Professor Rhys Jones

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Rhys Maengwyn Jones, archaeologist: born Bangor, Caernarvonshire 26 February 1941; Professor of Archaeology, Australian National University 1993-2001; married Betty Meehan; died Canberra 19 September 2001.

Rhys Jones, among the best and most original archaeologists of his generation, was one of a remarkable group who over the last 40 years created modern archaeological knowledge of Aboriginal Australia. Australia, with its singular climate and its unique flora and fauna, is a harsh continent for humans. Its archaeology is also hard, for the stone tools of its early human inhabitants are reticent, and its acid soils confound even procedures like radiocarbon dating that are routine elsewhere.

John Mulvaney had pioneered early Australian prehistory, and then a cohort of young colleagues – among them Jim Allen, Carmel Schrire and Rhys Jones – addressed the key questions. When did human beings first reach Australia? What was the prehistory of Aboriginal art and ceremony? Was there a direct connection between the arrival of human beings and the sudden extinction of the megafauna, the oversize Pleistocene animals which often vanished when human beings arrived? What was the relationship between earliest Aboriginal life-ways and those hunting-and-gathering skills which supported Aboriginal Australians into the 20th century? All these questions await definite answer. For all of them the provisional good answer we now have is in large part due to Rhys Jones.

Jones was born Welsh-speaking in 1941 and grew up amongst the slate tips of Blaenau Ffestiniog in North Wales; his parents moved to Cardiff, and from the grammar school he went to Cambridge. On graduating, like many a bright young Cambridge archaeologist, he went to a distant place; as one of the last "ten-pound poms", he became a migrant who contributed £10 while the Australian government paid the rest of the fare. (The government then kept his passport for two years to stop him escaping.) He took a PhD at Sydney University, moving to the Australian National University in Canberra for his subsequent career.

His first fieldwork was in Tasmania, where he excavated the coastal site of Rocky Cape, a key place in documenting the special course of Aboriginal Australians on that great offshore island. Subsequently his work ranged across Australia, concentrating in Arnhem Land on the tropical north coast. With his long-term partner, Betty Meehan, he spent 14 months on the Blyth River, recording how foraging time was spent and nourishment found by the Gidjingarli people, one of the last Aboriginal communities living traditionally off the land.

In the 1980s, he led the research team to explore archaeology in what is now Kakadu National Park, creating a synthesis for this remarkable region of enduring quality. A decade later, it was also in Kakadu that he realized that a new "luminescent" dating technique, which measures energy levels in buried sand deposits, could be used to date the old Arnhem Land sites he had excavated. With Bert Roberts and Mike Smith, he produced luminescent dates for two sites of around 60,000 years ago which stand today as the oldest proof of a human presence in Australia in which colleagues have general confidence. Always open to new ideas, younger colleagues, and anyone first-rate to work with in the field, Rhys Jones had recruited Bert as a youthful geologist doing his PhD field and lab work in the Alligator Rivers region.

Rhys called his research style "cowboy archaeology". That actually meant a considered working-out of just which sites and which contexts would hold the key to the big issue; next, a rapid field project would make the critical field observations and take the samples; then – often novel – lab work would develop understanding. In truth, it was cowboy-like only in the bushman's field clothes Rhys Jones so liked to wear, with crumpled shirt and hat: flat Welsh cap in cool places or, under tropical sun, tired brown hat (Akubra of course) of that caricature profile – porkpie centre with broad flat rim – which cartoonists dress authentic Australians in.

My own first encounter with Rhys was in 1986, when political storms stirred the first "World Archaeological Congress" in Southampton and I was organising a session about claims to ownership and authority over Stonehenge. As a Welshman, and true descendant of the Britons who built Stonehenge, he laid an indigenous person's land claim to the place – a sacred British place which the English invaders of Britain took hold of and falsely possess today. Proving his cause with eloquence, authority and humour, he lodged his unanswerable land claim but then chose not to pursue it. It would do no good to repeat at home the divisiveness over land rights between indigene and incomer which has so split Australian society, and poisons it to this day.

Rhys Jones had difficulties in his last years. The Australian National University, careless that its archaeological team is one of the best in the world, chopped it about; down-hearted, Jones anticipated redundancy and having to give up research. Then he suffered the leukaemia that eventually killed him.

But his acute fieldwork went brilliantly on to the end. In 1997, again with Bert Roberts, he achieved the technical feat of dating by the luminescent technique the mud nests which certain Australian wasps make on rock faces; these sometimes cover rock art, and, when they do, a date for the mud-wasp nest gives a minimum age for the art. This test, relating to the elegant "Bradshaw" figures of the Kimberly region of north-west Australia, placed them as ancient as the famous cave-paintings of France.

The Bradshaw paper, like predecessors, was in Nature, the supreme place for science publications. The major paper Jones contributed to, this very year, in a team of authors, addressed the question of Australian megafaunal extinctions. Using a novel approach to dating, it is a great contribution to exploring human culpability in the demise of these large and strange creatures of the Pleistocene bush. But also amongst his last publications was the Welsh abstract to a technical report on Paviland Cave – characteristically about new research, with a Welsh connection, and a helping hand to a colleague.

Rhys Jones's life was shared for 30 years by Betty Meehan on their 40-acre "block" at Hoskinstown in a high valley close to Canberra, where their little house, "Ty'r Paith", stands over an open grassy valley with the look of Breconshire to it. By his and Betty's choice, on Rhys's death a gathering of friends celebrated life and friendship at the house; then they took him down to Bungendore cemetery for his last excavation and buried him in his field gear, complete with cap; and went back to the block for one of the genial parties that Betty and Rhys were famous for.

Christopher Chippindale