Richard N. Hall, solicitor and amateur archaeologist, was the son of Joseph Hall and his wife Phoebe. He was educated in Birmingham and became a solicitor of the High Court of Judicature. He emigrated to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where he published a novel, Life among the Matabele Kopjes in 1896. From 1897 he was secretary of the Rhodesia Landowners' and Farmers' Association and of the Bulawayo Chamber of Commerce. He also became editor of the Matabele Times and was the Rhodesian representative of several London newspapers. In 1899 he served as commissioner for Rhodesia at the Greater Britain Exhibition in London, and in 1901 in a similar position at the Glasgow Exhibition.
Hall collected information on the prehistoric ruins of Rhodesia and in 1900 started collaborating with W.G. Neal*, who had accumulated much information on the ancient ruins of Matabeleland while treasure hunting in the region from 1895 to May 1900. They presented a paper on "Architecture and construction of ancient ruins in Rhodesia" to the Rhodesia Scientific Association in February 1901, which was published in the association's Proceedings (Vol. 2, pp. 5-28). A more comprehensive report, with Neal as co-author, The ancient ruins of Rhodesia (London, 1902) soon followed. It included descriptions of every ruin found by Neal and listed numerous ancient gold mines. The authors supported the conclusion of J.T. Bent* that at least some of the stone buildings had been erected by the Phoenicians or other people from the Middle East.
The appearance of Hall's book coincided with the drafting of new legislation to protect Great Zimbabwe and in May 1902 he was appointed curator of the site by the British South Africa Company (which administered the territory at the time). Though his instructions were to preserve, rather than to investigate the site, he conducted an intensive study of the ruins. During his excavations he removed extensive stratified archaeological deposits which, representing occupation by Africans, he considered of little importance. His destructive digging was probably partly motivated by the unfounded belief that the buildings were erected by foreigners in pre-Bantu times, but also reflected his poor understanding of the purpose of archaeology and how to interpret its evidence. Though his work was acclaimed locally at the time, his treatment of the site led to the ending of his contract in May 1904.
Hall was an early member of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science and at its first annual meeting in Cape Town in 1903 read a paper on "Great Zimbabwe" (Report, 1903, pp. 504-515) in which he gave a description of the ruins. At the next annual meeting in Johannesburg in 1904 he read a paper on the ruins at Inyanga (Report, 1904, pp. 519-525), which he did not believe to be very ancient. During 1904 he visited England, where he delivered a paper before the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The next year he contributed a chapter on "Rhodesian antiquities" to the volume Science in South Africa, prepared on the occassion of the visit of the British Association for the Advancement of Science to South Africa, as well as several papers on the Zimbabwe ruins in British journals. However, his major work was Great Zimbabwe, Mashonaland, Rhodesia: An account of two years' examination work in 1902-4 on behalf of the government of Rhodesia (London, 1905) which provided a detailed description of the ruins. In 1907 he compiled a Visitors guide to the Great Zimbabwe ruins, Mashonaland, Rhodesia, South Africa, which carried the additionnal, somewhat misleading title, The prehistoric monuments of South Africa. That same year he published a lengthy paper in the African Monthly on the prehistoric gold mines of Rhodesia, arguing that they were worked in pre-medieval times. The paper was reprinted as a 45 page pamphlet in Grahamstown. His final major work, published in 1909, was Pre-historic Rhodesia, a review of the historical, ethnological and archaeological evidence relating to the age and origin of the ancient stone buildings and mines of Rhodesia. He reiterated the arguments and conclusions of his earlier works, and attacked the conclusion of David Randall-MacIver* that Great Zimbabwe was the end product of a local development of African building skills.
Despite Hall's destructive work at Great Zimbabwe he did his best not to jump to premature conclusions regarding the origin of the country's ruins. He attempted to distinguish between remains of various ages, which he considered to have been built by different people. For example, he acknowledged that the majority of ruins dated from the thirteenth century or later and were built by Africans. However, he believed that some of the better constructed buildings dated from pre-Bantu times, before about 900 AD, and had been built by people from the Middle East who had also worked Zimbabwe's ancient gold mines.
In 1909 Hall travelled down the Sabi and Lundi rivers for some five months, collecting ethnological information. The next year he was appointed editor of the Rhodesia Journal, and not long thereafter curator of the Ancient Monuments of Rhodesia. At the meeting of the South African Association for the Advancement of science in Buluwayo in 1911 he read a paper on "The present position of the discussion as to the origin of the Zimbabwe culture", which was published in the association's Report (pp. 325-337). Around this time his interest turned to the San as early inhabitants of the territory, leading to papers on "The bushmen" (1911), dealing mainly with rock paintings, and "Antiquity of the Bushman occupations of Rhodesia" (1912) in the Proceedings of the Rhodesian Scientific Association. In the latter paper he claimed to have a record of some 300 rock painting sites in Rhodesia. The month before his death he completed the manuscript of a book on The Bushman of Rhodesia: Hunter, painter, sculptor. It was not published and has been described as "a thin, derivative piece of work, as dogmatic and unscholarly and filled with grandiose but unsubstantiated claims as all his other work" (Garlake, 1993, p. 2). However, he correctly concluded that the country's rock art was of considerable age and from its content concluded that it pre-dated the introduction of farming.
Hall was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He was married to Marie Elizabeth Hall, with whom he had a daughter.