Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Balfour and African stone tool technology

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

1906.16.201 Stone used as pottery burnisher, Khami ruins, Zimbabwe. Collected by Henry Balfour

1906.16.201 Stone used as pottery burnisher, Khami ruins, Zimbabwe. Collected by Henry Balfour

Henry Balfour travelled a lot through Africa and donated many artefacts collected during his travels to the Pitt Rivers Museum, including more than 2,000 stone tools. He also published three articles on various aspects of the stone tool technology of the continent.

Balfour's travels in Africa

Henry Balfour was a great traveller, he spent most of the long summer University vacations abroad. Between the winter of 1922 (when he was 59 years old) and the autumn of 1930 (aged 67), Balfour visited India, Canada, Egypt, Holland, Brazil, Kenya (twice), Uganda, South Africa, Zambia, Tanzania and Nigeria. The African countries mentioned were explored on three successive trips between 1927 and 1930. He probably travelled to other countries too, for which there is no evidence. Henry Balfour therefore visited Africa many times. He travelled to southern Africa four times, and also visited Kenya, Uganda, other East African countries and Nigeria. He travelled to Egypt in the spring of 1926.

Here is a summary of his African travels, it will be noted how much of the time he spent searching for stone tools, particularly in southern Africa. My thanks to Fran Larson for preparing these summaries during the Relational Museum project from Balfour's field diaries:

1905 South Africa

Pitt Rivers Museum, Manuscript Collections, Balfour Papers 1/5, diary of a voyage to South Africa (1905), pp. 7-8.

Pitt Rivers Museum, Manuscript Collections, Balfour Papers 1/5, diary of a voyage to South Africa (1905), pp. 7-8.

Balfour sailed from Southampton on 22 July and returned to the UK sometime in early November (the diary ends rather ambiguously with Balfour ‘packing up’ while aboard ship on 27 October alongside the Dalmatian Coast). Edith Balfour travelled to Africa with her husband on this trip, but they did not spend all their time together. He arrived in Cape Town on 8 August, where British Association for the Advancement of Science [BAAS] meetings were held from 15 to 18 August. They then travelled on to Durban, via Algoa Bay/Port Elizabeth, arriving in Durban on 23 August. On the 28th the group travelled on to Johannesburg for further BAAS meetings. Various group day trips were organized by the BAAS, including visits to see villages and ‘native dances’. From Johannesburg they travelled across the border to Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, and a few days later, on 12 September, Balfour arrived in Victoria Falls. From here, he took a day trip to Livingstone, but spent much of his time hunting for stone implements.[see on, for a paper written about an artefact during this time] He planned a further journey to excavate the ruins at Dhlo Dhlo, but the news that Edith, his wife, had fallen ill with pleurisy cut short his tour. He started his journey home on 30 September, and they boarded ship at Beria, Mozambique, on 6 October.

1907 Southern Africa
Again, Balfour travelled with his wife, Edith. They left London on 10 July and arrived home again in early October (the last entry in the diary has them passing Ushant Island, of the coast at Brest, France, on 4 October). Balfour arrived at Beria, Mozambique, on 10 August, having spent a couple of nights at Dar-es-salam on the way down the coast. After a couple of days in Beria, he went on to Bulawayo, then Victoria Falls, arriving there on 16 August. Here, he spent his days hunting for stone implements around the Falls, Zambesi Gorge and Livingstone. On 1 September he travelled north-east to Kafue and Kalomo, returning to the Falls on 6 for more flint collecting. On 14 September he took the Zambesi Express train back to Bulawayo, then down to Cape Town on the 18th, where he met up with Edith, and from here they began the journey home, boarding the ship on the same day.

1910 South Africa
On this, his third visit to the region, Balfour travelled in order to give a series of lectures in various towns and cities on topics such as 'Evolution in the Arts and Industries', 'African Musical Instruments', 'Anthropology as a Science and Academic Study', and 'Archaeology and Ethnology' for the South African Association for the Advancement of Science. He left Southampton on 25 June and arrived home again on 15 October. He arrived in Cape Town on 12 July, and gave his first lecture (of two) there on the 15th, before travelling on to Port Elizabeth on 21st. He gave three lectures at Port Elizabeth, then on to Grahamstown on 28 July. More lectures here, and visits to see ‘bushman rock shelters’ in the area. On 3 August, Balfour arrived in East London, where he lectured and found time to hunt for stone implements before travelling on to Durban, arriving there on 7 August. On 11 he was in Martizburg, and on 15 August he arrived in Ladysmith, giving lectures in both towns. Next on the lecture tour was Bloemfontein, then Kimberley, and in each place he stayed two nights. On 21 August he arrived in Johannesburg, from where he visited Pretoria three times (to give a lectures), and twice visited the 'native compound' at Robinson Deep Mine. He did not leave Johannesburg until 7 September, when he started his journey north to Bulawayo by train, then on to Victoria Falls, arriving there on 10th. He spent about ten days in Victoria Falls and Livingstone hunting for stone implements, before arriving back in Bulawayo on 22 September, then Cape Town on the 25th, and boarding ship for the home journey on 28 September.

1928 Kenya and Uganda
Balfour left London on 21 June, and spent a day in and around Port Sudan on 8 July, and a day at Aden, Yemen, on the 11th, before arriving into Mombasa on 17 July. Here, he stayed with Oscar Watkins (who served as Deputy Chief Native Commissioner from 1921-27 and had an MA from Oxford). On 19 July he travelled to Nairobi with Watkins, where he spent the following days visiting the prison, the Museum, the Native Maternity Hospital, the Court House and the Native Registration Department. On the 24th he travelled to the Ngong Hills where he stayed at S.F. Deck’s house. On the 26th he left by train, arriving at Kisumu, where he stayed with the District Commissioner, the following day. On 19th he travelled to Entebbe, where he stayed with the Secretariat, and from here he visited some local villages and shambas (cultivated areas), as well as meeting the Acting Governor, the Chief Secretary and other government employees. On 2 August he took a government car to Kampala, where he was the guest of E.R.J. Hussey, the Director of Education. He visited Makerere College, the Protestant and Roman Catholic Cathedrals, the Museum and M’tesa’s tomb. On 5th August he continued on his journey to Jinja, visiting Owen Falls and Ripon Falls from there; then Kapsabet (staying with the Deputy Commissioner.), visiting Nandi villages while there; then on to Eldoret (staying the the Chief Commissioner); then, on 12 August, to Nakuru, from where he visited Leakey’s excavations at Elmenteita. On the 16th he returned to Nairobi, before travelling again, this time to Mount Kenya, Meru and Isiola, staying with government employees along the way. On 21st August he was back in Nairobi, packing up before leaving for Mombasa on 23rd, arriving there on the 27th (taking a motor trip over the Serengati Plains on the way), and staying with Watkins again. He took a short trip out to Kilife and Malindi, before setting sail for home on 1 September.

1929 South and East Africa
Balfour left London on 27 July and arrived home again on 12 October. He travelled as President of the Anthropology Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science [BAAS]. On the outward journey he stopped at Jamestown, St. Helena, for a local tour hosted by the Governor, before arriving in Cape Town on 17 July. Here he spent time at the Museum, and took day trips to Stellenbosch to look for stone implements. On 23 July the BAAS meetings began, and after three days of meetings in Cape Town the group travelled to Kimberley, from where Balfour continued his hunt for stone implements along the Vaal River bed. On the 29th they went on to Johannesburg, attending more meetings of the Anthropology Section and general BAAS meetings. Balfour also visited the Pretoria Museum, before journeying into the Kruger National Park and Game Reserve, where he stayed as a guest of the Game Warden. Then on to Pilgrim’s Rest to visit the gold mines, before returning to Johannesburg on 11 August, and from there to Bulawayo. On 14 August Balfour arrived at Victoria Falls and spent a few days hunting for stone implements. Four days later he travelled up to Broken Hill and on to Mpika, staying with government employees along the way. He arrived in Mpika on 23 August and stayed with the District Commissioner. He saw some of the villages in the area, and travelled on to the southern end of Lake Tanganyika on 26 August and into ‘Tanganyika Territory’ on 29 August, where he stayed in Malangali, Tanzania. On to Iringa, then Dodoma, before taking the train to Dar-es-Salaam on 1 September, where he stayed with the Acting Chief Secretary. He set sail for Zanzibar on 7 September and spent a few nights there before meeting up with some ‘Brit. Assoc. folk’ and sailing for Mombasa on the 10th, from there to Nairobi again and a visit to Elmenteita with Leakey, then back to Mombasa for the homeward journey, setting sail on 15 September.

1930 Nigeria
Pitt Rivers Museum, Manuscript Collections, Balfour Papers 2/3, diary of a voyage to Nigeria (1930), p.16.

Pitt Rivers Museum, Manuscript Collections, Balfour Papers 2/3, diary of a voyage to Nigeria (1930), p.16.

Balfour left London on 2 July, arriving in Lagos on 16 July, where he stayed with Burns, the Acting Chief Secretary. Two days later he travelled to Oshogbo, then on to Akure the next day where he stayed at the Residency. While at Akure, Balfour visited the Déji and received a return visit in full regalia. From Akure, he went to Ondo and ?Owo. Then, on 24 July, he took the Residency car to Oshogbo, then Ifé, then Kaduna, and Zaria, moving on each day, staying with government employees and seeing local villages, shrines and compounds on the way. At Zaria he stayed at the Residency, shopped, visited local gardens, looked over the native school and the Government Experimental Farm, visited local villages and observed local industries. On 1 August he took a car to Katsina, where he again stayed at the Residency. Here, he received a state visit from the Emir. He also looked over the Native Training School, visited the prison, a leper camp and the native hospital. Then, on 5 August, he moved on to Kano, where he stayed at the Residency, shopped and watched local industries, visited and was visited by the Emir, attended the native court house, went to the local survey office and the training school. He left on 9 August, arriving in Jos the following day. His stay at Jos (10-14 August) followed the same pattern, [see on for discussion of stone tool research he did while in Jos] as did his stay at Makurdi (15- 17 August). On 18 August he arrived at Enugu, where he was met by C.K. Meek, and visited the local market, prison and club, and the Enugu coal mine, before travelling on, via various Ibo villages, to Onitsha. He arrived here on 25 August and was met by A.C. Swayne (District Officer), with whom he visited more Ibo villages in the area. On 29 August he moved on to Benin. Again, he stayed with the Resident for a few nights, and visited the Palace with the Obba. Then, back to the Akure Residency, where he was based from 2-10 September. His visit taking much the same shape as before, visiting the Déji, the market, the native court house, and so on. Then back to Lagos, via Oshogbo, Iddo, Abeokuta and Ibadan, spending no more than a day at each. On 14 September he set sail from Lagos, stopping briefly at Accra to visit Achimota College, the native hospital and Christianborg Castle, before continuing homewards, arriving back in the UK on 1 October.

Balfour's collection of African stone tools

Balfour gave more than 2,000 stone tools he had collected in Africa to the Pitt Rivers Museum.
2 are from Nigeria
13 are from Egypt
29 are from Kenya
266 from South Africa
1,765 are from Zimbabwe (Khami and Victoria Falls)

Balfour's publications on African stone tools

Balfour published three accounts of African stone tools, two in the records of the [Royal] Anthropological Institute and one for the Royal African Society:

1. Note upon an implement of palaeolithic type from the Victoria Falls, Zambesi. [Journal of the Anthropological Institute, vol. 36 (Jan-June 1906) pp. 170-1]

Balfour wished in the paper to throw additional light upon the question of the 'antiquity of stone implements in the Zambesi Valley'. In September 1905, Balfour had spent a week at the Victoria Falls and spent 'a portion of my time to searching for Stone Age remains':

Below the Falls, on the plateau which originally formed the bottom of the wide Zambesi Valley, and through which the deep Batoka Gorge has been cut, I found ... quantities of artificially flakes and rudely worked implements of chalcedony and other stone considerably patinated in most cases. Of these, some were almost as sharp as they were when freshly made, and do not convey the impression of great antiquity; others, on the contrary, show evidence of considerable attrition by rolling, caused, no doubt, by river action, and appear to have been brought down from a distance by the river, and deposited by it on the spot where they are now found. ... I wish particularly to call attention to one specimen which I found on my last day's hunt for implements.
While walking in company with my friend, Colonel H.W. Feilden,[1] along a piece of newly-made road on the left bank immediately above the Falls, I found amongst the coarse stones with which the road was roughly metalled, the implement ... It is of chalcedony, 13.7 cm long, 9.7 cm wide, 6.6 cm thick, and weighs just over 26 ounces. ... it is, as regards shape and manufacture, thoroughly palaeolithic in type, resembling completely a type of flint implements well known from the River-Drift gravels of Western Europe and England. It has a rounded butt for holding in the hand, and the opposite end has been carefully flaked to produce a cutting edge. [Balfour, 1906: 170]

Balfour had reported his visit in the Museum's Annual Report for 1905:

I took advantage of the meeting of the British Association in S. Africa which enabled me to revisit the coastal towns and to cover much country which was new to me. I read a paper to the Anthropological section of the Association on “The Native Musical Instruments of S. Africa.” While travelling about I was able to collect many specimens for the Museum. During a week spent on the Zambesi River, I made observations upon the evidences of a Stone Age in the district, and collected stone implements of very early type, pointing to the former existence of a culture resembling that of the Palaeolithic period in Europe. I also secured one of the interesting ‘friction-drums’ (Mashukulumbwe tribe) characteristic of the country north of the Zambesi, a type which I have been trying for many years to procure.
I visited two of the Ancient ruins in Rhodesia (Khami and Umtali) and collected some objects on the spot, receiving others through the kindness of Mr E M Andrews of Umtali and Mr F Meynell of Bulawayo. I collected together a considerable number of decorated potsherds from these sites, and these proved to be very interesting, as I discovered that some of the pottery of the ruins was undoubtedly carved with stone flakes after it had been baked hard. I know of no other similar instances. This survival of the use of stone in an Iron Age, as applied to a particular purpose, is interesting. Specimens of the pottery and stone flakes and tools are now in the Museum.

Balfour concluded that the form of the tool was 'typically palaeolithic' and suggested that it 'belonged to a very rudimentary condition of culture, comparable to that of the River-Drift period of N.E. Europe'. [Balfour, 1906: 171] He confirmed that it was 'an example of an implement taken from an ancient river deposit of the Zambesi, of which the patination and abraded surface point to a considerable antiquity'. [Balfour, 1906: 171] He believed that 'the combined evidence seems to point strongly to the ancientness of the manufacture of stone tools in the Zambesi region:

The specimen which I have described appears to me to furnish more complete evidence of high antiquity than any other which I have so far seen from this district, and it is, I think, of interest, in view of the evidence of a very remote Stone Age in South Africa, which is gradually being discovered in other districts'. [Balfour, 1906: 171]

There are a large number of accessioned but uncatalogued stone tools from the Victoria Falls area in the Pitt Rivers Museum collected and donated by Balfour, this one might be 1906.84.5 'Chalcedony implement of 'river drift' palaeolithic type, found on banks of Zambesi R. 1905 (from ancient river gravel deposits on left bank near Victoria Falls)', the only one that has any kind of detailed description.

Work on the Victoria Falls material after 1906

Balfour reported in the Museum Annual Report for 1908, his further work on this material:

A glazed cabinet with exhibition case added has been placed in the upper gallery for the collection of stone implements from the Zambesi River, which I made in 1905 and 1907. The geological evidence points to many of these being of very high antiquity, and the correspondence in type between the Zambesi implements and those of the River-Drift period in Western Europe is remarkable. I have made a model of the Victoria Falls and the immediate neighbourhood, to illustrate the geological conditions under which the implements were found.

Not only did Balfour continue to work on the artefacts he had already collected, in the Museum Annual Report for 1910 it is clear that he thought this work was still ongoing as research:

During the Long Vacation, at the invitation of the South African Association, I gave a series of lectures in most of the principal towns in South Africa, mainly upon subjects with which the Museum is specially concerned. During my tour I collected many objects for the Museum, and I was able to pay a third visit to the Victoria Falls of the Zambesi with a view to continuing the archaeological research work in that region upon which I had been engaged in previous years. Although the time at my disposal was very brief, the results were very satisfactory and I brought back a further collection of stone implements of very early date to add to my previous collection. The archaeology of the region is now represented by a far more complete collection than exists anywhere else.

In 1911 this work was still continuing:

My own researches have been mainly devoted to the remains of the Stone Age in S. Africa. In addition to my own material collected upon the Zambesi River and its tributaries, I have examined a very large collection of stone implements from S. Africa sent to me from the Museum at Kimberley for diagnosis. I am preparing a report upon these at the request of the Curator, Miss M. Wilman.

2. '25. Occurrence of 'Cleavers' of Lower-Palaeolithic Type in Northern Nigeria' Man, vol. 34, (February 1934) pp. 21-4.

When I was in Northern Nigeria, three years ago, while staying at Jos, on the Bauchi Plateau, I examined, with the kind permission of Mr Russell, the collection of stone implements which had been deposited in the Government Office, and which included a number of implements of the Lower-palaeolithic facies, discovered largely in the course of tin-mining operations. Among them I was much interested to find well-defined examples of the 'cleaver' type. Of two of these I made rough sketches [included in the article]. As I had only a very brief time at my disposal, the sketches were very hurriedly made, and cannot be regarded as accurate in detail, but the general characteristics and distribution of the flaking are shown.' [Balfour, 1934: 22]

From the three examples, Balfour believed that they 'indicated that the 'cleaver' was one of the well-defined tools of that part of West Africa during what is presumed to have been a Lower-palaeolithic culture phase. He concluded that 'there can be little doubt, I think, that the 'cleavers' of West and South Africa are closely related morphologically and there is a great likelihood that it may be possible to link up the Lower-palaeolithic implements of 'cleaver' type throughout their dispersal, or at any rate, the greater part of it.' [Balfour, 1934: 23]

Balfour refers to several cleavers 'I have for some years placed on exhibition' in the Pitt Rivers Museum including one from Warren Hill, Suffolk and one small cleaver from Willingdon Hill, Sussex both donated by S.G Hewlett and other specimens from Spain, South Africa and India. The Warren Hill item must be 1927.73.17, 'Very large axe like implement made from a huge flint flake, plano-convex (?Chelleo Acheulian) Warren Hill Suffolk 1897' (the only item from Warren Hill in the Hewlett collection) and the one from Willingdon Hill cannot be positively identified.

3. ‘Notes on a collection of ancient stone implements from Ejura, Ashanti’ Journal of the Royal African Society vol. 12, no. 45, pp. 1-16
Balfour published an article in the Journal of the Royal African Society on stone tools in 1912. The article discusses 150 stone implements collected by R.S Rattray, 'a former student of mine' [2][Balfour, 1912: 1]:

The specimens were dug up during the operations concerning the extension between Mampon and Ejura of the new road leading northward from Kumassi. The collection consists almost entirely of "celt" (axes, adzes or chisels) of neolithic type. There are no arrowhead, spearheads, scrapers, borers, or other types of implements usually associated with neolithic celts where these are at all numerous [Balfour, 1912: 2]

Balfour also enumerates 'the localities of West Africa ... from which I have records of the finding of celts of neolithic type. [Balfour, 1912: 2] He concludes after this list that the 'neolithic celts' are 'very widely dispersed throughout the region extending from Nigeria to Ashanti, and no doubt, the area will be greatly extended'. [Balfour, 1912: 4] Balfour repeats the fact that other types of neolithic implement appear to be missing, and that 'the stone celts are greatly valued by the natives, who regard them as "thunderbolts" and eagerly search for them for the sake of their magical properties. This belief in the celestial origin of stone axes ... does not seem to apply to such other forms of stone implements as occur in the region, and it is natural that the celt should predominate greatly in the stone-age finds preserved by natives, who may readily overlook other types, through their attaching no particular importance to them.' [Balfour, 1912: 4]

Balfour describes the manner and method of finding the celts in detail, including:

The average depth at which the stone axes have been found is about 2 1/2 feet. One was 4 feet below the surface, and another was as much as 5 feet down. All were in undisturbed soil. ... There does not appear to have been any evidence of a stratification of the types of celts ... Mr Rattray went to the spot and was shown exactly where they were found. Surface finds did not occur. [Balfour, 1912: 5-6]

Balfour describes the finds, he divides them into ten types. Balfour described 'a spot on the road about 10 miles from Kumassi, where there is an outcrop of granite .... Practically the whole surface of one huge granite rock ... is scored with hundreds of grooves running in all directions. ... It is more than probable that these grooves were formed by the makers of the celts, who must have finally shaped the implements by grinding them upon a hard rock surface. It is, in fat, reasonable to believe that these scored rocks indicate the sites of manufacture of the celts. [Balfour, 1912: 9]

Balfour then discusses the more recent history of the 'thunderbolts', concluding:

From the value attached to the neolithic celts throughout West Africa, one may say, indeed, that their former practical and prosaic utility as everyday implements during the Stone Age is almost outshone by the value set upon them in their magical and mythical capacity by the Iron Age natives of today, who, misinterpreting their true nature and origin, have developed a cult around them associated with the god of thunder and lightning, the "hurler of stones".

As he so often did, he concludes the entire article by pleading for more artefacts:

may I add that I shall feel very grateful for any specimens of localised African stone implements for the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, and any information relating to them. [Balfour, 1912: 16]

Balfour had reported the arrival of the Ashanti tools in the 1912 Museum Annual Report:

The collection of stone implements acquired on the spot by Mr. R.S. Rattray in Ashanti is an instance in point. I have described this collection fully in the Journal of the African Society of London. I have been able to strengthen the collection of Stone Age implements by the acquirement of many rare types, many gaps in the series having been filled; some of the examples are particularly fine.

Further reading

Balfour, Henry. 1906 'Note upon an implement of palaeolithic type from the Victoria Falls, Zambesi'. Journal of the Anthropological Institute, vol. 36 (Jan-June 1906) pp. 170-1
Balfour, Henry. 1912. ‘Notes on a collection of ancient stone implements from Ejura, Ashanti’ Journal of the Royal African Society vol. 12, no. 45, pp. 1-16
Balfour, Henry. 1934 'Occurrence of 'Cleavers' of Lower-Palaeolithic Type in Northern Nigeria' Man, vol. 34, (February 1934) pp. 21-4


[1] Henry Wemyss Feilden (1838-1921) a soldier, naturalist and Fellow of the Geological Society and the Royal Geographical Society. He served in Natal, the Transvaal and the Cape Flats during the wars in South Africa (1880-1902). He collected many stone tools in southern Africa.

[2] Robert Sutherland Rattray (1881-1938) worked for the British colonial service in West Africa.

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