Indian religious figure 1884.59.70

Pitt-Rivers claimed to have been the first to apply typology to anthropology or archaeology in the passage below, written in 1891 for his address on 'Typological Museums' to the Society of the Arts.

In an educational museum, specimens should be selected that are useful in displaying sequence. These should be arranged so as to show how one form has led to another. When there is actual evidence of the dates of the objects, of course the arrangement must be for the most part in the order of dates. But when, as in the case of most prehistoric objects and many of the arts of savage nations, the dates cannot be given, then recourse must be had to the sequence of type, and that is what I term 'Typology'. It is not an accepted term, and I am not aware that it has been applied before to the study of sequence of the types of the arts. But it appears to me that a name is wanted for this branch of investigation, which the term 'Typology' supplies.

If it were taken to imply the study of fixed types as characteristic of particular phases of the arts, it would be erroneous. It includes the growth, varieties, and developments of the several types. It supplies the want of dates by showing how certain forms must have preceded or followed others in the order of their development, or in the sequence of their adoption. It may be said, as a rule, that simple forms have preceded complex ones. Within certain limits this must be true, but it is not always the case, for, in many instances, progress consists in eliminating superfluous complexity, and reducing the expenditure of time and labour. We have in this, as in all mundane affairs, to deal with degeneracy and decay, as well as progressive growth: the two have gone on side by side. It is the work of typology to unravel the true thread of events, and place the objects in their proper sequence for the use of students. Typology forms a tree of progress, and distinguishes the leading shoots from the minor branches. The problems of the naturalist and those of the typologist are analogous. The difficulties are the same in both. In some cases the number of missing lines makes it impossible to determine the true succession of forms. In such cases recourse must be had to survivals, as in the case of the majority of savage weapons or forms of art, in which the successive links, being made of wood or perishable materials, have decayed. But a theoretical, and fairly accurate development, may nearly always be traced amongst the arts of savages by object in present use. When a simple form is suited to its environment, or when its use fulfils common purposes that cannot be better served by its successors, or when economy of labour is a desideratum, the simple form survives; as, for example, in the case of the common door-bolt, which is the father of all kinds of complex door locks, and which is still used upon the same doors as the contrivances that have sprung from it; or in the case of the common hand-made pots that are still baked in an ordinary turf fire in the Hebrides, at the same time as the most skilled production of our modern potteries. So in natural history, invertebrate and vertebrate animals and mammalia are all found living side by side in the same localities, although we know that they represent successive stages in the development of species. Typological sequence, or typological continuity, may be said to be established when the true succession of forms have been brought out. [1891: 116]

Typology is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as 'The study of classes with common characteristics; classification, esp. of human products, behaviour, characteristics, etc., according to type; the comparative analysis of structural or other characteristics; a classification or analysis of this kind.' Pitt-Rivers is not given as one of its sources, though a later archaeologist is: '1929 V. G. Childe Danube in Prehist. p. vii, Where stratigraphical or geological evidence is lacking, we must have recourse to typology. This depends on the assumption that types evolved (or degenerated) regularly.'

Bill Chapman in his chapter ''Like a game of dominoes': Augustus Pitt Rivers and the typological museum idea' [in Susan Pearce, 1991] explains that:

'[Pitt Rivers] was foremost the father of what has come to be known, after his own designation, as the 'typological' system of museum organization. In general, such a system called for a grouping of ethnographical or archaeological materials according to perceived formal or functional similarities, rather than according to their place of origin, or the 'geographical system', as is more conventional among anthropological museums today. In Pitt Rivers' system, examples of 'primitive spears' would be displayed together in order that the viewer might make comparisons among different types, rather than among a more complete selection of the material culture of a single society. Similar comparisons were made within other ideal categories, such as bows and arrows, fishing implements, housing types (as represented by diagrams and models), baskets and so on. Carried to its logical conclusion, such a system was meant to present a comprehensive history of technology, one with what we would not recognize as an implicit Western European bias. Furthermore, as Pitt Rivers explained his system, it was intended to show the 'progress' or 'evolution' of technology and to instil in the viewer a proper appreciation for the uniform character of changes in the material arts and the 'gradual progress' in technology over time. [Chapman, 1991: 136-7]

In the same year, Bowden wrote:

... although the political ideal of Pitt Rivers' cultural evolution is false, its underlying sequential structure is not (Thompson 1977, 115-6). The final product was sequence. Whether the material culture in question was weaponry, chevron-decorated pottery or Benin bronzes, the General's ultimate triumph was to order them in their correct sequences. Whether or not Pitt Rivers invented the word 'typology' as he claimed (1891, 116) it became the accepted term for the study of sequences of all aspects of material culture. No one before Pitt Rivers had created realistic typologies and it has been suggested (Charles Thomas, personal communication) that this was the General's principle [sic] contribution to archaeology and the aspect of his work which had the greatest influence on a later generation of archaeologists, especially Christopher Hawkins, for whom typology was of supreme importance.

Whether the creation of sound typologies or the linking of archaeology with anthropology is regarded as the General's finest achievement, both have undeniably had an enormous influence on the development of archaeology. If his excavation techniques have appeared to be his only important contribution to archaeology that has been the result of a somewhat simplistic view of his life's work but it also reflects the predominant concerns of mid-twentieth century archaeologists. [1991: 162]

Gosden and Larson [2007] said of Pitt-Rivers and typologies:

'The Pitt Rivers Museum is known throughout the world for its typological mode of display. Pitt Rivers himself is credited with introducing the world 'typology' into ethnology. Typology is a word that enjoys a rich set of histories and associations, some of which have come with it into the museum and ethnographic worlds. In its oldest set of meanings, typology derives from Biblical exegesis, whereby a person, event, or thing in the Old Testament is seen to prefigure a type of person, event, or thing in the New Testament ... This sense of the old as providing a clue to the forms of new things is part of the way in which typology was used by Pitt Rivers and others. The other set of key ideas is biological, looking at the issues of kinds of plants and animals, much discussed from at least the time of Aristotle onwards, but codified by Linnaeus in the eighteenth century into kingdoms, phyla, classes, orders, families, genera, and species based on their morphology. ... Darwinian thought, with its central simple phrase 'descent with modification', provided an analytical framework to investigate the processes by which the great profusion of forms was arrived at. Darwin's approach was a historical one, looking at how characteristics altered from one generation to the next, so that a term like typology, with its roots in a historical understanding of the Bible became appropriate....

Pitt Rivers was not alone in his interest in typologies. He essentially popularized a concept that had become central to the work of natural sciences. And his interests were shared by other scholars, including Augustus Wollaston Franks at the British Museum. Franks also adopted the notion of a 'type specimen' from the natural sciences, and spent many hours drawing different weapons from Africa and the Pacific, and other ethnographic specimens he came across in other collections and museums, assigning them to different series according to type (King, 1997: 148-9). A typology of artefacts had complicated links to a typology of society (savagery, barbarism and civilization were a key triumvirate of terms in this respect) and (much more controversially today) to a possible typology of racial types ... In theory, if not always in practice, the forms of artefacts and the forms of societies could be linked ... [2007: 108]

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Bibliography for this article

Bowden, Mark 1991. Pitt Rivers: The Life and Archaeological Work of Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chapman, W.R. 1991. 'Like a Game of Dominoes: Augustus Pitt Rivers and the Typological Museum Idea’ in S. Pearce (ed.)Museum Economics and the Community vol. 2 New Research in Museum Studies Athlone London

Gosden, C., Larson, F. with A. Petch.  2007. [b]. Knowing Things: Exploring the collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum 1884-1945 Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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. 115-122

AP, November 2010

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