Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Technologies and Materials and the Pitt Rivers Museum: Tentative conclusions

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

It was a chance remark that started me thinking about technologies and materials work at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Even a superficial acquaintance with the history of the Pitt Rivers Museum makes it clear how important the study of technology was to particular members of staff and at certain times. A fellow member of staff commented to me that it would be great if research work again might concentrate on these issues again. This led me to think about what I knew about the study of technology here in the past, and about it currently.

However, I did not expect that quite so many webpages would need to be created, indeed I could have written many more than are now on the website, but I thought that I ought to stop before I took over the entire remainder of the time left for the research project. Each time I started work on a particular technology, or particular member of staff or volunteers' work on the subject, it seemed to lead to a thousand new openings and people. Working on Coghlan led to the Royal Anthropological Institute's Ancient and Modern Metallurgy Committee (a subject I confess I knew nothing about beforehand), looking at the Occasional Papers in Technology Series made me realise that I could not find a comprehensive list of all the Museum's publications, looking at one person's work on stone tool technology inevitably led to another, and then another. Looking at the teaching of stone tool techniques inevitably led me to consider teaching in general in the Museum, which then led me to ponder the documentation of artefacts from 1884 to 2008.

Inevitably therefore this is not a complete and comprehensive set of pages, there are people whose contribution is missing or less prominent than perhaps it should be (for example, Ray Inskeep and also Derek Roe), there are missing periods (in general the pages do not deal very thoroughly with the 1980s and 1990s). However, I believe that it has made a great deal more raw information available to other scholars and members of the general public.

I used the definitions of technology and technique in the Oxford English Dictionary as a first step:

1. a. A discourse or treatise on an art or arts; the scientific study of the practical or industrial arts. ...
1. c. With a and pl. A particular practical or industrial art.

The study of particular technologies necessarily involves the study of particular techniques, described by the OED as 'Manner of artistic execution...; the mechanical ... part of an art ... mechanical skill in artistic or technical work ...'.

The study of technology at the Pitt Rivers Museum in the early years after 1884 when the founding collection first came to Oxford was dominated by the evolutionary view of technology first taken by Pitt Rivers and later by Henry Balfour, the first Curator. These views were not unusual at the time, one of archaeology's defining developmental moments occurred when the so-called 'Three Age System' was devised by Christian Jürgensen Thomsen, which divided the prehistoric period of the 'Old World' by technological development and materials of stone, bronze and iron. Later still the Stone Age had been refined into three sub-eras of its own, again identified by shifting technologies, into Palaeolithic (also known to Pitt Rivers as the 'Drift'), Mesolithic and Neolithic.

Pitt Rivers and Balfour believed that detailed examination of the material culture of a modern-day 'Stone Age' culture might shed light on European pre-history: that similar technological development would mirror other similarities. This was obviously useful when one wanted to examine a culture or time for which most material culture had vanished.

Similar views were expressed, to a greater or lesser extent, by various members of museum staff right up to the 1940s (and possibly beyond). Here for example is Beatrice Blackwood writing in 1942:

... to the ethnologist, the form of the plough is of just as much interest as the rites practised by the ploughman, since its technical details may throw light on the stage of development of the people using it, and possibly on their relations with other groups, past or present. [Blackwood, 1942: 90]

The question is, have people at the Pitt Rivers Museum also studied different technologies for their own sakes, is technology interesting in its own right?

It could be argued that the study of technology after 1940 would be seen to have some merits of its own, to tell one more about other aspects of socio-cultural life. For example, Henry Hodges in his book 'Artifacts' suggests:

Perhaps the most obvious field in which technological studies can supplement the more normal archaeological methods is the examination of raw materials and their sources, for through them we can often get unexpected information about early trade. The systematic study of the petrology of neolithic stone axes in the British Isles is a single example of this line of enquiry; and it has shown not only how widely stone axes were traded in antiquity but also provided valuable evidence of their chronology. [Hodges, 1989: 13]

Some of the Museum's staff and volunteers certainly seemed to study particular forms of technology in-depth, and without wishing to add a theoretical overstructure - I am thinking particularly of Francis Knowles and G.E.S. Turner. It is clear that the teaching of technology and techniques over the last twenty or so years has been integrated, and to a degree subsumed, within larger anthropological discourses about society and culture. In archaeology the study of technology has also shifted but there is still more emphasis on the practical elements. Whether practical study as well as intellectual enquiry will ever again become part of mainstream anthropological teaching remains to be seen.

Museum staff though continue to engage with the practical aspects of the manufacture of particular items in the collections. Many of them are skilled basket-makers, weavers etc and have an in-depth knowledge of their craft as well as a wider understanding of what else an artefact, and its documentation, can tell them


 Technologies & Materials