Professor J. Desmond Clark

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The Independent Online

John Desmond Clark, archaeologist and anthropologist: born London 10 April 1916; Director, Rhodes-Livingstone Museum, Livingstone, Northern Rhodesia 1938-61; Secretary, Northern Rhodesia National Monuments Commission 1948-61; FSA 1952; CBE 1960; FBA 1961; Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley 1961-86 (Emeritus); married 1938 Betty Cable (one son, one daughter); died Oakland, California 14 February 2002.

J. Desmond Clark was for six decades a leading figure in the archaeology in sub-Saharan Africa.

Graduating from Christ's College, Cambridge, in 1937, he was appointed Director of the Rhodes-Livingstone Museum in Livingstone, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). He held this post, with interruptions for military service, until 1961 when he became Professor in "Old World Archaeology" at the University of California, Berkeley.

His appointment to Livingstone was heralded in a manuscript letter to a colleague from the then Provincial Commissioner: "The new man, Clark, arrives next week. He is a Cambridge man, and rows, so should do well." He did indeed do well. Downstream of the Victoria Falls he established the Stone Age sequence, research which formed the basis for his PhD thesis in 1950; upstream of the falls he rowed.

During the Second World War he fought with the East Africa Command forces in Somalia and Ethiopia, being subsequently attached to the British Military Administration. Here he somehow found time to undertake the archaeological work published by Cambridge University Press in 1954 as The Prehistoric Cultures of the Horn of Africa. He also acquired from his Italian adversaries quantities of indestructible crested crockery which, when I arrived in Livingstone in 1964, still formed a major component of the museum's camping equipment.

After the war, Clark expanded his researches to other parts of Northern Rhodesia, initiating excavations at Nachikufu and other rock shelters and recording the associated rock art. To increase the local base for archaeology he founded the National Monuments Commission in 1948, while greatly developing the Rhodes- Livingstone Museum in buildings, collections, displays and publications.

In 1955 he and his wife, Betty, organised in Livingstone a meeting of the Pan-African Congress on Prehistory to which delegates came from all over the continent: a major achievement in those days of racial segregation was the organisation of accommodation for their African colleagues. The congress excursion took delegates to many parts of the territory, up to a thousand miles from Livingstone, to see sites and excavations. One of these sites, at the spectacular 726ft Kalambo Falls on the Tanganyika border, was later the scene of major and important excavations, revealing a stratified sequence from the Early Stone Age into recent times.

Although Clark was primarily interested in the archaeology of early so-called Stone Age periods, he did not ignore more recent materials. He successively appointed to the staff of the Rhodes-Livingstone Museum two young British archaeologists, Ray Inskeep and Brian Fagan, who pioneered the archaeological study of the last 2,000 years, when the region saw the establishment of populations ancestral to modern African peoples. His own interests and widening horizons were emphasised in a book which proved of seminal importance, The Prehistory of Southern Africa (1959), and its successor, The Prehistory of Africa (1970).

It was at this stage in his career that Clark had to face the problem that, as the employee of a Northern Rhodesian organisation, he was expected to do most of his work in that territory. But African colonial borders – like those of the succeeding independent states – were arbitrary, bearing virtually no relevance to modern populations and none whatsoever to those of the Stone Age. In 1959 Clark was invited by a Portuguese diamond company to investigate the archaeology of northern Angola. This was both important and stimulating research, but it did not fit well with a British colonial base.

Following his move to the University of California at Berkeley, Clark's operations became truly pan-African: in Malawi, Sudan, Niger and Ethiopia. In addition to Africa he also conducted research in Syria, India and China. Throughout his career, Clark maintained his interest in technology, both long-past and traditional African.

At Berkeley, with Glynn Isaac (whose early death in 1985 was a sad loss both to Clark and to prehistoric studies world-wide), there developed a school of African archaeology of unparalleled distinction. Its graduate students have gone on to hold important positions at many North American universities and in numerous African countries, notably Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi and Nigeria.

That the Berkeley Anthropology Department chose, after Isaac's departure and death and Clark's own retirement in 1986, not to continue this emphasis caused him sadness and disillusionment. He also sometimes found it hard to come to terms with changing economic fortunes and political priorities in Africa. However, on his last visit to Zambia, in 1995, he was gratified to be received with great warmth and affection by the Zambian staff of the institutions – National Museum and Monuments Commission – for whose foundation and development he had been largely responsible.

After his official retirement, Clark's attentions turned increasingly to Ethiopia, where he undertook important work at the very early hominid sites of the Middle Awash region. Sadly, this research became enmeshed in professional rivalries which caused much difficulty for the Ethiopian authorities.

With help from colleagues, virtually all Clark's outstanding research had been published at the time of his death. He was particularly pleased when the third and last volume of the Kalambo Falls report – Kalambo Falls Prehistoric Site – was published in 2001 by Cambridge University Press, but less pleased that it was priced at £250. (The admittedly smaller first volume had been published in 1969 at £4.50.) In his latter years Clark's eyesight seriously deteriorated; an Ethiopian colleague, Yonas Beyene, described to me with admiration in 1996 how Clark could evaluate stone-tool typology by feel.

Honours came to Desmond Clark in appropriate quantity. He was appointed CBE in 1960 and elected FSA in 1952 and FBA in 1961. He was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and of the National Academy of Science (USA). His Cambridge ScD was awarded in 1975 and honorary doctorates at Witwatersrand and Cape Town universities in 1985, along with the Gold Medals of the Society of Antiquaries of London (1985) and the Archaeological Institute of America (1989). The British Academy awarded him the Grahame Clark Medal for Prehistory in 1997. He became an American citizen in 1993.

Clark displayed great learning, prodigious energy and productivity, wide friendships and warm hospitality. Above all, he was a kind man. At the Pan-African Prehistory Congress in Dakar in 1964 he befriended and calmed a captive ape which was being teased by less humane archaeologists. At the same meeting he refused to attend a VIP dinner unless Betty, whom he described as his lifelong collaborator, was invited as well. Apart from Frederick Sisii Wamulwange, the typist at the Livingstone Museum, Betty was also the only person known to me who could read Desmond's handwriting.

David W. Phillipson

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