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Mortimer Wheeler

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Mortimer Wheeler

Mortimer Wheeler
Mortimer Wheeler in 1956
Born Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler
10 September 1890
Glasgow, Scotland
Died 22 July 1976(1976-07-22) (aged 85)
London, England
Nationality British
Fields Archaeology
Influences Augustus Pitt-Rivers

Sir Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler (10 September 1890 – 22 July 1976) was a British archaeologist and officer in the British Army. Over the course of his career, he served as Director of both the National Museum of Wales and London Museum, Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India, and the founder and Honourary Director of the Institute of Archaeology in London, having also authored an array of books on the subject.

Born in Glasgow to a middle-class family, Wheeler was raised largely in Yorkshire before relocating to London in his teenage years. After studying Classics at University College London (UCL), he began working professionally in archaeology, specialising in the Romano-British period. During World War I he volunteered for service in the Royal Artillery, being stationed on the Western Front, where he rose to the rank of major and was awarded the Military Cross. Returning to Britain, he obtained his doctorate from UCL before taking on a position at the National Museum of Wales, first as Keeper of Archaeology and then as Director, during which time he oversaw excavation at the Roman forts of Segontium, Y Gaer, and Isca Augusta with the aid of his first wife, Tessa Wheeler. Influenced by the archaeologist Augustus Pitt Rivers, Wheeler advocated a more scientific approach to excavation and the recording of stratigraphic context.

In 1926, he was appointed Keeper of the London Museum; there, he oversaw a re-organisation of the collection and successfully lobbied for increased funding. To encourage an interest in London archaeology, he also began lecturing on the subject at UCL. In 1934, he established the Institute of Archaeology as part of the federal University of London, adopting the position of Honorary Director. In this period, he oversaw excavations of the Roman sites at Lydney Park and Verulamium and the Iron Age hillfort of Maidan Castle. During World War II, he re-joined the armed forces and rose to the position of brigadier, serving in the North African Campaign and then the Allied invasion of Italy. In 1944 he was appointed Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India, through he which he oversaw excavations of sites at Harappa, Arikamedu, and Brahmagiri, and implemented reforms to the subcontinent's archaeological establishment. Returning to Britain in 1948, he made various trips to Pakistan as archaeological advisor to the government. In later life, both his popular books and his appearances on television and radio, particularly Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, helped to bring archaeology to a mass audience.

Wheeler is recognised as one of the most significant British archaeologists of the twentieth-century, responsible for successfully encouraging British public interest in the discipline and advancing methodologies of excavation and recording. Further, he is widely acclaimed as a major figure in the establishment of South Asian archaeology. However, many of his specific interpretations of archaeological sites have been discredited or reinterpreted, and in his personal life he was often criticised for bullying colleagues and sexually harassing young women.


  • Early life 1
    • Childhood: 1890–1907 1.1
    • University and early career: 1907–14 1.2
    • First World War: 1914–18 1.3
  • Early career 2
    • National Museum of Wales: 1919–26 2.1
    • London Museum: 1926–33 2.2
    • Institute of Archaeology: 1934–39 2.3
    • Second World War: 1939–45 2.4
  • Later career 3
    • Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India: 1944–48 3.1
    • Return to Britain: 1948– 3.2
  • Personal life 4
  • Legacy and influence 5
    • Academic publications 5.1
  • Bibliography 6
  • References 7
    • Footnotes 7.1
    • Bibliography 7.2
  • Further reading 8
  • External links 9

Early life

Childhood: 1890–1907

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 niece 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 London office of his newspaper, by then renamed the Yorkshire Daily Observer, 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

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

After passing the entrance exam on his second attempt, 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 received a second class BA on graduating.[21]

Wheeler proceeded to begin a Master of Arts degree in classical studies, which he attained in 1912.[22] During this period, he also gained employment as the personal secretary of the UCL Provost Gregory Foster,[23] 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".[24] It was also at this time of life that he met Tessa Verney, a student then studying history at UCL, when they were both serving on the committee of the University College Literary Society. They entered into a relationship, which would result in Wheeler's first marriage.[25]

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.[26] 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.[27]

At this period, there were very few jobs available within British archaeology; as later archaeologist Stuart Piggott related, "the young Wheeler was looking for a professional job where the profession had yet to be created."[28] However, in 1913, Wheeler 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.[29] In summer 1914 he married Tessa in a low-key, non-religious wedding ceremony, before they moved into Wheeler's parental home in Herne Hill and a son named Michael was born in January 1915.[30] He would be their only child, something that was a social anomaly at the time, although it is unknown if this was by choice or not.[31]

First World War: 1914–18

"I cannot attempt to describe the conditions under which we are fighting. Anything I could write about them would seem exaggeration but would in reality be miles below the truth. The whole battlefield for miles is a congested mess of sodden, rain-filled shell-holes, which are being added to every moment. The mud is not so much mud as fathomless sticky morass... If it were not for the cement pill boxes left by the Boche, not a thing could live many hours."

— Wheeler, in a letter to his wife, October 1917.[32]

After the United Kingdom's entry into World War I in 1914, Wheeler volunteered for the armed forces.[33] Although preferring solitary to group activities, Wheeler found that he greatly enjoyed soldiering.[34] For the next seven months, he was posted as an instructor in the University of London Officer Training Corps.[33] It was during this period that his son Michael was born.[35] In May 1915, he was moved to the Royal Field Artillery (Territorial Force) and shortly thereafter was appointed captain. In this position he was stationed at various bases across Britain, often bringing his wife and child with him; his responsibility was as a battery commander, initially of field guns and subsequently of howitzers.[36]

In October 1917 Wheeler was posted to the 76th Army Brigade RFA, who were then stationed in Belgium, where they had been engaged in the Battle of Passchendaele against German troops along the Western Front. There, he was immediately placed in charge of A Battery, replacing a major who had been poisoned by mustard gas. Being promoted to the position of acting major, he was part of the Left Group of arrtillery who covered the advancing Allied infantry in the Battle.[37] Throughout, he continued a correspondence with his wife, sister, and parents.[38] After Allied victory in the Battle, the Brigade were informed that they were to be sent to Italy.[39]

Wheeler and the Brigade arrived in Italy on 20 November, and proceeded through the Italian Riviera to reach Caporetto, where they were being sent to bolster the Italian troops against a German and Austro-Hungarian advance.[40] However, as the Russian Empire removed itself from the war, the Germany Army refocused its efforts on the Western Front, and so in March 1918 Wheeler's Brigade were ordered to leave Italy, getting a ship from Castelfranco to Vieux Rouen in France.[41] Back on the Western Front, the Brigade were assigned to the Second Division of Julian Byng's Third Army, reaching a stable area of the front in April. Here, he was engaged in artillery fire for several months, before the British went on the offensive in August.[42] On 24 August, in between the ruined villages of Achiet and Sapignies, that he led an expedition which captured two German field guns while under heavy fire from a castle mound; he would subsequently be awarded the Military Cross for this action.[43] Wheeler continued as part of the British forces pushing westward, resulting in the German surrender in November 1918.[44] Wheeler would not be demobilized for several months, instead being stationed at Pulheim in Germany until March; during this time he wrote up his earlier research on Romano-Rhenish poetry, making use of access to local museums, before returning to London in July 1919.[45]

Early career

National Museum of Wales: 1919–26

On returning to London, Wheeler moved into a top-floor flat near Gordon Square with his wife and child.[46] He returned to working for the Royal Commission, examining and cataloguing the historic structures of Essex.[46] In doing so, he produced his first publication, an academic paper on Colchester's Roman Balkerne Gate which was published in Essex Archaeological Society's Transactions in 1920.[47] He soon followed this with two papers in the Journal of Roman Studies; the first offered a wider analysis of Roman Colchester, while the latter outlined his discovery of the vaulting for the city's Temple of Claudius which was destroyed by Boudica's revolt. In doing so, he developed a reputation as a Roman archaeologist in Britain.[47] He then submitted his research on Romano-Rhenish pots to the University of London, on the basis of which he was awarded his Doctor of Letters; thenceforth until his knighthood he would style himself as Dr. Wheeler.[48] However, he was unsatisfied with his job in the Commission, unhappy that he was receiving less pay and a lower status than he had had in the army, and so began to seek out alternate employment.[49]

He obtained a post as the Keeper of Archaeology at the National Museum of Wales, a job that also entailed becoming a lecturer in archaeology at the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire. Taking up this position, he moved to Cardiff with his family in August 1920, although initially disliked the city.[50] The museum was in disarray; prior to the war, construction had begun on a new specially-designed to building to house the collections, although building had ceased during the conflict and it was left abandoned during Cardiff's post-war economic slump.[51] Wheeler recognised that Wales was very regionally divided, with many Welsh folk having little loyalty to Cardiff; thus, he made a point of touring the country, lecturing to local societies about archaeology.[52] The Wheelers' work for the cause of the museum has been seen as part of a wider "cultural-nationalist movement" linked to growing Welsh nationalism during this period; for instance, the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru would be founded in 1925.[53]

Wheeler was impatient to start excavations, and in July 1921 started a six-week project to excavate at the Roman fort of Segontium; accompanied by his wife, he used up his holiday in order to oversee the project. A second season of excavation at the site followed in 1922.[54] Greatly influenced by the writings of archaeologist Augustus Pitt-Rivers, Wheeler emphasised the need for a strong, developed methodology when undertaking an archaeological excavation, believing in the need for strategic planning, or what he termed "controlled discovery", with clear objectives in mind for a project.[55] Further emphasising the importance of prompt publication of research results, he authored full seasonal reports for Archaeologia Cambrensis before publishing a full report, Segontium and the Roman Occupation of Wales.[56] Keen on training new generations of archaeologists, two of the most prominent students to excavate with him at Segontium were Victor Nash-Williams and Ian Richmond.[57]

Over the field seasons of 1924 and 1925, Wheeler then ran excavations of the Roman fort of Daily Mail. In doing so, he emphasised the folkloric and legendary associations that the site had with King Arthur.[61] In 1925, Oxford University Press published Wheeler's first book for a general audience, Prehistoric and Roman Wales, although he would later express the opinion that it was not a good book.[62]

In 1924, the Director of the National Museum of Wales,

  • Brief narration of Mavis Wheeler's history in Wiltshire
  • Sir Mortimer Wheeler
  • Dictionary of Art Historians
  • National Portrait Gallery

External links

  • 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)
  • 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

Further reading

British Archaeology (2013). "A Life in Archaeology: Michael Antony Aston". British Archaeology 132. pp. 16–17. 
Carr, Lydia C. (2012). Tessa Verney Wheeler: Women and Archaeology Before World War Two. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  
Chakrabarti, Dilip K. (1982). "The Development of Archaeology in the Indian Subcontinent". World Archaeology 13 (3): 326–344.  
Guha, Sudeshna (2003a). "Imposing the Habit of Science: Sir Mortimer Wheeler and Indian Archaeology". Bulletin of the History of Archaeology 13 (1): 4–10.  
Guha, Sudeshna (2003b). "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.  
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). 
Mallowan, Max (1977). "Sir Mortimer Wheeler". Iran 15: v–vi.  
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.  
Pleasance, Chris (26 April 2014). "First Monuments Man revealed: The very complicated life of TV archaeologist who single-handedly saved Roman ruins in Libya from marauding soldiers during WWII". Daily Mail Online. 
Sankalia, H.D. (1977). "Sir Mortimer Wheeler 1890–1976". American Anthropologist 79 (4): 894–895.  


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  164. ^ Johansen 2003, p. 197.
  165. ^ Hawkes 1982, p. 6.
  166. ^ "Gloucester Museum Doubles Its Space" in The Times, 25 April 1958, p. 12.
  167. ^ Paul Bahn, The Bluffer's guide to archaeology, London, 1989, p.59
  168. ^ a b Hawkes 1982, p. 1.
  169. ^ a b Hawkes 1982, p. 2.
  170. ^ a b Mallowan 1977, p. vi.
  171. ^ Hawkes 1982, p. 8.
  172. ^ Hawkes 1982, p. 10.
  173. ^ "Alumni Reflections: Charles Thomas" in Archaeology International, Issue 15 (2011–2012), pp. 119–123.
  174. ^ Hawkes 1982, pp. 9–10.
  175. ^ a b c Hawkes 1982, p. 4.
  176. ^ Carr 2012, p. 108.
  177. ^ Hawkes 1982, pp. 45–46.
  178. ^ Carr 2012, pp. 94–95.
  179. ^ Carr 2012, p. 76.
  180. ^ Bassano portrait of the newly married couple, 1939
  181. ^ 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.
  182. ^ 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
  183. ^ Hawkes 1982, pp. 10–12.
  184. ^ a b Hawkes 1982, p. 12.
  185. ^ Pleasance 2014.
  186. ^ a b Moshenska & Schadla-Hall 2011, p. 46.
  187. ^ Moshenska & Schadla-Hall 2011, p. 47.
  188. ^ Piggott 1977, p. 626.
  189. ^ Hawkes 1982, p. 99.
  190. ^ Sankalia 1977, p. 894.
  191. ^ 2013British Archaeology, p. 16.
  192. ^ Carr 2012, p. 146.
  193. ^ Hawkes 1982, p. 3.
  194. ^ Moshenska & Schadla-Hall 2011.
  195. ^ Moshenska & Salamunovich 2013.



Year of Publication Title Publisher
1923 Segontium and the Roman Occupation of Wales London
1925 Prehistoric and Roman Wales Oxford
1926 The Roman Fort Near Brecon London
1927 London and the Vikings London
1930 London in Roman Times London
1932 Report on the Excavations of the Prehistoric, Roman and Post-Roman Site in Lydney Park, Gloucestershire London
1935 London and the Saxons London
1936 Verulamium: A Belgic and Two Roman Cities London
1936 The Excavation of Maiden Castle, Dorset: Second Interim Report London
1943 Maiden Castle, Dorset London
1950 Five Thousand Years of Pakistan London
1953 The Indus Civilization Cambridge
1954 The Stanwick Fortifications, North Riding of Yorkshire Society of Antiquaries (London)
1954 Archaeology From the Earth Oxford
1954 Rome Beyond the Imperial Frontiers London
1955 Still Digging London
1957 Hill Forts of Northern France London
1959 Early India and Pakistan London
1962 Charsada: A Metropolis of the North-West Frontier London
1964 Roman Art and Architecture London
1966 Alms for Oblivion: An Antiquary's Notebook London
1968 Flames Over Persopolis London
1970 The British Academy, 1949–1968 London
1976 My Archaeological Mission to India and Pakistan London


In 2011, the academic journal Public Archaeology published a research paper by Moshenska and Schadla-Hall that analysed Wheeler's role in presenting archaeology to the British public.[194] Two years later, the Papers from the Institute of Archaeology issued a short comic strip by Moshenska and Alex Salamunovich depicting Wheeler's activities in studying the archaeology of Libya during World War II.[195]

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.[168] She believed that he had "a daemonic energy", with his accomplishments in India being "almost superhuman".[193] 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.[169]

Academic publications

L.H. Carr described the Institute of Archaeology as "one of the [Wheeler] couple's most permanent memorials."[192]

On his death, H.D. Sankalia of Deccan College, Pune asserted that Wheeler was "well known among Old World archaeologists in the United States", particularly for his book Archaeology from the Earth and his studies of the Indus Valley Civilisation.[190] In its 2013 obituary of the English 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.[191] However, writing in 2011, Moshenska and Schadla-Hall asserted that Wheeler's reputation has not undergone significant revision among archaeologists, but that instead he had come to be remembered as "a cartoonish and slightly eccentric figure" whom they termed "Naughty Morty".[186]

Mallowan noted that "Immediate and swift presentation of results was more important to him than profound scholarship, although his critical sense made him conscious that it was necessary to maintain high standards and he would approve of nothing that was slipshod."[170] Similarly, Jacquetta Hawkes commented that he made errors in his interpretation of the archaeological evidence because he was "sometimes too sure of being right, too ready to accept his own authority".[189] She asserted that while Wheeler was not an original thinker, he had "a vision of human history that enabled him to see each discovery of its traces, however small, in its widest significance."[175]

Wheeler has been termed "the most famous British archaeologist of the twentieth century" by later archaeologists Gabriel Moshenska and Tim Schadla-Hall.[186] Highlighting his key role in encouraging interest in archaeology throughout British society, they stated that his "mastery of public archaeology was founded on his keen eye for value and a showman's willingness to package and sell the past."[187] Writing his obituary for the Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, the English archaeologist Stuart Piggott stated that the "importance of Wheeler's contribution to archaeological technique, enormous and far-reaching, lies in the fact that in the early 1920s he not only appreciated and understood what Pitt-Rivers had done, but saw that his work could be used as a basis for adaptation, development and improvement."[188]

"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.[175]

Legacy and influence

He was well known for his conspicuous promiscuity, favouring young women for one night stands, many of whom were his students.[183] He was further known for having casual sex in public places.[184] This behaviour led to much emotional suffering among his various wives and mistresses, of which he was aware.[184] As a result of this behaviour, later archaeologist Gabriel Moshenska informed a reporter from the Daily Mail that Wheeler had developed a reputation as "a bit of a groper and a sex pest and an incredible bully as well".[185]

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

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,[180] widow and second wife of the prankster Horace de Vere Cole (d. 1936)[181] 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.[182] Cole's diaries revealed that Wheeler would physically hit her when she annoyed him.[117]

Wheeler expressed the view that he was "the least political of mortals".[157] Despite not taking 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.[177] Nevertheless, he was "usually happy to advance young women professionally", something that may have been based largely on his sexual attraction toward them.[178] He expressed little interest in his relatives; in later life he saw no reason to have a social relationship with people purely on the basis of family ties.[179]

Wheeler divided opinion among those who knew him, with some loving and others despising him.[168] During his lifetime he was often criticised on both scholarly and moral grounds.[169] The archaeologist Max Mallowan asserted that he "was a delightful, light-hearted and amusing companion, but those close to him knew that he could be a dangerous opponent if threatened with frustration."[170] His charm offensives were often condemned as being insincere.[171] He was known as "Rik" among friends.[172][173] During excavations, he was known as an authoritarian leader, but favoured those whom he thought exhibited bravery by standing up to his authority.[174] He was meticulous in his writings, and would repeatedly revise and re-write both pieces for publication and personal letters.[175] Throughout his life, he was a heavy smoker.[176]

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

Personal life

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

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.

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.

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.[167]

In 1958 he opened the extension to the Gloucester City Museum & Art Gallery which doubled its available space.[166]

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. Wheeler described his intention that the Institute become "a laboratory: a laboratory of archaeological science".[165]

Return to Britain: 1948–

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."[164]

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 of India 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."[163]

"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[163]

Wheeler was present during the 1947 Partition of India into the Dominion of Pakistan and the Union of India and the accompanying ethnic violence between Hindu and Muslim communities.[157] He was unhappy with how these events had affected the Archaeological Survey, complaining that some of his finest students and staff were now citizens of Pakistan and no longer able to work for him.[157] He was based in New Delhi when the city was rocked by sectarian violence, and attempted to help many of his Muslim staff members escape from the Hindu-majority city unharmed. He further helped smuggle Muslim families out of the city hospital, where they had taken refuge from a violent Hindu mob.[158] As India neared independence from the British Empire, the political situation had changed significantly; by October 1947 he was one of the last British individuals in a high-up position within the country's governing establishment, and recognised that many Indian nationalists wanted him to also leave.[159] As their relationship had become increasingly strained, his wife had left and returned to Britain.[160] Although hoping to leave his post in India several months early, he was concerned for his economic prospects, and desparately searched for a new job position. Through friends in the British archaeological community, he was able to line up a job as the Secretary of the Royal Commission on Ancient Monuments for Wales, although was upset that this would mean a drop in his professional status and income.[161] In addition, the Pakistani Minister of Education invited him to become the Archaeological Adviser to the Pakistani government; he agreed to also take up this position, on the agreement that he would only spend several months in the country each year over the next three.[162]

Wheeler established a new archaeological journal, Ancient India, planning for it to be published twice a year. However, he had trouble securing paper and various delays; the first issue would be released in January 1946, and he would release three further volumes during his stay.[153] Wheeler married Collingridge in Simla,[154] before he and his wife took part in an Indian Cultural Mission to Iran. The Indian government had deemed Wheeler ideal to lead the group, which departed via train to Zahidan before visiting Persepolis, Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, Pasargadae, and Kashan. Wheeler enjoyed the trip, and was envious of Tehran's archaeological museum and library, which was far in advance of anything then found in India. Crossing into Iraq, in Baghdad the team caught a flight back to Delhi.[155] In 1946, he was involved in a second cultural mission, this time to Afghanistan, where he expressed a particular interest in the kingdom of ancient Bactria and visited the archaeology of Balkh.[156]

Wheeler was fascinated by the Indus Valley civilisation and excavated at Mohenjo-daro

[152], which enabled him to gain a chronology for the archaeology of much of southern India.Mysore, Brahmagiri He later undertook excavations of six megalithic tombs in [151] for the day.rupee, revealing a port from the first century CE which had traded in goods from the Roman Empire. The excavation had been plagued by severe rains and tropical heat, although it was during the excavation that World War II ended; in celebration, Wheeler gave all his workers an extra Arikamedu Turning his attention to southern India, Wheeler discovered remnants of a Roman amphora in a museum, and proceeded to begin excavations at [150] He subsequently led a more detailed excavation at Harappa, where he exposed further fortifications and established a stratigraphy for the settlement.[149] In October 1944, he opened his six-month archaeological field school in

Assigned with a four-year contract, Wheeler attempted to recruit two archaeologists from Britain, Glyn Daniel and Stuart Piggott, to aid him in reforming the Archaeological Survey, although they declined the offer.[142] He proceeded to tour the subcontinent, seeking to meet all of the Survey's staff members.[143] He had drawn up a prospectus containing research questions that he wanted the Survey to focus on; these included understanding the period between the Bronze Age Indus Valley Civilization and the Achaemenid Empire, discerning the socio-cultural background to the Vedas, dating the Aryan invasion, and establishing a dating system for southern India prior to the sixth century CE.[143] During his time in office he also achieved a 25% budget increase for the Archaeological Survey,[144] and convinced the government to agree to the construction of a National Museum of Archaeology, to be built in New Delhi.[145]

Wheeler arrived in Bombay in the spring of 1944. There, he was welcomed by the city's governor, John Colville, before proceeding by train to Dehli and then Simla, where the headquarters of the Archaeological Survey of India were located.[139] Wheeler had been suggested for the job by Archibald Wavell, the Viceroy of India, who had been acting on the recommendations of archaeologist Leonard Woolley, who had authored a report lamenting the state of the archaeological establishment in the British-controlled subcontinent.[140] Wheeler recognised this state of affairs, in a letter to a friend complaining about the lack of finances and equipment, commenting that "We're back in 1850".[141] He initially found much to dislike in India, and in his letters to friends in Britain expressed derogatory and racist sentiments toward Indians: he stated that "they feed wrongly and think wrongly and live wrongly... I already find myself regarding them as ill-made clockwork toys rather than as human beings, and I find myself bullying them most brutally."[141] He expelled those staff members whom he deemed too idle, and would physically beat others in an attempt to motivate them.[141]

It was Wheeler who discovered evidence for Roman trade links at Arikamedu, as evidenced by ceramics such as this

Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India: 1944–48

Later career

Wheeler left Italy in November 1943 and returned to London. There, he resigned as director of London Museum and focused on organising the Institute of Archaeology, preparing it for its adoption of a new director, V. Gordon Childe, after the war. He also resigned as director of the Society of Antiquaries, but was appointed the group's representative to the newly-formed Council for British Archaeology.[136] He developed a relationship with a woman named Kim Collingridge, and asked her to marry him. As she was a devout Roman Catholic, he officially converted to the religion, something which shocked many of his friends, who believed that he was being dishonest in doing so.[137] He then set sail for Bombay aboard the City of Exeter ship in February 1944.[138]

Promoted to the position of brigadier, after the German surrender in North Africa Wheeler was sent to Algiers where he was part of the staff committee planning the invasion of Italy.[132] There, he learned that the India Office had requested that the army relieve him of his duties to permit him to be appointed Director General of Archaeology in India. Although he had never been to the country, he agreed that he would take the job on the condition that he be permitted to take part in the invasion of Italy first.[133] As intended, Wheeler and his 12th Bridage then took part in the invasion of Sicily and then mainland Italy, where they were ordered to use their anti-aircraft guns to protect the British 10th Corps.[134] As the Allies advanced north through Italy, Wheeler spent time in Naples and then Capri, where he met with various aristocrats who had anti-fascist sympathies.[135]

Serving with the Eighth Army, Wheeler was present in North Africa when the Axis armies pushed the Allies back to El Alamein. He was also Allied counter-push, taking part in the Second Battle of El Alamein and the advance on Axis-held Tripoli.[129] On the way he became concerned that the archaeological sites of North Africa were being threatened both by the fighting and the occupying forces. After the British secured control of Libya, Wheeler visited Tripoli and Leptis Magna, where he found that Roman remains had been damaged and vandalised by British troops; he brought about reforms to prevent this, lecturing to the troops on the importance of preserving archaeology, making many monuments out-of-bounds, and ensuring that the Royal Air Force changed its plans to construct a radar station in the midst of a Roman settlement.[130] Aware that the British were planning to invade and occupy the Italian island of Sicily, he insisted that measures be introduced to preserve the historic and archaeological monuments on the island.[131]

In North Africa, Wheeler sought to preserve archaeological remains, such as those of Leptis Magna (pictured), from being damaged by occupying troops

In the summer of 1941, Wheeler and three of his batteries were assigned to fight against German and Italian forces in the North African Campaign. In September, they set sail from Glasgow aboard the Empress of Russia battleship; because the Mediterranean was controlled largely be enemy naval forces, they were forced to travel via the Cape of Good Hope, before taking shore leave in Durban. There, Wheeler visited the local kraals to compare them with the settlements of Iron Age Britain.[124] The ship subsequently docked in Aden, where Wheeler and his men again took shore leave.[125] They soon reached the British-controlled Suez, where they disembarked and were stationed on the shores of the Great Bitter Lake.[126] There, Wheeler took a brief leave of absence to travel to Jerusalem, where he visited Petrie on his hospital deathbed.[127] Back in Egypt, he requested that he be permitted to fly as a front gunner in a Wellington bomber on a bombing raid against Axis forces, in order to better understand what it was like to be against an anti-aircraft battery.[128]

Wheeler had been expecting and openly hoping for war with Nazi Germany for several years; he believed that the United Kingdom's involvement in the conflict would remedy the shame that he thought had been brought upon the country by its signing of the Munich Agreement in September 1938.[117] Volunteering for the armed services, he was enlisted to raise the 48th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery at Enfield, where he set about recruiting volunteers, including his son.[118] As the 48th swelled in size, Wheeler's unit was transferred to the 42nd Mobile Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment in the Royal Artillery.[119] Given the nickname of "Flash Alf" by those serving under him,[120] he was recognised as a ruthless disciplinarian and was blamed by many for the death of one of his soldiers from influenza during training.[121] Having been appointed secretary of the Society of Antiquaries in 1939 and then director in 1940, he traveled to London to deal with society affairs on various occasions.[122] Cole mad meanwhile entered into an affair with a man named Clive Entwistle, who lambasted Wheeler as "that whiskered baboon". When Wheeler discovered Entwistle in bed with his wife in May 1941, he initiated divorce proceedings, with the divorce being finalised in March 1942.[123]

Second World War: 1939–45

After Maidan Castle, Wheeler turned his attention to France, where the archaeological investigation of Iron Age sites had lagged behind developments in Britain. There, he would oversee a series of surveys and excavations with the aid of Leslie Scott, beginning with a survey tour of Brittany in the winter of 1936–37.[113] After this, Wheeler decided to excavate the oppidum at Camp d'Artus, near Huelgoat, Finistère. Alongside bringing a number of British archaeologists to work on the site, he hired six local Breton workmen to assist the project, coming to the belief that the oppidum had been erected by local Iron Age tribes to defend themselves from the Roman invasion led by Julius Caesar. Meanwhile, Scott had been placed in charge of an excavation at the smaller nearby hillfort of Kercaradec, near Quimper.[114] In July 1939, the project focused its attention on Normandy, with excavations beginning at the Iron Age hillforts of Camp de Canada and Duclair. They would be brought to an abrupt halt in September 1939 as the Second World War broke out in Europe, and the team evacuated back to Britain.[115] Wheeler's excavation report, co-written with Katherine Richardson, was eventually published as Hill-forts of Northern France in 1957.[116]

[111]; Churchill asked Wheeler to aid him in writing about late prehistoric and early medieval Britain.History of the English-Speaking Peoples, who was then engaged in writing his multi-volume Winston Churchill, and at the award ceremony met Conservative Party politician Bristol University from honorary doctorate He was also awarded an [112] Wheeler had also become President of the

After a search that had taken several years, Wheeler was able to secure a premises for the Institute of Archaeology: St. John's Lodge in Regent's Park, central London. Left empty since its use as a hospital during the First World War, the building was owned by the Crown and was controlled by the First Commissioner of Works, William Ormsby-Gore; Ormsby-Gore was very sympathetic to archaeology, and leased the building to the Institute at a low rent.[108] The St. John's Lodge premises would officially be opened on 29 April 1937. During his speech at the ceremony, the University of London's Vice-Chancellor Charles Reed Peers made it clear that the building was only intended as a temporary home for the Institute, which it was hoped would be able to move to Bloomsbury, the city's academic hub.[109] In his speech, the university's Chancellor, Alexander Cambridge, 1st Earl of Athlone, compared the new institution to both the Institute of Historical Research and the Courtauld Institute of Art.[110]

St. John's Lodge in Regent's Park, the first building to house the Institute of Archaeology

In 1936, Wheeler embarked on a visit to the Near East, sailing from Marseilles to Port Said, where he visited the Old Kingdom tombs of Sakkara. From there he went via Sinai to Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria. During this trip, he visited various archaeological projects, but was dismayed by the quality of their excavations; in particular, he noted that the American-run excavation at Tel Megiddo was adopting standards that had been rejected in Britain twenty-five years previously.[102] He was away for six weeks, and upon his return to Europe discovered that his wife Tessa had died of a pulmonary embolism.[103] Wheeler's father then died that winter.[104] By the summer of 1937, he had embarked on a new romance, with a young woman named Mavis de Vere Cole, who had first met Wheeler when visiting the Maidan Castle excavations with her then-lover, the painter Augustus John.[105] After she eventually agreed to his repeated requests for marriage, the two were wedded in a ceremony held at Caxton Hall, before their wedding reception took place at Shelley House.[106] They proceeded on a honeymoon to the Middle East.[107]

[101] Over coming decades, as further excavations were carried out at the site and archaeologists developed a greater knowledge of Iron Age Britain, much of Wheeler's interpretation of the site and its development was shown to be wrong.[100] criticised the highly selective nature of the excavation, noting that Wheeler had not asked questions regarding the socio-economic issues of the community at Maidan Castle, aspects of past societies that had come to be of increasing interest to British archaeology.W.F. Grimes The report's publication allowed further criticism to be voiced of Wheeler's approach and interpretations; in his review of the book, the archaeologist [99].Maidan Castle, Dorset Wheeler's excavation report would be published in 1943 as [98] After ending his work at Verulamium, Wheeler turned his attention to the late Iron Age hill-fort of

Wheeler had long desired to establish an academic institution devoted to archaeology that could be based in London.[92] He hoped that it could become a centre in which to establish the professionalisation of archaeology as a discipline, with systematic training of students in methodological techniques of excavation and conservation and recognised professional standards; in his words, he hoped "to convert archaeology into a discipline worthy of that name in all senses."[93] Many archaeologists shared his hopes, and to this end Petrie had donated much of his collection of Near Eastern artefacts to Wheeler, in the hope that it would be included in such an institution.[92] Wheeler was subsequently able to convince the University of London, a federation of institutions across the capital, to support the venture, and both he and Tessa began raising funds from wealthy backers.[94] In 1934, the Institute of Archaeology was officially opened, albeit at this point only existed on paper, with no premises of academic staff; the first students to enroll were Rachel Clay and Barbara Parker, who went on to have careers in the discipline.[94] While Wheeler – who was still Keeper of the London Museum – took on the role of Honorary Director of the Institute, he installed the archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon as secretary of the Management Committee, describing her as "a level-headed person, with useful experience".[95]

Wheeler led excavations at the Iron Age hillfort of Maidan Castle. Photograph by Major George Allen, October 1937)

Institute of Archaeology: 1934–39

From there, he was invited to direct a Society of Antiquaries excavation at the Roman settlement of Verulamium, which existed on land recently acquired by the Corporation of St. Albans. He proceeded to take on this role for four seasons from 1930 to 1933, before leaving a fifth season of excavation under the control of archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon and architect A.W.G. Lowther.[86] Wheeler enjoyed the opportunity to excavate at a civilian as opposed to military site, and also liked its proximity to his home in London.[87] He was particularly interested in searching for a pre-Roman Iron Age oppidum at the site, noting that the existence of a nearby Catuvellauni settlement was attested to in both classical texts and numismatic evidence.[88] With Wheeler focusing his attention on potential Iron Age evidence, Tessa focused on excavating the inside of the city walls, although Wheeler had affairs with at least three assistants during the project.[89] After Tessa authored two interim reports, the final excavation report would finally be published in 1936 as Verulamium: A Belgic and Two Roman Cities, jointly authored by Wheeler and his wife.[90] The report would result in the first major published criticism of Wheeler, produced by the young archaeologist Nowell Myres in a review for Antiquity; although stating that their was much to praise about the work, he critiqued Wheeler's selective excavation, dubious dating, and guesswork. Wheeler responded with a piece in which he defended his work and launched a personal attack on both Myres and Myres' employer, Christ Church, Oxford.[91]

Wheeler was keen to continue archaeological fieldwork outside of London, undertaking excavations every year from 1926 to 1939.[81] After completing his excavation of the Carlaeon amphitheatre in 1928, he began fieldwork at the Roman settlement and temple in Lydney Park, Gloucestershire, having been invited to do so by the aristocratic land owner, Charles Bathurst.[82] It was during these investigations that Wheeler personally discovered the Lydney Hoard of coinage.[83] Wheeler and his wife jointly published their excavation report in 1932 as Report on the Excavation of the Prehistoric, Roman and Post-Roman Site in Lydney Park, Gloucestershire,[84] which later archaeologist Stuart Piggott noted had "set the pattern" for all Wheeler's future excavation reports.[85]

Wheeler excavated at Verulamium; the city's Roman theatre is depicted

[80] In 1928, he curated an exhibit at UCL on "Recent Work in British Archaeology", for which he attracted much press attention.[79].Stuart Piggott course on archaeology; one of the first to enroll was graduate diploma In 1927, Wheeler took on an unpaid lectureship at University College London, where he established a [78] Soon after joining the Museum, Wheeler was elected to the council of the

Tessa's biographer L.C. Carr would later comment that together, the Wheelers "professionalized the London Museum."[71] Wheeler expressed his opinion that the museum "had to be cleaned, expurgated, and catalogued; in general, turned from a junk shop into a tolerably rational institution."[72] Focusing on re-organising the exhibits and developing a more efficient method of cataloguing the artefacts, he also authored A Short Guide to the Collections, before using the items in the museum to write three books: London and the Vikings, London and the Saxons, and London and the Romans.[73] Upon his arrival, the treasury allocated the museum an annual budget of £5000, which Wheeler deemed insufficient for its needs.[74] In 1930, Wheeler convinced them to increase that budget, as he highlighted increasing visitor numbers, publications, and acquisitions, as well as a rise in the number of educational projects. With this additional funding, he was able to employ more staff and increase his own salary to £900.[75]

Upon the retirement of the Keeper of the London Museum, Harmon Oates, Wheeler was invited to fill the vacancy. Having been considering a return to London for some time, he eagerly agreed, taking on the post, which was based at Lancaster House in the St James's area, in July 1926.[68] This move caused much ill feeling in Wales, where many felt that Wheeler had simply taken the directorship of the National Museum to advance his own career prospectives, and that he had abandoned them when a better offer came along. Wheeler himself disagreed, believing that he had left Fox at the Museum as his obvious successor, and that the reforms he had implemented would therefore continue.[69] The position initially provided Wheeler with an annual salary of £600, which resulted in a decline in living standards for his family, who moved into a flat near to Victoria Station.[70]

Lancaster House, where London Museum was based

London Museum: 1926–33


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