Obituary for Professor Revil Mason

Professor Revil Mason 1929-2020.

With the sad death of Professor Revil Mason on Sunday 23rd August 2020, South Africa lost the last member of a generation scholars that included such other luminaries as C. van Riet Lowe, Guy Gardiner, Raymond Dart, Phillip Tobias, James Kitching who, during the mid and late-twentieth century, transformed our understanding of pre-colonial Africa. Revil’s life work traversed vast regions of the subcontinent and revealed thousands of years of the ancient past including his pioneering work on the rich archaeological history of what is now the Magaliesberg Biosphere Reserve. He was among the first to excavate Iron Age and Stone Age sites at Olifantspoort, Kruger Cave, Uitkomst and Broederstroom and, together with his colleague, Robbie Steel, he investigated the extraordinary Late Stone Age rock engravings in the Magaliesberg and described for the first time the details of the iron-smelting furnaces of the Early and Late Iron Age industries. He not only made many remarkable discoveries, he also recognised their relevance to the broader picture of trans-cultural heritage in a multi-racial country.

Revil was born in Johannesburg ninety-one years ago, the great-grandson of a Scottish settler who came to the country in 1849. He was a fourth-generation citizen by birth and a dedicated South African in spirit, committing every aspect of his work to the building a just society. After schooling at St John’s College during the second world war, he continued his education at the University of the Witwatersrand where he earned the Chamber of Industries bursary and graduated with a B. Comm degree with top honours including the Chamber of Commerce Prize and the Alexander Aiken Medal. However, no sooner had he received his degree with such accolades than he found that his real love lay in archaeology and he went to study at the University of Cape Town under the father of South African archaeology at that time, A.J.H. Goodwin. He later applied his knowledge of statistics from his commerce degree to pioneer new methods of assessing archaeological discoveries. Over the next four decades he conducted his extensive research under the auspices of the University of the Witwatersrand and, until 1988, he was Director of the Archaeological Research Unit.

Revil’s first major publication, The Prehistory of the Transvaal, was synthesised from his Doctoral thesis and was described by Raymond Dart as ‘the first single-source for average intelligent individuals to gain direct and detailed insights into the entire panorama of human prehistory as revealed by our own immediate countryside.’ That pursuit of a wider public understanding of our pre-colonial past persisted throughout his career. His work was not limited to the excavation of artefacts; he saw the importance of archaeology as the way of interpreting a full and comprehensive history of South Africa that could transgress entrenched prejudices. He tried constantly to have pre-colonial history introduced into school curricula, based on scientific archaeological evidence. His views were adventurous and sometimes unpopular among the proponents of ‘white’ historical interpretation imposed under National Party education, and they also conflicted with the rise of Marxist history that was prevalent at Wits at the time.

When he retired in 1988 he published four massive volumes that embraced much of his archaeological findings over four decades: Cave of Hearths, his work at Makapansgat, Kruger Cave, an exceptionally rich site in the Rustenburg area, Origins of Black People of Johannesburg and the Southern Western Central Transvaal, 350-1880, an enormous tome covering many of the important archaeological sites he had excavated, and South African Archaeology 1922-1988, a detailed summary of archaeological developments through his lifetime which is almost an autobiography of his own illustrious career.

He then amazed his friends by cycling for 1600kms through Asia and thereafter down the length of the United States of America from Canada to Mexico. But he continued to retain his interest in the study of the past, visiting ancient heritage sites both in this country and abroad, always emphasising the imperative need to preserve these sites from damage and degradation. Revil’s wide perspective of our past was the critical component of his full and extraordinary life, and his contribution to a better understanding of our country is the immeasurably valuable legacy he has left to us and to subsequent generations.