On the 22nd of July 1976, Sir Mortimer Wheeler, archaeologist, died at the age of 85. He left behind an enormous legacy. In a career that spanned over sixty years, working in Britain, France and India, he had led a charge that had taken archaeology from an often amateur art and turned it into the methodical science that we recognise today.
Along side this, Wheeler has another claim to fame. One which has also largely been forgotten – for Wheeler was also archaeology’s first real television star.
Today, with series like The History of Britain, A History of Scotland and many more, we are used to the sight of historians and experts, not just presenters, delivering history on our screens. Channel 4’s Time Team also surprised everyone by becoming a popular presence on television, opening a window into the archaeology and history of Britain that was accessible to all, and transformed further over two decades the public face of these areas of study.
All of this, at least in part, is thanks to Sir Mortimer Wheeler. Wheeler firmly believed that history was something for people, not just professors, and that it didn’t need to be “dumbed down” for television audiences to enjoy it. In a television career that spanned over twenty years, and drawing on his own background and experiences through two world wars and beyond, he made programmes to prove it.
Thanks to BBC iPlayer, for the first time in many years, it is now possible to see some of those programmes again, each providing a window into the world of a man who lived a remarkable life.
From War to Wales
Watching and listening to Wheeler today, it is easy to assume that he was born into money. But despite his clipped tones, Wheeler’s background was far from aristocratic and his knighthood was his own – awarded much later for his services to archaeology. Indeed Wheeler was actually the son of a provincial journalist who won a scholarship to the University of London in 1907. There, following a degree in classics, he had just begun to enter the field of archaeology when the Great War intervened.
Like many of his peers Wheeler volunteered for combat, serving in the Royal Artillery. By 1917 he was on the Western Front, witnessing the horrors of trench warfare up close, fighting at Passchendaele and picking up the Military Cross for his bravery
At war’s end, Wheeler returned to archaeology, soon finding work as Keeper of Archaeology at the National Museum in Wales. It was here, alongside his archaeologist wife Tessa, that he began to change the way archaeological digs were carried out. Together they pioneered new methods for excavations that were more regimented, systematic and most importantly less destructive than had been seen before.
That Wheeler, still relatively new to the field, should find himself at the forefront of archaeology’s push to modernise sounds strange now. The Great War, however, sat heavily on Wheeler’s mind. For the rest of his life he would feel that the War had robbed Britain of an entire generation of minds, leaving a heavy burden of responsibility on those that had survived. As he would later write in his autobiography:
We had been blotted out. Those familiar only with the mild casualties of the Second German War can have little appreciation of the carnage that marked its predecessor. It is a typical instance that, of five university students who worked together in the Wroxeter excavations of 1913, one only survived the war. It so happened that the survivor was myself.
An Eye to the Future
It was also in Wales that Wheeler began to lay the foundations on which his future television work would be built. With the excavation of the Tomb of Tutankhamun making headlines worldwide, Wheeler spotted an opportunity to raise the profile of archaeology closer to home. In an unusual move, he announced the excavations at Caerleon – home, according to local legend, of “King Arthur’s Round Table” – to the press. By the next day, the Daily Mail had agreed to fund a larger dig.
From that point on Wheeler was convinced that the future of his field was intrinsically linked to the media – whatever form that media took. As he would later write in the fifties:
Archaeology, had, almost overnight, acquired a new market value, and it is fair to say that, since that time, it has maintained its hold upon the public. The press, films, radio and now television, have all taken it up. For my part I wholeheartedly welcome this development.
Throughout the twenties and thirties, the Wheelers continued to push archaeology forward. Meanwhile Wheeler’s work to take archaeology beyond the lecture theatre continued. He encouraged the likes of the London Illustrated News to cover digs in some depth, and when radio arrived he was swift to push coverage onto the airwaves as well. In both of these, and in his own books and articles, Wheeler would pull on both his studies and his own experiences of warfare to paint a vivid, and sometimes brutal, portrait of Britain’s pre-Roman past.
The thirties, however, were not an entirely happy time for Wheeler. By 1936 he was head of the Institute of Archaeology, a body that both he and Tessa had helped found, and had decided it was time to broaden his knowledge by witnessing archaeology abroad – beginning with a trip to the Middle East.
I said good-bye to Tessa. I remember turning back as I went down the stairs of our little Park Street flat, and can still hear the words which followed me in her quiet voice: ‘Good-bye – and remember, you are very precious.‘ That was the last time I saw her.
A few months later, whilst returning from abroad, Wheeler would open a copy of the Times and be confronted by his own wife’s obituary. Tessa had died suddenly of illness while he was away.
For Wheeler, however, there was little time to grieve. Soon his archaeological duties took him abroad again. In France, Wheeler faced a French Government reluctant to authorise a dig in Brittany, insisting Wheeler would have to insure the entire forested area of Finistère if he wished to proceed. Demonstrating his creativity, Wheeler eventually found a solution – a Lloyds of London underwriter with a sense of humour. With a bit of gentle persuasion he agreed to issue the policy for the princely sum of about seven shillings.
Wheeler’s sense of creativity and adventure, which would later come through so strongly in his broadcasting, was very much evident throughout the thirties. His short, but tempestuous, romance and marriage with Mavis de Vere Cole would lead the painter Augustus John to challenge Wheeler to a duel. Mavis, one of the “Bright Young Things” of the twenties, was John’s model and mistress when her romance with Wheeler began.
Inflamed, the painter challenged Wheeler to personal combat. Wheeler accepted the challenge, but told John he would exercise his right to choose the weapons. There was only one choice, he insisted, for an old artilleryman like himself – field guns. Realising the absurdity of the situation John withdrew the challenge.
A Return to War
As the thirties drew to a close, war loomed once again and Wheeler decided to put both his archaeology and media work on hold, volunteering once more for combat. By 1941 he was in North Africa with the 8th Army, fighting in the Second Battle of El Alamein. He could not, however, escape the world of archaeology and by 1943 the Colonial Office were asking that Wheeler be released in order to become Director-General of Archaeology in India.
The War Office agreed but Wheeler, by now a Brigadier commanding the 12th Anti-Aircraft Brigade, refused the offer. The Allied invasion of Italy was imminent and Wheeler insisted on leading his men through the Salerno landings before finally accepting the post in 1944.
Wheeler remained in India until 1948, leading excavations including those exploring the then-mysterious Indus Valley Civilization and helping to bring about the same kind of revolution in Indian archaeology as he had in the UK. By 1951 he was back in the Britain, however, and his television career was about to begin.
Taking Archeology to Television
On October 23rd 1952 Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? had its debut on the BBC. One of a number of programmes developed by the BBC Talks Department to help increase viewing hours ahead of the arrival of ITV, AVM was a panel show in which archaeologists, art historians, and natural historians would have to identify – and talk about – mysterious objects related to their profession. The gregarious Wheeler, already well known to the public due to his previous work both in print and on radio, was a natural fit for the format and was soon approached by the BBC to take part.
Wheeler threw himself wholeheartedly into the role of panellist. He soon became well established as a series regular. Wheeler’s colourful descriptions of the objects selected for him to identify (by the series’ then unknown producer, ) soon established him as a favourite with viewers. Viewers, critics and production staff alike were amazed at the breadth of Wheeler’s knowledge as he smoothly identified and discussed archaeological artefacts from all over the world.
What few – including Attenborough himself – knew, however, was that with his usual creativity Wheeler was stacking the deck. Realising that the objects were generally drawn from museum and university collections in London, Wheeler started quietly checking their catalogues before broadcast to see what had been checked out, allowing him to fill the gaps in his knowledge pre-broadcast where necessary.
This was cheating, certainly, but for Wheeler there was a greater prize at stake than finishing the programme on top. He sensed that AVM had given archaeology, and history, a way into the world of television that it could not afford to miss. He’d used Tutankhamun’s Tomb to get Britain’s archaeology into the papers, he would use AVM to do the same with the BBC.
Wheeler’s instinct proved to be correct. His performances on AVM saw him named British TV Personality of the Year in 1954 and he leveraged his fame, and archaeology’s new-found success on television, into dedicated programming on the subject.
Inventing a Format
Buried Treasure debuted in 1954, in which Wheeler took the object-based format of AVM into a series focused entirely on archaeology, and would run for five years. In 1958 Armchair Voyage: Hellenic Cruise pioneered the historical travelogue format. In 1960 he took viewers through the legacy of the Roman Empire in The Grandeur That Was Rome. In 1966 Chronicle looked at everything from the history of Stonehenge to the Viking voyages to America.
It is these series that, in many ways, established that particularly British historical television format that can still be seen today. The subject matter would be approached in an informative and interesting manner, but the intelligence of the audience would be respected. The natural drama, and wonder, of the past would be highlighted, and modern comparisons made where they provided useful context, but there would be no dumbing down.
Wheeler’s programmes had one other important impact on the format – they established the benefit of having a charismatic host who was a historian or archaeologist first and a presenter second. Wheeler’s presence in front of the camera gave his programmes a sense of authority in the mind of the viewer, whilst his natural, relaxed style helped assure them that they weren’t being lectured. It proved to be a winning combination then, and – as the likes of Simon Schama, Michael Wood and Neil Oliver have demonstrated since – remains so now.
Right up until his death, Wheeler continued to balance his work as an archaeologist with his work on television. In 1974, perhaps realising that his time was coming to an end and that he was one of the last links to archaeology’s past, he sat down with Magnus Magnusson to record Sir Mortimer and Magnus. It remains incredible viewing today, with Wheeler discussing not only his own work and the changes he had seen, but also the people he had known – from the aforementioned Augustus John to legendary Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie.
A Forgotten Legacy
Whilst Wheeler’s role in the history of archaeology is well known today, why has his legacy in television, a legacy that is almost as big as his personality, been largely forgotten?
In part, it’s because television of the fifties rarely translates well to the screen today. Watching any of the videos featured in this article now can be a less than optimal experience – thanks to the sound and video technology, and the production style and values, of the day.
Historical documentaries also rarely age well. New discoveries, techniques and most importantly technology often advance argument and knowledge beyond that featured in the programme.
Finally, there is the sad fact that Wheeler, like many television stars of his time, is a victim of the BBC’s archival apocalypse that manifested during the sixties and seventies, when many older tapes and shows were wiped. It was not just classic dramas like Doctor Who that suffered – today only four complete episodes of AVM exist within the BBC archives – a sad legacy for a series that ran for seven years.
All this has meant that whilst Wheeler has continued to be acclaimed for his work as an archaeologist, his history as a broadcaster has often been sadly overlooked. It’s a shame, for both his remarkable life, and his work, deserve to be better known.
Perhaps fittingly though, for a man like Wheeler, his exploits have not even ended with his death, for he has a posthumous appearance in the Doctor Who extended universe to his name. That came in the Big Finish audio production Many Happy Returns in 2012, released to celebrate twenty years of adventuring for Bernice Summerfield, the Seventh Doctor’s archaeologist companion.
Script writer was responsible for that appearance, and shared with us the reasons he decided to give Wheeler his brief cameo:
Wheeler’s a bit of a hero of mine. The programmes he made and books he wrote are engaging, funny and full of brilliant insights. He’s an expert in his field who sees it as his duty to engage and excite the general public about his work – something that’s rather rare. He was also committed to making history about the study of “people, not things”, which makes his work moving as well as insightful.
Wheeler’s influence then, if not his fame, lives on – at least if you know where to look.
As an archaeologist, soldier and one of British television’s earliest stars, Sir Mortimer Wheeler was a fascinating man. Watch some of the programmes linked to above, and we suspect you’ll agree.
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