One commonly cited piece of evidence in support of secret visitors is the discovery of a coin of Ptolemy IV of Egypt by a farmer in northern Queensland in 1910. Unlike many comparable claims we know the date, the discoverer, the location and circumstances and clear images of the coin have been published. These add considerable circumstantial context and a strong sense of authenticity to the claim. Importantly the discovery predates the Great War, when a large number of Australians served in the Middle East and may have brought souvenirs such as Egyptian coins and scarabs back to Australia, adding to its legitimacy. The claim was first published in 1965 and since then has been repeated frequently in print and through replication on the internet. In this post I will look at the claim and how reliable it is as evidence for secret visitors.
Discovery and promotion
The story of the coin first appears in an article by the explorer Michael Terry in Walkabout magazine in August 1965 [Terry 1965]. Terry had been an explorer of central Australia, leading a number of expeditions across the Northern Territory and Western Australia between the wars and afterwards working in mineral exploration. He was an excellent self-publicist and accomplished writer, which served to enhance his reputation, although he remains little known to the wider public. The autobiography which Terry was working on at the time of his death in 1981 was completed and released in 1987 [Barnard 1987]. Further work on his exploration career has also been carried out by Dewar . Both the autobiography and Dewar’s work note that after World War II Terry became increasingly interested in the question of whether there had been previous visitors to Australia. In his retirement Terry began to pursue this question further, and it was in this context that he came across Andrew Henderson’s story.
In his autobiography Terry describes being met by Joe Gilmore at Cairns, Queensland in 1963 . They drove to MacKenzie’s Pocket, two kilometres north of Barron Falls
… where, in 1910, Andrew Henderson, when digging post-holes for a fence, unearthed from a depth of some half a metre an unusual piece of bronze, coin size. The site was an old Aboriginal walking track and deep in the rainforest. [Barnard 1987: 95]
Henderson left the coin in a drawer and forgot it. Just before his death in 1962 at the age of 83 Terry records that Henderson gave it to the son of Joe Gilmore, who showed it to his father, a former AIF major who had served in the Middle East. Gilmore forwarded the coin to the Brisbane Numismatic Society, who identified it as a bronze coin of Ptolemy IV. Terry, upon hearing the story, was convinced of its authentic provenance.
The whole piece being obviously genuine, I decided to launch a research campaign and to collect information as precise as possible concerning this and other discoveries from Australia’s past – discoveries which intrigue us by their antiquity and impose the task of evaluating their significance in regard to the prehistory of this continent. [Barnard 1987: 95]
Terry wrote an article titled ‘Did Ptolemy know of Australia?’ in the August 1965 issue of Walkabout, a popular geographical and tourism magazine [Terry 1965]. In this issue he was quite guarded about the coin as potential evidence, focussing on a loose amalgam of evidence that could be read to imply that Australia was known and mapped by the ancient Greeks. This was followed by another article in the 23 March 1966 issue of People magazine, which broke the news of the coin’s discovery and its implications [Terry 1966]. The following year archaeologist Vincent Megaw mentioned the coin and other possible evidence of known and undocumented Aboriginal contact in a paper on Aboriginal archaeology in the Sydney region in the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society [Megaw 1967: pp. 278-9, pl. VIIIa]. Megaw noted the find and asked
[i]t is natural to dismiss this as some lost keep-sake of a colonial Grand Tour but it is not impossible that here may be the most southerly evidence for trading, albeit at second or third-hand, previously established at least as far as the South-East Asian mainland by the excavation of third century A.D. material at Go Oc-Eo, Vietnam. [Megaw 1967: pp. 278-9]
At around the same time, in August 1967, Terry wrote another Walkabout article, ‘Australia’s unwritten history’ [Terry 1967]. In this article he said he had spent the two years since the previous article exploring the issue further and was now fully convinced of its authenticity. ‘Now I can, and later will, give chapter and verse of what I regard as a landmark in the unwritten history of Australia’ [Terry 1967: 19]. The remainder of the article rehearsed the map evidence, other unexplained finds throughout Australia, including a scarab found at Daly River in the Northern Territory, leaving the Ptolemy IV coin as the climax of the story.
The story began with some background on the finder, Andy Henderson, Victorian-born but ‘a typical Scot in manner and character’. The story of how it passed into Joe Gilmore’s hands was told, Terry visiting the discovery site and even making a plaster cast of the coin. ‘Here my imagination goes into high gear’, Terry said, beginning to then speculate on its possible origins. He noted that if discovered in 1910 it predated the large influx of Australian troops into the Middle East, and thought it very unlikely to have been a relic brought back by the Australian contingent to the Sudan in 1885. Terry’s preferred scenario was a Ptolemaic voyage through island Southeast Asia, and down the east coast of Australia. When they arrived at Taylor’s Bay to the east they stopped and explored. Perhaps one of the crew had a bag of coins with him which broke, or the Aboriginal people of the area raided the boat and carried booty into the hinterland. Terry thought it would be useful to explore the area further with a metal detector to see what else emerged as corroboration.
In the two years since the first Walkabout article Terry had clearly been discussing the find and the broader issue of secret visitors with historians and archaeologists. Most responses were dismissive or heavily qualified at best. He quotes from a letter from New Zealand archaeologist Jack Golson, then recently arrived at the Australian National University. Golson was guarded, suggesting that if the coin was legitimate and it arrived the way that Terry suggested, then it still had no appreciable impact on Aboriginal culture or history. However, it would provide a significant extension to our knowledge of ancient European seafaring. He finished with ‘I say, good luck to your efforts.’ [Terry 1966: 13].
The story of the coin’s discovery was picked up by Rex Gilroy, who was familiar with Terry’s writings and speculations. In 1978 he and wife Heather were embarking on their ‘Queensland archaeological expedition’, and sought out the whereabouts of the coin. What happened next varies in different accounts Gilroy has published. The first article that appeared after his Queensland trip, in the August 1978 issue of Paranormal and Psychic Australian, discussed the coin’s discovery. The wording was largely taken from Terry’s article and would be re-used in Mysterious Australia 17 years later [compare Gilroy 1978 to 1995: 250-1 and both with Terry 1967: 22-23]. In Pyramids in the Pacific Gilroy says that he and Heather Gilroy met Joe Gilmore in their 1978 trip, who showed them the coin, and later they examined the spot on Henderson’s fence line where the coin was found [Gilroy 2000: 155]. However in the second edition of Mysterious Australia Gilmore is not mentioned in the account of the coin’s identification [Gilroy and Gilroy 2003: 240]. The most recent account, Pyramids of destiny also removes Gilmore and instead relates
[o]ur quest led us to Mr Joe Martin [since deceased] of Cairns who provided us with directions to meet the then present owner of the coin. It was in the course of discussions on the research that we were involved in that Joe mentioned the discovery, high up in the Atherton Tableland jungles 100 years before, of a structure which had become known as the “Lost Pyramid of Far North Queensland” [Gilroy 2010]
It is difficult to reconcile these accounts and determine whether Gilroy did meet Gilmore, and whether Gilmore still retained the coin. It is possible this is just a mistake over something that happened three decades earlier. Gilroy took photos of both sides of the coin with a retractable tape measure for scale [Gilroy 1995: 256; 2000: 159].
Gilroy repeated Terry’s earlier conclusions that the coin was a robust proof of earlier Ptolemaic Egyptian contact. Gilroy’s broader picture of the Australian past claims a much more extensive regular contact between the two lands over thousands of years, far in excess of the single voyage argued by Terry. He reflected that there were numerous other Ptolemy coins claimed to be found subsequently in different parts of Australia and New Zealand, especially those associated with Ptolemy IV [Gilroy 2000: 154-5].
Since its publication, and especially since appearing in Gilroy’s books, the account of the finding of the coin has also been reproduced on two of the main internet compendium sites dealing with Australian secret visitor claims – Awareness Quest and Treasure Enterprises. Many repetitions of these have appeared elsewhere on the internet since then. All of the renditions of the story preserve the detail of the discovery, mentioning Andrew Henderson, the remote location, the discovery while digging a posthole for a fence line that crossed an old Aboriginal trail, the date of the discovery and the details of the coin. These are essential elements of the evidentiary context, needed to make it plausible and verify its truth. Elements that are frequently omitted are Henderson’s age when he passed on the coin, the length of time between its discovery and telling anyone about it and the passing on of information from son to father. These are not essential parts of the narrative but also, as we will see, introduce uncertainty and qualification into the story.
Continue the story –
Part 2 – a description and analysis of the coin
Part 3 – assessment of the find and its value as evidence
Part 4 – additional informationadds even more confusion and mystery to this story!
References at the end of Part 3