Mortimer’s Red Pen and the End of Antiquarianism

A few years ago I picked up a little booklet in Hull Museum called A Victorian Boyhood in the Wolds. It seemed a suitable purchase because I was at the museum to examine some of the Anglo-Saxon artefacts the author, one John Robert Mortimer, had excavated from the barrows of Driffield in the 19th century.  Holding these doubly ancient objects had compelled me to find out more about this man, who seems to loom out of his portrait (below) with about as much eery inscrutability as the barrows he opened.

A Victorian Boyhood in the Wolds is a wonderfully rambling account of Mortimer’s upbringing in rural East Yorkshire.  His boyhood contained such episodes as pitched battles between villagers over scarce water in times of draught, as well as scavenging for dung to be used as fuel.  Slightly worryingly, little John Mortimer seems to have spent an inordinate amount of his childhood terrorising the local wildlife.  He recollects with some relish an episode in which he literally caught a rabbit with his teeth.  When he wasn’t capturing songbirds with a stick coated in birdlime, he was blasting them out of trees with an antique six-foot flint and steel rifle.  The animal inhabitants of the Wolds must have breathed a collective sigh of relief when in 1851 Mortimer was inspired by a visit to the Great Exhibition to take up archaeology as a somewhat less maniacal  hobby.

John Robert Mortimer

John Robert Mortimer: a blight on mother nature, but a boon for British archaeology (image from here)

Mortimer spent the rest of life excavating the tumuli of the Wolds.  He published this work in 1904 in a massive volume called Forty Years’ Researches in British and Saxon Burial Mounds of East Yorkshire.  Thanks to the immaculate records Mortimer kept of his excavations, this book was way ahead of its time.  Surprisingly however, Mortimer’s idiosyncratic and erratic autobiography was originally intended to be included in this volume of pioneering scientific archaeology.  That these two things should ever have been put together in such a dramatic juxtaposition seems unconceivable to the modern archaeologist.

The editorial action that removed this bizarre autobiographical preamble fascinates me because it seems to capture an awkward moment between antiquarianism and modern archaeology.  In one sweep of the red pen Mortimer edited out the final remnants of his own antiquarianism, which had maybe been as much about the triumphs of the collector as it had been about deductive study.

It seems fitting that Mortimer should have been the one to make this final cut, given his characterisation as a northern outsider looking in on the privileged group of formally educated and wealthy gentleman scholars (see here).  His initial proposal of including extracts from his childhood may have been Mortimer’s way of staking his claim to the heritage he excavated.  It showed just how tightly he was bound to the soil of the Wolds.  However, in the end, he excised these last remnants of the old school.  Mortimer spent his childhood picking up dung, as well as flints, from the fields of the Wolds, and I’d like to believe that perhaps he had little truck with the antiquarian cult of personality.


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