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View through sacred rocks beyond Dhambala Homeland center, Elcho island.

Long-Sought Ancient African Coin Found in Australia

The tenacity of amateur archaeologists and historians searching on a remote island off the coast of the Northern Territories in Australia seems to have finally paid off. The team has found a small coin that apparently comes from a medieval African city. This is being hailed as a major discovery by the local archaeological community. The find of the coin has once again opened up a debate about the identity of the first foreigners who visited Australia before the arrival of Europeans.

The mystery of Kilwa coins

The coin was discovered on the Wessel island that was the scene of one of the most remarkable archaeological finds in Australian history . In 1944 a member of the RAAF service found a collection of Kilwa coins, possibly the oldest foreign artifacts ever discovered in Australia. Little is known about the exact discovery site but the coins are dated from the Middle Ages, approximately 1400. They were minted in the powerful city of Kilwa, on the East coast of Africa, which was an important Swahili maritime and trade center in the medieval period.

Copper alloy coin, with Arabic calligraphic rhyming inscription about Kilwa Sultan. © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Copper alloy coin, with Arabic calligraphic rhyming inscription about Kilwa Sultan. © The Trustees of the British Museum ( CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 )

The long-sought discovery

The latest Kilwa coin was found on the beach of the remote and uninhabited island of Elcho. This island is one of the Wessel group off the coast of Arnhem Land, called by ABC News ‘one of the remotest areas of the world’. The amateur archaeologists, who call themselves the ‘ Past Masters’ , believed that there were more undiscovered coins in the islands, according to ABC News .  They had searched since 2013 with little luck, until finally, at a location that has been kept secret, they unearthed the illusive supposed medieval coin.

The find was made by research group, the Past Masters. Here Mike Hermes holds the latest coin. (Past Masters)

The find was made by research group, the Past Masters. Here Mike Hermes holds the latest coin. ( Past Masters )

The coin that was found was of the same size as the Kilwa coins that were unearthed in 1944.  The Past Masters believe that the small coin is made of copper and that its color and weight would indicate that it is the same as those found during WWII.  The Xinhua news network reports that ‘the coin has now been sent to Canberra where testing will confirm its origin’. Mike Owens, one of the Past Masters group was quoted by ABC News website, as saying ‘we think this coin is from east Africa because there's nothing else comparable’.

Kilwa sultanate coins. Credit: Powerhouse Museum

Kilwa sultanate coins. Credit: Powerhouse Museum

It has been speculated that the find of the coin together with the discovery from 1944 shows that Makassar traders landed on the Wessel Islands some centuries ago. The islands have watering holes and it is known that the Makassar traders sailed the coasts of Arnhem Land, trading with the local aboriginals, who were greatly influenced by these mariners. There is also the possibility that the coins were brought to the island by Arab traders. An Arab-style dhow was found in Indonesian waters and it is possible that Muslim traders could have visited the Wessel Islands, drawn by its supplies of water.

However, there are those who believe that the finds of the Kilwa coins do not mean that foreign mariners visited the shores of Australia in the middle ages. It is possible that sailors carried the coins to the island or that they were lost off a passing ship in modern times.  There is a suggestion that German sailors traveling to their colony in Papua New Guinea somehow lost the coin and it ended up on the beach in the late 19 th and early twentieth century.

Kilwa coin of Sulaiman ibn al-Hasan. (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Kilwa coin of Sulaiman ibn al-Hasan. ( CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 )

What does it mean?

The copper money was certainly found near the discovery of similar coins and this may offer evidence of contact between Australia and other areas of the world long before the arrival of Europeans. It could support the argument that traders and mariners other than those from Makassar visited the shores of the wild Arnhem Land. The discovery of another medieval Kilwa coin is building on the mystery of how African money came to be on a desolate Australian island.

Top image: View through sacred rocks beyond Dhambala Homeland center, Elcho island. Source: Past Masters

By Ed Whelan

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