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Noteworthy naturalist

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John James Wymer (1928-2006 ) Stone Age Archaeologist

John James Wymer was born on 5th March 1928 near Kew Gardens, Richmond, Surrey. He died, aged 77, on 10th February 2006, after a short illness, at Southampton General Hospital and was cremated on 17th February at Easthampton. John had great presence and in later years sported a full black beard. He was a very modest, humane, approachable person, with a strong sense of justice, who exhibited much humour, concision and enthusiasm. John was a great family man and an exquisite draughtsman. He was a member of CAMRA, revelled in real ale with congenial company; loved travelling, enjoyed gardening and was a good pianist, playing in the boogie-woogie style of Jimmy Yancey. John was an efficient publisher of his research, invariably illustrated with his superb drawings of his beloved flint implements. He was often seen in his local pub cutting the cheese in his ploughman’s lunch with an ancient flint knife. John’s early years were spent in the Richmond area of south west London. He later lived in Wokingham for 16 years, firstly at Rose Street and later in Rectory Road. After spending three years in South Africa he moved to Bildeston, Suffolk in 1971 and then went with his second wife, Mollie, to Great Cressingham, Norfolk.

John’s father, Bert Osborn Wymer (1891- 11th August 1959), married Lea Vidal (30th December 1894- 26th September 1981) in Islington in 1919. Bert was the son of Henry Samuel Wymer (1854-1924) a lithographer and Caroline Osborn, who was born in Birmingham, had who married on 16th June 1877. Bert was an illustrator who drew Tiger Tim, a comic strip character. John’s mother was the daughter of Benevista Vidal, a Turkish tobacco dealer who became naturalised in 1897 and Mary Ann Vidal who had married in 1891. In 1901 Mary Ann was listed as a lunatic. John’s mother, Lea, played the piano to accompany silent films. John Wymer married twice. Firstly to Pauline May in 1948. They had three daughters, Miranda, Tess and Lucille and two sons Leigh and Charles. The marriage was dissolved in 1972. At the time of his death John had two grandchildren. Secondly he married Mollie (nee Spurling) in 1976 who sadly, unexpectedly, died in 1999.

John variously worked as a journalist and a British Railway clerk before training as a teacher. As a young child his parents took him, at weekends, to gravel pits to search for ancient artefacts. He was educated at Richmond and East Sheen County School and Shoreditch Training College. John’s interest in archaeology was also inspired by a talk about human origins by Kenneth Oakley of the Natural History Museum. In his spare time John studied archaeology. By 1954 he was excavating at a Palaeolithic site at Little Thurrock, Essex, which had been discovered by his father in 1911 who was puzzled by the absence here of handaxes. John published this Clactonian site in 1957. In July 1955, aged 27, he found a third piece of the Swanscombe skull of Homo heidelbergensis, some 400,000 years old which he described as having the ‘consistency of wet soap’. This important find may have encouraged him in 1956 to switch career and join Reading Museum as an archaeologist. This opportunity allowed him to study his favourite subject - flint implements. He also helped redesign the museum galleries and excavate Mesolithic sites at Thatcham and elsewhere. He left Reading Museum in 1965, after ten years, to expand and develop his archaeological skills working with Professor Ronald Singer of the University of Chicago as a Research Associate. This collaboration with Singer lasted 15 years. Louis Leakey had suggested Singer employed Wymer to direct excavations in South Africa. Here John excavated the famous Klasies River Mouth site which had a 25 metre thick sequence of Middle and Late Stone Age deposits. Some 250,000 stone tools were retrieved together with sea shells, animal and human bones. He left Africa in 1968 and returned to England where he excavated at Clacton Golf Course site, Essex and Hoxne, Suffolk. John also lectured at the University of East Anglia. Between 1979-1980 he was a Senior Research Associate. He worked as a Field Officer with the Essex Archaeological Unit from 1981-1982 and the Norfolk Archaeological Unit from 1983-1990, excavating sites of all ages. Following the fiasco of the quarrying away of an important Palaeolithic site at Dunbridge, Hampshire, John Wymer was commissioned by a chastened English Heritage to map and assess known Palaeolithic sites across Britain. He was Director of the English Rivers Palaeolithic Survey for English Heritage from 1991-1999. Just before his death he was working at Pakefield on 700,000 BP discoveries which were reported in Nature, some 50 years after his first article appeared there about the Swanscombe skull find.

Although John never took any formal qualification in archaeology he was elected to Fellowship of the Society of Antiquaries in 1963 and awarded an Honorary MA from Durham University in 1969. The Geologists’ Association awarded him the Henry Stopes Medal in 1972. He gave the results of his work at Clacton and Hoxne in his Stopes memorial lecture. Other honours followed, including, Presidency of the Quaternary Research Association 1975-1977. John was elected secretary of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology from 1977-1984, Vice-President from 1985 and President from 2001. In 1980 he joined the Lithic Studies Society, later lecturing to them about the Clactonian flint industry, and serving on their committee. The Lithic Studies Society published a Festchrift in his honour in 1998. He was Vice-President of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History from 1985; Vice-President of the Prehistoric Society and chairman of the Lithic Studies Society from 1990-1994. John proudly received an Honorary DSc from Reading University in 1993. He also served as Vice-President of the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society from 1994 and Berkshire Archaeological Society from 1995. John was a founder of Berkshire Field Research Group and the Wokingham Society. He was elected to Fellowship of the British Academy in 1996. Later the BA awarded him the Grahame Clark Clark Medal for Prehistoric Archaeology in 2002 for his services to Prehistoric Archaeology.

John published numerous books and papers. Many refer to Essex sites. His article on A Clactonian Flint Industry at Little Thurrock, Grays, Essex appeared in 1957. His pioneering Lower Palaeolithic Archaeology in Britain as represented by the Thames Valley appeared in 1968. This masterly synthesis included finds from sites in the London Boroughs of Barking & Dagenham, Havering, Redbridge, and Waltham Forest as well as Thurrock, Clacton etc. He edited the CBA Research Report Gazetteer of Mesolithic sites in England and Wales which appeared in 1977. Essex sites occupy pages 88-96. His book on Palaeolithic Sites in East Anglia was published in 1985. This details artefacts and fossil animal bones from many Essex sites including Clacton (pp. 264-285); East London Boroughs- Barking, Havering, Newham, Redbridge and Waltham Forest; Frinton, Harwich, Mersea, Southend, Thurrock (pp. 303-322) and Walton. According to John McNabb, “this book remains one of the most important contributions to regional understanding ever published in Palaeolithic archaeology”. Finally The Lower Palaeolithic Occupation of Britain appeared in two volumes in 1999. These volumes were published by Wessex Archaeology and English Heritage. Essex is well represented including South Woodford, Purfleet, Little Thurrock, Aveley and Clacton.

In addition to his publications John Wymer meticulously kept eight detailed notebooks for the period 1949-2004. These include really useful maps, sketches and photographs. They have been scanned and are now readily searchable. They are fascinating and very well worth viewing online at the Archaeology Date Service Website.

McNabb, John. 2006. John Wymer: An Appreciation. Lithics Vol. 26 pp. 4-8.

Obituaries: Daily Telegraph 3rd March 2006; Guardian 10th March 2006; Independent 17th March 2006 by Clive Gamble; The Times 18th March 2006

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Account provided by Mr William George
page last edited on Mon Oct 1st 2018 by site user 68