Dr Stuart Bedford receives the 40th Anniversary Independence Medal for his contribution and service to the Republic of Vanuatu

11th August 2021

He first came to Vanuatu in 1995 as an ANU PhD student. The country had placed a ban on social science research in 1983, soon after independence, but CHL’s Dr Stuart Bedford came in on the first new research permit granted to his supervisor, the recently retired (2021) Professor Matthew Spriggs. It was the beginnings of an association with a remarkable country and people that still very much continues today.

On 30 July 2021, the President of the Republic of Vanuatu, Pastor Obed Moses, presented Dr Bedford with the 40th Anniversary Independence Medal in recognition of his contribution and service to the Republic of Vanuatu. This is the second medal received by Dr Bedford for his service to Vanuatu. He received the Vanuatu Service Medal (VSM) in 2010.

The medal came as a complete surprise. Dr Bedford stated, “Normally you get some prior warning from whatever institution has nominated you. I assumed it had been the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, but when I thanked Director Shing for the nomination he too seemed completely surprised. So it’s nice to know that one’s efforts reach beyond one’s discipline and associated institutions”.

Bedfordmedal1Dr Bedford receiving the medal from the President of the Republic of Vanuatu, Pastor Obed Moses


Dr Bedford emphasised that the honour of this award is shared by the institutions and people who have supported him over many years. This includes the Australian National University, The Max Planck Institute, The Australian Research Council, colleagues at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and the many Vanuatu Cultural Centre Fieldworkers in the islands he has collaborated with over more than two decades.

According to Dr Bedford, many archaeologists who work in the Pacific might work on a whole series of islands across many countries, but it seems that his destiny was to remain focused on this one archipelago.

Not that he’s complaining. In terms of archaeology it has one of the richest and best preserved archaeological records in the region due to the early sites often being buried under varying thicknesses of volcanic ash-rich layers. The discovery of the remarkable Teouma Lapita cemetery and settlement on the island of Efate is the best example of this. At 3,000 years old, it is the earliest cemetery found in the Pacific and, being associated with the initial colonisation of this region, it has provided a wealth of information about colonising communities in the Pacific.

Bedford2Dr Bedford with a team recording stone ceremonial structures on Malakula Island

Only just recently, with breakthroughs in analytical techniques, the genetic makeup of these people has also been established. The extraordinary Teouma discoveries also ultimately led to a Lapita exhibition that Dr Bedford co-curated at the Musée du quai branly in Paris. So the research in Vanuatu has been broadcast across the globe in varying formats, and it is answering decade-old questions relating to Pacific colonisation and settlement and highlighting this truly remarkable period of human history when Pacific Islanders were going beyond the known world.

Dr Bedford added that for him there were many sides to archaeological research in Vanuatu.

“There is little doubt that Vanuatu can claim some of the most important archaeological sites in the Pacific discovered to date but for me it is the support, interest and enthusiasm of local communities in engaging, instigating and learning about this deep past that is the really inspiring aspect. Along with academic publications I have been involved in producing archaeologically related comic books, booklets, high school text books, documentaries and radio shows for the wider Vanuatu public.”

Bedford3Dr Bedford giving a tour of the Teouma site to high school kids

COVID, of course, comes into the conversation. Vanuatu has, in many respects, been totally blessed during this crisis, having had no community transmitted cases at all. Dr Bedford suggests that this has been due both to some good luck but also a government that puts the health and safety of its population as its first priority. There is, of course, also a history of introduced diseases of one sort or another devastating the population in the nineteenth century, accounts of which are found across the islands in oral traditions. So support for the government position has been overwhelming. Further, while the tourism sector has been drastically impacted, this does not, in fact, affect most of the people, who live on their own land and grow their own food.

ANU Archaeology and Vanuatu share an association that dates back to beyond 50 years, and Dr Bedford is very pleased to be an integral part of this continuing heritage. As an added bonus, he revealed that Edson Willie, one of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre’s archaeologists, will be coming to ANU next year to undertake a Masters degree on an Australian Government scholarship.

Here’s to another chapter in this long-term relationship between ANU Archaeology and Vanuatu!

Updated:  7 July 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, Culture, History & Language/Page Contact:  CHL webmaster