Sir Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler (1890–1976) was a pioneer of modern archaeology, transforming it from a hobby of the elite to an exacting science. During the 18th and 19th centuries, archaeology had mainly been practiced by wealthy gentlemen who, in search of ancient objets d'art, had little historical understanding of their discoveries. Methods developed by Wheeler, together with his wife Tessa Verney Wheeler, set new scientific standards for the study, and he sparked interest among the public by hosting popular British television programs such as Buried Treasure.
Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler was born on September 10, 1890, in Glasgow, Scotland, the first child of British journalist Robert Mortimer Wheeler and his second wife, Emily Baynes Wheeler. A sister, Amy, was born two years later. The couple shared a love of English literature, although their marriage was strained by financial worries, Emily's declining health, and the demands of her husband's job. By the time Wheeler was five, the family had moved three times and welcomed a third child, Betty. Although his mother taught her children at home, Wheeler was attached to his father, an avid natural historian, fisherman, and shooter, and joined him on expeditions into the countryside. The boy was particularly fascinated by the ancient engravings he found on the overgrown stone monuments that were scattered, forgotten, throughout the British countryside.
Wheeler was educated at home by his mother until age nine, when he was enrolled in grammar school. Although he disliked school and avoided sports, he applied himself to learning Latin and enjoyed art class, where he could draw and paint. A move to London when he was 14 proved fortuitous. His father now headed the London office of the Yorkshire Daily Observer newspaper, and the young teen was often handed a map of the city and told to go educate himself. The arrangement suited Wheeler well: he familiarized himself with London and frequented its museums and libraries. At age 17, he took the entrance exams for University College London and passed on his second try. Although he was admitted to the classical studies program, which focused on ancient civilizations and their literature, he found a way to include art in his program. He completed his bachelor's degree in 1910, followed by his master's degree in 1912. The following year he made his fateful decision to become an archaeologist. Although he recognized that he would never be a better-than-average artist, Wheeler was keenly interested in excavating ruins.
At the time of Wheeler's decision, the profession of archaeology did not yet exist. There were a few professors teaching the subject matter, but they primarily focused on the appreciation of ancient art. Although adventurers and profiteers had been digging up artifacts for millennia, the expansion of scientific knowledge did not factor into their work. One amateur British archaeologist, General Augustus Pitt-Rivers (1827–1900), worked in the mid-1800s and performed his excavations with methodical precision, writing extensively about his findings for the edification of his fellow antiquaries (those interested in the study of old objects). His work was largely ignored, however, because many of those who shared his interest viewed his methods as unnecessarily detailed and burdensome. Inspired by PittRivers's example, Wheeler resolved to strive for a similar standard in his own work.
Faced with scarce job prospects in archaeology, 23-year-old Wheeler soon unearthed several opportunities to start him on his way. The Society of Antiquaries had advertised a scholarship for a qualified recipient willing to study some ancient Roman pottery discovered in Germany. After completing this study, Wheeler participated in the society's excavation of several Roman sites located in Britain, although he cringed at the careless methods employed. On returning to England from Germany, he applied to be a junior investigator with the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (RCHM), which was rating historical buildings throughout England to determine which should be preserved. To better understand architecture, Wheeler enrolled in an intensive evening class in drafting, and he ultimately got the job. Now gainfully employed, he married Tessa Verney, a fellow archaeologist who shared his aspirations.
An opportunity now opened up as Keeper of the National Museum of Wales, with secondary responsibility for teaching archaeology at the University College of South Wales. Wheeler and his wife jumped at the chance and relocated, with their young son Michael, to Wales's capital city of Cardiff. Their goal was to create an organized framework for undertaking fieldwork in archaeology, and in Wales they would begin to integrate and expand what was known of Roman Britain while uncovering even older, Neolithic sites.
Despite chronic ill health, Tessa's skill in organizing field workers on site matched Wheeler's military discipline and mathematical mapping precision. Both were also keenly aware of the need to educate the public as to the importance of the ancient sites around them. Wheeler made a point of touring Wales, introducing himself and the work of the National Museum to locals who had mixed feelings about large cultural institutions. Tessa was also a gifted speaker and she concentrated on sharing their finds with local historical societies. By bringing Wheeler's university students out into the field to aid in excavations, they also trained the first generation of scientific archaeologists.
Six years on, the Wheelers' tenure in Wales was considered a great success. Wheeler literally rebuilt the National Museum, which had been abandoned, mid-renovation, at the start of World War I. The building was completed, its collections organized, and most importantly, it was operating in the black for the first time in its history. More importantly, for the couple, they had formulated the Wheeler Method, incorporating the exact mapping of the strata of a dig and creating a three-dimensional grid-picture of the site. Wheeler had also built his reputation as a popular writer as well as an academic, publishing his first book for the general public, Prehistoric and Roman Wales, in 1925. Having laid the groundwork for the professionalization of archaeology, the Wheelers' subsequent projects would help them refine their approach.
A timely invitation, extended in 1926, to serve as Keeper of the London Museum, provided Wheeler with a logical next step. The museum was a respected but musty and disorganized institution, and for the next six years he completely revamped its collections, excavated new historical sites, and continued to train students. Wheeler made a point of sharing news about the London Museum renovations with the public through newspaper features, newsreels, and public events. As working-class Britons, he and his wife did not have private wealth to fall back on while working as archaeologists; their public-relations skills not only supported their professional work but also attracted students and funding to the institutions they represented.
Even as he strove to develop an exacting methodology within his profession and popularized the historic sites and museums open and available to the British people, Wheeler was criticized for his interpretations regarding some of his findings. Sometimes corroborated by later evidence, contemporary colleagues questioned his dating of sites and his conclusions about their former inhabitants. Wheeler vociferously defended his work and challenged his critics, ultimately prevailing in the public forum due to his popularity. He also attracted substantial donations to fund a new pet project, an Institute of Archaeology, which opened in London in 1937. He also received invitations to preside over many committees and associations.
On April 15, 1936, Tessa died following minor surgery and was buried in London. Although their marriage had been strained due to Wheeler's infidelities, her contribution to his success was significant, and he now faced his demanding schedule alone. He would remarry twice more, both times unsuccessfully, and continued to earn his reputation as a ruthless disciplinarian at work and a ladies' man in general.
With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Wheeler was asked to command an anti-aircraft battery. A risk taker, he was permitted to fly as a front gunner in a bombing raid, his goal being to better understand what it was like to experience anti-aircraft fire from below. Wherever he was stationed during the war, whether Europe or elsewhere, he kept part of his focus on the map of the ancient world that lay beneath the battleground. While stationed in North Africa, he witnessed the careless destruction of Roman ruins by the British military and got permission to identify and protect such sites.
Wheeler's wartime appointments and responsibilities multiplied, culminating in 1944 with his appointment as Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India. A massive subcontinent, India was still ruled by the British, and colleague Stuart Piggot would suggest in a Royal Society biography that this assignment inspired Wheeler's greatest work. Intent on employing his autocratic management style and despite bearing racist assumptions regarding the Indian people, he became a devoted teacher to his students and made significant discoveries across numerous sites during his four years in India. His main focus was the Indus Valley civilization (2700–1700 BC), centered in modern-day Pakistan, and he led the first excavation of Mohenjo-daro, an ancient population center. The government of Pakistan, which became independent of India when British colonial rule ended, invited Wheeler to be their advisor regarding antiquities. He served simultaneously as professor of Roman antiquities at London University, retiring from both roles in 1955.
In recognition of his achievements, Wheeler was appointed a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) representative for Great Britain, raising funds for schools and projects throughout the global British Commonwealth. He also served on project teams endeavoring to rescue archaeological sites from encroachment, such as moving ancient temples and statues out of flood zones. He remained involved in UNESCO for the rest of his life.
In his last years, Wheeler was widely recognized for his considerable contributions to the field of archaeology. Conferences and television appearances reflected on his life's work, and his final retrospective book, My Archaeological Mission to India and Pakistan, was published in 1976. He died at home, following a stroke, on July 22, 1976. Flags at the British Academy, Royal Academy, and Royal Society were flown at half mast in his memory, and he was buried with full military honors.
Hawkes, Jacquetta, Mortimer Wheeler: Adventurer in Archaeology, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1982.
Biographical Memoirs of Fellowship of the Royal Society, November 1, 1977, Stuart Piggott, “Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler, 10 September 1890–22 July 1976,” pp. 623–642.
New York Times, July 23, 1976, “Sir Mortimer Wheeler Is Dead; British Archaeologist Was 85,” p. 76.
Antiquity online, http://www.antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/carr320/ (November 6, 2017), Lydia Carr, “Tessa Verney Wheeler: Researcher, Excavator, Teacher, Communicator—and Wife.”
Daily Mail online, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2613867/The-Monuments-Man-British-archeologist-single-handedly-saved-Roman-ruins-marauding-soldiers-Second-World-War.html/ (April 26, 2014) Chris Pleasance, “First Monuments Man Revealed: The Very Complicated Life of TV Archaeologist Who Single-Handedly Saved Roman Ruins in Libya from Marauding Soldiers during WWII.”□