About Rhodes University RU Faculty of Geology

About Rhodes University RU Faculty of Geology


Geology at Rhodes University

The Geology Department at Rhodes University is over 110 years old, having celebrated its centenary in 2005, and has a proud tradition of producing high quality geologists both for the academic and industry streams throughout its history. As part of a double-major programme in the Faculty of Science, we offer a 3-year undergraduate BSc major programme in Geology with a strong emphasis on fundamental geological skills and a well-rounded curriculum. This is complemented by a one-year Honours post-graduate degree programme involving the cultivation and demonstration of higher-level skills. Each year except 1st year includes a “hands-on” field course component in which applied skills and a team ethos are developed.

Currently the economic crisis has affected key commodity prices which has led to fewer job opportunties than in the recent past. Given that the economy of the minerals industry is cyclic this is an excellent time to spend a couple of years at university in order to upgrade existing degrees. More and better career options will be available in the future and higher level training will enable you to exploit them.

If you are interested in finding out more about any of our training programmes, please see the relevant weblinks for further information, or contact us.In addition to standard postgraduate research degrees (MSc and PhD) in a wide variety of subject areas, the Department features a world-class Exploration Geology MSc programme, one of only about four similar ones in the world (and we were the first). This programme, established in 1978, is an internationally-recognised training and degree programme for exploration geologists from all over the world. It consists of a part time programme normally over two years of lecture-, practical- and field-based studies.

About Geology and Geologists

What is Geology?
Geology is the scientific study of Earth, a complex, dynamic planet whose interior and surface are subject to continuous modification by a variety of processes. Geology aims at documenting and understanding these processes and how they have changed through time. This is achieved through studying rocks – their composition and properties, the sequence in which they occur, the minerals and fossils they might contain, their age and relationships to one another. Every rock contains a record of its history and the process by which it formed. Geology aims to read that record through scientific investigation, and using the information to reconstruct Earth history and processes, and to locate mineral deposits for use in developing and developed countries.

Recumbent fold, Cape Supergroup; Cape Fold Belt

Our planet is dynamic. Earth has a molten nickel-iron core that is responsible for the Earth’s magnetic field. Energy escaping from the core is expended at the surface of the Earth by the moving of the large lithospheric plates and by volcanism. Plate movements are responsible for creating many of the surface features of the planet including large fold mountain belts such as the Andes and Himalayas, and are also responsible for the formation of basins in which sediment eroded from these mountains is finally deposited. Earth has, with time, evolved into a chemically differentiated planet, as geological processes have resulted in the formation of the iron core, silicate outer solid Earth, the oceans and atmosphere. The origin and evolution of life on Earth is intimately related to the geological evolution of the planet.

The evidence for the complex evolution of Earth and the interaction of its different parts lies in rocks formed throughout Earth history. In Geology one learns to search for this evidence and to decipher the message in the rocks. In this regard Geology is largely a descriptive, interpretive and historical science. This is not to say that Geology is not a true science or is non-quantitative. Much of the “description” in modern geological studies involves obtaining a wealth of quantitative data and the “interpretation” requires rigorous analysis of such data. It is well to remember that the Earth is a complex chemical system subject to a variety of physical forces. Sound knowledge of the laws of chemistry and physics is a powerful tool for a geologist. Another important factor in geology is time. The Earth is 4600 million years old, an intangible quantity in human experience. The magnitude of the time periods within which geological evolution operates sets Geology apart from other sciences (except Astronomy).

What is a Geologist?

Folded Nama Group sedimentary rocks


Geology graduates worldwide are trained in a fundamentally similar range of subjects, which encompass the breadth of geological subdisciplines. These include mineralogy, igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary petrology and petrography, structural geology, geochemistry, palaeontology, ore deposit geology and petrography, hydrogeology and geophysics. More specialised subjects may also be offered at introductory levels. Geologists may specialise in specific subdisciplines at post-graduate level, especially through advanced research during M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees.

Geologists with this broad training are then employed directly in a variety of fields, including the following professions (among others):
• researcher / lecturer (at universities)
• mine geologist (guiding mineral extraction)
• exploration geologist (finding new ore deposits)
• mapping geologist (for geological surveys)
• petroleum geologist (oil and gas exploration and development)
• groundwater geologist
• museum curator / researcher
• national park conservator

Geophysicists and mining engineers are typically physicists or civil engineers with some geological training, rather than the other way around. Geologists are fundamentally “applied natural scientists”, who take aspects of chemistry and physics and apply them to problems in Earth Science.

History of the Department

Prof E.H.L. Schwarz

The following quite comprehensive history of the Department has been taken from an article written by Prof. Hugh Eales (past Head of Dept) for the 2005 Centenary of the Department, published in the June 2004 issue (Vol 47, no. 2) of the Geobulletin of the Geological Society of South Africa. It has been updated slightly in the final paragraphs.

The Geology Department, the fifth to be established within the fledgling Rhodes University College, was founded by Ernest H. L. Schwarz. A graduate of the Royal College of Science and the Camborne School of Mines, he had served for 10 years with the Cape Geological Commission, under whose name he had already published 115 contributions. One must view some of his rather controversial views within the context of the times – a mere 40 years after Lyell’s Elements of Geology came out in 1865 – for many of his ideas were indeed controversial.

In 1909 he argued that, as both P- and S-type seismic waves penetrated through the rocks immediately underlying the Earth’s outer crust, the core could not be liquid. This stance would appear to have been rooted in the assumption that the rocks at a depth greater than 30 miles were representative of the deeper interior of the Earth as well, all the way down to its centre. In 1912 he seized on T.C. Chamberlin’s ‘Planetismal Hypothesis’ of an Earth growing from the accretion of solid matter floating in space to assert, further, that the core would be at a temperature only slightly above Absolute Zero. His Kalahari Scheme, mooted in 1920, proposed to end the Cunene, Okavango and Chobe Rivers “hurrying the waters uselessly to the sea” by damming them and diverting their flow into the Etosha Pan, Lake Ngami and the Makarikari Depression.

It was his goal to stimulate agriculture on “the same scale as that in Egypt”, but his reliance on the boiling-point method for determining altitudes led to the entire scheme being torpedoed in Alex Du Toit’s Report to the Department of Irrigation in 1925, when accurate spirit-levelling supplemented by aerial reconnaissance showed the non-viability and excessive cost of such a scheme, not to mention disregard for the riparian rights of the indigenous peoples.

In spite of these excursions up a few blind alleys, Schwarz’s imaginative and stimulating lectures, and his papers presented at the Annual Meetings of the SA Association for the Advancement of Science, were widely acclaimed in this country, while his contributions during his years of arduous field mapping at the turn of the century stand as his monument today.

Prof E.D. Mountain

When Schwarz died during a field expedition to Senegal in 1929, his place was taken by Edgar D. Mountain, a graduate of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, who had been with the British Museum as a mineralogist during 1922-1926, before being appointed as a lecturer under Schwarz. For the short period that they worked together, relationships were always under strain, for Mountain was a fiercely competitive man who had been an Olympic Medallist in 1920 and 1924, and one-time holder of a World record for the half-mile. With relish this athletic man launched into field work in the Eastern Cape, such as a study of the Transkei Gap Dikes (1943), Geological Survey Sheet No.136 (east of Grahamstown), and geological sheets covering Keiskamma Hoek (1952), the Border Region (1962), Port Alfred (1962), and East London, Kidd’s Beach and Kei Mouth (1974). Not surprising, therefore, was his interest in the abundant dolerites of the Eastern Cape and Natal, and in particular the ‘syntectic veins’ and pegmatites found within them.

Mountain had been particularly fortunate to have the assistance of two sterling men – J.V.L.Rennie and Albert Ruddock – during his tenure. Jack Rennie (M.A., Cape Town, 1925) had shared the prestigious Union Scholarship with Solly (later Lord) Zuckermann while completing a Ph.D. in palaeontology at the University of Cambridge. He joined the Geology Department at Rhodes in 1931, and his contributions on the molluscs of the Cretaceous rocks of Pondoland and Zululand were benchmarks papers, before he turned geographer to found the eponymous Department here, and later became Vice Principal of the University, with Eastern Cape history his real passion in his retirement years. The other lecturer, Albert Ruddock, came from Durham University with an accolade from no less than the eminent Arthur Holmes himself as “one of the ablest and most promising of the young geologists I have had the privilege of training.”

I doubt if Albert ever knew of this glowing tribute supporting his application for the post, for I found it in confidential university files only after Albert had died, written personally by the hand of Holmes. An immensely capable, conscientious and likeable man, Ruddock had had the misfortune to be encumbered with the crushing load of teaching that was quite the norm in those days – each of the Third Year courses and half of the Honours and First Year courses in both Geology and Geography, and all associated practical classes, with some Second Year practicals added for good measure. Understandably, he had enjoyed little opportunity for research, but his published work on the Sunday’s River terraces and their bearing on sea-level changes in the Tertiary and Quaternary is still cited today.

Prof Hugh Eales, ca. 1972

With Mountain’s retirement in 1969, Hugh V. Eales took the Chair. After five years on exploration for diamonds, gold and base metals in Tanganyika and then what was at that time Southern Rhodesia, he had been appointed to a lectureship in 1958, and Senior Lectureship in 1960 on completion of a doctoral degree on hydrothermal gold deposits. Curiously enough, the Canadian exploration company of Frobisher Ltd. had had Rex Davis (PhD, Rhodes; subsequently Professor of Exploration Geology at Imperial College), Des Pretorius (subsequently Professor and Director of the Economic Geology Research Unit at Wits.) and Eales on the staff at the same time. After the latter’s year of sabbatical research at the University of Cambridge, and work with J.V.P.(Jim) Long (a pioneer of microprobe and ion probe analysis) and I.D. Muir in 1972, and several years of ties with Norman F.M. Henry on the IMA’s Commission on Ore Microscopy in Europe, the time was ripe for modernization of the Department. With a grant of R7000 from the trustees, Rhodes became the second university in this country to bring a microprobe into service – even if it took a year to bring a second-hand GEOSCAN up to speed, and, with the aid of the Physics Department, build a dedicated microprocessor to quantify the data on line. An XRF spectrometer and XRD facilities (also second-hand) and computers were added, and a healthy influx of post-graduate students then qualified the Geology Department for support within the National Geodynamics Programmeme for the years 1974-1980.

The period 1970-1979 also saw a much-needed expansion of staff from three to a peak of seven. During that time those who joined the Department were Brian Lock (Ph.D., Cambridge; Sedimentology and Geodynamics) for the years 1970-1977; Roger Jacob (M.Sc.,Rhodes, Ph.D., UCT; Economic Geology and Metamorphic Petrology) in 1971; J.S.Marsh (PhD, UCT; Petrology and Geochemistry) in 1974; P.A. Snowden (Ph.D., Zimbabwe; Structural Geology) for 1976-1981; N.Hiller (PhD, Belfast; Stratigraphy and Palaeontology) for 1977-1984; and I.M. Reynolds (PhD, Rhodes; Ore Petrology) for 1979-1987. With the addition to the staff of J.S. (Goonie) Marsh our focus within the currency of the NG Programmeme settled on the dolerites and volcanics of the Stormberg-Barkly East regions. From this flowed papers, conference abstracts, 9 Honours theses and 4 M.Sc. theses, and from Marsh and Eales a substantial part of the text of Convenor A.J. (Tony) Erlank’s 395-page Petrogenesis of the Volcanic Rocks of the Karoo Province (Spec. Publ. No. 13 of the GSSA, 1984) for what would today be regarded as trivial subvention by CSIR totalling R28 000.

This influx of extraordinarily dedicated staff led in 1976 to a proposal to launch a sub-department of Exploration Geology being laid before the University Senate. Despite some initial scepticism, Senate approved the move and, with subvention from the Chamber of Mines, R.W. (Bob) Mason (PhD, Wits; with 16 years of field and mining experience) enrolled his first students in 1978. The course, based on a modular structure with instruction by internal staff and invited experts from industry and other universities, and rigorous appraisal by external examiners, has never looked back. The number of degrees awarded at MSc and PhD level to graduates hailing from some 25 different countries in Africa, the Americas, Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, now exceeds 130. When Mason was head-hunted in 1982 by Queen’s University, Ontario, to launch a similar course there, he was succeeded by Franco Pirajno (PhD, Naples), fresh from the Pacific theatre. In turn, he was succeeded in 1991 by J.M. (John) Moore (PhD, UCT) under whom the course continued to flourish, along with his research in fields as diverse as diamonds, gold and base metals in southern Africa, gold in West and East Africa, and fossil termite mounds. In 2011 Yong Yao (Dr rer nat, Munich) took over the management of the programme. He modernised the structure of the programme and implemented a part-time programme structure. After rejecting repeated offers, Yong eventually accepted a senior post in industry at International Resources Limited (IRL). Since 2015 the MSc Programme has been managed by RE “Jock Harmer (PhD, UCT).

Research in the 1980’s and early 1990’s then brought together a group whose focus was on layered complexes, specifically the Bushveld Complex – F.J. (Moose) Kruger, Ivan Reynolds, Roger Scoon, Bernd Teigler, W.J. (Billy) de Klerk, M.J. (Mike) Botha, W.D. (Wolf) Maier, and Hugh Eales (National Convenor, 1985-1988). It is of interest that, amongst these, Moose and Wolf held professorships at Wits and at Pretoria and now Oulu Universities, respectively, Ivan heads the Mineralogy Division of Rio Tinto in Britain, Bernd and Roger set up successful independent geological consultancies in Africa, and Mike heads the exploration arm of Goldfields in Africa and Europe, based in England.

Prof Roger Jacob, enrobed

Health problems forced Eales’ stepping down from the Chair in 1990, and retirement in 1993, but until Hugh sadly passed away in November 2012, he continued to defy logic and common sense after two open-heart operations by spending five days a week in his office, teaching a few short courses, smoking like a chimney, and playing to a 12-handicap in golf. Roger Jacob succeeded to the Chair in 1990, while still keeping up his research on Namibian geology, and on uranium, tin, tungsten and gold mineralization. A heavy load of supervision of Honours and MSc candidates also impinged in due course on his heart, and he stepped down as Head in 1995. Julian Marsh’s work on basalts and kimberlites, and the publication of close on 60 full-length papers through to the present time has earned him an international reputation in that field, and seats on the S.A. National Committees for both the IUGG and IUGS. His schedule in the classroom and the field is a busy one, not eased by assumption of the Chair of Geology in 1996. After 12 years as Head and his own health concerns, he has relinquished the Headship to Steve Prevec (see below) in 2008.

Prof J.S. Marsh

A gene-pool of new ideas has been maintained in more recent years by staff appointments of C.A. Mallinson (MSc, Rhodes) for 1982-1995, R.W. Harris (PhD, UCT) for 1988-1995, and I.P. Skilling (PhD, Lancaster) for1993-1999, and shorter periods with Eric Ferré (PhD, Toulouse), Malcolm Roberts (PhD, Manchester), Octavian Catuneanu (Ph.D., Toronto) and Frank Holzförster (Ph.D., Wurtzburg). We now look forward to a period of stability with the arrival in 2003 of Steffen Büttner (PhD, Frankfurt) who took over Structural Geology. Within the last few years, the Department has been delighted to welcome Emese Bordy in 2004 (MSc, Budapest; PhD, Rhodes) with teaching and research interests in Sedimentology and Basin Analysis, and continental ichnofossils. Steve Prevec (MSc, McMaster; PhD Alberta), whose research interests are in petrology and geochemistry, has also joined us in early 2004, after Malcolm Roberts left for a life of mapping and exploration. Steve will also direct the work of the dedicated technician for the automated JEOL CXA 733 microprobe. Hari Tsikos (PhD, Rhodes) arrived from the UK in 2005 to replace the retired Prof Roger Jacob, as the Department’s economic geologist.

Geofaculty as of 2005

Over the years, the declared policy of Rhodes University has always been to keep itself small, with a figure of six to seven thousand students in mind. There are distinct advantages to an institution where students have daily contact with their mentors who know them by their first names, and where the great majority of students are in residence within the nine separate Halls on campus. A university in a small town sharpens the focus on education and research. Although it has thrown heavy burdens of teaching and supervision on a small staff, size has been no barrier Rhodes’ contribution to Earth Science. During the period 1970-2015, >200 MSc and PhD students graduated, while staff and students have published >300 full-length papers, books, chapters in books, and Council for Geoscience Bulletins and Memoirs.

It is invidious to all those whom space does not allow me to list here, but there are some past students whose achievements stand out. Amongst an older generation, there were Dr. Frank Amm who became Director of the Southern Rhodesian Geological Survey, and Leslie Kent, Assistant Director of the S.A.Geological Survey. Frank Vermaak rose to become Consulting Geologist for J.C.I. Ltd., and J.B. (Barry) Hawthorne Consulting Geologist and a Director of De Beers. G.R. Davis took the Chair of Exploration Geology at Imperial College. Amongst those of a younger vintage who entered academia are Jos Lurie (PhD, 1974) who rose to became Head of the School of Mines and a Senior Director of the Witwatersrand Technikon, Denis Buchanan who succeeded Rex Davis at Imperial College, F.J. Kruger (PhD, 1982) as a Professor at Wits, Andrew Mitchell (PhD, 1988) Professor at Durban-Westville, and Wolf Maier (PhD, 1992) a Professor at Univ. Pretoria. A.J. (Tony) Tankard (PhD, 1975) was co-author of the acclaimed book, Crustal Evolution of Southern Africa. Others have joined industry – Keith Kenyon (1976) is Consulting Geologist for Anglo Gold, and Keith Rumble (1987) CEO for Impala Platinum, while Vivienne Snowden (1981) and her husband, Phil, created and now head the largest consulting geology company in Western Australia.


The generous support of a number of mining and exploration companies, the Chamber of Mines, and the Council for Geoscience, has been of enormous value to us through the last 30 years, and the Geology Department looks with confidence to the future.