In a 1967 article on the Egyptian presence in Australia Michael Terry wrote
[i]n February 1964 the tomb of a woman, probably dating back to 1,000 B.C., was found on the site of an ancient city in the Jordan Valley. Examination of the body suggested that eucalyptus oil had been used to embalm it. The only sources then of such oil were the gum-trees of Australia and New Guinea. Now, of course, they are relatively common overseas but only since Baron von Mueller instituted a seed exchange between Australia and other parts of the world … [Terry 1967: p. 21].
As with many of the elusive snippets of information Terry used, no source was provided for this find. The aim of this blog is to track down the source of Australian secret visitor claims such as this, and to work out what the actual evidence is, rather than the snippets that are sometimes misinterpreted and misapplied.
For example, in an earlier post I tried to track down claims that kangaroos had been found in Egypt. As it turned out there had been a misreading of a well-publicised palaeontological finding. Fossils of ancient marsupials, millions of years old, had been found in Egypt but journalists had misunderstood the meaning of this and had focussed entirely upon the marsupial aspect, assuming it inevitably meant kangaroos. In fact, these were the ancestors of the South American opossums, and were only very distantly related to Australasian marsupials. The mistake was readily understandable once I was able to get back to the original source and to do that I had to narrow down the time range by looking at the earliest mention of the mistaken reading, and working backwards from there.
Terry’s gave no source for the information. Having only occurred three years before it was written I had hoped that it would have been based on a news item and readily findable. Could I find it? Would the eucalyptus resin be a mistake, a journalistic flourish, a reliable result?
Result – big fat nothing
The first step was to begin to understand the variety of versions of the claim. While it is very easy to copy and paste for internet entries, distinctive spelling mistakes or phrases can help to trace an original source. In the case of the Jordan Valley find, Terry’s 1967 wording appears not be used at all on internet entries. A more common form is:
British museum scientists discovered that from 1000 BC onwards eucalyptus resin was employed in the embalming of the dead in Egypt. Eucalyptus was only found in Australia and New Guinea at that time. The tomb of a woman was uncovered in Feb 1964 in the Jordan Valley using Euc. Resin. [Free Republic 2012]
This can be tracked back to Rex Gilroy’s description from his book Mysterious Australia [1995: 250]. Pretty much all mentions on the internet share common wording with this source, so they do not help in finding out where Terry got his information, some 30 years earlier. Gilroy copied a lot of Terry’s material and seems to have embellished some of it or let errors slip in. Sometimes the ‘British museum’ mentioned is written as ‘The British Museum’, and in different versions the woman is a burial, but sometimes a mummy. Occasionally she is a princess.
Searching more widely on the internet I tried various keywords to track down commentary on eucalyptus resin in the Jordan Valley. There was lots of information about modern eucalypts brought there, as Terry said, in the 19th century. Nothing on their association with a burial, the British Museum, a British museum or burial practices generally.
Still using the internet I moved into original source material, of which an increasing amount is becoming available. Some sensationally useful databases are available to anyone with a library reader’s ticket. A few hours work gave me the chance to hunt through potentially millions of possible pages where the information could have been housed.
This is a lot easier than it once was, as so many newspaper archives now are keyword searchable. I looked at the relevant period from 1964 to 1967, but usually extended it to around 1955 as the start date.
- Sydney Morning Herald – digital archive
- ProQuest Newspapers – digital archive for about 10 major international dailies like New York Times and The Guardian
- The Times [London] Digital Archive
- Art Index Fulltext and Art Index Retrospective – fine arts, museum and archaeology searchable database
- JSTOR - an online academic journal archive containing more than 1500 journals representing more than 40 million pages of text
- Other academic journal databases and publisher sites including Science Direct, Sage, Maney and Web of Knowledge, representing millions of pages of text
- Google Books, Google Scholar – various keyword and text string searches.
Just about all that I found was one journal article that spoke about palaeobotanical research in the Middle East, and how modern contamination of samples was identified by the presence of eucalyptus pollen [Kaptijn and Petit 2010]. Nothing else of use came from any of these millions of pages of content, so the second step I took was to look at Terry’s private papers and correspondence. Terry got information from two main sources – people wrote to him directly, and either told him about what they had found or passed on newsclippings and anecdotes or he read about things in scholarly journals and more popular magazines. Terry was not averse to going to experts such as museum staff for help and may also have obtained information through that route.
I had researched the surviving Terry papers materials, which are held in the National Library of Australia [NLA 611]. Analysis of his correspondence indicates that it is very patchy and that at least half of all letters known to have been received were unaccounted for. Neither is his collection of newsclippings or photographic material very complete. Having gone through every item held in the collection here is no mention of the site in surviving notes, newsclippings or early correspondence. That is not to say someone did not bring it to his attention in a letter.
One possibility is that Terry got it from magazines, newspapers or journals. He does not seem to have subscribed to any archaeology oriented journals, but he did write for the Illustrated London News, which had a regular archaeology column and which, because it was respected by archaeologists, often broke discovery news. I therefore set out to check the main popular magazines that featured archaeology and may have caught Terry’s attention. These were:
- Illustrated London News digital archive – contains a 1969 story by Michael Terry on his Cleland Hills site but nothing relevant to the eucalyptus resin claim
- Archaeology - monthly magazine of the American Institute of Archaeology
- National Geographic - monthly geographic magazine of the National Geographic Society
No joy came from any of these. In fact nothing even close to the topic emerged. Apart from that there was silence, which was surprising. I had thought that like the case of the mysterious marsupials of the Fayum that some press release or story relating to an archaeological discovery lay at the heart of the confusion, but no candidates have emerged.
In both Israel and Jordan particular academic bulletins summarised current research and recent findings pending more detailed analysis and writing up, which might take years. These are:
- Jordan – Annual Report of the Department of Antiquities
- Israel - Israel Exploration Journal
In summary I had checked a narrow period – from the supposed discovery date of 1964 to the publication in 1967 – in more than a dozen of the major international newspapers, searched the three main popular magazines that featured new archaeological discovery news from around the world, looked through an archive containing tens of millions of pages from scholarly journals, not just in the 1964-67 period but with any further discussion from then to the present, and finally had even gone to the journals that listed works in progress and interim discoveries in Israel and Jordan. And not content there, I even trawled through all of the Terry papers that survive in Canberra.
The result? Nothing found. Big – fat – nothing. [Or, as Comic Book Guy in theSimpsons would say - Worst. Research. Ever.]
It was time to go to the expert. Dr Elizabeth Bloch-Smith is a Lecturer in Archaeology at St Joseph’s University, Philadelphia and has decades of experience in Near Eastern archaeology. She has published an encyclopaedic analysis of burial sites in the Late Bronze and Early Iron Age  in the southern Levant, including the Jordan Valley. As part of this she examined all published archaeological reports of burials in this area, and provided comprehensive summaries of the burial types, the inhumations and grave goods. Our mystery burial falls right into the middle of Bloch-Smith’s period and well within her area of coverage. If anyone would know, she would.
I borrowed her book and worked out how to tackle it. She set out on great detail the typologies used to describe different tomb forms, how these varied through space and time, and what this may have meant. The next chapters dealt with the interments – who was buried, and what variations there were in gender, age, ethnicity, manner of burial or cremation and so on. Then came a very important chapter on grave contents. Most grave goods are ceramic. These include grave goods – items left with the burial – and sometimes burials took place in large ceramic containers. After that came detailed discussion and description of the whole range of items found in tombs, such as toys, weapons, evidence of costume items like pins, jewellery and so on. I searched in vain for a mention of eucalyptus, even as something she dismissed, but there was none.
It was clear that Bloch-Smith would have written about anything that was found in a tomb in the Jordan Valley in 1,000 BC if it was present. Because one of her main interests in documenting all of these burials was to identify different ethnic affiliations and trade patterns she would have certainly dealt with a find so extremely anomalous as eucalyptus resin, even if it was an interim analysis, or another archaeologist’s recollection. The implications of such a find could have made someone’s archaeological career.
After reading the book and finding nothing relevant I decided to see if Bloch-Smith had written other material and came across her current archaeological project home page. Perhaps she had only heard of the find after the rise of the internet? So I contacted her. A reply came back a few days later. It was pretty direct:
My research was quite thorough and I neither read nor heard of a burial dating to around 1000 BC of a woman embalmed with eucalyptus oil. Any such reference with no specifics – site, excavator, lab that determined such astounding results – is highly suspect. [Bloch-Smith, email 28 March 2012].
So that was it. A highly suspect report. As Bloch-Smith said elsewhere, ‘Biblical archaeology is a story of cracked pots [of both types]‘.
The story that a Jordan Valley burial contained eucalyptus resin, first put forward by Michael Terry and repeated uncritically many times since, is just that – only a story with no factual basis.
A thorough hunt through the available resources did not reveal where Terry got the information. His story was, however, picked up and repeated and now has entered the internet, with potential for even more rapid circulation.
Michael Terry was not an archaeologist but a writer, and had fewer ethical or professional constraints to caution in his statements or needing to double-check his facts. One consequence of that freedom is that occasionally you are caught out repeating fantasies as evidence. Given some of the dodgy content of his later theories, the truth of the Jordanian burial would not really damage his reputation further. However, it does make life more complicated for us as we try to unravel his claims to find out what the evidence actually says.
Until recently it would have been extremely difficult to back-track and find the source of such claims. The recent rise of searchable digital newspaper, magazine and academic journal archives provides the first opportunity to really interrogate many statements that have been repeated constantly on the internet without scrutiny. Even though it was limited to a maximum four year search period, the effort that would have been required to hunt down a press release or dig report manually would be unreasonable. Instead, it took a few hours, and some library trawling to satisfy me that there was no such dig. Dr Bloch-Smith’s knowledge as an expert in this area reinforced that impression.
In summary, we cannot say with absolute certainty that there was no such discovery, but it is very, very unlikely that it was made by archaeologists. Terry’s source is therefore suspect, as we cannot say there was reliable identification of the date or the ‘eucalypt resin’. If not done in a proper archaeological manner then the possibility of contamination of the site is high, especially as eucalyptus trees are now common in the Jordan Valley, as well as the possibility of simple misidentification.
There are no other Australian region finds in this region. Therefore, if we want to say that there was some connection between the two places we need to have better evidence than an unsourced statement about a discovery that, on a very thorough search, does not appear to exist. Terry’s statement fails as evidence, however often it gets repeated on the internet.
My thanks to Dr Eva Kaptijn, Katholieke Universiteit, Leuven, for suggestions on journals, and particularly Dr Elizabeth Bloch-Smith, Lecturer in Archaeology at St Joseph’s University, Philadelphia for sharing her encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject.
Bloch-Smith, Elizabeth 1992
Judahite burial practices and beliefs about the dead, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Suppementary series no. 123, Sheffield.
Free Republic 2012
Ancient Egypt – links with Australia, http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/news/720016/posts, accessed 2 April 2012, available here.
Kapteijn, Eva and Lucas P. Petit [eds] 2010
A timeless vale: archaeological and related studies of the Jordan Valley, Leiden University Press, Leiden.
Terry, Michael 1967
‘Australia’s unwritten history’, Walkabout, August 1967, pp. 19-23.
National Library of Australia
MS 611 – Papers of Michael Terry, Series 1 – Correspondence.