Rhys Jones Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Australian Archaeology 2004

Emeritus Professor John Mulvaney AO CMG (1925-2016)

The Rhys Jones medal is Australian Archaeology’s highest honour, and the presentation to Professor Mulvaney is an acknowledgement of his outstanding contribution to Australian archaeology, to AAA, the academic discipline, and to increasing public awareness of the discipline and the importance of Australia’s cultural heritage.

John Mulvaney was as the first university-trained prehistorian to make Australia his subject, and he has been justly described as the ‘Father of Australian Archaeology’.

John was born in 1925 in Yarram in south Gippsland. His father was a teacher and before the Second World War the family moved around country Victoria, to towns such as Rainbow in the Mallee where his father had been promoted to headmaster of Rainbow Higher Education School (and where John was house captain), and eventually to Frankston near where John was born.

In 1943, when John was 18, he joined the RAAF and was sent to Canada for training. The following year he was posted to England. Fortunately for Australian archaeology, he survived the war. During his military service in England he toured the countryside and visited megalithic standing stones called ‘the Consuls’. It was this particular visit that sparked his interest in prehistory.

On his return to Australia, John enrolled at the University of Melbourne and studied Roman History under John O’Brian – Roman History was a special subject and the class was only six students. In 1949 he was appointed tutor in ancient history by Max Crawford the history professor at the University of Melbourne. He immediately enrolled in an MA and submitted his thesis 12 months later. The topic of his thesis was ‘State and Society in Britain at the time of Roman conquest’. This was a turning point of sorts, because John’s study on ancient Britain had convinced him that Australia must have a significant archaeological record as well. While it seems self evident today, this was not at all the case in 1950.

John next applied for an ANU post-graduate scholarship. In his application he argued that it was essential for him to train as an archaeologist and that he would have to do undergraduate studies in prehistory at Cambridge University. Fortunately, the ANU committee was persuaded, and in 1951 John became an undergraduate student again, this time at Clare College.

At Cambridge John studied stone tools and to gain essential field experience he participated in a number of archaeological excavations in Britain and Ireland. He also toured archaeological sites in Germany and Denmark.

Shortly after his return to Australia, John began lecturing in ancient history at the University of Melbourne, with his former teacher and mentor John O’Brian. One of the courses he taught was the history of archaeology.

By the mid-1950s John had begun his journey into Australian prehistory by excavating a limestone rockshelter at Fromm’s Landing on the Murray River. His labours continued into the early 1960s and included his discovery of what are still the oldest recorded dingo remains in Australia, and evidence of a massive flood of the Murray thousands of years ago. His report on Fromm’s Landing was published a year after he completed his last season of fieldwork – John has always set a standard in the speed in which he brings his research findings into print.

John’s second excavation was also a limestone rockshelter, this time at Glen Aire on Cape Otway. It was Isabel McBryde’s first fieldwork experience – Isabel McBryde was awarded the Rhys Jones medal last year for her own distinguished contribution to Australian archaeology.

John’s third excavation, at Kenniff Cave between 1960 and 1963, pushed back the antiquity of Aboriginal occupation of Australia many thousands of years into the Pleistocene era.

In 1965 John was called to the ANU and within a few short years published his book Prehistory of Australia. This book has now seen three editions (the most recent with Jo Kamminga as co-author in 1999) and was last reprinted only a few months ago.

In 1969, John went with Jim Bowler and Rhys Jones to Lake Mungo to investigate Jim’s discovery of Pleistocene-age artefacts and human remains that were later to be known as ‘Mungo lady’. As with much of John’s work, this expedition is now history. He returned with Jim in 1973 to direct the largest dig ever at Mungo, which revealed a hearth dated to about 31,000 years.

In 1971 John was appointed to the Foundation Chair in Prehistory in the Arts Faculty at the ANU and in the following year introduced Prehistory 1 as an undergraduate subject. He also turned his attention to public issues. He was involved in organising the first meeting of AAA, which will have its 30th anniversary next year.

For many years he was a Commissioner of the Australian Heritage Commission, involved in the formulation of the Burra Charter, and the chief Australian delegate to the inaugural UNESCO meeting in Paris, held to determine the criteria for World Heritage listing. He was instrumental in nominating the Willandra Lakes and Kakadu National Park to the World Heritage list. He served a total of 18 years on the executive of the (then) Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, including a term as Chairperson, and served on the Committee of Inquiry on Museums in 1974–1975 which preceded the establishment of the National Museum of Australia.

John was a leading light in bridging the gap between the public and academia. He actively campaigned on pubic issues, not the least the struggle to save the Franklin River and its Aboriginal heritage, and support for Dawn Casey during her tenure as Director of the National Museum of Australia. In fact, my own introduction to Australian archaeology was at a public meeting at Rockdale Town Hall in 1983 when John came to talk about the archaeology of the Franklin River during the lead up to the election which saw Bob Hawke become Prime Minister. In this brief citation we can only offer glimpses of his many contributions to public debates and to the welfare of the nation. His role as a public intellectual during his long career has been detailed in the book Prehistory to Politics. John Mulvaney, the Humanities and the Public Intellectual edited by Tim Bonahady and Tom Griffiths.

After his formal ‘retirement’ from the ANU in 1985 John said he was leaving the discipline in the hands of younger generations. However, he has maintained an enormous productivity to the benefit of Australian history and prehistory and the study of the humanities in general. He served for many years as Secretary of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, an honorary and unsalaried position which was in every sense was a full-time appointment, and testimony to his considerable energy.

He has continued to write, coauthor and edit books, including, in 1992 Commandant of Solitude (The journals of Captain Collet Barker), in 1997 ‘My Dear Spencer. The letters of F.J. Gillen to Baldwin Spencer’, the third revised and enlarged edition of ‘ Prehistory of Australia’, and as recently as this year ‘Paddy Cahill of Oenpelli’.

The Rhys Jones Medal is not John Mulvaney’s first award for his distinguished and lasting contributions to Aboriginal studies and the discipline of prehistory. In 1970, John was awarded a PhD by Cambridge University; in 1982 a CMG (Companion in The Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George); in 1991 an Order of Australia (Australia’s highest Order), and in 1999 the Graham Clark Medal by the British Academy.

In awarding the Rhys Jones Medal to John Mulvaney, the AAA acknowledges his pioneering spirit, his distinguished and sustained achievements in Australian prehistory, his fostering of the discipline in Australia and mentoring of so many young archaeologists, including those who themselves have attained distinction, and more, his inspiration, dedication, integrity, and exceptional professionalism.