The name Isabel McBryde should be instantly familiar to anyone who has studied Australian archaeology—she is one of the main reasons you can  study archaeology in Australia! She has trained at least three generations of Australian archaeologists and was instrumental to the establishment of professional archaeology in Australia. Along with John Mulvaney, Isabel was responsible for the shift of research into the archaeology of Aboriginal Australia from the museum to the university sector.

McBryde completed her Honours and Masters degrees at the University of Melbourne studying Latin and History; her formal archaeological training came from Cambridge University where she completed a Diploma in Prehistoric Archaeology in 1959. When she returned to Australia, McBryde was appointed to a lectureship in Prehistory and Ancient History at the University of New England (UNE) in 1960; this was the first titled position of its kind in Australia!

While at UNE, Isabel developed courses and provided the first formal training of students in archaeology in Australia. At the same time she was conducting her own PhD research—a pioneering regional study of the New England region of New South Wales. According to Sandra Bowdler and Genevieve Clune (2000), her PhD in 1966 was the first ever awarded based on Australian archaeological fieldwork. Following her time at UNE she went on lecture at The Australian National University, where she remained until her retirement in 1994.

Isabel McBryde with aboriginal rock art from - we think - New England, Australia (the notation in the Univeristy of New England Heritage Centre only says 'see McBryde thesis', and McBryde's thesis was a survey of New England archaeology, so…). Image credit: The UNE Heritage Centre HRCP4861 McBryde. Used with the kind permission of UNE.

Isabel McBryde with Aboriginal rock art (or perhaps a museum display of rock art…?) from – we think – New England, Australia. The notation in the Univeristy of New England Heritage Centre only says ‘see McBryde thesis’, and McBryde’s thesis was a survey of New England archaeology, so…). Image credit: The UNE Heritage Centre HRCP4861 McBryde. Used with the kind permission of UNE.

One of the most inspiring things about Isabel’s research is its social nature. She was interested in a holistic, peopled past and she combined archaeological and ethnographic research in a manner that no-one before her had done, but that is now a feature of the archaeological discipline in Australia. Isabel wasn’t just interested in academic pursuits, she was deeply committed to developing strong, mutually beneficial relationships with Aboriginal communities and was involved in developing fundamental legislative protection for cultural heritage within Australia and internationally, too.

On why she is rightfully regarded as the Mother of Australian archaeology, here’s a quote from the citation that accompanied her Rhys Jones Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Australian Archaeology in 2003 (the highest honour awarded by the Australian Archaeological Association):

“Few people have created such an enduring legacy for Australian archaeology. She has touched the minds, hearts and actions of virtually the entire Australian archaeological community.”

Post written by Jacq Matthews (@archaeo_jacq)


Isabel’s pioneering approach to community archaeology is recorded in this wonderful reminiscence by Dr Mary-Jane Mountain, who writes about her involvement with the famous find of Mungo Lady, the earliest known anatomically modern human inhabitant of Australia, and the negotiation of the return of her remains.

“The key to the conclusion of the Mungo Lady story is Isabel McBryde. The cremated bones were returned and there was extensive negotiation about the management of and compensation for the World Heritage site. Isabel’s quiet, but insistent and continuous negotiation through her personal, moral and humane understanding of Aboriginal people and their culture was successful. Her empathy with those strong Aboriginal women was so different to the rivalry and ego-driven views that still underlies so much academic research.”


Edited by Brenna & Tori


With thanks to William Oates, University Archivist at the Universtiy of New England, Australia, for his help in sourcing and granting permission for images of Dr Isabel McBryde.


Bowdler S. and G. Clune 2000 That shadowy band: The role of women in the development of Australian archaeology. Australian Archaeology, 50: 27–35.

Grimshaw, P. 2014 McBryde, Isabel (1934 – ). The Encyclopedia Of Women & Leadership In Twentieth-Century Australia. Accessed 1 October 2014

Macfarlane, I. (ed.) 2005 Many Exchanges: Archaeology, History, Community and the Work of Isabel McBryde. Aboriginal History Inc.: Canberra.

McBryde, I. 1966 An archaeological survey of the New England region, New South Wales. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of New England, Armidale.

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One thought on “Isabel McBryde

  1. Iain Stuart says:

    Her thesis was published as McBryde, I 1974, Aboriginal prehistory in New England : an archaeological survey of northeastern New South Wales, Sydney University Press, Sydney.

    You have omitted her pioneering work on trade/exchange networks firstly with the greenstone axes in New England and then in Victoria and then later broadened into other items and places such as Central Australia.

    Although I rarely crossed paths with her I found her a really nice person.

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