Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Reflections on the life of John Mulvaney

The death of Professor John Mulvaney on 21 September 2016 placed a full stop on a remarkable career and, in a way, the end of an era. John Mulvaney was as the first university-trained prehistorian to make Australia his subject and has been justly described as the ‘Father of Australian Archaeology’.

I met Professor John Mulvaney just once, at an ANZAAS conference in Canberra. I remember his infectious smile, the way he cocked his head.

This was a fun conference, a real experience. I was a nineteen year old university student who had been interested in Australian prehistory by Isabel McBryde. Isabel had studied under John Mulvaney at Melbourne and was one of his protégés.

I had come to the conference almost by accident because we were staying in Canberra, allowing me to go. This was an exciting time to be involved in Australian prehistory. Everything was new, the first drawing back of the veil over the deep history of Australia’s Aboriginal peoples.

This was the conference at which Alexander Gallus presented his results on Koonalda Cave. I remember the scepticism about those results, the discussion over coffee at the breaks. In the end, Koonalda Cave would prove to be as important as Gallus suggested, but that was certainly not clear at the time.

Derek John Mulvaney was born at Yarram, South Gippsland in 1925. One of five children, his Irish born father was a teacher with the family moving around country Victoria to various schools and eventually to Frankston.

After completing year 11 at Frankston High School, John became a trainee teacher but quickly realised that this path was not for him. In 1943, the eighteen year old joined the RAAF as a navigator. He was sent to Canada for training and then posted to England in September 1944. 1944. During his days off he toured the English countryside, creating an interest in history. Apparently, it was his visit to the megalithic standing stones called ‘the Consuls’ that sparked his particular interest in prehistory. I was curious, but was not able to identify those particular standing stones in a short web search.

The War ended before John entered active service. Late in 1945, he returned to Australia, enrolling at Melbourne University as an honours student in history. The course was funded by the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme, a scheme that would have a considerable impact on Australian intellectual life.

At Melbourne, John studied Roman History under John O’Brian. There were just six in the class.
In 1949 he was appointed tutor in ancient history at Melbourne, enrolling in an MA. Twelve months later he submitted his thesis on ‘State and Society in Britain at the time of Roman conquest’.

Reflecting on this early history, I was struck by the timing of it all. By the time John was 25, he had started as a trainee teacher, served in the war, completed his first degree, worked as a tutor and then completed an MA. That’s not bad going! John was always an organised man!

John’s experiences as well has his study of ancient Britain had aroused an interest not just in archaeology, but in the possibilities of Australian archaeology. He applied for an Australian National University post-graduate scholarship. His application contained an unusual request: he asked to use the graduate scholarship to enroll in undergraduate study, in Paleolithic archaeology, at Cambridge University. Reflecting the influence of Grahame Clark and his colleagues, Cambridge was one of few university centers interested in archaeology beyond the Old WorId. It was, John argued, essential for him to train as an archaeologist and this required undergraduate studies in prehistory at Cambridge University.

His application was accepted, and in September 1951, full of enthusiasm, John became an undergraduate student at Clare College. Given that he already had two degrees at honours level, he did not have to complete the first part of the undergraduate course but was allowed to complete the remaining course over two years.

While John would later be critical of what he saw as Clarke’s imperial tendencies and indeed of the Cambridge school as a whole, that period in England was (to use his own words) a “Golden Age.” Upon arrival, John went to see Grahame Clark who was to be his first Supervisor. Clarke told him that, in addition to himself, John must go to a young man named Charles McBurney, who was the real Stone Age authority. John hadn’t heard of McBurney, but would learn much from him.

The then level of staff student interaction is hard to imagine today. For his two years at Cambridge, John was supervised every week by McBurney and also by Clarke until Clarke was appointed professor. Then Clarke’s place was taken by Glyn Daniel, so throughout his two years, John had contact every week with two academic supervisors.

Over the two years, John studied stone tools and took part in his first archaeological digs – in England and Ireland, Denmark, and in Cyrenaica, Libya. The Libyan dig was especially important, for it introduced John to the application of rigorous excavation techniques that he would later use in Australia and teach to his students, including Isabel McBryde.

Early in 1952, McBurney invited John to join his party to go to Libya to dig at the Haua Fteah, the enormous cave where McBurney had dug a trial trench the previous season. This was clearly an adventure for John. In June 1952, they drove across France to Marseilles, went by sea to Tunis and then drove across North Africa to Apollonia near where the site was located. There was a British army base at Apollonia. That proved fortunate, for John collected two serious infections, both requiring hospitalisation at the base hospital. 

Archaeology is about precision and preservation. Charles McBurney had developed techniques to excavate deep sites; the year John was there they got down to 27 feet. McBurney used sieves suspended on stands that he developed and he sorted material separately according to stone, bone, shell, keeping them separate. These were techniques that we used under Isabel’s guidance sixteen years later, using tweezers to pick up pieces of bone or charcoal so that they would not be contaminated and could be properly bagged for later examination by a subject specialist.

John was also exposed to the very early days of carbon dating, something that would be absolutely critical for him a little while later in establishing the antiquity of Aboriginal occupation of Australia.

In September following his graduation, John met and became engaged to Jean Campbell. At this point, John might have stayed on at Cambridge for a period or, alternatively, gone to Auckland as Professor of Archaeology, a move suggested by Clarke. However, while visiting friends in the north of England there was a car crash that badly injured Jean and also placed John in hospital. Coming out of hospital, he found a message from his parents that his father was dying. So the couple abandoned all other plans and returned to Australia, marrying after their return.

John was offered a position at Melbourne University teaching Ancient History. He was now teaching with his former teacher and mentor John O’Brian. Inevitably, his teaching soon extended to prehistory and archaeology. In 1957, John was allowed to introduce a fourth-year Honours history option to undergraduates, a course called Pacific Prehistory. This was the first course taught anywhere in Australia on the prehistory of our region. So little was known about Australia that Polynesia was taken as the main field, with Australian material added as the years passed.

In 1956, John began his journey into Australian prehistory by excavating a limestone rockshelter at Fromm’s Landing on the Murray River, a dig that continued into the early 1960s. Radio carbon dates from the site, John’s first, suggested that the site had been occupied for almost 5,000 years. At Fromm’s Landing, John discovered the skeleton of a dingo, the tooth of a Tasmanian tiger and the highest flood in the history of the Murray River, all about 3,000 years ago.

John’s Cambridge experience had already convinced him of the importance of interdisciplinary studies. So at Fromm’s Landing he worked with geomorphologists. He also took a palynologist, Sadly, no pollen was discovered in the deposit. 

John’s second excavation was also a limestone rockshelter, this time at Glen Aire on Cape Otway. This was Isabel McBryde’s first fieldwork experience.

John’s third excavation, at Kenniff Cave in Queensland, began in 1960. In 1962 he received a telegram from his wife, giving him the first carbon dates from the site. The oldest was 16,000 years. John thought there must have been a mistake and telegrammed back. The date was indeed 16,000 years. With that one date, the antiquity of Aboriginal occupation of Australia had been pushed back many thousands of years into the Pleistocene era.

Here we need to reflect on the state of prehistory globally and especially in Australia at the time.

Globally, the study of prehistory was in many ways still in its infancy. To a continuing degree, archaeology was dominated by the romance of the Classical World. In Australia, those few interested in Australian prehistory had come primarily from museum backgrounds.

In 1960 the University of New England was the first to appoint a tenured staff member, Isabel McBryde, carrying prehistory in her job title and was, I think, the first Australian university to require the study of prehistory as an element in in the introductory history course. In 1966, UNE was also the first to introduce an Australian prehistory course at honours level.

I enrolled in History I at UNE in 1963. Even then, there were very few textbooks. Further, those we had had a distinctly European flavour. By 1996 when I enrolled in honours, the frontiers were already being pushed back. Here there were two distinctive features in Isabel’s archaeological work, both reflecting John Mulvaney’s influence. The first was a focus on developing a regional cultural sequence, on exploring Australian prehistory, Aboriginal history, within the confines of a reasonably broadly defined but still geographically contained region. The second was the importance placed upon the ethnographic record as a way of examining patterns of Aboriginal life that might then inform the archaeological record. It was an exciting time. 

In 1965 John was appointed to a position at the Australian National University in the Research School of Pacific Studies, allowing him to work full-time for the first time as a research worker in the Australian region.

At ANU, John became increasingly involved with Jim Bowler (a geomorphologist from Melbourne University) and Rhys Jones (an ANU prehistorian newly appointed by Jack Golson.

In 1969, Jim Bowler persuaded John and Rhys Jones to take part in a field trip to Lake Mungo, in western NSW, one of the dry-lake beds in the Willandra Lakes complex, surveyed and named previously by Bowler. This visit set in train the most important archaeological discoveries in Australia, or perhaps anywhere in the world, to that time. The first samples of charcoal and burnt bones included material dated to 26,000 years before the present, the earliest evidence for human cremation. Another burial site located by Jim Bowler was an inhumation, ritually covered with red ochre, was older still. These were the most remote Paleolithic remains of Homo sapiens discovered to that point, placing Australian Aborigines at the very end, in time and place, of the human diaspora out of Africa. In 1981, John had the honour of introducing the nomination of the Willandra Lakes as a world heritage site, at a World Heritage Committee meeting.

In the midst of his other work, John found time to complete and publish The Prehistory of Australia in 1969. This book has now seen three editions (the most recent with Jo Kamminga as co-author in 1999 involved a total revision) and remains a classic.

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. In addition to a busy archaeological life life, he became involved almost inevitably in related public activities.

In the 1960s, John along with Jack Golson and Isabel MvBryde campaigned for legislation to protect Aboriginal sites, including organising a major conference on the requirements for site legislation. Between 1965 and 1975, every state in Australia introduced some kind of legislation to protect Aboriginal sites. He was involved in the formation of the Australian (now Australian and Torres Strait Islander) Institute of Aboriginal Studies, being an executive member between 1964-80 and then its chair in 1982-84. He was also involved in organising the first meeting of the Australian Archaeological Association.

John became a leading light in bridging the gap between the public and academia, actively campaigning on pubic issues, including the struggle to save the Franklin River and its Aboriginal heritage. He became a foundation member of the Australian Heritage Commission in 1976, remaining a member until 1982, and member of the Committee of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections 1974-75, the body which recommended establishment of the National Museum of Australia. It would be 20 years before this recommendation would be acted on and even then its details were largely ignored. John was also involved in the formulation of the Burra Charter (1979) and was 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. latter

John’s 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 (Melbourne University Press 1996).
In the late 1970s, the ANU decided to include anthropology alongside prehistory in John’s Department. High student interest led to the appointment of another professor. Differences in approach created difficulties for John.  Partly for that reason, partly to open his post to a younger prehistorian, he decided to ease into an early ‘retirement’ in 1985 aged 60, being inscribed as Professor Emeritus at ANU the following year. 

‘Retirement’ is in inverted commas since John remained as active as ever. He became Honorary Secretary of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, and Chair of the ACT Heritage Committee, while the following two decades became a golden age of writing and publishing. During this period John wrote, coauthored or edited 16 books, including his autobiography. 

Over his long career, John received many awards including .a CMG (Companion in The Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George) in 1982, an Order of Australia (Australia’s highest Order) in 1991, the Graham Clark Medal by the British Academy in 1999 and the Rhys Jones Medal from the Australian Archaeological Association in 2004.

Reflecting on the changes that had taken place over his long professional and public career, John suspected in 2000 that that there might not be another general prehistory of Australia. So much had been discovered that it was very difficult now to cover it in one book within the space limits set by publishers. Instead, it would now be possible and indeed more sensible to write specific regional histories. In a sense, that was almost a reversion to the position he had held in the 1960s on the need to develop regional cultural sequences instead of trying to create generic sequences that may or may not hold in individual areas.

He also mused on the changes that had taken place in the disciplines of archaeology and prehistory, at the way multi-disciplinary science had pushed out the boundaries of what could be learned. They have indeed been truly remarkable. This links to another element in John’s various reflections.

When he first became interested in Australian prehistory and indeed for many years after, he had not met any Aboriginal people. He was 35 before he saw his first Aboriginal people on his first trip to Kenniff Cave in 1960 and then met many after he started field work in the Northern Territory from 1963 on. He was not aware of the extent of continuing knowledge among Aboriginal people. He was alerted to this partly by the anthropological studies, partly through increasing contact. In 2000, he said: “I suppose in my own career I went from this ‘I was a Stone Age archaeologist, I wasn’t dealing with the living’ till I started meeting living people and giving greater and greater credit to work of Donald Thomson (Australian anthropologist), work like that.”

I could identify with that. While I was doing my honours thesis on the economic structure of Aboriginal life in Northern New South Wales at the time of European intrusion, I read Malcolm Calley's PhD thesis on Bandjalang Social Organisation with fascination. My thesis was a study in ethnohistory, using historical records to try to understand the economic structure of aboriginal life. At the time I was writing there was great suspicion among historians about the role of oral history and tradition as an evidence source. There was also a view that the Aborigines of Eastern Australia were too far removed from their tribal past for current memories to be a valid guide to traditional life. To me, the striking thing about Malcolm's thesis was the way it demonstrated that oral tradition was still in fact worthy of study as a way of understanding present and past Aboriginal life.

John became involved not just in the study of the Aboriginal past but in giving Aboriginal access to that past, in involving them, recognising their continuing history and contribution. Among other things, he played an important role in the transformation of the Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies into an Indigenous controlled institution, as well as campaigning for protection of indigenous sites.

By 1999, John was worried about balance, concerned that the pendulum had swung to the point that policies and processes were actively impeding the study of Aboriginal history. The consent requirements for digs, for example, imposed financial and time costs on honours or higher degree students that many students could not afford, reducing the numbers of those interested in Aboriginal history. As another example, the reburial of remains has the effect of destroying their archaeological value, including the possibility of using new scientific techniques to extend our knowledge.

Perhaps ironically, the work that John and others did to protect Aboriginal sites has led to an explosion in certain aspects of Australian archaeology and especially the need to carry out investigations in advance of development activities. This has created jobs for John’s students. I say ironically because so much Australian archaeology is now carried out on a fee for service basis without peer review or indeed the results being easily available. Meantime, and I find this sad, Australian prehistory seems to have dropped behind studies elsewhere. I still remember my astonishment at visiting the Danish National Museum last year at just how much was now known about Danish prehistory as compared to Australian. .

In 2004, Jean Mulvaney died after heart surgery. She was 81, a little older than John. They had brought up six children in the home in Yarralumla which John and Jean established when they moved to ANU from Melbourne. Because my focus was on John, I haven’t said much about Jean. She was clearly a remarkable person in her own right, you will find details given under sources below, and the couple formed a very real partnership. 

In 2006 John married again, historian Liz Morrison. John and Liz continued to live in the Yarralumla home John and Jean had established. John continued his work until his death  plus the gardening that had been his primary leisure activity..

Australian Archaeological Association Award of the Rhys Jones Medal 2004 https://www.australianarchaeologicalassociation.com.au/awards/rhys-jones-medal/john-John/
In 2000,John was interviewed by Pamela-Jane Smith as part of the Personal Histories Project. A full transcript of that interview can be found at http://www.arch.cam.ac.uk/JohnTranscript
John Mulvaney & Johan Kamminga, Prehistory of Australia, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 1999
The Australian Women’s Register, Mulvaney, Jean (1923 - 2004), http://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs/AWE4884b.htm

Below is the YouTube video of John's 2010 ANU interview