Carl L. Griesbach, a member of an old Hanoverian family, was a British subject as his father had settled in England. He was educated at the University of Vienna, where his studies included geology. Afterwards he worked for the Geological Survey of Austria for a short period and published several papers on the geology around Vienna. In 1869 he joined a German expedition to explore central and east Africa, but their ship was wrecked and the survivors endured much hardship and illness before reaching Cape Town. From there Griesbach travelled overland to the Karoo and the region north of Algoa Bay, and then on to Natal. His observations there were reported in three papers in the Verhandlungen der kaiserlichen-koeniglichen geologischen Reichsanstalt during 1870: "Petrefactenfunde in Suedafrika" (pp. 75-76), "Briefliche Mittheilungen ueber Sued- und Ost-Afrika" (pp. 269-270), and "Geologischer Durchschnitt durch Suedafrika" (pp. 501-504). The next year he published the most comprehensive paper relating to his visit, "On the geology of Natal in South Africa", in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London (Vol. 27, pp. 53-72).
In these papers Griesbach provided a concise but clear description of the physical geography and geology of Natal, based on his own observations and those of P.C. Sutherland* and F. Groger*. His description of the granites and sandstones, and his correlation of the latter with the Table Mountain sandstones, did not add much to Sutherland's account, but he reported finding small bivalves and a species of Patella (limpet) in shale interbedded with the sandstone of Kranzkop. His geological section clearly shows the general anticlinal structure of the territory. Though he confirmed Sutherland's description of the Dwyka conglomerate, he did not believe that it was of glacial origin. He described the fossiliferous Upper Cretaceous deposits at the mouths of the Mzamba and Mpenjati Rivers (now named the Mzamba Beds) and was the first to mention another ourcrop of Cretaceous rocks, at St Lucia Bay. The Mzamba beds had been discovered in 1824 by H.F. Fynn* and the rocks and their fossils described by R.J. Garden*. Griesbach's collection of fossils from these beds contained some new species and was deposited in the Hamburg Museum, but appears to have been destroyed during World War II. The map and illustrations included in his English paper show him to have been an accomplished draughtsman. This paper was still considered the best general account of the geology of Natal more than 30 years later (Corstorphine, 1904).
Though Griesbach did not publish his observations of other parts of South Africa, there is a manuscript by him on the diamond districts of the Cape in the T.R. Jones* collection of papers relating to South African geology. Furthermore, in his English paper on the geology of Natal he mentions some prehistoric stone artefacts that had been found on raised beaches by Richard Thornton and others near Inanda and at the mouth of the Zambesi River. In another paper by him on "Weapons and implements used by the kaffirs and bushmen of South Africa" in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute of London (1871, Vol. 1, pp. cliv-clv) these are described as stone arrowheads. He also described a bushman digging stick and its bored stone weight. These publications represent the first record of archaeological investigation in the KwaZulu-Natal coastal belt.
Returning to England in 1871 Griesbach resided in London and in 1874 contributed 70 plates to a catalogue of reptile fossils from South Africa published by the British Museum (Natural History). In that year he was elected a Fellow of the Geological Society of London, and joined the Royal London Militia (now a battalion of the Royal Fusiliers). He served in southern Afghanistan and Burma, was mentioned in despatches and received military decorations. After retiring with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in 1878 he was appointed assistant superintendent of the Geological Survey of India, stationed in Calcutta (now Kolkata). During the next few years he published two memoirs, Geology of the Ramkola and Tatapani coal-fields (1880), and Report on the geology of the section between the Bolan Pass in Baluchistan and Girishk in southern Afghanistan (1881). During 1884-1886 he served as deputy superintendent on the Afghan Boundary Commission and for this work was honoured as a Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire (CIE) in 1887. In his field notes on Afghanistan and present Iran, published in the Records of the Geological Survey of India in 1885 and 1886, he described formations similar to the Dwyka tillite. Between 1880 and 1900 he published more than twenty papers under the auspices of the Geological Survey of India, describing the geology of Afghanistan, India, Baluchistan and Turkistan. He was promoted to superintendent in 1889, and became director of the Geological Survey from July 1894 to February 1903. His most important work is considered to be a memoir on the geology of the central Himalayas, published in 1891. His contribution to the work of the scientific expedition to this region earned him an Austrian gold medal.
During 1896 he spent a few days at the Cape on his return from India and met, among others, local geologists A.W. Rogers* and G.S. Corstorphine*. In 1869 he married Emma, daughter of Rev. W.R. Griesbach, with whom he had a son and a daughter. His last years were spent with his daughter in Graz, Austria. He was a member of many learned societies.