Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

H.H. Coghlan and Materials

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

Coghlan, 'Metallurgical reports' 1970: p. 179 1887.1.419 Axe from Dorset collected by George Rolleston

Coghlan, 'Metallurgical reports' 1970: p. 179 1887.1.419 Axe from Dorset collected by George Rolleston

1884.119.63  Axe considered by Britton, Allen, Coghlan 1970: 89

1884.119.63 Axe considered by Britton, Allen, Coghlan 1970: 89

1884.119.171  Axe from River Thames, Hammersmith, considered by Britton, Allen, Coghlan 1970: 195

1884.119.171 Axe from River Thames, Hammersmith, considered by Britton, Allen, Coghlan 1970: 195

Sword from Thames near Limehouse 1884.119.309 considered by Allen, Britton, Coghlan 1970: 222

Sword from Thames near Limehouse 1884.119.309 considered by Allen, Britton, Coghlan 1970: 222

Rapier from Thames, Battersea 1884.119.315 considered by Allen, Britton, Coghlan 1970: 150

Rapier from Thames, Battersea 1884.119.315 considered by Allen, Britton, Coghlan 1970: 150

Herbert Henery [sic] Coghlan was born in 1896 and died in 1981. He was born into a landowning family near Dublin, Ireland. He started a course in engineering at Trinity College, Dublin but left, before completion, to join the Dublin railway workshops. In the 1920s he joined the Burmese railways. He married in 1923 and returned to live in the UK in 1926. From the 1930s he worked for a firm of consulting engineers on a contract for the Indian State Railways and spent much time in Germany.

In the UK Coghlan lived in Boxford, near Newbury in Berkshire. His next-door neighbour was Harold Peake,[1] who developed his interest in archaeology and metallurgy. From the late 1930s Coghlan published a series of articles on archeao-metallurgy in journals such as Man and Antiquity.

In 1946 Coghlan took over the Honorary Curatorship of the Borough Museum at Newbury, now known as the West Berkshire Museum, Newbury. He spent much time reorganizing the displays there. He was assisted in this job by his wife Margaret, who did much of the research necessary for the labelling of the artefacts on display.

Whilst working at Newbury, Coghlan undertook research into the metal artefacts at the Pitt Rivers Museum with Dennis Britton and Ivor Michael Allen. [2]

Coghlan's links to the Pitt Rivers Museum

As Curator of the Borough Museum, Newbury (a place quite close to Oxford), Coghlan had quite a lot of connections with the Museum. He donated and exchanged items with the Museum throughout the 1950s (from 1951 to 1957 to be precise). In that year he exchanged some items (for example some sherds from Romania for an Akamba fire-drill and hearth). He also donated some artefacts he obviously felt were more appropriately placed in Oxford (for example 1951.11.63, 488 photographs from the 'Collection Anthropologique du Museum de Paris') rather than in Newbury Museum.

Coghlan's metallurgical work at the Pitt Rivers Museum

In the preface to the first Occasional Paper written by Coghlan, Penniman and Blackwood (the editors) said:

[Coghlan] had some twenty years of experience as a chartered mechanical engineer before devoting his attention to archaeology and to the direction of a museum. In his early days as a pupil in a large engineering works he learnt the actual methods and practice in the forge and foundry. On the more scientific side, his most interesting experience was in the laboratory carrying out testing of the materials of construction, including copper and bronze. His interest in prehistoric and primitive metallurgy dates back to twenty-five years ago, when he had the opportunity of studying primitive metallurgical processes in Upper Burma.

As the preface for Coghlan's second Occasional Paper adds, he 'had much experience in the laboratory testing the materials of construction, including especially iron, copper and bronze. His interest in prehistoric and primitive metallurgy began during his work in Burma, where he had ample opportunity to study primitive metallurgical processes at first hand. For some years he has been Chairman of the Ancient Mining and Metallurgy Committee of the Royal Anthropological Institute, of which the Curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum [Penniman] is also a member ...' [Preface, Coghlan, 1951: vi]

Coghlan's Occasional Papers

1. Notes on the prehistoric metallurgy of copper and bronze in the Old World. [1951]
In the introduction Coghland writes:

The subject of prehistoric metallurgy and metal-working is an exceedingly wide one. The present notes are intended only to serve as a general guide to the broad outline of the craft from the primitive Stone Age techniques down to the introduction and practice of a developed and intelligent metallurgy. It is natural that we cannot understand in full how and why metals were worked in antiquity until we have formed some idea of what constitutes the various metals and of what part the mechanical properties play in their manipulation. It will be convenient to discuss the subject under the following headings:
(1) Native copper, and the ores from which prehistoric non-ferrous metals were obtained
(2) The discovery of the non-ferrous metals in antiquity
(3) Some consideration of the sequence of the metals, and means of distinguishing the various metals from each other by analysis and metallography
(4) The mechanical properties of the metals
(5) Various methods of working: forging, casting, sheet-metal-working, &c. [Coghlan, 1951: 11]

The actual chapters in the book are:
1. Chapter 1: Native copper, and the ores from which prehistoric non-ferrous metals were obtained
2. Chapter 2: The discovery of the non-ferrous metals in antiquity
3. Chapter 3: The sequence of the metals. Analyses and metallography as a means of distinguishing the various metals
4. Chapter 4: The mechanical properties of copper and bronze
5. Chapter 5: The casting process: furnaces, bellows, and crucibles
The casting process
The metallurgical furnace
6. Chapter 6: Methods of working the metals
Tools of the smith
Fullers and swages
Punches and flatters
Chisels and saws
The drill
The file
Hollowing or sinking
The lathe
Wire making
7. Chapter 7: Results of metallurgical examination
8. Chapter 8: Examination of specimens from the Pitt Rivers Museum by E. Voce [2]
9. Chapter 9: Bronze castings in ancient moulds by E. Voce
10. Chapter 10: Analyses of native copper and artefacts. [Reprinted from Man, 1948: no 17]
11. A note on specimens in the Pitt Rivers Museum illustrating cire perdue casting by T.K. Penniman
12. References and Index

In Chapter 7, Coghlan reiterated his belief that 'the need for full metallurgical examination of prehistoric artefacts cannot be too highly stressed. Such examination is a sure way to avoid the old error, which has rendered so many museum specimens misleading, of labelling specimens as copper or bronze merely from surface inspection. It is now generally realized that it is often quite impossible to distinguish copper from bronze by the time-honoured method of inspecting the surface patina ... From the museum aspect, it goes without saying that, to the curator, the value of a specimen is greatly enhanced when he is in possession of a complete scientific report; again to the public the interest in a metal specimen, which in itself may not be a striking object, is very greatly increased if it can be explained exactly what the metal is, and the technique used in making the object. [Coghlan, 1951: 99]

Coghlan acknowledged, but dismissed, the drawbacks of analysis:

In the past there has been much opposition to the analysis and examination of ancient artefacts because it was considered that such work involved the virtual destruction of the specimen. In fact this was a considerable exaggeration, and with modern methods it is certainly not so. A clear indication of the major constituents of the copper, or alloy, can be obtained by spectographic analysis without any damage to the specimen. A full metallographic examination can usually be carried out on a specimen if a small pyramid of about 5 mm. sides be cut from some suitable part of the object; this small indentation can readily be made good afterwards. We must also bear in mind that the real value of scientific examination lies, not in the examination of a few priceless and elaborate pieces, but in the enormous body of ordinary specimens ... from which far more important conclusions can be drawn and to which no possible objection should be raised to having the most complete investigation made .... a very great amount of work remains to be done before it can be said that we have any adequate knowledge of prehistoric metallurgy ... [Coghlan, 1951: 100]

2. Notes on Prehistoric and Early Iron in the Old World [1956]
The contents are again quite wide-ranging:
Chapter 1: Meteoric and native iron. Artefacts of meteoric iron
Chapter 2: The iron ores and ancient mining
Chapter 3: The smelting process and furnaces. Fuels. The iron smelting furnace. The domed furnace. Shaft furnaces
Chapter 4: The earliest iron smelted from the ores. 2nd millenium iron. A note on cast iron in antiquity. A note upon cast iron in China.
Chapter 5: Some mechanical properties of iron. Conversion to steel. Hardening and tempering. Cast iron.
Chapter 6: The tools of the blacksmith. Anvils. Hammers. Tongs. The Chisel. Fuller and swages. The file. The saw.
Chapter 7. The technical art of the smith. Pre-Roman iron. Roman iron. Post-Roman iron. Pattern welding. Wootz steel. The Damascene process. The art of the sword-smith in Japan.
Chapter 8. Explanation of some terms used in describing the metallurgy and metallography of ancient iron. By I.M. Allen
Chapter 9. An Eskimo knife collected by Sir John Ross by I.M. Allen
Chapter 10. A metallographic and metallurgical examination of specimens selected by the Pitt Rivers Museum
Explanation of plates

3. Metallurgical reports on British and Irish Bronze Age implements and weapons in the Pitt Rivers Museum [1970] [with Allen and Britton]
The book is introduced by Penniman and Blackwood (again editing the paper):

This book of Metallurgical Reports ... was begun as No. 10 of our series about a dozen years ago, when Mr Penniman, then Curator, asked his young colleague and friend Mr Allen, a Senior Technician of the Museum, to begin the appropriate chemical and metallographic studies. It has been delayed by a road accident, which required prolonged periods in hospital for Mr Penniman, and the untimely death by heart-failure of Mr Allen. A brief account of his life and work at the Museum follows this preface.
Fortunately Mr Coghlan, author of two books in our series as well as many other publications, with long experience in Eastern and other countries, who greatly valued the advice and help of Mr Allen over a long period, readily agreed to deal with the specimens he had chosen to complete the book, and made photomicrographs and wrote descriptions of them. Mr Britton, one of the teachers of archaeology in the Department of Ethnology and Prehistory, of which the Museum is an integral part, at once promised to undertake the archaeological work. Both appear with Mr Allen as authors. [Coghlan et al, 1970: 5]

The contents of the book are as follows:

Foreword and Preface
Ivor Michael Allen
Chapter 1: Bronze Age metallurgy, being a report upon specimens in the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford by H.H. Coghlan
Chapter 2: Notes on methods of study by H.H. Coghlan
Metallographic examination
Spectrographic and chemical analysis
Hardness Testing
Casting experiments
Chapter 3: Introduction to the reports, by D. Britton
Arrangement and authorship
Classification and dating
Collections and donors
Chapter 4: Tabulated analyses
Chapter 5: Copper flat axes, classifications, discussions and reports
Chapter 6: Early Bronze Age implements, classifications, discussions and reports
Chapter 7: Middle Bronze Age implements, classifications, discussions and reports
Chapter 8: Late Bronze Age implements, classifications, discussions and reports
Chapter 9: A metallurgical study of four Irish early Bronze Age ribbed halberds in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford by T.K. Penniman and I.M. Allen reprinted from Man, 1960, No. 120
Descriptions of the photomicrographs of ancient implements

Dennis Britton

Dennis Britton led the work that led to the final monograph Coghlan contributed to. In the Museum Annual Report of 1960-1, he was introduced:

Mr. Dennis Britton, of Pembroke College, Cambridge, and of Queen’s College, Oxford, joined our staff in April of this year in succession to Mr. J.S.P. Bradford.  He did the Archaeological and Anthropological Tripos at Cambridge, and so is eminently suited to our Department of Ethnology and Prehistory, which treats these two as a continuous process, the present and past of the same subject.  While working with Professor Hawkes he became especially interested in the techniques of basic arts and industries, and has already published or has in press useful articles on ancient metallurgy, working in conjunction with our own small laboratories and with the University Laboratory of Archaeology and the History of Art.  He is an especially valuable recruit now that the Curator’s time is running out, because with him and Mr. Allen we have both an academic and a technical post which ensure that a subject for which this Museum has always been well known will continue with the younger generation, and that one of the most important contributions which this Museum makes, and exemplifies in its Occasional Papers on Technology, has received new life and vigour.  Mr. Britton will work mainly on periods from the Neolithic to Iron Ages, and Mr. E.F. W. Baden-Powell, lately appointed as University Lecturer in Prehistoric Archaeology, a most welcome appointment, will teach and guide research in periods from the Palaeolithic to Mesolithic.


The Pitt Rivers Museum's enthusiasm for metallurgical testing of its metal artefacts seems not to have lasted beyond Penniman, Britton and Allen's work in the Museum though metallurgical testing is now carried out under the auspices of the Conservation Department at the Museum, which is in some aspects the descendant of Allen's work.

Further Reading

1950. Coghlan, H.H. and E. Voce. Ancient Mining and Metallurgy Committee: report on some Egyptian artefacts, London
1951. Coghlan, H.H. Notes on the Prehistoric Metallurgy of Copper and Bronze in the Old World [Occasional Paper on Technology IV][reprinted 1975] Pitt Rivers Museum
1956. Coghlan, H.H. Notes on Prehistoric and Early Iron in the Old World [Occasional Paper on Technology VIII][re-printed 1977] Pitt Rivers Museum
1957. Coghlan, H.H. Early metallurgy of copper in Ireland and Britain.
1963. H.H. Coghlan with J.R. Butler and George Parker. Ores and Metals: a report of the Ancient Mining and Metallurgy Committee, Royal Anthropological Institute
1969. Coghlan, H.H. and George Parker Metallographic research as a museum aid: an examination of two pure copper flat axes Newbury Weekly News
1970. I.M. Allen, D. Britton and H.H. Coghlan. Metallurgical Reports on British and Irish Bronze Age Implements and Weapons in the Pitt Rivers Museum. [Occasional Paper on Technology X] Pitt Rivers Museum
1970. Coghlan, H.H. British and Irish Bronze Age implements in the Borough of Newbury Museum Borough of Newbury Museum
1970. Coghlan, H.H. A report upon the hoard of Bronze Age tools and weapons from Yattendon, near Newbury, Berkshire Borough of Newbury Museum

In addition Coghlan wrote a series of articles and reviews in Man and Antiquity.


[1] Harold John Edward Peake (1867-1946) Archaeologist. Peake was Coghlan's predecessor as Honorary Curator of Newbury Museum. See his Dictionary of National Biography entry for further information
[2] Dennis Britton, Curator of the Prehistoric European collections, taught at the Pitt Rivers Museum; Ivor Michael Allen was a technician at the Pitt Rivers Museum
[3] E. Voce was the Metallurgist of the Copper Development Association.

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