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Adventure and Flinders Petrie*

  • Mortimer Wheeler

I have it in mind that our Royal Patron, in the course of her Christmas broadcast to her peoples, used the following words:

‘Above all, we must keep alive that courageous spirit of adventure that is the finest quality of youth : and by youth I do not just mean those who are young in years; I mean, too, all those who are young in heart, no matter how old they may be. That spirit still flourishes in this old country and in all the younger countries of our Commonwealth ’.

Those words have recurred to me more than once since I first heard them, and I take them as the text for the short address which recent custom demands of me this afternoon.

The ‘spirit of adventure’. I suppose that the phrase contains nearly all that makes life worth while; but to define it is another matter. We in this room today represent an era which has had its fill of rudimentary adventure, or has at least had ready opportunity for hazards beyond the dreams of Henty. In saying that, I am consciously contrasting our lot with that of our parents or grandparents, living as they did in an epoch of certainty, in an environment of good solid mahogany, with the picture always before them of a little sedate Old Lady in whose house there was no room for the word ‘ defeat ’. Adventure there was in plenty in that bygone world, but it was sharply discrete from the security of the average household outside the services. By the adventurous of spirit it had for the most part to be sought, and sought deliberately, whether in two dimensions or in three. And sought it was. In those far-off days, for example, I can recall the sturdy figure of my father, living the most humdrum of lives and eking it out with a vicarious adventuring that comes back freshly to my memory. As he strode regularly to or from his office, his daily existence was packed with boyish adventure. Tartarin, all Tarascon, had nothing to offer him. He had, in vivid imagination, forded the Kabul river under fire, until he could describe the splash of every bullet; he had never actually been east of Nuremberg, but he had shot man-eating tigers whose breath lay hot upon my boyish ears. All men who had striven beyond the frontiers were his heroes. His worshipped familiars ranged in fact from Robertson of Chitral to a commissionaire who had marched to Kandahar with Roberts. To a later generation such episodes have become a commonplace, but I have sometimes doubted whether a familiar actuality could ever have held a candle to my father’s world of fancy.

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Presidential address to the Royal Archaeological Institute, 13 May 1953, here printed as delivered.

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* Presidential address to the Royal Archaeological Institute, 13 May 1953, here printed as delivered.

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  • ISSN: 0003-598X
  • EISSN: 1745-1744
  • URL: /core/journals/antiquity
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