Mortimer Wheeler

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Mortimer Wheeler
Mortimer Wheeler.jpg
Mortimer Wheeler
Born10 September 1890
Died22 July 1976(1976-07-22) (aged 85)
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Mortimer Wheeler
Mortimer Wheeler.jpg
Mortimer Wheeler
Born10 September 1890
Died22 July 1976(1976-07-22) (aged 85)

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

After service in the Royal Artillery in the First World War, 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.

Early life[edit]

Wheeler—known to his family as "Bobs" but later nicknamed "Rik"[1]—was born in Glasgow, Scotland, the eldest child and only son of a journalist. The family moved to Saltaire in 1894, and then to Shipley in 1899. Wheeler was educated at home, and then at Bradford Grammar School from 1899 to 1904, when his family moved to London. After a further period of home education, he was awarded a scholarship in 1907 to study classics at the University of London, from which he graduated with a BA in 1910 and was awarded an MA degree in 1912. He also took art classes at the Slade School of Fine Art.

In 1913 he won the studentship for archaeology established jointly by the University of London and the Society of Antiquaries in memory of Augustus Wollaston Franks. Sir Arthur Evans doubled the amount of money that went with the studentship, paying out of his own pocket another £100. Wheeler studied Roman pottery in Germany, and the work led to a PhD in 1920. In 1913 he began to work for the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (England).

First World War[edit]

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. 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 archeologist 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[2]

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."[2]

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 systematizing and professionalizing Indian archaeology, and for "instituting a clearly defined body of techniques and methods for field and laboratory work and training."[3]

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.

In 1958 he opened the extension to the Gloucester City Museum & Art Gallery which doubled its available space.[4]

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.[5]

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

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,[6] widow and second wife of the prankster Horace de Vere Cole (d. 1936)[7] 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.[8]

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

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




  1. ^ "Alumni Reflections: Charles Thomas" in Archaeology International, Issue 15 (2011-2012), pp. 119-123.
  2. ^ a b Chakrabarti 1982. p. 337.
  3. ^ Johansen 2003. p. 197.
  4. ^ "Gloucester Museum Doubles Its Space" in The Times, 25 April 1958, p. 12.
  5. ^ Paul Bahn, The Bluffer's guide to archaeology, London, 1989, p.59
  6. ^ Bassano portrait of the newly married couple, 1939
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ 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


  • Chakrabarti, Dilip K. (1982). "The Development of Archaeology in the Indian Subcontinent". World Archaeology. 13 (3). pp. 326–344. JSTOR 124387. 
  • 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). 

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