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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  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