Pitt-Rivers was greatly interested in the development of locks and keys and both the founding collection and the second collection contain many examples. So interested was he that he published a long account of their possible development in 1883, 'Primitive Locks and Keys'. This private publication mentions many locks and keys in his private collection; sadly, few of them can now be identified and many (it not most) of them appear not to be listed in the catalogues of the two collections.

However the 1883 publication was an opportunity for him to both work out what he considered to be different developments, or the evolution of the locks and keys, but also to link these to speculation about how the forms developed and distributed, and about the effects of trade routes upon this distribution.

Here is an extract from the text of that publication:

[pp. 26-31]

From the foregoing description of the various kinds of primitive locks in use in different countries it will, I think, have been made evident that some of them most certainly have been derived from a common centre. The wooden key-drawn pin-locks have spread over the region extending from Egypt to Yarkand. The Scandinavian wooden locks of the same kind, though differing in the details of their construction, we have seen are common to Norway and Scotland, and by some means have been carried to the West Indies and British Guiana, whilst the tubular spring padlock of the Roman age in Europe is the same that is found throughout the whole region extending from Italy to China and Japan on the east, northward into England and Scandinavia, southward into Abyssinia, and westward into West Africa and Algeria, Spain, and on as far as the West Indies.

It is sometimes thought when simple contrivances such as weapons of stone and bronze, some of the simpler kinds of ornaments, and of tools obviously adapted to primeval life are found to extend over wide areas, and in places very remote from one another, that the few ideas necessary for the construction and use of them might easily have suggested themselves independently in different places. To the student of primitive culture who has become impressed with the persistency of art forms, this independent origin of such things does not appear so certain even in the case of the most simple contrivances. But when we come to a complex piece of mechanism, such as a spring padlock having several parts—the spring, the case, the parallel bar, and the key, in all of which the resemblance is maintained in distant countries, and which, with slight modification and continuously progressive improvements, are put together in the same manner in all parts of the world—such a supposition cannot be admitted, the necessity for a common origin is apparent, and the study of the periods and the circumstances connected with the distribution of it cannot be set aside as superfluous.

Assuming that the tumbler pin-lock and the spring padlock cannot be traced back earlier in Europe than the commencement of our era, it is by no means certain that they may not have existed earlier elsewhere. The commerce carried on with the East in early times was of a nature to render it very probable that any contrivance for securing goods should have spread from place to place with the merchandise exported and imported between China, India, and Europe. A brief survey of the trade relations between different countries will be sufficient to show this.

The expedition of ALEXANDER gave rise to intercourse which was kept up by the Greek kingdom of Bactria, and recent Indian discoveries both of coins and sculptures prove more and more the great influence which Greek art exercised in India up to the commencement of our era. STRABO says that, about B.C. 22, NICOLAUS DAMASCENUS fell in with three Indian ambassadors at Antioch Epidaphne on their way to the Court of AUGUSTUS, and that their credentials were in the Greek language. DIODORUS quoting IAMBULUS speaks of King PALIBOTHRA in the early part of the 1st century as a lover of the Greeks. DIO CHYRSOSTOM mentions that the poems of Homer were sung by the Indians, and AELIAN says that not only the Indians but the kings of Persia translated and sang them. If the travels of APOLLONIUS and DAMIS are to be credited, the Greek language was spoken in the Punjaub in the first half-century of our era, and frequent intercourse appears to have taken place between that country and Egypt. Pliny in the 1st century A.D. says, on the authority of VARRO, that under the direction of POMPEY it was ascertained that it took seven days to go from India to the River Icarus, believed to be the modern Roscha, in the country of the Bactri, which discharges itself into the Oxus, and that the merchandise of India being conveyed from it through the Caspian Sea into the Cyrus, might be brought by land to Phasis in Pontus in five days at most. The best steel used in Rome was imported from China. ARRIAN, in the 2nd century A.D., speaks of a frequented way, ..., extending in the direction of India through Bactria; after which four embassies from the East are noticed by ancient writers, one to TRAJAN, A.D. 107; another to ANTONINUS PIUS, A.D. 138-161; a third to JULIAN, A.D. 361; and the fourth to JUSTINIAN, A.D. 530. These are but scant memorials of an intercourse which must have been frequent between India and Rome, and which reached its highest development during the reigns of SEVERUS and CARACALLA, in the commencement of the 3rd century A.D.

Turning now to the southern route of communication with India, PLINY describes Taprobane (Ceylon), and mentions an embassy sent from thence to the Emperor CLAUDIUS. The discovery of the monsoons during the 1st century was the means of creating a great trade between India and Alexandria. STRABO says that in the time of the PTOLEMIES some 20 ships only ventured upon the Indian seas, but that this traffic had so greatly increased that he himself saw at Myos Hormos, on the Arabian Gulf, 120 ships destined for India.PLINY gives in detail the route from Alexandria to India in his time, and says that it was well worthy of notice because in each year India drained the empire of at least 550 sestertii, estimated at £1,400,000 of English money, giving back in exchange her own wares, which were sold at fully one hundred times their original cost, and he says that the voyage was made every year by the following route:—Two miles distant from Alexandria was the town of Juliopolis, supposed to be Nicopolis.The distance from thence to Coptos up the Nile was 308 miles, and the voyage was performed with a favourable wind in 12 days. From Coptos the journey was made on camels to Berenice, a seaport on the southern frontier of Egypt, 257 miles, in another 12 days.Here the passengers generally set sail at midsummer, and in about 30 days arrived at Ocelis, in Arabia, now called Gehla,or at Cane, supposed to be Cava Canim Bay. From hence, if the wind called hippaulus happened to be blowing, it was possible to arrive at Muzitis, the modern Mangalore, which was the nearest point in India, in 40 days.This, however, was not a convenient port for disembarking, and Barace was therefore preferred. To this place pepper was carried down in dug-out canoes made out of a single trunk from Cottonara, supposed to be Cochin or Travancore. The return voyage was usually made in January, taking advantage of the south-east monsoon, by which means they were able to go and return the same year. But when PLINY wrote, the trade with India was only in its infancy, afterwards Greek factories were probably established at the Indian seaboards, which accounts for the Greek names for some of the towns on that coast.

But the people of Alexandria having become insolent in their prosperity, HADRIAN was led to encourage the route through Palmyra, which was the most direct road to India. Even in the 2nd century a.d. the trade between Rome and India through Palmyra must have been considerable, for it drew the attention of the Chinese. Their annals speak of it as carried on principally by sea; they mention Roman merchants in relations of commerce with and visiting Burmah, Tonquin, and Cochin China, and they have preserved the memory of an embassy from the Roman emperor, which in the year A.D. 166 was received by the Chinese sovereign. Arab or native vessels appear to have brought the produce of India up the Persian Gulf to the mouth of the Euphrates. At Teredon they discharged their cargoes, and the merchandise was then carried to Vologesia by camels; at this place the merchants of Palmyra took it up and it was here exchanged for the produce of Europe. Even as late as the 5th century, ships from India and China are mentioned lying at Hira on the Euphrates, a little to the south of Babylon. Through the influence of this trade Palmyra grew rapidly into wealth and power until the widow of GALBERIUS threw off her allegiance to Rome. This led to the destruction of the city by AURELIAN, A.D. 275, which put an end to the Roman trade with India through the Persian Gulf.The Alexandrian trade with India fell off about the same time, and the barbarians occupied Coptos, the port for embarkation for India, about A.D. 279.

After the fall of Palmyra the Indian trade was transferred to Batne, near the Euphrates, but it lasted only a short time, and in the 4th and 5th centuries may be regarded as having become extinct in so far as Roman merchants were concerned. The trade, however, was still kept up by the Arabs. EPIPHANIUS, about A.D. 375, gives an account of trade carried on through Berenice, by which the merchants of India imported their goods into the Roman territory, and there is also Chinese authority for believing that a great trade between Rome and India existed in the 6th century. MA-TOUAN-LIN, A.D. 1317, in his researches into antiquity, affirms that in A.D. 500-516 India carried on a considerable commerce by sea with TA-TSIN, the Roman Empire, and with the Ansi the Syrians, but Arab and not Roman vessels were employed. MASOUDI says that in the early part of the 7th century the Indian and Chinese trade with Babylon was principally in the hands of the Indians and Chinese.The usual passage after rounding the Point de Galle was to creep up the Madras coast during the S.W. monsoon and take a point of departure from Masulapatam towards the leading opening of the Ganges, Meanwhile the overland trade between Europe and India in the 3rd and 4th centuries was carried on by the Sassanidae, who in the 4th century entered into commercial relations with China, to which country they sent frequent embassies in the 6th century, and through this route silk was imported into Europe. In A.D. 712 Sind was conquered by the Arabs, and in addition to the kingdom of Mansurah and Multan, other independent Muslim governments were established at Bania and Kasdar. There is also the evidence of the merchant SULAMIN and the researches of Mr. EDWARD THOMAS into the coins of the Balhara to prove the continuance of Arab intercourse with India during the 9th century.

During all this time the relations between Scandinavia and Rome appear to have been scarcely less extensive. Although the Romans never succeeded in penetrating Scandinavia, the discovery of coins, vases in bronze and glass, and other objects of art, is sufficient to prove that Scandinavian art was greatly influenced by intercourse with Rome during the first part of the 2nd century of our era. In the early stages of society, communication by sea offered greater facilities for traffic than land journeys, and for this reason the Island of Gotland, now so isolated and rarely visited except by antiquaries, appears to have served as a portal for the entry of Roman and Oriental goods and civilization into Scandinavia.  After the fall of the Roman empire, Scandinavia was left to its own resources, aided by occasional intercourse with Byzantium, until in the later iron age, extending from the 8th century to the middle of the 11th century, another line of communication was established with the East, still entering Scandinavia mainly through the Island of Gotland. Mr. HILDEBRAND records the discovery of 20,000 Arab coins in Sweden and Gotland, and traces the channel of their transmission by Russian finds from the states near the Caspian, through Russia to the shores of the Baltic, and thence, thanks to the commerce established by the inhabitants of Gotland, over to that island. From Gotland, and probably also by direct intercourse with Russia, the Mahomedan coins were spread over Scandinavia, being more common in the eastern provinces of Sweden than in the west Or in Norway. The greater part of these coins appear to have come into Sweden between the years 880 and 955, but the latest belongs to the year 1010. On the line of communication here indicated, iron keys of the kind adapted both to the tumbler lock and the spring padlock have been discovered in the governments of Vladimir and Jaroslav, in the graves of the Neriens,* dating about the 8th century A.D., showing that in all probability it was by this line that the use of these locks were imported into Sweden. The key of the padlock found here was of the form of the Roman key, (fig. 21c, Plate V.), the Indian one (fig. 46c, Plate VI.), and the modern one from Cairo (fig. 47c, Plate VI.).It also resembles that of the Swedish lock (fig. 26c, Plate V.), and belongs to the most primitive form of the mechanism.

Whilst this traffic was being carried on between Scandinavia and the East, the intercourse of the Vikings was kept up with Britain, Ireland, and the coasts of the English Channel, commencing in 787 and continuing to the 11th century. These Western relations, like those with the East, appear to have taken place chiefly through Gotland; and the number of Anglo-Saxon coins found in that Island and the East of Sweden greatly exceed those discovered in Norway and the West.

The foregoing summary of the evidence of commercial relations between Southern Europe and the East and North during the early part of the Christian Era is sufficient to show that ample facilities existed for the spread of early forms of locks and keys. The padlock, more especially—which, as I have said when referring to the etymology of the word "pad," was the class of lock associated with portable merchandise—must have been carried into all those parts of the world between which commercial relations had been established. At what time and through what particular channels the various kinds of locks were distributed can only be determined after more extended inquiry into the archaeology of padlocks. Some points may, however, I think be considered to be more or less established by the evidence I have adduced. The particular form of padlock represented in fig. 44c, Plate VI, from India, and fig. 21c, Plate V, from the Roman period of Europe, must in all probability have been communicated in Roman times, as I am not aware that this precise form of padlock was in use in Europe later than the Roman age, having been superseded by the more modern improvements which have been described in this paper. The use of padlocks in the forms of animals in Egypt, Persia,and China, must also very probably belong to the same period. The Chinese and Japanese padlocks appear to belong to a more advanced stage of the development of the mechanism, and correspond to the form used in Europe in the Middle Ages; whilst the use of the revolving key in Europe, India, and Japan to compress the springs, as shown in figs. 39c, Plate VI., 90c, Plate VIII., and 98c, Plate XI., must date from a still later phase in the art; and unless they are to be regarded as improvements introduced independently in those countries, the idea must have spread by means of Arab traders, if not still more recently. In like manner, the adoption of the screw principle with these locks must either have been conveyed by traders, or appeared independently in different countries to the form of padlock already in use. The hinge of the staple, as seen in figs. 26c and 31c, Plate V., though derived from the earlier form of the parallel bar, which has a wide distribution, has not been universally adopted, but is used chiefly in Sweden and Europe, and is an improvement introduced,no doubt,in modern times. Further information is needed to enable us to trace the distribution of all these different varieties more continuously, before any satisfactory judgment can be formed as to the date of connection. In Scandinavia we find the padlock in use in Gotland, in Bjorko, and in Sweden; and Hans HILDEBRAND, in his work on 'The Industrial Arts of Scandinavia,' published by the South Kensington Museum, says that they were already known in that region in Pagan times. It is to be hoped that this announcement may be only a prelude to some more detailed publication of his researches into a subject to which the present paper can only be regarded as a first introduction—not previously attempted, that I am aware of, in its ethnological and commercial bearings. Local archaeologists must work out the rest. Enough has, I trust, been said to show that a large field lies open to the student of the archaeology of locks and keys, and that whenever the history of this mechanism is traced in Scandinavia, Persia, India, and China, in the same way that I have endeavoured to trace it in Europe, much light will thereby be thrown on the ramifications of trade and the commercial relations of distant countries in non-historic times.

[Transcribed by AP, June 2010 as part of the Rethinking Pitt-Rivers project]

Bibliography for this article

Pitt-Rivers, A.H.L.F. 1883. On the development and distribution of primitive locks and keys: illustrated by specimens in the Pitt Rivers Collection. Chatto and Windus London UK

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