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Jones, Rhys (1941–2001)

by Les Hiatt

The Australian archaeologist Rhys Jones died on 19 September after a three-year battle with leukaemia. His intellectual powers remained unimpaired to the end and, in the final weeks he managed to complete two papers in collaboration with his wife Betty Meehan. His death is a grievous loss to Aboriginal studies and world science.

Rhys Jones was born in Wales and spoke Welsh as his mother tongue. In 1959 he won a Trevelyan scholarship to Emmanuel College at Cambridge University, where he studied archaeology under Graham Clarke, Eric Higgs and Charles McBurney. In 1963 he took up an appointment as a Teaching Fellow in the Anthropology Department at Sydney University. Five years later he went to The Australian National University, where he stayed until his retirement in June 2001. He was appointed to a personal Chair in 1993.

Rhys Jones is best known professionally for his research in Tasmania, which confirmed prehistoric continuities with mainland Australia and effectively dispelled speculation about separate origins. The Tasmanians had crossed Bass Strait by land bridge before the end of the last glaciation; and, in Jones's estimation, their long isolation following the rise of sea levels 10,000 years ago had resulted in stagnation and devolution (for example, they lacked fire-making tools).

In 1977 Jones collaborated with filmmaker, Tom Haydon, to produce a documentary, The Last Tasmanian. Although the title (referring to Truganini) provoked an indignant reaction among mixed-race descendants, the film brought home to a world audience the brutality with which the original inhabitants had been exterminated by British colonists. As Jones commented later during the "stolen generations" debate, this really was genocide.

In the early '70s Jones joined Betty Meehan on a remote outstation in Arnhem Land, where she was studying the food-gathering activities of Anbarra women. Through his subsequent association with the Anbarra community, which lasted to the end of his life, his range of interests broadened and his archaeology became increasingly informed by the responses and activities of living people. Over the years (usually with Meehan as co-author) he wrote on diverse topics such as hunting techniques, diet, watercraft, dogs, colour concepts, indigenous science, the outstation movement and Aborigines in the defence of Australia during the Second World War. Probably best known to the general public are his observations on the traditional uses of fire to prevent dangerous conflagrations ("cleaning up country") and as an adjunct to hunting ("firestick farming").

Rhys Jones's professional life coincided with what will surely be seen as the golden age of Australian prehistoric archaeology. In the decade before he arrived it was supposed that Aborigines had been on the continent for perhaps 8,000 years. By the end of the '60s, following the analysis of materials from Lake Mungo in western NSW in which he himself participated, some 30,000 years had been added. By the early 1990s, Jones and his colleagues were claiming an arrival date of 60,000 years ago.

With the great bardic traditions of Wales in his blood, Rhys Jones had a natural talent for theatre and communication. He was without peer in this country as a lecturer able to convey the excitement of archaeological discovery to large audiences; and through his public addresses and television interviews he played a vital role in creating a national consciousness of the antiquity of the Indigenous population, the complexity and sophistication of its adaptation to the Australian continent and the profound tragedy of its displacement, demoralisation and destruction.

In 1996 Rhys Jones held the Visiting Chair of Australian Studies at Harvard University. On his return to Australia he found that his department at The Australian National University, and indeed his own position, was threatened by ruthless cuts in government funding. Part of him was never able to comprehend the official depreciation of an institutional contribution that had brought Australian archaeology to the forefront of the world stage and he retired in a gloom of despond and anxiety about the future of science and scholarship in the country of his adoption.

A quotation from an article by Rhys Jones accompanies "The Edge of the Trees", a sculptural installation by Janet Laurence and Fiona Foley outside the Museum of Sydney: "The discoverers struggling through the surf were met on the beach by other people looking at them from the edge of the trees. Thus the same landscape perceived by the newcomers as alien, hostile or having no coherent form, was to the indigenous people their home, a familiar place, the inspiration of dreams".

Rhys Jones was an amiable and much-loved man who, more than most, thrived on the old bush traditions of conviviality and mateship. His last wish was to be buried in an excavation at Bungendore cemetery wearing his trademark digger hat.

Original publication

Citation details

Les Hiatt, 'Jones, Rhys (1941–2001)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/jones-rhys-541/text542, accessed 25 November 2017.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2017

Life Summary [details]

Birth

26 February 1941
Wales

Death

19 September 2001

Cause of Death

cancer (leukemia)

Cultural Heritage
Occupation