Michael Terry wrote in his autobiography of being contacted by Peter Muir, ‘a pen friend for years’, who travelled in Western Australia about potential evidence for secret visitors on Pingandy Station. The station is located about 443 km east of Carnarvon, and due south of Tom Price in the Upper Gascoyne Shire, which puts it hundreds of kilometres from the coast through pretty dry country. Muir had seen an exposed cliff face formed from mudstone along a creek near the homestead that showed markings like lettering. His interest piqued, Terry arranged to visit the site in January 1971 with Muir, took some photos and, as had become usual with him, ‘plagued the erudite for an on-site examination’ [Barnard 1987: 96].
At this stage Terry was talking to Steve Boydell, who was working with the [then] Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies as a site recorder and also Jack Golson, an archaeologist at the Australian National University [611-1-22 Golson to MT 4.8.70]. Terry was referring to the inscriptions at this time as ‘Sanscrit’ [eg NLA 611-1-32 MT to Rouhani 23.12.70]. It may have been either Golson or Boydell who first disagreed with the human origin of the markings. Gilroy would sympathise with Terry about the lettering being cynically dismissed as ‘freak geology’ [NLA 611-1-38 Gilroy to MT 25.1.71].
Preserved correspondence about the site is patchy but Terry got in touch with Dr Barry Fell, of the National Decipherment Center at Arlington, Virginia. According to the biography Fell suggested that this may be a natural formation that took on the appearance of writing – ‘…I am bound to believe that all of them are natural. Some fossils such as Alcamenia hieroglyphica simulate writing to a remarkable degree …’. . While Fell thought no further investigation was required he was sure Australia would display many other contacts from ‘early Egyptian, Libyan, Hindu and Chinese sailors’ [Barnard 1987: 97].
So who was Fell? Dr Bruce Fell of the National Decipherment Center at Arlington sounded impressive. Arlington had military connotations as the site of the National Cemetery, where US war dead may be buried. This sounded very governmental and hush-hush. Almost certainly it conjours up images of large banks of computers, serviced by people in lab coats with clipboards cracking Soviet codes. However, it was nothing so glamorous, and Terry had the bloke’s name wrong. Professor Barry Fell, a New Zealander who was a respected marine biologist at Harvard University, had an epiphany of some sort in the late 1960s which saw him move out of his field and embrace linguistic interpretations of inscriptions and even what were probably random natural markings as indicative of hyper-diffusionist migrations. At this stage there were only inklings of Fell’s later beliefs in large scale migrations, seemingly restricted to meditations on whether Polynesians had reached America in their travels. Fell became notorious during the 1970s and 80s for ‘reading’ a succession of ancient scripts that to him showed a range of African, European and Asian cultures of all periods had made their way to the Americas [Flavin 2011]. His publications America B.C. , three later books and numerous articles published through the Epigraphic Society Occasional Papers [RSNZ 2011] uncritically propagated an extreme view of hyper-diffusionism that was more detached from the evidence than even Rex Gilroy’s most active speculations. Fell remains a posthumous poster-boy for the hyper-diffusionist movement, who usually emphasise his Harvard professorial status to legitimise his views [e.g. Equinox Project 2012].
Terry dated contact with Fell to 1979, but from other references they seem to have taken place in 1972. One reason for supporting the earlier date is that seven years later Fell would have more readily accepted the authenticity of the Pingandy rock features, as he did other natural markings. At this stage he seems to have maintained some caution in attributing all markings, whether human or natural, to deliberate attempts at writing. The species that Fell proposed as causing the marks is not recognised, but a comparable ichnospecies, that is a species defined by marks it leaves behind such as footprints, burrows or trails rather than bones, is Helminthopsis hieroglyphica [Han + Pickerill 1995]. As its name suggests the marrkings can be strongly remininscent of different forms of writing.
Terry heard about Fell from another linguistic researcher, Jose Rona, of the Department of Linguistics and Modern Languages at the University of Ottawa. Rona was of Czechoslovakian-Uruguayan parentage and an expert on dialects evolution, especially in South America where Spanish and Portuguese merged with native and other languages to create a host of new dialects. Terry implies that he had been in touch with Rona for some time over a number of sites that Terry was investigating. Rona’s opinion of the Pingandy site was that ‘the inscriptions could be in a Bengali variety of Sanskrit used in Java until 500 years ago’. Rona secured some funding and was due to come to Australia at the end of 1972 [NLA 611-1-42 MT to Fish 9.8.72], however died before he made the trip [Barnard 1987: 97]. Again this is written in the biography as being in Christmas 1979 rather than 1972, which is inconsistent with the surviving letters [Footnote 1].
Rona’s death marked the end of Terry’s active interest in the site. It was a major effort to get out there, so he was not enthusiastic about the effort required, and did not seem to have any luck getting further expert support.
An irregular correspondent, Dr Rouhani of Adelaide, had been sent a copy of the inscription. It is not clear whether this was a photograph or drawing – the best photo is reproduced in Terry’s biography, and his papers hold only a series of indistinct prints. Rouhani had passed it on to the famous Israeli archaeologist, Yigael Yadin, and personally thought that there may be some connection with the Wandjina figures recorded by Grey to the northwest in the 1830s [NLA 611-1-43 Rouhani to MT 16.11.72].
The last mention of it in Terry’s papers is from Marjorie Hutton-Neve in 1975, a regular correspondent, who urged him not to drop the Pingandy issue, as she thought it was a potential proof. She suggested David Moore of the Australian Museum or Professor Peter Elkin.
Despite Hutton Neve’s urgings Terry did not pursue the Pingandy inscriptions any further. Although there was a sort of professional consensus that it was an enigmatic ‘freak geology’, no documentation convincingly confirming that survives. It remains open for someone to provide a definitive statement on the phenomenon.
1. I have tried to get some more information on Rona from the Dept of Linguistics at University of Ottawa without success.
National Library of Australia
MS 611 – Papers of Michael Terry, Series 1 – Correspondence
Barnard, Charlotte [editor] 1987
The last explorer: the autobiography of Michael Terry, FRGS, FRGSA, ANU Press / Northern Territory Research Unit, Canberra.
The Equinox Project
‘In praise of Barry Fell’, The Equinox Project [http://www.equinox-project.com/DRFEL.HTM], accessed 9 January 2012. Available here.
Fell, B. 1976
America B.C.: ancient settlers in the New World, New York Times Book Co., New York.
Han, Y. and R.K. Pickerill 1995
‘Taxonomic review of the ichnogenus Helminthopsis Heer 1877 with a statistical analysis of selected ichnospecies’, Ichnos: an international jounral for plant and animal traces, 4, pages 83-118.
Royal Society of New Zealand 2011
‘Howard Barraclough Fell 1917-1994’, Royal Society of New Zealand, weblink no longer operative. Archived at the Equinox Project [http://www.equinox-project.com/hbfell.htm], accessed 1 August 2011. Available here.