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The Mystery of The Unknown Artefact

Updated: Nov 26, 2018

You have to take your shoes off inside the Vailima house which was built by RLS and his family, and is now a magnificent museum to their memory. I asked a guide where the vegetable garden, which Fanny mentions a lot, was. He waved vaguely over to the distant edge of the lawn. I walked across, still barefoot, and as I came to the place where the lawn stops and the tropical forest starts, I stubbed my toe on something hard. When I looked down, I saw a piece of metal just protruding from the ground. I moved it a little with my throbbing toe, and a rectangular shape of something became clearer. I pulled some grass away and saw it was quite big. I pulled aside some more grass and a little surface soil, and saw what appeared to be a lighthouse on the surface of the metal. What on earth was it? I pulled it out, carefully taking photographs of its location and position as I went. We washed it under a garden tap, and took it inside. What had I found and why was it lying there under the surface? I'll post more as we find out.

Vailima - the house Treasure Island built!

Here are some of the responses we received when we asked the world of Stevenson experts for their thoughts on what the lighthouse artefact could be:

"We, too, are puzzled by it's location but not surprised since other occupants (of which there were several) such as High Commissioners from Germany, New Zealand, to say nothing of the Head of State, have had access to the home and whatever residual items may have been tucked away in the nooks and crannies of the place. 

I suppose that we will never know the answers to the speculative questions being raised. In the past, we have found door latches, hasps and other minor pieces of hardware in and around the perimeter, especially when the work on the beautiful fence was being done several years ago;  but, there was nothing like what you found to cause such curiosities.

As you know, during the restoration process we found a portion of the 'peacock blue' exterior wall and we show case it in a lighted shadowbox area between Fanny and Isobel's quarters.  What you probably didn't know is that we uncovered some strange writing on one of the walls  in Austin's bedroom as we stripped the coats of old paint away and the bare wood was exposed.  We fantasized that it might be some arcane code or directions to other hidden treasures.  We did take many photographs using UV light to see if we could decipher any such message but we finally decided that the marks must have been put there at the mill from which the lumber was processed. 

This we do know with a high degree of certainty: life was lived to the fullest by Tusitala and the cast of characters who surrounded him.  Undoubtedly there are other items yet to be discovered on the grounds.  Will they ever surface? Who knows.  But you were the one to bring this one to light and we all bask in cornucopia of questions its discovery poses.  You were getting close to Fanny's garden.  WE know because during the landscaping portion of the restoration years ago, we found remnants of the rather interesting irrigation system she  supposedly devised. At least we liked to speculate that we did." (Board Member, Vailima).

“It looks to me like a representation of Dubh Artach (or Dhu Heartach) --- which Robert Louis Stevenson’s father Thomas designed and built in 1872 when RLS was 22. You can get more details of it on the NLB website - worked at the shore station (Erraid) for one summer during is construction and wrote an account of its building. This was published  in 1995 as ‘the new lighthouse on the Dhu Heartach Rock in Argyllshire’ edited by RC Swearingen, in St Helena, California. It is a relatively stubby tower on a rock very like that depicted. It is not the Bell Rock light, which his grandfather built, as that does not stand on a rock above the high tide line. It is not graceful enough for Skerryvore which his uncle designed (though RLS did call his house in Bournemouth, Skerryvore)

RLS`s mother came to Samoa but I can`t imagine her taking it in her hand luggage! It would be good if the Samoa museum could rescue and conserve it.”

(Northern Lighthouse Board)

From me to the NLB:

"The saga with the 'thing' continues, and I'd like some more help from you, if I may. Last night our friends took us to the Marriott Hotel, which as you know is in the old Stevenson family offices on Leith Walk. In the basement restaurant there are a lot of black and white photos which the staff say were provided by the NLB. Two of them have the same 'logo' as the thing I found, the lighthouse is on a chair back and on a detail from a stair case. This seems to confirm that the 'thing' is indeed a NLB item? Maybe it lived in the Stevenson home, and made its way to Samoa when Robert Louis packed up and closed up the family home and took it among the 42 tons of belongings he had packed up to move to the Vailima house on Samoa in 1891?"

( see the two rather bad photos of the pictures on the wall downstairs in the Marriott Hotel, Leith Walk in the gallery below)

Message from Catherine Strutt: I reckon Catherine may have solved the mystery:

So….I was looking at your website and reading about your adventures with RLS. Have you solved your Lighthouse mystery object yet? I reckon I have. You know when I saw that I recognised it immediately. Now, I could be wrong BUT I instantly said “that’s a door off a Beacon Light fuel stove" of which us Strutts have one (or two!), here and up at Lightning Ridge. It would make sense would it not? And you say it was lying with other bits of metal hardware etc. I reckon it sounds like it was their dump, like what you find somewhere on the land around where old hotels used to stand out in the bush. I’ve seen (and dug through) plenty of them out NW NSW and around the back of Newcastle and this is exactly the kind of objects and treasures you find. The object is obviously broken/damaged and if it WAS from a fuel stove, utterly useless so it got the toss into the dump.  Anyway, I’m attaching a link to a stove that is identical to my Mums’s over at home and another that I found on the net. The lighthouse image is IDENTICAL in my artistic opinion. Look at the light’s rays. Identical number and length. The only thing missing is the text "Beacon Light” on your mystery object but the size, material, image really fits. Your object may even be the back of a Beacon Light stove.

So maybe what we have is the back panel to one of these stoves? They were made in Sydney, Australia, from 1888 by the Metters Company, so the timing fits. RLS was in Sydney at that time, buying things for the house, and maybe brought one home for installation in the outside kitchen, less than 20 meters from where I found the casting? He would have been charmed with it, wouldn't he?

The inside of the casting I found has letters which could easily be B for Beacon L for Lighthouse and S for stove. This feels like a solution!!

I reckon Catherine has solved the mystery. On her way home from work in Newcastle, New South Wales, she dropped in at her mum's house. Her dad and mum salvaged this in pieces from a field out the back of an old house in the NSW countryside. As a family Catherine, her sister and parents dug in the earth until they found all the parts The family took it all home and her dad put it together. It sits in their living room. See the pictures. I think what we found is the side panel. That's it, don't you think? Picture 1 is the item I found. The next two pictures were taken by Catherine of the Beacon Lighthouse stove at her mum's house. The next two are the photos hanging in the Marriott Hotel, Edinburgh, the building which used to be the Stevenson family design office, and now is decorated with photos from the Northern Lighthouse Board which are so similar, but not identical to our item. And the last two pictures are the item we found at Vailima. Catherine' smost recent addition to the sleuthing is that her family's stove is Model

Next question: What's the link with the woodwork on the chair and newel post in Edinburgh? Why was the same symbol in use? Did RLS mention what he bought in Sydney in his diaries?

I'd better get the books of his letters out. Catherine's most recent theory, observing that her stove is called Model 7 and has 7 rays emanating from the stove beacon light on the front and sides, but that the one I found has only 6, is that ours is a Model 6? A year older than the one found by her family.

The item in its original location

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