Mortimer 100: memorialisation through collecting

As part of the 2017 Festival of Archaeology guest blogger, Alice Rose, Documentation Assistant at the Hull and East Riding Museum explores the concept of collections as a form of memorial.

Individuals can be memorialised and remembered in a variety of ways.  When we think of memorialisation in the UK, our thoughts usually focus on tangible memorials erected for those who have passed: gravestones, memorial plaques, statues and monuments.  One might also think of the intangible, such as parades on Remembrance Sunday, a memorial concert or lecture.  When visiting a museum one can also see another type of memorial: a collection.

John Robert Mortimer (1825-1911) was a collector and an archaeologist who lived East Yorkshire.  He was born in the village of Fimber and educated at local village schools.  Raised in a farming family, Mortimer had an awareness of the landscape he lived in and a connection to his environment.  Throughout his childhood John and his brother Robert would explore the local area together.  They developed interests in nature and natural history, keeping rabbits and collecting birds’ eggs.   John also developed an interest in astronomy and even made his own telescope!  So it is evident that from a young age, John Mortimer had a passion for learning and collecting.

J R Mortimer, image held in the collection of the Hull and East Riding Museum, used with permission.

His diverse range of interests laid the foundations for John Mortimer’s future passion.  A trip to the Great Exhibition in 1851 and the British Museum sparked an interest in archaeology.  On his return, he and his brother would hunt the plough-fields searching for geological and archaeological objects.  They methodically recorded the find-spots on maps, as a field survey.  This was the start of John Mortimer’s collection.

However, the brothers realised that the ploughing of the fields was not only bringing archaeological finds to the surface, but that they might also be destroyed or lost.  In a bid to increase the collection, the Mortimer brothers trained farm workers in the identification of flint and stone tools, offering rewards for bringing them the finds.

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1868 Mortimer’s public notice seeking to acquire antiquities, held in the collection of the Hull and East Riding Museum. Image used with permission.

John Mortimer then took his pursuit of archaeology and his collection to the next level.  He conducted his own archaeological excavations, opening hundreds of prehistoric barrows on across the Yorkshire Wolds as well as Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon sites.  His excavations pioneered methods and techniques which are still use in the present-day.  Mortimer took a scientific approach to archaeology, focusing on a methodical and thorough approach.  This is in contrast to many of his contemporaries and demonstrates the insecurity Mortimer had regarding his educational background.  He had to ensure precision to decrease the likelihood of being discredited.

His excavation reports include records of features such as soil type, soil profiles and plans of the excavations.  He also wrote detailed descriptions of finds and their position when uncovered.  He recorded all this information and illustrations (created by his daughter Agnes) in his publication Forty years researches in British and Saxon Burial Mounds in East Yorkshire.

Illustration from Mortimer’s 1905 book “Forty Years’ Researches” showing the section of a barrow burial. Public domain.

This large quantity of excavation produced a wealth of archaeological material which resulted in Mortimer building his own museum to house his collection in Driffield.  The collection was purchased by Hull Corporation Museums (later Hull Museums) in 1913 on the condition that it was  kept together in its entirety as ‘The Mortimer Collection’ as specified by the trustees of John Mortimer’s estate.  The collection has been moved several times to different museum locations, however much of the collection is now on display in Hull and East Riding Museum.

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J R Mortimer with his collection in the Driffield Museum. Image held in the collection of the Hull and East Riding Museum, used with permission.

John Mortimer’s collection and his publication are memorials to the man and his work.  They encapsulate a lifetime of work exploring, collecting and excavating the landscape of the Yorkshire Wolds.  They enshrine, through the marking of the objects and his written words, the development of archaeological and museum recording, theory and practice.  The objects and paper archive represent decades of dedication to the subject and its study in spite of doubt and adversity.

The Mortimer Collection has endured.  As long as these objects continue to survive and remain together to be explored and studied by the public, John Mortimer will be remembered as a pioneering archaeologist.

Alice Rose is a documentation assistant at Hull and East Riding Museum, working with archaeological collections.  Her current project is the Arts Council England Designation Development Funded ‘Mortimer 100’ project which aims to document, conserve and increase accessibility to the Mortimer Collection including its associated paper archive.

The Mortimer Collection is currently the focus of the Mortimer 100 project, funded through the Arts Council England Designated Development Fund.  Since the collection’s arrival in Hull in 1918 some documentation and conservation work has been done on the collection.  However, it has never been completely accessioned or documented.  One of the aims of the Mortimer 100 project is to improve the documentation of the collection, increase its accessibility and its conservation.  If you would like to find out more about the Mortimer 100 project, please take a look at project posts on the Hull Museums blog:


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