Pingandy Station ‘writing’

January 16, 2012

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. [1976], 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].

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Southeast Asian and Indonesian trade

January 7, 2012

The arrival of secret visitors is often the first and only explanation invoked to explain the discovery of exotic artefacts.  Very often other, simpler, explanations are overlooked or ignored entirely.  In scientific and other logical reasoning the simplest explanation – the one that introduces the fewest unproven leaps of faith, or is based on processes and events that are known to happen elsewhere – is preferred.  This idea is often termed Occam’s Razor or the principle of parsimony.  As well as referring to explanatory mechanisms, Occam’s Razor also favours the fewest revisions to what is already known.  It can be worth thinking about those circumstances which could result in the appearance of out of place artefacts in a way that fits Occam’s Razor.  Using known facts is it possible to expect that we could, one day, find exotic artefacts in Australia?  If we found a mobile phone in a Pleistocene rockshelter deposit in central Australia it would be foolish to invoke time-travel, extra-terrestrial intervention or long-forgotten Aboriginal telephony as the best explanation.  Well before we call on unproven and unsupported ideas, we would need to look at the question of prior disturbance of the deposit by animals and humans, whether people still camped there, deliberate fraud or hoaxing, errors by the archaeologists and so on, all of which are known to have happened in the past.  Each of these explanations is testable, and each could explain the mobile phone’s presence without having to alter what we already know about Australian Pleistocene archaeology.

Similarly, knowing that Macassan fishermen harvested trepang in Australian waters, it is reasonable to ask whether the well-established maritime trade networks that connected China and India via the Malay archipelago may also have extended as far as Australia or, if not, at least have provided a conduit for some clearly exotic material to end up in pre-1606 Australian contexts.  This post takes a look at what we know of this trade.  The Macassan presence in northern Australia deserves a few posts on its own.

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Arthur J. Vogan – forgotten archaeologist – 3

December 31, 2011

Return to Part 1 or Part 2 of Arthur J. Vogan’s story.

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Part 3

And yet amongst all of this there were little gems of insight that shone with great intensity.  Reading his field notes, you soon realise that where he really wanted to be was among his beloved Pacific islands, rather than in the succession of bedsits and lodging houses on Sydney’s north shore, shouting at the other loud and uncooperative houseguests.  Even at the age of 75 when he was carrying plaster across the rickety scaffold at Yasawa he had a discernable vibrancy, of wanting to explore, discover and explain, which I think any archaeologist would respond to when they read it.  Amid the reams of newspaper copy and aborted scholarly writing the best, most empathic prose was a short piece he wrote on the fringe dwellers living in bush camps on Sydney’s outskirts.  In it he conveyed something of his own lack of fit – these hermits were driven there ‘not by hardship or poverty, that destroys the mind, but incompatibility’ [Vogan Papers: Box 18, ‘The Muddlers’ manuscript].

Another factor that softened my view of him was that Vogan was also an early advocate for the conservation of rock art.  He became a gadfly to Woy Woy Shire Council in particular, constantly lobbying them to preserve the rock engravings in their area, particularly the ‘rabbits’.  Although this never eventuated, some protection was ultimately given to the more accessible Bulgandry site nearby.

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Arthur J. Vogan – forgotten archaeologist – 2

December 31, 2011

Go back to Part 1 of Arthur J. Vogan’s story.

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

Part 2

The Yasawa inscriptions fulfilled two critical needs for Vogan.  Firstly they were the field credential he had always craved, that could legitimise him as an archaeologist.  Almost everything he had written about until then had been someone else’s discovery.  Here now was a real archaeological site, in an exotic location that he had found [although see Footnote 5] and adventurously overcame difficulties to record the evidence.  Secondly, the Yasawa inscriptions provided a link he could argue existed between the literate civilisations of Asia, specifically the Shang, and the Pacific.  While the resemblance between the angular Yasawa motifs and Chinese pictograms is coincidental at best, it looks superficially plausible.  The relative dating of this push by Asian peoples into the Pacific at around 1500 B.C. gave Vogan a chronological anchor point to develop further his theoretical connections with early civilisations.  Another factor that appealed to Vogan about the inscriptions was their abstraction.  Since the 1910s some of his writings had explored various then fashionable by-ways of psychology, symbolism and gnosticism.  While he rejected all isms, and was happy to declare himself all but atheistic, he nonetheless maintained an attraction to the essential idea that human psyche could be understood by exploring the earliest languages, religions, writings and other archaeological evidence as symbols reflecting underlying human constants.  His writings, particularly the endless newspaper columns often reverted to talking about the links between early religious symbols around the globe.  Vogan’s theories were certainly not the only outlandish ones doing the rounds at the same time.  If anything they were more reflective of the late 19th century than the between-wars period, but this was no great progress.  His belief in symbolism was of it as a fundamental early human psychological trait, rather than an adopted cultural element.  In this and other matters he largely disagreed with the claims of the diffusionists such as Perry and Elliott Smith.

The inscriptions were Vogan’s final achievement and the subject of his ‘scholarly’ papers, one in the French language Le Courrier Australien [1936] and the other in the Journal of the Polynesian Society [1937], although some more popular columns in the Fiji Times and Pacific Islands Monthly also set out his findings.  Neither is particularly academic, being essentially narrative and rambling at that.  His correspondence shows Vogan was wracked with anxiety when writing them and waiting for their publication.  In contrast he continued to produce voluminous newspaper copy with relative ease.  Vogan used journalism skilfully as a tool of self-promotion.  He was often referred to in newspaper copy, which he certainly would have written beforehand, as ‘the well-known archaeologist’, ‘the pioneer Pacific explorer’ and so on.  Most of his newspaper articles on a broad range of subjects appeared in fairly obscure publications.  While they ostensibly dealt with archaeology or history in their titles they very soon drifted into the spiritual and esoteric.  He claimed to anyone that would listen that the Jewish conspiracy had black-balled him from all the major newspapers but what he wrote was dense, wordy, meandering rubbish most of the time.  His letters to the editor, however, were usually pretty snappy, if somewhat snippish in tone, while his personal correspondence tended to continually restate a few things that he saw as establishing his status and credibility, such as knowing Sir John Lubbock, later Lord Avebury [1870s as a teenager], working for the Illustrated London News [1880s-90s], being the writer of the only Australian-published book that had ever gone into a third edition [as the Black Police did at the beginning of the century], being in the first ever St Johns Ambulance class [as a youth in London] and so on.

Working through a lifetime’s paper, with the carbons of countless letters, dozens of small notebooks filled with copytext notes on Sumerian- Indian-Chinese-Aztec mythology, boxes of clipped or torn newspaper items, the repetitions quickly became apparent and very hard to face.  By the end of the third day I was fantasising what I would say to AJV if I saw him at the Library cafe.  I knew his secrets – the girlfriend who said no to marriage and made him seek out the New Guinea expedition so he could die heroically, upsetting Margaret Collingridge’s family with so much anti-Catholic hatred that her mother called in the lawyers, refusing to discount his belief in the truth of the Protocols of the Elders Of Zioneven when trusted friends told him it was a forgery, approving of Hitler well into the war.  All these were bullets I could use on this tedious man, who moaned that it was everyone else’s fault except his own that he got nothing done on his research.  Vogan’s anti-Semitic racism runs throughout his correspondence from about 1914 onwards, but reached a peak in the mid-1930s, when he ceases to identify Jews as the cause of his, and the wider world’s, pains, and begins to use it as an epithet for anyone he does not like.  Those who wrote to him because they thought he was an expert in Pacific history sometimes received letters back that had a paragraph about the topic and then an extended rant about why he was in no position to help them because a conspiracy of the Jewish controlled press had barred him from journalistic work in Australia or because he withstood the wholesale Americanisation of Australian-British culture.  Vogan thought Australians wilfully ignorant and often repeated the story that an editor had spiked one of his discovery stories because ‘Australians only want to read about things they can put a bet on’.  While some objected to his racist assertions, there were many who clearly thought on the same lines.  Along with racism as an easy crutch for his failings with his theory, the lack of academic recognition for his theory led Vogan to see professional archaeology in universities and museums as inherently opposed to ideas that challenged the status quo.  To gain their support you needed to belong to the right club, or follow the party line.  Seeking to engage and receive support from the recognised experts he quickly became intemperate, accusing them of various ethical shortcomings and severing contact.  As a result the few people with whom he remained civil were promoted as the most enlightened scholars imaginable, such as ‘probably the best authority in Australasia, Dr C.A. Monticone, the New South Wales Government hermeneutics expert’ [Vogan 1937: p. 101] who was in reality the head of the NSW Court translation service.  Many other examples of both condemnation and praise can be found in his papers.

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Arthur J. Vogan – forgotten archaeologist – 1

December 31, 2011

The Mitchell Library, Sydney, holds the unprocessed collection of Arthur J. Vogan’s personal papers [28 boxes stuffed full of paper].  Vogan is one of the forgotten early archaeologists of Australia, probably the first one to call himself an archaeologist as their primary vocation.  He is now forgotten in large part because his theories were so comprehensively wrong.  Despite that, he has lots of interest for secret visitor theories.  As well as his own efforts to frame a theory for Australian and Pacific settlement, he was a friend of George Collingridge, an enemy of Lawrence Hargrave and corresponded with many people who had any interest in Australian archaeology at the time.  Vogan was also a man of complex beliefs – staunchly committed to Aboriginal causes at the same time as being a virulent anti-Semite, Hitler admirer and hater of the ‘smart’ women he increasingly encountered in the early 20th century.  I managed to get in some solid time in the Mitchell Library in Sydney a few months back.  His papers have allowed me to fill in a gap in our knowledge of Australia’s early history of archaeology.

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