Ancient African Coins Spark Treasure Hunt

The ruins of Kilwa were once part of a glittering trading center on the eastern coast of Africa.
Stefanie van der Vinde/Shutterstock.com

Can a handful of ancient African coins, discovered almost 70 years ago by a lone soldier on a remote island, rewrite history?

A weathered, hand-drawn map, with an "X" marking the spot on the Australian island where the African coins were discovered, might help an international team of researchers, who will travel to the island this summer, answer that question.

The story begins over a thousand years ago, when the city of Kilwa was the richest trading center on the eastern coast of Africa. (In Photos: Amazing Ruins of the Ancient World)

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A bustling harbor, a glittering mosque decorated with Chinese porcelain and the Husuni Kubwa palace (famed for its octagonal swimming pool) made Kilwa a premier destination for wealthy merchants, who traded African gold and ivorty for spices and perfume from the Far East.

A dazzling era ends

But the city's eminence ended when Portuguese traders, intent on controlling commerce throughout the Indian Ocean, sacked the port in the 16th century.

"The Portuguese destroyed Kilwa in the 1500s, burnt it to the ground and looted everything," Ian McIntosh, a professor of anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), told Australian broadcaster ABC.

The deserted, crumbling ruins of Kilwa — now a UNESCO World Heritage site located near Zanzibar in modern-day Tanzania — are all that remains of the city's former splendor.

A handful of coins

Centuries later and thousands of miles away, an Australian soldier named Maurie Isenberg was operating a World War II radar station on one of the uninhabited Wessel Islands off Australia's northern shore, CNN reports.

One day, during his off-hours, Isenberg went fishing down at the remote island's beach, where he discovered a few old, copper coins with exotic markings embedded in the sand. Isenberg tossed the coins in a tin container, where they stayed for decades.

But before he forgot about his discovery, on a map of the island hand-drawn by a fellow soldier, Isenberg drew an "X" showing where he found the coins.

In 1979, Isenberg sent the coins off for appraisal. He was astonished to discover their origin: Four of the coins were from the Dutch East India Company -- a trading company founded by the Dutch in the early 17th century -- and one of those coins dated from the late 1600s, according to CNN. (The 10 Rarest U.S. Coins)

But five of the coins were minted in Kilwa and are believed to be about 1,100 to 1,200 years old (from about A.D. 900), ABC reports.

"It's a very fascinating discovery," McIntosh told CNN. "Kilwa coins have only ever been found outside of the Kilwa region on two occasions.

"A single coin was found in … Zimbabwe, and one coin was found in the Arabian Peninsula, in what is now Oman, but nowhere else," McIntosh said. "And yet, here is this handful of them in northern Australia — this is the astonishing thing."