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Australian archaeologist finds ancient African coin on NT island, prompting possible history rewrite

May 16, 2019 7:00PM

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Darwin historian Mike Owen holds up a coin he believes is from Kilwa, off the coast of Africa. Picture: Keri Megelus media_cameraDarwin historian Mike Owen holds up a coin he believes is from Kilwa, off the coast of Africa. Picture: Keri Megelus


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Copper coins up to 1000 years old found in Australia could completely rewrite the story of our European history.

Archaeologist Mike Hermes found an ancient coin lying on a beach last year in the Wessel Islands, which are part of the Northern Territory. Mr Hermes believes the coin is at least 600 years old and from 10,000km away from Kilwa, an African island that is now part of Tanzania.

“The Portuguese were in Timor in 1514, 1515 — to think they didn’t go three more days east with the monsoon* wind is ludicrous*,” he told The Guardian.

“We’ve weighed and measured it, and it’s pretty much a dead ringer* for a Kilwa coin.

“And if it is, well, that could change everything.”

So far, tests on the coin haven’t led to a firm answer on where it came from.

In 1944, five coins were found in the Wessel Islands that were later proven to be 1000-year-old Kilwa coins, opening up the possibility that sailors from distant countries landed in Australia much earlier than thought.

During World War II the Wessel Islands — an uninhabited group of islands off Australia’s north coast — were an important place for defending the mainland from attack.

Australian soldier Maurie Isenberg was stationed on one of the islands to operate a radar station and spent his spare time fishing on the beaches.

Arnhem Land - Bonefish Bay beach in Wessel Islands, NT. /Northern/Territory media_cameraFishing on the beach in the Wessel Islands. In 1944 Australian soldier Maurie Isenberg was stationed on the Wessel Islands and found the coin while fishing from one of the beaches.

While sitting in the sand with his fishing rod, he discovered a handful of coins in the sand.

He didn’t have a clue where they came from but pocketed them anyway and later placed them in a tin.

In 1979 he rediscovered his “treasure” and decided to send the coins to a museum to get them identified.

The coins proved to be 1000 years old.

Still not fully realising what treasure he held in his hands, he marked an old map with an “X” to remember where he had found them and they were mostly forgotten for another 34 years.

Coin media_cameraA coin found on the beach on one of the Wessel Islands many experts believe is from Kilwa. Picture: Keri Megelus

In 2013 anthropologist* Ian McIntosh led an expedition to the Wessel Islands, but this time no more coins were found.

Aboriginal Australians are thought to have first arrived on the mainland by boat from the Malay Archipelago* between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago.

Captain James Cook declared Australia “terra nullius” (empty land) and claimed it for the UK in 1770.

We know that Captain Cook wasn’t the first European to step on Australia’s shores.

In 1606, a Dutch explorer named Willem Janszoon reached the Cape York peninsula in Queensland, followed a few years later by another Dutchman Dirk Hartog.

Shark Bay 2016. c media_cameraA parade in 2016 in Denham, WA, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Dirk Hartog’s landing in this part of the coast of Australia.

And the Spaniard Luiz Vaez de Torres discovered the strait* between Papua New Guinea and Australia in 1606, which was later named Torres Strait in his honour.

However, none of these explorers recognised they had discovered the famed southern continent, the “Terra Australis Incognita”, which was shown on many world maps of the time.

According to a team of Australian and US historians, archaeologists, geomorphologists* and Aboriginal rangers, the five coins found in 1944 date back to the 900s to 1300s.

They are African coins from the former Kilwa sultanate*, now a World Heritage ruin on an island off Tanzania.

Kilwa once was a wealthy trade port with links to India in the 1200s to 1500s.

The trade with gold, silver, pearls, perfumes, Arabian stoneware, Persian ceramics and Chinese porcelain made the city one of the most powerful towns in East Africa at the time.

The copper coins were the first coins ever produced in sub-Saharan Africa, and, according to archaeologists, have only twice been found outside Africa: once in Oman and the Australian find in 1944.

Archaeologists have long suspected there may have been early sea trading routes that linked East Africa, Arabia, India and the Spice Islands even 1000 years ago.

Or the coins could have washed ashore after a shipwreck.

When Isenberg discovered the copper coins he also found four coins from the Dutch East India Company — with one dating back to 1690.

The "Duyfken", an authentic replica of the 17th century Dutch wooden sailing ship, prepares to escort Holland America Line's historical cruise liner the "ms Amsterdam" (not pictured), which is in the midst of a 114-day around the world voyage, out of Sydney Harbour on February 21, 2011. Sydney staged the spectacular meeting of the two ships which bridge 400 years of Dutch maritime history. The original Duyfken ("Little Dove"), captained by Willem Janszoon, discovered Australia while on an exploratory voyage south from the Spice Islands in 1606 looking for gold, with the voyage marking the beginning of Australia's recorded history. AFP PHOTO / Greg WOOD media_cameraA replica of the Duyfken, which means Little Dove. Willem Janszoon captained the original ship to Australia in 1606. Picture: AFP


  • monsoon: season of storms in summer in tropical areas
  • ludicrous: absurd
  • dead ringer: exactly the same
  • anthropologist: studies human behaviour through history
  • archipelago: a group of many islands
  • geomorphologist: science of how land forms
  • sultanate: area ruled by a Sultan, who is a Muslim leader


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  1. Where is Kilwa? Where are the Wessel Islands?
  2. Did Ian McIntosh find anything when he went to the Wessel Islands?
  3. What happened in 1606?
  4. What other location have Kilwa coins been found outside Africa?
  5. What other coins did Isenberg find in 1944?


1. Compare and contrast
Read this article carefully and then read (or re-read if you have read it already) the article Ancient jawbone solves mountain puzzle. How are these stories similar?

Draw up a chart with two columns (SIMILARITIES and DIFFERENCES). List the ways that these news stories are similar and how they are different. For example; both are about new discoveries.

Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Humanities and Social Science

2. How could this happen?
There are a number of ways that these coins could have ended up on a beach on the Wessell Islands.

Come up with three plausible explanations for how they ended up there. Which do you think is the most likely and why?

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Humanities and Social Science

3. Extension
There are a number people who are known to have visited what we now call Australia before Captain Cook officially claimed it in 1770. Use a world map to locate where these people were from and write when they visited Australia. Use Google Maps to measure the distance from their homeland to where they landed in Australia.

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Humanities and Social Science, Mathematics

In the eyes of a soldier

Imagine you are Maurie Isenberg, stationed on an uninhabited island. Write a week’s journal entry retelling your time on these lonely islands.

You may like to recount from his first week, or after some time has passed and how he is feeling.

You can complete one entry for the week, or a couple of entries — after all you are alone on an island, what else do you have to do?

Don’t forget to include discovering the coins and creating your own treasure map.

HAVE YOUR SAY: How do you think the coins came to be on the beach?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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