Obituary: Professor Revil John Mason

With sadness we share the obituary of an archaeological great, Professor Revil John Mason. 1929 – 2020. We had the honour to work with him last year for the ‘Through the Eyes of an Archaeologist’ exhibition that celebrated his passion for African (pre-)history and his contribution to southern African archaeology.

REVIL JOHN MASON died on 23 August 2020 at the age of 91 years, of old age, scarcely a year after receiving the Golden Eagle award at St John’s College in 2019. Revil was born on 10 February 1929 and grew up in Saxonwold. He entered St John’s Prep in 1936. After matriculating in 1946, Revil studied at the University of Witwatersrand and obtained a B Com. degree, garnering several prizes, including the Aitken medal for the best graduate in Commerce, together with the Chamber of Industries medal and the Dean’s award. However, after attending a lecture by Prof Dart he became fascinated by archaeology and proceeded to study Archaeology at the University of Cape Town where he again excelled in his studies and obtained a doctorate at the age of 28 years old.

At the young age of 24 years he successfully excavated Makapansgat, discerning three layers of the Stone Age, a new discovery in South African Archaeology. During the 1950s he often visited St John’s, talking to the boys about new archaeological finds, and he also helped the Museum Club to re-establish the Museum in the Community Room. Some years ago he led an archaeological dig with the College Archaeology Club and helped the boys excavate a Boer War site in the Magaliesberg.

Revil was appointed a professor by Wits as a successor to Professor Clarence van Riet Lowe. In 1976 the university created the Archaeological Research Unit for Professor Mason and his staff and appointed him as Director, a post he held until his rather early retirement in 1989. Thereafter Revil continued to excavate significant sites, including, in 1996, a miraculously preserved 12000 years BP, Late Stone Age site, 150m from the N1 Allandale exit. During his career Revil determined the historical significance of Melville Koppies and other areas of Johannesburg through his tireless and meticulous investigations of Stone Age and Iron Age sites. He identified prehistoric iron furnaces and Tswana villages from Lonehill to Klipriviersberg in Johannesburg. Professor Mason went further and mapped the entire North West and Gauteng provinces and became a champion of pre-colonial Early African Iron Age technology. In this way Revil Mason debunked the myth of the “empty land”, a version of history that propped up the Apartheid regime and that was taught in history classes across South Africa.

Besides being an archaeologist, Revil was also a keen explorer/adventurer and an avid mountaineer. In his early twenties he explored Kaokoland and went up the Brandberg in Namibia, searching for San rock art. He was the first person to document a San rock art site on top of the Brandberg in a cave now known as the Mason shelter. He climbed the Ruwenzori and other African mountains. He later went on to explore the great Asian mountains and at the age of 69 went on a solo bike trip crossing the Karakoram Mountains, the western Himalayas, from Pakistan to China. In February 2019 his exhibition “Through the Eyes of an Archaeologist’ opened at the WITS Origins Center and In April 2020 he was awarded a Blue Plaque for his Broederstroom Archaeological Site by the Magaliesberg Culture & Heritage.

Revil Mason, renowned for his progressive ideas about the importance of the archaeological past to all South Africans was a humble, down to earth man, often irreverent, with a dry sense of humour, eschewing physical comforts. A famous academic colleague, Professor Phillip Tobias, called Revil Mason “brilliant, creative, unpredictable, sometimes difficult, humorous, an indefatigable field archaeologist”

He is survived by two daughters, Tamar Mason and Petra Mason, a grandson and a granddaughter.May he Rest in Peace