Kilwa Coins: The Mysterious Ancient African Coins 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.

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Copper alloy coin, with Arabic calligraphic rhyming inscription about Kilwa Sultan.
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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. Historian, Mike Hermes, who found the coin is quoted by The Guardian as claiming it, “could change everything”.

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.

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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 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. When the coin was first uncovered in 2018, the Xinhua news network reported that ‘the coin has now been sent to Canberra where testing will confirm its origin’. This testing was unable to identify the coin, but 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’.

The Guardian quotes Hermes:

“Kilwa coins have only been found in Kilwa, the Arabian peninsula and the Wessel Islands. It’s a puzzling distribution…”

Puzzling indeed, and if the coins are from an ancient voyage, it could indicate interaction between Indigenous Australians and Kilwa traders.

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

Convinced this coin will turn out to be one of the Kilwa coins, adding weight to the argument for the earliest known visitation to the northern coast of Australia, in April 2019, Mr Owens requested CT scanning at the I-Med radiology clinic in Darwin. I-Med’s chief radiolographer was pessimistic about the procedure, giving it “0% chance of working “ due to the degradation of the coin. And unfortunately he was right. No details were visible on the coin, which appeared on the scan as merely a ‘black blob’. It seems obtaining a positive identification of the coin as Kilwa remains elusive.

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.

In April 2019, Mike Hermes took the coin to the I-Med readiology clinic in Darwin for further examination in order to try to get a positive eaxmination of the copper coin.

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.