Mortimer Wheeler

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Mortimer Wheeler
Mortimer Wheeler.jpg
Mortimer Wheeler
Born 10 September 1890
Died 22 July 1976(1976-07-22) (aged 85)
Nationality British
Fields Archaeology

Brigadier Sir Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler CH, CIE, MC, TD, FSA, FRS, FBA (10 September 1890 – 22 July 1976) was a British archaeologist.

Born in Glasgow to a middle-class family, Wheeler was raised largely in Yorkshire, where he developed an early interest in archaeology. Relocating to London in his teenage years, he took a keen interest in art although came to study classics at University College London (UCL). He proceeded to work professionally in archaeology, although volunteered for service in the Royal Artillery during World War I.

After the conflict, he undertook excavations in Wales, England, and Northern France as Director of the National Museum of Wales and Keeper of the London Museum with his first wife, Tessa Wheeler, an accomplished field archaeologist. They were early advocates of a more scientific approach to excavation and the recording of stratigraphic context, following in the footsteps of Augustus Pitt Rivers. After further service in the Second World War, he was Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India. His appearances on television and radio, particularly Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, and his popular books helped to bring archaeology to a mass audience.

Wheeler was recognised as a prominent populariser of archaeology in Britain.

Early life[edit]

Childhood: 1890–1907[edit]

Mortimer Wheeler was born on 10 September 1890 in the city of Glasgow, Scotland.[1] He was the first child of the journalist Robert Mortimer Wheeler and his second wife Emily Wheeler (nee Baynes).[2] The son of a tea merchant based in Bristol, in youth Robert had considered becoming a Baptist minister, but instead became a staunch freethinker while studying at the University of Edinburgh. Initially working as a lecturer in English literature, Robert turned to journalism after his first wife died in childbirth.[3] His second wife, Emily, shared her husband's interest in English literature, being the neice of a Shakespearean scholar at St. Andrews University, Thomas Spencer Baynes.[2] Their marriage, however, was emotionally strained,[4] a situation exacerbated by their financial insecurity.[5] Within two years of their son's birth, the family moved to Edinburgh, where a daughter named Amy was born.[2] The couple gave their two children nicknames, with Mortimer being "Boberic" and Amy being "Totsy".[5]

During childhood, Wheeler took an interest in the prehistoric carvings of Ilkley Moor

When Wheeler was four, his father was appointed chief lead writer for the Bradford Observer. Thus, the family relocated to Saltaire, a village northwest of Bradford, a cosmopolitan city in Yorkshire, northeast England which was then in the midst of the wool trade boom.[6] Wheeler would be inspired by the moors surrounding Saltaire, being fascinated by the area's archaeology, later describing discovering a late prehistoric cup-marked stone, searching for lithics on Ilkley Moor, and digging into a barrow on Baildon Moor.[7] Although suffering from ill health, aided by a maid Emily Wheeler taught her two children up to the age of seven or eight.[5] However, Mortimer remained emotionally distant from his mother, instead being far closer to his father,[4] whose company he favoured over that of other children.[8] His father had a keen interest in natural history and a love of fishing and shooting, rural pursuits which he encouraged Mortimer to take part in.[9] Robert acquired many books for his son, particularly on the subject of art history,[10] with Wheeler loving to both read and paint.[11]

In 1899, Wheeler joined Bradford Grammar School shortly before his ninth birthday, where he proceeded straight to the second form.[12] Meanwhile, in 1902 Robert and Emily had a second daughter, whom they named Betty; Mortimer would show little interest in this younger sister.[13] In 1905, Robert agreed to take over as head of the Bradford Observer's London office, and so the family relocated to the southeast of the city in December, settling into a house named Carlton Lodge in South Croydon Road, West Dulwich.[14] In 1908 they relocated to 14 Rollescourt Avenue in nearby Herne Hill.[15] Wheeler's father was critical of formal education, thus instructing his 15 year old son to educate himself through spending time around London; subsequently doing so, Wheeler spent much of his time visiting The National Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum.[16]

University and early career: 1907–14[edit]

Wheeler undertook his BA and MA at University College London (pictured)

In 1907, Wheeler was awarded a scholarship to read classical studies at University College London (UCL), commuting daily from his parental home to the university campus in Bloomsbury, central London.[17] At UCL, he was taught by the prominent classicist A. E. Housman.[18] During his undergraduate studies, he became editor of the Union Magazine, for whom he produced a number of illustrated cartoons.[19] Increasingly interested in art, he decided to switch from classical studies to a course at UCL's art school, the Slade School of Fine Art, however returned to his previous subject after coming to the opinion that – in his words – he would never become more than "a conventionally accomplished picture maker".[20] This interlude had adversely effected his classical studies however, and he only received a second class BA on graduating.[21]

Wheeler proceeded to begin a Master of Arts degree in classical studies, eventually attaining it in 1912.[21] During this period, he also gained employment as the personal secretary of the UCL Provost Gregory Foster,[22] although would later criticise Foster for transforming the university from "a college in the truly academic sense [into] a hypertrophied monstrosity as little like a college as a plesiosaurus is like a man".[17] It was also at this time of life that he met Tessa Verney, a student then studying history at UCL; they entered into a relationship, which would result in Wheeler's first marriage.[22]

During his studies, Wheeler had developed his love of archaeology, having joined an excavation of Viroconium Cornoviorum, a Romano-British settlement in Wroxeter, in 1913.[23] Considering a profession in the discipline, he won a studentship that had been established jointly by the University of London and the Society of Antiquaries in memory of Augustus Wollaston Franks. The prominent archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans doubled the amount of money that went with the studentship. Wheeler's proposed project had been to analyse Romano-Rhenish pottery, and with the grant he funded a trip to the Rhineland in Germany, there studying the Roman pottery housed in local museums; his research into this subject was never published.[24]

In 1913, he secured a position as junior investigator for the English Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, who were embarking on a project to assess the state of all structures in the nation that pre-dated 1714. As part of this, he was first sent to Stebbing in Essex to assess Late Medieval buildings, however once that was accomplished he focused on studying the Romano-British remains of that county.[25] In summer 1914 he married Tessa in a low-key wedding ceremony, before a son named Michael was born in January 1915.[26]

First World War: 1914–18[edit]

After the United Kingdom's entry into World War I in 1914, Wheeler volunteered for the armed forces.[27] For the next seven months, he was posted as an instructor in the University of London Officer Training Corps.[27]

At the beginning of World War I, Wheeler was commissioned into the Royal Artillery (Territorial Force), at first remaining in London as an instructor in the University of London Officers' Training Corps. Then he was posted to several battery commands in Scotland and England until 1917. During the last part of the war he fought in France, Passchendaele, the Western Front, near Bapaume, and finally marched into Germany, commanding 'A' Battery of 76th Brigade, RFA. He was awarded the Military Cross for his war service. During July 1919 he returned from the Rhineland to London and to civilian life.

Early career[edit]

The excavations at Maiden Castle, Dorset, in October 1937 were led by Mortimer Wheeler. Photograph by Major George Allen (1891–1940)

Wheeler returned to the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments in 1919, but took up a new position as Keeper of Archaeology at the National Museum of Wales in August 1920. He also became a lecturer in archaeology at the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire in Cardiff. He was Director of the National Museum of Wales from 1924 to 1926. With his wife Tessa—an accomplished field archaeologist in her own right—he excavated Welsh sites including Segontium, Gaer and Caerleon. He moved to London in 1926 to become Keeper of the London Museum, remaining in this position until 1944. During this period, the Wheelers performed many major excavations within Britain, including that of the Roman villa at Lydney Park, Roman Verulamium (modern-day St Albans), and the late Iron Age hill-fort of Maiden Castle, Dorset. They worked together on establishing an Archaeological Institute in London, which was founded in 1934.

The excavation methods they used, for example the grid system (later developed further by Kathleen Kenyon and known as the Wheeler-Kenyon method), were significant advances in archaeological method, although later superseded. They were influenced greatly by the work of the archaeologist Lieutenant General Augustus Pitt Rivers (1827–1900). The two constant themes in their attempts to improve archaeological excavation were, first, to maintain strict stratigraphic control while excavating (for this purpose, the baulks between trenches served to retain a record of the strata that had been dug through), and, second, to publish the excavation promptly and in a form that would tell the story of the site to the intelligent reader such as in articles in the Illustrated London News, where he employed the services of the noted artist Alan Sorrell. They published their results quickly after the excavations concluded, and Mortimer proved adept at generating favourable publicity.

Second World War[edit]

When World War II was imminent, Wheeler returned from excavating Iron Age hill forts in Normandy during August 1939 to join the Middlesex Territorial Association at Enfield. He stayed there until 1941 when his unit was transferred into the regular army forces as the 48th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, which became a part of the 42nd Mobile Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment in the Royal Artillery. His son also served as a second lieutenant in the unit. He served with his unit with the 8th Army in North Africa, at the Second Battle of El Alamein. He was promoted to brigadier and commanded the 12th Anti-Aircraft Brigade during the landing of Allied Forces at Salerno, Italy, Operation Avalanche in September 1943.

Later career[edit]

The next year, now 54 years old, he retired from the Army to become Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India, exploring in detail the remains of the Indus Valley Civilization at Mohenjodaro, and other sites including Taxila, Arikamedu, Harappa, Brahmagiri and Chandravalli.

While in India, he founded a new journal, Ancient India, and he later wrote a volume of the Cambridge History of India, The Indus Civilization.

"Despite his very short stay as Director General, [Wheeler] infused an element of urgency into the Indian archaeological scene. With him archaeology in India became exciting, worth doing for its own sake. This excitement is apparent in the articles that he wrote, and still affects those who know the scene."

Dilip K. Chakrabarti, 1982[28]

Through his leadership of the Archaeological Survey of India between 1944 and 1948, Wheeler had a significant impact on the archaeology of the Indian subcontinent. Indian archaeologist Dilip K. Chakrabarti praised Wheeler's achievements in a 1982 volume of the World Archaeology journal, relating that he had helped to establish a "total view" of the region's development from the Palaeolithic onward. Chakrabarti also noted that Wheeler had introduced multiple archaeological techniques and methods that were then unknown in India, through his insistence on careful archaeological planning and his emphasis on properly understanding stratigraphy. Furthermore, Chakrabarti argued that Wheeler had benefited Indian archaeology by encouraging various Indian universities to begin archaeological research, recognising that the Archaeological Survey alone could not cover such a vast area. Ultimately, Chakrabarti was of the opinion that Wheeler had "prepared the archaeology of the subcontinent for its transition to modernity in the post-Partition period."[28]

Chakrabarti's opinions were echoed by another archaeologist focusing on India, Peter Johansen, in a 2003 paper published in Asian Perspectives. Johansen praised Wheeler for systematising and professionalising Indian archaeology, and for "instituting a clearly defined body of techniques and methods for field and laboratory work and training."[29]

Soon after he returned to England during 1948, he was made a professor at the Institute of Archaeology at the University of London He spent part of the years 1949 and 1950 in Pakistan as Archaeological Adviser to the Government, helping to establish the Archaeological Department of Pakistan, and the National Museum of Pakistan at Karachi. He excavated the Stanwick Iron Age Fortifications in Yorkshire in 1951, and returned to Pakistan in 1956 to excavate Charsada.[citation needed] Wheeler described his intention that the Institute become "a laboratory: a laboratory of archaeological science".[30]

In 1958 he opened the extension to the Gloucester City Museum & Art Gallery which doubled its available space.[31]

He became known through his books and appearances on television and radio, helping to bring archaeology to a mass audience. Wheeler believed strongly that archaeology needed public support, and was assiduous in appearing on radio and television to promote it. In addition to this he collaborated with the artist and illustrator of books, Alan Sorrell, advising the artist on his archaeological reconstruction drawings. He appeared in three television series that aimed to bring archaeology to the public: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral (1952–60), which was a quiz game, an archaeological variant of Twenty Questions, Buried Treasure (1954–59), "Grandeur That Was Rome" (1960), and Chronicle (from 1966), and was named British TV Personality of the Year in 1954. He is known to have prepared in advance for Animal, Vegetable, Mineral by checking out the details of any objects that had recently been removed from display in upcoming locations.[32]

He became a fellow of the British Academy in 1941; and served as its Secretary from 1949 to 1968. He was also President of the Society of Antiquaries of London. He was knighted in 1952, became a Companion of Honour in 1967, and a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1968.

In addition to his academic and popular works on archaeology, he published three memoirs. In 1969, along with Hugh Trevor-Roper and A. J. P. Taylor, he became a member of the editorial board of Sir Winston Churchill's four volume A History of the English-Speaking Peoples.

Personal life[edit]

Bronze bust of Wheeler at the UCL Institute of Archaeology's library

Wheeler divided opinion among those who knew him, with some loving and others despising him.[33] During his lifetime he was often criticised on both scholarly and moral grounds.[34] His charm offensives were often condemned as being insincere.[35] He was known as "Rik" among friends.[36][37] During excavations, he was known as an authoritarian leader, but favoured those whom he thought exhibited bravery by standing up to his authority.[38] He was meticulous in his writings, and would repeatedly revise and re-write both pieces for publication and personal letters.[39]

Although he did not take a strong interest in politics, Wheeler was described by his biographer as "a natural conservative"; for instance, during his youth he was strongly critical of the Suffragettes and their cause of greater legal rights for women.[40]

In May 1914, Wheeler married Tessa Verney. Tessa became an accomplished archaeologist, and they collaborated until she died in 1936. Their only child, a son Michael, was born in January 1915. He became a barrister and judge.

In 1939, he married Mavis de Vere Cole,[41] widow and second wife of the prankster Horace de Vere Cole (d. 1936)[42] and mistress-model of the painter Augustus John. Mavis was a Bright Young Thing (a socialite of the 1920s). The Churchills were invited to this wedding and sent a book as a wedding present. Wheeler divorced Mavis in 1942 after discovering her with a lover (although he was also sexually adventurous and unfaithful). There were no children of this second marriage.[43]

In 1945 Mortimer Wheeler married his third wife, Margaret Norfolk, in Simla, but they became estranged in 1956.

He was well known for his conspicuous promiscuity, favouring young women for one night stands, many of whom were his students.[44] He was further known for having casual sex in public places.[45] This behaviour led to much emotional suffering among his various wives and mistresses, of which he was aware.[45]

In 1976, after suffering a stroke, he died the following day at the home of his secretary, Molly Myres, in Leatherhead.

Legacy and influence[edit]

"He was a true innovator in archaeology, an inspired teacher, [and] had the dramatic gifts to enable him to spread his own enthusiasm among multitudes. He developed powers of command and creative administration that brought him extraordinary successes in energizing feeble institutions and creating new ones."

— Jacquetta Hawkes, 1982.[39]

Jacquetta Hawkes asserted that Wheeler was not an original thinker, but that he had "a vision of human history that enabled him to see each discovery of its traces, however small, in its widest significance."[39]

In its 2013 obituary of the Englsh archaeologist Mick Aston, British Archaeology magazine – the publication of the Council for British Archaeology – described Aston as "the Mortimer Wheeler of our times" because despite the strong differences between their personalities, both had done much to bring archaeology to the British public.[46]

Academic publications[edit]

In 1982, the archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes published her biography, Mortimer Wheeler: Adventurer in Archaeology. Hawkes admitted she had developed "a very great liking" for Wheeler, having first met him when she was an archaeology student at the University of Cambridge.[33] She believed that he had "a daemonic energy", with his accomplishments in India being "almost superhuman".[47] Ultimately, she thought of him as being "an epic hero in an anti-heroic age" in which growing social egalitarianism had stifled and condemned aspects of his greatness.[34]

In 2013, the Papers from the Institute of Archaeology issued a short comic strip by Gabriel Moshenska and Alex Salamunovich depicting Wheeler's activities in studying the archaeology of Libya during World War II.[48]


  • Segontium and the Roman Occupation of Wales (1923)
  • Prehistoric and Roman Wales (1925)
  • The Roman Fort Near Brecon (1926)
  • Report on the excavations of the prehistoric, Roman and post-Roman site in Lydney Park, Gloucestershire (1932)
  • Verulamium: a Belgic and Two Roman Cities (1936)
  • The excavation of Maiden Castle, Dorset : second interim report (1936)
  • Maiden Castle, Dorset (1943)
  • Five thousand years of Pakistan; an archaeological outline (1950)
  • Cambridge History of India: The Indus Civilization (1953)
  • Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London No.XVII: The Stanwick Fortifications, North Riding of Yorkshire (1954)
  • Archaeology from the Earth (1954)
  • Rome beyond the Imperial Frontiers (1954)
  • Still Digging (memoir) (1955)
  • Hillforts of Northern France (1957)
  • Charsada: a Metropolis of the North-West Frontier' (1962)
  • Roman art and architecture (1964)
  • Alms for Oblivion (memoir) (1966)
  • Civilizations of the Indus Valley and beyond (1966)
  • Roman Africa in Colour (with Roger Wood, 1966)
  • Flames over Persepolis: Turning point in history (1968)
  • The Indus Civilization (1968)
  • Early India and Pakistan: to Ashoka (1970)
  • My Archaeological Mission to India and Pakistan (memoir) 1976



  1. ^ Piggott 1977, p. 623; Hawkes 1982, p. 15.
  2. ^ a b c Hawkes 1982, p. 15.
  3. ^ Piggott 1977, p. 623; Hawkes 1982, pp. 15, 18.
  4. ^ a b Hawkes 1982, p. 20.
  5. ^ a b c Hawkes 1982, p. 19.
  6. ^ Piggott 1977, p. 623; Hawkes 1982, p. 16.
  7. ^ Hawkes 1982, pp. 17, 23.
  8. ^ Hawkes 1982, p. 22.
  9. ^ Hawkes 1982, p. 18.
  10. ^ Hawkes 1982, pp. 18, 29.
  11. ^ Piggott 1977, p. 623; Hawkes 1982, p. 21.
  12. ^ Piggott 1977, p. 623; Hawkes 1982, p. 26.
  13. ^ Hawkes 1982, p. 26.
  14. ^ Hawkes 1982, pp. 31–32.
  15. ^ Hawkes 1982, p. 38.
  16. ^ Hawkes 1982, pp. 32–33.
  17. ^ a b Hawkes 1982, p. 40.
  18. ^ Hawkes 1982, p. 41.
  19. ^ Hawkes 1982, pp. 41–42.
  20. ^ Hawkes 1982, pp. 43–44.
  21. ^ a b Hawkes 1982, p. 45.
  22. ^ a b Hawkes 1982, p. 47.
  23. ^ Hawkes 1982, p. 49.
  24. ^ Hawkes 1982, pp. 49–51.
  25. ^ Hawkes 1982, pp. 51–52.
  26. ^ Hawkes 1982, pp. 52–53.
  27. ^ a b Hawkes 1982, p. 53.
  28. ^ a b Chakrabarti 1982. p. 337.
  29. ^ Johansen 2003. p. 197.
  30. ^ Hawkes 1982, p. 6.
  31. ^ "Gloucester Museum Doubles Its Space" in The Times, 25 April 1958, p. 12.
  32. ^ Paul Bahn, The Bluffer's guide to archaeology, London, 1989, p.59
  33. ^ a b Hawkes 1982, p. 1.
  34. ^ a b Hawkes 1982, p. 2.
  35. ^ Hawkes 1982, p. 8.
  36. ^ Hawkes 1982, p. 10.
  37. ^ "Alumni Reflections: Charles Thomas" in Archaeology International, Issue 15 (2011–2012), pp. 119–123.
  38. ^ Hawkes 1982, pp. 9–10.
  39. ^ a b c Hawkes 1982, p. 4.
  40. ^ Hawkes 1982, pp. 45–46.
  41. ^ Bassano portrait of the newly married couple, 1939
  42. ^ Cole (1881–1936) was brother-in-law to British politician and sometime Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain; his sister Anne de Vere Cole was Chamberlain's wife Annie.
  43. ^ After another set of adventures (including shooting her then lover Anthony Vivian, 5th Baron Vivian in 1954 for which she was jailed six months in Holloway). She died in 1970 and was survived by her son, Tristan de Vere Cole (b. 1935), who claims to be the natural son of Augustus John, who co-authored a book with Roderic Owen about his mother. See Darren Devine "Last illegitimate son of Augustus John on life with 'King of Bohemia'", Wales Online, 9 March 2012
  44. ^ Hawkes 1982, pp. 10–12.
  45. ^ a b Hawkes 1982, p. 12.
  46. ^ British Archaeology 2013, p. 16.
  47. ^ Hawkes 1982, p. 3.
  48. ^ Moshenska & Salamunovich 2013.


British Archaeology (2013). "A Life in Archaeology: Michael Antony Aston". British Archaeology 132. pp. 16–17. 
Chakrabarti, Dilip K. (1982). "The Development of Archaeology in the Indian Subcontinent". World Archaeology 13 (3): 326–344. JSTOR 124387. 
Guha, Sudeshna (2003). "Imposing the Habit of Science: Sir Mortimer Wheeler and Indian Archaeology". Bulletin of the History of Archaeology 13 (1): 4. 
Guha, Sudeshna (2003). "Mortimer Wheeler's Archaeology in South Asia and its Photographic Presentation". South Asian Studies 19 (1): 43–55. 
Hawkes, Jacquetta (1982). Mortimer Wheeler: Adventurer in Archaeology. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. ISBN 0297780565. 
Johansen, P.G. (2003). "Recasting the Foundations: New approaches to regional understandings of South Asian archaeology and the problem of Culture History". Asian Perspectives 42 (2). 
Moshenska, Gabriel; Schadla-Hall, Tim (2011). "Mortimer Wheeler's Theatre of the Past". Public Archaeology 10 (1): 46–55. 
Moshenska, Gabriel; Salamunovich, Alex (2013). "Wheeler at War". Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 23 (1): 1–7. 
Piggott, Stuart (1977). "Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 23: 623–642. JSTOR 769628. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Wheeler, Sir Mortimer Still Digging (Michael Joseph Ltd., 1955; re-published, slightly abridged by the author, by Pan Books Ltd., London, 1958, book number GP 94)
  • Clark, Ronald William Sir Mortimer Wheeler (Roy Publishers, New York, 1960)
  • Wheeler, Sir Mortimer The Indus Civilization (Cambridge, 1962)
  • American Anthropologist 79.4 (1977)
  • Hugo Vickers. "Obituary: Daphne Fielding", The Independent (UK), 17 December 1997. (archived version) mentions her brother (Lord Vivian)'s misadventures with Mavis Wheeler. Other references can be found in the 5th Lord Vivian's obituary in The Guardian (2004) and in online Lord Bath's memoirs.
  • Jane McIntosh, 'Wheeler, Sir (Robert Eric) Mortimer (1890–1976)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sept 2012 accessed 11 March 2013

External links[edit]