Mortimer Wheeler Adventurer in Archaeology

John Bintliff on a study of the most famous 20th-century archaeologist.

John Bintliff | Published in
  • Mortimer Wheeler Adventurer in Archaeology
    Jacquetta Hawkes. 387 pp. (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982)
The late David Clarke tried to teach archaeologists that the subject was barely on the threshold of a serious discipline. It relied too often on intuitive, untested procedures to derive a kind of pseudo-history from the ambiguous and fragmentary results of excavation. In the early 1970s, he announced that archaeology was apparently on the brink of disciplinary 'critical self-consciousness', when the weaknesses of its birth-throes would be revealed and rejected for a new, truly scientific rigour at every level of investigation from the individual dig to the general historical synthesis of subcontinents.

But that archaeological community in Europe was splitting into two factions: the 'Traditionalists' who spurned this weak-kneed obeisance before that distant goal of hard science, digging the moat deeper round imaginative, humanistic insight as the basic procedure for archaeology; and the 'New Archaeologists' who strove to put into practice the levelling tendencies of Clarke and his victorious allies in the United States. Today the slit-trenches are still occupied, the Old Guard are being scythed away by Time rather than force of argument. Into this company of Traditionalists, and as representatives of the vanished many and the remaining few, we can refer Wheeler, and his biographer and sympathiser, Jacquetta Hawkes, faithful to the cause to the bitter end.

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