Tom Austen Brown bequest

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Curatorial assistant Matt Poll, seen here holding a bigan (‘shield’ in the Warrgamay language) from the Macleay Museum, looks forward to prehistory collaborations made possible through the Tom Austen Brown bequest.

Tom Austen Brown was a remarkable man, and his legacy lives on through his substantial bequest in 2009 towards the study of prehistory. Valued at $6.9 million, the bequest came on top of the 1.8 million that Brown gave the University during his lifetime.

“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 of Arts and Social Sciences. “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.”

Tom Austen Brown was an avid amateur archaeologist. As a lawyer, his work required him to visit clients living on remote outback properties where he began collecting ancient Aboriginal artefacts. This inspired a passion for prehistory that led him to enrol in an arts degree at the University of Sydney, majoring in archaeology.

After graduating in 1974, Brown went on to complete a master’s 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.

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”.

The Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences has put the gift to excellent use, establishing a Chair of Australian Archaeology filled by leading prehistory expert Professor Peter Hiscock, along with the Tom Austen Brown Grants Program for Prehistory. This program fosters research, education and fieldwork archaeology, by funding equipment, facilities, research grants and research scholarships.

Most recently, the program supported archaeological research into ancient technology and lifeways in the South Australian deserts and in the Sydney basin. Findings indicate there was an ice-age occupation in Australia’s driest desert, which is impressive evidence of the exploration and adaptation of early Aboriginal peoples.