Ancient Egyptian visitors to Australia or miner’s mishap? Riddle of the rainforest coin
The 2,200-year-old coin will go on display at the Cairns Museum later this year. (ABC Far North: Mark Rigby)
Unearthed in 1912, squirreled away for a lifetime and then handed in to a museum — the story behind the discovery of an ancient Egyptian coin in far north Queensland is almost as mysterious as how it came to be there.
The bronze coin — about the same size as a 50 cent piece — was minted during the reign of Ptolemy IV, between 221 and 204BC.
More than two millennia later it was found about seven centimetres underground in the depths of the far north Queensland rainforest.
The man who found it, Andrew Henderson, had abandoned the gold mining fields of Victoria for a warmer climate.
“Henderson got a block of land in the scrub and he became a settler,” far north Queensland historian, Dave Phoenix said.
“One day in 1912 he was building a fence line and as he was digging a hole for a fence post his shovel hit something metallic.
“He reached into the hole and pulled out this coin.”
Henderson paid little attention to the coin at the time; when he returned home, he put it in a drawer and all but forgot about it for the next 40 years.
The Ptolemaic coin was handed in to the Cairns Museum this year, sparking wild theories about how it made its way to Queensland’s far north. (ABC Far North: Mark Rigby)
“When he got into his late 70s, when he was an old man he started divesting himself of his possessions,” Mr Phoenix said.
“He gave the coin to his neighbour’s 10-year-old son, a guy called Hank Gilmore.”
Earlier this year Mr Gilmore offered the coin and its story to the Cairns Museum, sparking an investigation into how it found its way across the world.
A brief history of Ptolemy IV
Dr Andrew Connor, a lecturer in ancient history from Monash University, said to understand how or why the Ptolemaic coin came to rest in the rainforest, it is best to understand the man it was minted in honour of.
“Unlike his three predecessors, Ptolemy IV wasn’t terribly interested in ruling,” Dr Connor said.
“He spent a lot more time drinking, hanging out and working on his boat — a massive boat that was technically a warship but would probably have been impossible to row so it would have just sat in the water being luxurious.'”
And of the coins minted during Ptolemy IV’s rule, Dr Connor said there were three types – gold, silver and bronze; all of which were used to further the influence and fame of the Ptolemaic rulers.
Despite Ptolemy IV’s failures as a ruler his descendants ruled most of Egypt until Romans conquered in 30BC. (Wikimedia commons: Hedwig Storch)
“Bronze coins were pretty much everywhere in the ancient world,” he said.
“We think about the gold and the silver coins because they’re nice, but they would have been worth a huge amount of money so for everyday business they would have used bronze.”
It is for this reason, Dr Connor said, that bronze Ptolemaic coins often turn up in the most bizarre locations.
From desert to rainforest
The Ptolemaic kingdoms spread over the coastline and desert dunes of the area now known as Libya and Egypt — so how did a coin make it from the desert to the rainforest?
Mr Phoenix has pondered several possibilities, including theories from Egyptologists who believe Australia was colonised, or at least visited, by Egyptian sailors prior to European settlement.
The Ptolemaic coin was found three inches underground in thick far north Queensland rainforest. (Tony Allan)
“Given that the Djabugay people and the Yirrganydji people who’s land the coin was found have no oral records of Egyptian people, and given that if there was a colony the only thing they left behind was a coin, that sounds a little bit far fetched,” Mr Phoenix said.
He said the area that Henderson found the coin was along an Aboriginal track so it could have been dropped by a Aboriginal person.
“But how an Aboriginal person got the coin is again interesting, it’s either going to have come through from Papua New Guinea and traded through the Torres Strait or traded through another part of Australia,” he said.
“But again, what would an Aboriginal person have been carting a lump of bronze around for?”
Among the most probable of theories is that the coin dropped out of a miner’s pack as they walked along the Aboriginal trail on the way to the Hodgkinson gold fields west of Cairns.
Late 19th Century miners often carried mementos or trinkets, including ancient coins, with them when they emigrated to Australia. (State Library WA: JJ Dwyer)
“The Macalister Range and surrounding mountains were very quiet in terms of European occupation up until 1876,” Mr Phoenix said.
“Then when gold was found thousands of people came here from all around the world, it was a really multicultural affair in Cairns and people may have carried coins like this as trinkets and souvenirs.”
Dr Connor said of all the theories around the discovery of the Ptolemaic coin in far north Queensland, it being dropped by a miner was the most plausible.
“We know conclusively that this is the sort of thing that people would bring with them when they emigrated to Australia in the 19th Century,” Dr Connor said.
“These sorts of things were a way, in the 19th Century, to be able to demonstrate your refinement or your culture.
“Especially for people who were working on digging metals out the earth to be looking at the fruits of that labour from 2,200 years ago.”