Did medieval sailors reach Australia?



 
 Archaeologists hope to unravel the mystery of how coins dating back to the 10th century were found off the shores of Australia.

Ian McIntosh, professor of anthropology at Indiana University, will be leading an archaeological search on an island in northern Australia in order to see if evidence of a medieval settlement can be found. This was the same place that nearly seventy years ago several coins were discovered that date back as far as the year 900 AD.

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The coins raise the possibility of shipwrecks that may have occurred along an early maritime trading route and bring to mind the ancient trading network that linked East Africa, Arabia, India and the Spice Islands over 1,000 years ago. Aboriginal folklore also speaks of a hidden cave near where the coins were found that is filled with doubloons and weaponry of an ancient era.

“This trade route was already very active a very long time ago, and this may [be] evidence of that early exploration by people from East Africa or from the Middle East,” he said.

The coins were found in 1944. Maurie Isenberg, an Australian soldier assigned to a forward radar station at Jensen Bay on the Wessel Islands, spotted several coins in the sand while fishing in his spare time one day. Having little interest in coins at the time, he placed them in an airtight tin, where they remained until 1979, when he sent the coins off to have them identified.

Shortly after finding the coins, Isenberg drew an X on a map of the area that had been drawn by another soldier. McIntosh now possesses that map.




Four of the coins were identified as Dutch East India Company coins, with one dating back to 1690. The other five coins, dating from the 900s to 1300s, were African coins from the once flourishing Kilwa Sultanate, now a World Heritage ruin south of Zanzibar in Tanzania. The copper coins, the first to be produced in sub-Saharan Africa, were never in use beyond the immediate locality of East Africa, and only one has ever been found elsewhere, in Oman.

How and why do five Kilwa coins find their way to the Australian Outback? McIntosh said he believes an archaeological site survey, which has never been done, and an excavation will begin to answer those questions.

In partnership with the senior Aboriginal custodians for the Wessel Islands, McIntosh’s team, composed of Australians and Americans, will include a historian, anthropologist, archaeologist and geomorphologist, as well as Aboriginal rangers. They will survey the site where the coins were found, with a view to applying for an excavation permit from the relevant heritage authorities and planning the logistics of the excavation. The initial work to be done includes site surveys, mapping, recording, soil testing and coastal erosion analysis.

There are so many unanswered questions regarding to the African coins’ discovery, McIntosh said. “Multiple theses have been put forward by noted scholars, and the major goal is to piece together more of the puzzle. Is a shipwreck involved? Are there more coins? All options are on the table, but only the proposed expedition can help us answer some of these perplexing questions.”

The archaeological dig is set to begin in mid-July.

Source: Indiana University