Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Pitt Rivers' excavations in Yorkshire

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

Greenwell and Pitt Rivers' April 1867 excavation

My very first lessons as an excavator were derived from Canon Greenwell, during his well-known and valuable exploration in the Yorkshire Wolds, in the course of which I obtained a large amount of useful experience that has been a constant source of enjoyment and interest to me ever since. [Pitt Rivers 1887 Excavations on Cranborne Chase, xix cited in Bowden, 1991: 66]

Bowden believes that 'Pitt Rivers assisted Greenwell with his barrow excavations at Willerby Wold and Ganton Wold ... but his main task was a study of the linear ditch systems of the same area. He did not publish this work except for a brief paper on Dane's Dyke published in 1882 in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute. However, a manuscript account does survive in the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum manuscript collection [Pitt Rivers papers P 12]. Bowden suggests that Pitt Rivers and Greenwell stayed in intermittent contact until 1900 when Pitt Rivers died. [Bowden, 1991: 66-67]

Thompson suggests that the point of these Greenwell excavations was to throw light on the period from which there was no written records:

It is impossible to reprobate too strongly that ignorant and greedy spirit of mere curiosity-hunting which has done - and alas! is still doing such injury to proper investigations of our ancient places of sepulture. The urn, the dagger and the arrowhead possess a very trifling interest and gives us comparatively little information, unless we know the circumstances of their deposit. [Greenwell, 1865, 97 and 241: cited in Thompson, 1977: 47

Pitt Rivers' excavations in October 1867

Pitt Rivers returned to Yorkshire later in 1867 when he collected more stone tools, from Bridlington, Weaverthorpe, North Burton, Rudston and Sherburn. Sarah Milliken [pers comm] believes that the artefacts collected in 1867 at Rudston were most likely collected from the surface.

Pitt Rivers' excavations in Yorkshire in 1879

flam map

flam map

Pitt Rivers returned to Yorkshire in 1879 to exavate Dane's Dyke on Flamborough Head. Pitt Rivers states that the earthwork had first been seen by him in 1867 when he had been in the East Riding. He comments

I for some years contemplated an excavation in the Dane's Dyke to ascertain if possible the period to which it belonged. I cannot say that I received much encouragement from my archaeological friends, most of whom thought, and with much reason, that the chance of finding anything in the small portion excavated was too remote to warrant the undertaking; but in the meantime I had acquired some experience in the excavation of earthworks in other parts of the country and the results of these diggings led me to form a more hopeful view of the prospect. Although objects of value rarely turn up in the bodies of ramparts, they almost invariably produce reliable evidence of the time of their construction. A cutting through a rampart affords the only reliable evidence of the date of a work. [Pitt Rivers, 1882: 463]

He was convinced that the Dyke represented the bridgehead of an invading force coming ashore at Flamborough and that the other dykes on the Wolds represented stages in the westward advance of this invading force, or its retreat. [Bowden, 1991: 88]

Pitt Rivers described the entrenchment:

[it] is of nearly uniform height all along, being about 18 feet above the level of the ground, and having a ditch 60 feet wide on the outside. Of the defensive character of this entrenchment ther cannot be the slightest doubt; it is a work of great strength, probably surmounted originally by a pallisade on the top of it and implying a large and well disciplined force for the construction and defence of it. [Pitt Rivers, 1882: 459]

It is clear that Pitt Rivers employed his military as well as his archaeological expertise during this excavation.

flam side

flam side

Pitt Rivers chose a location close to a water supply for the excavation and described his methodology:

With the kind permission of Mrs Dormer, to whom the ground belongs, I at last commenced cutting a section through the Dane's Dyke, on the 13th October, 1879. I selected the spot close to the Bempton and Flamborough Road, at which the stream .... passes, thinking that as this was a spot from which a water supply was obtained by the defenders, they would probably have congregated on the rampart and dropped their utensils about in this place. The cutting was made by a succession of trenches 20 feet in length and 8 to 10 feet wide, side by side, commencing the first trench near the foot of the interior slope, and throwing the earth towards the inside of the rampart; the second trench was dug above and parallel to it, throwing the earth into the first trench and so on; By this means a section 20 feet wide through the rampart was obtained. The objects found were noted hour by hour as the work went on and the position of anything of importance was at once taken with a spirit level. [Pitt Rivers 1882: 463-4]

A number of flint flakes, implements, axes and one sherd were found in the body of the rampart and a scraper and an arrowhead on the old ground surface. [Bowden, 1991: 89] In the fifth trench the excavators found a knapping floor:

Artefacts from Flamborough

Artefacts from Flamborough

But while excavating the top of the rampart just beneath the crest an important observation was made by the workmen. About 4 o'clock on the 23rd. October, three of the men digging into the rampart at about 2 feet beneath the crest, viz. Robson, Gilbank and Jordan-Bilton, drew my attention to the fact that all the flakes they were finding lay horizontally in the earth. I immediately went to the spot and shortly picked out 10 flakes with my own hands ... an extension of the trench was made along the dyke to the south, I myself observing the position of every flint flake as it lay in the earth' 57 more flakes were here found ... This I attribute to the fact of there being a stockade at the top of the rampart, and the defenders naturally moved about, and performed their ordinary avocations behind and not in front of it [Pitt Rivers, 1882: 466]

Pitt Rivers believed the Dyke to be 'not later than the bronze period; it is, in fact, of the same age as the tumuli of the Yorkshire wolds'. [Pitt Rivers, 1882: 467]

Thompson comments of this excavation:

He had been warned by friends that the work was not likely to be worthwhile and he in fact found no evidence for dating the earthwork. The nugatory result is perhaps mainly of interest in that it must have impressed upon his mind that with linear earthworks it is necessary to chose a point for sectioning where it is known that there are remains of certain date adjoining - in order to relate them. This was to prove the key to the understanding of the dykes in Cranborne Chase. [Thompson, 1977: 57]

Pitt Rivers read the 1882 paper at the York meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

In addition to excavating at Flamborough Pitt Rivers also measured and described 90 inhabitants of the village, which he supposed had been cut off from the rest of Yorkshire until recent times. He discusses these measurements in an appendix to the main 1882 paper:

Flamborough is purely a fishing village, and the race has bred in and in [sic] as shown by the returns in which "very pure Flamborough" means a person whose father and mother, and at least two or three grandparents are known to have been Flamborough people ... So completely isolated have these people been in past times that it is said before the wolds were cultivated, within the memory of man when a space of downland intervened between them and the rest of the world, it was even a matter of danger to approach their village; this, of course, is altered now, but still the villagers keep apart. These people show little or no trace of the fair-haired element, which is generally observable in the population of this part of Yorkshire. I may add that the whole of the measurements were taken by myself personally. The frequent repetition of the same names will be noticed.

Greenwell attended the 10 January 1882 meeting of the Anthropological Institute at which this paper was first given, and contributed to the ensuing discussion.

Sarah Milliken [pers comm.] has stated that the stone tools from his 1879 excavations at Dane’s Dyke, Yorkshire seem to have disappeared without trace.

Further reading

Greenwell, William. 'Notices of the examination of grave-hills in the North Riding of Yorkshire' Archaeological Journal vol. 22 (1865) pp. 241-64

Lane Fox, A.H. 'On excavations in the earthwork called Dane's Dyke, at Flamborough, in October 1879: and on the earthworks of the Yorkshire Wolds' Journal of the Anthropological Institute 11 (1882) 455-471.