Home > Famous Archaeologists > Sir Mortimer Wheeler

Sir Mortimer Wheeler

By: Grahame Johnston - Updated: 14 Feb 2015 | comments*Discuss
Sir Mortimer Wheeler Bradford Grammar

Mortimer Wheeler was born in 1890 in Glasgow, Scotland. His family moved to Bradford, where he was first educated at Bradford Grammar School then earned a BA and MA at University College, London. While at Bradford Grammar, Wheeler developed a fondness for archaeological excavation and could be found scouring and digging in the countryside for the remains of medieval ovens and fragments of Roman pottery.

Some historians suggest that modern archaeology began with Mortimer Wheeler. This view is held because of the results of Wheeler's innovative technique of rallying enthusiasm for archaeology.

Pass Round the Hat

It is commonly regarded that rank amateurs, whose only gain was in finding something of value to sell, executed ancient archaeology of the treasure hunter period. However, the truth of early expeditions is that the eccentric practitioner of the art of archaeology visited his friends and sympathetic nobility coaxing a few pounds out of them. These donations of venture capital were used to hire cheap labourers to dig while the donors claimed the treasures when they appeared. Mortimer Wheeler's vision changed all this.

Ladies to the Rescue

One of the best Iron Age hill fort sites in Britain is at Maiden Castle, outside Dorchester. Mortimer Wheeler conducted major excavations at this site for five years leading up to WW2. This excavation is notable for his employment of volunteer workers. Wheeler recruited local women and university students by mounting a persuasive publicity campaign about archaeology. The result was that extensive excavations could be undertaken with little expense, leaving the experts on site to better plan, survey and supervise the expedition.

WW2 brought about many gender role changes and after the war Wheeler's method was widely adopted and became the established norm on academically mounted expeditions.

The Box-Grid System

However, it was not only in gender recognition nor in a volunteer workforce that made Mortimer Wheeler famous in archaeological circles. He developed a grid system of systematic digging whereby the field was divided into small squares. Each square clearly separated by a narrow baulk that was never excavated. This method permitted an area to be excavated yet preserved a vertical cross-section that revealed the strata of the site as the trench was dug.

Wheeler's box-grid system has been used universally in modern archaeology and although less popular in Europe it is still the most simple method to ensure a systematic approach.

Popular Television Show Host

Wheeler's influence has extended well into Asia. He excavated at numerous sites in India and Pakistan. After being knighted for his contribution to archaeology he spent many years furthering public education through his television shows Animal, Mineral, Vegetable; Buried Treasure; and Chronicle.

A Chronology of His Life

Sir Mortimer Wheeler dedicated much of his life to archaeology. A chronology of his life shows no time that he was not playing an important role in leading archaeology into academic recognition.

1919 - 1926 Director of Archaeology, National Museum of Wales
1926 - 1937 Keeper of Archaeology, The Museum of London
1937 - 1944 Director of the Institute of Archaeology, University College, London
1944 - 1948 Director-General of Archaeological Survey, India
1948 Professor at the Institute of Archaeology
1949 - 1950 Est. Archaeological Dept. of Pakistan & National Museum of Pakistan
1952 Knighted for his services to archaeology
1950 - 1962 Secretary of the British Academy
1976 Died in London, England

You might also like...
Share Your Story, Join the Discussion or Seek Advice..
Sorry to read absolute no mention of Tessa Verney Wheeler who was partner and co- innovator alongside her husband until her death, something Rik was the first to mention.
miki - 14-Feb-15 @ 6:36 PM
It is wonderful reading about Sir Mortimer now, as an adult, after he was very influential on my High School and University days. His work, on very early TV in Australia in the form of such things as "Animal, Mineral or Vegetable" and "Buried Treasure", along with people like Glyn Daniel, stirred my imagination enormously. It also started my interest in Ancient History and Archaeology, which has been passed on to my children. I still miss him, even after all these years.
LyndaM - 1-May-13 @ 12:22 PM
Share Your Story, Join the Discussion or Seek Advice...
(never shown)
(never shown)
(never shown)
(never shown)
Enter word:
Latest Comments
  • ArchaeologyExpert
    Re: Archaeological Surveying
    None - Your Question:Can you please tell what is a level 3 archaeological survey? I am required to conduct same on a listed barn in…
    9 October 2015
  • None
    Re: Archaeological Surveying
    Can you please tell what is a level 3 archaeological survey? I am required to conduct same on a listed barn in North Yorkshire. With…
    8 October 2015
  • ArchaeologyExpert
    Re: Academic Qualifications to Be An Archaeologist
    Keerthi - Your Question:Sir,I completed my B.TECH.but I want to become an archaeologist.IS there any…
    2 October 2015
  • Keerthi
    Re: Academic Qualifications to Be An Archaeologist
    Sir,I completed my B.TECH...but I want to become an archaeologist...IS there any chance?
    30 September 2015
  • Sandy
    Re: The Bone Expert
    I had picked up what I thought was an interesting rock, but when I looked at it today , I find that it is a fossilized lower spine. I am no expert,…
    25 September 2015
  • Twinkle
    Re: Types of Archaeology
    I have completed my class 12 this year so please may I know how to persue my carrier in archeology
    23 September 2015
  • Paddy
    Re: The Bone Expert
    We found two unusual bones on a remote beach in Palau. The long one is the sise of a bobby (hair) pin. The second about the size of a push pin. I…
    17 September 2015
  • anne
    Re: Be a Volunteer Archaeologist
    Hi. Ill love to work with archeologists but I'm in my 3rd year. I'm in nigeria and would love any info on well funded archeology…
    17 September 2015
  • Lucy
    Re: Be a Volunteer Archaeologist
    Hello, I am looking for work experience in this field as I am about to apply for uni and would really love to do Archaeology and…
    16 September 2015
  • amy
    Re: Academic Qualifications to Be An Archaeologist
    could you please suggest some good universities for further archaeological studies in india
    12 September 2015
Further Reading...
Our Most Popular...
Add to my Yahoo!
Add to Google
Stumble this
Add to Twitter
Add To Facebook
RSS feed
You should seek independent professional advice before acting upon any information on the ArchaeologyExpert website. Please read our Disclaimer.