I ONCE GOT STUCK out in the middle of the Great Victoria Desert north of Maralinga in central Australia when a power grid, represented by the lines of standing stones that I had come to survey, overnight sucked the juice out of both batteries in my diesel Landcruiser.
According to thewriter and airline pilot Bruce Cathie the stones had been set up by Roman legionnaires transported to the site by aliens in flying saucers.
The police from Coober Pedy who rescued me (there was just enough juice in the batteries to raise them by radio) told me about other strange things they’d heard about in the desert, including ancient Dutch settlements and even more ancient Chinese ones.
There seems to be a plethora of this stuff in Australia. I’ve heard about stone harbours in Queensland built by ancient Phoenician seafarers but I’ve never heard about similar things in Papua New Guinea. At least not until I read Gordon Saville’s 1974 book, ‘King’ of Kiriwina (Leo Cooper Ltd, London).
Saville was a quixotic Englishman who spent nine months on Kiriwina in 1943 as the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU) kiap.
He was there when the Yanks landed in June of that year to build the airfields and base that changed Trobriand life forever. As he points out, it is ironic that by the time the massive base was fully operational the war had moved on and it was obsolete.
The Americans landed unannounced in the middle of the night at low tide during a tropical downpour and got hung up on the reef until dawn. Luckily no stray Japanese aircraft noticed what they were doing.
During his stay, Sergeant Saville patrolled the island and some of its coral-fringed satellites. On one patrol down the coast to Sinakata he was shown something that might qualify as an ancient mystery. I’ll let him explain. He was following some village guides.
They came to a clearing in the bush on the edge of the mangrove swamp, gloomy and evil-smelling, screened with shadows, pierced by shafts of sunlight. There were derelict remains of an old village in the clearing and the ruined huts were built of a sort of stone. They were the first stone buildings I had seen on Kiriwina. All the huts and yam houses I had examined until then were entirely built of mangrove wood and sago leaves.
In the centre of the ruins there were the remains of an exceptionally large building. The roof and walls had fallen but the wall at one end was almost intact, and rose to the prodigious height of about forty feet. It was a Gothic-like structure made of some sort of coral cement, since there were no stones or chunks of coral of that size on the island. All around the enigmatic erection were the ruins of smaller coral huts. I searched through the rubble, rubbed at the structure to see what it was made of and concluded that it must have been built of coral carried from the lagoon and mixed with an adhesive into a kind of mortar.
I was puzzled and excited, and only wished that I had a camera with me. The natives were pleased with the effect of their secret and said they had something else to show me. Further through the bush skirting the lagoon we came to another clearing. Here there was another cluster of slabs, also made of thick coral concrete lying on the ground, and looking uncommonly like a neglected suburban graveyard in England. Who built these structures and what were they used for? The natives chorused that nobody knew. They had always been there, for as long as the oldest inhabitant could remember or the stories that his grandparents said they had heard from their grandparents.
…. I told Waru (the station interpreter) to ask whether they would dig under one of the slabs of coral to see what lay underneath, busily imagining treasure that might be hidden there. The natives were not offended by the suggestion. The place was not taboo or sacred for them, just mysterious. So they levered one of the slabs aside and dug down, entering into the spirit of a treasure hunt. At a depth of about four feet they scrabbled into a layer of silver sand. The boys shovelled the sand away with their hands and disclosed a human skeleton lying on its side, folded up in the foetal position. Evidently the body had been carefully buried in a layer of sand brought from the beach. The skeleton was intact and very small; the complete grave was no more than four feet long.
Urged on by me, the natives exhumed another skeleton buried in exactly the same way under a slab on the other side of the clearing. They had no explanation of what these burials meant . . . . What the origin of this strange site may be remains a mystery.
I haven’t yet found an explanation for Sergeant Saville’s ‘discovery’ but it would be interesting to know whether the place is still there. Saville and his helpers carefully reburied the skeletons and replaced the headstones.
Perhaps the Tokwai, the little spirit people who live in the bush, know.