Indiana University Bloomington

IUPUI led expedition seeks source of thousand-year-old coins in Aboriginal Australia

  • Feb. 28, 2013

Like a detective working a cold case, an Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis anthropologist hopes to unravel the mystery of how a handful of coins, some dating back more than 1,000 years, wound up on a remote beach along Australia’s northern coastline.

Armed with a grant from the Australian Geographic Society, Ian McIntosh will lead an expedition in July to the long-abandoned Wessels Islands where the coins were found.

The ancient copper coins have little monetary value, but in archaeological terms are priceless, McIntosh said. The coins may even touch upon the discovery of Australia, as British explorer James Cook is credited with being the first European to have encountered the country’s eastern coastline in 1770.

 The coins raise the possibility of shipwrecks that may have occurred along an early maritime trading route and bring to mind the ancient trading network that linked East Africa, Arabia, India and the Spice Islands over a thousand years ago. Not to mention Aboriginal folklore that speaks of a hidden cave near where the coins were found that is filled with doubloons and weaponry of an ancient era, McIntosh said.

In any case, McIntosh begins his quest for answers with a nearly 70-year-old map where X marks the spot and few other clues about the coins that now reside in a box in the back of a museum in Sydney, because people don’t know what to make of them, he said.

McIntosh, who is Australian, will be returning to the area where he lived for several years while working on his Ph.D.

The coins were found in 1944 by Maurie Isenberg, an Australian solder assigned to a forward radar station at Jensen Bay on the Wessel Islands. One day, while fishing in his spare time, he spotted several coins in the sand. Having little interest in coins at the time, he placed them in an airtight tin, where they remained until 1979 when he sent the coins off to have them identified.

Shortly after finding the coins, Isenberg drew an X on a map of the area that had been drawn by another soldier. McIntosh now possesses that map.

Four of the coins were identified as Dutch East India Company coins, with one dating back to 1690. The other five coins, dating from the 900s to 1300s, were African coins from the once flourishing Kilwa sultanate, now a World Heritage ruin located south of Zanzibar in Tanzania. The copper coins, the first to be produced in sub-Saharan Africa, were never in use beyond the immediate locality of East Africa and only one has ever been found elsewhere, and that was in Oman.

 How and why do five Kilwa coins find their way to the Australian Outback? McIntosh said he believes an archaeological site survey, which has never been done, and an excavation will begin to answer those questions.

In partnership with the senior Aboriginal custodians for the Wessel Islands, McIntosh’s team, comprised of Australians and Americans, will include an historian, anthropologist, archaeologist and a geomorphologist, as well as Aboriginal rangers. They will survey the site where the coins were found, with a view to applying for an excavation permit from the relevant heritage authorities and planning the logistics of the excavation. The initial work to be done includes site surveys, mapping, recording, soil testing, and coastal erosion analysis.

There are so many unanswered questions with regards to the discovery of the African coins, McIntosh said. “Multiple theses have been put forward by noted scholars and the major goal is to piece together more of the puzzle. Is a shipwreck involved? Are there more coins? All options are on the table but only the proposed expedition can help us answer some of these perplexing questions.”

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