Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Pitt Rivers,* Technologies and Materials

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within'

Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers. 1998.271.66

Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers. 1998.271.66


Without Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers* there would have been no Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford. His donation of some 20,000 artefacts in 1884 was the foundation for the million or so artefacts, photographs and manuscripts in the collections today. However, his intellectual ordering of his original collection also has affected the museum today. Pitt Rivers created 'series' of artefacts, showing the treatment of the dead, or particular forms of basketry, or how people have made fire or the different forms of spears in cultures throughout time and the world. Today, the museum is still arranged typologically, with artefacts from very different cultures and times nestling next door to each other. The difference these days is that we do not believe that they show clear evidence of evolution, but rather of the myriad number of design solutions mankind has found to similar problems.

Pitt Rivers' theories and practices set the pattern for the future development of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. He was primarily interested in working out the technologies which had been used to form particular implements because it enabled him to ascertain their place in the evolutionary scale and also their 'connexion' to other similar artefacts from other times or places. Pitt Rivers' interest in the evolution of the design of particular types of things, or in shapes and ornamentation led to his displays of artefacts in series, which also led to his experimentation to see how things were made, or used; and also to the manufacture and display of fac-similes (models) to fill in 'gaps' he identified in the series of colletions he acquired from third-hand sources, eventually led to the other Pitt Rivers Museum staff's interest in similar topics.

Pitt Rivers' life and beliefs

Pitt Rivers* was born in 1827 as Augustus Henry Lane Fox. He spent much of the earlier part of his life working for the British Army, eventually rising to the rank of Lieutenant-General. Although he took several 'sabbaticals' from his military career his active life in the Army ended in October 1877 when his promotion to major-general was finally gazetted. He was still only fifty. [Chapman, 1981, p. 403] He finally formally retired, some thirty-seven years after joining, in 1882. In 1853 he had married Alice Margaret Stanley, they had nine children but the evidence suggests that they were not overly fond of each other. [Bowden, 1991, Chapter 3] His greatest stroke of luck was to unexpectedly inherit a large estate and larger income, and two further names from his uncle. From 1880 Pitt Rivers was a rich man, and an important landowner. He died in 1900.

In the early 1850s Pitt Rivers became involved in the Grenadier Guards' testing of rifled weapons. This guided him to an interest in the historical development of firearms and it is widely believed that this led eventually to his amassing tens of thousands of archaeological and ethnographic artefacts. It is not clear exactly when he began to acquire the various component parts of his collection, which can be broadly divided into four different 'sorts of things':

  • Ethnographic artefacts (that is, contemporary artefacts of everyday use acquired from cultures throughout the world, including contemporary English or European 'folk art' and everyday items);
  • Archaeological artefacts;
  • Historic English or European items (that is items that are neither ‘foreign’ nor archaeological but were historic);
  • Models and replicas (fac-similies as Pitt Rivers called them).

These artefacts he principally acquired from a series of second-hand sources such as auction houses and dealers; from military colleagues and acquaintances who had acquired them at first-hand during trips abroad; and by acquiring them himself either by excavation or by purchase directly from the source (these constitute the smallest number). There are around 250 other individuals associated with the Pitt Rivers' collection at the University of Oxford. [Petch, 2006]

Pitt Rivers' collection soon numbered thousands of artefacts and outgrew his capacity to store them at his homes. He decided to loan the collection to Bethnal Green Museum (an adjunct of the South Kensington Museum) and in 1874 the displays opened to much acclaim. It was this collection which was donated to the University of Oxford in 1884 and formed the founding collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum. A second sizeable collection, formed after 1880, was displayed at his private museum in Farnham, Dorset and in his homes. Although his collection in itself was a great achievement, it was not for its size alone that it was known. It was the way that Pitt Rivers used the artefacts to illustrate his intellectual interests and beliefs that was so remarkable. He believed that it was important to see such artefacts as part of 'series' or 'types'. Indeed, he has been credited with being the first person to introduce the idea of typology to ethnography.

Pitt Rivers can be said to have had one 'big idea', which he continued to work with for the forty years between 1860 and 1900. This was, put succinctly, that material culture, designs and technologies, like species of animals, evolved very slowly and gradually over time. His interest lay in the way that this evolution occurred, which he believed to be in a manner similar to that described by Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer. He explained how his collection itself evolved from this idea:

A large number of inventions were submitted to the [Army] committee [for small-arms] for trial; and I was then led to take notice of the very slight changes of system that were embodied in the different inventions, and also of the fact that many improvements which, not being of a nature to be adopted, fell out of use, and were heard of no more, nevertheless served as suggestions for further improvements which were adopted; and it occurred to me what an interesting thing it would be to have a museum in which all these successive stages of improvement might be placed in the order of their occurrence. I made a collection of arms at that time ... Although this collection of arms was not a very good one, as my means of collecting were small, it led to a museum of savage weapons, and ultimately of various other arts, which were exhibited at Bethnal-green [sic] and South Kensington for nine years. [Pitt Rivers, 1891, pp. 118-119]

Once an 'evolutionary' order or series had been identified by him, he sought artefacts which would fill what he thought of as missing gaps. He explained that in museum displays:

The objects are arranged in sequence with a view to show, in so far as the very limited extent of this collection renders such demonstration practicable, the successive ideas by which the minds of men in a primitive condition of culture have progressed in the development of their arts from the simple to the complex, and from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous. Evolution and development are terms which, it is now beginning to be admitted, are as applicable to the progress of humanity as to all other mundane affairs. ... Up to this point the development of species has gone on in accordance with the laws of procreation and natural selection. Man being the last product of this order of things, becomes capable by means of his intellect of modifying external nature to his wants, and from henceforth we have to concern ourselves with a series of developments produced by art. It is the province of anthropology to trace back the sequence of these developments to their source. ... Human ideas, as represented by the various products of human industry, are capable of classification into genera, species and varieties in the same manner as the products of the vegetable and animal kingdoms, and in their development from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous they obey the same laws. If, therefore, we can obtain a sufficient number of objects to represent the succession of ideas, it will be found that they are capable of being arranged in museums upon a similar plan. ... ethnological specimens have not generally been thought capable of anything more than a geographical classification. ... Since 1852 I have endeavoured to overcome this difficulty by selecting from amongst the commoner class of objects which have been brought to this country those which appeared to show connexion of form. Whenever missing links have been found they have been added to the collection, and the result has been to establish, however imperfectly, sequence in several series. [Lane Fox, 1875, pp. xi - xiii]

The influence of Spencer and Darwin is clear.

George Bassano says of Pitt Rivers and Balfour's interest in technological evolution:

Because Darwin had shown that taxonomic studies could be made to yield great and fundamental truths about the nature of living things, Pitt-Rivers resolved to ignore the geographical, temporal and cultural dimensions of artifacts, follow the lead of natural history, and arrange the collections in a series of sequences composed of closely related forms.
Spencer's assertion that the entire history of life was marked by a development from the simple to the complex, the homogeneous to the heterogeneous, inspired Pitt-Rivers to make these the guiding principles in his arrangement of artifacts ... This method was more than a convenient way to impose order on the varied products of material culture. Because every artifact was thought to have originated as an idea in the mind of its original maker the sequences bound together the material and intellectual aspects of life. The progressive, continuous series of related artifacts served as proof of the evolution of human culture from its primitive condition to the highest stages of civilization.
Pitt-Rivers confined his collecting and classifying labors to pre-industrial artifacts, and deliberately avoided the difficulties of dealing with the more complex and sophisticated products of Victorian technology. His focus on the primitive stemmed from a belief that the study of the simplest artifact would reveal the thought processes of prehistoric men and women and clearly demonstrate the progressive nature of material culture. [Bassano, 1998: 17]

Bassano states that:

Pitt-Rivers was careful not to overstate the case for technological evolution or to draw far-fetched analogies between living organisms and material objects. For example, he felt it was permissable to justify his interest in weaponry and the origins of warfare by linking them to the Darwinian struggle for existence. But humans use weapons in their struggle; the weapons themselves do not fight for survival. Nor are weapons or other artifacts capable of reproduction. Anticipating these objections, Pitt-Rivers introduced the idea of unconscious selection. Through the ages, without premeditation or design, humans had selected the artifacts best suited for certain tasks, rejected those less suited, and gradually modified the surviving artifacts so that they performed their assigned functions better. As a result, artifactual change was directed along a progression path even though artisans were totally unaware of the long-range implications of the design improvements they had introduced. In meeting [p. 20] an immediate need, that had inadvertently helped to promote technical progress.

These webpages explore Pitt Rivers' interest in how things were made and used, in the development of particular types of technology and his practical manufacture of items to fill his missing gaps or of types of things of which he could not obtain 'authentic' versions.

Most soldiers are practical men, the art of warfare is also the art of the possible, trying out various practical solutions to see which 'works best' or is most efficient. Pitt Rivers' applied this practicality to his hobby, his interest in seeing how designs of particular types of things evolved and also in using practical analysis of current material culture to apply back to the less-knowable distant past. Balfour puts this at the core of his work:

It was about the middle of the last century that an officer in Her Majesty's Army began to apply the lessons which he had learnt in the course of some of his professional experimental work to studies pursued by him as a hobby in a far wider field of science. ... During his investigations, conducted with a view to ascertaining the best methods whereby the service firearms might be improved ... he was forcibly struck by the extremely gradual changes whereby improvements were effected. ... Through noticing the unfaiing regularity of this process of gradual evolution in the case of firearms, he was led to believe that the same principles must probably govern the development of the other arts, appliances and ideas of mankind. [Balfour, Introduction to 'The Evolution of Culture' 1906: v]

It was not only that he was interested in how particular technologies evolved, he was also interested in the light that this perceived evolution could shed on the material culture of the far past. Balfour again saw this as a fundamental part of Pitt Rivers' work and collection:

It will have been observed that, in the example of a sequence series which I have given, the early developmental stages are illustrated entirely by instruments belonging to modern savage races. It was a fundamental principle of the general theory of Colonel Lane Fox that in the arts and customs of the still living savage and barbaric peoples there are reflected to a considerable extent the various strata of human culture in the past, and that it is possible to reconstruct in some degree the life and industries of Man in prehistoric times by a study of the existing races in corresponding stages of civilization. His insistence upon the importance of bringing together and comparing the archaeological and ethnological material, in order that each might serve to throw light upon the other, has proved of value to both sciences. [Pitt Rivers, 1906: xiv]

Pitt Rivers himself commented that 'these weapons are valuable only, in the absence of other evidence, for the light they throw on prehistoric times' [Pitt Rivers, 1906: 46] He further explained:

Acting upon the principle of reasoning from the known to the unknown I have commenced this catalogue with the specimens of the arts of existing savages, and have employed them as far as possible to illustrate the relics of primitive men, none of which, except those constructed of, [sic] the more imperishable materials, such as flint and stone, having survived to our time. All the implements of primeval man that were of decomposable materials having disappeared, can be replaced only in imagination by studying those of his nearest congener, the modern savage.
To what extent the modern savage actually represents primeval man is one of those problems which anthropology is called upon to solve. That he does not truly represent him in all particulars we may be certain. Analogy would lead us to believe that he presents us with a traditional portrait of him rather than a photograph. The resemblance between the arts of modern savages and those of primeval men may be compared to that existing between recent and extinct species of animals. [Pitt Rivers, 1875: xiii]


[It is a maxim] that the existing races, in their respective stages of progression, may be taken as the bona fide representatives of the races of antiquity; and marvellous as it may appear to us in these days of rapid progress, their habits and arts, even to the form of their rudest weapons, have continued in many cases, with but small modifications, unchanged through countless ages, and from periods long prior to the commencement of history. They thus afford us living illustrations of the social customs, the forms of government, laws, and warlike practices which belonged to the ancient races from which they remotely sprang’ [Pitt Rivers, 1906: 53]

For Pitt Rivers, and other English anthropologists of the time, much of the point of scientific enquiry into the current lives, customs and material culture of other societies in the contemporary world, was to throw light upon the distant past.

Pitt Rivers interest in stone tool technologies is discussed here.

Pitt Rivers' interest in the development of weapons is discussed further by Frances Larson here.

Pitt Rivers' work on boomerangs is discussed here.

For a discussion of Pitt Rivers' archaeological exploits in England, see here.


The last word probably is best given on this subject to Pitt Rivers' second biographer, Mark Bowden:

Not the least remarkable achievement of Fox's early fieldwork was the experimental work he did at Cissbury in 1875. John Evans was an accomplished flint knapper, as even 'Flint Jack' acknowledged ... and Fox took lessons from him ... but Fox was the first archaeologist to experiment with antler picks and perhaps the first anthropologist to throw a boomerang. [Bowden 1991: 94]

To find out more about Cissbury experimental work go here. Bowden sees Pitt Rivers' interest in experimental archaeology as one of his greatest contributions to nineteenth century British archaeology:

A third and more important point is Pitt Rivers' use of experimental techniques to aid analysis and interpretation. He had been experimenting with prehistoric implements of flint, bone and antler since the 1860s. In Cranborne Chase he made two major sets of experimental observations. The first of these involved the measurement of animal bones found on his excavations, a momentous innovation in itself. 'Test animals' of various breeds of domesticated mammals, having been measured, were slaughtered and their limb bones kept for comparison with the excavated bones ... The second set of experimental observations was concerned with the silting of ditches. The General had made a series of measurements of the side ditches of Wor Barrow after he had excavated them and reported on the rapidity with which rubble and silts accumulated in the ditch bottoms and the nature of the deposits at different stages in the process ... These experimental techniques were not emulated by the General's contemporaries or his immediate successors, and further advances in the study of faunal remains and the weathering of earthworks were not to be made until the second half of the twentieth century.' [Bowden, 1991: 158]

Further Reading

Bassano, George. 1998 The Evolution of Technology Cambridge University Press
Bowden, M. 1991. Pitt Rivers - The life and archaeological work of Lt. General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers DCL FRS FSA. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
Lane Fox, A.H. 1875. ‘On the principles of classification adopted in the arrangement of his anthropological collection now exhibited in the Bethnal Green Museum.’ Journal of the Anthropological Institute 4 [1875] pp. 293-308
Pitt Rivers, A.H.L.F. 1882. 'On the discovery of chert implements in stratified gravel in the Nile Valley near Thebes’ Journal of the Anthropological Institute 11 pp. 382-400
Pitt Rivers, A.H.L.F. 1891. Typological Museums, as exemplified by the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and his provincial museum in Farnham Dorset Journal of the Society of Arts 40 [1891] pp. 115-22
Pitt Rivers, A.H.L.F. 1906 [ed. J.L. Myers, introduction by Henry Balfour] The Evolution of Culture and other essays Clarendon Press Oxford UK

* For ease of reference I will use the name Pitt Rivers for him throughout this website.

To find out more about Pitt Rivers and his collections go to here.

 Technologies & Materials