Mortimer Wheeler and ‘Classical Heritage’ of South Asia

Professor James Hegarty
Cardiff University

As well as being Head of the School of History, Archaeology and Religion, I am an expert in Indian religions. I specialize in ancient texts in Sanskrit and their cultural history. If you are an Indologist (someone who studies the ‘classical heritage’ of South Asia), there is one Archaeologist’s name that rings out very clearly and that is Sir Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler (1890-1976), who was, of course, the founder of the Archaeology Department we are currently celebrating the centenary of. His association with the exploration of the Indus Valley Civilization (see image 1) was one of those things that captured my imagination as an undergraduate. 

Image 1 – Excavated ruins of Mohenjo-daro, Sindh province, Pakistan.

Admittedly, the romance of the ruin was something I was prone to (I blame romantic poetry, Dungeons and Dragons, and art and architecture obsessed grandparents). The Indus Valley Civilization was an urban culture that spread across a vast area of South Asia from the late fourth millennium BCE to the end of the second millennium. Its discovery changed the way in which global history was understood.  The idea of this particular ‘lost’, ‘mute’, ‘civilization’ (its script, if that is what has been found, remains undeciphered to this day) with its tantalizing carved stone objects, some of which were suggestive of much later Hindu gods (see image 2), offered a sense of tangible, transformative, discovery. 

Indus Valley Seal, which has been said to be suggestive of the Hindu god Shiva.

At the same time, it made clear the uncharted vastness of what we do not know. That an entire ancient culture could be found in this way -orthogonal to the received histories of the ‘great civilizations’ of the past- staggered my young mind and fueled the fires of my deepening interest in India. This was at a time in the nineties when I was being advised by many of my august professors that truth was a fantasy and knowledge, a kinked, politically compromised and profoundly suspect entity. Whole disciplines were in paroxysms of self-doubt (often rightly so).  Mortimer Wheeler’s role in the exploration of the Indus Valley Civilization, notwithstanding all its question marks, rough edges, assumptions, and imperialist context, seemed to fly in the face of that. His sharp suits and pocket square suggested an indefatigable and assured pursuit of knowledge.

Image 3 – Sir Mortimer Wheeler (with suit, moustache and pocket square in full effect)

I never did grow a moustache like his (see image 3) nor did I let go of the radical and profoundly important questionings of the late-twentieth century. These are questions that haunt the edges of, and temper, my admiration of this white male heterosexual pioneer to this day. Yet, there are some ‘Mortimer-Wheelerian’ values that should be celebrated: the commitment to clear and repeatable methods; elegance in abstraction and parsimony in theoretical rumination (he did not always quite live up to his own high standards in this regard, but who does?); as well as discipline and courage in facing the rigors and challenges of the field. These are all things that live on in Cardiff to this day and are reflected in the work of my colleagues in Archaeology and amongst their students. The suits, pocket squares and moustaches are less evident. What is evident, however, is a concern to address the questions raised by the more difficult aspects of Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s legacy, such as those of gender, of ethnicity, of who gets to speak about whom, and of the provisional and always incomplete nature of knowledge. It is the commitment to the balance of these two things, discovery and critical reflection, that will inform the tiny talks of Archaeology200.