Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

John Linton Myres

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

John Linton Myres (1869-1954) was an archaeologist and historian. He was born in Preston, Lancashire and won a scholarship to Winchester College and then New College, Oxford. (Go here to find out more information about a contemporary and friend of Myres' while at New College, Percy Manning) Whilst an undergraduate he had shown a great deal of interest in archaeology antiquities and museums, organizing the local history museum at Aylesbury. He was a fellow at Magdalen between 1892-5, when he travelled a great deal in the Greek Islands and Crete and worked with Arthur Evans. Between 1895 and 1907 he was a University lecturer in classical archaeology, in 1907 he went to Liverpool University as the professor of Greek and lecturer in ancient geography. He stayed there until 1910 when he returned to Oxford as the Wykeham professor in ancient history. He held this chair until his retirement in 1939. He served during the first world war.

Myres had wide-ranging interests. His obituary in the Geographical Journal makes this clear:

Myres will be best known to posterity for his many contributions to the history of the ancient Greeks, their origins, distribution and culture. But the keynote of all his studies and writings was his broad outlook and versatility, his grasp of studies other than his own speciality, and his power to fit in all the many elements that make up a finised picture. ... Myres brought his knowledge of many subjects, both in the arts and sciences, to bear on his main problem -- the Greeks, ... and he was always seeking from others some item he might have overlooked, it was this sense that he might have missed some factor that kep him always so free of dogmatism and finality. [K.M., 1954: 541]

He was vice-President of the Society of Antiquaries between 1924-9 and president of the Hellenic Society (1935-8). He was general secretary of the British Association for the Advancement of Science between 1919 and 1932. He was also librarian of New College up to 1946.

His Dictionary of National Biography entry concludes:

Through most of his life Myres was troubled by his eyesight and at the end, although still writing, was quite blind. In appearance he was a handsome man, bearded and blue-eyed. In his dealings with younger scholars he was generous and kindly, and his work must be judged not only by what he wrote but also by what he inspired in others, by example or casual precept. He founded no school. In his lifetime he saw classical archaeology grow from a dilettante study to a discipline which has much to contribute to all departments of classical scholarship. His part in this development was to show how historian, archaeologist, anthropologist, and geographer should combine their skills in the study of antiquity.

William Fagg said of Myres 'his own life and work decisively broke the rule that specialists must be narrow and generalists shallow'. [Fagg 1954: 43]

Myres and the Folklore Society

In his obituary in Folklore Myres was acknowledged as a President (1924-6) and Trustee of the society. The author believed 'there was no field in humanism in which he did not make a mark ... that a scholar with the great gifts of Myres should attach himself to folklore and appreciate its value as a humanistic study, was ... a support and encouragement. [R.M.D. 1954: 189]

Myres was also a member of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. The obituary in that society's journal stated:

If classical archaeology, anthropology, geography and ancient history were his first concern, his interests and accompishments ranged from geology to navigation ... and included an intimate knowledge of folklore. Ths from 1924-6 he presided over the Folk-Lore Society, and he was always a staunch supporter of The English Folk Dance and Song Society. [E.O.J 1954: 204]

Myres published several papers in Folklore between 1907-1949 and two presidential addresses.

In addition to being an active member of the Folklore Society, Myres was also interested in folk dance and music. In 1935 he presided at the International Folk Dance Conference held in London where 'those who were present will recall with delight and admiration his witty and illuminating contributions to the discussions and his masterly summing-up'. He was also the president of the International Folk Dance Council. [Mavrogordato, 1954: 57]

Myres and the Royal Anthropological Institute

Myres was the Honorary Secretary and then President (between 1928-31) of the Royal Anthropological Institute, he edited the Institute's journal, Man, between 1901 and 1903 and 1931-1946. His importance to the society was recognized after his death when he was the subject of eleven tributes in the March 1954 edition of Man.

He seems to have been as important to the RAI as he was to the Folklore Society. On the occasion of his eighteeth year, Man published a eulogy which concluded:

Of the Myres' homes on the Banbury Road, then on the hilltop, and lately in Oxford again, many friends and colleagues retain and renew when possible their memories of a mellow English tradition with pride in a background of Preston and the Fylde. A life work mainly in Oxfordshire has not made the north seem barbarian, but has rather inspired efforts to bring the realism of the north to invigorate what cannot be the 'home of lost causes' so long as it makes opportunities for enthusiastic enquirers and interpreters such as Sir John Linton Myres. [Fleure, 1949: 74]

Myres was also engaged in the International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences before, during and after the time of the second world war, ' where he 'carried on there the same successful fight against national prejudice and for freedom of discussion'. [Fleure, 1954: 37]

Myres and the Pitt Rivers Museum

Myres was much more closely associated with the Museum and anthropology at Oxford than might have been expected. He first became linked to the people most closely associated with the Museum in his early days very early on in his academic careers. He reported:

Soon after I [Myres] came up in 1888, I was introduced ... to Dr. Tylor, and attended his lectures in the Mathematical Room in the University Museum. The audience was small, mostly ladies. ‘So many hat [sic] of women.’ he would say, counting Miss Wild separately. Mrs Tylor sat in the front row, watchful for confusion among the specimens. ‘Oh, Edward dear’ she would say, ‘last time, you said that one was neolithic.’ But she did not prevent the conflagration when he demonstrated the fire drill, and his long beard became entangled with the bow. Usually, however, he got no fire. ... Later I used to call, at Mrs. Tylor’s suggestion, and take him for a walk. One had to plan one’s route carefully, for he was liable to halt and work out some problem on the return journey, and arrive home late. He began to sleep badly and Mrs. Tylor encouraged me to look in about nine p.m. for a pipe before bedtime. He liked company as he smoked ... His thoughts tended to revert to the past ... of his travels and the Mexican barbers who offered you the choice of ‘the steel or the stone.’ If you were wise, you chose ‘stone’ and had the further choice of newly flaked obsidian blades on a napkin from the back room. ... When I told him that as Professor of Anthropology he might have to be ex-officio examiner for the Diploma [in Anthropology] he was appalled: ‘I know nothing about examining. I have never been examined in my life.’ [Myres, 1953: 6-7]

When Edward Harrison exhibited his ‘eoliths’ at the Royal Anthropological Institute, Tylor took me [Myres] to the meeting as a visitor. We dined with the ‘Pagans’ at Pagani’s in Great Portland Street. Sir John Evans was very scornful of ‘eoliths’: cynical persons said that Harrison had not given him any. Pitt Rivers welcomed them, showing how they were fitted to the hand, and how the flaking resulted from use. His demonstrations were very bad for his malacca cane. Tylor himself was cautious in approval. It was a lively meeting. [Myres, 1953: 6]

John Linton Myres was the first Chair of the Committee for Anthropology at Oxford from 1905. In essence the Committee existed to coordinate teaching and examinations for the Diploma in Anthropology. It appears that much of the 'behind the scenes' work during 1904 and 1905 was taken on by Myres, then lecturer in Classical Archaeology, who wrote letters to all the key supporters of the Committee canvassing opinions on the proposed curriculum for the Diploma and rules governing student eligibility. Using this information as a basis, the Committee prepared a syllabus, formulated a list of lectures and created a reading list for the students. Myres was succeeded (as Secretary of the Committee for Anthropology) by the first lecturer in the subject, R.R. Marett in 1907. Formal teaching of anthropology began in 1908 with a set of six public lectures on ‘Anthropology and the Classics’, delivered under the auspices of the Committee and organized by Marett; the lectures were given by Arthur Evans, Andrew Lang, Gilbert Murray, F.B. Jevons, Warde Fowler and Myres.

Myres' English collections given to the Pitt Rivers Museum

Myres' donation of English objects were few:

1934.37.1-3 3 Percussion Tower muskets, dated 1856, 1858 and 1862. ENGLISH.

1942.1.422-3 2 tallies, records of vegetables planted delivered by donor’s gardeners, Richard Smith, at the Copse, Hinksey Hill. V. File.
In the museum files there is a letter from John Linton Myres to Henry Balfour dated 27 August, 1935: 'The enclosed records were made about five years ago by my gardener at the Copse-Hinksey Hill, for vegetables delivered to the kitchen. His name is Richard Smith; he was about 75 years of age then; practically illiterate, though he recognized & distinguished unfailingly any packets of seed with printed labels that I gave him. He was very shy about these lists, and usually destroyed them; but these two we secured. They were always in this long tally-like form. The different arrangements of dots stood for different vegetables, but we only ascertained the meaning of a few (marked in ink) by comparing with the supplies received on each occasion. I see that I have put a note, at the time of collection, on the back of them.'

1946.10.55 Box containing experimental flakes of glass to illustrate the flaking-angle of 'eoliths' - made by Walter Charles Brice in 1941

[Bequest after his death] 1959.4.4-9 A set of six groups of Chinese scenes hand-painted in glass. These are an early form of lantern slide, and belonged to the late Sir J.L. Myres.

Further Reading


R. M. D. 'Professor Sir John Lynton Myres' Folklore Vol. 65, No. 3/4 (Dec., 1954), pp. 188-9

Fagg, William. '56: John Linton Myres 1869-1954' Man Vol. 54, (Mar., 1954), pp. 42-43

Fleure, H.J. 1949. '95. For Sir John LInton Myres on his eightieth birthday, 3 July, 1949' Man, vol. 49. (Jul. 1949) pp. 73-4

Fleure, H.J. 1954. '47: John Linton Myres 1869-1954' Man Vol. 54, (Mar., 1954), pp. 37-38

E.O.J. 1954 'Sir Linton Myres, 1869-1954' Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Dec., 1954), p. 204

K.M. 1954 'Obituary: John Linton Myres' The Geographical Journal, Vol. 120, No. 4 (Dec., 1954), pp. 541-542

Mavrogordato, John. 1954. 'John Linton Myres (1869-1954)' Journal of the International Folk Music Council vol. 7 (1955) pp. 56-7

Myres, John L. 1925 'Presidential Address: The methods of magic and science' Folklore, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Mar. 31, 1925), pp. 15-47

Myres, John L. 1926 'Presidential Address: Folkmemory' Folklore, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Mar. 31, 1926), pp. 12-34

John Linton Myres, 1953. [no title] in Anthropology at Oxford: the proceedings of the five-hundredth meeting of the Oxford University Anthropological Society ... February 25th, 1953.