New Hanover Island megalithic mystery

Although it is not an Australian example, many Australian secret visitor sites repeat a short item about the island of New Hanover, one of the New Britain chain off the northeastern coast of Papua New Guinea.  It quotes a medical officer who was stationed on the island.  The most common version reads

On New Hanover Island, off the tip of New Ireland in 1964, an administration medical officer, Mr. Ray Sheridan discovered what appears to be the remains of an ancient sun-worshippers temple of Egyptian style. Among the monolithic stone blocks there was an idol, facing the rising sun with features half human, half bird it stood 6 feet tall and weighed four tons. Near there Ray Sheridan found the carving of a wheel complete with hub. The ruins reminded him of ancient Sun-worship temples he had seen in Egypt during WWII. [Crystalinks 2012]

Sheridan appears to have both reported his find through official channels and also contacted Michael Terry, who was then writing popular articles about Australia’s secret history.  The account in Terry [1967] matches the quote above apart from the height and weight of the idol, and the wheel.  There are no letters from Sheridan in Terry’s papers at the National Library of Australia, but it is clear that there are many missing items in this series.  In the article Terry says he wrote to Sheridan and asked if there was ‘anything Egyptian about his find?’  Sheridan’s reply was ‘Yes, most definitely.  My first reaction was that Egyptian influence was in the whole set-up.’  Sheridan had found the wheel carving as well.  ‘This suggests a visit – or sometime residence – by a people of a much more highly developed culture than the present inhabitants of New Hanover’ [quoted in Terry 1967: 21].  We do not know how the rest of the discussion progressed – it was all about Sheridan’s first impressions after all, and we know from other correspondence that Terry was happy to edit out contrary opinions for the sake of a good story or to support a line of reasoning.

Sheridan’s report through the island’s administration resulted in Ron Lampert, then of the Australian National University, being invited to investigate the sites in 1965.  The two sites reported by Sheridan were named Ngoslava and Likding and occurred on the high country about 12 km from the eastern tip of the island.    Lampert’s description of the Ngoslava says a series of stones had been noted by Sheridan.  The stones were pieces of basalt measuring from 40 cm to 2.5 metres long.  They were weathering in the same way as natural basalt boulders nearby.  Many lay on or just in the surface and Lampert concluded that ‘[t]hey thus appear to be scree boulders from the adjacent slope that have naturally collected on the shelf.’ [Lampert 1967: 491].  One stone may have had a humanly-made cut, but a monolith 85 cm high with a triangular cross-section which had been placed in a pit [verified by test excavation] appears to have been the only purposefully placed stone.  A ‘waist’ around parts of the circumference of the monolith could be natural or humanly made.

Sheridan’s other site, Likding, is a rock engraving site on a narrow ridge.  Depicted are a sprawled human outline figure, a series of footprints making no obvious sequence, and ‘enveloped  crosses’.  These are a cross with equal length arms, which is enclosed by a single or double continuous line forming a sinuous curve.  There are at least seven of these represented at the site.

Lampert makes no mention of any ‘ancient Sun-worship temples’ or any remains that would resemble them in his, admittedly brief, survey of the sites.  He does not record a stone idol, half human and half bird, standing nearly 2 metres tall or anything similar.  The remains Lampert saw were mainly natural, with a much more modest monolith with minimal or possibly no shaping.  Monoliths are found throughout the Pacific, nowhere more spectacular than Easter Island, but mainly more modest pieces of rock as found at Ngoslava.  The enveloped crosses are also of great interest.  They occur in New Guinea itself and islands to its east as well as in Pohnpei, north of the Equator [Wilson 2004; Rainbird and Wilson 2002].  Arthur Vogan encountered them in his fieldwork in New Caledonia.  Although it has not been possible to date this motif directly as any site, there are two plausible dates for their origin.  Firstly, their distribution is comparable to the early Lapita ‘homeland’ distribution.  The Lapita people, named after a distinctive pottery type, settled the nearer islands east and southeast from the western tip of New Guinea, and developed the maritime cultural skills that would eventually allow for their spread across the Pacific.  If they are an element of Lapita culture then their dating is aboout c.3500 – 3000 years BP [Before present, ie about 1500-1000 BC].  Another alternative is based on the similarity of the motif to that found on pottery from New Caledonia, dated to c.2000 – 1100 years BP [Rainbird and Wilson 2002].

Sheridan clearly found some sites of great importance on New Hanover, and was able to obtain the interests of archaeologists and anthropologists soon after his discovery.  With other observations around the Pacific it is possible to build a better picture of the distribution of the stone monoliths and the enveloped crosses.  While these give tantalising clues as to their age and origins, unfortunately almost all rock art and monumental stone are not directly dateable.

Secret visitor claims for these types of art sites usually rest mainly on their unexpected level of technical skill, and their unusual motifs.  The unexpected level of skill is usually, however, a reflection of what are essentially racist expectations that people who live on Pacific islands somehow are not capable of selecting lumps of rock, shaping them if need be and planting them somewhere else.  As many, many claims regarding Easter Island statues confirm, there is a strong element of disbelief that normal humans can somehow organise themselves to do magnificent and wonderful things without the help of either space aliens or people from Europe and the Mediterranean.  The unusual motifs, once mapped, turn out to be much more extensive than expected.  We could expect that a stray Egyptian voyage may have left some graffiti or mark of their passing, but clearly they were not tootling all around the Pacific in all of the areas that motifs such as the enveloped cross are found.

One thing that the archaeologists have not seen is a reflection of ‘ancient Sun-worship’, as Sheridan was reminded of, and which many diffusionist scholars such as Grafton Elliot Smith [1930]  and W.J. Perry [1923] confidently expected.  During the period before World War II they had developed and promoted a strongly diffusionist theory based on supposed similarities between features such as historically known mummification practices on a Torres Strait island and those in Egypt thousands of years earlier.  At the time they were assisted by very poor knowledge of island Southeast Asian and Pacific archaeology, apart from the most sensationalist and speculative observations made by travellers and missionaries.  Neither was there any chronological control beyond what they were able to interpret, usually so that it fitted their own schemas.  Once radiocarbon dating became available after World War II, some of the fundamentals of their theories were shown to be incorrect.  A developing factual framework made it harder for academic archaeologists, historians and human evolutionists to make such outlandish statements, but clearly memory and expectation lasted longer in the community.  If someone has an expectation that Egyptians were here, then its likely they will see such evidence in the landscape, regardless of whether it is present or not.  That was clearly Sheridan’s frame of reference and Terry was thinking on the same lines.

Ray Sheridan showed good judgement in reporting the discovery of two archaeological sites on New Hanover. It allowed an archaeologist to inspect and interpret the site within a short time.  It showed a much more mundane and modest site than could be read into Sheridan’s inscription.  As the description by Lambert was published in a scholarly journal and the Terry article was in the popular Walkabout, it was forgotten but the speculative interpretation lives on.

References

Crystalinks 2012
‘Australia-Egypt connection 2000’, http://www.crystalinks.com/egyptaustralia2.html, accessed 28.2.2012.  Available here.

Lampert, R.J. 1967
‘Standing stones and rock art: two sites in New Hanover’, Mankind 6 [10], pp. 489-492.

Perry, W.J. 1923
The children of the sun: a study in the early history of civilisation, Methuen, London.

Rainbird, P. and M. Wilson 2002
‘Crossing the line: the enveloped cross in Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia’, Antiquity vol. 76, pp. 635-636.

Smith, G.E. 1933
The Diffusion of culture, Watts,  London.

Terry, M. 1967
‘Australia’s unwritten history’, Walkabout August 1967, pp. 19-23.

Wilson, M. 2004
‘Rethinking regional analyses of Western Pacific rock-art’, in V. Attenbrow and R. Fullagar [eds], A Pacific odyssey: archaeology and anthropology in the Western Pacific. Papers in Honour of Jim Specht, Australian Museum, Sydney, pp. 173–186.  Available here.

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