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Wheeler, Robert Eric Mortimer, Sir

    Full Name: Wheeler, Robert Eric Mortimer, Sir

    Other Names:

    • Sir Mortimer Wheeler

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1890

    Date Died: 1976

    Place Born: Glasgow, Scotland, UK

    Place Died: Leatherhead, Surrey, England, UK

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom

    Subject Area(s): archaeology


    Archaeologist who wrote several art history books. Wheeler’s father was Robert Mortimer a newspaper editor, and his mother Emily Baynes (Wheeler). The younger Wheeler was educated at the University of London, receiving his B. A., in 1910, and an M.A., in 1912. In 1913 he joined the Monuments Division. He married Tessa Verney (d. 1936) in 1914 and joined the Royal Artillery in World War I. After the War, he completed his Ph.D. (Litt) and was appointed Keeper of the Archaeological Department of the National Museum in Wales and lecturer in archaeology at the University of Wales (University College), all in 1920. He and Tessa did many local archaeological digs. He was made a Fellow of University College, London, in 1922, which he held until his death. in 1924 he was appointed Director of the National Museum, Wales, the same year the first volume of a book on the Roman occupation of Britain appeared. He left the National Museum to head the London Museum at Lancaster House in 1926. In 1934 he was made lecturer (and honorary director) of the London University’s new Institute of Archaeology. During these years he and Tessa led an excavation of Maiden Castle, Dorset. His wife died in 1936. In 1939 he married Mavis Cole and, after World War II was declared, returned to the artillery (Eight Army), rising to Brigadier. In 1944 he was named Lecturer in Archaeology at the University College of Cardiff, and director General of Archaeology in India (it’s last, replacing John Marshall, until 1947). As director General, he invigorated the archaeological initiative which had grown stagnant and trained the first group of south-Asian archaeologists to take over after Indian independence. After a divorce to Cole in 1942, he married the archaeologist Margaret Norfolk in 1945. As Archaeological Advisor to the Pakistani National Museum, he was successful in arranging excavations in the Indus Valley, India and Gujarat. He lead the search for Indian pottery. He became Professor of Roman Archaeology at the University of London’s Institute of Archaeology in 1948, which he and his third wife founded and where he was appointed a professor. He was named secretary of the British Academy in 1949, which he held until 1968. Beginning in 1952, Wheeler used this position to make radio and television appearances (among the earliest to do so), popularizing archaeology to the public. His television shows included the hugely popular “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?” (running 1952-1960), featured another art historian, Thomas Bodkin. This was followed by “Buried Treasure” (running 1954-1959), and “Chronicle” (1966). He was knighted in 1952. He retired from the University of London in 1955. In 1964 he authored a book on Roman art for Praeger publishers, Roman Art and Architecture. His Roman Art and Architecture was reprinted in 1985. Wheeler used the so-called “grid system archaeological method in his work, one of the first to employ the system developed by Kathleen Kenyon (1906-1978). Wheeler esteemed the work of the archaeologist Augustus Pitt Rivers (1827-1900), modeling his work after Rivers. His scholarship has largely been superseded by modern work. Wheeler loved engaging the female participants of his digs, for which he was nicknamed “Randy Sir Morty.”

    Selected Bibliography

    Still Digging. New York: Dutton, 1956 [British ed., 1955]; Roman Art and Architecture. New York: F. A. Praeger, 1964; edited. Splendors of the East: Temples, Tombs, Palaces and Fortresses of Asia. New York: Putnam, 1965; and Wheeler, Tessa Verney. The Roman Amphitheatre at Caerleon. Clowes. London: His Majesty’s Staionery Office,1931; The Roman Amphitheatre, Caerleon, Monmouthshire. London: His Majesty’s Staionery Office, 1943; Aspects of the Ascent of a Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955.


    [obituaries:] “Sir Mortimer Wheeler Wider horizons and a new public for archaeology.” The Times (London) July 23, 1976, p. 16; “Sir Mortimer Wheeler.” The Times (London) July 28, 1976, p. 16; “Sir Mortimer Wheeler.” The Times (London) August 7, 1976, p. 14.


    "Wheeler, Robert Eric Mortimer, Sir." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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