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Sir Mortimer Wheeler on public archaeology

August 30, 2009
Cover of the Pan edition of Still Digging, from Wikimedia

Cover of the Pan edition of Still Digging, from Wikimedia

I’m currently reading Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s 1955 autobiography Still Digging: Interleaves from an Antiquary’s Notebook (mine is the 1956 reprint by Readers Union, so the page numbers might be a little off), which has been an enormously interesting read for a number of the great man’s insights into the condition of archaeology in the early to mid-twentieth century.

Wheeler (1890 – 1976) had been an Assistant Inspector of Ancient Monuments, Director of the National Museum of Wales, Keeper of the London Museum, and Director-General of the Archaeological Service of India, as well as establishing the National Museum of Pakistan and the Institute of Archaeology at the University of London (my own alma mater). He also brought archaeology to a wider audience in the UK, hosting three television programmes: ‘Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?’ (1952–60), ‘Buried Treasure’ (1954–59), and ‘Chronicle’ (1966), and was named British ‘TV Personality of the Year’ in 1954.

I thought one particular passage of Still Digging deserved sharing at it shows Wheeler’s admirable attitude to the relationship between the public and archaeology. At this stage (1937), he and his wife, Tessa, are leading excavations at the Iron Age hillfort Maiden Castle, in Dorset:

“All this was, in our view, to the good. Our more conventional archaeological friends sometimes raised their eyebrows and sniffed a little plaintively at ‘all this publicity of Wheeler’s’! But we were not deterred, and we were right; right not merely because this same public was incidentally contributing in gifts no small partof our considerable funds, but because I was, and am, convinced of the moral and academic necessity of sharing scientific work to the fullest possible extent with the man on the street and in the field.” (Wheeler 1956: 102)


Wheeler, R.E.M., 1956: Still Digging: Interleaves from an Antiquary’s Notebook (London: Readers Union)

5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 31, 2009 11:04 pm

    Whato Monty!

  2. Janet E Davis permalink
    September 1, 2009 3:42 am

    Love the way he has been portrayed as the handsome and dashing (if mature) hero type in the illustration on the cover!

    This amused me because some years ago I had a conversation (some might say ‘argument’) with a professor of archaeology who was being really rude about ‘Time Team’ because it made archaeology accessible to the hoi polloi.
    I rather like the fact that ordinary people with whom I chat at bus stops, on trains etc have an idea what archaeology is because of television programmes about it.
    I find it amusing that they think I’m pretty cool just because I have worked with archaeologists a lot; and they think archaeologists are really cool, mainly because they have seen them on television.

  3. September 5, 2009 9:22 pm

    There is a great story that he used to have a short man with a sawn off shovel stand next to his sections, – it made them look more impressive!

    Time team is an excellent vehicle for publicising archaeology, & public support is why we can afford £60,000 a year for a professor . . . or 3 real archaeologists.

  4. Philip Ward permalink
    March 19, 2010 9:35 am

    I had the great good fortune to meet Sir Mortimer when I was asked to illustrate his chapter in Thames and Hudson’s book “The Dawn of Civilization”. Although he was reputed to be a hard taskmaster, I found him to be relaxed, charming and unfailingly professional. I was very impressed by his knowledge of my craft, illustration, which made it very easy to deal with him.

    At the time, the archaeological grapevine was rife with legends about his supposed prowess with the opposite sex and, like Sir Malcolm Sargent, he was often referred to (behind his back) as “Flash Harry”.

  5. matthewlaw permalink*
    March 21, 2010 11:14 am

    Hi Philip,

    Thanks for commenting! I remember reading that he had trained as an artist at the Slade School in London, and I think (although I don’t know) that illustration was close to his heart. More generally, it’s clear from his writing that he was deeply interested in the entire archaeological process, not just the digging; and in how to present the work to the public, where illustration is absolutely key. It’s really nice to hear from somebody who worked with him. Thanks again.

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