Sir Mortimer Wheeler on public archaeology
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)