Michael Terry is little known now but was one of a small group of adventure-writers who helped to shape Australia’s self image during the 20th century. A genuine explorer, who took advantage of motor vehicles to traverse some of the last desert areas crossed by Europeans in Australia, he helped to open up and map large areas of desert country. In 1961 he discovered unusual rock art at Cleland Hills, west of Alice Springs, depicting stylised faces, which he thought may have indicated ancient foreign contact. From that time on secret visitors became an obsession and he can be credited with collecting many of the stories that were later picked up by Rex Gilroy and others and have become part of secret visitor lore.
Michael Terry wrote in his autobiography of being contacted by Peter Muir, ‘a pen friend for years’, who travelled in Western Australia about potential evidence for secret visitors on Pingandy Station. The station is located about 443 km east of Carnarvon, and due south of Tom Price in the Upper Gascoyne Shire, which puts it hundreds of kilometres from the coast through pretty dry country. Muir had seen an exposed cliff face formed from mudstone along a creek near the homestead that showed markings like lettering. His interest piqued, Terry arranged to visit the site in January 1971 with Muir, took some photos and, as had become usual with him, ‘plagued the erudite for an on-site examination’ [Barnard 1987: 96].
At this stage Terry was talking to Steve Boydell, who was working with the [then] Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies as a site recorder and also Jack Golson, an archaeologist at the Australian National University [611-1-22 Golson to MT 4.8.70]. Terry was referring to the inscriptions at this time as ‘Sanscrit’ [eg NLA 611-1-32 MT to Rouhani 23.12.70]. It may have been either Golson or Boydell who first disagreed with the human origin of the markings. Gilroy would sympathise with Terry about the lettering being cynically dismissed as ‘freak geology’ [NLA 611-1-38 Gilroy to MT 25.1.71].
Preserved correspondence about the site is patchy but Terry got in touch with Dr Barry Fell, of the National Decipherment Center at Arlington, Virginia. According to the biography Fell suggested that this may be a natural formation that took on the appearance of writing – ‘…I am bound to believe that all of them are natural. Some fossils such as Alcamenia hieroglyphica simulate writing to a remarkable degree …’. . While Fell thought no further investigation was required he was sure Australia would display many other contacts from ‘early Egyptian, Libyan, Hindu and Chinese sailors’ [Barnard 1987: 97].
So who was Fell? Dr Bruce Fell of the National Decipherment Center at Arlington sounded impressive. Arlington had military connotations as the site of the National Cemetery, where US war dead may be buried. This sounded very governmental and hush-hush. Almost certainly it conjours up images of large banks of computers, serviced by people in lab coats with clipboards cracking Soviet codes. However, it was nothing so glamorous, and Terry had the bloke’s name wrong. Professor Barry Fell, a New Zealander who was a respected marine biologist at Harvard University, had an epiphany of some sort in the late 1960s which saw him move out of his field and embrace linguistic interpretations of inscriptions and even what were probably random natural markings as indicative of hyper-diffusionist migrations. At this stage there were only inklings of Fell’s later beliefs in large scale migrations, seemingly restricted to meditations on whether Polynesians had reached America in their travels. Fell became notorious during the 1970s and 80s for ‘reading’ a succession of ancient scripts that to him showed a range of African, European and Asian cultures of all periods had made their way to the Americas [Flavin 2011]. His publications America B.C. , three later books and numerous articles published through the Epigraphic Society Occasional Papers [RSNZ 2011] uncritically propagated an extreme view of hyper-diffusionism that was more detached from the evidence than even Rex Gilroy’s most active speculations. Fell remains a posthumous poster-boy for the hyper-diffusionist movement, who usually emphasise his Harvard professorial status to legitimise his views [e.g. Equinox Project 2012].
Allan Robinson was a pioneering scuba diver and shipwreck hunter in Western Australia during the 1960s and 70s, involved in the discovery of some of the seventeenth century wrecks including the Tryal , Verguelde Draeke  and Zuytdorp  . By all accounts, including his own, he was a controversial figure and his activities were a catalyst for the introduction for laws to protect maritime heritage. His methods of recovery of material included explosives, earning him the name of the ‘Gelignite Buccaneer’. For our purpose it is not his colourful or unethical activities but his claim to have found three pre-Dutch wrecks – a Phoenician trireme, a Chinese merchant ship and a Spanish wreck – that draws our attention. This post will look at Robinson and the first of these three claims. The others will be dealt with at some later date. Read the rest of this entry »
In 1986 Robert Drewe published his third novel. The title Fortune derives from the central story of the book, the obsession of shipwreck hunter Don Spargo who finds the Dutch wreck Fortuyn.
The novel is set around Drewe’s lightly fictionalised narrative of his journalistic career, firstly in Perth and then Sydney, which is interspersed with breaks to attempt full-time writing. The narrative follows a series of unintended long-resonating connections, beginning with the true story of cartoonist Len Lawson who wrote the popular Australian Lone Avenger comic books but who began a career of rape and murder that saw him jailed first in 1954. This leads to delayed repercussions on a succession of people, ultimately leading us to Don Spargo. Spargo is the very lightly disguised Allan Robinson, the larger than life Western Australian shipwreck finder. Robinson claims he independently found the Vergulde Draeck, written up here as Drewe’s Fortuyn and then lost the location, coming back with others in 1963. Robinson’s claim of early discovery is discounted, and this lack of official recognition was to rankle with him for the rest of his life [Robinson 1980]. Read the rest of this entry »