Arthur J. Vogan – forgotten archaeologist – 1

The Mitchell Library, Sydney, holds the unprocessed collection of Arthur J. Vogan’s personal papers [28 boxes stuffed full of paper].  Vogan is one of the forgotten early archaeologists of Australia, probably the first one to call himself an archaeologist as their primary vocation.  He is now forgotten in large part because his theories were so comprehensively wrong.  Despite that, he has lots of interest for secret visitor theories.  As well as his own efforts to frame a theory for Australian and Pacific settlement, he was a friend of George Collingridge, an enemy of Lawrence Hargrave and corresponded with many people who had any interest in Australian archaeology at the time.  Vogan was also a man of complex beliefs – staunchly committed to Aboriginal causes at the same time as being a virulent anti-Semite, Hitler admirer and hater of the ‘smart’ women he increasingly encountered in the early 20th century.  I managed to get in some solid time in the Mitchell Library in Sydney a few months back.  His papers have allowed me to fill in a gap in our knowledge of Australia’s early history of archaeology.

Arthur James Vogan was born on 8 August 1859 in Kent, England and emigrated with his family to New Zealand in 1879  to take up farming and horse-breeding.  The young Vogan developed a taste for outdoor adventure while young.  Finding work as a journalist, initially on small New Zealand papers, he travelled to Australia in the mid 1880s working as a writing and sketching stringer for the Illustrated London News, as well as being the token New Zealander on the Geographical Society of Australasia’s expedition to New Guinea.  During his travels in Queensland he became appalled at the condition of Aboriginal people living on pastoral stations and outback towns, capturing it in The Black Police [1890], one of very few denunciations of what was happening to Aboriginal people in rural Australia at the time.  For a few years he managed a gold mine at Coolgardie, combining that with journalistic boosting and public relations, a skill that he honed throughout his life.  In 1896 he was reporting for Bewick, Moreing and Co., a prominent London investment firm who were developing their Coolgardie operations [Footnote 1].  When the Boer War broke out he and others on the goldfield offered to form a volunteer colonial camel corps, which was declined.  Regardless, he travelled to South Africa to join the New Zealand contingent.  He was affiliated with a number of units, rising to sergeant.  His war finished with the Field Intelligence Division, which was charged with reconnaissance and map-making and he got the credit [but not the reward] for capturing a Boer general, a lasting source of bitterness at authority.

NZ Evening Post - 13051934 - AJVogan

Arthur J Vogan NZ Evening Post 15 May 1934, p. 7.

Back in Australia Vogan took more journalistic work, and also began to develop his archaeological interest.  According to him Sir John Lubbock, later Lord Avebury, was a friend of his father’s and had encouraged his interest as a young man, and his surviving childhood papers show an eclectic scientific interest although nothing regarding archaeology or antiquity.  Vogan studied the Aboriginal rock engravings around Sydney that had been recently documented by W.D. Campbell, Robert Etheridge, R.H. Mathews and others.  Campbell, Etheridge and Mathews were the best known and retrospectively most accepted of a surprisingly large number of people who were interested in the engravings as evidence of a great range of theories about the origin of the Aboriginal people, or sometimes even theorising that non-Aboriginal people were actually responsible for the art.  This shadow world of amateur ethnologists, linguists, archaeologists and religious re-interpreters all played a role in the development of Australian archaeology in first half of the century.  As archaeologists we tend to base our historical foundation on only a very edited series of developmental highlights, usually taking the deep sequence rockshelter digs of the mid 1930s as the real beginnings of our profession when, in fact, the discipline’s development is much more complex.  Vogan’s papers, among others, helps us gain entry to this shadowy realm and to meet some of the more cryptic participants.

Some time before 1914 [see Footnote 2] Vogan had seen what is now a well-known engraving at Kariong, on the NSW Central Coast near Gosford which appeared to show a sequence of 9 rabbits in profile in a sort of conga-line.  Campbell had assumed that these were meant to depict rabbits and therefore thought the engraving had to post-date their introduction to Australia [Campbell 1899: p. 69, pl. xxviii fig 3].  He acknowledged that as the engravings looked old this caused problems with the implicit chronology of weathering but did not develop this line .  Vogan took a different tack and suggested that they were ancient hares, as shown by the physical evidence of the engravings, and had been carved by Indians who had travelled down the eastern Australian coast as part of the Aryan expansion that had been investigated in India and Pakistan [Footnote 3].  He linked them to a Moon Cult by their symbolism of fertility.  Later he would elaborate on this theory and tie in the origins of the different Pacific peoples as well [Vogan 1937].  Modern opinion is that these engravings represent men in ritual head-dress, with only coincidental bunny resemblance, and they are likely to be of comparable age to other Aboriginal engravings around Sydney.

In 1914 Vogan’s mother died and he retired from journalism.  After unsuccessfully seeking to join the Australian military forces he dedicated the remainder of his life to archaeology, particularly the pursuit of evidence in support of his migrational theories.  He had been dabbling in archaeology before 1914, particularly regarding rock engravings.  After 1914 he continued to work a bit in Australia but found little other evidence that was at all amenable to his theory.  As he aged he was also becoming increasingly fixated on the theory, and suspecting those who argued against it as being either wilfully stupid or part of a reactionary conspiracy of insiders who saw their own academic positions and status being placed at risk.  Despite his long-standing compassion towards Aboriginal people and their situation when he wrote The Black Police, he had little time for others, and was a particularly virulent anti-Semite, and also had a deep distrust of ‘modern’ women.  Ironically, when he did engage with these women including the young Margaret Collingridge [Footnote 4], then studying at the Institute of Archaeology London, he became completely charmed by their competence, social skills and intelligence, which all belied his prejudices.

Vogan read widely from the available anthropological, historical and archaeological literature available in Sydney, purchasing books for his own library where possible.  His papers include many notebooks with extensive copytext from sources in the Mitchell Library.  One book that he found particularly inspirational was John Dunmore Lang’s View of the origin and migration of the Polynesian nation [1834].  This argued that the Polynesians were navigators from Asia.  They moved down the Indonesian archipelago and into the Pacific and eventually to America.  Unexceptional now, there were many at the time who saw them as a westward movement from America, or the stranded remnants of a sunken continent.  Vogan adopted Lang’s Asian migration concept in his own search for Pacific origins.  Based on this he looked to possible historical antecedents of the Polynesians among the earliest literate societies of Asia, including the Sumerians, Egyptians, Indian nations and Shang Chinese.  Overall, while diffusionist in tone Vogan’s model for culture history was much less deterministic than that being put forward by many archaeologists.  He acknowledged the changes that could be wrought to human morphology, language, custom and culture by moving into a new environment such as the Pacific.  While he respected Aboriginal people personally, he did however see them as an inferior people to the Asian emigrants who followed the Australian coastline.

In 1921 he sought assistance from Commonwealth contacts who could identify and record engravings in the Port Hedland area of Western Australia [Vogan NAA papers].  He was particularly interested in any information on the orientation of figures and their relationship to water runoff and drainage.  Particularly he was interested in whether there was any association between the figures and either gold-mining or pearl-fishing.  In his research on Sydney engravings Vogan had identified some possible consistencies among the engravings – that ‘[a]round Sydney practically all the representations of kangaroos, fish, man &c are positioned so that the run of falling rain-water passes over the figure from head to tail’ [Vogan Papers: Box 10 typescript c.1929].  Major figures such as whales were sighted so that prominent features rose in a line from the head to tail.  This hypothesis has not, to my knowledge, been tested since his proposal.  This suggested to Vogan a Flowing Water cult, another possible Indian link, and he sought to explore W.J. Perry’s claim that pearls and gold were key lures for the migrating Eurasians who followed the Sun Cult [Perry 1923].

To advance his theory Vogan travelled and undertook research in New Caledonia, New Zealand and the Fijian group.  These are documented in field notes and copious photographs among his personal papers.  Unfortunately many are not labelled or dated and require familiarisation to identify and place.  He made trips in 1918, 1920, 1922, 1923, 1929, 1930, 1931 and 1934.  It was in 1930 on Yasawa Island in the Fiji group that he found a series of carvings in a cave at the northern headland of Asau-i-lau [or Sawa-i-lau] that he thought resembled elements of Shang period Chinese script or early Brahmanic Indian script.  They are located over water in a partially covered inlet on a limestone bluff.  At the age of 75 and driven by fear of debilitation and leaving his life’s work unfinished, Vogan undertook his final fieldwork on Yasawa in 1934, engaging locals to build a scaffold framework that would allow him to rub and take plaster casts of the symbols.  He also recorded a ’45 foot high statue’ of a sitting man with a child on his lap [Vogan 1937: figure 5].  These were done by the first occupants of the islands, and he saw the present Fijian population as a later emigration from, of all places, Lake Tanganyika in Africa [1937: p. 102].

Some of these travels at least were paid for by commercial interests who engaged Vogan to visit mining operations to provide reports on their prospects [Footnote 3].  Vogan’s income included his small stipend from British commercial interests as well as his own savings.  He had sold a house he owned at Hornsby for some apparent profit and then spent the remainder of his life living in boarding houses on Sydney’s North Shore.  By his own estimate he had spent ₤5,000 by early 1938 on his Australian and Pacific research and was almost destitute.  In the 1930s Vogan began to plan to write a book about his theory, initially to ensure that he would get the credit for the discoveries of the Asian migration.  He became concerned that he had no backers, either financial to support more elaborate fieldwork and travel, or patrons who would provide him with a less vulnerable position.  In this regard he tried to align himself at different times with a few Sydney philanthropists, such as Ernest Wunderlich, who had an amateur interest in Egyptian archaeology, and businessman T.E. Rofe.  Over the course of time they both found Vogan’s continued promises of great discoveries but inability to produce a coherent narrative extremely tiresome.  Both sought unsuccessfully to goad him into writing with the offer of money to support publication, but Vogan found the pressure too great and wrote angry letters that made them withdraw from him.  Vogan’s idea of scholars requiring patronage really shows just how out of date his understanding of archaeology actually was.  Since the early 1900s archaeology had become institutionalised in museums in Australia in ethnographic collections, and there was a reasonably robust amateur artefact collecting community around Australia.  Vogan had almost no contact with this group of people.  He was only interested in people who had practical skills such as expertise in an ancient culture or language he could draw upon, or who were potential benefactors.  The idea of writing a book to lay secure claim to his discoveries was fine, but he could more easily have contributed to a learned journal with the same effect.  As a member of the Polynesian Society and Royal Geographical Society of Australsia he was aware of the links between discovery, presentation, publication and recognition, and how they had steadily moved away from a simplistic patronage system.  However, in this as in many other things Vogan doggedly refused to change his mind and suffered the consequences.

– – – – – – – – – – – – –


1.  Vogan was later to name both his Hornsby house and the yacht he owned for a time ‘Gwalia’, after one of the most successful mines on the Coolgardie goldfields.

2.  At different times in his papers Vogan alludes to having discovered the engravings in the late 1880s, mid 1890s and early 20th century.  When he sought to revisit them in the early 1930s he had to advertise in the local newspaper for someone who knew their whereabouts.

3.  Despite Campbell [1899] showing nine figures in the line, sometimes Vogan described it as a group of only seven.  Vogan thought nine supported his Moon cult theory, each hare representing a month of human pregnancy.

4.  Sydney-born Margaret Collingridge studied archaeology at the Institute for Archaeology, London.  She married Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander Robert Norfolk who died at sea in 1942.  She later married Mortimer Wheeler in 1945.

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

Continue on to Part 2 of Arthur J. Vogan’s story.

References are found at the end of Part 3.


2 Responses to Arthur J. Vogan – forgotten archaeologist – 1

  1. Nigel Robson says:

    I am a NZ historian currently writing a book on the impact of the South African War on NZ society and came across Vogan recently.
    I was very interested to read your excellent article. Despite his eccentricity, Vogan was definitely a character wasn’t he? Did you come across any photos of him in uniform taken during the South African War period in the course of your research?

    I apologize for being pedantic (the historian’s affliction!) but the date you give for the photo of Vogan is incorrect. May 13, 1934 was a Sunday and the Evening Post was not printed on Sundays. The date that the picture appeared was May 5, 1934 (page 7).

    Nigel Robson

    • Thanks Nigel. Always happy to get corrections; but it turns out it was 15th May.

      You asked about Vogan’s Boer War photos – in the Mitchell Library collection of his papers there are multiple copies of a picture of him on horseback. In my notes I don’t have a photographer name so don’t know if it was a pre-, during- or post-war portrait shot. The other photo of him from Mitchell [see here] is, I’m pretty sure, from the 1885 expedition of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia [NSW Branch] to New Guinea, under the command of Captain Everill. That expedition was a fiasco and the society was ridiculed by Vogan in his Black Police as a nest of social climbers and shysters. The collection also holds various diaries relating to his service in the war, plus correspondence on his failure to get a reward for capturing Boer commander Scheepers. I have some additional info on this if you are interested.

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