IUPUI has never seen publicity like this! Dr. Ian McIntosh and a team of specialists in their respective fields are travelling in July to the Arnhem Land to uncover the mystery of coins discovered there in 1944. These coins could well rewrite Australian history.

I began my investigation with the IUPUI press release from February 28, 2013. Because I happen to know Dr. McIntosh, I didn’t want to just review an article about his academic adventure to Australia. Besides, the press release raised some unanswered questions, so I requested an interview with him about the expedition. Dr. Ian McIntosh is the Director of International Partnerships in the Office of International Affairs at IUPUI and adjunct anthropology faculty member in the IU School of Liberal Arts. He happens to be an Australian.

coinsStart with the coins. During World War II in 1944, Maurie Isenberg was a soldier stationed at the radar station at Jensen Bay on the Wessel Islands. He found the several coins in the sand while fishing on the beach one day. Since he had no use for them, he placed them in an airtight container to store them. Soon thereafter Isenberg marked an ‘X’ on a map drawn by another soldier marking the spot where he found the coins. Dr. McIntosh possesses that 70-year-old map.

The coins remained in Isenberg’s possession until 1979, when he sent them to a museum to identify them. Although they have little monetary value; they are priceless in archaeological terms. Four of the coins were from the Dutch East India Company dating back to 1690. The other five coins dated back to 1100s or 1300s. They were from Africa; from the Kilwa Sultanate, a World Heritage ruin located south of Zanzibar in modern-day Tanzania. These copper coins were produced and intended for use in the immediate East Africa locality only. Other than Isenberg’s find, only one coin has been found elsewhere, in Oman. According to Dr. McIntosh, Kilwa was the most prominent port on East African coast. Kilwa had established trade links with India from 900 until it was destroyed by the Portuguese in 1505.

map ian

Dr. McIntosh’s team is conducting an archaeological site survey to begin to uncover how and why these coins were found so far from home. The Wessel Islands are a remote group of islands in Arnhem Land in Aboriginal Australia in the Arafura Sea. (They are destination B on the above map.) They are no-longer inhabited.

The purpose of this expedition is an archaeological site visit and survey and training of Aboriginal rangers who manage the coast daily. This training is an important step in preserving and mapping any other coins or signs of shipwrecks. The initial survey will be essential to applying for an excavation permit from relevant heritage authorities and planning logistics of excavation. Apart from the training of rangers, this work includes surveys, mapping, recording, soil testing, and coastal erosion analysis.

For Dr. McIntosh the expedition has been a long time coming. During his PhD, he lived with local Northern Territory Yolngu Aboriginal coastal people and heard their oral history. Lack of money has prevented the expedition until now. The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney tried unsuccessfully to organize funding for an expedition in the 1980s. Dr. McIntosh attempted to organize an expedition in the 1990s, but was unable to secure funding. Currently, Australian Geographic Society, Swiss UBUNTU Foundation, ANU-IU Pan Asia Institute, and Minelab are funding the initial expedition. The team continues to seek funds to cover the expenses of the initial research. (If you are interested in contributing, you can contact Dr. Ian McIntosh at ismcintosh@hotmail.com.)

One of my first questions was whether Dr. McIntosh was taking students. He usually takes a group of students to Australia in July for a study abroad program, and course entitled Aboriginal Australia. I was fortunate enough to enroll in this program two summers ago. Fabulous study abroad opportunity, I highly recommend it! The answer is no. This initial site visit and survey will consist of a small team and himself. However, Dr. McIntosh said that students will be welcome in Stage 2 of the site investigation.

In partnership with the senior Aboriginal custodians of the Wessel Islands, Dr. McIntosh is working with a mainly Australian and American team consisting of geomorphologist, field archaeologist, heritage protection expert,  an anthropologist and Aboriginal rangers. The geomorphologist studies changing landforms, and can direct the team where to look. The field archaeologist, an expert in Aboriginal Australia, will train the Aboriginal rangers. The heritage protection expert understands the laws and links to Aboriginal origin. Respecting the traditional land owners is of the utmost importance in Australia. Dr. McIntosh’s team has permission from the Yolngu to visit Wessel Islands. The anthropologist is Dr. McIntosh, who has the map and knows the oral history of the Yolngu people. Among others, the team includes a member of the British Museum Coin and Medal Division, two numismatists who are part of the team but will not travel to the site, and celebrated Australian historian Dr. Campbell Macknight.


A tasty trepang

How did the coins get to the Wessel Islands? At this time, there are five hypotheses:

  • the coins served as talisman of a seafaring traveler
  • a Portuguese shipwreck
  • an Arabian shipwreck with Kilwa navigators on Arab ships
  • payment to local people for access to land and resources
  • Macassan from Indonesia fishing for trepangs (sea cucumbers) brought them.

What do you think? How did these coins from modern-day Tanzania end up in Northern Australia?

These 900-year-old coins can change the history of Australia. The Aboriginal people are believed to have inhabited Australia for at least 40,000 to 60,000 years. Australia was believed to be ‘discovered’ by British explorer Captain James Cook in 1770 on Australia’s east coast. More recently, the Dutch explorer William Janszoon who reached the Cape York Peninsula in Queensland in 1606 has been credited as the first European to Australia. However, these coins date back to 1100s or 1300s Kilwa Sultanate, it is likely that whoever brought these coins predate the Dutch by as much as 500 years!

The purpose of Dr. McIntosh’s team is academic: explore the Wessel Islands for evidence of shipwrecks or perhaps find more coins. Aboriginal folklore suggests that there is a cave in the vicinity of the beach where the Isenberg found the coins, a cave said to be filled with doubloons and weaponry of an ancient era. So while Dr. McIntosh’s team is conducting an archaeological expedition, the viral media attention this story has received has also stirred up interest in the expedition and in the legendary cave.
valerie 2Dr. McIntosh has over 100 academic publications in his career. He is surprised that this expedition is generating this much media attention while other important academic work remains unknown to the media.

One thing is for sure IUPUI is marking its ‘X’ on the map with this viral story!

About Valerie Khokhar
Valerie Khokhar is a graduate student of Applied Anthropology at IUPUI who coordinates the INDYthinks human trafficking initiative.

View all post by Valerie Khokhar »

  1. Ahaa, its pleasant conversation about this article here
    at this webpage, I have read all that, so now me also commenting
    at this place.

Leave your comment