Gordonvale scarab – 2

For the first part of this discussion go to Part 1.

Clive Morton’s account

Almost all mentions of the Gordonvale scarab say that it was found when digging a well in 1910, 1911 or 1912.  In a paper held by the Mulgrave Settlers Museum local historian and author Clive Morton offered a slightly different account.  He says

The Egyptian scarab beetle above was dug up at Napiers property at Packers Camp between 1912 and 1915.  The Napiers tried to draw water from nearby Mackeys Creek with a windmill and a pipe buried under the dirt road and into what came to be called the Pump Hole which was a favourite swimming hole up until the 1950s when it silted up.  Napiers found that the pump would not draw and they asked for expert advice. This came from either Muir chief engineer of Mulgrave Mill and later a water driller or a man called Ebrington. The advice was to lower the suction pipe under the mill to assist with drawing the water which they did and the scarab beetle came up with one shovel full of dirt.  Claims that Isaac Brown a local man brought a fake scarab beetle home from the Middle East during WW1 are wrong because he did not get to the Middle East as his troop ship returned to Sydney from a day or two on the way when the war ended.  [Morton no date]

Morton’s additional detail is important – it provides an exact find location, the property owner and clarifies that it took place when an existing windmill pump drawing water from Mackey’s Creek was being repaired.  The scarab came from what seems to have been the first spadeful of dirt.  The date is later than that usually cited, and there is an interesting, unprompted mention of Isaac Brown, who could not have planted it as a hoax.

Morton’s account prompts several comments.  First, Morton assumed that it would have been difficult to get hold of a scarab without buying one in Egypt.  Isaac Brown could not be implicated because by the very end of the war his ship never made it that far.  When he enlisted in mid-1918 Brown was 33 years old and had 6 children, including a daughter called Anzac [NAA 1918].

Although Brown never made it to Egypt, available records suggest two plausible ways that he or anyone else could have got their hands on a scarab.

Brown’s family had moved to far north Queensland from Adelaide where his grandfather, Donald MacDonald, had come from London via the newly opened Suez Canal on the Lusitania in 1878 to Adelaide.  Thirty years later MacDonald took Isaac’s mother and her siblings overland to outback Queensland.  Did they carry Egyptian souvenirs in their luggage?

And, from the moment that Australian troops arrived in Egypt at the start of the Great War they began to spend big on souvenirs for the folk back home.  One Digger said

They spend their spare time in writing letters home and their spare cash in buying weird Arab or Egyptian presents to send to their friends in Australia.  By this time Australia must be full of scarabs and sphinxes.  [SMH 14.4.1914: p. 12]

That was a fortnight before the Gallipoli landings.  Over the next three and a half years, those serving in Egypt or heading to and from the Western Front had an opportunity to buy souvenirs as their ships negotiated the Suez Canal.  We do not know exactly how many served from the local area, but the Gordonvale War Memorial records names of 30 men and the Cairns memorial has 140 men and 2 women who died in the Great War.  Potentially more than a thousand people from the immediate district went to fight, and probably most would have been able to buy Egyptian souvenirs that eventually came back to Australia.

Even a date before 1914 provided opportunities for tourist scarabs to come back to Australia, but from 1915 and the arrival of the first Australian troops in Egypt the potential number of items involved was enormous, and equally available in all parts of Australia.  At no time in the early 20th century would it have been problematic obtaining a scarab through a friend or family member, even in the Cairns hinterland.

Morton’s account also allows us to refine the discovery date even further from the internet’s 1910-12, and his 1912-15.  The scarab was found when Napier’s well pipe was being re-dug.  An item in the Cairns Post indicates that the well was first installed in late 1913.

Mr A.C. Napier, a well-known selector living at Packer’s Camp, who has been carting water to his residence for many years from Mackie’s Creek, decided to consult someone, with a view to obtain it by some other method without-going to too big an expense.: As the distance of his residence from the creek was nearly 200 yards, beside a great fall, he did not think it possible for an ordinary, hand-pump to do the work, but after getting. Messrs Muir and Weston, of Nelson, to inspect the spot, he decided to leave the work of erecting the plant to them.  It has since been completed and is giving the utmost satisfaction, and what is more, a great surprise to Mr. Napier.  The small hand pump is placed at his residence and is giving a [illegible], and is also drawing from Mackies Creek. [Cairns Post 27 Nov 1913, p. 8]

If the well was installed by late November 1913 its repair, when the scarab was found, cannot have happened before then and potentially it could have taken place several years later.

We can also pursue the names Morton mentions with benefit.  Muir and Weston, the water engineers, were in business locally from at least March 1913 but advertised under that name no later than 1915.  That particular Muir was probably not the same as the Muir who was chief engineer of the Mulgrave Sugar Mill.  The first local mention of an Ebrington is the arrival of ‘Ebrington and 4 children’ by ship from Kuranda in August 1917.

Combining all of this information the earliest possible date that re-digging took place would be the very end of 1913, and potentially as late as the end of 1917 if Ebrington was involved.

Professional opinion

Morton says he sent photos of the scarab to British universities and museums during the 1950s, but when told that it came from Australia, the find was dismissed out of hand.  Morton speculates that as the Suez crisis was unfolding the response of museum staff may have been influenced by fear of a ‘reverse Suez’ – Egyptian President Nasser claiming Australian territory on the basis that it had once been Egyptian [Morton no date].  Attempts were made to recover the original correspondence Morton may have had with various British museums, but these were not successful.  The idea, however, of an Egyptian claim being based on such ropey evidence does seem laughable.  Perhaps Greece, Spain and Italy could resolve their current financial messes by re-asserting their historically well-documented claims to ownership of Iraq, Peru and England respectively?

Recently I sent the best available photo of the scarab shown here as Figure 1 to a number of international Egyptologists, along with the drawing of the Daly River scarab, asking whether they had any opinion on their authenticity.  Apart from saying they did not have archaeological provenance [a demonstrated link back to a legally dug site] and were currently in Australia, I left unsaid the circumstances of their initial discovery.  Not surprisingly, the experts were very cautious as they could not examine the originals.  Some declined on the basis of professional ethics – adjudicating authenticity on artefacts without provenance can be seen as encouraging and legitimising the illegal trade in antiquities.

Of those who offered an opinion [Note 1] none felt that the scarab was definitely authentic.  All were able to identify a number of features that they thought were inconsistent with standard scarab features.  This included:

  • ‘The odd permutation of a winged sun disk above the cartouches on the [Daly River] scarab, and the apparent further degradation of that motif’ on the Gordonvale scarab’.
  • ‘There are too many lines between the wing covers and the thorax and the “wear and tear” looks a bit like deliberate scruffing’.
  • ‘The hieroglyphs are not particularly well-done, but they do seem to spell the name “Men-maat-re” [the name of the 19th Dynasty king, Seti I]’.

When the actual find context of the scarabs was revealed, one of the experts considered that they were entirely consistent with tourist industry examples of fake scarabs.

While not conclusive, in the absence of examining the Gordonvale scarab itself, there is a reasonable level of qualified professional doubt about its authenticity.

Continue on to the conclusion of the story in Part 3 – here.


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