Mortimer Wheeler: Rebooting Indian Archaeology




“The archaeologist is digging up, not things, but people. Unless the bits and pieces with which he deals be alive to him, unless he have himself the common touch, he had better seek out other disciplines for his exercise. Dead archaeology is the driest dust that blows.”
R E M Wheeler, Archaeology From The Earth, 1954

After crushing the Afrika Corps at the 2nd Battle of El Alamein (in Egypt), Brigadier Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler was sent to Algiers to help plan the liberation of Italy when he was told, in May 1943, that the India Office in London had requested that he be relieved to take up the duties of the Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

Wheeler finished leading his troops through Italy and in November went to England to wrap up all his commitments and hand over charge of his cherished Institute of Archaeology to the incoming director, Sir V Gordon Childe. He then left England in February 1944 for India. He landed in Bombay and proceeded via Delhi to Shimla, where he reported to Viceroy Lord Wavell, who had asked for him on the recommendations of the doyen of British archaeology, Sir Leonard Wooley.

Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein - He was the Commander of the Allied Forces at the 2nd Battle of El Alamein
Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein - He was the Commander of the Allied Forces at the 2nd Battle of El Alamein|Wikimedia Commons 

Sir Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler arrived in India as the Director-General of Antiquities of India, with two objectives in mind – he wanted to link Indian archaeological remains to the framework of chronology followed in the Western world; and he wanted to train Indian archaeologists in his methods of field archaeology.

In preparation, he read extensively about the known great civilisations of India as he sailed to take up his post. In the mere four years as Director-General of Antiquities of India, Wheeler revolutionised archaeology in India and even today his methods are considered the foundation for field archaeology. The ASI was in the doldrums. The financial crash of 1929 and the subsequent apathy by the government had left the ASI gasping for breath. Wavell realised this and knew it would take a special kind of man to put back into shape an institution so badly mauled.

Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler was born on 10th September 1890, in Glasgow, Scotland. He was the son of well-known journalist Robert Mortimer Wheeler and his wife Emily. Wheeler was educated at Bradford Grammar and at University College London (UCL), where he earned a Ph D. He started his career as an archaeologist specialising in the Romano-British period. He served in the British Army in World War I, rose to the rank of Major and earned the Military Cross. He returned to civilian life, completed his PhD from the University College London and joined the workforce as Keeper of the National Museum of Wales.

Roman Barracks at the site of Sergontium
Roman Barracks at the site of Sergontium|By JThomas, CC BY-SA 2.0

Wheeler had one of the most spectacular and legendary careers in archaeology. He first oversaw the excavation at the Roman fortress of Sergontium in Wales. Influenced by legendary archaeologist and Egyptologist Augustus Pitt Rivers, he argued for a scientific rather than an intuitive approach to the study of archaeology. He felt that stratigraphic control needed to be extremely rigorous to establish clear context. This led to the development of the ‘Wheeler Method’.

He then excavated the Roman fortress of Y Gear in Wales, and soon published his findings to serious acclaim. He believed in public-private participation and convinced the Daily Mail, a well-known British newspaper, to sponsor his excavations at Isca Augusta, an important Roman site, in Wales. In 1924, Wheeler was appointed Director of the National Museum of Wales.

Thanks to his reorganisation and his fund-raising skills, the museum was able to reopen in a new building. For his serious reorganisation of the National Museum of Wales, he was appointed Keeper (in 1926) at the London Museum. He reorganised its collection, increased its funding and began lecturing at his alma mater, UCL.

Tessa Verney Wheeler
Tessa Verney Wheeler|Wikimedia Commons

Along with his wife, archaeologist, Tessa Verney Wheeler, he radically revamped the museum, much to the shock and delight of the people of London. He felt it had become a ‘junk shop of antiquities’ and he reorganised the objects by period and geography, and mounted less cluttered and more impactful displays. He was elected to the prestigious Society of Antiquaries for his efforts.

Wheeler then carried out excavations in 1928-29 with his wife Tessa at the Iron Age Hill Fort of Lydney Park in England, and discovered the famous Lydney Hoard of imitation Roman coins, now dated to the 4th century CE. Interestingly, the excavation report includes an appendix by J R R Tolkein (the well-known linguist and world-renowned author).

The Roman Fortification Walls at Verulanium
The Roman Fortification Walls at Verulanium|Wikimedia Commons

Wheeler had always wanted to establish an institute to train excavators and archaeologists in field methods and interpretation. He wanted this institute to be a “laboratory of archaeological science” and a place that would “convert archaeology into a discipline worthy of that name in all senses”. Wheeler persuaded the University of London and began to raise funds for what eventually, in 1934, became the Institute of Archaeology, in London. This was Wheeler’s baby and he finally had a place to teach and train the archaeologists that would excavate Britain over the next five decades.

He hired (later Dame) Kathleen Kenyon as secretary to the Managing Committee. Kenyon went on to become the most celebrated British woman in archaeology. Wheeler went on to excavate the site of Verulamium, the oldest-known Roman site in Great Britain to this day. From here, he took on the excavations at the enormous Iron Age Hill Fort of Maiden Castle in England, where generations of young archaeologists were trained, year after year, in excavation and interpretation techniques.

Maiden Castle
Maiden Castle|Wikimedia Commons

Maiden Castle was the site where young H D Sankalia (later the doyen of Indian archaeology) was trained in field archaeology under Wheeler, a debt he never forgot. Wheeler’s report was criticised for being incomplete and further excavations, in the 1980s, sadly confirmed this. Nevertheless, for his times, he was way ahead of the pack.

In 1936, Wheeler extensively toured Egypt, the Sinai, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria, noting the work being done by other excavators. Sadly, on his return, he found that his wife had died of a sudden pulmonary embolism and he was very shaken. That winter, his father, to whom he was very close, also passed away. Wheeler was devastated.

St John’s Park
St John’s Park|Wikimedia Commons

After Maiden Castle, in 1939, he went on to excavate contemporary Iron Age sites in Brittany and Normandy in France. In the same year, he married Mavis de Vere Cole and also managed to procure premises for the Institute of Archaeology at St John’s Lodge in Regent Park, London. He believed that war was imminent and when he was made President of the Museums Association, he read a much-appreciated speech on safeguarding museum collections during wartime. He was also requested by Sir Winston Churchill (later Prime Minister of Great Britain and architect of its victory in World War II) to help him in his writing of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, which he did.

At the outbreak of World War II, Wheeler immediately re-enlisted and was asked to assemble a Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, which later became the 42nd Mobile Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment. The regiment under him went on to perform very well in Africa and Italy. He rose to the rank of Brigadier and was considered an extremely strict disciplinarian. The 42nd played an important role in crushing the Afrika Corps led by General Irving Rommel of the Nazi Army, and in later liberating Italy.

Wheeler was shocked at the damage done to ancient monuments by soldiers and was instrumental in helping create awareness and strict policies to preserve historic and archaeological monuments. In the words of Dame Kathleen Kenyon, “Rik arrived in India, having read up all that was known of this history and prehistory in the steamer on the way out, with two main objectives. Indian material remains must be linked to the chronology of the Western world, and the Indian archaeologist must be trained in his methods. In both objectives, he was brilliantly successful.”

He arrived in Shimla and took charge of the Archaeological Survey of India in 1944, on a four-year contract. He was initially very disappointed with India and Indians and took a strong dislike to the food. He was incredibly harsh and removed from service all those he felt were wasting their time and was known to actually physically punish his subordinates, something that was definitely a part of his military past. He was ruthless in his duties, which according to him were to revamp in its entirety the ASI and to make it a world-class organisation. He immediately toured all the ASI offices and departments in the country and took stock of the situation.

Dharmarajika Stupa at Taxila
Dharmarajika Stupa at Taxila|Wikimedia Commons

Wheeler decided that he wanted to work on the following problems: 1) The gap between the Harappans and the Achaemenids 2) Discerning the socio-economic background of the Vedas 3) Dating the Aryan Invasion and 4) Establishing a method to date Southern India prior to the 6th century CE. He categorically distanced himself from all his peers and predecessors in the ASI. He was hyper-critical of the ‘unscientific’ methods used by them. The first things he did were to lobby for a higher budget, to convince the government to build the National Museum of Archaeology in New Delhi, and to create within the ASI a ‘School of Archaeology’ on the same lines as his institute in London.

He took the first session of the school at the site of Taxila, which he excavated in 1944. Almost the entire who’s who of Indian archaeology in the latter part of the 20th century was a part of this training camp. He then went on to excavate Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, where he excavated Cut XXX (a deep archaeological trench) along the ramparts till the subsurface water stopped. Fifty years before Mark Kenoyer, he had already excavated the Ravi Phase (the pre-Harappan settlement) but the paucity of data forced it to wait five decades to find its rightful place.

Wheeler was unable to identify the ceramics for the next 25 years till a young student from India, Katy Dalal (nee Frenchman), showed him the same materials from her explorations in Northern Rajasthan and he immediately demanded and facilitated an excavation by her since the then Director-General was one of his students from Taxila.

He went on to excavate the Roman port site of Arikamedu in Tamil Nadu, and his Romano-British archaeological background stood him in good stead. His discovery of amphorae sherds, terra sigillata and Arrentine Ware made the Roman links a certainty. He also excavated six megalithic burials at Brahmapuri to understand the chronology of the Early Iron Age of Southern India. He was sent with a delegation by the Government of India to Iran in 1946 and visited all the important archaeological sites where he was quite saddened to find them much better off than the ones in India.

Roman Amphorae
Roman Amphorae|Live History India

The only people in India he was really fond of were his students and his employees, and he cared quite deeply for them and, interestingly, them for him. In 1947, when India was partitioned, he was deeply saddened that some of his best students could no longer work with him as they were now in Pakistan. When sectarian violence broke out in Delhi, Wheeler personally saved many of his Muslim employees and their families and helped them flee Delhi.

In October 1947, Wheeler was one of the last British individuals in a very senior position in the Indian bureaucracy, and it was made clear to him that Indian Nationalists wanted him out. He was made a Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire (CIE) in the last such lists issued the day before Independence.

Wheeler left India in 1948, not quite knowing what his future had in store. He was offered a job in Wales as the Secretary of the Royal Commission of Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, a large step down from where he was. He decided instead to take up a Chair in the Archaeology of the Roman Provinces at the Institute of Archaeology. Interestingly, the young Government of Pakistan invited him to become their Archaeological Advisor and he accepted this part-time appointment with great joy. In 1949, he spent three months in Pakistan, reorganising the country’s Survey of Archaeology. He served as a mediator between the museums of India and Pakistan. In 1950, he re-excavated Harappa but his relations with the Pakistani government had begun to fray and he did not return in 1951. In 1956, Wheeler retired from his very popular professorship at the Institute of Archaeology.

Wheeler was knighted by the Queen of England at Buckingham Palace in 1952. From then onwards (till 1959), he became the public face of archaeology in Britain via the medium of television, and was a panelist on the popular BBC show, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? hosted by Glyn Daniels. On the show, the panelists had to identify artifacts from various museums, and Wheeler was right so often that he gained an almost mystic aura. He dismissed it by telling people that he usually strolled through the British Museum the day before the show was filmed and made a note of missing objects! There were howls of protest that he had cheated but this was soon dispelled as he had only used the canny acumen of his years of experience.

Tollond Man immediately after discovery
Tollond Man immediately after discovery|Wikimedia Commons

In 1954-55, Wheeler travelled to Denmark for a show called Buried Treasure, which revealed a newly discovered sacrificial ‘Bog Body’ called ‘Tollund Man’ and where the remains of the victim’s last meal were analysed and reproduced for a TV panel. Wheeler later wrote that the porridge was so foul that he needed two large whiskeys to keep it down!

He travelled with the Buried Treasure team to Pakistan in 1957 and to the Iron Age site of Great Zimbabwe in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), in 1958. In 1959, he travelled extensively all over the Roman world for a three-part documentary made by him called The Grandeur That Was Rome. The series did quite badly and Wheeler stopped his television appearances.

Wheeler spoke on Public Archaeology to gatherings of interested amateurs whenever he could and continuously popularised the subject. He also participated in a number of historical cruises to the Mediterranean and to India, where he led the cruise ship passengers on heritage tours. In the midst of his television engagements, he had returned to Pakistan in 1956, to excavate the Early Historic site of Charsadda and help create a chronological framework for the North West Frontier Province.

Buddhist Statuary from the Charsadda Excavations
Buddhist Statuary from the Charsadda Excavations

Wheeler was a very prolific writer and he wrote very dry prose. He believed every word cost money to print and it was essential to be economical with words while conveying one’s message. He published detailed reports of all his excavations, barring the second excavation at Harappa. He also published a huge corpus of material, delivered very prestigious academic and well as general lectures, and started many journals including Ancient India in 1944 to publish the work being done in Indian archaeology. This journal was the predecessor to the ASI’s annual reports called Indian Archaeology: A Review (IAR).

He was also an archaeological consultant to many governments on various projects, including the UNESCO at Abu Simbel in Egypt. He continued to be a visiting professor at many colleges and universities in Great Britain and elsewhere through the 1960s. In his final years, Wheeler was a part of many important publications like the journal Antiquity (the foremost journal of archaeology in Britain). But as his health deteriorated in the 1970s (he was past 80 by then), he became increasingly forgetful.

In the spring of 1973, he returned to TV for his swan song, which was a two-part series on his life and achievements. It went very well.

Sir Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler
Sir Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler

Sir Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler died in 1976, after a massive stroke. His funeral was held with full military honours. Most of the archaeological and heritage societies and museums of Great Britain flew their flags at half-mast. He was an authoritarian taskmaster and a brilliant teacher. He left behind a legacy in archaeology that is unparalleled in the British Empire and the Indian subcontinent. Even today, the structure and methodology of the Archaeological Surveys of India and Pakistan are the ones he designed and implemented.

He was dapper, well-dressed, well-spoken and a charmer. He also knew how to write for both the common public and academicians, and this is a huge legacy. He has often been attacked for jumping to hasty conclusions but never for the integrity of his data. His quirkiness was seen in the titles of his many books. His autobiography was called Still Digging; his book on the Achaemenid Empire was called Flames Over Persepolis; and his magnum opus and last book was My Archaeological Mission To India And Pakistan.

Indian archaeology is divided into four distinct phases, each of the first three being associated with a single individual – Sir Alexander Cunningham for founding the ASI, Sir John Marshall for nurturing it, Sir Mortimer Wheeler for rebooting it, and the post-Independence phase from 1948 to this day.

Cover Image: https://figshare.com/

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