Our Global Neighbours is a blog series containing stories from and about cultures around the world.

For directing an accurate artillery fire in the battles of the First World War, Joseph Shellshear (1885-1958) was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1917.

But this academic and physician can claim better achievements still. He is recognised for his research into the development of the nervous system and the study of the comparative morphology of the human skull and brain.

The J.L. Shellshear Museum of Physical Anthropology and Comparative Anatomy at the University of Sydney, named in his honour in 1959, evolved from his extensive collection of human, other primate and mammalian skeletons as well as anatomical casts.

Professor Shellshear had keen interest in prehistory. After returning to Australia from his academic post as the Chair of Anatomy at the University of Hong Kong in 1936, he worked as the honorary archaeologist at the Australian Museum. He promoted archaeological research in prehistory and was deeply concerned with a need and urgency of preservation of prehistoric sites and artefacts in Australia. Such protection of Aboriginal sites, formalised within the legislative framework, was not embraced, until the 1970s!

Professor Shellshear formed a view that French archaeologists developed the best methods and the ways of protecting archaeological sites. ‘From France the work has extended all over the world’ he asserted, as he was fortunate to ‘visit sites in many parts of the world and to study the methods employed’.

It is not surprising, therefore, that in his sample collection the artefacts from France are most numerous, making up over a half. Smaller numbers represent other countries, including China, USA, Indonesia, England, Malaysia and South Africa.

The Shellshear collection consists mostly of flaked stone ‘tools’, some from iconic Palaeolithic sites, documenting the early systematic research into Palaeolithic prehistory. These individual relics have limited research value, but demonstrate the desire for knowledge and a broadminded attitude of our pioneers of archaeology.

As an example and educational material, the Shellshear collection contributed, to shaping Australian archaeology into a professional discipline it became in the second half of the 20th century.


Joseph L Shellshear. An Appeal for the Preservation of Prehistoric Remains in Australia, the Australian Museum Magazine 1937

Prepared by Charlotte Kowalski and Stan Florek