The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 100

Issue 100

May / June 2008


There is more content online than usual for this bumper issue!


Early Scottish gardens unturfed

Axes could be 0.5m years old

In the press

Listing lobby was no hot air

Kent Anglo-Saxon cemetery could be royal

Poetry to assist transfer of Hadrian's Wall collection

In Brief & Phase 2


John Wymer
Mike Pitts introduces an archaeologist with a fine eye for illustration

The Lost Royal Cult Of Street House, Yorkshire
The excavation of a unique Anglo-Saxon cult cemetery

Born digital: Making People Believe
How computers have changed the world of archaeology

The Office: Heritage and Archaeology at Fortress House
John Schofield finds unexpected things on Savile Row

Green Men & The Way of All Flesh
Richard Hayman uproots a fashionable myth

on the web

Recommended websites
Caroline Wickham-Jones considers archaeological imagery, and The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland has a new website

100 letters & news

Some of the letters we received and news stories we revealed in the past 100 issues

CBA correspondent

Campaigns, comment and communications from the CBA
Communication is king, says Mike Heyworth, celebrating nearly 60 years of magazines

Extra online content


Sebastian Payne asks, what do forensic archaeologists do?

Mick's travels & more travels

Mick Aston looks for early saints in Cornwall, and an introduction to visiting Cornwall's sites & monuments

my archaeology

Phil Harding, the man with five guitars


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


John Wymer

Mike Pitts introduces an archaeologist with a fine eye for illustration.

We hope to be able to add images to this article in the near future.

The modern combination of computer graphics and specialist artists is making the archaeologist-illustrator a relative scarcity. But for much of the profession's history the person who excavated a site or found an artefact was often also the one who took the photos and drew the diagrams. The results were not always particularly happy, especially with photography (though there are outstanding archaeologist-photographers, among them Harold St George Gray and Alexander Keiller).

Several archaeologists did, however, produce illustrations that were both attractive and informative, amongst the most famous, Mortimer Wheeler and Stuart Piggott. John Wymer (1928–2006) was known to palaeolithic archaeologists as a fine illustrator of stone artefacts. Less appreciated is that he also peppered immaculately-kept field notes with delightful working sketches and watercolours.

Wymer was born in West Kensington, London. His father, Bertram Wymer, a commercial artist who worked for the Tiger Tim group of comics, had been seeking palaeolithic flint handaxes in Kent since 1910, and the teenager, a ten shilling note stitched into his jacket by his mother, cycled among the gravel pits to add to the collection. In 1955 the family targeted a Swanscombe quarry where parts of a fossil skull had been found in the 1930s. John Wymer found a third piece of the same skull, which remains, at 400,000 years old, the only pre-Neanderthal cranium from Britain.

Though having worked as a printer, a railway clerk and a teacher, Wymer then began a long archaeological career by joining Reading Museum. He directed excavations at key early human sites, in South Africa (Klasies River Mouth) and England (Clacton, Essex and Hoxne, Suffolk). In the course of conducting surveys for English Heritage, he visited almost every known palaeolithic site in the country. Amongst his many publications were the substantial books, Lower Palaeolithic Archaeology in Britain as Represented by the Thames Valley (John Baker 1968), The Palaeolithic Age (Croom Helm 1982), Palaeolithic Sites of East Anglia (Geo-Books 1985) and The Lower Palaeolithic Occupation of Britain (Wessex Archaeology 1999). Each of these was fulsomely illustrated with his drawings of flint artefacts.

Depicting stone tools well is a difficult task that demands proper understanding of the obscure technology. As Alan Saville and Hazel Martingell explain in The Illustration of Lithic Artefacts (Association of Archaeological Illustrators & Surveyors / Lithic Studies Society 1988), the goal is not just to make a picture that looks right to a casual viewer. It is to read the story of how the knapper handled the piece of stone to create the tool, and then to convey that process to the informed observer.

It is no accident that the best lithic illustrators are often knappers. Wymer taught himself to work flint, and made superb technical drawings – even his first, illustrated here beside one of his best, were good. Over 100 have just arrived at the British Museum, along with his eight field notebooks (1949–2003), his index of some 6,000 cards describing palaeolithic sites, and photos (though unfortunately not his artefact collection, which the museum declined). Last year the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund paid for the archive's assessment, and a further grant has been obtained to help make it accessible. The diary entries have been scanned and typed, and the texts and card index database will in time be available on the Archaeology Data Service website. Wymer's life's work will become increasingly treasured.

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