Tributes to
J. Desmond Clark


Obituary: John Desmond Clark published in the South African Archaeological Bulletin, June 2002.

John Desmond Clark was born and educated in England and died on 14 February 2002 in California, a few months short of his 86th birthday. In the course of a long professional career he did more than any other individual to stimulate an interest in African archaeology. He became the pre-eminent authority in this field and in spite of failing eyesight in the latter years, continued to be active. He published his 700 page magnum opus, the third volume on Kalambo Falls, a matter of months before his death. His was a prodigious output and he leaves a legacy not only of published works (more than 300 papers and 20 books as primary author or as co-author) but of memories of someone of great charm and kindness for all those who had contact with him no matter how brief. He was respected, admired and much loved by friends, colleagues and students.

His career started in 1938 as secretary of the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute in Lusaka and as curator of the Rhodes-Livingstone Memorial Museum in Livingstone, in what was then Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia. In World War ll he saw service in Ethiopia and Somalia. Typically he turned this interruption in his career to advantage and used the opportunity of enforced travel to remote places, whether advancing in battle or pacifying the countryside, to record and make collections from archaeological sites. The results were later written up in papers, in his doctoral thesis (1951) and in a 1954 monograph, Prehistoric cultures of the Horn of Africa. On being demobbed and returning to Zambia in 1945 he became involved in museum administration, setting up a framework for the inspection and conservation of monuments and in following up his own archaeological research. Wearing the hat of museologist he gathered together a multidisciplinary team to refurbish the displays and set in motion the making of an African museum of excellence in Livingstone.

There was a strong South African connection in Desmond Clark’s career. He was a contemporary of John Goodwin and Peter van Riet Lowe, pioneers of South African archaeology. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa and a past President of the South African Archaeological Society (1955) among his numerous other honours. His greatest contribution to local archaeology was undoubtedly the 1959 Penguin Books publication, The prehistory of southern Africa that was also issued under the cover of the Society. In later life he remarked that this was the book that gave him the most pleasure in writing. It is a brilliant synthesis of what was then known about the archaeology from the Cape to the tropics and dealt with topics from human origins to the beginnings of farming. Written when the radiocarbon revolution was just beginning it perforce relied mainly on what would now be seen as somewhat tenuous arguments about climatic correlations of pluvials with glacials for dating. That apart, the book remains a scholarly reference work and a source of ideas. For example he first pointed out the trend towards regional specialisation in the Middle Stone Age that can be linked to the formation of identity conscious groupings. Palaeolithic archaeologists are still exploring the implications of this idea for the emergence of modern societies. His later book, The prehistory of Africa (1970), because of its more general scope and being written for a different audience, has been slightly less influential from a South African perspective. The South African connection is evident in his first publication in 1939 on the gravel deposits of the Zambezi being co-authored with Basil Cooke in the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa. His first longer paper (1944) on the site of Mumbwa on the edge of the Kafue Flats was published in the same journal. This paper which models seasonal changes in the local ecology reflects what became a lifelong interest in how communities fitted into their environment.

In 1961 he left Zambia to take up a teaching post in the Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley. This was the start of a second career and the transition from museologist to teacher. He held this post until his retirement in 1986 although he continued to be associated with Berkeley till his death. The move gave the opportunity to develop a teaching programme on African prehistory and access to students. He recruited Glynn Isaac to the programme and together they trained many of the Africanist archaeologists still active in research not only in America but also in various countries in Africa. Students were made to feel part of the family, seminars were held in the convivial atmosphere of a gracious home rather than in the dull classroom and it is little surprise that many committed themselves to a career in African archaeology. I remember giving a seminar in Berkeley in 1968 and Glynn remarking on the great pleasure it was to work with Desmond, something I too enjoyed during a stint of teaching there in 1985. He was a most considerate colleague. After Glynn’s move to Harvard and his untimely death in 1985, Desmond continued his teaching, expanding his activities not only to virtually every corner of the African continent but also to the Middle East, India and China. The T-shirt made for the international gathering of colleagues and old students to mark his retirement showed all the countries in Africa where he had worked and there were only three where he had not been personally involved in research. Students who had been ‘dropped off’ in all those remote places to study prehistory were there to celebrate what was a remarkably productive teaching career. It was a concern that on his retirement that his post at Berkeley was not filled by another African specialist. However, he was able to take comfort in the fact that in the meantime centres for teaching African prehistory had been established elsewhere, many by his past students.

In 1953 he located a deep multi-layered deposit at the head of the Kalambo Falls that spill down into Lake Tanganika. The lowest levels going down below the water table include Acheulian artefacts of the Earlier Stone Age and the uppermost levels show occupation by farmers in proto-historic times. Documenting the record contained in these sediments following fieldwork in the 1950s and 1960s became a life’s work that happily he was able to see through to its completion with the appearance of the third volume on the site. This must stand as his single most important contribution to African prehistory. His other scholarly contributions were many and diverse in their subject matter. Although nominally an Acheulian specialist he had an abiding interest in all forms of material culture, the craft of making things from handaxes to beads and stone bowls and in experimentation in the use of artefacts. In recent years with the weakening of his links with the Department of Anthropology he became closely associated with his Berkeley colleagues Tim White and Clark Howell in research in the Middle Awash area of Ethiopia. This gave him the opportunity to share in the excitement of studying the earliest traces of humankind in Africa and he was involved in fieldwork there until failing eyesight and political instability made it impossible.

A keen participant at congresses on African prehistory he was noted for his enthusiastic interest and insightful questions. Frequently he was called on to deliver lead addresses and he gave unstintingly of his time to prepare wide-ranging overviews. One of congresses he attended in 1999 was in Cape Town and conscious of his failing health he saw this as an opportunity to say goodbye to old friends in South Africa. It was a sad farewell and his death has robbed us of an influential supporter of the aims and objectives of the South African Archaeological Society.

In 1938 Desmond Clark married Betty Cable Baume who had been a fellow student at Cambridge. It was Betty Clark who ran the Livingstone Museum when Desmond was on active service. It was she who illustrated his publications with superb drawings of artefacts and typed and edited his manuscripts and correspondence. Indeed she may have been the only person who was able to decipher his handwriting. In several published reminiscences on his career, Desmond paid formal tribute to the role Betty had played as a facilitator and collaborator in his research. She made it possible for him to function without mundane distractions. She also created the lively hospitable home environment where so many students, colleagues and friends were made to feel most welcome. They were married for 64 years. It is sad to report that Betty Clark died in Kent on 13 April, less than two months after Desmond. Our deepest sympathy goes to their son, John, in England and their daughter, Elizabeth, in Australia and their respective families at the loss of both their parents.

An e-memorial to Desmond Clark has been created at


Some published retrospectives and reviews of the career of Desmond Clark are listed below.
Clark, J.D. 1986. Archaeological retrospective 10. Antiquity 60:179-188.
Clark, J.D. 1990. A personal memoir. In: Robertshaw, P. (ed.) A history of African archaeology: 189-204. London: James Currey.
Cooke, H.B.S., Harris, J.W.K. and Harris, K. 1987. J.Desmond Clark: his career and contribution to prehistory. Journal of Human Evolution 16:549-581.
Wendorf, F. 1999. J.Desmond Clark. In: Murray, T. (ed.) Encylopedia of archaeology, Volume ll: 743-757. Santa Barbara, California:ABC-CLIO.

-Professor H.J. Deacon, Research Fellow, University of Stellenbosch, Archaeological Project 'Origins of modern humans in Africa', South Africa.