Ancient Egyptian bric-a-brac

July 19, 2014

As we approach the centenary of the start of the Great War this year and the landings at Gallipoli there will be increasing attention paid to what the Australian and New Zealand troops did overseas, and not just their military adventures.  An early entry into what is likely to become a crowded field is a nifty little blog posting developed by Dr Brit Asmussen of the Queensland Museum as part of National Archaeology Week 2014.

The Bric-a-brac of war looks at Egyptian material acquired by the Queensland Museum or held privately by descendants of diggers, and includes some excellent images of both ancient and modern style fakes.

Some of this material and the same sort of stuff collected during World War II seems to have ended up either accidentally or deliberately fooling people into believing the presence of ancient Egyptians.  In the Secret Visitors Project we have already explored a number of these and concluded that they were very modern artefacts.

At the time the importation of fake souvenirs was recognised as targeting the more gullible, but there were also large numbers of ‘authentic’ artefacts being imported for sale with no restriction.  My research found a few leads on an otherwise untold story.

The Gordonvale Scarab – discovered around the end of the Great War, and very likely to have been a hoax that still continues to have its defenders.  Part of the joke was that Egypt and Gordonvale, where scarab beetles were devastating the sugar cane crop and were subject to a bounty, were the two places on earth where you could make money from digging up scarabs.

The Daly River scarab – likely to have been brought back during the Second World War and found in the early 1960s.

The Geraldton Plate – dug up in the early 1960s, at seemingly great depth in the Western Australian port town.

The Ptolemaic coin found at Barron Falls is likely to also be a hoax or the mis-remembering of something that happened decades earlier.

Asmussen’s work reminds us that these are not things that happened a long time ago.  There are still many artefacts in peoples’ personal collections and, as the story of their origin is lost with passing lives, the vacuum is all too easily filled with stories of ancient Egyptians and false discoveries.

My thanks to Steve Spillard for drawing my attention to this.


Dr Brit Asmussen 2014
The Bric-a-brac of war, Queensland Museum –  Can be accessed here.


Kariong hieroglyphs – press release

October 21, 2012

I’ve limited my mentions of the Kariong hieroglyphs to date, mainly because its a big topic and because there are lots of other places on the Internet you can go to to see both sides at work.  So far I’ve mainly posted on Kariong clips on Youtube here and most recently here.  There are plans for a comprehensive treatment, but work has got in the way, so while there is a lot in draft, very little has actually appeared on this site.

A few days ago I got contacted about the Kariong glyphs by a Newcastle, NSW, journalist.  The main advocate for the authenticity of the engravings – Hans Dieter von Senff – had issued a press release to a host of news agencies about the site and some new discoveries he had made there.  Iwas asked to comment, and gave a fairly general answer about my overall studies rather than the claim, since I had not seen the press release as yet.

I thought it might be useful, while the news is still ‘hot’ to call your attention to it.

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Michael Terry bibliography

July 21, 2012

Michael Terry wrote extensively about his explorations.  His later travel journalism is less well-known, but probably was much more widely read, in popular mass-market publications like Walkabout and People.  It is this material which includes his secret visitor speculations. I have found the following references thus far, but doubtless there are more.  This list will be updated when necessary, and any additional references are most welcome.

Terry’s life is documented in his manuscript autobiography, which was completed by his sister Charlotte after his death [Barnard 1987].  A later historian of Northern Territory exploration discusses some of the problems in filling the gaps in Terry’s life, when he had carefully edited the surviving documentary record [Dewar 2009].

Terry’s personal papers largely relate to correspondence from the 1960s-70s and of letters received.  He does annotate the date of his reply on many of them, but almost none of his own responses are preserved [NLA 611-1].  In individual posts relating to particular claims I have tried to verify the presumed sequence of correspondence, including letters that are lost.

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Special issue on Pseudoarchaeology and Religion in Numen

June 10, 2012

It’s not very often at all that you see an academic paper on pseudoarchaeology, so its some sort of red-letter event when one entire issue of an academic journal devotes itself to the subject.  Perhaps its not a coincidence that the transit of Venus is taking place; both are equally rare events and maybe planets and celestial bodies have to be in the right alignment for this to happen.

Numen is an academic journal that is, as its subtitle says  an ‘International review for the history of religions’.  Guest editors James R Lewis and Pia Andersson of the University of Tromso, Norway, and Stockholm University respectively, corralled a number of scholars to contribute papers on the aspects of pseudoarchaeology that deal with a broad range of issues relating to belief and faith.

The contents of the special issue, and abstracts from the publisher’s website follow.

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Society for American Archaeology Conference 2012

April 21, 2012

The 77th annual Society for American Archaeology Conference for 2012 has just been held in Memphis.  This is one of the largest annual archaeology conferences in the world.  The SAA’s membership is more than 7000 professional archaeologists working throughout North and South America, as well as many Americans with research interests elsewhere.  What made it noteworthy here was that it included a session on pseudoarchaeology, organised by David S. Anderson of Tulane University and Jeb Card of Miami University.

Even more notewworthy is that I presented a paper.  Well, I put in a paper and David Anderson did the always thankless job of having to read it out.  I would have loved to attend but as Sydney University is currently laying waste to its academic teaching staff in the Arts Faculty it would seem gratuitous to have sought travel money [and also here, here and here].

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Kariong presentation – December 2011

November 28, 2011

I had pretty much been holding off on contributing much on Kariong until I was a bit further advanced on my own work, but this notice appeared yesterday in OzArch, the Australian archaeology Google group.

– – – – – – – – – – –

Posted 27 November 2011 at 1.13 pm
The Australian Aborigines are the first humans.
They were created long ago on the Fist Day.
This was at a time before time began.
Long afterwards, after their culture had fully evolved, the Aborigines sailed from Australia all around the world in a figure 8 and colonised the whole earth.
All of the world’s peoples and all of the human culture derive from the Aborigines.
The predominant teacher of all this at the current time is Mr Steven Strong.
Steve says that his task is to prove by science what the Elders have always said.
Steve Strong’s latest speaking engagement will be as follows:

Sunday 11th December, 2011 Artsbarn 2 Dandaloo St Kariong, NSW, Australia.   Steven will be accompanied by Dr. Hans-Dieter von Senff.

– –  – – – – – – – – –

Father and son team Steven and Evan Strong have written several detailed works on why they believe that modern human evolution began with Australian Aboriginal people.  These can be found here.

Dr. Hans-Dieter von Senff is the leading promoter of the authenticity of the Kariong engravings.  Its not clear whether he will be speaking.

On the face of it there is little shared ground between the two – Strong is dealing with early human evolution and a refreshing twist on the usual diffusionist scenario.  Von Senff’s interest in the hieroglyphs, apart from some chronological issues, requires less a reversal ofthe current view and more a suspension of disbelief.

Not sure I can make it, but would love to hear from anyone who goes.

Lawrence Hargrave talk

July 31, 2011

Today I gave a talk to the ‘Tea Time talks’ for Woollahra Council [a local government area covering the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney] , which they hold monthly at the Council Chambers.  Originally last year I had approached the Woollahra Historical Society to see if they would be interested in a talk to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Lawrence Hargrave’s dig at Woollahra Point in July 1911.  The President, Peter Poland, suggested that the Tea Time talks got a bigger crowd and might be worth a try.

Peter was not wrong.  We had more than 90 people turn up – a record!  A good story in the local newspaper helped to drum up interest, and we were left with a standing room only crowd.  Can’t get better than that.

The talk itself was focussed on the archaeological dig that Hargrave persuaded the Australian Museum to conduct on a shell-midden in a rock shelter near his house on Wunulla Road, about a kilometre from the venue.  The dig was a small affair, run by C.C.Towle, who was the Curatorial Assistant in Ethnography.  This was probably his first dig and it neither showed great prospects for further rockshelter excavations or for answers being forthcoming on the big questions like the length of Aboriginal occupation, and whether there was a single or multiple waves of people.  The dig did find a heavily rusted iron spike, which vindicated [to some extent] Hargraves’ belief that the dig would reveal evidence of the Spanish occupation of Woollahra Point, part of his grand theory that the Spanish had been in Sydney Harbour nearly two centuries before the First Fleet.  As well as the rockshelter Hargrave identified many sites that he thought were evidence for his theory in the Woollahra / Double Bay / Rose Bay area.

The crowd asked lots of good questions.  If any of them were believers in either Spanish or Portuguese they didn’t let on.  Several had memories or stories of Aboriginal art sites that were sitting in peoples’ back yards in different suburbs.  I think they appreciated the bitterness that consumed Hargrave in his last decade, and while I was talking the penny dropped and I realised that he had been watching past history repeat itself.  For two decades he bore ridicule as a ‘crank’ for his aeronautical experiments, only to be vindicated with the Wright Brothers achievement of powered flight.  He did not get a lot of credit at the time – his contribution was not nearly as well understood as it could have been.  When he embarked on the quest for Lope de Vega and the lost Spanish ship his actions were clearly informed by his past experience.  This time he waited more than three years from the time of his ‘revelation’ before he went public with the story, hoping to have a water-tight and uncontestable argument prepared.  It proved not to be the case.  He still held on to the idea though that, even though he was being pilloried, he would eventually be vindicated.  It never came, and in the last years of his life his thoughts became darker and darker.  It was only in preparing the talk and stepping it out that I really saw the parallels between the aviation and Spanish phases so clearly.

Another good thing that came out of the talk is that although I have been a constant whinger about how archaeologists should present their findings back to the public, we seldom do it.  Now I can be just that little bit less hypocritical next time I complain about it, and the failings of my colleagues.  The audience were gagging to hear about archaeology, and we could so easily fill venues around the state and present factual interesting information to people who care, and vote and fund it all through their taxes.

As a final thing, the talk fell nicely on the World Archaeology Congress’s Day of Archaeology, which aims to document the range of work done by archaeologists around the world on a single day.  Look for the site here.  I’ll add something about my day soon.