Obituary: Professor Rhys Jones

Article excerpt

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 pounds 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. …