Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Balfour, Technology and Materials

Frances Larson and Alison Petch

Henry Balfour 1998.356.17.1

Henry Balfour 1998.356.17.1

Henry Balfour was born in Croydon in 1863, educated at Charterhouse and went up to Trinity College, University of Oxford in 1882 to read for a degree in Natural Sciences. He graduated in 1885 and was immediately engaged by Henry Nottidge Moseley to help with unpacking the newly arrived founding collection. In 1890 he was appointed Curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum and he held this position until his death in 1939 at the age of seventy-five.

Balfour's first work in the Museum was extremely practical, unpacking and arranging the displays in Oxford which had been set up by Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers when the collection was displayed at South Kensington Museum, before 1884. However, he quite quickly realised that new accessions would have to be incorporated into the existing displays. In addition, Balfour was a keen researcher and scholar and he began to engage in original research of his own. It is clear from the list of his publications, given elsewhere on this website, that Balfour had several pet subjects of interest, many of them related to technologies and materials.

Although he only wrote one book, 'The Evolution of Decorative Art' (1893), Balfour published numerous scholarly articles, often taking a specific type of object - from musical bows to fire-pistons or fishing-kites - and exploring its 'evolutionary development' through history and across different cultures. He frequently finished an article with a request for more information from anyone who had come across similar objects or traditions, and his personal off-prints (now held in the PRM Manuscript Collections) are stuffed with letters and notes sent by interested readers as well as Balfour's own additional notes over the years.

Balfour was also an indefatigible collector of artefacts, donating many thousands to the Museum – he used these objects to throw light on his research. He also encouraged many other people to donate material to the Museum. He shaped the Museum and its collections over the first fifty years of its existence, without him the Museum today would be very different.

Technologies and Materials

For Henry Balfour, objects held vital clues to cross-cultural relationships that spanned history, and unpicking the complexities of these relationships was the ultimate aim of anthropological research. The majority of his writings follow the same pattern, in which he took a single type of object – the bone skate (1898), the fire-piston (1907), or the fishing-kite (1913), for example – and laid out the evidence, found in the variations of physical form, for its geographical and historical distribution.

Comparative technology and prehistoric archaeology were both subjects that demanded a detailed analysis of objects. For Balfour, artefacts, studied carefully, were the hard evidence for cultural practices, and by tracing the geographical and historical distribution of different manufacturing techniques and design elements a world-wide picture of inter-cultural contact and innovation could be pieced together. No wonder one of his students, Wilson Wallis, remembered nomadic lectures, following Balfour around the display cases at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Objects were at the heart of Balfour’s learning and teaching, and this may well be part of the reason he did not rely on detailed lecture notes: the objects themselves told him what he needed to know about the history of human culture.

By the 1930s Balfour’s style of anthropological study was increasingly at variance with the rising generation of anthropologists who emphasised in-depth regional specialization and focused on social institutions at the expense of material culture. Balfour always believed that the synthesis of a range of regional knowledge should be the most important goal for anthropologists. He liked to use the analogy of weaving a piece of cloth to explain his understanding of the anthropological endeavour. ‘The work of specialists will necessarily lose half its value if there is a dearth of generalists who will gather together the threads and weave them into a substantial fabric, which shall show the importance of each individual piece of work to the progress of the science as a whole.’ (1904, see PRM Manuscript Collections, Balfour, Box 5). In 1937 he used his Frazer Lecture at Oxford to elaborate on this theme. Calling his talk ‘Spinners and Weavers in Anthropological Research’, Balfour made it obvious that his sympathies lay with the ‘weavers’ (or generalists), rather than ‘spinners’ (or regional specialists).

Find out more about Balfour's work on stone tool technology

Find out more about Balfour's work on fire-making

Find out more about Balfour and Pitt Rivers work on weapons

Find out more about Balfour's publications

Find out more about Balfour's models

Balfour's teaching of technology

Teaching formed a considerable part of Balfour’s working life from the 1890s onwards, and he took a central role in the founding of systematic anthropology teaching at the University. Students taking the Diploma had to take courses in Physical Anthropology (subdivided into Zoology – ‘the zoological position of man’, Palaeontology – ‘the antiquity of man’, and Ethnology – the comparative study of man’s physical characteristics), and in Cultural Anthropology. This latter section of the syllabus was subdivided into: Archaeology, focusing on the remains of man’s ‘handiwork’ from the prehistoric periods and their ‘persistence…in later times’; Ethnology, which here referred to the comparative analysis of peoples based on their material culture, language, religious and social institutions; Sociology, including a study of government and law, moral ideas and codes, and magical and religious practices; and Technology, comprising a study of the origin, development and distribution of arts and industries. Students attended lectures and practical sessions in the relevant University department for each of these, and Balfour gave 'informal demonstration-lectures’ at the Museum on prehistoric archaeology and the survival of primitive conditions of culture amongst savage peoples' (Oxford University Archives, DC 1/2/3, Paper 17). He also gave ‘informal instruction’ on Comparative Technology, dividing his subject into the ‘useful arts’ and the ‘aesthetic arts’ (see, for example, Oxford University Archives, DC 1/2/3, Paper 108)

Wilson Dallam Wallis, who started the Oxford Diploma in 1908 as a Rhodes Scholar, and later became Professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, remembered his classes with Balfour nearly fifty years later:

Our work with Henry Balfour was done entirely in the Pitt-Rivers Museum, of which he was Curator, before exhibition cases which frequently were supplemented with trays or handfuls of additional specimens. He was especially interested in the development and distribution of technological products and processes, and sought to demonstrate both independent origins and diffusion. Many of the Museum cases contained maps indicating the distribution of boomerangs, types of basketry, and so on, and to these Balfour made additions from time to time. He thought there was a place in the world for a museum illustrating typology; I never heard him speak disparagingly of ethnographic arrangements. The handful of notes which he brought to the peripatetic lecture were suggestive of Darwin’s use of every scrap and kind of paper; they were any size and shape, sometimes interspersed with press clippings and portions of letters…The examination included written work six hours a day for three days, and an oral given jointly by Balfour, Marett and Thomson. We were called into a room individually, and when dismissed were not allowed to communicate with waiting victims. Balfour’s examination consisted largely of having us identify various specimens which we had not seen in the course of our work with him. (W.D. Wallis 1957: 786-7)

For Balfour, the comparative study of technology, and prehistoric archaeology, were vital elements of the cultural anthropology course, which he felt should be as broad ranging as possible. Beatrice Blackwood was taught by Balfour while studying for the Diploma in Anthropology from 1916 to 1918. Some of her lecture notes from the period survive, including notes she took during Balfour’s classes (PRM manuscript collections, BB box 1 and 1A). The lecture courses cover ‘The Aesthetic Arts’ and ‘The Industrial Arts’ and ‘Prehistoric Archaeology’. The lectures follow Balfour’s written work, where applicable, very closely. Under the ‘Aesthetic Arts’, he discussed ‘1. art, decorative and realistic 2. music, mainly the instrumental side 3. personal ornament’ (PRM ms collections, Beatrice Blackwood box 1). His lectures on the ‘Industrial Arts’ including fire-making technologies, ‘the art, or industry, of war’, fishing, the history of agriculture, navigation, and manufacturing industries, including pottery, textiles, basketry and metal work. The lectures combined a comprehensive overview of the main practices, techniques and finds from around the world, with some general theorizing about the probable historical and cultural relationships between different traditions: Which was the most 'primitive'? What course did the historical development take as practices spread from culture to culture? Had things emerged independently or might there be a link between similar cultural traditions from different places? Balfour used maps to show the global distribution of certain practices and technologies, and there are suggestions as to his use of objects during the lectures.

Further Reading

Wallis, Wilson Dallam 1957 ‘Anthropology in England Early in the Present Century’ in American Anthropologist vol. 59, No. 5, pp. 781-790

 Technologies & Materials