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 Clarks 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
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 Glynns 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 lifes 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 http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~lhesjdc1/index.html.
Some published retrospectives and reviews of the career of Desmond
Clark are listed below.
Clark, J.D. 1986. Archaeological retrospective 10. Antiquity
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
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.