History of the AASV

The Archaeological and Anthropological Society of Victoria was formed in 1976 through the amalgamation of two societies, the Anthropological Society of Victoria and the Archaeological Society of Victoria. Although one was formed 30 years before the other both owed their origin to inspiring lectures given by singularly gifted academic lecturers to what were largely non-academic audiences. Both lecturers were on the staff of the University of Melbourne but stimulated the enthusiasm of people outside the university community.

The lectures of Frederick Wood Jones in 1932 and 1933, given as part of the University of Melbourne’s Extension lectures to the Worker’s Education Association, forerunner of the CAE, stimulated the interest of a group of individuals already concerned about problems facing Australian Aboriginal people.

Wood Jones had taken up the chair of Anatomy at Melbourne in 1930 after an extraordinarily varied career. Almost thirty years earlier he had spent a year working with the Nubia Archaeological Survey and had assisted with the study of 2000 skeletons about to be swamped by the rising waters of the Aswan Dam. A particular group of individuals who had apparently died by hanging fascinated him. He conjectured that they would have died instantly because they had sustained a dislocation of the third cervical vertebra. Some years later this interest was rekindled when he observed the same injury in a young baker boy who died instantly when his head got caught in a narrow doorway. Wood Jones’ subsequent research into the best place for the hangman to tie his knot so as to avoid prolonged suffering in those being hanged involved dropping dead bodies down the lift shafts at St Thomas’ Hospital and resulted in an allegedly gripping lecture on the Anatomy of Hanging.

The first meeting of the Anthropological Society, with the then Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Henry Gencoult-Smith, in the chair, took place on February 8, 1934. The original members of the Society included the two daughters of Dr Alexander Leeper, first Warden of Trinity College, who was also at one time President of the Public Library, Museum and National Gallery. The Leeper sisters remained active members of the Anthropological Society for all of its forty four years of existence and continued attending lectures for some time after the merging of the two societies. Noel Wallace, another early member, was, like the Leepers, a member of the Victorian Aboriginal Group. This lobby group, set up to study and produce material supporting Australian Aboriginal people remained active for forty years and, when it came to an end, most of the remaining members joined the Anthropological Society. In 1978 the members of the Anthropological Society had dwindled to less than ten and those remaining, who included Noel Wallace and the Leepers, sadly and reluctantly gave up their separate identity and amalgamated with the Archaeological Society to become the Archaeological and Anthropological Society of Victoria (AASV).

William Culican, known universally as Bill, was one of Melbourne University’s most gifted lecturers with an unrivalled ability to engage an audience. It was the enthusiastic response to his 1964 CAE lectures that led Bill, Lecturer in Classics at the University, to suggest that people interested in starting an Archaeological Society should leave him their name and addresses. He remained an active member of the society until his untimely and sudden death in 1984.

The Archaeological Society, which was set up to promote the study of archaeology, ethno-archaeology and ethno-history was far from being a group of armchair enthusiasts. In 1968 several members spent two weeks excavating in the difficult conditions of Koonalda Cave under the direction of Dr Sandor Gallus.

It was however their on-going contribution to the work of Dr Gallus at Keilor that demonstrated the commitment of members. Many of them became very skilled both as excavators and at handling material in the small laboratory and museum set up at Keilor.

Society members also assisted Dr Peter Coutts, who became Director of the State Government’s Victorian Archaeological Survey (VAS), in his work at Wilson’s Promontory and obtained experience in industrial archaeology through assisting another original member, architect John Taylor, who, working with Bill Culican, surveyed and excavated remains of the Fossil Beach Cement works at Mornington.

Many members learned basic survival strategies essential for working on an archaeological site under the somewhat dictatorial but enthusiastic leadership of Peter Coutts. Members of the society were among the first to participate in his annual Summer School Programme in which participants, members of the general public and students, laboured long hours in places such as the Nyah Forest, and Mallacoota and then studied late into the night to pass the accreditation exams held at the end of each six weeks school. Summer school became somewhat of a recruiting ground for the Archaeological Society, many members joining the society following a season with Dr Coutts.

The first Newsletter of the Archaeological Society was printed in September 1965, while Number 3 published on June 17, 1966, was the first to bear the name of The Artefact. Until 1975 it was subtitled the official newsletter of the Archaeological Society of Victoria. However with Volume 1, Number 1 of March 1976, it was officially upgraded to a research journal specializing in the’ ethnohistory and archaeology (prehistoric, ethno- and historical) of the Pacific region.

The ASV logo appeared for the first time on the cover of Artefact Number 12 in November 1968 and following the formation of AASV the second A was slipped in behind the first on the cover of the 1979 issue. The present Artefact, which is subtitled Pacific Rim Archaeology simplifies its role as ‘specializing in the archaeology, ethnohistory and anthropology of the Pacific region’ making it clear that this is not, nor ever has it been, a Eurocentric archaeological society despite its classical upbringing.

Like all such groups the fortunes of the AASV have waxed and waned. The original members gave way before an influx of staff from the new university and college departments of prehistory and museum studies. They in turn have, to a large extent moved on, and new people professional archaeologists and anthropologists and interested amateurs have taken up the reins.

Over the years the society has supported a regular programme of monthly meetings held at the University of Melbourne as well as several more extensive series of lectures. The latter includes a memorable series of lectures by Phyl and Noel Wallace on the religion and life of the Pitjantjatjara people with whom they spent several months each year for twelve years during the 1950s and 60s. In 1993 the Society ran a weekend seminar on archaeological dating covering all aspects of this subject with speakers from interstate and overseas as well as local experts.

Now still alive in the 21st century and a mature society over 21 years of age, AASV continues to hold monthly meetings with lectures covering a wide range of topics from the broad disciplines of archaeology and anthropology. While the Pacific region has a special place in the work of the Society, lectures cover a wide range of topics and regions across the world. Links with both the University of Melbourne and LaTrobe University remain strong with both staff and students regularly speaking to the society about their work. Student nights in the mid 1970s provide students with opportunities to present their work in progress to an informed but sympathetic audience.

While it is now more difficult for non-professionals to participate in excavations and the VAS summer schools are no more, there are still opportunities for those with patience and time to assist with surveys and digs. The Society would not now be able to run a dig such as that at Keilor in the 1950s but it does take members on field trips to a range of environments from coastal middens to rock art sites.

The current members and their committee strive to maintain the high standards set by those whose passionate curiosity about the past and about the nature of humanity led to the formation of the Victorian Societies of Archaeology and Anthropology and ultimately to the AASV.