“Still Digging” Mortimer Wheeler’s memoirs and deep echoes from the past

This was the title of Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s ‘memoirs’, first published in 1955 and it is a book I really ought to have read a very long time ago. Somewhere, quite a while ago because I can’t remember where or when, I bought a copy of the Reader’s Union edition published in 1956. It’s the kind of book I like to read today as it recalls a time that’s so very long lost. In the early part he reminisces about his early days in Edinburgh, Bradford and London, at the tail end of the 19th century and before the first World War. To establish his place among the great and the good he drops the names of his contemporaries who later become somebodies, and lecturers and teachers who were academics and teachers of note at the time. Unfortunately, many of those ‘somebodies’ haven’t lasted as household names into the early 21st century. That or I am irredeemably ignorant about some topics. Sadly from the indexing point of view, the edition I have is totally devoid of an index, so if I were researching those contemporaries and teachers I’d be having to read the whole book to find out who he’d named in the book.

As one of the early popularisers of archaeology to the masses, Mortimer Wheeler directly or indirectly influenced many of today’s media-friendly archaeologists. A quick Google shows that the following people have reason to be directly grateful to him even though they hadn’t or couldn’t have met him at the critical point in their lives when they decided to become archaeologists (there are doubtless many others and many who did work with Mortimer and his wife Tessa):

  • Barry Cunliffe – Emeritus Professor of Archaeology at Oxford University (and my tutor when I took my MPhil)
  • Paul Blinkhorn  – Anglo-Saxon pottery specialist often seen on Time Team
  • Colin Merrony – Teaching Fellow at Sheffield University
  • John Swogger – archaeological illustrator

Should any of the people whose lives were touched by Mortimer Wheeler at a critical point come to write and publish their memoirs, I sincerely hope they will have their books properly indexed. Sadly, the life of Mortimer’s wife, Tessa by Lydia Carr, was not provided with an expert index, as you can see inside with Amazon. This index suffers from the following issues:

  • there are many undifferentiated locators after some of the headings – for example the entry for ‘Hawkes, Jacquetta’ gets 24 page numbers, but 6 is usually the maximum before splitting down.
  • some headings have several subheadings but there is relatively little material to cover and some of those subheadings could be done away with – for example the entry for ‘Carleon’ has two subheadings for site reports that both refer to the same pages.
  • cross-references that were misused – for example the entry for ‘Carleon’ says ‘see also Isca’ [Isca Augusta being the Latin name for the military site] but there is no entry for ‘Isca’
  • there could have been a useful double entry for Agatha Miller under ‘Christie, Agatha’ because many people will know that Agatha Christie was married to an archaeologist, Max Mallowan, but few will know her maiden name was Miller before she became Christie. If the book discusses her as Miller, that’s fine, but to make it more accessible the double entry would have been helpful

Those things aside, the book has received some good reviews, so maybe I’ll read it after I’ve finished with her husband.

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One thought on ““Still Digging” Mortimer Wheeler’s memoirs and deep echoes from the past

  1. Pingback: singer Morrissey writes autobiography – and omits index | A book indexer

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