Arthur J. Vogan – forgotten archaeologist – 2

Go back to Part 1 of Arthur J. Vogan’s story.

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Part 2

The Yasawa inscriptions fulfilled two critical needs for Vogan.  Firstly they were the field credential he had always craved, that could legitimise him as an archaeologist.  Almost everything he had written about until then had been someone else’s discovery.  Here now was a real archaeological site, in an exotic location that he had found [although see Footnote 5] and adventurously overcame difficulties to record the evidence.  Secondly, the Yasawa inscriptions provided a link he could argue existed between the literate civilisations of Asia, specifically the Shang, and the Pacific.  While the resemblance between the angular Yasawa motifs and Chinese pictograms is coincidental at best, it looks superficially plausible.  The relative dating of this push by Asian peoples into the Pacific at around 1500 B.C. gave Vogan a chronological anchor point to develop further his theoretical connections with early civilisations.  Another factor that appealed to Vogan about the inscriptions was their abstraction.  Since the 1910s some of his writings had explored various then fashionable by-ways of psychology, symbolism and gnosticism.  While he rejected all isms, and was happy to declare himself all but atheistic, he nonetheless maintained an attraction to the essential idea that human psyche could be understood by exploring the earliest languages, religions, writings and other archaeological evidence as symbols reflecting underlying human constants.  His writings, particularly the endless newspaper columns often reverted to talking about the links between early religious symbols around the globe.  Vogan’s theories were certainly not the only outlandish ones doing the rounds at the same time.  If anything they were more reflective of the late 19th century than the between-wars period, but this was no great progress.  His belief in symbolism was of it as a fundamental early human psychological trait, rather than an adopted cultural element.  In this and other matters he largely disagreed with the claims of the diffusionists such as Perry and Elliott Smith.

The inscriptions were Vogan’s final achievement and the subject of his ‘scholarly’ papers, one in the French language Le Courrier Australien [1936] and the other in the Journal of the Polynesian Society [1937], although some more popular columns in the Fiji Times and Pacific Islands Monthly also set out his findings.  Neither is particularly academic, being essentially narrative and rambling at that.  His correspondence shows Vogan was wracked with anxiety when writing them and waiting for their publication.  In contrast he continued to produce voluminous newspaper copy with relative ease.  Vogan used journalism skilfully as a tool of self-promotion.  He was often referred to in newspaper copy, which he certainly would have written beforehand, as ‘the well-known archaeologist’, ‘the pioneer Pacific explorer’ and so on.  Most of his newspaper articles on a broad range of subjects appeared in fairly obscure publications.  While they ostensibly dealt with archaeology or history in their titles they very soon drifted into the spiritual and esoteric.  He claimed to anyone that would listen that the Jewish conspiracy had black-balled him from all the major newspapers but what he wrote was dense, wordy, meandering rubbish most of the time.  His letters to the editor, however, were usually pretty snappy, if somewhat snippish in tone, while his personal correspondence tended to continually restate a few things that he saw as establishing his status and credibility, such as knowing Sir John Lubbock, later Lord Avebury [1870s as a teenager], working for the Illustrated London News [1880s-90s], being the writer of the only Australian-published book that had ever gone into a third edition [as the Black Police did at the beginning of the century], being in the first ever St Johns Ambulance class [as a youth in London] and so on.

Working through a lifetime’s paper, with the carbons of countless letters, dozens of small notebooks filled with copytext notes on Sumerian- Indian-Chinese-Aztec mythology, boxes of clipped or torn newspaper items, the repetitions quickly became apparent and very hard to face.  By the end of the third day I was fantasising what I would say to AJV if I saw him at the Library cafe.  I knew his secrets – the girlfriend who said no to marriage and made him seek out the New Guinea expedition so he could die heroically, upsetting Margaret Collingridge’s family with so much anti-Catholic hatred that her mother called in the lawyers, refusing to discount his belief in the truth of the Protocols of the Elders Of Zioneven when trusted friends told him it was a forgery, approving of Hitler well into the war.  All these were bullets I could use on this tedious man, who moaned that it was everyone else’s fault except his own that he got nothing done on his research.  Vogan’s anti-Semitic racism runs throughout his correspondence from about 1914 onwards, but reached a peak in the mid-1930s, when he ceases to identify Jews as the cause of his, and the wider world’s, pains, and begins to use it as an epithet for anyone he does not like.  Those who wrote to him because they thought he was an expert in Pacific history sometimes received letters back that had a paragraph about the topic and then an extended rant about why he was in no position to help them because a conspiracy of the Jewish controlled press had barred him from journalistic work in Australia or because he withstood the wholesale Americanisation of Australian-British culture.  Vogan thought Australians wilfully ignorant and often repeated the story that an editor had spiked one of his discovery stories because ‘Australians only want to read about things they can put a bet on’.  While some objected to his racist assertions, there were many who clearly thought on the same lines.  Along with racism as an easy crutch for his failings with his theory, the lack of academic recognition for his theory led Vogan to see professional archaeology in universities and museums as inherently opposed to ideas that challenged the status quo.  To gain their support you needed to belong to the right club, or follow the party line.  Seeking to engage and receive support from the recognised experts he quickly became intemperate, accusing them of various ethical shortcomings and severing contact.  As a result the few people with whom he remained civil were promoted as the most enlightened scholars imaginable, such as ‘probably the best authority in Australasia, Dr C.A. Monticone, the New South Wales Government hermeneutics expert’ [Vogan 1937: p. 101] who was in reality the head of the NSW Court translation service.  Many other examples of both condemnation and praise can be found in his papers.

A related trait was his own inflated estimate of the worth of his discoveries.  In the Journal of the Polynesian Society he called the giant man and child ‘sculpture’ on Yasawa ‘the most important archaeological discovery … of the Pacific so far’ [Vogan 1937: p. 102].  Returning a borrowed copy of the journal Antiquity to Ernest Wunderlich he included a note breathtaking in its lack of insight:

Here we have a great book, beautifully printed, and one holding great power for good … YET there is not an article in it equal to what I could give them about a NEW branch of Archaeology but can find no backers. [Vogan Papers Box 4: AJV to Wunderlich, undated, letterbook p. 47]

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Footnotes

5.  The Yasawa inscriptions were first documented in an article published in 1919 [Land 1919].  Vogan was aware of this earlier discovery, and had been told about the inscriptions by Captain Giblin, a Fiji-based trader.

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Continue on to Part 3 of Arthur J. Vogan’s story.

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