By Dr Ted Robinson
Richard Wright, former member of the Department of Archaeology, made a Member of the Order of Australia, and the Department of Archaeology receives $6.9 million dollar bequest from former student Tom Austen Brown
When Richard Wright was asked, some 20 years ago why he was retiring early as Professor of Prehistory at the University of Sydney, he is alleged to have replied “to get some work done”. If true, he certainly followed through on the claim, since he has published prolifically since retirement and added new areas of expertise to an already impressive collection.
Richard arrived in Sydney in the early 1960s, having studied at Cambridge University. Already an expert in Palaeoanthropology, he soon became a major player in the emerging field of Australian prehistory. An early focus on stone tools has had, more than 40 years later, an unexpected and extremely positive effect on the field in Sydney. In the late 1960’s, the National Parks and Wildlife Service got wind of a Broken Hill solicitor—Tom Austen Brown—who had amassed a huge collection of aboriginal artefacts, many of them collected on trips to consult with outback clients.
Richard was sent to review the collection, and spoke at length with Brown about the importance of studying such material in its archaeological context. To everyone’s surprise, the Brown turned up in Sydney shortly afterwards to enrol in Prehistory, and he completed an Honours degree four years later. The experience clearly affected him greatly: when his will was recently read, half of his substantial estate was left to the University of Sydney for the support of Prehistory. As Dr Ted Robinson, Chair of the Department of Archaeology says:
The Tom Austen Brown Chair will be the first endowed Professorship of Australian Archaeology in the country, and Richard Wright’s influence clearly deserves much of the credit for it.
In the 1970s Richard moved strongly into the field of early human evolution, and began teaching practical courses on evolution and human bones. He was an excellent teacher, whose students revelled in the great detail and rigour he always brought to his courses, which invariably involved a significant practical component. He developed a set of statistical tools, first for the analysis of human skulls and then for other large datasets. Those of us fortunate enough to be taught statistics by him recall those very early days of computing in which Richard was obliged to write all of his own code, and develop many of his own algorithms. These programs, grouped into a package called MV-ARCH, are still widely used in Archaeology, and have some functions which are much more powerful than those of the big commercial statistical packages.
An excellent scholar, efficient and practical and a very modest and self-effacing person, Richard’s talents were recognised through a Professorship and, increasingly, administrative duties. One wonders if he didn’t retire from the University since he knew that the clamour for him to leave behind teaching and research and take on an purely administrative role in the Faculty would soon become deafening. At his core, he is an extremely passionate archaeologist.
His career took another turn immediately upon retirement, when the Federal Attorney General invited him to join the excavation of a World War II era mass grave in Ukraine, something for which he was perfectly suited through his expertise in wetland archaeology and human osteology. It is this work, which he continued at Srebrenica (Bosnia) and in the mass graves of World War I Australian troops at Fromelles (France) that has seen Richard Wright honoured as a member of the Order of Australia in the recent Queen’s Birthday honours. Richard regularly lectured at the University of Sydney about his work on these gruesome excavations, although he had to be careful what he said since many of the matters were still before the courts. He has been obliged to give detailed evidence at a number of trials.
One fears for the well-being of people who have to do this sort of work. We have generally refrained from asking him about his experiences since Richard is a very private man. One would guess that he started the work out of professional interest but has stuck with it for many years out of a sense of moral duty. He explains something of the personal toll of the work in his chapter “How to do forensic archaeology under the auspices of the United Nations and other large organizations” from the recent Handbook of Forensic Anthropology and Archaeology (2009), where he discusses how to best protect the psyches of people working in his team.
The Department of Archaeology is delighted by the honour awarded to Richard Wright – especially his ex-colleagues, his ex-students and the many other people at the University of Sydney who have been helped by him since his retirement from the University.