In 1963 a brass plate covered with Egyptian designs was discovered at Geraldton, on the northwest coast of Western Australia. Whats more, it was uncovered during an excavation and was pulled up from a pit from below the present water level. The find was reported to explorer and believer in the Egyptian discovery of Australia, Michael Terry. My question is ‘why have we not heard more about this amazing find?’ To find out why, read on…
Michael Terry’s papers in the National Library of Australia [NLA 611-1] shed light on a number of secret visitor claims which are often known by name but with very limited detail available. One of these is the alleged Egyptian plate found at the Western Australian coastal town of Geraldton in 1963. It infrequently pops up in various listings of claimed secret visitor evidence in the 1960s but, until I got to Terry’s NLA papers, I had no idea of what it was meant to be. I vaguely and wrongly thought that it might be connected to the claims of Alan Robinson, the WA shipwreck diver. It wasn’t. As it turns out it was a find first brought to Terry’s attention in the early 1960s and, like the Ptolemy coin, one he referred to experts. Unlike the coin, the response that came about its identity showed it to be a modern item, but Terry seems to have been ambivalent about that and rejected the interpretation. The full story, constructed from Terry’s correspondence, follows. In August 1968, after one of his articles about possible Egyptian contacts appeared in People magazine and he subsequently appeared on ABC Television, Terry was contacted by Mr Arthur Wilson of Dunsborough, Western Australia. Wilson told Terry about his friend, Mr W. Fish of Busselton, also in W.A., whose son Wally was an earthmoving contractor. In 1963 Wally was working at the new wheat silo being built on Geraldton’s foreshore, digging some 28 feet [8.5 metres] below the then ground level, which put him well below sea level. The digging had gone through fill, a bed of stiff blue clay and, below that, an old shell bed that a geologist on site had pronounced to be an old beach. For some reason Wally Fish got into the excavation area, collected some shells and a metal object sitting in the base of the trench. When he cleaned up the metal object it proved to be a copper or brass plate with Egyptian motifs [NLA 611-1-12, Wilson to MT 21.8.1968]!Wilson’s letter to Terry was cautious as he was worried about appearing to be a ratbag, reporting such a bizarre find from five years before. Wilson was an old British migrant and had served as a company commander in both the First and Second World Wars. The letters certainly suggest a person of education and manners. Wilson’s own son, Barry, was Curator of Marine Biology at the Western Australian Museum. Barry offered to take the plate to the museum where the curator responsible for historical finds, Colin Jack-Hinton, declared it to be not ancient. According to Arthur Wilson, this did not appear to convince Barry Wilson beyond doubt. Terry then contacted Mr Fish [senior] in Busselton, who was very receptive to the offer of further investigation. In February 1969 he sent Terry a long and detailed letter about the circumstances of the find, which included a stratigraphic diagram [Figure 1]. This clearly showed that the find came from a level well below both ground surface and sea level, beneath a layer of stiff clay which was removed to reveal a buried shore line. Wilson’s letters had said that the plate was encrusted with shell, but Fish corrected that to saying that the plate had some sort of hard whitish encrustation on it, but not shells. In the meantime Terry had contacted Jack Golson, an archaeologist at the Australian National University. He had previously discussed with him his Ptolemy IV coin find, and was clearly encouraged by Golson’s open-minded attitude. Golson was going to Perth before heading to London and checked in at the W.A. Museum. The relevant curators were not there but he did get some photos of the plate and he was able to show these to various authorities on Egyptian archaeology in London. Golson reported back to Terry:
‘These I showed late last year and early this to people of the British Museum and especially to Dr H.S. Smith, Department of Egyptology, University College, London, who is closely associated with the Petrie collection there. There is no doubt about the Egyptian origin of the plate, but none either about its modern date. Smith identified it as a type common in the bazaars of Cairo between the two World Wars.‘ [NLA 611-1-22, Golson to MT, 4.8.1970]
This was as clear a determination as could be offered by a foremost expert, but Terry does not seem to have passed it on to either Wilson or Fish, and as a result there is continued correspondence from them seeking a resolution, although the Fish family certainly believed that the plate had made the journey to Britain. The Geraldton plate does not make it into any of the major published Terry offerings about Egyptian contacts and it is interesting to speculate why he was stalling. He had Golson’s very clear report that it was inter-war but seems to have hoped that some alternative proof may have emerged. He had told Rex Gilroy by this time but may similarly never have passed on Golson’s latest findings. On 18 July 1971 Rex Gilroy wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald affirming his belief in ancient Egyptians. Among the well-rehearsed ‘proofs’ such as Torres Strait mummies, he also added “I would draw your attention to the bronze plate recovered from Geraldton with Egyptian letterings in 1962, unearthed 28 ft below the modern harbour layers” [Gilroy 1971: 81]. “Egyptian letterings” makes it sound like he had not seen either the plate itself or the photos that the WA Museum had produced. None of the discussions of the plate’s origin refer to the most common [to archaeologists] risk that is faced on excavation sites all the time – material from upper layers dropping in and accumulating at the base of the trenches. For this reason archaeologists like to keep their trenches tidy and avoid working with machinery as much as possible. Usually where there is machine excavation archaeologists will only trust finds that they can collect directly out of the wall or section of the trench, because there is otherwise too much risk of admixture and contamination of more recent material falling down into older layers. This basic precaution was missing at Geraldton. Assuming the stratigraphic diagram provided by Wally Fish is correct, and it appears to be very accurate, the top of the excavation was dug through an overburden of perhaps 2 metres of fill containing ‘Rubbish – former landfill – bottles – tyres etc – old railings’ at the top of the sequence. This confirms the evidence of the Geraldton old-timer about the presence of a dump on the site, as mentioned by Fish [NLA611-1-33 undated; 611-1-41, Fish to Terry c.20.6.1969]. There are a few interesting things to note about this episode. Firstly Terry, and in fact all concerned, remained keen to receive authoritative opinion about it. Perhaps Wilson, as his son was a museum employee, had a reason, but the others all respected the role of the experts and were extremely patient in waiting for them to pronounce their findings. It appears that they were to be disappointed by Colin Jack-Hinton and Ian Crawford, who seemed dismissive and never quite got back to them as planned. However, Golson did get an authoritative answer while in Britain but his information was never passed on by Terry as it should have been. Terry never appears to have communicated Smith’s definite identification to Gilroy. When Gilroy was visited by David Hatcher Childress in the early 1980s, it was still in the forefront of his examples of Egyptian visitation, but with an interesting unsupported addition.
“In 1962, a Phoenician plate was discovered in Western Australia bearing the Star of David and Egyptian and Phoenician writing. Today it is in the Perth Museum and has been dated at circa 50 B.C. which is during the Ptolemy Period.” [Gilroy in Childress 1988: 97].
The Geraldton PlateThe plate, or perhaps platter, appears to be made from brass or copper, and possibly was originally silvered. Originally circular, the surviving photos only show about two-thirds of the total area. It is divided into a series of concentric zones, beginning in the centre with a ‘lotus’ of overlapping arcs. This lies within a six pointed Star of David. Surrounding this are figures outlined in the style of ancient Egypt, either seated or riding chariots. The infill design uses decorative features that are common in Egyptian tomb paintings. The face of the plate is defaced by a deep scar that runs across the plate. It is not clear if this was present before the plate was buried or is something that happened in its expsoure and recovery. On 17 January 2003 John Mount, an American epigraphy enthusiast, posted about the plate on the Yahoo Epigraphy group. In the American context epigraphy generally means someone who challenges historical orthodoxy and is likely to believe in pre-Columbian contact. Mount had received a rubbing taken directly from the plate in about 1970 which must have come from Terry, around the time he was asking various experts for assistance in identifying it. A photo of the plate rubbing survives, and it can be confirmed that it is the same plate. The rubbing is 240 mm across, and accentuates the central Star of David motif and many of the other designs that are clearly visible on the photos are poorly defined and hard to appreciate. Following changes to Yahoo Groups the photo is no longer extant. The design of the plate is very much reminiscent of other brass products made in the Middle East, which are generally cut or stamped sheet flatware such as plates, which are then either cut into filigree designs for objects such as lamp shades or divided into decorative zones, with geometric, stylised repetitive or figural designs. Also characteristic is lots of textured fill, usually either thin hatching or dotwork, where there is any blank space on the design. In Terry’s papers there is a single good quality photo, which only shows about 60% of the plate’s surface. Comparable examples can be found by searching Google Images for ‘Egyptian bronze [or brass or copper] plate’. The strongly Egyptian motifs could date it from the late 19th century, but more likely is that it is part of the great explosion in all things egyptian that took place with the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922. The central Star of David motif probably restricts it to before the post-World War II establishment of Israel in 1948, when the Star of David became a politically charged symbol in the Middle East. Comparable pieces appear occasionally in op-shops, on E-Bay and collector sites.
It is clear from separate lines of evidence that the Geraldton Plate cannot be accepted as evidence of Egyptian landing. Firstly, it can be dated stylistically to no later than the 20th century inter-war period in Egypt, that is probably 1918-1949. It may be slightly older, but only perhaps to the end of the 19th century. Secondly, its find context, which superficially appears attractive – more than 8 metres below ground level, in association with an ancient buried beach line – is likely to be much less secure in practice. The overlying rubbish dump clearly had the potential to discharge material into the bottom of the excavation, and this is the easiest way for the plate to have arrived on the scene from a known 20th cnetury town dump. The initial claims of it being encrusted with shell were later revised. A final issue is that ancient Egyptians did not use plates of this type. Dishes are found in abundance in Egyptian archaeological sites and depicted in their art, but not one plate of this kind, and certainly not plates that have such motifs. Any ancient Egyptian seeing the Geraldton plate would have been as baffled as if they had been shown a hubcap. As with other evidence he put forward Michael Terry clearly and transparently sought the advice of academics regarding the find. The WA Museum staff did not really get their act together, but Jack Golson was able to provide important help. Nonetheless Terry appears to have ignored them or at least parked their advice in the hope of other evidence emerging. This can only be explained by his belief getting the better of him. With the Ptolemy coin his experts did not have any easy alternatives they could bring forward, and it became the centrepiece of Terry’s case for Egyptians. With the Geraldton plate there was clear refutation of its origins.
Dr Barry Wilson, formerly of the WA Museum, kindly replied to my emails. Although he didn’t remember much about the incident after almost half a century, he was interested in how the plate’s journey progressed after his brief encounter with it. Mr Carl Fish, the brother of discoverer Wally, also shared his memories of the plate and the momentary excitement it caused in their family. Jack Golson remembers discussing the plate on Terry’s behalf.
Figures 1 and 2 are re-drawn from images found in the Terry papers. Image 1 is of the stratigraphy of the find site at Geraldton. It appears to have been drawn by someone who knew what they were doing and was able to carefully delineate the strata showing in the sides of the trench. Figure 2 and a more detailed view at Figure 3 is a tracing of the plate design as visible in photos. Reconstructed parts of the design are clearly indicated.
Childress, David Hatcher 1988 Lost cities of Ancient Lemuria & the Pacific, Adventures Unlimited Press, Kempton.
Gilroy, Rex 1971 ‘Were the Egyptians here first?’ [Letter to Editor], Sydney Morning Herald, 18 July 1971, p. 81.
National Library of Australia MS 611 – Papers of Michael Terry, Series 1 – Correspondence [see Addendum below for full exchange of correspondence identified]
Addendum – Terry’s Geraldton Plate correspondence
A significant portion of the letters in NLA MS 611 – Series 1 relate to the Geraldton Plate. Several of the letters are undated but can closely ordered by their content. Some of these differ from the pencilled dates added by an unknown hand, possibly a librarian, on initial lodgement. Only those items with Terry Papers numbers in column 1 are represented in the NLA holdings, and the remainder are missing items in the correspondence chain inferred from the text. A full listing is provided as it may be of use more generally to both Terry researchers and damaged Egyptian bronze plate aficionados.
|Terry Papers accession||Date||From – to||Content|
|NLA 611-1-12||21.8.68||Wilson – Terry||Wilson describes discovery of plate and seeks MT’s help|
|–||1.9.68||Terry – Wilson||Reply to 21.8.68|
|NLA 611-1-23||8.9.68*||Wilson – Terry||Detailed description of the plate|
|NLA 611-1-13||?.1.69||Wilson – Terry|
|NLA 611-1-14||17.1.69||Terry – Golson||Description of the plate|
|NLA 611-1-41||c.20.2.69*||Fish – Terry||Package of information, newsclippings etc|
|NLA 611-1-33||undated||Loose papers||Drawing of stratigraphic section, clearly that referred to in 20.2.69|
|NLA 611-1-17||24.2.69||Terry – Fish||Returning Fish’s material except for letter and stratigraphic diagram|
|NLA 611-1-15||19.3.69||Golson – Terry||Golson has no luck at WA Museum|
|–||15.1.70||Terry – Wilson||Reply to ?.1.69|
|–||21.7.70||Terry – Golson|
|–||30.7.70||Terry – Golson|
|NLA 611-1-22||4.8.70||Golson – Terry||Plate is identical to inter-war Egyptian tourist ware|
|–||20.11.70||Terry – Wilson||Reply to 8.9.68|
|8.11.70||Terry – Fish|
|NLA 611-1-26||12.11.70||Fish – Terry||Reply to 8.11.70|
|–||18.11.70||Terry – Fish||Reply to 12.11.70|
|–||15.1.71||Fish – WA Museum||Receipt of plate for examination by WA Museum|
|NLA 611.1.26A||1971||Terry – unpub. notes||Discussed find with Ian Crawford, WA Museum|
|–||16.4.71||Terry – Fish|
|NLA 611-1-36||7.6.71||Terry – Crawford||Has Crawford had time to examine plate or refer it to his contacts?|
|NLA 611-1-38||25.11.71||Gilroy – Terry||Mention of the Geraldton Plate|
|NLA 611-1-40||16.4.72||Terry – Fish||Any progress with WA Museum?|
|NLA 611-1-39||14.7.72||Fish – Terry||Has not heard anything back from WA Museum|
|NLA 611-1-42||9.8.72||Terry – Fish||Returning Crawford’s 1971 letter|
* Date is derived from internal evidence, and differs from the pencilled dates written on the correspondence by later cataloguers.