The Ibis seal is an adventure romance set in Cape York, near Torres Strait. It features a cast of flawed men and women who all recognise the potential of a lost treasure to get themselves out of their humdrum existence. What interests me about this book is that O’Grady takes ‘[t]he theories of the Australian explorer Michael Terry’ for her plot, and that the treasures that they compete for come from a lost Egyptian settlement.
Anne O’Grady is an Australian writer of fiction who in 1975 wrote an adventure romance novel called The Ibis seal, which takes as its central premise that ancient Egyptians had landed in Australia, and left remains of their presence including priceless artefacts. The quest to discover and exploit these treasures forms the basis of the novel. A postscript clarifies O’Grady’s own stance, which is that she is open regarding suggestions about whether the Egyptians had ever come to Australia. She then reproduces two quotes, one from Elizabeth Gould Davis, The first sex  and another by L. Pauwels and J. Bergier The eternal man  which make reference to discoveries of Egyptian evidence in Australia. This is followed by ‘a random list of reports that have appeared in Australian newspapers and magazines’ [pp. 178-9]. This list is summarised below and includes many of the best-known claims of evidence that had been promoted by Terry and later Rex Gilroy.
The Ibis seal itself is a perfectly readable thriller, opening with a vividly described and well-written account of a pitched battle between Aboriginal warriors and Egyptian troops, which sets the scene for the incongruous discoveries that follow. The modern action is set at the northern end of Cape York, near a sparse bush settlement where Leo, who collects and distils plants for essential oils with his partner Beryl, has discovered Egyptian artefacts and sent a sample off to a London dealer with his sideline of illegal bird exports. As the action opens at this remote location two rival protagonists appear. The first is Kane Smith, a ruthless mercenary, who was sent by the London dealer to discover what he could about the Egyptian find. Also visiting the site are a group of three from Sydney – newspaper journalist Alan Foster and his girlfriend Elizabeth, and Alan’s old journo friend Ted Kingsley who had independently discovered the remains of the Egyptian settlement.
Kingsley’s wife Dinah died many years ago. In despair he came to Cape York for solitude, living in a small farmhouse not far from Leo’s camp. Drawn by a mystical intuition that is never really made clear Kingsleybegan to dig in the bush and found an Egyptian seal. Through this object he began to have visions of the settlement and glimpses of the Egyptian people who had been here thousands of years earlier. Through this interaction he begins to understand more about his own link with the Egyptians. In his first trip to Cape York he would have explored more but some malevolent miners, the Murphys, beat up and hospitalised him. A year later Kingsley contacted Alan to persuade him to come up; there was almost certainly a sensational book in it for Alan, but Kingsley really needed his help to continue his digging, with Alan as some protection against the Murphys.
After a lot of scene-setting and backstory establishing the characters the action picks up and O’Grady does a good job in corralling the competing motivations of the different players into an intense few days of conflict. Ultimately all of the characters are after the Egyptian treasure as loot and soon the stakes rapidly escalate and the dangers multiply. The rainforest setting is well-drawn and plays a strong part in giving the story a distinctive feel. Its relative isolation is well presented and this itself forms an obstacle for the characters.
I won’t spoil the plot. The The Ibis seal is very satisfactory reading as an adventure novel and holds up well in that regard. However, it does nothing to really sell the idea that the Egyptians were in Australia. As a plot device it works well and is not overplayed at all, although I found some of the mystical elements a bit too unclear to follow. It does however have that nice immediate connection with Michael Terry’s claims and research that add to its interest and is only one of very few novels that have taken on the idea of secret visitors in recent decades.
The following evidence is cited by O’Grady in her postscript and would appear to be largely based on Terry’s work. Where possible I will cross-link to any detailed discussion of finds that takes place on the Secret Visitors Project blog.
- Atherton Tableland 1910 – Ptolemy IV coin dug up by Andrew Henderson.
- Ipswich 1965 – ‘cache of hand-forged Egyptian bronze, copper and iron tools, pottery and coins’ greater than 2000 years old dug up.
- Rockhampton 1966 – ‘Egyptian calendar stone, gold scarabs, gold coins’ found.
- Herberton no date – Rock paintings showing two-stemmed papyrus plants.
- Mareeba no date – Rock paintings showing three-stemmed papyrus plants.
- Darnley Island [Torres Strait] no date – mummified human body, now in Macleay Museum, Sydney University.
- Darnley Island 1875 – Chevert expedition notes that boats resemble ‘trans-Nile boats’ and used in funerary rites.
- Between Perth and Geraldton c.1914 – Egyptian lotus flowers found by H.E. Thomson.
- Geraldton 1963 – ‘Egyptian bronze plate’ dug up from ’28 feet below the sea bed’.
- Perth vicinity no date – two ancient wrecks of timber ship ‘built without nails’ ‘measuring about 40 feet long and 9 feet wide’, found in swamps near Perth.
New South Wales
- Austinmer [South Coast] c.1930 – ‘handmade silver necklace and a bronze armband reported to be of ancient Egyptian origin’ found in a sand dune.
- Austinmer vicinity no date – ‘gardeners and beachcombers have found gold figures, pottery fragments, scarab beetles, and small Egyptian figures’.
- Ryde [Sydney suburb] 1969 – ‘hand-forged fragments of iron pottery inscribed in the Egyptian style’ dug up in a garden.
- Five Dock [Sydney suburb] no date – ‘gold coins and ancient Egyptian jewellery’ found.
- Campsie [Sydney suburb] no date – ‘gold coins and ancient Egyptian jewellery’ found.
- Towradgi [Wollongong suburb] no date – 2000 year old coin found in sand dune.
- Goulburn no date – Egyptian silver coin found.
- Newcastle vicinity no date – ‘a broken bronze sword, earthenware pottery fragments, and old copper coins’ near stone dwelling and jetty remains.
- Campbelltown no date – likeness of ‘an Egyptian deity’ cut into a cliff face.
- Between Sydney and Newcastle no date – Egyptian hieroglyphs cut into a rock face. Aboriginal engravings show ‘Egyptian-like figures’.
- Wollongong no date – ancient wreck of timber ship ‘built without nails’, ‘hidden under a sand dune’.
- Wollongong no date – ‘ruins of twenty stone dwellings with two paved pathways, leading to a water catchment and the remains of a 50 ft stone wharf’.
- ‘Ancient polished stone implements have been found in various parts of Australia, although aborigines did not reach this characteristic Neolithic stage of development’.
Many of these are familiar claims from other sources, and some still do the rounds. I hope to tackle as many of them as possible in the life span of this blog. It will be tricky – in some cases there is good evidence that can be interrogated and questioned but the majority have little more to add than the rough location, date and description given above.
Davis, Elizabeth Gould 1971
The first sex. [not seen]
O’Grady, A. 1975
The Ibis seal, Peter Davies, London, ISBN 432 14376 9.
[also published by Corgi in paperback in 1976, ISBN 055 210250 4]
Pauwels, Louis and Jacques Bergier 1972
The eternal man, Souvenir Press, London, translation from French edition. [not seen]