Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Pitt Rivers and stone tool technology

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

Plate XII Pitt Rivers, 1906. 'Evolution of Culture' from Primitive Warfare II

Plate XII Pitt Rivers, 1906. 'Evolution of Culture' from Primitive Warfare II

Plate XIII Pitt Rivers, 1906. 'Evolution of Culture' from Primitive Warfare II

Plate XIII Pitt Rivers, 1906. 'Evolution of Culture' from Primitive Warfare II

'Large long ground celt of dark grey heavy stone ... Thames 3.5.68' 1884.125.166

'Large long ground celt of dark grey heavy stone ... Thames 3.5.68' 1884.125.166

Although Pitt Rivers wrote relatively infrequently about stone implements he was very interested in them: he collected them, recorded their form, learnt how to make them. In an article about the excavations at Cissbury, written in 1875, Pitt Rivers (or, as he was then, Lane Fox) wrote:

If I were to be asked to select from amongst the discoveries of modern anthropologists the one which appeared to me to have been most fruitful of interesting results, I should select for the post of honour the first discovery of the form and peculiarities of the flint chip, and I would include amongst the contributions of this discovery, firstly, the observations of modern travellers on the mode of working flint implements amongst existing savages ... Secondly, the application of the knowledge thus obtained by modern anthropologists, and by Mr Evans in particular, to the determination, by means of experiment, of those forms and modes of fracture by which we are enabled to recognize at a glance and with certainty, the smallest chip of flint flaked by the hand of man, from those which, split by natural causes, cover the surface of the ground.
To our knowledge of flint chips at the present time, and our ignorance of them in the past, we are indebted for the greater part of our prehistoric discoveries. To our ignorance in the past, because it is owing to this ignorance that these chips have been allowed to remain unnoticed and untouched in the very spots in which they were struck off thousands of years ago.
It is by our power of identifying these most abundant relics of primeval man now, that we are led to the spots where further evidence of him may be discovered. By them we know where to look for palaeolithic man in the drift gravels, and to determine his place in sequence by the deposits which overlay them. By means of flint chips we can distinguish on the surface of the ground the workshops, the camps, the mines, the villages, and as we cast about the hills we are enabled by means of them, like boys in a paper chase, to hunt up neolithic man in all his old abiding places. All this, be it observed, the modern anthropologist is able to do in places where the antiquary of old could see nothing at all. [Lane Fox, 1875 [a]: 358-9]

Speculation about the first use of stone tools

Pitt Rivers speculated at least three times about the earliest origins of stone tool technology, firstly in the second of his lectures to the Royal United Services Institute [Primitive Culture II] in 1868, then in 1874, in his paper on his new displays at the Bethnal Green Museum (published in 1875) and then a year later at the Royal Institution (all reprinted in 1906 in his collected essays). Note that the slightly reworking and rewording of certain key texts in Pitt Rivers work is a key sign of all of his published work.

[Regarding St Acheul implements] Nothing, it will be seen, can be more primitive than these tools, or more gradual than their development. They are perfectly consistent with the idea that the fabricators of them were in a condition closely verging upon that of the brutes. Apes are known to use stones in cracking the shells of nuts. The advantage to be derived from a pointed form, when it accidentally fell into the hand, would suggest itself almost instinctively to any being capable of profiting by experience and retaining it in the memory. Accidental fractures, producing a sharp edge, would lead to fractures of design, and thus we may easily suppose that such implements as are represented n the first few figures of our diagram must necessarily have resulted from the very earliest constructive efforts of primaeval man.' [Pitt Rivers, 1906: 104]

... we may suppose primaeval man to have been so far acquainted with the use of tools as to be able to employ a stone for the purpose of cracking the shells of nuts, but incapable of trimming the stone into any form that would answer his purpose better than that into which it had been shaped by rolling in a river bed or upon the seashore.
By the repeated use of stones for this and similar purposes, it would be found that, as Sir John Lubbock has pointed out, they sometimes split in the hand, and that the sharp edges of the fractured portions were more serviceable than the stones before fracture. By constant repetition of the same occurrence, there would grow up in the mind of the creature an association of ideas between the fracture of the stone and the saving of labour effected by the fractured portion, and also a sequence of ideas by which it would be perceived that the fracture of the stone was a necessary preliminary to the other, and ultimately, by still continued repetition, the creature would be led to perform the motions which had been found effectual in cracking the stone before applying it to the purposes for which it was to be used. [Pitt Rivers, 1906: 8-9]

He phrased it slightly differently when he spoke a year later:

The process we have to assume therefore is that, in using stones as hammers, they would occasionally split. In using certain stratified rocks this would occur frequently, and so force itself on the attention of the creature. The creature goes on hammering, it would force itself on his notice that the sharp fractured end was doing better work than before. It would be perceived that there were hard things and soft things, that the hard things split the stone, and the soft things were cut by it; and so there would grow up in the mind an association of ideas between striking hard things and splitting, and striking soft things and cutting, and also a sequence by which it would be perceived that the fracture of the stone was a necessary preliminary to the other; and in the course of many generations, during which the internal organism of the mind grew in harmony with this experience, the creature would be led to perform the motions which had been found effectual in splitting the stone before applying it to the purpose for which it was to be used.
Thus we arrive at a state of the arts in which we may suppose man to be able to construct a tool by means of a single blow. By constantly striking in the same direction, flakes would be produced and by still further repeating the same motions, it would at last be found that by means of many blows a stone cold be chipped to an edge or a point so as to form a very efficient tool. But this continued chipping of the stone in order to produce a tool, implies a considerable mental advance upon the effort of mind necessary to construct a tool with one blow.’ [Pitt Rivers, 1906: 32]

He believed that the 'implements of the drift' were 'the earliest relics of human workmanship as yet recognized'. Pitt Rivers argued that 'in the natural course of events the drift period must have been preceded by an earlier period of considerable extent characterized by the use of single-flaked tools.'. [Pitt Rivers, 1906: 33]

Refinements in stone tool technology

Pitt Rivers speculated not only about the earliest beginnings of stone working, but also the refinement of the technology. In Primitive Warfare II and its accompanying plates XII and XIII [published in Pitt Rivers 1906: 89-143] he showed the evolution of form and technology.

From the very first, a peculiar mode of fabrication appears to have been adopted, which consisted of chipping off flakes from alternate sides of the flint, and the facets thus left upon the flint produced the wavelike edge which you will see on the side vies of all the implements here represented. This method continued to be employed throughout the entire stone age, in all parts of the universe, and is characteristic not merely of the drift, but of the cave, pfahlbauten, and surface periods. [Pitt Rivers, 1906: 104-5]

Johnson, 1978: 338 suggests that Pitt Rivers thought this a peculiar mode of fabrication because he was not yet experienced in flint knapping. [Johnson, 1978: 338]

Pitt Rivers says:

In the same beds in which the drift-type implements are found, flakes, either struck off in the formation of such tools, or especially flaked off from a core in a particular manner, indicating that they were themselves intended for use as tools, are found in considerable numbers. No more useful tool could have been used during the stone age than the plain, untouched flint flake , which, from the sharpness of the edge, is capable of being used for a variety of purposes. ... they are found, together with the cores from which they were struck off, in every quarter of the globe in which flint, obsidian or any other suitable material has been found, an that everywhere the process of flaking appears to have been the same.' [Pitt Rivers, 1906: 112]

Pitt Rivers then goes on to discuss spear-heads and arrow-heads. He concludes:

I have endeavoured to prove in the first place, though I must here repeat that I have produced only a very small portion of the evidence on the subject, that all of the implements of the stone age are traceable by variation to a common form, and that form the earliest; that their improvement spread over a period so long as to witness the extinction of many wild breeds of animals; that it was so gradual as to require no effort of genius or of invention; and that it was identical in all parts of the world. [Pitt Rivers, 1906: 139]

Practical work with stone tools

Pitt Rivers collected many stone tools, some from his own excavations, some from dealers and some from other field collectors. However, he also collected stone tools during field-walking. Pitt Rivers could also knap flint. It is not clear how good he was at it, but he commented:

Following the example of Dr John Evans, F.R.S., to whom most prehistoric archaeologists are indebted for their first lessons in the fabrication of flint implements, I have myself constructed flint implements many years ago, and by that means acquired a thorough knowledge of the fracture of flint, a qualification of the first necessity to any one who proposes to examine a section of gravel for this purpose ...’ [Pitt Rivers, 1882: 8]

Pitt Rivers used this practical knowledge to influence his consideration of the stone implements he dug up, or was passed by labourers. He does not seem to have knapped flint very often:

If any one will attempt to make a flint celt, as I have done sometimes (and Mr Evans from whom I learnt the art, has done frequently), he will find that it is difficult to command the fracture of the flint with certainty; every now and then a large piece will come off, or a flaw will be discovered which spoils the symmetry of the tool, and it has to be thrown away.' [Pitt Rivers, 1906: 34]

John Evans was apparently the first person 'to demonstrate percussion and pressure knapping publicly, before the International Congress of Prehistoric Archaeology in Norwich, England, in 1868'. [Johnson, 1978: 337] Evans set the pattern for Pitt Rivers and for the Pitt Rivers Museum staff who worked on flint knapping:

His practical experience in knapping informs his discussion of British antiquities, as do his visits to the Brandon gunflint manufactories, where he observed and talked with the knappers, and his reading of traveler's reports on contemporary primitive knappers. [Johnson, 1978: 338]

John Evans believed that:

I think that if, at the present time, we are able to produce flint tools precisely similar to the ancient 'scrapers' by the most simple way possible, and without the aid of any metallic appliances, there is every probability that identically the same means were employed of old. [Evans quoted in Johnson, 1978: 228]

Pitt Rivers was still engaged in practical work in 1881 during a Cook's tour of Egypt:

In the limestone of Asyoot, as well as the sandstone of Thebes, I ascertained by experiment that the hieroglyphics can be easily worked with flint. When first excavated, the limestone is easily cut with flint or chert, but it hardens by exposure. At Thebes, also, I picked up a piece of sandstone, which had fallen off the Temple of Koorneh, and a chert flake that was lying beside it, and with the latter I first squared the sides of the stone, and then smoothed the face of it, and afterwards, taking the point of the same flint, I cut upon it a human head and shoulders which might almost be taken for an Egyptian original, completing the whole in about twenty minutes. Indeed, I believe that when properly hafted no better material could be employed for the purpose than flint or chert which by fracture in use renews its own edge as work progresses. [Pitt Rivers, 1882: 383]

The Museum does not have any of Pitt Rivers' home-made stone tools in its collections (that it is aware of, in any case**). According to one of his biographers 'he could be regarded as a pioneer of surface artefact collection and experimental archaeology'. [Bowden, 1991: 94]

** Postscript October 2013. Carlotta Gardner, 'Excavating Pitt-Rivers', Pitt Rivers Museum has confirmed that 3 of Pitt-Rivers' own experimental / attempts at stone tools have been located in the museum and are numbered 1884.140.1595 .1-3 (she adds that they are not particularly well flaked and are very basic in form!). 

Further Reading

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 [a] 'Excavations in Cissbury Camp, Sussex; Being a Report of the Exploration Committee of the Anthropological Institute for the Year 1875' The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 5 (1876), pp. 357-390
Lane Fox, A.H. 1875. [b] ‘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
Johnson, L. Lewis et al. 1978. 'A history of flint-knapping experimentation 1838-1976' Current Anthropology, vol. 19 no. 2 (June 1978) pp. 337-372

 Technologies & Materials