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Derek John Mulvaney (1925–2016)

by Malcolm Brown

from Sydney Morning Herald

John Mulvaney, by Stuart Hay, 1990

John Mulvaney, by Stuart Hay, 1990

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-890

John Mulvaney was born at a time when Australia's Aboriginals were regarded by many as little more than a nuisance, part of a dying race replaced by a superior civilisation, whose past as a hunter-gatherer society was of little significance, who had probably not been long in the country.

By the mid-1980s, when he was approaching retirement from his position as an academic archaeologist, specialising in Aboriginal prehistory, that view had changed dramatically. Much of that had been due to Mulvaney's own research and advocacy. The Aboriginal people, by then included in the census, were seen as a race with a significant claim to their land, severely disadvantaged by colonisation, but who had occupied the country, managed its harsh environment and lived in harmony with it for at least 40,000 years.

Mulvaney, taking advantage of radiocarbon dating, which only became available in the late 1940s, did excavations that pushed back Aboriginal occupancy of Australia at least to the Ice Age. He was part of the expedition that discovered "Mungo Lady" – cremated female human remains of great antiquity – in the far west of New South Wales. He respected Australia's first inhabitants and among other things campaigned to have the remains of Truganini taken from a museum and returned to her native soil.

Emeritus Professor Colin Groves, who worked with Mulvaney, said: "He was a person who treated Indigenous people as people and not just study subjects. He first of all enormously increased the self-confidence of all Indigenous people."

Derek John Mulvaney was born in Yarram, South Gippsland, Victoria, in 1925, the eldest of five children of an Irish-born schoolmaster, Richard Mulvaney, and an Australian mother, Frances (née Siegenberg). The family moved around rural Victoria during Mulvaney's formative years. At Rainbow and Frankston High Schools, the young John further developed an interest in history. In 1943, when he turned 18, Mulvaney enlisted in the RAAF and was sent to Canada under the British Empire Air Training Scheme, then to Britain, where he was set to become a navigator on bombing missions over Germany and, after victory was declared in Europe. While based in England, Mulvaney spent free time cycling around the countryside and was enthralled to encounter the ancient Rollright stones circle formation. "It got me interested in why there was no archaeology in Australia," he said later.

After demobilisation and under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme, Mulvaney enrolled in Arts at the University of Melbourne. After graduating with First Class Honours in 1948, he was appointed a tutor in Ancient History and at the same time proceeded with research for a Master of Arts (MA) thesis dealing with English agrarian history from the Iron Age to medieval times. He was awarded an MA in 1951, by which his time his interest in Australia's prehistory had intensified.

Mulvaney then successfully applied to the Australian National University (ANU) for a scholarship to Cambridge University, to study Archaeology, and entered Cambridge's Clare College. During his student years there, he undertook field expeditions in Britain, Ireland, Libya and Denmark and toured archaeological sites in Germany. Returning to Australia at the end of 1953 but finding no academic archaeological positions available, he took up a lectureship in Ancient History at the University of Melbourne.

In 1954, Mulvaney married schoolteacher Jean Campbell, and with whom he went on to have four sons and two daughters. The first of his children, Clare, was born in January, 1955. Mulvaney was by then embarking on ground-breaking expeditions, both literally and metaphorically. From the late 1950s he dug up sites at Fromm's Landing on the Murray River where, among other things, he discovered the remains of the Tasmanian Tiger and the Thylacine, about 3000 years old, and the complete skeletal remains of a dingo, about the same age. In 1960 he explored a rock shelter at Glen Aire on Cape Otway. His expedition to Kenniff Cave in central Queensland, where he excavated from 1960 to 1963, showed Aboriginal occupation of the area 16,000 years ago.

In 1965, Mulvaney joined the staff of ANU and travelled to Arnhem Land, where his observations confirmed Indonesian trading on the Australian mainland long before the arrival of the Europeans. In 1967 his book, Cricket Walkabout, was published – an account of the Aboriginal cricket team that toured England in 1868. In 1969 he travelled to Lake Mungo, part of the Willandra Lakes complex in western New South Wales, and found Mungo Lady. He was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, and he published the foundation textbook, Prehistory of Australia, which went into several editions.

In 1970 Mulvaney was awarded a PhD by Cambridge University, and in 1971 was appointed to the Foundation Chair in Prehistory at the ANU. In the early 1970s he was a member of the management committee overseeing the scientific teams commissioned to report on the heritage values of the Alligator Rivers region in western Arnhem Land. The result of that project was the creation of Kakadu National Park and later to the case for its inclusion on the World Heritage List.

In 1973, he made a second trip to Lake Mungo and did extensive excavations, finding further evidence of early human occupation of Australia. He served on the Committee of Inquiry into Australian Museums in 1974–75 and championed the establishment of the National Museum. In 1975 he took part in the first meeting of the Australian Archaeological Association.

John Mulvaney became a commissioner on the Australian Heritage Commission and chief Australian delegate in 1977 to the UNESCO inaugural meeting in Paris to determine the criteria for World Heritage listing. Mulvaney later observed that as the French chairman thought heritage should be restricted to European castles and stately homes, he had taken him aside and made it very clear that the field was larger.

Mulvaney served for more than 20 years on the executive of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. In 1981, Mulvaney successfully nominated the Willandra Lakes Region as a World Heritage site. His research laid the foundation for the proclamation of Mungo National Park. In 1982 he became a Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George (CMG). In 1983 he participated in the battle to save the Franklin River, threatened by damming for a hydroelectric scheme.

After his retirement in 1985, Mulvaney served as honorary secretary of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and continued to write and be published. While he wrote, co-authored or edited more than 20 books, including his autobiography, Digging up a Past. He was appointed a Fellow of the British Academy. In 1991, he was awarded an Order of Australia (AO) and in 1999 the Graham Clark Medal by the British Academy. That was followed by the Centenary Medal in 2001 and in 2004 the Rhys Jones Medal, which is Australian Archaeology's highest honour. There was sadness that year as well, when his wife Jean died in November. In July 2006 he married press historian Elizabeth Morrison, whom he had known through her participation in an Academy of the Humanities project.

John Mulvaney died in Canberra. A celebration of his life was held at University House, ANU, on October 5. John Mulvaney is survived by his wife, his six children, two stepchildren, six grandsons and seven granddaughters.

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Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Mulvaney, Derek John (1925–2016)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 June 2024.

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