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.
1919-26 – Director of Archaeology, National Museum of Wales
1926-37 – Keeper of Archaeology, The Museum of London
1937-44 – Director of the Institute of Archaeology, University College, London
1944-48 -Director-General of Archaeological Survey, India
1948 – Professor at the Institute of Archaeology
1949-50 – Est. Archaeological Dept. of Pakistan & National Museum of Pakistan
1952 – Knighted for his services to archaeology
1950-62 – Secretary of the British Academy
1976 – Died in London, England