George Rolleston, from his wikipedia entry

Pitt-Rivers and George Rolleston had a long friendship and collaboration, ending only with Rolleston's death in 1881.

George Rolleston (1829-1881) was the first Linacre Professor of Anatomy and Physiology at the University of Oxford, appointed in 1860. Like Pitt-Rivers he was born in Yorkshire, but he was two years younger. He was a physician, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in June 1862, some fourteen years before Pitt-Rivers (who was elected in 1876). According to Thompson, Rolleston visited the Siege of Sebastapol, another shared experience with Pitt-Rivers. [Thompson, 1977: 53]

Rolleston was Lee's Reader in Anatomy in succession to Henry Acland who had been one of the leading lights behind the building of the University Museum, which opened in 1860. He was present at the famous debate at the Museum involving Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley, the latter being a close friend of his.

Rolleston married in 1861 and he and his wife (and later his seven children) lived first in 15 New Inn Hall Street before moving to Park Grange, at 2 South Parks Road, near to the site which would be later used to house the Pitt Rivers Museum (the house is now part of the Statistics Department of the University of Oxford). Rolleston was a strong believer in abstinence from alcohol. He is described in his Dictionary of National Biography entry as:

...a tall, broad-shouldered man, with a large head and expressive features. He had considerable charm, was warm-hearted and honest, ‘a good hater [who] never abandoned a losing cause after he had convinced himself that it was right’ (Power), and an attractive conversationalist, with a gift for repartee and an extraordinary memory, which enabled him to spice his talk with quotations from the classics. His writing, on the other hand, was often turgid and long-winded, and overloaded with references. Nevertheless he was the epitome of the university professor: informed on all subjects, an enthusiastic and influential teacher of knowledge for its own sake, and a mixture of classical scholar, academic scientist, and naturalist in the widest sense.

His rare leisure time he liked to devote to archaeology, and it is this that probably brought Rolleston and Pitt-Rivers together. in 1877 he published with Canon Greenwell a book about British Barrows. His interest was primarily in human remains which linked with his interests in craniology and craniometry which were first established in the 1860s. He worked extensively in excavations of tumuli and cemeteries with Canon Greenwell in Yorkshire and John Thurnam in Wiltshire. He also worked on the cemetery at Frilford near Abingdon which gave him an opportunity to examine many Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon remains.  Rolleston was also interested in more recent skulls obtaining a number from the Andaman Islands amongst others. These were all examined at the Oxford University Museum and Rolleston caused a catalogue to be created, the 'Catalogue of Crania illustrating the various races of Mankind' though this was later lost. Rolleston had wider antiquarian and natural history interests, including the examination of the material culture found in graves, and in natural history specimens. [Novak Kemp and Galanakis]

He died of kidney failure at the age of fifty-one in June 1881 before he could ensure that his friend, Pitt-Rivers' collection came to Oxford. In June 1881 Pitt-Rivers attended Rolleston's funeral in Oxford, he was buried in Holywell Cemetery.

Pitt-Rivers and Rolleston

It is not known when Pitt-Rivers and Rolleston first met. They served on the same learned societies including the Royal Society, Anthropological Institute and Anthropological Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science [BAAS]. In 1875 they both served on the Anthropometric Committee of the BAAS. Unlike Rolleston Pitt-Rivers did not acquire a large collection of physical anthropology specimens (though he had some), instead he collected photographs mostly from northern France (which cannot now be found) and Scandinavia.

In 1875 they collaborated over findings at Cissbury, Sussex. Rolleston often published accounts of human and other bones that had been found during archaeological excavations (see bibliography for some examples). For example in 1876 he published an account of 'an examination of three Long Barrows situated near the little village of Nether Swell, in the county of Gloucester.' This account suggests a three-fold reason for this interest, he wanted to physically characterize the people of the Long Barrow period, he wanted to investigate the possibility of 'dividing that period into successive epochs', and examine 'the rationale of the various modes of disposing of the dead observable in those early tumuli'. His earlier work with Canon Greenwell in Yorkshire and elsewhere had also involved similar work. In 1888 Pitt-Rivers records that Rolleston was 'paying attention to the subject of ancient domesticated breeds at the time of his death' [Pitt-Rivers, 1888: 195] and his work was later published.

In 1877 at Sigwell, near Compton, in Somerset Pitt-Rivers and Rolleston excavated a twin barrow and single barrow. In the southern barrow they found a bark coffin containing burnt bones and a bronze dagger. [Thompson, 1977: 57]

In 1879 Pitt-Rivers and Rolleston visited Scandinavia, via northern Germany. They visited Denmark and southern Sweden travelling as far north as Uppsala. Their purpose was to visit museums. Whilst in Scandinavia they took part in what Thompson describes as 'some irregular digging' on the Danewirke in Schleswig. [Thompson, 1977: 53, 57]

In 1880 Rolleston and Pitt-Rivers carried out one of their last joint excavations, working on barrows on Pitt-Rivers' own estates in Rushmore. The Revd. H.H. Winwood also took part (a geologist).

George Rolleston was one of the members of the Commission set up to consider Pitt-Rivers' offer of his founding collection to the nation in May 1880 (despite recommending acceptance, the gift was ultimately turned down). It may be that this led to Rolleston encouraging Pitt-Rivers to consider donating the collection to University of Oxford, which later transpired. On 21 May 1882 Pitt-Rivers wrote to Henry Acland at the University Museum:

Meanwhile I beg to thank you for your very kind letter and wish you every success in your endeavours to promote anthropology in Oxford. Professor Rolleston often talked to me about it and we can’t but wish that he had lived to carry it out. [Pitt Rivers to Acland, 21 May 1882, Bodleian Library, Acland papers, MS. Acland d.92, fols.75-76]

Rolleston had tried to enhance the anthropological collections at the University of Oxford before. Macgregor footnotes an early attempt ‘in a letter addressed to the Vice-Chancellor on 26 Jan. 1867 by George Rolleston, the University Professor of Anatomy and Physiology, and himself a archaeologist, in which he advocates the relocating of the archaeological and anthropological collections to a new gallery to be built adjoining the University Museum (AA AmS 45)’. [Macgregor, 1997: 603]

After Rolleston's death Pitt-Rivers was approached by M.F. Rolleston for contributions to his memoirs:

You may probably have heard that some brief Memoir of the late Professor Rolleston, is about to be published by his friends Prof'r Turner of Edinbro', and Prof'ss Goldwin Smith; I venture to ask if you can help Mrs Rolleston in her desire to obtain from friends, any letters or Personal recollections, they may be able to contribute towards the Memoir now in progress or towards a later volume, which she hopes to put together of Reminiscences, chiefly interesting to her own family and intimate friends. Any letters, or other material you are so good as to entrust me with, will be carefully returned, copies, or extracts from them, having been made as you may direct. [L42 9 December 1882 Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum Pitt-Rivers papers]

Bibliography for this article

Chapman, William Ryan 1981. ‘Ethnology in the Museum: A.H.L.F. Pitt Rivers (1827–1900) and the Institutional Foundations of British Anthropology’, University of Oxford: D.Phil. thesis.

Fox, A.H. Lane. 1875. ‘Excavations in Cissbury Camp Sussex’ Journal of Anthropological Institute 5 [1875] 357-89 also Report: British Association for the Advancement of Science [1875] p. 173

Fox, A.H. Lane  [with G. Rolleston]. 1878. ‘Report of the Excavation of a twin-barrow and a single round barrow at Sigwell (Six wells) Parish of Compton, Somerset’ Journal of Anthropological Institute 8 [1878] pp. 185-194

Fox, A.H. Lane.  1879. ‘Observations on the topography of Sigwell’ Journal of Anthropological Institute 8 [1879] pp. 191-194

Novak-Kemp, Malgosia and Yannis Galanakis. in press. 'Ancient Greek skulls in the Oxford University Museum, Part I'Journal of the History of Collecting

Macgregor, A. 1997. 'Collectors, Connoisseurs and Curators in the Victorian Age' in M. Caygill and J. Cherry (eds) A.W. Franks: Nineteenth Century collecting and the British Museum British Museum Press

Alex Paton, ‘Rolleston, George (1829–1881)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 19 April 2011]

Pitt-Rivers, A.H.L.F. 1888 'On an ancient British settlement excavated near Rushmore, Salisbury' Journal of the Anthropological Institute ... vol 17 (1888) pp.190-201

Rolleston, George. 1876. 'On the people of the long barrow period' Journal of the Anthropological Institute ... vol 5 (1876) pp.120-173

Rolleston, George. 1877. 'Notes on the animal remains found at Cissbury' Journal of the Anthropological Institute ... vol 6 (1877) pp.20-36

Rolleston, George. 1879. 'Notes on skeleton found at Cissbury, April 1878' Journal of the Anthropological Institute ... vol 8 (1879) pp.377-389

Rolleston, George. 1881. 'Report on bones from Chastleton' Journal of the Anthropological Institute ... vol 10 (1881) pp.126-7

See here for an article by Chris Morton on Pitt-Rivers and Rolleston's visit to Scandinavia in 1879

AP, April 2011.

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