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Indiana Joan: Meet western Australia’s real-life tomb raider, 95-year-old Joan Howard

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Created on Monday, 06 November 2017 01:07
Last Updated on Monday, 06 November 2017 01:19

The value of Joan Howard's collection of artifacts has appreciated beyond $1m. Photo: 7 News

By Joseph Catanzaro

Deep beneath the badlands of Palestine, alone in a darkened tomb, Joan Howard crawled forward on her stomach in search of lost treasures.

It was the late 1960s, a turbulent time in the Middle East, but the thrill of discovery drove Mrs. Howard deeper into the grave.

Sluggish scorpions scattered and clacked amid the bones of the ancient dead as she scooped artefacts and the detritus of ages into a bucket.

Only when it was full did she inch backwards. Ten meters above her, at the top of a vertical shaft hewn out of the desert bedrock, a colleague began to winch her swaying bucket of artefacts to the surface.

Five decades and thousands of kilometers away from that moment, sitting in the tastefully decorated surrounds of her riverside apartment in Perth this week, Mrs. Howard smiles and hefts a mummy mask pulled from the sucking sands of Egypt on one of her many expeditions.

 

It is one of many artifacts acquired on her adventures, a collection come treasure trove the public has never seen.

Mrs. Howard, 95, is western Australia’s real-life tomb raider. There is a mischievous twinkle in the great-grandmother’s eye as she reveals why she has humbly kept quiet about her derring-do.

“You don’t go round saying ‘I’ve been in a tomb’,” Mrs. Howard said.

A nurse during World War II, she said the catalyst for her adventures was her husband Keith Howard.

In 1950, the young couple were crowned Mrs. and Mrs. Australia.

They appeared on the cover of The West Australian and were darlings of the local and international press.

But it was in 1967, when Mr. Howard was posted to a senior role in the Middle East with the United Nations, that Mrs. Howard was presented with the opportunity to indulge her passion for archaeology.

She volunteered on dig-sites with noted British and American archaeologists excavating the ruins of the Phoenicians in Lebanon, early Christians in Jordan and the Romans before the birth of Christ.

Through her husband’s UN connections, over 11 years she was given carte blanche to travel between Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel.

She used her diplomatic freedom to search for antiquities before laws changed and it became legally difficult to do so.

Among her treasures, a hollowed-out crucifix from the time of Christ, sold to pilgrims of the day with the claim it contained a splinter of the cross on which Jesus was crucified.

She has Neolithic axe heads more than 40,000 years old, pottery and weapons from the Phoenicians and the Romans, coins and seals and jewelry from the time of the pharaohs.

She picks up a funerary mummy mask, tuning it to marvel at the features which once lay across the face of an ancient.

“I think he’s just lovely, man or woman, wonderful,” she said.

One of her favorite pieces is a Roman dagger she found buried with the skeletal remains of its owner.

She gave the skull to the western Australia Museum, one of a handful of pieces she has donated.

She gingerly handles fragments of bandage, all that remains of a mummy’s wrappings, found near one of the great pyramids.

“She would be a poor person, couldn’t afford a tomb or a proper burial, and they buried her in the sand,” Mrs. Howard said.

“She must have been buried with a cat. Because mixed up with the bandages were the tiny claws of a cat.”

Mrs. Howard said the feeling finding a piece of the ancient world and holding a connection to the past is a thrill yet to fade.

“You feel absolute wonder and astonishment. How clever they were — how dedicated they were to the dead, their families, to their own protection,” she said. “It was all good fun. Dirty work, of course. But as it turned out, very, very rewarding.”

And occasionally dangerous, such as the time an unknown sniper took a pot shot at her. “All my hair was burnt off from a bullet that missed me,” she said.

David Burridge, from John Burridge Military Antiques, was introduced to Mrs. Howard when he was a boy looking for someone to translate hieroglyphics. They remain friends.

Although accustomed to valuing artefacts — Mr. Burridge is in awe of Mrs. Howard’s collection, conservatively putting its worth at $1 million.

“She is the female Indiana Jones and we’ve got her (here in western Australia),” he said. “She’s very humble. She doesn’t tell you that she’d go down there with buckets and a torch taped to her head, wading through scorpions.”

Mrs. Howard, whose collection is kept in a secure, third party location in Perth, was coy about what would happen to her ancient wonders when she is gone. “It’s going where it should go,” she said.

She believes a life well lived is her greatest treasure. “Do not go where the path may lead — go instead where there’s no path, and leave a trail.” 

Courtesy; The West Australian