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

Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Sport
Australia's Dylan Tombides competes for the ball with Adal Matar of Kuwait during the AFC U-22 Championship Group C match in January
sportDylan Tombides was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011
News
Ida Beate Loken has been living at the foot of a mountain since May
newsNorwegian gives up home comforts for a cave
Extras
indybest10 best gardening gloves
News
Russia's President Vladimir Putin gives his annual televised question-and-answer session
peopleBizarre TV claim
Arts & Entertainment
tvIt might all be getting a bit much, but this is still the some of the finest TV ever made, says Grace Dent
Arts & Entertainment
Comedian Lenny Henry is calling for more regulation to support ethnic actors on TV
tvActor and comedian leads campaign against 'lack of diversity' in British television
News
Posted at the end of March, this tweeted photo was a week off the end of their Broadway shows
people
News
peopleStar to remain in hospital for up to 27 days to get over allergic reaction
Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Life & Style
life
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit