Griffith University’s rock art expert Professor Paul Taçon has capped a remarkable year being honoured with the Rhys Jones Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Australian Archaeology.
The award, the most coveted of the Australian Archaeological Association, has special significance for Professor Taçon. It was Rhys Jones, one of Australia’s leading archaeologists of the time, who gave Professor Taçon his first taste of Australian rock art more than three decades earlier.
Paul had only arrived recently in Australia from Canada and after doing some voluntary work at an archaeological excavation in Sydney he asked around about any remote digs.
Paul was told Rhys planned a Northern Territory expedition so he applied to join it. After an interview by Rhys’ research assistant in a Glebe coffee shop and a report to Rhys, Paul was offered a position.
In May of 1981 Paul joined the Kakadu expedition and his world forever changed.
“Where we were excavating in the rock shelters there were lots of paintings on the wall,” Professor Taçon said.
“The Aboriginal elders could tell us what they were and what they meant, what the significance of the site was. That totally captured my imagination.”
Professor Taçon, the founding director of Griffith University’s Place, Evolution and Rock Art Heritage Unit (PERAHU), has been leading a national campaign to protect and manage our rock art for future generations.
His exceptional lifetime of research was also this year acknowledged when he was awarded a prestigious Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowship to continue his Australian rock art research.
National rock art strategy
The Laureate, worth $2.5 million, will be used to develop a national strategy and collaboration network to document, record and where possible protect Australia’s rock art.
It will allow for two PhD scholarships and as well as two post doctorate-positions to work on the project. Griffith University has provided matching funds for a senior research fellow and a half-time research assistant.
The Rhys Jones Medal has been presented to an outstanding individual since 2002. This year saw two medals awarded, the other going to Professor Jo McDonald at UWA, another rock art expert and close friend and colleague of Professor Taçon.
“The Association has made a significant statement about the importance of rock art research as well as our contributions to Australian archaeology in general,” Professor Taçon said.
“Our rock art is the keystone of our national heritage and among the best in the world. We have to do something before it is lost forever.“
Australia has more than 100,000 rock art sites with some of the artworks as old as 30,000 years.
Professor Taçon, who is the Chair in Rock Art Research at Griffith University has been working with Aboriginal communities and researchers for more than 30 years, camping out in remote areas to study and respectfully record the artworks while also learning of their significance and importance from Aboriginal elders.
He has been involved in some of the biggest rock art discoveries in Australia, as well as throughout Asia and China.
Much of his research is of a collaborative nature with many of his joint-authored publications including Australian Aboriginal co-authors.