A practical joke?
This leads me to propose that that finding of the scarab was a practical joke. Not singling out Isaac Brown or any unnamed perpetrator, we have a well that needs re-digging on a property either immediately before, during or maybe even just after the Great War. The standard process would be  hoaxer brings scarab in his pocket,  chucks it in hole when no one is looking,  innocent pulls up a spadeful of dirt and sees scarab,  hilarity ensues,  culprit confesses,  revenge plotted. That would work anywhere in Australia. In Gordonvale, however, the joke has added meaning and irresistibility, because it and Egypt are the only two places on Earth where you get money for digging up scarabs.
I would argue that the standard joke was given a much sharper edge in the Gordonvale area, precisely because farmers would have been aware of the double meaning of the scarab beetle. For the joke to work the scarab has to be so out of place and incongruous that it cannot have been mistaken for a rock. Therefore a fairly large one was required. When it was dug up, the joke worked on three distinct levels.
Firstly, there was the simple link Dermolepida [the local scarab beetle] = Egyptian scarab. Secondly, the scarab is worth money, either by its antiquity as a relic or as a beetle with a bounty on its head. Thirdly, it contrasts digging for a well with archaeological digging. On this last point the joke also brings in the prevalent idea o archaeology as treasure hunting rather than as an investigative exercise. And don’t forget, although Egypt was exotic, it had become very familiar because of the war. To someone like Isaac Brown, who named a daughter Anzac, it was very much part of the real world.
After the discovery the joke must have either been ommediately apparent or someone readily confessed to it. It is clear that the participants cannot have left the scene believing that it was a genuine discovery. Otherwise it is inconceivable that the Cairns Post, which reliably ran stories about goats that ate someone’s flower bed during this period, and which covered Gordonvale in considerable detail, avoided a story in its midst offering both a major historical discovery that was had a direct link with Egypt and sons fighting overseas.
And getting access to the newspaper was not a problem. AC Napier, at whose well the scarab was found, contributed a monthly rainfall report to the Cairns Post from October 1916 onwards, within the likely discovery period. If he or anyone else believed in the scarab’s authenticity then he had his own regular and direct line to the editorial room to tell the story. No such story ever appeared.
Clearly, the group that found the scarab did not believe it was anything more than a practical joke. Over time however, the detail of the incident got lost in the re-telling, and the key message being passed on became the discovery of the scarab. The story that survives in collective memory, I believe can be shown, is not the story of what took place at the time. People are now believing a story not created during the Great War, they are believing one that evolved in the intervening century. Missing is the critical context of the discovery as a practical joke.
Without access to the original, the Gordonvale scarab cannot be considered to be either definitively genuine or a modern copy. The weight of expert opinion, for what it is worth from examining photos only, is that its authenticity can be questioned because of some specific characteristics of the inscriptions and the nature of wear patterns on the scarab.
Regardless of its authenticity, we have established facts that need to be accounted for in considering its discovery. Firstly, the commonly quoted discovery date of c.1910-12 is not correct according to Morton, who appeared to be working from more accurate sources. If Morton’s account is correct then it cannot have happened any earlier than the start of 1914, and could have taken place as late as the end of 1917 or even later. From then until Pye’s publicity in c.1985 still leaves about 70 years unaccounted for, in which the scarab may have been preserved, but several generations have had an opportunity to forget or distort the story about its discovery in the re-telling.
Once the Suez Canal opened in 1869, the Egyptian tourist trinket market took off. From this date onwards, and certainly from the beginning of the Great War, we can expect Egyptian scarabs, primarily modern fakes, to have steadily entered Australia as gifts and souvenirs.
Again, setting aside the authenticity of the scarab, its discovery has a limited number of possible explanations. If it was believed at the time to be genuine, then it should have appeared in the Cairns Post. The scarab was found, the story says, in a shovelful of dirt. Such an obviously out of place object could elicit two reactions, either that it has either been planted as a practical joke or it was genuinely ancient and the history of the world as we know it is wrong. To accept the scarab as genuine then several centuries of scholarship on the abundant historical records of Egypt are wrong, and that countless archaeological sites dug between the Nile and Gordonvale, which is about 13,250 kilometres [Great circle distance – probably double if hugging the coast], and which have produced no Egyptian artefacts have all missed something fundamental. All these have to be reversed, to accommodate one artefact that experts do not want to consider actually genuine. In such a disparate choice the most parsimonious explanation – the one that most simply accounts for all the known facts – has to be considered preferred.
The connection of the scarab to the Dermolepida beetle as a foundation for the joke is speculation, but helps to tie together the unique circumstances that prevailed in that part of Australia. Elsewhere digging up a scarab was a one-layer joke, but in the sugar cane area it brought in the lucrative local economy of finding ‘treasure’ in destructive scarabs with a bounty on their heads, and gives multiple levels of interpretation to the joke.
Are we seeing a practical joke gone wrong – a scarab planted as a hilarious practical joke, taking advantage of the scarab’s specific irony in the cane fields – and the original intent being lost over time? All we see now is a very out of place scarab, and none of the original context from when it was discovered.
There is one step that would potentially resolve the question of its authenticity. A pool of expert Egyptologists were reluctant to consider it authentic, but did not want to make a final pronouncement without examining the actual specimen. If the current owners of the scarab made it available for detailed examination by acknowledged experts then its authenticity would be tested. I understand its whereabouts are known but are well-guarded. This is a shame, as its just likely to exacerbate the veneration of the object regardless of its authenticity.
1. These respondents were the Professor of Egyptology – Yale University; the Curator in Egyptology – Royal Ontario Museum and a Lecturer – Dept of Classics, Auckland University.
Figure 1. Front and back images of the Gordonvale scarab are from Morton [no date], and are reproduced here consistently with the ‘fair dealing’ provisions of the Australian Copyright Act 1968, which allows reproduction of copyrighted material for the purposes of research and study.
Figure 2. A screen-grab of an advertisement from Trove. The Cairns Post is out of copyright.
Morton, Clive no date
‘More on Egyptians [Chinese and Dutch may have had competition]’, unpublished manuscript, 3 pp., Mulgrave Settlers Museum, Gordonvale.
National Archives of Australia [NAA] 1918
Series B2455 – First Australian Imperial Force personnel dossiers, 1914-1920
Item BROWN I J 58289
Cairns Post 1914
‘Hambledon and Mulgrave Grub and Beetle Fund’ [report of annual general meeting] Cairns Post, 14 January 1914, p. 3. Available here [http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article42876084].
Deem, Gilbert 1987
In search of Australia’s lost pyramids: information package, Forward Hand Research, Gympie.
Pye, Marilyn 2011
Wholly Moses. Was Moses buried in Australia?, Tigress Publishing, Seattle.
Queensland – Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations 1950
Fifty years of scientific progress: a historical review of the half century since the foundation of the Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations, Qld Minister for Agriculture and Stock, Brisbane.
Stonehenge Viewpoint 1988
‘When Egyptians discovered Australia: reporting on the work of Marilyn Pye’, Stonehenge viewpoint, issue 80, pp.12-13.
Sydney Morning Herald 1914
‘In Egypt. The Australian soldiers and their queer ways’. Sydney Morning Herald 14 April 1915, page 12. Available here <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article15594766
Various people reviewed the draft and made generous suggestions on both it and the topic, despite some of them disagreeing strongly with my conclusions. I’d like to thank Martin Gibbs, Ralph Hawkins, Jeremy Hodes and Marilyn Pye, for their comments, along with a local historian who declined to be named.
The Mulgrave Settlers Museum, Gordonvale, kindly provided Morton’s paper.
A number of Egyptologists were consulted about the authenticity of the scarab. I would like to thank those who were able to respond to my query.
I chased up the British Museum Egyptology Department, as well as the Bristol and Plymouth Museums, regarding correspondence about the scarab that may have taken place in the mid-1950s. My thanks go respectively to Marcel Maree, Fiona Pitt and Sue Giles for searching through museum archives.