Dr. JOHN WYMER, 1929 - 2006

Friends and colleagues paid tribute to the internationally renowned Suffolk archaeologist.  Dr John Wymer, who lived in Bildeston, Suffolk was an expert on the Palaeolithic period, otherwise known as the 'Old Stone Age', and died on February 10, aged 77, at Southampton Hospital following a short illness.

Footnote:  from Peter Cox:.........John was an SOG who lived in the next village to me. I never got round to meeting him but did speak to him on the phone about our Reunions, which he was interested to hear. 

Editor's footnote:........As one volunteer out of a hundred at the Kew Bridge Steam Museum I was in conversation with the wife of a Trustee of the Museum at a recent Exhibition opening.   The particular study for which John was renowned had also been her own enthusiasm for many years and she was very aware of his standing.   A photograph of John, taken from the Daily Telegraph, can be seen at the Photo Gallery in FAMILIAR FACES Part 3.
.....and from Eric Foote......................I have now reached the age when scanning the Obituaries column in the Daily Telegraph can be rewarding and  interesting, but also very sad. The latter applies to last Friday's column. I read of the death of John Wymer. He had been a friend of my young brother, Raymond and guest at our home before Raymond went to the U.S.A. The obituary referred to the fact that John had been"...educated at Richmond and East Sheen County School..." and ..."In his spare time, Wymer enjoyed blues and jazz..".  In the early 1940's, Raymond and three of his colleagues from R.& E. S. County (John Wymer, Snelling (John?), Padday (?)) gathered at West Park Rd, Kew Gardens, where our family lived. The group took over our front sitting room where we had a baby-grand piano. Their jazz sessions livened up our household, but, thankfully, our neighbours must have been very tolerant or hard of hearing.  Raymond was the pianist, and I think that the other instruments played were the clarinet, guitar and drums. The atmosphere was always very, very smoky but generally happy. Raymond managed to buy original jazz and blues records and even had some shipped over from the USA. There were visits to London jazz clubs to hear the UK's best or instrumentalists from other countries.  I am glad to say that although the sessions at our home were noisy and very often discordant, I still enjoy blues and traditional jazz!

This obituary appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 3rd March, 2006
JOHN WYMER, who died on February 10 aged 77, was Britain’s foremost authority on early Stone Age settlement and had a major impact on the development of Stone Age studies inWestern Europe.

His career as an archaeologist began with the discovery in 1955 of Swanscombe Woman, the fossil remains of a skull of a woman who lived in the ThamesValley around 400,000 BC; they are among the oldest human remains ever discovered in Europe.
Wymer spent 40 years in a variety of investigations of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites which he expanded into a remarkable and comprehensive two-volume study of The Lower Palaeolithic Occupation of Britain.

He also carried out major programmes of research in South Africa, most notably at Klasies River Mouth, west of Port Elizabeth, where a remarkable stratigraphic sequence, more than 25m thick and spanning the entire Middle and Late Stone Age, was discovered. The sample contained more than 250,000 stone tools, as well as animal bones, sea shells and other detritus, but most important, a number of human bones. One of these was 100,000 years old, and was at the time of its discovery the world’s oldest specimen of the truly modern Homo Sapiens.

John James Wymer was born on March 5 1928 and brought up near KewGardens in London. Educated at Richmond and EastSheenCountySchool and at ShoreditchTrainingCollege he was introduced to the pleasures of the Stone Age by his parents, who took him flint-hunting in gravel pits.

He began his career as a teacher but soon turned to archaeology, and in 1956 was appointed to the staff of ReadingMuseum, where he continued his search for Palaeolithic implements in the Quarternary sediments of the river Thames. This research soon led to his first monograph, Lower Palaeolithic Archaeology in Britain as represented by the ThamesValley, published in 1968, which catalogued thousands of discoveries and used them as a basis for a chronology of the Lower Palaeolithic period. The volume was illustrated by hundreds of Wymer’s own meticulously-crafted pen-and-ink drawings of hand-axes and other flint tools
In 1965 he was recruited by Professor Ronald Singer of the University of Chicago to direct a series of excavations at sites in South Africa including the Klasies River Mouth. Returning toEngland in 1968, he went on to carry out excavations at key Palaeolithic sites, including Clacton, Hoxne and Ipswich.
His management of these excavations set new standards for prehistoric archaeology and each excavation was fully published. In 1979-80 Wymer was appointed Senior Research Associate at the University of East Anglia which bore fruit in The Palaeolithic Age (1982) and Palaeolithic Sites in East Anglia (1985).
By the time these appeared in print Wymer had been recruited to dig sites of later periods in Essex and then Norfolk. Although he had bought a house at Bildeston, Suffolk, he moved with his second wife, Mollie, to Great Cressingham in Norfolk and, between 1983 and 1990 worked for the Norfolk Archaeological Unit, investigating many sites at different periods.

From 1991 he began a project to relate every Palaeolithic discovery yet made in Britain to its relevant geological deposit, in order to construct an authoritative survey of the early presence of people in Britain.

The project was enormous, but in only six years Wymer had personally visited almost every site and significant museum collection in the country. The result was a series of detailed reports which could be used by mineral extraction companies and planners to tell them of the potential importance of different Quaternary sediments. In 1998 it was distilled into his two-volume study The Lower Palaeolithic Occupation of Britain.
Wymer was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1963 and of the BritishAcademy in 1996.

In his spare time, Wymer enjoyed blues and jazz, gardening and real ale; he was a supporter of CAMRA and a regular at his local pub where he cut the cheese in his ploughman’s lunch with an ancient flint knife.

John Wymer married first, in 1948, Pauline May.  The marriage was dissolved and he married secondly, in l976 Mollie (nee Spurling), who died in 1999 He is survived by two sons and three daughters of his first marriage. 

The Guardian,  Friday. 10th March, 2006
JOHN  JAMES WYMER, archaeologist, born 5th March 5 1928; died 10th February, 2006

Enthusiastic hunter of skulls, stone tools and the roots of history
In the mid-1930s, a dentist found two pieces of the same ancient human skull in the quarries at SwanscomBe, Kent. Twenty years later, John Wymer who has died aged 77, unearthed a new piece of the same skull which had, he said, the ‘consistency of wet soap’ At 400,000 years old, it remains the only pre-Neanderthal skull from Britain. Thus began Wymer’s career pursuing early human history, though he had started as a teenager with his father, a professional artist, who had been searching for palaeolithic flint handaxes in Kent for decades.
Wymer was born and brought up in Richmond, Surrey, and educated at East Sheen County School and Shoreditch Training College. After the Swanscombe find, he became Curator at Reading Museum, having worked as a journalist, a British Rail clerk and a teacher.  For 10 years he studied Reading’s handaxe collection and directed excavations at mesolithic hunter-gatherer camps in the Kennet valley. The most important was at Thatcham, where he recovered artefacts and animal bone refuse at a site used by generations of hunters.

His next excavations were in South Africa (1965-68).  At thesuggestion of the great palaeontologist Louis Leakey, Ronald Singer, of Chicago University, employed Wymer to direct work at Saldanha Bay and then at Klasies River Mouth, near Port Elizabeth. At a time of apartheid and widespread ignorance of the nation’s history, Singer was seeking to drive back the story of homo sapiens. At the Kiasies caves, Wymer found human fossils up to 110.000 years old with rich deposits of artefacts and animal remains, all indicative of what were then the world’s oldest modern humans.

Singer moved Wymer back to Britain to excavate already well-known palaeolithic sites, including those at Clacton. Essex and Hoxne, Suffolk. Then, after excavating in the 1980s for archaeological consultancies in Essex and Norfolk, in 1990 Wymer began a unique survey of the evidence for the country’s earliest humans. The importance of sites like Swanscombe, Clacton and Hoxne lies in pristine remains preserved in undisturbed geological deposits. Such cases are rare. A 1989 planning application to quarry a hill at Dunbridge. Hampshire, where more than 1.000 handaxes had been found, exposed general ignorance of the greater mass of unstratified tools.
A chastened English Heritage commissioned the Southern Rivers Palaeolithic Survey, with Wymer as project manager. After its successful completion in 1994 came the national English Rivers Palaeolithic Survey, while Cadw, the Welsh Assembly’s historic environment division, conducted a parallel study. Based near Salisbury, Wymer visited almost every known palaeolithic site. His comprehensive reports now inform research, and guide planning and development.

Wymer was efficient at publishing his excavations. Illustrating stone tools is a difficult task that demands proper understanding of the technology. He taught himself to knap flint, and made superb technical drawings. His first publication in Nature was about the Swanscombe find: last December, 50 years later, his drawings of the 700,000 old flint tools from Pakefield, Suffolk, illustrated another Nature contribution.

He was president of the Quaternary Research Association, vice-president of the Prehistoric Society and chair of the Lithic Studies Society. The Geological Society awarded him their Stopes medal. He was a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and of the British Academy.
The drier paths of Wymer’s discipline and the rigours of fieldwork were dispensed with much humour. His mother had played piano to silent films, and he became an accomplished and entertaining blues pianist; he also played guitar. His love of real ales was famous. He is survived by three daughters and two sons from his first marriage. His second wife. Mollie, died in 1999.