These two women are connected not only through their professional vocation, but also directly through the institution of the Museum of London, sponsors of Raising Horizons.

Tessa Verney Wheeler and Jessica Bryan

Tessa Verney Wheeler, at Verulamium during the 1930s excavation, pointing at a burial. Image: UCL open access.

Tessa Verney Wheeler, at Verulamium during the 1930s excavation, pointing at a burial. Image: UCL open access.

Anyone wanting the full picture of Tessa Verney Wheeler‘s contribution to archaeology should check out the wonderful biography of her by L. C. Carr (thanks to Kate Sheppard for the loan!). As we don’t have a proper TrowelBlazers post on her yet, this piece will have to remain a sketch.

Tessa Verney Wheeler was another of the Raising Horizons trowelblazers who benefitted from the openness of the University of London in accepting women students, trained there between 1911-14, where she also met R. Mortimer Wheeler and got married. Following the First World War and after his appointment to the National Museum of Wales, together they excavated at several Welsh sites. From the beginning it was a partnership where in modern terms, she was the Excavation Director, to his Principle Investigator. After her husband’s promotion to the London Museum, she stayed in Wales over the winter of 1926 to undertake the excavation of Roman site Caerleon, which they had planned together.

Tessa started lecturing at the Museum in 1928, and together they established the new Institute of Archaeology (now part of UCL) in 1934. Until her death in 1936, her role in developing fieldwork techniques at the same time as a teaching, both in lecturing but much more significantly training students on excavations, in particular Verulamium and Maiden Castle, is Tessa’s greatest legacy. She instilled in a generation of future archaeologists the careful, controlled approach to excavation that she developed along with her husband (what would later be known as the Wheeler-Kenyon method, after it was refined by one of those students). But more than this, Tessa is remembered by those who experienced working under her as supportive and encouraging, offering a strong example of the correct way to do things on site.

In particular, for the young women whose first experience of archaeological excavation – that strange blend of physical exertion, boredom and intense excitement – was under Tessa’s guidance, it may be no co-incidence that a large number went on to significant careers of their own (among them Kathleen Kenyon, Margaret Guido, Molly Cotton, Margaret Drower, Joan du Plat Taylor, Beatrice de Cardi, Veronica Seton Williams, Olwen Brogan and Mary Leakey). Seeing a highly capable woman managing enormous sites and teams (while also dealing with her volatile celebrity colleague/husband), may have offered an instructive role model for many.

Ironically a major barrier to wider recognition of Tessa’s work outside specialist circles is her last name, Wheeler. As the first wife of a man who by all accounts was incredibly charismatic (while also having some questionable ethics), discerning her real role in their archaeological partnership is like trying to see the glow of a white dwarf star against the glare of its red giant companion. Tessa was apparently happy to remain behind-the-scenes of the public ‘Wheeler show’ as much as possible, and in this way her marriage was a professional collaboration; while she fully appreciated the power of PR for promoting archaeology, she was also sometimes subject to its negative focus on her as a woman, including headlines like The Daily Mail ‘s “GIRL EXCAVATORS” in 1930, when she was 37 years old.

Perhaps the most significant factor which resulted in her being known far less widely than her husband was her early death, just the year before the Institute took its first students. While some of their excavations were published jointly, as Mortimer continued and grew more celebrated in later years, she was no longer by his side, and her importance was often overlooked. But the countless contexts which fail to acknowledge their excavations as joint projects also go against Mortimer’s own acknowledgement of the debt he owed her as an equal partner (watch this lovely video on a letter he sent to her from the trenches).

Jessica Bryan, Senior Archaeologist, MOLA.

Jessica Bryan, Senior Archaeologist, MOLA.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and it’s at MOLA, the 21st century field and built heritage services unit of the Museum of London, that we find our contemporary Raising Horizons counterpart, Jess Bryan. Currently Senior Archaeologist, with an MA and 12 years experience in professional field archaeology, she has worked for multiple commercial archaeological units, gathering a wide skill set including managing and supervising, as well as being a qualified chainsaw operator.

While her Masters degree and training at University of Glasgow between 2007-8 was focused on the end-point of excavations – archaeological finds – Jess is most passionate about field archaeology. After several years gaining experience with different archaeological units, in 2010 she worked for the Portable Antiquities Scheme in Kent, and the same year became a Senior Archaeologist with MOLA. She speaks of the thrill that discovering the material past brings, with the knowledge that there will always be something surprising whatever the site, whether large or small, urban or rural, major infrastructure.

Jess is also committed to positive working practices, and is Secretary of the Archaeologists Branch of Prospect Union, a supporter of Raising Horizons. She understands the importance of having a supportive mentor, not just for training but motivation: on her first ever excavation, when she presented her supervisor with a natural pebble they were still encouraging!

Jess has worked on some of London’s most important digs of recent years, including the Crossrail development at Broadgate, and the Bloomberg development (called “Pompeii of the North”, with 10,000 finds!). Like Tessa, she is also involved in outreach activities, although she takes more of a lead: writing for Day of Archaeology (including about sewers– promise it’s worth reading!), and MOLA’s Walbrook Discovery Programme. She’s also contributed to TrowelBlazers with a post on Audrey Williams, who excavated the famous Roman Mithras Temple in London, which Jess herself worked on when 1960s reconstruction was moved during major excavations by MOLA. And in a nice link back to Tessa, Audrey Williams also worked at Verulamium Museum. Everywhere you look, there are trowelblazing connections!

Written by Becky.

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