Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Raw materials and the Pitt Rivers Museum

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

Sperm whale teeth slides

Sperm whale teeth slides

The interest in technology that there has always been in the Pitt Rivers Museum is reflected in the global collections of raw materials used to make things. These have been collected from all over the world by a large number of donors. Rather than list each one, to give an idea of the kind of material which we are talking about I will look at the raw materials collected from England. There is probably less variety in the raw materials collected from England than there would be from more far-flung areas of the world, just because museum staff, visitors and researchers would be assumed to be more familiar with the raw ingredients of an artefact than they might be of others.

Also included in this category are geological specimens and related material. This includes mineral samples, but also examples of pebbles that have natural fractures which resemble human flaking. Eoliths might be included in this category but have been excluded. Eoliths were thought, at one time, to have been worked by man but are now generally acknowledged to be natural forms.

Because of the way that such artefacts are entered onto the Museum's collections management database it is not very easy to identify how many raw material specimens the Museum has in its collections. However, there are very many plant samples either in the raw form, or processed to the stage where they would have been used to construct an artefact. The categories below do not include absolutely every artefact that falls into the category, but it includes the most interesting and typical.

The raw materials can be divided under several headings:- animal, vegetable and mineral. In almost all cases the description is taken from the accession book entry for the artefact.


Animal specimens tend to be of bone. Pitt Rivers himself had whole animal specimens but since the collection came to Oxford this has not been necessary with natural history specimens so near at hand (in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History).

1884.117.14-15 Two pieces of bone with several perforations where buttons have been cut out. Similar to pieces found in medieval York.
1884.137.143, 1884.137.151-152 Tooth of Bos, tusks of boar, animal bones from various parts of Mount Caburn, Sussex [the collections include quite a few samples of animal bone found in excavations]
1901.4.115 Piece of belemnite scraped for making powder to apply to lips of a child afflicted with “white mouth”, Garsington, Oxon, 1899
1904.49.41 Number of specimens of Coscinopora globularis from the Bedford gravels
1939.5.3 Fleece used as raw material by Dorchester Weavers
1941.11.1 Elephant small tusk, natural state [used to make microsections]
1942.3.1-12, 1942.6.196-198, 1942.8.4-6, 1942.10.7, 1944.10.1-10, 1948.5.4-8, 1951.6.1-3, 1952.1.1-17 Elephant tooth sectioned and polished, cut at right angles to the plates. [plus a lot of other teeth and ivory microsections]
2002.9.1-4 Edible ants


There are relatively few plant specimens in the English collections, there are probably more from other countries, including examples of plant leaves used for medicine, weaving etc.

1884.137.139 Small fragments of wood from excavations Mount Caburn [used as an example of this type of donation of plant specimens found in archaeological excavations]
1889.21.1-8 8 specimens of bamboo of different species from Kew
1896.20.2 Specimen of Aristolochia clematitis (Birthwort), formerly used to procure easy delivery in childbirth.
1912.90.25 Bundle of split straws used in straw hat-making
1932.88.56 Rushes used to make candles
1938.35.124-126 Specimens of thistle down and bulrush used as tinder with flint and steel
1952.2.76 Framed piece of bark of a holly tree. The marks on it are called locally pixies’ or fairies’ love-letters.’


There are mineral and stone samples in the collections from many countries but especially England, some of these are supposed to show how natural fractures of flint can mirror made artefacts, others are specimens of particular types of stone or mineral.

1884.8.11 Nodule of iron pyrites, probably used for making fire with flint. Cissbury Camp Sussex
1884.128.16-21 Specimens of ores: iron and lead Alderley Mines
1884.140.490 Piece of iron ?slag from Mount Caburn, Sussex
1944.6.89 Box containing specimens of red and yellow ochre [obviously this might not be from England, no provenance is given]
1945.11.157 Piece of slag from ancient iron-smelting hearth
1953.5.2-11 Copper ores
1954.11.50-52 Specimens illustrating the local industry of working jet, which is found below the alum shale on the Whitby cliffs and in fragments on the beach. Obtained in 1949...Piece of jet as found on the beach, etc.
1973.13.1 Portion of the slag from a modern bloomery smelt. This is the result of experimental work carried out by donor.

1884.128.22 Small block of heavy maroon coloured (dark) rock Alderley Mines
1894.59.20 Nodule of flint resembling pigeon's head (Brandon) [there seemed to be a bit of a vogue for collecting stones which resembled other things like dog's heads, human feet etc]
1899.24.1 Naturally weathered stone resembling a Drift implement, Blackdown Hill, Willington, Somerset
1902.1.19 Natural stone resembling bevelled celt, Iffley
1911.80.14-15 2 naturally fractured flint resembling implements from the gravels
1912.19.6 Pebble heavily polished by natural agencies, ? by clay, from Portland Bill, Dorset.
1918.42.86-87 Two fossil sea-urchins included in flint, S. Downs
1919.14.13 Piece of black flint with natural gloss patches on surface, Bramford, near Ipswich, Suffolk
1922.16.2 Specimen of the chalk rubble in which the pot-base [1922.16.1] was found.
1931.85.1-5 Series of 5 specimens of Upper Lias clay-stone fossil Ammonites (Dactylioceras commune) showing two nodules partly cut open, two central whorls of ammonites (external casts) cut out to form ornament and a finger ring carved from one of these Whitby Yorkshire (or possibly Lyme Regis, Dorset)
1935.12.14 Beach pebble from Hayling Id.
1940.6.74-78 Naturally fractured flint pebbles, SELSEY BILL, West Shore, between tide marks, on Eocene clay
1941.6.2 Five pebble specimens illustrating the effects of natural forces in the Bunter Pebble Beds (Triassic), Leek, Staffordshire
1949.5.41 Specimen of flint nodule, as used as raw-material., Brandon Suffolk
1972.13.98 Shale used to make armlets, Dorset, Swanage.


These are mostly raw materials which have been processed in some way.

1884.137.171 circa 40 pieces of daub with impressions of wattles Mount Caburn, Sussex
1918.16.8 Roll of parchment (locally known as ‘horn’)
1944.8.224 Sample of very fine thread for making pillow lace.
1953.11.2, 1966.1.1281-1282 Strips of the first trans-Atlantic cable
2001.41.8-14 Seven plastic bottles of tattoo pigment of various colours
2008.104.1-2 Two tablets of Reckitt's blue purchased as sample used to decorate many ethnographic artefacts.

These examples show the range of material that Pitt Rivers Museum staff have been interested in.

 Technologies & Materials