Amateur archaeologist's gift to help Australia uncover its past

29 June 2011

Dr Ted Robinson at the Macleay Museum: "This is a huge coup for the University."
Dr Ted Robinson at the Macleay Museum: "This is a huge coup for the University."

For over 40 years, Tom Austen Brown roamed the outback in a quest to explore Australia's ancient Aboriginal past.

Now, the late solicitor and alumnus has left a major bequest to the University of Sydney for the study of prehistory - the area of interest that absorbed much of his life.

Brown, who died in 2009, left half of his estate to the University in his will, directing that the money be spent "in the discipline of Prehistory in such manner as the Senate ... may determine".

That gift totals $6.9 million, and comes on top of $1.8 million which Brown gave the University during his lifetime. With the funds, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences will create the Tom Austen Brown Fund for Prehistory.

"This is an extraordinary gift that will help transform the study of prehistory at the University of Sydney," said Professor Duncan Ivison, Dean of the Faculty. "Understanding the deep past of the cultures that have inhabited this continent will play a vital role in helping us to imagine what our future might be."

Born in 1925, Tom Austen Brown studied at Sydney Law School in the closing years of World War II. After graduating, he returned to his family home in Broken Hill and joined the law firm of his father, a prominent local solicitor.

In the course of his work, Brown often had to visit clients living on outback properties. According to his sister, Betty Porich, it was during these trips he discovered his lifelong passion for Aboriginal artefacts.

"In those days nobody was really interested in these things," she said. "Various people would tell him they had a midden on their property and more or less encourage him to go out and explore."

Brown began collecting grinding stones and flaked stone tools, marking each piece with where it was found. Eventually, the National Parks and Wildlife Service heard about Brown's activities and sent Professor Richard Wright, a University of Sydney archaeologist, to assess his collection. He was impressed by Brown's finds, but pointed out that by removing artefacts, he was compromising the archaeological record.

Soon after, Brown, now retired from full-time work, enrolled in an arts degree at the University of Sydney, majoring in archaeology. "He was a convert to doing things properly and not damaging cultural heritage," said Dr Ted Robinson, Chair of Archaeology.

After graduating in 1974 Brown then completed a masters, in anthropology, at Washington State University. He returned to Australia in the early 1980s, taking to the road in his campervan to explore remote ancient Aboriginal sites.

Now, as a result of his bequest, the University will create the Tom Austen Brown Chair of Australian Archaeology - a position that will attract a leading expert in the field to boost research in the discipline.

The bequest will also create the Tom Austen Brown Grants Program for Prehistory, which will foster research, education and fieldwork in anthropology and archaeology. It is likely to result in honours and postgraduate research scholarships, including scholarships and other support for Indigenous students, field work funding, research grants, and funding for necessary equipment and facilities.

Dr Ted Robinson believes the Tom Austen Brown bequest will significantly expand our knowledge of Australia's ancient past. While Sydney is already known for its work in the field - he points to Dr Sarah Colley's digital archive of fish bones found on archaeological sites - he thinks the department is ripe for further expansion in the area. "This is a huge coup for the University," he said.

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