The rich legacy of Mortimer

editorial image
Have your say

This week marks the centenary of the death of John Robert Mortimer of Fimber and Driffield, a corn merchant and a pioneering archaeologist who made a nationally important contribution to the development of modern British archaeology.

He devoted much of his adult life to the systematic and careful examination of prehistoric burial mounds and other archaeological features on the Yorkshire Wolds, eventually becoming a nationally recognised authority on the subject.

Along with the colour printer Benjamin Fawcett, Mortimer is one of Driffield’s most important sons. Both played out their lives on a more than local stage. Yet, whilst Fawcett is well known, Mortimer is less so.

Mortimer died at his home, the now-demolished East Lodge on Eastgate South, on 19 August 1911, and was buried the following Wednesday in the family plot in the Bridlington Road cemetery. Within a couple of days of the death, the first of many obituaries appeared. Thomas Sheppard, Curator of Hull Museums summarised the importance of Mortimer:

“There can be no question that in the death of Mr J.R. Mortimer, of Driffield, British archaeological science loses one of its leaders … Mr Mortimer’s worth, however, was appreciated far beyond his own district, and it can safely be said that he held a leading place as an archaeologist, and was recognised as one of the greatest authorities on prehistoric antiquities … He probably did more towards unravelling the early history of the district in which he was born than has any other Englishman. Much as his work is appreciated today, it will unquestionably be more and more appreciated as time goes on. His loss is much greater than most people imagine”.

If Mortimer had worked on the chalklands of southern England instead of in a remote northern county, he would have been hailed as the founding father of modern British archaeology.

Who was John Robert Mortimer and why is he so important? The eldest child of James and Hannah Mortimer, he was born at Fimber on 15 January 1825 and, along with his sister Mary (1827-91) and brother Robert (1829-92), grew up on the Fimber farm of their maternal grandparents. His education was confined to attending schools in Fimber and nearby Fridaythorpe, where he received nothing more than ‘the crude and scanty learning afforded by these primitive seats of learning’. Largely uneducated, his later achievements are all the more remarkable. He finished his education in about 1839 and was set to work on his grandfather’ farm.

Although John had occasionally come into contact with antiquities during his early years, in 1851 his interest in archaeology was seriously awakened when he travelled to London to visit the Great Exhibition and the British Museum. The outcome was the diversion of his ‘scientific tastes from astronomy to geology and archaeology’. Progressively, John became addicted to archaeology so that it came to all but take over his life. His commitment was total and all-consuming, of energy, thought, time and money.

Following the London visit, John’s new-found enthusiasm was clearly infectious and, before long, both he and his brother Robert were painstakingly combing the fields around their home village for geological specimens and prehistoric artefacts. This also involved training local farmworkers ‘to distinguish and keep for us any geological and archaeological specimens they could find’.

Their activities in the fields around Fimber soon attracted the attentions of rival collectors. So keen was the competition that the Mortimer brothers were forced to offer monetary rewards and other incentives to those farmworkers who supplied them with the greatest number of objects.

John and Robert’s acquisitions from this time were displayed in purpose-built cabinets in the office attached to their Fimber farmhouse. This material formed the nucleus of what was later described as a ‘collection which can only be matched with that in the British Museum’. At the same time, they were also surveying upstanding prehistoric earthworks, then so common on the Wolds.

In the mid-1850s during a period of agricultural prosperity, John established himself as a corn, seed and manure merchant, first at Fimber and then, after his marriage in 1869, at 16 Middle Street South, Driffield. Ownership of a business would, he hoped, would allow him sufficient free time and wealth to pursue his archaeological activities, particularly in respect of excavation.

His first excavation took place on 4 May 1863, when a barrow at High Towthorpe was opened. This event marked the progression of John’s activities over the previous twelve years and provided the focus for the rest of his life. Between that date and 1910 John and, until his death in 1892, Robert excavated over 350 Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age barrows, and a number of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries. Almost all of this work was within a 10-mile radius of Fimber. During these years John came to dominate, as in some senses he still does, prehistoric studies in East Yorkshire. Interestingly, three quarters of his excavations took place between 1863 and 1879, reflecting the success of his business in those years. It is clear that large sums of money must have been diverted from the company to finance the excavations. But John’s business went into decline with the agricultural depression in the 1880s. He went bankrupt in July 1887, effectively ending his career as an archaeologist. Thereafter, only 74 excavations were undertaken and others, mainly the Sykes family of Sledmere, financed these.

John was a more skilful and imaginative excavator than many of his predecessors and contemporaries. His archaeological work was carefully and properly organised. He left detailed notes on each of his excavations and, instead of just digging artefacts up and selling them, as many people did, he preserved all the objects he discovered during his work.

The excavations resulted in the formation of an important collection of artefacts, which were displayed, from 1878 until John’s death in 1911, in the East Riding’s only purpose-built museum at 25 Lockwood Street, Driffield (now the Masonic Lodge). Mortimer financed the whole project, which contributed in no small way to his bankruptcy. Following his death and much uncertainty as to what should happen to his collection, it was eventually bought by Colonel George Henry Clarke of Kirkella and donated to the City of Hull, where it now forms the nucleus of the Hull and East Riding Museum of Archaeology in High Street. As the collection has survived intact, and within the area from which it was collected, it provides a unique insight into prehistoric East Yorkshire, and this is one of Mortimer’s greatest legacies to the county.

In 1905 John published the results of his archaeological investigations in his book, the monumental Forty Years’ Researches in British and Saxon Burial Mounds of East Yorkshire, which also contains over 1000 magnificent artefact illustrations drawn by his eldest daughter Agnes. This book has received many accolades over the years, and remains an indispensable guide to the archaeology of East Yorkshire.

John Robert Mortimer was no amateur collector of antiquities. What started out as little more than a hobby in the 1850s became a much more serious activity from the early 1860s onwards. With very little formal education, he succeeded in bringing together, preserving and documenting a vast amount of information relating to the early history of East Yorkshire, which, but for his work, would have been almost certainly lost to us. He is a figure that Driffield should know and be proud of.

East Yorkshire prehistoric studies continue to rely, in large part, on Mortimer’s data, which was collected more than 100 years ago, thus emphasising his remarkable legacy and continuing importance.

The first biography of Mortimer, written by Stephen Harrison, will be published in the next few weeks.

Back to the top of the page