David MacIver (later Randall-MacIver), archaeologist and anthropologist, completed his studies in the school of classics and philosophy at Queen's College, Oxford University, in 1896. Proceeding to Egypt he participated in the excavation at Abydos from 1899 to 1901 for the Egypt Exploration Fund, led by Sir Flinders Petrie. This work led to the publication of his craniological study, The earliest inhabitants of Abydos (Oxford, 1901). Upon his return to England he studied Egyptology at Worcester College, Oxford, until 1906. His academic qualifications included the degrees Master of Arts (MA) and Doctor of Science (DSc).
Following the investigation of Great Zimbabwe by R.N. Hall* during 1902-1904, Randall-MacIver was sent to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1905 by the British Association for the Advancement of Science, with the financial support of the Rhodes Trustees. His brief was to study the ancient ruins of the country, in advance of the joint meeting of the British and South African Associations later that year. By June 1905 he had started work, excavating at Great Zimbabwe and at DhloDhlo (more correctly Danangombe), and exploring several other sites, including those at Inyanga, Mutare, and Khami. At several of these sites he was assisted by Mr E.M. Andrews*. The results of his investigation were first described before members of the British and South African Associations in an evening discourse in Bulawayo on 9 September 1905. A summary of the lecture was published in the Report of the British Association for that year (pp. 301-304). A fuller account of the work was published as "The Rhodesian ruins: Their probable origin and significance" in the Geographical Journal (1906) and in the form of a book, Medieval Rhodesia (London, 1906). At DhloDhlo he established a stratigraphical relationship between the ruins and objects from the Near East and China dating from the 14th to the 16th centuries; furthermore, these objects were closely associated with implements and ornaments of African character. Supporting evidence was found at the other sites. His excavations at Great Zimbabwe consisted of several trenches in the elliptical building. The artefacts found in the lowest occupation layer were found to be of African origin and similar to those still used in the same region. He tentatively dated Great Zimbabwe to the 14th and 15th centuries, and concluded that the ruins were an essentially African endeavour, probably built by the forebears of people still living in the region. These conclusions contradicted the popularly held beliefs of the time, and the conclusion of R.N. Hall, that the ruins had been built much earlier by Phoenicians, Arabians, or Egyptians. These beliefs persisted for a further quarter of a century, until Randall-MacIver's conclusions were confirmed by a second investigation commissioned by the British Association, carried out by Gertrude Caton-Thompson in 1929.
In 1907 Randall-MacIver was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. From that year to 1911, assisted by C.L. Woolley, he directed an archaeological expedition in Nubia (a region now part of northern Sudan) for the University Museum in Philadelphia. He conducted many excavations, during which he introduced the anthropometric measurement of skulls as part of work carried out in the field. Prompt publication of results also enhanced the value of his work. His book Areika (with C.L. Woolley, 1909) described the Meroitic civilisation of black nations south of Egypt during Roman times. Another book, also with Woolley, described their work at Buhen, Egypt (Philadelphia, 1911).
In 1911 Randall-MacIver became the librarian of the American Geographical Society (a post he held to 1914) and that same year married Johanna Davidge of New York. They had no children. During World War I (1914-1918) he served on the intelligence staff in France and Macedonia. In 1921 he settled in Rome, where he published what is probably his best work, Villanovans and early Etruscans (1924), dealing with the early Iron Age near Bologna, in Eritrea and in Latium. This was followed by several other works on Italian archaeology: The iron age in Italy (1927), Italy before the Romans (1928), and Greek cities in Italy and Sicily (1931). His publications also included many articles in scientific Journals. One of these, titled "Mapungubwe" (Nature, 1938) dealt with the discovery of gold ornaments at this now famous site in the Limpopo Province of South Africa. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1938 and went to the United States just before the outbreak of World War II (1939-1945). A man of striking appearance - very tall, with bright blue eyes - he readily conveyed his unfailing enthusiasm to others, but set high work standards.