Sir Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler (1890-1976)
Considered one of the world’s first professional archaeologists, the pioneering efforts of Sir Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler laid the foundation for modern archaeology. Born in Scotland in 1890, he entered University College London at the young age of seventeen, earning two degrees in Classics in 1910 and 1912, respectively. His interest in art inspired him to take classes in drawing at the university’s Slade School of Art, acquiring skills he later used to sketch some of the most notable excavation sites in British history. Following graduation, Wheeler was awarded the Franks Archaeological Studentship by the Society of Antiquaries of London and University College London, undertaking the establishment of a research program on ancient Roman pottery in the Rhineland. He also served as an advisor to the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments for England during early efforts to compose lists of historic monuments worthy of preservation.
During World War I, Wheeler received The Military Cross for his service with The Royal Artillery. His postwar activities jumpstarted the organization of professional archaeology in Wales, including his work as Director of the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff and Lecturer in Archaeology at the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire (today, Cardiff University). In addition, Wheeler excavated major Roman sites in England alongside his first wife and partner in the field, fellow archaeologist Tessa Wheeler.
In 1926 Wheeler was appointed Keeper of the London Museum, where he drastically raised the budget, completely reorganized the collection, set new standards for the cataloguing of artifacts, and increased public education programs. Wheeler also began plans for the Institute of Archaeology at University College London, one of the first programs of its kind devoted to training the next generation of archaeologists. In his own words, Wheeler intended to “convert archaeology into a discipline worthy of that name in all senses.” Formally opened in 1937, the Institute became a center for the study of excavation and field conservation techniques according to codified standards of excellence. Today, the Institute remains one of the largest and most well-respected archaeological departments in the world.
Upon the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Wheeler was selected to command a light anti-aircraft battery. In 1941 his unit joined British Eighth Army in North Africa, participating in the advance through El Alamein and later, in Italy with the landings at Salerno. Acutely aware of the danger posed to historical monuments, he reported to the Deputy Civil Affairs Officer in Tripoli, Libya, urging that emergency measures be taken. In response, he was placed in charge of the entire operation and appointed an assistant, fellow British archaeologist Monuments Man Lt. Col. John Bryan Ward-Perkins. Together, these two Monuments Men were responsible for the safeguarding of the Roman ruins in Libya, including Leptis Magna and Sabratha. In addition to detailed inspections throughout the area, Wheeler and Ward-Perkins reinstated the Italian officials and Arab guards at the most well-known monuments and museums. The sites were placed “out of bounds” pending their reopening under improved conditions, which the pair achieved in record time. Wheeler and Ward-Perkins created educational pamphlets and maps for visitors and organized free lectures and tours. Their cleverly intentioned efforts sparked public interest in the sites, which, in the words of Monuments Man Lt. Col. Sir Leonard Woolley, Archaeological Advisor to the War Office, was “the best safeguard for the antiquities.”
Wheeler continued to set new standards in the practice of archaeology for the duration of his long and successful career. In 1944 he began a five-year appointment as Director General of Archaeology in India, duplicating his achievements in London by founding an intensive training school in excavation methods for young students in Taxila (in Pakistan following the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan). The published reports for his own excavations introduced groundbreaking research on ancient sites across the globe, including Lydney, Gloucestershire (1929), Verulamium, Hertfordshire (1936), Maiden Castle, Dorset (1943), Arikamedu, Puducherry, India (1946), Harappa, Punjab, Pakistan (1947), Stanwick, Richmonshire (1954), and Charsada, Pakistan (1962). An abbreviated list of his honors and appointments includes Knight Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire, Secretary of the British Academy, President of the Society of Antiquaries of London, Chairman of the Ancient Monuments Board for England, and Trustee of the British Museum. During his lifetime, Wheeler was the only man to be elected Fellow of both the Royal Society and the British Academy.
Sir Mortimer Wheeler died in Surrey, England on July 22, 1976.
Photograph courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.