s Forty Years' Researches - Hull Museums Collections

Forty Years' Researches

detail from the title page

Forty Years Researches in British and Saxon Burial Mounds was published by John Robert Mortimer in 1905 and remains one of the most importance publications for archaeologists in the region. Mortimer said that studying the ancient burial mounds could "reveal the secrets of the past".

J.R. Mortimer

Mortimer was born in June 1825 and worked as a corn merchant in the small market town of Driffield in East Yorkshire. In 1851 as a result of a visit to the Great Exhibition in London he acquired a love for knowledge. He was to dedicate the rest of his life to applying a scientific approach to his interesting in collecting local antiquities.

He had many contacts with local farmers and labourers and advertised for people to give or sell their discoveries to him for the growing collection. He and his brother Robert excavated over 300 prehistoric burial mounds on the Yorkshire Wolds.

Detail record

From the first notes made in 1860, it was Mortimer's detailed recording of everything he saw and found that make his work so exceptional. Each excavation includes plans, sections, descriptions of the stratigraphy encountered and detailed illustrations of finds. Much of this information was published in Forty Years Researches. The Mortimer Collection was acquired by Hull Museums in 1913 and today it provides the historic core of the archaeological collections in the Hull and East Riding Museum.

Mortimer was fortunate that at the time he was working much of the Wolds landscape was still under pasture. A rise in large scale intensive arable farming meant that many of the earthworks familiar to Mortimer in his boyhood 'disappeared' under the plough. A significant number of the burials recorded in Forty Years Researches would have been destroyed had they not been investigated, recorded and recovered by Mortimer.

'A Work of Reference'

When Forty Years Researches was published in 1905 one reviewer wrote: "[it] will be a standard work of reference for all time, and no educated Yorkshire man ought to be without it...That it will have a large sale outside the county, and even abroad, is only what might be expected from the excellence of the information contained therein." ('Prehistoric Remains in East Yorkshire' The Naturalist, May 1905, p155).

The book features more than 1000 illustrations which were drawn, over a six year period, by Mortimer's teenage daughter Agnes. Thomas Sheppard, who had previously worked with Mortimer on the collections in the Driffield museum, proof-read the text and helped compile the index.

The work is now only available as an increasingly rare and expensive second hand copy. More than a century after its publication Forty Years Researches is still a highly authoritative work. Even though archaeological understanding may have developed enormously since Mortimer's time, the wealth of information contained in the work makes it possible for archaeologists to re-interpret what was discovered.