Clarke studied at Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he became a fellow in 1966. His teaching and writing, particularly in analytical archaeology in 1967, transformed European archaeology in the 1970s. It demonstrated the importance of systems theory, quantification, and scientific reasoning in archaeology, and drew ecology, geography, and comparative anthropology firmly within the ambit of the subject. Never really accepted by the Cambridge hierarchy, he was nevertheless loved by his students for his down-to-earth, inclusive attitudes toward them.
Clarke died in 1976 as a result of thrombosis arising from a gangrenous twisted gut.