John Wymer

Archaeologist unrivalled in his knowledge of the simple stone tools of the Lower Palaeolithic


John James Wymer, archaeologist: born Richmond upon Thames, Surrey 5 March 1928; Archaeologist, Reading Museum 1956-65; FSA 1963; Research Associate, University of Chicago and University of East Anglia 1965-80; Field Officer, Essex Archaeological Unit 1981-82; Field Officer, Norfolk Archaeological Unit 1983-90; Director, English Rivers Palaeolithic Survey, English Heritage 1991-99; FBA 1996; married 1948 Paula May (marriage dissolved 1972; two sons, three daughters), 1976 Mollie Spurling (died 1999); died Southampton 10 February 2006.

On a wet June day in 1997, a party of archaeologists met at the Swan in Hoxne to celebrate a short letter that changed how we understood our origins. John Wymer organised this commemoration of the Suffolk landowner John Frere who had written 200 years before to the Society of Antiquaries in London, about flint "weapons" that had been dug up in the Hoxne brickyard.

Not only did Frere recognise these stones as human artefacts, he was also the first to conclude they belonged to a "very remote period indeed; even beyond that of the present world".

Wymer devoted his professional life to the study of these artefacts, the handaxes of the Lower Palaeolithic. No one has ever been more knowledgeable or more enthusiastic about these simple stone tools. He knew they held the key to unravelling the story of our technological evolution and he pursued them from the gravel pits of Britain to the caves and fossil dunes of South Africa.

More than once Wymer described them as "enigmatic", since handaxes persisted, unchanged, for over a million years, and yet their precise function in the hands of our earliest ancestors remains tantalisingly out of reach. His answer was to shun speculation and place them in a much-needed geological context. This he did in a series of groundbreaking books that began in 1968 with Lower Palaeolithic Archaeology in Britain.

Palaeolithic archaeology is a demanding science. It requires detailed knowledge of Pleistocene (ice age) geology and the ability to extrapolate from small, often poorly provenanced samples, to the bigger story of human origins. The key to the brilliance of Wymer's fieldwork lay in his dedication to detail, captured in his exquisite technical drawings, and his exceptional ability to order and describe concisely. Listening to him, the mystery of how river terraces form and incorporate archaeological materials always made sense.

John Wymer received no formal archaeological training. Instead, he learnt his craft from his parents during their visits from the family home at Richmond in Surrey to the gravel pits along the Thames. Their most memorable discovery came in July 1955 when, aged 27, John found the third piece of a 400,000-year-old skull in a disused gravel pit at Swanscombe in north Kent. It had, he recalled, "the consistency of wet soap" but fitted neatly to the pieces found elsewhere in the pit 20 years before. Now regarded as Homo heidelbergensis, this remains the only fossil skull from the British Isles of any significant Pleistocene age.

His pursuit of handaxes and their makers led in 1956 to a job at the Reading Museum where he was well placed to undertake Palaeolithic research. But he also helped redesign the galleries, described the Moulsford gold torc, and in the early 1960s excavated the classic Mesolithic site at Thatcham.

In 1965 Wymer was recruited as fieldwork director by the University of Chicago. He led excavations at Hoxne and Clacton in England and at the giant coastal cave of Klasies River Mouth in South Africa that produced huge riches of stone artefacts and some human fossils. The data from Klasies River Mouth, published with Ronald Singer in 1982 (as The Middle Stone Age at Klasies River Mouth in South Africa), provided important ammunition for the growing consensus that all modern people originated in Africa, later confirmed by genetics and better chronologies.

Not one for retirement, in 1990 Wymer began a national survey for English Heritage. Based at Wessex Archaeology in Salisbury he visited every Palaeolithic findspot to assess its significance. The English Rivers Palaeolithic Survey and Wymer's summary The Lower Palaeolithic Occupation of Britain (1999) are already regarded as archaeology's equivalent of The Buildings of England: the foundation stone for future work into our origins informed by the knowledge of a lifetime and the genius of one person. The results confirmed Wymer's position in a line of enquiry that starts with Frere's letter and descends through Ancient Stone Implements of Great Britain, written in 1872 by Wymer's hero Sir John Evans, to Wymer himself.

But the line does not stop there. Wymer's gift to the next generation, recognised in the award of the British Academy's Clark Medal for Prehistoric Archaeology to him in 2002, was his willingness to share new and unpublished data and above all to encourage anyone with an interest in the Palaeolithic. He will be remembered affectionately for his boogie-woogie piano playing in the style of Jimmy Yancey, his love of Abbot Ale and an honest cheese sandwich. Modest, bearded and bespectacled in a battered brown trilby, he was a familiar sight at any archaeological gathering, handling and talking about flints pulled out of pockets, unpacked from boxes and offered up for his opinion by independent and professional archaeologists alike.

The importance of his scholarship was recognised by an honorary doctorate from Reading University, the Stopes Memorial Medal from the Geologists' Association, and his much acclaimed election in 1996 to the British Academy. He served variously as President of the Quaternary Research Association, Chair of the Lithic Studies Society and a Vice-President of the Prehistoric Society.

He wrote of his hope that his work "may inspire some to search for palaeoliths themselves, and it would be a dull person who could not enjoy the thrill of finding a handaxe and considering who held it last".

Clive Gamble

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