Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Teaching Technology at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

The Pitt Rivers Museum is a University Museum, which means that it counts teaching of university students as one of its core functions; indeed, the founding collection was only acquired by the University because of its educational value. Today, members of the public visiting the museum building will see a space that seems little different from countless other general museums, but teaching of students occurs throughout the year all around (and in) the public areas and is an integral part of the Museum.

Many museum staff and volunteers have been involved in teaching various aspects of technology to students since 1884. This page looks at their various contributions (including the donor of the founding collection; who, of course, did not work in the Museum at Oxford). It also looks at the sort of activities that were involved as outlined in the Museum's Annual Reports since 1884 and as it happens today.

Observation as a key anthropological skill: Pitt Rivers and 'eye-training'

Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers was the first person associated with the Museum to try to teach, he taught his assistants on his excavations and whilst dealing with his private collection to respond to the artefacts they handled in particular ways and to observe closely. Pitt Rivers believed in what he called 'eye-training':

If it is true that no one can form true ideas in his own mind upon any subject until he has acquired the art of expressing them accurately in language, it is equally true that no one can take in an accurate impression of the things he sees in the world until he has acquired the power of drawing them correctly (Pitt Rivers 1884b: 8).

Pitt Rivers himself had always been fond of 'field sketching' as a soldier. [Bowden 1991:104] He taught the skill to his assistants and was a hard taskmaster, '[W.S.] Tomkin had to redraw both skulls and coins for the first Cranborne Chase volume because the General was not satisfied with the accuracy of his first drafts'. [Bowden 1991: 104]

His view about the importance of drawing for heightening observation was not shared by his family, his third daughter Agnes remarked '.. a whole heap of clerks came yesterday. Three - and the money the Man gives them and the food they eat, if only we could have it we should be quite rich. Oh it is a wicked waste of money and they do no good. Drawing old stones and bones and skulls etc.' [Bowden 1991: 105]

Close observation was a key to work on techniques and technology, it provided the basic evidence upon which theories could be built.

Henry Balfour and Teaching

The first teacher properly associated with the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford, who taught for nearly forty years, was Henry Balfour. Many of the lecture series he gave were concerned with technology. At first his teaching was voluntary, he gave lecture series for students when he could from 1893 onwards, as well as various occasional lectures in and around Oxford. Balfour was not required to give lectures to students, and it would appear that he only did so when he could afford the time. In 1904, he noted in his Annual Report that because he had no assistant working in the Museum, and he himself had suffered from ill health, he had been unable to give lecture courses, but he had still given frequent informal instruction and demonstrations in the Museum during the year (University Gazette XXXV: 568).

The first lecture Balfour is known to have given was in October 1893 when he began a course of lectures upon the 'various Arts of Mankind, as illustrated by the series in the collection'. [1893 Annual Report] Other examples of his early teaching include a series on 'Progress in the Arts of Mankind, particularly as illustrated by the Pitt-Rivers Collection’ (1894), as well as lecturing on 'Primitive Musical Instruments considered especially in their relation to the early development of the higher forms'. Three years later he gave a course on the ‘Realistic and Decorative Art of Primitive People’ (1897). It is probable that all these lectures included many reference to techniques and technology.

It was not until 1905 that Anthropology teaching at Oxford became more centrally coordinated under the new Committee for Anthropology, which held its first meeting in October 1905 (Oxford University Archives, DC 1/2/1). The Committee included the Professors of Anthropology (Tylor), Human Anatomy, Moral and Metaphysical Philosophy, Mental Philosophy, Comparative Philology, the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum and Balfour, as Curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum (Oxford University Archives, DC 1/2/3, Paper 3). It was responsible for organizing the teaching and examining of students taking the new Diploma in Anthropology, which was established by University Statue during the Trinity Term of 1905 (Oxford University Archives, DC 1/2/3, Paper 10). From the beginning, the Committee hashed out a syllabus, formulated a list of lectures and created a reading list for the students. Five men – Myres, Thomson, Balfour, Marett and Tylor – who together formed a Sub-Committee on Regulations for the Diploma, were central to driving and shaping the work of the new Committee through its earliest years.

A full list of all the courses Balfour taught (so far as they can be gleaned from the Museum Annual Reports) are:
1893 Arts of Mankind
1894 'Progress in the Arts of Mankind, particularly as illustrated by the Pitt-Rivers Collection'
'Primitive Musical Instruments considered especially in their relation to the early development of the higher forms'
1897 'Realistic and Decorative Art of Primitive Peoples'
1905 'The Origin and Early Development of Human Industries and Appliances'
1907 'Early Stages of Art and Knowledge'
1908 'Prehistoric Archaeology and Comparative Technology' and 'Comparative Technology' (the first of these courses continued in following years until his death in 1939)
1927 Balfour added a course on 'African technology' for students from the Tropical African Service
1929 The second course changed its title to 'African Arts and Industries'

The courses most likely to revolve around technology are boldened.

[The basis of much of the first part of this section was prepared by Frances Larson during the Relational Museum project.]

Beatrice Blackwood, T.K. Penniman and teaching

Blackwood and Penniman often taught as a team:

In general I deal with Archaeology or past Ethnology, what people were like and how they lived, and Miss Blackwood with present Ethnology, what people are like, and how they live now. Each helps to interpret the other. [Penniman, Beatrice Blackwood papers, PRM manuscript collections (BB box 21, folder 4)]

Blackwood believed that the best approach to the study of material culture and anthropology was, ‘a careful examination of technical details of material culture combined with evidence from social + religious customs + traditions where any.’ (Beatrice Blackwood papers, PRM manuscript collections BB box 24). Most of the evidence left for Blackwood's teaching, like her lecture notes, are undated which makes only an ahistorical analysis possible. It is clear that Blackwood had to give her students a broad introductory overview of all the main cultural groups in the world, which gave little scope for detailed analysis or nuanced conclusions. One of the courses she gave was called the ‘Survey Course’, which was designed ‘to cover the world in one year’ of lectures. Blackwood explained that her aim was to give a ‘background survey of the main features of people in the world, as a foundation for more detailed studies’. She added that she would only be able to touch on social anthropology lightly and would ‘concentrate mainly on how they live, and how they make use of the resources provided for them by their environment’ (Beatrice Blackwood papers, PRM manuscript collections BB box 21). These ‘Survey Course’ lectures seem to have been arranged by geographical region.

She did give slightly more specialized lectures, for example, on New Guinea Art, or the Material Culture of East Africa, but even these sessions were too short to allow much detailed analysis. Time was the limiting factor, and artistic styles or technological practices had to be characterized and glossed over to a large extent. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the general teaching style of the day, her lectures provided little scope for discussion, and one has the impression that she generally read from her notes word for word (they are written out in full, with even supposedly ‘casual’ remarks noted down) in front of a group of students who sat in silence and diligently wrote everything down. Although, she did use lots of slides: her lecture notes are often stored with long typed lists of slides that regularly run onto a second page (her extensive lantern slide collection is kept in the Photograph and Manuscript Collections).

Blackwood also ran a series of practicals alongside some of her lecture courses, which were more informal affairs and seem to have been held in the Pitt Rivers Museum. Here, she introduces the Lands and Peoples course structure and specifically forbids questions during her lectures, asking students to talk to her during the practicals:

We shall look at pictures of the people and of their country, and examine the things they make and use. The anthropologists will have an opportunity of seeing the things themselves at the practical class on Monday afternoons. The rest of you will, I hope, stay behind after each lecture for half an hour or so to look at them…The value of this course lies mainly in the pictures and in seeing the specimens themselves, so it will not be the same thing at all if you cut the lecture and borrow someone’s notes. The practicals will be quite informal, and questions are welcomed at them. Please do not interrupt the lectures with questions as we have a great deal to get through and they are carefully timed to last just under an hour… (Beatrice Blackwood papers, PRM manuscript collections BB box 22, folder 3)

Reading this introduction, it is clear that Blackwood used objects during her lectures as well as during practical sessions, and, moreover, that material culture was integral to what she was going to say. The notes on index cards show that Blackwood’s teaching in the Museum consisted of walks around and amongst the displays along with the study of objects already removed from cases or taken from behind the scenes and, presumably, laid out on tables especially for the students to look at.

Such styles of teaching hark back to Pitt River’s insistence on ‘eye training’ emphasising the importance of first-hand observation of objects, rather than learning things said or written by other people. This is an unusual style of learning for anthropology, where the subjects of study were (traditionally at least) at a considerable remove from the home of the anthropologists.

Blackwood may have perceived some practical use to studying technology and anthropology. In a paper read to the Oxford Studies Association in 1944, titled ‘What is Anthropology and why study it?’ Blackwood asserted that one of the key things anthropologists were interested in was the arts and industries of mankind ‘from the earliest times to the age of mass production’. She explained the different contexts in which studying material culture could be useful. Firstly, it could ‘be made to throw much light on the contacts, and sometimes the movements, of groups who have no written history, especially where archaeology fails us, although such evidence must be used with caution’ (BB box 21). However, it could also be used to try and encourage a ‘primitive people to make some adjustment in their lives which has become inevitable or may be to their advantage’. For example, a tool could be introduced from another group, which was only a little more complicated that the local tools, in the hope that it would be adopted more willingly than European tools. Material culture studies could thus aid communities in transition under colonial rule. Here, Blackwood is outlining a practical, administrative application for studying material culture, which is interesting because she is generally silent on the ethics of colonialism. She lectured at the Oxford University Summer School of Colonial Administration from the late 1930s onwards (see 1939 entry above), but it is difficult to gauge her opinions with regard to anthropology’s role as an administrative tool.

A full list of all the courses Penniman taught alone (so far as they can be gleaned from the Museum Annual Reports) are:
1935-8 Penniman gave Balfour's lectures on 'Prehistoric Archaeology and Comparative Technology' in Michaelmas Term, 1935, and in 1936-7 and 1937-8
1938-9 'Race, Culture and Environment', 'The Ecology and Ethnology of the Near East', and 'Current Theories in Anthropology'
1939-40 'Primitive Arts and Industries' [The Ecology and Ethnology of the Near East, on Race, Culture and Environment were continued]
1940-1 'Origins of Civilization' and Prehistory, Useful and Aesthetic Arts as well as continuing the Near East lecture
1941-2 Origins of Civilization continued, 'Development of musical expression in the different areas of the Old World'
1942-3 and on 'Origins of Civilization' and one-term course on 'Race, Culture, and Environment' continued.
1949-50 and on Origins of Civilization continued until Penniman retired in 1963, Race etc appears to stop in this year

A full list of all the courses Blackwood taught alone (so far as they can be gleaned from the Museum Annual Reports) are:
1937-8 Miss Blackwood gave a short course of three lectures to five students of the Burmese Colonial Service
1938-9 Melanesian Ethnology, and the Ethnology of the North American Indians, and of the Polar Regions, as well as a short course on Burmese Arts and Crafts to Burmese Colonial Service students [these continued in 1939-40]
1940-1 'Ethnological Survey of the world' and 'Physical Anthropology'
1941-2 Ethnological Survey and Physical Anthropology continued, 'Malaya, Indonesia, and Melanesia'
1942-3 enlarged her Ethnological Survey of the World to two lectures weekly throughout the year
1943-4 continued her Ethnological Survey concentrating on Africa and Europe
1944-5 and on continued her Ethnological Survey concentrating on Oceania
1947-8 and on Miss Blackwood lectured twice weekly in Michaelmas and Hilary Terms on 'Lands and Peoples', dealing with 'Hunters and Herders' in the first Term, and with 'Cultivators' in the second. In the Trinity Term she lectured once weekly on 'The Higher Civilizations of Pre-Conquest America', and once weekly on the 'Material Culture of East Africa'
1949-50 In Trinity Term she lectured once weekly on Aztec, Maya, and Inca, and their Predecessors, and once weekly on the Material Culture of S.E. Sudan, Uganda, and Kenya, the Special Area prescribed for Diploma students
1950-1 Ethnological Survey continued, 'Arts and Industries of Colonial Africa’, and in Trinity Term lectured once weekly on ‘The Higher Civilization of Pre-Conquest America’
1952-3 'Arts and Industries of British Africa' for Colonial Service Cadets added.
1954-5 Added Some Arts and Industries of Malaya to Overseas Cadets going to Malaya
1955-6 Added Ethnology of the Western Pacific for Cadets bound for that area
1958-9 Blackwood's series of lectures on Lands and Peoples divided between Audrey Butt and Ken Burridge.

Lecture series Penniman and Blackwood gave together:
1937-8 Blackwood gave some of Balfour's lectures on 'Prehistoric Archaeology and Comparative Technology' with Penniman
1938-9 Lectures on Archaeology with modern ethnological parallels, and on the Useful and Aesthetic Arts of Primitive Peoples have been given to Diploma students and others by the Acting Curator and Miss Blackwood

The basis of most of the first part of this section was prepared by Frances Larson during the Relational Museum project.

Teaching of technology between 1963 and the mid 1970s

According to the Annual Reports the following courses which probably discussed relevant technologies were taught after 1963:

1963-4 African Arts and Industries [Fagg]; Lands and Peoples [Butt and Burridge]; Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods, handling of stone implements and for comparison of the arts and techniques of prehistoric times with those of the Eskimo and other recent cultures [Baden-Powell]; First village communities in the Old World in Michaelmas Term, the later Neolithic and Early Bronze Age in Europe in the Hilary Term, and The Origins of Civilization in the Near East in the Trinity Term [Britton]

1964-5 Material culture of Africa [Fagg]; work of Baden-Powell, Britton, Butt and Burridge continued

1965-6 West African Material Culture and the Arts and Industries of Africa [Fagg]; Roe 'The Old Stone Age (two terms); The Old and Middle Stone Age. Practical classes: Material Culture of the Old Stone Age (two Terms); Material Culture of the Old and Middle Stone Age [rest continued as before]

1966-7 and on Preservation and Documentation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Material [Fagg]; Ecological Systems of Selected Peoples of America and Africa (two terms), Material Culture and Technology (three terms) [Butt]; Ecological Systems of Asia and Oceania (two terms), Perspectives in the History of Ethnological Theory, Ethnological Models [Burridge] rest continued

1972-3 Ray Inskeep gave lectures on Aspects of African Archaeology

To find out more information about teaching after this date (which gets more complicated) see the following links:

Section 1 - Annual Reports 1893 to 1941-2
Section 2 - Annual Reports 1942-3 to 1954-5
Section 3 - Annual Reports 1955-6 to 1963-4
Section 4 - Annual Reports 1964-5 to 1982-3
Section 5 - Annual Reports 1983-4 to 1992-3
Section 6 - Annual Reports 1993-4 to 2005-6

Technology practical teaching at the Pitt Rivers Museum as listed in the Annual Reports

The following courses and references to the practical technology teaching are listed in the Museum Annual Reports:

1908 I delivered during each University Term courses of demonstration-lectures to the students for the Anthropological Diploma, the subjects being Prehistoric Archaeology and Comparative Technology; and a special course on the Comparative Technology with special reference to the Anglo-Egyptian Sudân was given to the Probationers for the Sudân Civil Service.

1938-9 ... . A Practical Museum course has been started, and certain working models purchased. Several volunteers have been found to assist next year in showing students how to make flint implements, and in teaching them to use the various appliances in use among primitive peoples. Such work is a most important preliminary to a study of their ethnological significance, and leads to a deeper understanding of peoples, especially among those being trained for field-work.

1940-1 It [the long room above the old museum workshop] is a favourite room with our pupils for it is sunny, and they need not be too tidy. Here they make flint implements under the direction of Professor Barnes, try their hands at spinning or weaving, work out the scales of primitive musical instruments or listen to recordings of them, spread out big maps, or read. We are gradually collecting models or other equipment so that students can work out and practise the basic processes and mechanisms before they begin their study of native arts and crafts and their distribution. Such knowledge adds greatly to the value of their reading, and is a natural introduction to the study of peoples, both at home and in field work abroad. Materials for this sort of teaching are charged to maintenance and equipment rather than to the account for specimens. ... A place has been fitted in Museum House where he [Albert Schwartz Barnes] makes plaster casts and cut-out cardboard drawings mounted at an angle fill serious gaps in our teaching apparatus, and made as they are by a master of scholarship and technique, show our pupils essential facts of workmanship in an admirable way. The Museum is fortunate to claim his interest and devotion. He has been a perfect factory of specimens and equipment. ... We have been indebted to Professor Barnes for practical demonstration and teaching the way to make flint implements, and for introducing some of our students to a study of the characteristics of such implements when treated by statistical methods. The results were of great value in the study of our large Biddenham collection made by Sir Francis Knowles, and have been well described by one of our pupils, Mr. W. C. Brice. Professor Myres undertook special tuition in archaeology and Sir Francis Knowles in Native Industries for which we thank them.

1941-2 Extra lectures in the Curator’s course were given by Professor Barnes on the making of stone implements and the evolution of hand tools

1947-8 Mr. Bradford also assisted Miss Blackwood in Practical work in Ethnology for Diploma students throughout the year, and the Curator in practical work in Archaeology and Technology. In both courses he successfully introduced drawing, which is much enjoyed, and shows good results in the Diploma Examination. Sir Francis Knowles continued to give instruction in drawing stone implements.

1948-9 In Michaelmas and Hilary Terms she [Blackwood] conducted practical work with Mr. Bradford once weekly for Diploma students ... Mr. Bradford ... assisted Miss Blackwood in practical work in Ethnology in two Terms; and in all three Terms, with the Curator and Sir Francis Knowles, assisted in the practical work in Archaeology and Technology for Diploma students, both her and Sir Francis teaching drawing with very successful results in the examination.

1949-50 During Hilary and Trinity Terms [Bradford] gave practical instruction, together with Miss Blackwood and Sir Francis Knowles, on archaeological and ethnological draughtsmanship, identification of material, interpretation of air photographs, social data from maps, and recognition of physical types ...

1950-1 In both of these terms [Blackwood] collaborated with Mr. Bradford weekly in sessions of practical work for Diploma students, and gave regular shorter sessions of practical work to students for the Preliminary Examination in Geography, as well as a considerable number of informal demonstrations to research workers and others when required.

1951-2 With Mr. Brice, [Blackwood] gave practical classes to Geographers immediately after each lecture, and with Mr. Bradford and Mr. Brice gave practical classes once weekly to Diploma students.

1955-6 [Blackwood] ... gave a long practical class once weekly for students of the Diploma in Anthropology, and two shorter practical classes twice weekly to students working for the Preliminary Examination in the Honour School of Geography. In the former she was assisted by Mr. Bradford and Dr. Butt, and in the latter by Dr. Butt.

1957-8 Miss Blackwood ... gave a long practical class once weekly for students of the Diploma in Anthropology, and two shorter practical classes each week to students for the Preliminary Examination in the Honour School of Geography, in the former being assisted by Mr. Bradford and Dr. Butt, and in the latter by Dr. Butt.

1959-60 Last year’s report envisaged the division of Miss Blackwood’s basic background lectures and demonstrations of Lands and Peoples, a necessity made imminent by her retirement. The experiment is now a year old, and has been most successful, Dr. Audrey Butt dealing with peoples from the Americas and Africa, and Mr. K.O.L. Burridge with peoples in Asia and in Oceania. Both are former students, and have done a good deal of fieldwork or research in parts of their respective areas and have published, and have experience in teaching. The course was given on two days in each week throughout Michaelmas and Hilary Terms, and was supplemented by a practical course on Monday afternoons, taken alternately by the two lecturers. The Curator has always set great store by this course which gives an idea of what peoples there are, how and where they live, what they are like, and what they make and do, as a necessary background to all the special studies of subjects and problems of the whole course of anthropological studies. Moreover, for the English members of the course, it presents the idea that there are many people in the world who are not English, but are really very interesting in what they think and do, and see for themselves, and to collect and write about material. As for Diploma members of the course, who are yearly becoming more like an ideal assembly of the United Nations, they gain new respect for and interest in the thought, problems, and inventions of each other, and perhaps substitute some knowledge for a lot of prejudice. ...

1963-4 Mr. Baden-Powell gave his course of lectures on the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods, together with practical classes for the handling of stone implements and for comparison of the arts and techniques of prehistoric times with those of the Eskimo and other recent cultures. An elementary class with tutorials on the identification of teeth and bones was also included. During Michaelmas and Hilary Terms [Britton] held practical classes covering the Neolithic and Bronze Ages and in the Trinity Term on material culture relating to the origins of civilization, some in the Pitt Rivers Museum and some in the Ashmolean Museum. Practical work included visits to laboratories to see the application of the natural sciences to archaeological problems.

Teaching Technology Today

As the previous section hints, teaching of technology at the Museum gradually became integrated into more general courses. Many students today will have already studied either anthropology or archaeology as an undergraduate, and students of archaeology in particular are likely to have already had some practical training in excavation techniques, flint-knapping etc.

Today students do not study how to draw artefacts, or how to knap stone tools in the Museum. However, students do study technology particularly in a course run by Dan Hicks, Curator-Lecturer at the Museum, called 'Material Culture Studies'. This course is open to undergraduate and postgraduate anthropology and archaeology students. The wider cultural aspects of the technology, trade, and consumption are considered.

Quaternary Centre

The Donald Baden Powell Quaternary Centre was run as part of the Pitt Rivers Museum for many years. According to http://www.dbp.ox.ac.uk/

The Donald Baden-Powell Quaternary Research Centre was set up in 1975 to bear the name and continue the research interests of Donald Baden-Powell, who taught Geology and Palaeolithic Archaeology at Oxford for many years. The Centre was part of the Pitt Rivers Museum from 1975-2003, and was located at 60 Banbury Road. At this time it was directed by Professor Derek Roe and provided working facilities for graduate research students working on Palaeolithic Archaeology and related Quaternary topics at the University of Oxford.
The Centre moved to the Institute of Archaeology on Beaumont Street in October 2003, where it provides facilities for Palaeolithic teaching and research.

Further Reading

Bowden, Mark. 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.
Pitt Rivers, A.H.L.F. 1884. 'An addresss delivered at the annual meeting of the Dorchester School of Art' Dorset County Chronicle 7 February.
Gosden, C and F. Larson. 2007 Knowing Things OUP.
Hodges, Henry. 1989 Artifacts: an introduction to early materials and technology London Duckworth

 Technologies & Materials