Tessa Verney Wheeler:
researcher, excavator, teacher, communicator - and wife

Lydia Carr

Figure 1
Figure 1. Tessa Verney Wheeler in Verulamium during the 1930s excavations, pointing at an infant buried in small cist made from brick roofing tiles (© St Albans Museums).

Between 1924 and 1936, innovative interwar archaeologist Tessa Verney Wheeler (1893-1936) published and excavated extensively, created new archaeological techniques, brought Romano-British archaeology and history into the lives of the general public, and was an inspiring teacher to an impressive cadre of students (Figure 1). Her influence is apparent in the most important aspects of the way modern archaeology and history are taught and practiced in Britain and the United States. Although widely known as the wife of R.E.M. Wheeler, it is perhaps less appreciated that she was a talented teacher and researcher who provides a missing link in the development of working academic women. Earlier archaeological wives like Hilda Petrie, were active on site but functioned in - and as - their husband's shadows. Verney Wheeler by contrast published and lectured independently and was her husband's open partner, not his silent support. Wheeler students like Kathleen Kenyon, and Wheeler associates like Aileen Fox benefited from this role model of a woman who worked both on her own and with her husband. (Cohen and Joukowsky [2004] admirably discusses these women, among many others.)

Born in Johannesburg in 1893, Tessa Verney was raised in suburban London and studied at University College London from 1911 to 1914. It was an interesting time at UCL, whose female lecturers and Fellows represented a strand of practical feminism as important as, if less artistic than, that of their neighbour Virginia Woolf. Middle-class, leftist women like the Egyptologist Margaret Murray were arguing for the rights of women who worked as hard as their male colleagues, insisting on amenities as basic as a pay envelope and a college Common Room. Tessa Verney profited from her years at UCL in a more traditional way - meeting the dashing young archaeologist Rik Wheeler, whom she would marry just before the outbreak of the First World War.

After the Armistice, Wheeler took a job as Keeper of Archaeology at the National Museum of Wales, and in 1920 the pair moved to Cardiff with their small son Michael. There they began the series of pioneering archaeological excavations that would make them famous, beginning with Roman archaeological sites in Wales in the 1920s and continuing through mainly Roman work in the 1930s at Lydney Park (Wheeler & Wheeler 1932), St Albans (Wheeler & Wheeler 1936) and Maiden Castle (Wheeler 1942). On these projects it was often Verney Wheeler who pioneered basic technical methodologies that modern archaeologists could not operate without. Stratigraphic analysis, box excavation and small finds recording all owe their inception to the Wheelers, as does the strict technical training of students: from those on their first joint site (J.N.L. Myres and C.F.C. Hawkes) to their last (Veronica Seton-Williams). That Mortimer Wheeler recognised and appreciated his wife's abilities is clear from his description of the ideal 'Site Director' in his 1954 textbook Archaeology from the Earth (Wheeler 1954). It is a clear, professional portrait of his first wife's calm, all-encompassing control of the day-to-day business of a dig. The sharp observer also sees Verney Wheeler's continuing influence in the way her husband trained students after her death.

Figure 2
Figure 2. 'Mrs Wheeler, lecturing to students at Bognor University' (© St Albans Museums).

In Wales, Verney Wheeler also began a lifetime of lecturing to local historical societies, encouraging people to visit sites and museums and to consider the past as their patrimony (Figure 2). Upon their return to London in 1926, both the Wheelers would bring this process of inclusivity to an even more sophisticated pitch at the London Museum (now the Museum of London). At another level, the Wheelers were among the first archaeologists to exploit newsreels and newspapers as a method of popular dissemination, describing their work in modern terms attractive to the 'ordinary' public. Both Wheelers had come from economically precarious middle-class backgrounds; unlike some of their colleagues, they had no private income to fall back on. This must have contributed to their strong feeling that archaeology, history and art belonged to people who worked for a living as well as scholars (and that scholars themselves should be paid!). The new discipline could only fulfil its larger philosophical purpose if brought into the homes of the masses as well as underpinning the studies of the academic elite.

Both husband and wife grew up in London, and it is not surprising that they chose to found the new Institute of Archaeology through their joint alma mater University College London. Indeed, they began working systematically with university students through the London Museum long before the Institute even physically existed, with Wheeler lecturing at the Museum on history and prehistory during the winter, and Verney Wheeler teaching excavation practice on various sites in the summer. Students came to them from as far away as China and Australia, and for a long time a 'season with the Wheelers' was a necessary entry on an aspiring archaeologist's CV. The London Institute's dedication to Verney Wheeler reflects her devotion to teaching archaeology systematically in the classroom as well as the field.

The best tribute to both R.E.M. and Tessa Verney Wheeler's work in museums and archaeology is that their standards of practice and gift for communication underlie much that came after. This brief summary cannot begin to fully capture the richness of Verney Wheeler's life and work, or the charm of her personality. Before the Wheelers arrived on the scene, archaeology was largely the preserve of the privileged, the male, and the traditionally educated. Their example showed that students from anywhere, of any gender, could study and become archaeologists. More importantly, using the facilities of museums and the media of the day, the Wheelers made archaeology interesting and accessible to a wider audience. This idea has undoubtedly found its full flowering today, and echoes of Tessa Verney Wheeler can be heard in site tours and the peppy presentations of every young archaeologist.

Author's note

This article reflects the author's recently defended D.Phil thesis (Oxford; Carr 2008), a biography of Tessa Verney Wheeler.

References

  • CARR, L. 2008. Tessa Verney Wheeler: women and archaeology before World War Two. Unpublished D.Phil dissertation, University of Oxford.
  • COHEN, G.M. & M.S. JOUKOWSKY (ed.). 2004. Breaking ground: pioneering women archaeologists. Ann Arbor (MI): University of Michigan Press.
  • WHEELER, R.E.M. 1942. Maiden Castle, Dorset (Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London 12). Oxford: The Society of Antiquaries.
    - 1954. Archaeology from the Earth. London.
  • WHEELER, R.E.M. & T. VERNEY WHEELER. 1928. The Roman amphitheatre at Caerleon, Monmouthshire (Archaeologia 78). Oxford: The Society of Antiquaries.
    - 1932. Report on the excavation of the prehistoric, Roman, and Post-Roman site in Lydney Park, Gloucestershire (Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London 9). Oxford: The Society of Antiquaries.
    - 1936. Verulamium: a Belgic and two Roman cities (Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London 11). Oxford: The Society of Antiquaries.

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