born in Dublin into an academic family, his father being a professor of anatomy at Cambridge. Some of Macalister's early training was in architecture and surveying, but his lifelong interests were broad and included not only Near Eastern archaeology but also Celtic archaeology and antiquities, ecclesiastical art and vestments, and music. In pursuit of the latter, he became an accomplished organist and choirmaster and composed hymns, a number of which were relatively well known. He never married and remained a staunch Protestant in Catholic Dublin. After his early fieldwork in Palestine, Macalister returned to University College Dublin, where, as professor of Celtic archaeology, he occupied the first chair in European archaeology in any university (1909–1943), a post he held until his retirement. In later life, he became somewhat notorious for his impatient field methods at Irish national monuments like Knowth, as well as for his cantankerous responses to any negative reviews of his books on many subjects.
Macalister carried out archaeological surveys and soundings in the Judean Shephelah (1898–1900) with Frederick J. Bliss, at the mounds of Tell es-Zakariyeh, Tell eṣ-Ṣafi, Tell es-Ṣandaḥanna, and Tell el-Judeideh, published in 1902 as Excavations in Palestine during the Years 1898–1900. It was Macalister's excavations at Gezer (1902–1909), however, sponsored by the British Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF), that made his reputation. These were among the first large-scale excavations carried out in Palestine, and they were promptly published by the PEF in 1912 in three sumptuous, handsomely illustrated volumes as The Excavation of Gezer. Nevertheless, Macalister's insistence on working year-round, alone without proper staff, his neglect of proper stratigraphic methods, and his adoption of a highly idiosyncratic chronology marred what appeared to many to be admirable and innovative work. The fact, revealed by the American excavations of G. Ernest Wright, William G. Dever, and Joe D. Seger in 1964–1974, is that Macalister discerned no more than one-third of the strata present at Gezer, and that his final publication is largely useless for reconstructing the site's actual history. Macalister later worked on the Ophel in Jerusalem with A. C. Dickey (1923–1925); there, his relative chronology of the city walls, although challenged by Kathleen Kenyon, was confirmed by the subsequent excavations of Yigal Shiloh. Macalister's later publications on Celtic archaeology are now regarded as little more than historical curiosities.
- Bliss, Frederick Jones, and R. A. S. Macalister. Excavations in Palestine during the Years 1898–1900. London, 1902.
- Dever, William G. “Excavations at Gezer.” Biblical Archaeologist 30.2 (1967): 47–62.
- Macalister, R. A. S. The Excavation of Gezer, 1902–1905 and 1907–1909. 3 vols. London, 1912.
- Thomas, Page A. “The Success and Failure of Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister.” Biblical Archaeologist 47 (1984): 33–35.
William G. Dever