Inside the Collection

The Marchinbar find – Medieval travels to Australia from Africa?

Australian Geographic Jan-Feb 2014 issue Trade Winds
: Australian Geographic covered the Past Masters’ expedition to Marchinbar in their Jan-Feb 2014 issue

In 1944 when Morry Isenberg discovered nine coins lying in the sand on the island of Marchinbar in the Northern Territory, little would he have imagined they would lead to explosive claims about Australia’s early global connections and, nearly 70 years after this chance encounter, provide the motivation for an international expedition.

The group of coins were donated to the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) in the 1980s after which they were displayed at the Sydney Mint Museum, then part of MAAS. The coins divide into two distinct groups with four of the nine identified as reasonably prosaic Dutch East India (VOC) coins from the 17th-18th centuries, and the other five of much more remarkable origins to distant Africa. Originating from the small but powerful East African island sultanate of Kilwa Kisiwani, they were minted some 500 years prior to Captain Cook’s arrival, and still more than 300 years before the Dutchman Willem Janszoon’s landfall. While a multitude of specimens have been found around East Africa and more distant Oman, by far the furthest found afield are these examples from Australia.

The Australian discovery has captured imaginations and sparked questions about how coins from such a distant realm happened to appear here, and what that might mean for the pre-European history of Australia. Do the coins indicate contact between our indigenous population and traders from Kilwa up to 700 years ago? What connects the two places, over 10,000 km apart?

Dr Ian McIntosh, an Australian expat anthropologist at Indiana-Purdue University in the U.S.A. attempted to find out in mid-2013. With a team of experts calling themselves the ‘Past Masters’, and Morry Isenberg’s original map where ‘X marked the spot’, he led an expedition to the Wessels, Yolngu territory, hoping to find more coins and learn more details about their deposition and origin. Although the expedition team did not find more coins that season, they did find other testaments to the contact between the Yolngu and maritime visitors from faraway
places, in the form of rock art depicting a variety of ships representing distinctive types across the centuries.

I had a chance to speak to members of the expedition team when they visited MAAS to have a closer look at the original coins. All are excited about their potential to tell us more through scientific analyses that have never previously been performed. With planned surface and elemental analysis the coins may still yield some secrets.

Some of the expedition team and advisors examine the coins at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences
Some of the expedition team and advisors examine the coins at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. From l-r, Leslie Carlisle OAM, Ana Silkatcheva, Paul Donnelly, Peter Lane, Sarah Ward Image: courtesy of Tim Stone

It is really quite a conundrum. The question lies not only in how they came to be on Australian soil, but also how two sets of coins dated up to 450 years apart came to be found in the same spot. Current theories include a storm surge from a shipwreck – or indeed, two different shipwrecks – or the loss of all coins from the pocket of a single maritime visitor. They may have been used as trinkets for trade by the Macassan trepang (sea cucumber) harvesters, though it is thought these contacts were established much later. There may even be a Portuguese connection, as they are known to have sacked Kilwa in 1505.

Other objects complicate matters even further. Pieces of debris, possibly from shipwrecks, were recovered from the mangroves by the expedition team, near Morry Isenberg’s beach. In 2010 a ship’s swivel gun was found sticking out of the sand by a 10-year old boy and its metal has been traced to Spain. An Arabic dhow treasure ship carrying ceramics from China was wrecked off the coast of Indonesia in the 9th century – too early to have a bearing on the Kilwa coins, but it does set a precedent for an Arab Maritime presence in the region. All are currently under further investigation.

Whatever the truth, the Kilwa connection is certainly fascinating. Kilwa Kisiwani was an Islamic sultanate for approximately five hundred years, beginning from the 10th century, rich in gold and ivory and highly prosperous. Its most famous sultan was known as Abu al-Mawahib, the Master of Gifts, famed for his generosity to visitors. The prosperity of the sultanate declined in the 14th century, and its Great Mosque partly fell down. After Vasco da Gama’s visit in 1502, the Portuguese sacked the town in 1505. These days, it is possible to visit the island and take in the lush climate and ruins of the mosque.

Past Masters expedition team arrives on Morry Isenberg's beach
Past Masters expedition team arrives on Morry Isenberg’s beach Image courtesy of Tim Stone,

The coins in the MAAS collections are typical specimens of the currency minted at Kilwa, die-struck in a copper alloy. Three may be dated to the reign of Sultan Sulaiman bin al-Hasan (1294-1308), and the other two to the reign of Sultan ‘Ali bin al-Hasan (1480-1482). The names of another five sultans of Kilwa are known. The text is formulaic as a rule, with one of the 99 Holy Names of Allah chosen to rhyme with the name of the issuing sultan, mirroring some examples from the Fatimid Caliphate. Since the two sultans of the Marchinbar coins share a name, only one formula is found here:

Sulaiman bin al-Hasan / yathiqu bi-mawla al-manan
‘Ali bin al-Hasan / yathiqu bi-mawla al-manan

Sulaiman bin al-Hasan / ‘Ali bin al-Hasan trusts in the Master of Favours

We at MAAS look forward to being part of new proposed analyses of the coins, with any luck taking us some steps closer to determining the truth behind the find. The Marchinbar coins remind us of the power of objects to make us challenge our beliefs about our own past. Despite the old trope that it’s the victors who write the history books, objects can be the true tellers of history.

Written by Ana Silkatcheva, Volunteer for Paul Donnelly, Design and Society

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