Rhys Jones Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Australian Archaeology 2013

Richard Wright

The Rhys Jones Medal for 2013 was awarded to Professor Richard Wright.

Richard Wright remains an active member of the Australian archaeological community despite his retirement almost 20 years ago.  In 19Richard Wright60/61 Richard became the first archaeologist appointed to an academic position in Australian archaeology at an Australian university.  He has influenced immeasurably the development of archaeology in Australia, having taught or worked with the majority of Australia’s ‘elders’ of archaeology.  He has been a dedicated teacher for many decades, supervising and guiding two generations of university graduates.

Richard has undertaken a range of research projects in Australia and overseas.  One of his earliest excavations was his pioneering investigations at Koonalda Cave in South Australia to demonstrate that, during the Pleistocene, Aboriginal people exploited a range of resource areas and environments and produced some of the earliest art in the world.  His excavations at Lancefield Swamp and on the Liverpool Plains investigated the role of humans in megafaunal extinctions.  His excavations provided the context for more recent research which has supported Richard’s findings that the relationship between people and megafauna was complex.

Richard took a number of students with him into the field on all these projects.  Although this is now commonplace, at the time Richard first did this, it was somewhat unusual.  Richard also brought his family on many of these excavations.  His wife Sonia was his constant companion, collaborator and research partner.  Sonia passed away earlier this year after a long battle with Motor Neuron Disease.

Internationally, Richard worked on several significant projects.  His work with primates, teaching them to use stone tools, demonstrated that early forms of humans could have used tools, including stone artefacts.  But his enduring legacy lies in his forensic analyses of mass grave sites.

Richard was invited by the United Nations to undertake the world’s first archaeologically directed investigation of mass grave sites in Bosnia; his exemplary work there provided the globally adopted template for mass graves investigations ever since.  This work is unpleasant, dangerous and emotionally and technically difficult, yet Richard has conducted this task with sensitivity, professionalism, and high ethical and moral standards.  Richard’s work in the field of forensic archaeology is testimony to his commitment to human rights and the role of archaeology in social justice.  Recently Richard participated in the retrieval of the remains of World War I Australian soldiers at Fromelles in France.  One role that developed for Richard was to help resolve serious controversies that arose in the Australian media during excavation. He did this with his usual firm, confident, yet calm manner of going about things.

Richard Wright is an eminent archaeologist, both in Australia and internationally; he is a dedicated teacher, a humanitarian and an old-fashioned gentleman.  He is indeed a worthy recipient of the 2013 Rhys Jones Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Archaeology.