Puzzle over African coins sheds some light on Aboriginal rock art
By Madeleine Coorey, AFPSYDNEY--Solving the mystery of how 900-year-old African coins ended up in remote Australia could not only recast the history of foreign contact Down Under, but shed light on Aboriginal rock art.
August 23, 2013, 12:01 am TWN
How the ancient Kilwa coins, believed to date from about A.D. 1100, came to be discovered on the Wessels Islands off the Northern Territory in 1944 has long posed questions about foreign visits to far off Australian shores.
Australian Ian McIntosh, a professor of anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University in the United States, said rock art found on the islands — which includes one image which appears to show a type of European sailing vessel — could hold some clues.
“A big part of the next stage will be documenting, dating and interpreting (the art), together with indigenous peoples,” McIntosh told AFP from his home in Indiana.
The Kilwa coins were discovered lying in the sand by Royal Australian Air Force radar operator Maurie Isenberg during World War II when he was stationed on the island as the Pacific conflict raged.
He found nine coins in all, five African copper pieces and four Dutch coins of European origin which are not nearly as old.
Isenberg initially tried to sell the coins but was unsuccessful. He put them away for decades and it wasn't until 1979 that he sent them to a museum for identification, along with a map showing where he had found them.
McIntosh said there were several theories on the coins, including that they were washed ashore after a shipwreck.
European sailors are known to have sailed the coast of Australia in the 1600s, but it wasn't until captain James Cook landed in Sydney's Botany Bay in 1770 that the British laid claim to the country.
The coins — believed to have originated in the medieval sultanate of Kilwa, an area which is now in Tanzania — have led to speculation that parts of northern Australia were visited by other mariners from as far away as the Middle East and Africa.
As McIntosh wrote in a recent paper for the journal “Australian Folklore,” in terms of the chain of events in the discovery, “the argument for the involvement of Kilwa traders and also the Portuguese is quite compelling”.
This undated photo released by the Powerhouse Museum Sydney on Thursday, Aug. 22 shows an ancient Kilwa coin from Africa, believed to date from about A.D. 1100, from the collection ...