The Wessel Coins #1: Morry Isenberg’s Discovery July 14, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback
28 February 2013 the Indiana-University-Purdue-University sent out a press release announcing modestly: ‘IUPUI led expedition seeks source of thousand-year-old coins in Aboriginal Australia’. Nothing to see, move on? Well, it took the world’s press some time to catch on, the real interest only came in May. But, of course, ‘thousand’ year old coins in Australia were news, for the simple reason that Aborigines didn’t mint a thing. So what was alleged and what had been found? Does Australian history need to be rewritten, as many articles on the subject boldly claim? How excited should we be about the expedition (under the leadership of one Professor Ian McIntosh) to the Wessel Islands, an expedition which is presently underway? What follows is the first of a series of posts on the Wessel coins. In future posts we will look at the coins themselves, their provenance, internet myths about the same, the treasure cave (!), the Wessel Islands, Professor McIntosh’s expedition and some tentative explanations. However, for now let’s concentrate on the hero of the story Morry Isenberg (aka ‘Maurie Isenberg’, we prefer the spelling associated with an interview with Morry’s son, Norman, let’s hope the journalist got it right).
The story begins, in a very real sense, on 19 February 1942, a black day for Australia. At around 10.00 AM on the nineteenth, almost two hundred and fifty Japanese aircraft swept down on Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory. The damage caused was serious – more bombs were dropped on Darwin than on Pearl Harbor – and Australia realized that it would have to take steps to better guard its northern shores from enemy raids. Radar facilities particularly were improved and now enter left stage Morry Isenberg. In later life MI would become the proud owner of a lawn-mower shop in Bondi: he passed in 1991. However, in 1944 (and earlier?) he found himself manning a RAAF radar station on Marchinbar Island, in the Wessels, to the north of continental Australia.
The story of the coins needs to be pieced together from various, frequently contradictory sources. And if Norman Isenberg (Lane Cove in Sydney) or any other member of Morry’s family would like to write in we’d gladly put up the fullest possible version now or far in the future on their terms: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com However, this, for now, is the best we can do with the sources at our disposal.
Morry used to relax on a beach on Marchinbar in Jensen Bay. While fishing on this beach Morry found nine coins. Many of the reports of the discovery have suggested that Morry came across a cache, with associated picturesque details. This crucial point needs to be further explored, but the most reliable account suggests, instead, that Morry found the coins here and there, singly or in small groups in the sand, perhaps over several weeks. Note that we are going to deal with the coins themselves in a future post so no distracting numismatic details here.
Morry, in any case, put the coins that he found aside. The ‘facts’ that follow easily mesh together and chronology is not clear, but again this is the best we’ve been able to do with the information available. First, at some point – while on Marchinbar, when back home, three decades later? – Morry put the coins in a tobacco box. The coins were in this tobacco box, in any case, in 1979, when Morry decided that he wanted to know more.
Second, Morry marked the beach where he had found the coins on a map. Many news reports this spring, including the IUPUI press release, which might be the culprit, claim that Morry marked the place ‘with a cross’, something which practically says ‘Treasure Island’. However, Norman, Morry’s son is adamant that this was not the case: ‘there are certain areas circled in red ink and pencil. I don’t have a cross anywhere. Where that cross came from, I haven’t the foggiest.’ Another report claims that one William Mira who worked for the Mint Museum (see below) in the mid 1980s asked IM to put a cross on a map. Mira, by the same account, passed on the map to Prof McIntosh. It sounds like there are two maps, then, or two different versions of the same map? Norman, meanwhile, states that the map had been given to his father ‘by a civilian coastwatcher’. It was not, as some have reported, ‘hand-drawn’.
What is certain is that in, 1979, Morry decided to find out more. Someone may have told him that any pre-eighteenth-century coins from the Wessel Islands would be extraordinary in historical terms. Alternatively, he may have thought that he might be sitting on something of value. Who wouldn’t be curious about those bits of copper in an old backy box dating back to those distant months in the war? Note that 1979 is specific but no report explains just what Monty did then, only that he sought expert advice. We know that he went at some stage (in 1979?) to a coin dealer and that the dealer said (correctly) that the coins had practically no intrinsic value. We also know that MI donated the coins to the Mint Museum in Sydney. He did so in the early 1980s. Frustratingly, we can’t be more exact. The website of the Powerhouse Museum – the Mint Museum has since closed – states that a report was, according to their very detailed site, written in 1982. Conceivably, there was a period of discussion before the coins were donated to the Mint Museum? On the Powerhouse site there is also reference to ‘documentation’. If any reader is in Sydney and has a spare afternoon…
Two further important events took place in the years that followed. First, April 1986, the Australian Coin Review published an article entitled ‘Who Did Discover Australia?’, which details the Wessel coins. If anyone had a copy of this or if you can get your hands on it please send it in. Second, in the last year, Professor McIntosh, the leader of the expedition presently on the Wessel Islands, has placed an article ‘Life and Death on the Wessel Islands: The Case of Australia’s Mysterious African Coin Cache’ in Australian Folklore. Beach cannot wait to read this. He’s particularly intrigued by the venue.
Stepping back from this mess of details what impressions should we take away? In these cases, there is always the question of honesty and accuracy. Was this perhaps a practical joke that got out of hand, something that has been alleged for the Maine Penny, for example? Professor
Isenberg (D’oh, McIntocsh) seems a careful cove and he will certainly have asked himself this before he undertook a full-blown expedition. The expedition went ahead and there has not been a whisper in any of the reports suggesting that the finds should be questioned: though there will certainly be some coin experts cranking their crossbows up. Nor do Morry’s acts suggest someone out for a laugh. The gap between discovery (or ‘alleged discovery’ if we want to be chary) and renewed interest in 1979 is not particularly compatible with a joke. In the paragraphs above we have avoided any discussion of the coins themselves but one curious point is that they are two separate classes of coins separated by perhaps seven hundred years. Now that, by any standards, is strange (another day, another post)! It is possible that someone played a joke on Morry? How could this even have been done, memories of mad Halliday? It would be useful to know more about Marchinbar, 1944.