Michael Terry wrote in his autobiography of being contacted by Peter Muir, ‘a pen friend for years’, who travelled in Western Australia about potential evidence for secret visitors on Pingandy Station. The station is located about 443 km east of Carnarvon, and due south of Tom Price in the Upper Gascoyne Shire, which puts it hundreds of kilometres from the coast through pretty dry country. Muir had seen an exposed cliff face formed from mudstone along a creek near the homestead that showed markings like lettering. His interest piqued, Terry arranged to visit the site in January 1971 with Muir, took some photos and, as had become usual with him, ‘plagued the erudite for an on-site examination’ [Barnard 1987: 96].
At this stage Terry was talking to Steve Boydell, who was working with the [then] Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies as a site recorder and also Jack Golson, an archaeologist at the Australian National University [611-1-22 Golson to MT 4.8.70]. Terry was referring to the inscriptions at this time as ‘Sanscrit’ [eg NLA 611-1-32 MT to Rouhani 23.12.70]. It may have been either Golson or Boydell who first disagreed with the human origin of the markings. Gilroy would sympathise with Terry about the lettering being cynically dismissed as ‘freak geology’ [NLA 611-1-38 Gilroy to MT 25.1.71].
Preserved correspondence about the site is patchy but Terry got in touch with Dr Barry Fell, of the National Decipherment Center at Arlington, Virginia. According to the biography Fell suggested that this may be a natural formation that took on the appearance of writing – ‘…I am bound to believe that all of them are natural. Some fossils such as Alcamenia hieroglyphica simulate writing to a remarkable degree …’. . While Fell thought no further investigation was required he was sure Australia would display many other contacts from ‘early Egyptian, Libyan, Hindu and Chinese sailors’ [Barnard 1987: 97].
So who was Fell? Dr Bruce Fell of the National Decipherment Center at Arlington sounded impressive. Arlington had military connotations as the site of the National Cemetery, where US war dead may be buried. This sounded very governmental and hush-hush. Almost certainly it conjours up images of large banks of computers, serviced by people in lab coats with clipboards cracking Soviet codes. However, it was nothing so glamorous, and Terry had the bloke’s name wrong. Professor Barry Fell, a New Zealander who was a respected marine biologist at Harvard University, had an epiphany of some sort in the late 1960s which saw him move out of his field and embrace linguistic interpretations of inscriptions and even what were probably random natural markings as indicative of hyper-diffusionist migrations. At this stage there were only inklings of Fell’s later beliefs in large scale migrations, seemingly restricted to meditations on whether Polynesians had reached America in their travels. Fell became notorious during the 1970s and 80s for ‘reading’ a succession of ancient scripts that to him showed a range of African, European and Asian cultures of all periods had made their way to the Americas [Flavin 2011]. His publications America B.C. , three later books and numerous articles published through the Epigraphic Society Occasional Papers [RSNZ 2011] uncritically propagated an extreme view of hyper-diffusionism that was more detached from the evidence than even Rex Gilroy’s most active speculations. Fell remains a posthumous poster-boy for the hyper-diffusionist movement, who usually emphasise his Harvard professorial status to legitimise his views [e.g. Equinox Project 2012].