Excavation of Maiden Castle (1934–1937)

Monday, June 21, 2010


An archaeologist cleans a skeleton with a brush. Dr. Wheeler supervised the excavations at Maiden Castle, near Dorchester which have brought to light a number of skeletons. The excavations reveal the scene of a battle of AD 40. Photographed August 31, 1937.

Sir Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler (1890–1976) was educated in the classics at University College London and in fine arts at the Slade Art School. He was one of the few young archaeologists to survive World War I. In 1920, after becoming keeper of archaeology at the newly founded National Museum of Wales, Wheeler began to excavate the Roman forts of Segontium (1921–1922), Brecon Gaer (1924–1925), and Caerleon (1926).

At these sites Wheeler began to develop and test the excavation techniques for which he later became famous. The last great advances in this area were made by General Augustus Pitt-Rivers in the 1880s, and Wheeler built on these, clarifying site stratigraphy by keeping simple, graphic, and sectional records of surfaces and sections. In 1926 Wheeler declined the Abercrombie Chair of Archaeology in Edinburgh and moved to work at the London Museum, where he wrote a series of classic and popular catalogs based on his research on Roman, Viking, and Saxon London. He continued to be fascinated by the relationship between Iron Age and Roman society in Britain, excavating at the Sanctuary of Nodens at Lydney in Gloucestershire (1928–1929), and at the late Iron Age and Roman city of Verulamium, near the town of St. Albans in southern England (1930–1933). At all of them Wheeler continued to develop his expertise in stratigraphic excavation and dating.

Between 1934 and 1937 Wheeler excavated the massive Iron Age hill-fort of Maiden Castle in Dorset in southern England. Many Iron Age hill-forts had been identified and excavated prior to this, but work had been hampered by the fact that they had either been excavated on too small a scale or without knowledge of pottery typology. The Maiden Castle Report, published in 1943, was a triumph, a book written in a highly direct and engaging style but full of important information.

Since his first excavations in Wales in 1921 until the last year at Maiden Castle in 1937, Wheeler had been refining his approach to excavation focusing on those elements such as excavation strategy and techniques, recording, and personnel management, which were also Pitt-Rivers’s concerns. The fact that both men had distinguished military careers has not gone unnoticed. At Maiden Castle Wheeler excavated in a checkerboard of grid squares that achieved two significant goals. First it allowed him to open up large areas without losing stratigraphic control. Second, the squares could be effectively linked up to create a sense of near-continuous stratigraphy across a large site. The approach, called the “Wheeler method,” set the benchmark in field excavation for the next forty years, achieving a goal that Pitt-Rivers never attained—to radically influence the process of field archaeology and through it to focus on the link between method and the reliability of interpretation. He was to use it to great effect in India during the 1940s and 1950s during excavation of Indus civilization sites.

Further Reading Cunliffe, B. 1999. Sir Mortimer Wheeler, 1890–1976. In Encyclopedia of archaeology: History and discoveries, ed. T. Murray, 371–384. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. Hawkes, J. 1982. Mortimer Wheeler: Adventurer in archaeology. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson. Sharples, N. M. 1991. English Heritage book of Maiden Castle. London: Batsford/English Heritage. Wheeler, R. E. M. 1943. Maiden Castle, Dorset. Oxford: printed at the University Press by J. Johnson for the Society of Antiquaries.

2 comments:

C said...

Hello!

Thank you for your very interesting article! I was wondering if you could tell me the provenance of the photograph with the lady on site next to a skeleton please? It may be useful for my PhD research.

Many thanks,

C

Mitch Williamson said...

An archaelogist cleans a skeleton with a brush. Dr. Wheeler supervised the excavations at Maiden Castle, near Dorchester which have brought to light a number of skeletons. The excavations reveal the scene of a battle of AD 40. Photographed
August 31, 1937.

(Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis)

 
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