White Horse Uffington drawn by ?Pitt-Rivers, National Archives, Pitt-Rivers notebooks WOR14 page 122

The work of superintending the digging - though I never allowed it to be carried on in my absence, always visiting the excavations at least three times a day, and arranging to be sent for whenever anything of importance was found - was more than I could undertake single-handed, with the management of the property and other social duties to attend to ... [Pitt-Rivers, 1887 Excavations on Cranborne Chase, volume 1, p. xvii]

Excavators, as a rule, record only those things which appear to them important at the time, but fresh problems in Archaeology and Anthropology are constantly arising, and it can hardly fail to have escaped the notice of anthropologists, especially those who, like myself, have been concerned with the morphology of art, that, on turning back to old accounts in search of evidence, the points which would have been most valuable have been passed over from being thought uninteresting at the time. Every detail should, therefore, be recorded in the manner most conducive to facility of reference, and it ought at all times to be the chief object of an excavator to reduce his own personal equation to a minimum. [Pitt-Rivers, 1887 Excavations on Cranborne Chase, volume 1, p. xvii]

Many articles on this website deal with aspects of Pitt-Rivers' archaeological investigations. This page serves as an introduction to them and an easy way to find all the resources.

Pitt-Rivers' interests in archaeology appear to have blossomed in the 1850s but his first 'fieldwork' was carried out whilst he was stationed in Ireland in the British Army between 1862 and 1865. Later he carried out extensive investigations in London and elsewhere in England after 1866. These are discussed further here.

Many of his archaeological investigations comprised visits to sites and inspections rather than extensive excavation and this is particularly true for the work he carried out as first Inspector of Ancient Monuments from January 1883. Each summer he would travel to a specific area of the British Isles to record monuments for posterity with an assistant. This work is discussed further in his biographies and the notebooks are held in the National Archives.

His only investigations outside Western Europe were carried out during a short Cook's Tour holiday to Egypt in 1881. These will be discussed in a further webpage here at a later date.

He carried out a series of excavations on his own estate on Cranborne Chase after 1880 that are discussed at length in the four volumes of his publication, Excavations on Cranborne Chase, and by Bowden and Thompson (his biographers) as well as being re-examined by (amongst many others) Bradley and Lucas. They are also discussed here.

Pitt-Rivers' archaeological methodology was broadly typical of the nineteenth century. There was no formal training in universities (or elsewhere) in archaeology in the UK, archaeologists had to learn their trade by practical experience. Just as Pitt-Rivers had done walking round Sussex hillforts and other independent surveying trips in the 1860s and 1870s, Flinders Petrie did later, undertaking 'long survey tramps of a month at a time ... working over a district to survey the earthworks and stone circles'. [quoted in Levine, 1986: 92]

Also typical of the time was the division of labour between the brute force required to excavate and the intellectual direction and analysis. Like all nineteenth century archaeologists Pitt-Rivers did the latter and not the former. In fact, he even sub-contracted most of the direction or supervision to his assistants leaving the analysis and interpretation role only to himself. This was typical of the methodology of the vast majority of middle and late nineteenth century archaeologists.  As Levine states, 'The important class distinction between manual and primarily intellectual effort remained paramount with team work developing only in the twentieth century'. [Levine, 1986: 93]

Pitt-Rivers' archaeological legacy has perhaps been best summarised by Lucas:

The key point, I believe, to Pitt Rivers' innovation was not that he invented field archaeology or new methods of excavation and recording, but that he applied the standard techniques of the day in a much more totalising and exhaustive manner - he wanted a total record of what was in the ground. While he may have been among the first to excavate non-barrow sites ... his interest was in the recovery of a wider range of everyday finds rather than in the site itself. [2001: 24]

The reason Pitt Rivers pushed the conventional field methodologies to a much greater extent than anyone had done previously is because of his desire for totalisation; it was his intellectual background in classification and desire for a total record which drove his innovations in the field. ... What really matters to him in the archaeological record are objects and how they reflect upon human history. While his concern for detailed recording may have been motivated in general by a desire for totalisation, his particular aims were dominated by the need to provide a secure context for objects, to establish their proper place in the evolutionary scheme of culture. [2001: 25]

The idea that, although archaeology deals with artefacts, it is always the people behind the objects who matter, is as old as archaeology. Pitt Rivers explicitly pointed this out, and what he understood by ‘people’ was chiefly their minds or contents of their minds – ideas ... [2001: 170]

‘What is really interesting about [Pitt Rivers] record, especially the four volumes on Cranborne Chase, is that they are all arranged around the plates. All the text is (albeit often extended) annotations to the figures, and this includes not just the finds but also the site features. It is as if, in his conception, the site is best represented by drawings and only secondarily by text. This is supported by a saying attributed to him: ‘Describe your illustrations, do not illustrate your descriptions’ [Piggott, 1965: 174]. This is almost the inverse of today’s approach which is heavily textually dominated.’ [2001: 211]

Lucas also argues that Pitt-Rivers 'best representation' of his sites on Cranborne Chase were the wooden models he caused to be created by his estate carpenter, 'a record of the archaeology in three dimensions instead of the usual two'. [2001: 210]

Only very small numbers of finds and models from Pitt-Rivers' archaeological investigations can be found in the Pitt Rivers Museum, more can be viewed at the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum as can the majority of the surviving models of his archaeological sites and some ancient monuments and Celtic crosses. The catalogue of the second collection held at Cambridge University Library contains only a small number of images of his finds after 1880, these can be seen in the databases provided on this site.

Because his own archaeological investigations and finds are poorly represented in the two collections, his archaeology is not the primary focus of this research (and therefore of this website) but this page and the links it provides, it is hoped, provide at least an introduction to this work.

Resources available on this site about Pitt-Rivers' archaeology:

Pitt-Rivers' pre-1884 archaeological investigations

Pitt-Rivers' archaeological finds pre-1880

Estate excavations 1880-1900

Cranborne Chase excavations from 1880-1900, Pitt-Rivers' own account from preface to volume 1

Models of monuments now held by Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum

Models of Celtic crosses now held by Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum

Harold St George Gray

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.

Bradley, R. 1983. ‘Archaeology, evolution and the public good: the intellectual development of General Pitt RiversArchaeological Journal 140 pp. 1-9

Levine, Philippa 1986. 'The Amateur and the Professional: Antiquarians, Historians and Archaeologists in Victorian England 1838-1886' Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Lucas, Gavin. 2001 Critical Approaches to Fieldwork, 'Contemporary and Historical Archaeological Practice', London and New York, Routledge

Pitt-Rivers, A.H.L.F. 1887. Excavations in Cranborne Chase near Rushmore on the borders of Dorset and Wiltshire vol I Rushmore privately printed

Pitt-Rivers, A.H.L.F. 1888. Excavations in Barrows near Rushmore. Excavations in the Romano-British village Rotherly. Excavations in Cranborne Chase vol II Rushmore Privately printed

Pitt-Rivers, A.H.L.F. 1892 Excavations in Bokerley Dyke and Wansdyke Dorset and Wilts 1888-91 vol III of Cranborne Chase Rushmore privately printed

Pitt-Rivers, A.H.L.F. 1898 Excavations in Cranborne Chase. vol IV Rushmore Privately printed

Thompson, M.W. 1977. General Pitt Rivers: Evolution and Archaeology in the Nineteenth Century Bradford-on-Avon: Moonraker Press.

AP, May 2011

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