The Australian National University
Emeritus Faculty Oral History

Interview with Emeritus Professor John Mulvaney historian and prehistorian

Interviews conducted 25 October 2010, at Emeritus Faculty
Producer, Interviewer and Editor - Peter Stewart
Engineer - Nik Fominas

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Biographical introduction:John Mulvaney joined ANU in 1965, and was Professor of Prehistory in the Faculty of Arts from 1971 to 1985, when he took early retirement and became, among other things, Honorary Secretary of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. 

Professor Mulvaney has written extensively on Australian history and prehistory including most recently his autobiography.  He has been an executive officer of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, founder member of the Australian Heritage Commission, and activist in heritage and conservation causes.

Interview abstract: Derek John Mulvaney was born in Yarram, Victoria in 1925.  His Irish immigrant father was a primary school teacher whose transfers around Victoria were decided by the schooling needs of John and his four siblings.

Following year 11 at Frankston High School, John became a trainee teacher, a career move which he soon realized was unlikely to work.  However, by then the war against Japan had begun and John joined the RAAF as a navigator.  His training took him to Canada, then England, but the end of the war in Europe prevented him from embarking on what would have been a risky extension to his career, in Lancaster bombers.  Instead, John’s short encounter with life in England engaged his historian’s curiosity, provoking him to explore villages, churches, graveyards, and other historical sites on his days off.

Returning to Australia late in 1945, John arrived in time to begin the next academic year, and thus to set out on one of the signal intellectual and life-shaping events for him – enrolment in Melbourne University as an honours student in history, funded by the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme. 

Completing his degree, John was persuaded by Professor Max Crawford to enroll for postgraduate study at Melbourne.  Then, graduating MA with first class honours, John had his first encounter with ANU, as an applicant for a graduate scholarship.  John’s preference for prehistory had by then been decided from his studies at Melbourne, but his ANU application set out a unique request  – that he be permitted to use the graduate scholarship to enroll in undergraduate study, in Paleolithic archaeology, at Cambridge University.  Cambridge was then one of few university centers interested in archeology beyond the Old World.  Enrolled in that two-year course, John took part in his first archeological digs – in England and Ireland, Denmark, and importantly, in Cyrenaica, Libya.  His career was launched. 

While in Cambridge, John met Jean Campbell.  They married on their return to Australia in 1954, where John was appointed lecturer at Melbourne University, teaching ancient history which soon after morphed, naturally enough, into prehistory.  John’s ever widening field work soon saw him an authority in Australian prehistory, equipped with the techniques needed to explore this new field systematically and rigorously. 

In 1956, John helped establish the 5,000 yr antiquity of Aboriginal sites on the Murray River, near Mannum, South Australia.  At the site he demonstrated coextant thylacine and Tasmanian devil remains (ancient marsupial species), alongside slightly younger dingo bones (a modern mammal, of Asian origin).  Soon after, at the Kenniff Cave near Charleville in south-central Queensland, John and his team substantiated, in the same river system as the Mannum site, human occupation dating back 16,000 yr.  This finding took Australian prehistory back into the Pleistocene, or old stone age and last ice age.  Even older sites would soon be uncovered in the Northern Territory by John and his collaborators.

In the early 1960s, John’s isolation as a prehistorian in Australia began to end.  Isabel McBryde was appointed at UNE Armidale, and Jack Golson to the ANU’s Research School of Pacific Studies.  John and Jack were good friends from their student days in Cambridge, a decade earlier.  Appointments in prehistory were also made around this time, by Sydney University and the WA Museum.  Prehistory (and archeology, a narrower counterpart) was now securely established in Australia, progressively revealing clear evidence of the earliest human cultures, and of their migrations.

In 1965 Jack Golson persuaded John Mulvaney to move to ANU.  John counts this move as another key event in his professional life, with a significance comparable to the CRTS scholarship he had won nearly twenty years earlier at Melbourne University.  This is not to minimise for John the import of mentors such as Max Crawford and Kathleen Fitzpatrick at Melbourne University.  However, the welcome John received on joining ANU was out of the ordinary, ranging over domestic details such as the provision of family accommodation and settling of children, through the egalitarian attitudes and generosity of senior academic staff and managers, to the informal but efficacious relations between academic and general staff.  And above all the collegiality of staff and graduate students working across many disciplines at ANU, and in Canberra more widely – the general enthusiasm of all to share resources and to work selflessly together. 

At ANU in the late 1960s, John became increasingly involved with Jim Bowler (a geomorphologist from Melbourne University) and Rhys Jones (prehistorian newly appointed by Jack Golson at ANU).  In 1969, Jim persuaded John and Rhys to take part in a field trip at Lake Mungo, in western NSW, one of the dry-lake beds constituting the Willandra Lakes complex, surveyed and named previously by Bowler.  This visit set in train arguably the most important archeological discovery in Australia, or anywhere in the world, to that time.  Included in the first samples of charcoal and burnt bones was material dated to 26,000 yr before the present, the earliest evidence for human cremation.  Another burial site located by Jim Bowler was an inhumation, ritually covered with red ochre, and older still.  Later remains from Mungo confirmed a ‘burial culture’, which was progressively dated back to 42,000 yr bp.  The Mungo materials at that time were the most remote Paleolithic remains of Homo sapiens, 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 1970 John Mulvaney was elected Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, and in 1971 appointed to a chair in prehistory in the Faculty of Arts in the School of General Studies, the latter bringing John back to one of his old loves – teaching undergraduate students.  He would remain professor of prehistory in the Faculty of Arts at ANU until his retirement in 1985.

During his professional life, John inevitably became more than a prehistorian.  He was an executive member of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in 1964-80 and its chair in 1982-84.  He was a foundation member of the Australian Heritage Commission in 1976-82, 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.  Unhappily, this recommendation would not be acted on for 20 years or more, and even then its details largely ignored.  

From his earliest university days, John Mulvaney was an active campaigner for the protection of Indigenous and historic sites and artefacts – Governor Philip’s Sydney house, the Franklin River dam in Tasmania, French settlement sites in Recherche Bay, and the Kakadu-Jabiluka World Heritage site in the Northern Territory.   

In the late 1970s, the ANU decided to include anthropology alongside prehistory in Professor Mulvaney’s department.  Student interest was high in both disciplines, and accordingly a new professor was appointed.  But differences of approach brought administrative difficulties for John.  He therefore decided to ease into an early ‘retirement’, partly to minimise administrative friction in the department, but also to facilitate appointment of a younger prehistorian able to take advantage of the sort of opportunity John had himself been so privileged to experience in his early years at ANU.  John retired from the university in 1985 (age 60) and was inscribed Professor Emeritus at ANU in 1986. 

Inevitably, John Mulvaney was soon persuaded to other options.  He became Honorary Secretary of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, and Chair of the ACT Heritage Committee.  The following two decades became for him a golden age of writing and publishing.  In this time John has written, coauthored or edited 16 books, including most recently his autobiography.  It appears unlikely that there will be any early end to his engagement with prehistory and history.

John Mulvaney counts many important and influential figures among his friends and colleagues during his decades at ANU.  Among them Jack Golson, as mentor, colleague and friend, and Bill Stanner, Dick Johnson, and Alan Martin.  As Vice Chancellors, John Crawford and Anthony Low, and as academic Deans, Bill Rawson and Beryl Rawson, were also significant.   

John Mulvaney’s first wife Jean died tragically in 2004.  In 2006, John married Liz Morrison, herself a historian.  John’s children have developed careers which in some regards mirror their father’s times: Clare (born in 1955) is married and lives in Melbourne; Richard (1957) is a museum and art gallery director in Launceston; Kenneth (1959) is an archeologist and rock art specialist in WA; Michael (1960) is a botanist and environmental biologist based in Canberra; Gregory (1963) is a school teacher in Canberra; and Anne (1965) is a landscape architect, living near Coffs Harbour.

John and Liz continue to live in the home in Yarralumla which John and first wife Jean established when they moved to ANU from Melbourne 45 years ago.  Along with his research and writing, John’s principal pastime is gardening.