Objects of desire

17 August 2017

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Challis Bequest Society, which acknowledges the people who make provision for the University in their wills. Bequests are made for many reasons. Tom Brown's bequest was born out of his great passion for archaeology.

Tom Brown

Tom Brown was a man of tremendous enthusiasm who changed Australian archaeology.

During the 1960s, Tom Brown (LLB ’46 BA’74) had an unfashionable interest: he collected Aboriginal artefacts. He was a lawyer but he had the heart of an archaeologist.

When he visited law clients on properties around Broken Hill, where he lived, Brown would drive over sand dunes and desert flats looking for the artefacts he loved. Without realising it, Brown was putting together one of the most significant – yet unofficial – collections of Aboriginal stone artefacts in Australia, and he kept it on metal shelving in his laundry.

He did wonder about what he had gathered, however, so he approached the NSW Government, which was starting to realise the importance of these artefacts. In 1969, Emeritus Professor Richard Wright, who was then an archaeology lecturer and specialist in Aboriginal stone technology at the University, was sent to meet Brown and assess his collection.

“Tom was hyperactive and hyper-enthusiastic and also very likeable,” Professor Wright remembers. “It was clear he was hungry for information. I said to him, ‘You know, Tom, you ought to do a course on stone technology, like the one at University of Sydney’.”

The next time Professor Wright saw Brown it was 1970 and Brown’s was the oldest face in a room full of new archaeology students. Brown became a keen student and Professor Wright remembers a conversation they had on a Victorian field trip.
“We needed to check an area for artefacts before quarrying work started,” Professor Wright says. “I asked Tom if he could do some surface collecting. He paused and said, ‘No. I was addicted to surface collecting and if I bent over again and picked up an artefact, I think I might weaken’.”

Brown successfully completed his archaeology studies in 1973 then took a course in the United States, where students studied artefacts by making them. He then returned to Australia and began visiting important Aboriginal sites all over the country.

To this day, Brown’s passion for archaeology exerts a powerful influence. During his life, Brown gave $1.6 million to the University and, on his passing in 2009, part of the residue of his estate, $6.9 million, came to the Department of Archaeology. Through the University’s management, this gift is now worth $13 million.

Brown’s bequest has already created the Tom Austen Brown Chair of Australian Archaeology, the first endowed chair of archaeology in the country to include Australia in its brief. There is also the Tom Austen Brown Grants Program for Prehistory, which could lead to scholarships for honours and postgraduate research, awards for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, research grants, and funding for fieldwork, equipment and facilities.

Through his passion and generosity, Brown has helped create a future for Australia’s past.

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