Clarence van Riet Lowe

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Clarence van Riet Lowe was born on the 4 November 1894, in Aliwal North, Eastern Cape. It was in his place of birth, that Mr van Riet Lowe was introduced to Alfred Brown, an enthusiast for fossils and reptiles, entomology, prehistoric relics and Bushman paintings. It was this acquaintance that introduce van Riet Lowe to the wonders of nature, planted the seeds of interest in stone tools and rock paintings with far reaching results which he could not have foreseen.

Mr van Riet Lowe was a Civil engineer by profession, and from 1923 to 1928, he was in charge of the construction of new bridges in the Free State. It was in this five year period, which he found it crucial for his career, that he supervised the construction of 89 bridges that he had the opportunity to discover over 300 prehistoric sites, mainly in the valley of the Wilger, Vals, Rhenoster, Caledon, Modder and Riet rivers.

It was also during this period that a change of profession from Civil engineer to a Prehistoric Archaeologist occurred. Not only had he discovered these sites, but made important collections of artefacts which were then donated to museums in Bloemfontein, Cape Town and the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

In his interactions in the field of Prehistoric Archaeology, he interacted and collaborated with various scholars, such as Abbe Henri Breuil, A. J. H. Goodwin, with whom he produced The Stone Age Cultures of South Africa. In 1929 Van Riet Lowe had an opportunity to visit some rock art sites in the eastern Free State accompanied by Abbe Breuil. In 1937 van Riet Lowe visited rock art shelters in Northern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, including Nachikufu.

By 1928 van Riet Lowe’s reputation as a leading archaeologist was firmly established, and by 1935 it was known throughout South Africa and abroad.

In 1935 he represented his Government on the International Historical Monuments Commission of the League of Nations in Geneva and two years later he represented South Africa at the International Conference on Excavations in Cairo.

In 1947 van Riet Lowe took an important part on the deliberations of the First Pan African Congress on Prehistory in Nairobi and the Third Congress in Livingstone in 1954.

Many Honours were conferred upon him: the King’s Jubilee Medal (1935), the Queen’s Coronation Medal (1954), the South African Medal of the South African Association (1943), the Medal of Voortrekker Monument Committee (1942) and of the Historical Monuments Commission (1956).  

Clarence van Riet Lowe died in Knysna in 1956.

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