08 Aug 2013

Metal detectors used to help solve ancient coin mystery

Bob with CTX 3030

A team of heritage professionals, led by heritage consultant Mike Owen and Ian McIntosh, a Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University in the US, has recently returned from a six day trip to investigate the story of Morry Isenberg and his discovery of Kilwa coins in World War two.

The team, known as the Past Masters ventured to Marchinbar Island in the Wessel Group off the coast of Australia's Northern Territory where Isenberg found the medieval era African coins in 1944 while taking time off from his role as a radar operator to go fishing.

The coins came from a once important trading port near Tanzania in Africa and a number of more modern VOC Dutch coins were also found. VOC stands for the Dutch translation of the Dutch East India Trading Company.

Since the story of the coins has been revealed, numerous theories have been proposed to explain how they arrived on Marchinbar Island and the scientific expedition hoped to find out more about Isenberg's discovery.

Whilst at the site, the team used the latest in metal detecting technology supplied by Minelab Electronics, to look for additional coins. Although none were found, the team located other metal objects close to the coin site which are currently undergoing analysis. Preliminary interpretation of these objects suggests there is a shipwreck in the area.

The metal detecting survey and reconnaissance also revealed another puzzle for the team.

 "Hundreds of .303 rounds had exploded without being fired", says the detecting team leader. "The primers were intact but the cases had exploded and the projectiles were found loose nearby. It appears the Australian troops destroyed their ammunition rather than taking it from the island at the end of the war."

The metal detecting component of the team was led by archaeologist and heritage detectorist Bob Sheppard from Heritage Detection Australia who was sponsored by Minelab. Bob has been applying metal detection to archaeological sites since 1987.

"As well as possible shipwreck material we found hundreds of bullets around the location where Isenberg operated" says Bob. "Of special interest was a .55 calibre cartridge for a anti-tank rifle which indicated the Australian troops on the Island were expecting to engage with heavily armoured Japanese units, or even submarines or float planes."

Japanese planes sunk a number of vessels near Marchinbar Island.

The discovery of numerous military encampments on Marchinbar Island and the associated cultural material shows just how precarious Australia's position was in World War Two.

"As I was recording a number of the sites we located it was clear to me that if the Japanese had attacked Marchinbar the Australians would have had to rely heavily on the knowledge and bush skills of the indigenous population to survive", says Bob.

The camps were located where there were panoramic views of the ocean but not far from mangrove thickets where the coast watchers could hide if attacked.

"Not that this would have been a pleasant option for there is plenty of evidence of crocodiles on the island."

The Past Masters team is looking forward to working with local communities in the future to discover more about the history and heritage of the region and eventually solve the mystery of the Marchinbar coins.

Media enquiries to:

Mike Owen or

Bob Sheppard

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