Arthur J. Vogan – forgotten archaeologist – 3

Return to Part 1 or Part 2 of Arthur J. Vogan’s story.

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Part 3

And yet amongst all of this there were little gems of insight that shone with great intensity.  Reading his field notes, you soon realise that where he really wanted to be was among his beloved Pacific islands, rather than in the succession of bedsits and lodging houses on Sydney’s north shore, shouting at the other loud and uncooperative houseguests.  Even at the age of 75 when he was carrying plaster across the rickety scaffold at Yasawa he had a discernable vibrancy, of wanting to explore, discover and explain, which I think any archaeologist would respond to when they read it.  Amid the reams of newspaper copy and aborted scholarly writing the best, most empathic prose was a short piece he wrote on the fringe dwellers living in bush camps on Sydney’s outskirts.  In it he conveyed something of his own lack of fit – these hermits were driven there ‘not by hardship or poverty, that destroys the mind, but incompatibility’ [Vogan Papers: Box 18, ‘The Muddlers’ manuscript].

Another factor that softened my view of him was that Vogan was also an early advocate for the conservation of rock art.  He became a gadfly to Woy Woy Shire Council in particular, constantly lobbying them to preserve the rock engravings in their area, particularly the ‘rabbits’.  Although this never eventuated, some protection was ultimately given to the more accessible Bulgandry site nearby.

Vogan had expected to die like many of his male relatives at 72, so he happily spent all his money to fund his fieldwork and travels [Footnote 6].  To his own chagrin, by the late 1930s he had not died, and so had to seek a small literary pension, pawning items and forced to sell his beloved library for much less than he thought it was worth.  He ended up in the Pacific Lodge Home in Dee Why during World War II and his main preoccupation shifted from his theory to the weather.  He changed his view on Hitler early in the war, and his correspondence from about 1942 becomes less anti-Semitic, perhaps because of the realisation of what was going on in Germany.  He also stopped attributing the great Pacific migration to Asians generally and specified them as Persians.  While he identified Persian influence in the Yasawa sculpture [Vogan saw snow-boots and a Phrygian cap, see 1937: p. 102] I think this was largely a reaction to the Japanese entry into the war.  Between the wars he had been a booster for the Japanese presence in the Pacific, and admired the cut of their expansionary militaristic jib as recently as the late 1930s.  The war caused him considerable angst as he had to temper and explain away Hitler’s actions as being captive of a militarist faction, or that it was secretly the Jews fomenting war between Britain and Germany.  By the time Japan entered the war he had largely stopped communicating with others about it altogether.

By this time most of his friends had died or irrevocably fallen out with him.  One whom he made friends with in the late 1930s was Elizabeth Goldsmith, whom he regarded as perhaps the greatest living archaeologist.  Who?  I describe their relationship more fully in another entry, but she was an American writer, ardent anti-Semitic like him and a fan of Mussolini and Hitler, who lived in Florence before the outbreak of the Second World War.  As with other intelligent women he met, Vogan was soon smitten.  Her writings had been on the history of symbols, which fitted his own increasingly syncretic view of the importance of his Yasawa inscriptions in revealing the early fundamental patterns of human consciousness.  His own final project – the historical derivation of the swastika – was one she encouraged, but he could not find a publisher in Australia before war broke out in 1939.

While he was at the old folks home in Dee Why Vogan often walked to Long Reef.  One day in 1948 he noted a shell midden and, at the age of 87, speculated that this midden was likely to have been formed by the Persians who came down the eastern Australian coast, teaching the Aboriginal people their Moon Cult and leaving instructional engravings.  We might think that this would have stood out as important to him, being one of very few Australian archaeological sites he could point to as potential evidence in support of his theory.  What he told his friend however, was that he thought its main benefit would be in being dug up to provide shell-grit for people who kept chooks [Vogan Papers Box 8: AJV to Parham 2.2.1948].

Arthur Vogan died on 27 February 1948, after a fall from which he did not recover.  Not many people were left alive who had any idea of his work or interest in archaeology.  A newspaper article featured him, but his age was the real topic – ‘Amazing exploits of ancient archaeologist’ [Anon. 1946].  Items from his extensive library, some annotated, surface occasionally in antiquarian book sales.  The Australian Museum holds donations of Pacific material, and some cranky correspondence.  The Fryer Library of the University of Queensland also holds selected items.  The Mitchell Library holds 28 packed boxes of material, from all parts of his life, including diaries from his youth before the family left for New Zealand, the Boer War and later, revealing in intimate details the thoughts of this very unusual man.  It took me seven solid days just to do a simple pass through every box, and jot down any notes of obvious significance.  It was a tough, very solid week’s work.   There is far more in the collection than the snippets I got.  Arthur Vogan’s brain was travelling to some very extraordinary places, and very often he invited others in on the ride.

Vogan will definitely appear in the thesis as an important linking figure, and in part because of his own ideas, although these were not really influential at all.  His Australian discoveries were dismissed by Elkin [1950: p. 121], while his Yasawa art discoveries added to a growing corpus of knowledge of Fijian inscriptions and their possible meanings [Raven-Hart 1956: pp. 150-153].  Vogan probably styled himself an archaeologist before anyone else in Australia; he craved the respect and recognition of the establishment and felt raw, visceral pain when it was not forthcoming.  I would hope that by discussing his career and his findings he will get some recognition for the work he put in to archaeology, even though it never paid off.  I feel however that much more can be done with his research notes from Australia, New Caledonia and Fiji – some are comprehensive recordings that might document otherwise damaged or degraded sites.  Finally, as archaeologists we need to have a better understanding of our own disciplinary development.  We did not just have a succession of heroes at the beginning of our discipline, which began decades before in puzzling with the perennial issues of who peopled Australia from where and when.

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6.  Through the 1920s and much of the 1930s Vogan received a stipend from three commercial houses in London who had profited by his commercial intelligence.  It was the end of these payments in 1937 that sent him into a period of complete despair.  He also hinted at times that his intelligence gathering had some semi-official imprimateur from the British government, but this appears to be either self-delusion or convenient truth-bending.

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Vogan, A.J.
Papers c.1877-1948, Mitchell Library, Sydney, Accession no. ML 182 / 87, Boxes 1 – 28, .

Vogan, A.J.
Ethnological information from WA, National Archives of Australia, Series A1, Item 1921/13712.  Available here.


Anon. 1946
‘Amazing exploits of ancient archaeologist’, source unidentified [probably Sydney newspaper], 10 August 1946.

Campbell, W.D. 1899
Aboriginal carvings of Port Jackson and Broken Bay, NSW Department of Mines and Agriculture, Memoirs of the Geological Survey of NSW, Ethnological Series no. 1., Sydney.

Clegg, J. and P. Stanbury 1990
A field guide to Aboriginal rock engravings, with special reference to those around Sydney, Sydney University Press, South Melbourne.

Elkin, A.P. 1950
‘The origin and interpretation of petroglyphs in south-east Australia’, Oceania, 20, pp. 119-157.

Lang, John Dunmore 1834
View of the origin and migrations of the Polynesian nation: demonstrating their ancient discovery and progressive settlement of the continent of America, James Cochrane and Co., Pall Mall, London.  Available here.

Land, P.M. 1919
‘Ancient carvings in a cave at Yasawa’, Transactions of the Fiji Society, 1919 [not seen].

Perry, W.J. 1923
Children of the Sun: a study in the early history of civilisation, Methuen, London.

Raven-Hart, R.C. 1956
‘A village in the Yasawas [Fiji]’, Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol. 65 [2], pp. 95-154.  Available here.

Vogan, Arthur J. 1936
‘Le Pacifique prehistorique.  Nouvelles decouvertes’, Le Courrier Australien, 15 May 1936.

Vogan, A.J. 1937
‘Recent archaeological discoveries in the Western Pacific’, Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol. 46 [2], pp. 99-104.  Available here.


5 Responses to Arthur J. Vogan – forgotten archaeologist – 3

  1. Jane Lydon says:

    Me again Denis- am exploring Vogan’s novel, The Black Police, in terms of its ‘truth claims’ and links to anti-slavery imagery…! Your comment ‘a short piece he wrote on the fringe dwellers living in bush camps on Sydney’s outskirts. In it he conveyed something of his own lack of fit – these hermits were driven there ‘not by hardship or poverty, that destroys the mind, but incompatibility’ [Vogan Papers: Box 18, ‘The Muddlers’ manuscript].’ very intriguing: were these Aboriginal people? Have you documented/ analysed his work with the Assoc. for the Protection of the Native Races? He seems to have maintained his concern for Aboriginal people?
    best wishes, Jane

    • Hi Jane
      The ‘Muddlers’ is really interesting – I need to go back to AJV’s archives to see how it fits into his later work – it seems so anomalous because of its insight and honesty. My assumption is that it is not specifically Aboriginal people. Back in my national park days it was clear that the bush bordering North Shore suburbia house both depression-era camps [would we allow such economic refugges now?], and also longer-term isolated campers. Very hard to find anything documented about them until it became a major issue of social welfare in the Depression. I reckon most mentions of these people on fringes of Sydney made reference to them being ex-servicemen [ie Great War veterans], with the strong implication that they no longer fit into society because of their experiences. It might also explain the tolerant approach to them from officialdom – no cop would willingly move on a veteran living in a bush hut. Treatment of other marginal people, including Aboriginal people and swaggies may have been less nuanced.

      Good to hear you are doing more on the Vogester. I’ve done a bunch of stuff on the Black Police now and have pretty much nailed exactly who most of the characters and locations represented were, and the sources of lots of incidents in it. Just need to not be a highly busy public servant to finish writing it up.

      His APNR work is one of the gaps – I’ve got material from UQ Library, which is mainly his whinging and resignation – plus he seems to have ear-bashed Elkin a lot when he became its president.

      During the Great Depression a large number of people camped rough on their own, as well as in camps. Wendy Lowenstein documents Happy Valley at La Perouse where there was probably the best known interaction between long-term marginalised Aboriginal people and the new economic refugees. Info is very vague, but right through the interwar period there were people either living in bush coutry near the northern suburbs

    • Jane Lydon says:

      Yes he seems to have been a genuinely sympathetic chap-!! and the depression camp thing also happened in Victoria- so ‘fringe’ camps e.g. outside Dimboola – that had been Aboriginal people, were augmented by whites during the Depression and the authorities were very laissez faire.

      I hope my anti-slavery thing doesn’t overlap too much with your account- I will send you the draft! Just found a ref from 1919, where the Rev Watson had written about an early incident, writing ‘The scene of the occurrence was at Myall Creek Station, about twenty miles from Inverell, and I have stood on the spot where it happened. There is also an account of it in “The Black Police,” by Arthur Vogan, F.R.G.S., who is still living at Mosman, N.S.W. ‘ (Although Vogan’s account of Myall Ck doesn’t tally with Milliss’). Mark Cryle of the Fryer Library has also written a succinct commentary you might know:

      I am struck by the concluding passage in his book Black Police where he offers a kind of blueprint for helping Aboriginal people! And makes another offer to the Anti-Slavery Society in London…

  2. Jane Lydon says:

    Great story, thanks Denis! Vogan would have fitted in very well with the ‘stone circle’ described by Tom Griffiths- I wonder was he in touch with them?
    Best wishes


    • Thanks Jane

      Its surprising that Vogan seemed to have almost no interactions with any of the amorphous group of Aboriginal artefact collectors operating in the period before WWII, either in NSW or beyond. He just doesn’t seem to have wanted to engage with them at all. Vogan had dealings with the Australian Museum, so must have known Fred McCarthy, at least enough to talk about the subject. There is an occasional name drop or name in an address-book but nothing to suggest that he wanted to either share or care about their work.

      For those wondering who Tom Griffiths is, he’s the author of Hunters and collectors: the antiquarian imagination in Australia [1996]. An excellent book, it paints a very rich picture of the people who explored Australian antiquity, often through amateur endeavour, sometimes fixated on objects, other times seemingly driven by demons. Jane is right – Vogan fits right into that crowd.

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