Two West Australian men, while exploring the state’s north coast with a metal detector, have discovered a bronze Buddha figurine that could date back to the early Ming Dynasty.
If authenticated, the infant Buddha will be of high value and potentially historically significant if its arrival on the coast could be shown to predate the first European visits to Australia’s western coast.
Leon Deschamps and Shayne Thomson together run Finn Films, a company specialising in aquatic filming in the north coastal region, and are working with documentary filmmakers from France’s Nicolas Baudin Institute to shoot a recreation of the French voyage to Australia in 1800-1804 during the reign of Napoleon.
The documentary will include the exploration of the Gascoyne region by Nicolas Baudin, Jacques Hamelin and Francois Peron, and feature a treasure hunt for scientific equipment believed to have been left in the area.
Mr Deschamps and Mr Thomson, recently doing practice runs in beach areas with metal detectors to prepare for filming, didn’t expect to find even Napoleonic treasure, let alone potentially ancient Chinese treasure.
“There are lots of protocols important to know if you are treasure hunting — it has its own ethics and is regulated heavily,” Mr Deschamps said.
“You can’t just metal detect on beaches, national parks or private property; it’s only really public land.
“We were just searching in spots where we knew we could operate and not where we knew the crew would be going. We were just crossing off the least likely spots.
“We’d been digging up beer cans forever and were ready to knock off when Shayne got a big signal on his metal detector about something large, close to the surface. So we set up the cameras and the GPS marking to record it.”
At first, he said, what they were digging up looked something like a gold Lindt Easter bunny. They paused and took more photos as it became obvious they weren’t digging up a rabbit.
“It was a beautiful pair of buttocks we unearthed,” Mr Deschamps said.
“We brushed the sand away and had a giggle; we thought it might have been a 1950s art deco candelabra or something. But in another minute of digging we turned up a baby Buddha.”
The figurine appears to be made of gilded bronze and weighs more than a kilogram, despite its small size.
The pair understand it belongs to them, as they were “fossicking” legally in a Main Roads reserve.
While there is provision at a federal level for objects of ‘exceptional cultural value’ to be appropriated by the government, at the moment it appears that possession is nine-tenths of the law and Mr Deschamps and Mr Thompson are comfortable that they have notified all possible stakeholders in considering what should be done with the object.
They reported the finding to the WA Maritime Museum, sending photographs and high-definition footage.
The Museum, which in such cases is concerned primarily with objects recovered from shipwrecks, suggested they contact WA Chinese community association Chung Wah.
The association’s council of elders put them in touch with the ambassador to China, whose office is making further inquiries. They have also reached out to the Museum of Chinese Australian History.
“We’re just white guy Indiana Jones wannabes but we’ve had a crash course in Buddhism,” Mr Deschamps said.
“We have also showed expert antique dealers who have not hesitated to identify it as early Ming Dynasty, around 1350-1637.
“There are other examples of these from around the world but they are all from later in the Ming Dynasty. This one looks, from its roughness, to be from the early days.”
The most exciting possible explanation for its presence in WA is the potential it is from a 1421 ‘Ming treasure voyage’. This could mean the Chinese visited that region almost 200 years before Dutchman Dirk Hartog landed in 1616.
Museum of Chinese Australian History deputy chairman Mark Wang said Ming Dynasty items were rare.
“If this Buddha is authenticated as Ming Dynasty, that will be pretty special,” he said.
Mr Wang said if it was authenticated and was a Ming, there were two ways it could have arrived.
First, it could indeed have been left by the great Chinese explorer Zheng He, sent afield by the Chinese Emperor to travel the world during the Ming Dynasty.
“He was the earliest great explorer; there weren’t that many people travelling the world in the 15th century,” Mr Wang said.
“He was quite an amazing person, who came back with specimens of animals he saw across the world, like giraffes and rhinoceros.”
Mr Wang said there was conjecture among academics that the Chinese explorer’s written records suggest he visited a great southern land with hopping animals.
“But even if it is authenticated as Ming, it might not necessarily have come here then,” he said.
“A Ming Dynasty object could have also arrived in the last 150 or so years since the Chinese came to [that area], around the 1870s.
“And you can’t say that because it’s here, that a certain course of history took place.
“I do know there’s a lot of excitement about what it could mean, but it is hard to prove unless you proved the dirt or sand around it was from a certain time and how long it had been in the ground … that would be a matter for an archaeologist.”
Mr Deschamps has received informal advice that the general location of the object near the coast, in the vicinity of a pearling camp historically used by Malay/Chinese pearlers, points towards the most likely explanation for its presence; that spirituality and religion was important to South East Asian seafarers and maritime workers, and the Malay/Chinese in the area likely had similar cultural practices.
A Chinese Embassy staff member confirmed they were making inquiries regarding the potential relic.
“We still need more time to deal with it due to the relatively complicated process of authentication,” a spokesperson said.
The year 2018 marked the 200th anniversary of the first recorded Chinese immigrant to Australia and now, more than 1.2 million residents have Chinese ancestry.
The Chinese Museum in Victoria is presently curating the One Million Stories exhibition to celebrate this milestone in Chinese-Australian history.
Mr Deschamps and Mr Thompson have been intentionally vague in describing publicly where they found the statue to discourage treasure-hunting in environmentally sensitive areas.