African Coins in Arnhem Land?: An Exercise in Collaborative Discovery

Artefacts used in the Custodians and Curators Workshop to highlight the range of

By Ian McIntosh

The curious discovery of 1,000-year-old African coins during World War II on the north Australian coast provides a unique opportunity to rewrite Australian history with a focus on indigenous perspectives.


An unfortunate myth persists in Australia that nothing much happened on the entire continent until the arrival of European explorers in the 1600s and settlers in the 1700s. The 50,000 years of Aboriginal occupation is a history-free zone according to the textbooks. And yet Aboriginal oral history and mythology from north-east Arnhem Land, and from the Yolngu people, speaks of much contact with outsiders over a long period of time.

Studying this history is a specialization of mine as an Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). Working closely with Yolngu elders, I’ve focused my studies on the centuries-long negotiated trade between Arnhem Landers and Indonesian trepang fishermen from Sulawesi—Australia's first international industry.

But the coins, which originated from the Kilwa Sultanate in what is now Tanzania, have opened the door to speculation as to how Yolngu were interacting with outsiders from much further away and over a considerably longer period. This discovery has the potential to expand our insights into the extent of the ancient maritime silk route that once linked East Africa with Arabia, Persia, India, and China.

At very top, artefacts used in the "Custodians and Curators Workshop" to highlight the range of objects that rangers might uncover in their day to day management of the Australian coast; above, Ian McIntosh and members of Norforce at the heritage training field site, Nhulunbuy, July 2013. All photos courtesy of Ian McIntosh, used with permission.  

In July 2013, I led a workshop, called “Custodians & Curators” at the Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation in the city of Nhulunbuy, just prior to departure for the Wessels, where the coins were found. I gathered together a specialist training team that included myself, Yolngu elder Terry Yumbulul of the Warrimirri clan, Northern Territory historian, and heritage consultant Mike Owen, numismatist Peter Lane from the South Austraian Museum, geomorphologist Tim Stone, heritage detection expert Bob Sheppard, and consulting archaeologist and Yolngu educator Mike Hermes. 

We facilitated training sessions with Yolngu rangers from across north-east Arnhem Land, including the Aboriginal communities of Yirrkala and Milingimbi, and Norforce, the Aboriginal army surveillance unit. During their routine work, it is probable that these groups will come across archaeological sites and historically significant objects, like the coins. As custodians of the land and curators of its history, the rangers, in particular, are well-placed to manage their inheritance of Australia’s pre-colonial heritage – but they cannot protect what they do not understand. The workshop sessions provided education on how to identify objects or materials found on the coast.

Location of the Arnhem Land Region in the Northern Territory of Australia. 

One workshop session, for example, focused on ship’s ballast that would have been left behind when cargo was loaded. To the untrained eye, a rock on a remote beach would arouse little or no suspicion. But if it is cracked limestone or basalt, then it is not local to the area and has been introduced to the coast by outsiders. We viewed some examples of the types of ballast used by the Portuguese, Dutch, Arabs, and Indonesians, as well as other objects commonly associated with shipwrecks or trade. These very popular sessions attracted nearly one hundred people. Yolngu schoolteachers at Elcho Island are particularly fascinated by the discovery of the coins and are integrating our preliminary findings into their classrooms.

Through this training, Yolngu rangers and Norforce were introduced to heritage management processes. They learned techniques in research and conservation, and gained critical knowledge in the fields of archaeology, geomorphology, geophysics, and landscape surveying.

In the wake of this first training session and the Wessels preliminary site survey, we have now set up a network called the “Past Masters” in order to link indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in this collective history-making process. Ultimately, we hope to create a heritage management process that successfully balances both Western and traditional knowledge systems. Down the road, we would like for our workshop format and field survey methodology to be developed into a certificate course, which may one day see Yolngu graduates of IUPUI and its partner institutions.

We have started an online fundraising campaign to return to the Wessel Islands in 2014 for further training and to complete an analysis of the rock art, which shows evidence of past encounters with outsiders. Visit our 2014 Wessel Islands expedition crowdfunding site at: