Sir Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler (September 10, 1890 – July 22, 1976), was one of the best-known British archaeologists of the twentieth century. He is noted for his discoveries in Great Britain, India, and Pakistan, including sites of the Indus Valley Civilization. His work there also included establishing archaeological institutes and museums, to further research and preserve the findings of this important civilization. He also pioneered more advanced approaches to excavation, although these have since been superseded.
Besides his renowned academic work, Wheeler served his country via the military during World War I and World War II. He is well-known for for his public appearances on television and radio, which popularized archaeology among mass audiences. Much of his popularity aided in promoting archaeology as a crucial aspect in the scientific field for understanding human history, particularly bringing to life the people of ancient civilizations and how their lives impacted the human societies of today.
Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler was born in Glasgow, Scotland, the son of Robert Mortimer, a newspaper editor, and Emily Baynes. He was educated at Bradford Grammar School and the University of London, where he received an M.A. in 1912.
In 1913, he won the scholarship for archaeology established jointly by the London University and the Society of Antiquaries of London in memory of Augustus Wollaston Franks. Sir Arthur Evans doubled the amount of money that went with the scholarship, paying out of his own pocket another £100. In late autumn 1913, Wheeler began to work for the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments.
In 1914, he married Tessa Verney. Their son Michael was born in January 1915. Wheeler's studies were, however, interrupted by the war.
At the outbreak of World War I, Wheeler was commissioned into the Royal Artillery, at first remaining in London as an instructor in the University of London Officers' Training Corps. He was then posted to several battery commands in Scotland and England, until 1917. During the last part of the war he fought in France, Passchendaele, the Western Front, near Bapaume, and finally marched into Germany, commanding 'A' Battery of 76th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery. In July 1919, he returned from the Rhineland to London and civilian life.
In 1920, Wheeler received his Ph.D. from the University of London. In the same year he became a lecturer in archaeology at the University of Wales. In 1922, he was made a Fellow of University College, London, which he held until his death. Between 1920 and 1926, he was Director of the National Museum of Wales, and from 1926 to 1944, Keeper of the London Museum at Lancaster House. In 1934, he was made lecturer of the London University's new Institute of Archaeology. In his work, Wheeler was greatly influenced by the work of the archaeologist Augustus Pitt Rivers (1827–1900).
During his career he carried out many major excavations within Britain, including that of Roman remains in Essex (1919-1920), Wales (1921–1927), and at Verulamium (1930–1933), where he unearthed a pre-Roman settlement near St. Albans. He also excavated at Maiden Castle in Dorset (1934–37), where he found a Neolithic settlement from prior to 2000 B.C.E.
The excavation methods he used, for example the "grid system" (later developed further by Kathleen Kenyon, and known as the Wheeler-Kenyon method), represented significant advances in archaeological methodology. It involved the digging of 5x5-meter-square series, set within a larger grid. The vertical slices of earth left in-between the squares allowed archaeologists to compare the exact origin of a found object to nearby layers of earth ("strata").
Wheeler's first wife died in 1936, and he remarried in 1939 to Mavis Cole. In 1939, Wheeler was excavating a site in Normandy when World War II broke out. He returned in August 1939, to join the Middlesex Territorial Association at Enfield. He stayed there until 1941, when his unit was transferred into the regular army forces as the 48th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, which became a part of the 42nd Mobile Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment and went with the 8th Army to North Africa. There he took part in the Second Battle of El Alamein. In September 1943, he commanded the 12th Anti-Aircraft Brigade during the landing of the Allied Forces at Salerno, Italy, which became known as Operation Avalanche.
In 1944, at 54 years old, Wheeler retired from the Army to become Lecturer in Archaeology at the University College of Cardiff. He was also named Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India, exploring in detail the remains of the Indus Valley Civilization at Mohenjo-Daro. He trained the first group of Indian archaeologists after India became independent.
Wheeler divorced his second wife in 1942, and three years later married Margaret Norfolk, a fellow archaeologist.
On his return to England in 1948, he was appointed to the chair of Roman Archaeology at the University of London's Institute of Archaeology, which he founded together with his wife. He spent part of the years 1949 and 1950 in Pakistan as Archaeological Adviser to the Government, where he helped establish the Archaeological Department of Pakistan, and the National Museum of Pakistan at Karachi.
Wheeler was knighted in 1952, for his services to archaeology.
Wheeler became known through his books and appearances on television and radio, helping to bring archaeology to a mass audience. Wheeler believed strongly that archaeology needed public support, and he was tireless in appearing on radio and television to promote it. He hosted three television series that aimed to bring archaeology to the public. These were: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? (1952–60), Buried Treasure (1954–59), and Chronicle (1966). He was named British TV Personality of the Year in 1954.
Wheeler was Secretary of the British Academy, chairman of the Ancient Monuments Board for England, and president of the Antiquarian Society of London.
He retired from the University of London in 1955. Sir Mortimer Wheeler died on July 22, 1976 in Leatherhead, near London.
Sir Mortimer Wheeler was a man of enormous energy and great leadership abilities. His enthusiasm for archaeology and his love for adventure took him to excavate in many different parts in the world. He particularly preferred South Asia, establishing important foundation in India and Pakistan. He trained numerous Indian archeologists who continued to carry the discipline after Indian independence from Britain.
Wheeler also contributed to the promotion of archeology as a scientific discipline. His use of the stratification grid technique was rather progressive for his days. Today however, this technique is superseded by more advanced techniques of excavation.
Wheeler was also famous for his propagation of archeology. He used his fame to make radio and television appearances in which he offered interesting accounts from his work, popularizing archaeology with the public.
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