on beaches? [Online] Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30043875
Leckert, 2014. “Has the Mystery of the Tjipetir Blocks Been Solved?” in Atlas Obscura. Available at: http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/has-the-mystery-of-the-tjipetir-blocks-been-solved