Henry Balfour in later life [1998.356.17.1]

Henry Balfour, the Curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford from 1891-1939, gave the Presidential Address to the Anthropological Section 'H' of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Cambridge in 1904, this is an abstract from it about the Pitt Rivers Museum and founding collection.

'... I will not endeavour to cope with the many and varied aspects of Anthropology and its complex ramifications, nor will I attempt to enumerate the many distinguished men of science to whose stimulating work we chiefly owe the progress already achieved in Anthropology; the more prominent pioneers are well known to you, and several, I am glad to say, are yet with us. Their works remain as important landmarks in the developmental record of the Science of Man. I have, instead, selected as my principal theme one branch of the subject. My main object is to review, necessarily briefly, one of the factors which have played a part in stimulating scientific inquiry into the past and present conditions of Man, and in furthering the development both of the scientific and the popular interests of Anthropology. I wish to confine myself to the consideration of the contributions of one man towards the subject, a contribution which is the more valuable since it deal with wide principles, and thus affords a basis upon which a vast army of students may find valuable work. It amounted to the establishment of a particular school of research into the history of human culture, into which fresh workers are constantly being attracted, and which has stood the test of time through half a century.

It was about the middle of the last century that an officer in Her Majesty's Army began to apply the lessons which he had learnt in the course of some of his professional experimental work to studies pursued by him as a hobby in a far wider field of science. The story of the famous ethnographical collection of Colonel Lane Fox is well known, and I need but briefly refer to it. During his investigations, conducted with a view to ascertaining the best methods whereby the service firearms might be improved, at a time when the old Tower musket was being finally discarded, he was forcibly struck by the extremely gradual changes whereby improvements were effected. He observed that every noteworthy advancement in the efficiency, not only of the whole weapon but also of every individual detail in its structure, was arrived at as a cumulative result of a succession of very slight modifications, each of which was but a trifling improvement upon the one immediately preceding it. Through noticing the unfailing regularity of this process of gradual evolution in the case of firearms, he was led to believe that the same principles must probably govern the development of the other arts, appliances, and ideas of mankind. With characteristic energy and scientific zeal Colonel Lane Fox began at once, in the year 1851, to illustrate his views and to put them to a practical test. He forthwith commenced to make the ethnological collection with which his name will always be associated, and which rapidly grew to large proportions under his keen search for materials which should illustrate and perhaps prove his theory of progress by evolution in the arts of mankind.

Although as a collector he was somewhat omnivorous, since every artefact product fell strictly within his range of inquiry, his collection, nevertheless, differed from the greater number of private ethnological collections, and even public ones of that day, inasmuch as it was built up systematically with a definite object in view. It is unnecessary for me to describe in detail the system which he adopted in arranging his collection. His principles are well known to ethnologists, either from the collection itself or from his writings, more especially from the series of lectures which he gave at the Royal United Service Institution, in the years 1867-69, upon 'Primitive Warfare'; from his paper read before the Anthropological Institute in 1874 on 'The Principles of Classification, as adopted in the arrangement of his Anthropological Collection,' which was then exhibited at the Bethnal Green Museum; from that portion of the catalogue raisonné of his collection which was published in 1877, and from numerous other papers dealing with special illustrations of his theory. Suffice it to say that, in classifying his ethnological material, he adopted a principal system of groups into which objects of like form or function from all over the world were associated to form series, each  of which illustrated as completely as possible the varieties under which a given art, industry, or appliance occurred. Within these main groups objects belonging to the same region were usually associated together in local sub-groups. And wherever amongst the implements or other objects exhibited in a given series there seemed to be suggested a sequence of ideas, shedding light upon the probable stages in the evolution of this particular class, these objects were specially brought into juxtaposition. This special grouping to illustrate sequence was particularly applied to objects from the same region as being, from their local relationships, calculated better to illustrate an actual continuity. As far as possible the seemingly more primitive and generalized forms, or whose use is associated with primitive ideas--were placed at the beginning of each series, and the more complex and specialized forms were arranged towards the end.

The primary object of this method of classification by series was to demonstrate, either actually or hypothetically, the origin, development, and continuity of the material arts, and to illustrate the variations whereby the more complex and specialized forms belonging to the higher conditions of culture have been evolved by successive slight improvements from the simple, rudimentary, and generalized forms of a primitive culture.

The earlier stages in these sequence series were more especially the object of investigation, the later developments being in the greater number of cases omitted or merely suggested. It was necessary for Colonel Lane Fox to restrict the extent of the series, any one of which, if developed to the full extent, would easily have filled a good-sized museum. The earlier stages, moreover, were less familiar, and presented fewer complications. The general principles of his theory were as  adequately demonstrated by the ruder appliances of uncivilized races as by the more elaborate products of peoples of higher cultures; and, moreover, there was doubtless a great attraction in attacking that end of the development series which offered a prospect at least of finality, inasmuch as there was always a chance of discovering the absolute origin of a given series. Hence the major part of his collection consisted of specimens procured from savage and barbaric races amongst whom the more rudimentary forms of appliances are for the most part to be found.

The validity of the general views of Colonel Lane Fox as to evolution in the material arts of Man was rapidly accepted by a large number of ethnologists and others, who were convinced by the arguments offered and the very striking evidence displayed in their support. I have heard people object to the use of the term 'evolution' in connection with the development of human arts. To me the word appears to be eminently appropriate, and I think it would be exceedingly difficult to find one which better expresses the succession of extremely minute variations by means of which progress has been effected. That the successive individual units of improvement, which when linked together form the chain of advancement, are exceedingly small is a fact which anyone can prove for himself if he will study in detail the growth of a modern so-called 'invention.' One reason why we are apt to overlook the greater number of stages in the growth of still living arts is that we are not as a rule privileged to watch behind the scenes. Of the numberless slight modifications, each but a trifling advance upon the last, it is but comparatively few which ever meet the eye of the public, which only sees the more important stages; those, that is to say, which present a sufficiently distinct advance upon that which has hitherto been in use to warrant their attracting attention, or, shall we say, having for a time a marketable value. The bulk of the links in the evolutionary chain disappear almost as soon as they are made, and are known to few, perhaps none, besides their inventors. Even where the history of some invention is recorded with the utmost care it is only the more prominent landmarks which receive notice; the multitude of trifling variations which have led up to them are not referred to, for, even if they be known, space forbids such elaborately detailed record. The smaller variations are, for the most part, utterly forgotten, their ephemeral existence and their slight individual influence upon the general progress being unrecorded at the time, and lost sight of almost at once. The immediately succeeding stage claims for the moment the attention, and it again in its turn becomes the stepping-stone upon which the next raises itself, and so on.

Before proceeding further, let me give as briefly as I can an example of a development series worked out, in the main, upon the general line of inquiry inaugurated by Colonel Lane Fox. It is commonly accepted as a fact, which is borne out by tradition, both ancient and modern, that certain groups of stringed instruments of music must be referred for their origin to the bow of the archer. ... [See The Natural History of the Musical Bow' by Henry Balfour, Clarendon Press for further information about his argument, he is describing a series created by himself]

I have purposely selected this particular series for my illustration, not because it is something new -- indeed, it is already more or less familiar, and may be has even some merit in its lack of newness, since, in accordance with a popular dictum, it may urge a greater claim to be regarded as true -- nor because it is specially striking, but rather for the reason that it illustrates suitably several of the points upon which I wish briefly to touch. Even in the severely condensed form in which I have been obliged to present this series of developments from bow to harp, there is, I think, demonstrated the practical application of several of the general principles upon which is based the theory whereby Colonel Lane Fox sought to elucidate the phenomena of human progress.

A series of this kind serves, in the first place to demonstrate that the absence of historical and archaeological evidence of the actual continuity in development from simple to complex does not preclude investigations into the early history of any product of human ingenuity, nor prevent the formation of a suggestive and plausible if largely hypothetical series, illustrating the probable chain of sequences along which some highly specialized form may be traced back link by link to its rudimentary prototypes, or even to its absolute origins, which in this particular instance is the ordinary shooting bow temporarily converted into a musical instrument. Where an actual chronological series is not forthcoming, a comparative study of such types as are available, even though they be modern examples, reveals the fact that, if classified according to their apparent morphological affinities, these types show a tendency to fall into line, the gap between the the extreme forms--that is, the most simple and the most advanced--being filled by a succession of intermediate forms, more or less completely linked together, according to the number of varieties at our disposal. We are thus, at any rate, in possession of a sequence series. Is it unreasonable for us to conclude that this reflects, in great measure, the actual chronological sequence of variations through which in past time the evolutionary history of the instrument was effected from the earliest rudimentary form?

It is difficult to account at all for the existence of many of the forms such as I have briefly described, except on the supposition that they are survivals from more or less early stages in a series of progressive evolution ...

And yet, in spite of instances such as this--where a valuable feature suggested by one instrument has not been adopted for the improvement of another, even though the two forms are in constant use side by side--we must recognise that progress in the main is effected by a process of bringing the experience gained in one direction to bear upon the results arrived at in another. This process of grafting one idea upon another, or, as we may call it, hybridization of ideas and experience, is a factor in the advancement of culture whose influence cannot be overestimated. It is, in fact, the main secret of progress. ... The rate at which progress is effected increases steadily with the growth of experience, whereby the number of ideas which my [sic- may] act and react upon one another is augmented.

It follows, as a corollary, that he who would trace out the phylogenetic history of any product of human industry will speedily discover that, if he aims at doing so in detail, he must be prepared for disappointments. The tangle is too involved to be completely unravelled. The sequence, strictly speaking, is not in the form of a simple chain, but rather in that of a highly complex system of chains. ... A careful study of the series of musical instruments ... reveals very clearly that numberless ideas borrowed from outside sources have been requisitioned and have affected the course of development. In some cases one can see fairly clearly whence these ideas were derived, and even trace back in prat their own phylogenetic history; but a complete analysis must of necessity remain beyond our powers and even our hopes.

It will have been observed that, in the example of a sequence series which I have given, the early developmental stages are illustrated entirely by instruments belonging to modern savage races. It was a fundamental principle in the general theory of Colonel Lane Fox that in the arts and customs of the still living savage and barbaric peoples there are reflected to a considerable extent the various strata of human culture in the past, and that it is possible to reconstruct in some degree the life and industries of Man in prehistoric times by a study of existing races in corresponding stages of civilisation. His insistence upon the importance of bringing together and comparing the archaeological and ethnological material, in order that each might serve to throw light upon the other, has proved of value to both sciences. Himself a brilliant and far-seeing archaeologist as well as ethnologist, he was eminently capable of forming a conclusion upon this point, and he urged this view very strongly.

The Earth, as we know, is peopled with races of the most heterogeneous description, races in all stages of culture. Colonel Lane Fox argued that, making due allowance for possible instances of degradation from a higher condition, this heterogeneity could readily be explained by assuming that, while the progress of some races has received relatively little check, the culture development of other races has been retarded to a greater or lesser extent, and that we may see represented conditions of at least partially arrested development. In other words, he considered that in the various manifestations of culture among the less civilized peoples were to be seen more or less direct survivals from the earliest stages or strata of human evolution; vestiges of ancient conditions which have fallen out at different points and have been left behind in the general march of progress.

... This certainly seems to be a legitimate assumption in a general way; but there are numerous factors which should be borne in mind when we endeavour to elucidate the past by means of the present. If the various gradations of culture exhibited by the condition of living races--the savage, semi-civilized, or barbaris, and the civilized races--could be regarded as accurately typifying the successive stages through which the higher forms of culture have been evolved in the course of the ages; if, in fact, the different modern races of mankind might be accepted as so many sections of the human race whose intellectual development has been arrested or retarded at various definite stages in the general progresion, then we should have, to all intents and purposes, our genealogical tree in a very perfect state, and by its means we could reconstruct the past and study with ease the steady growth of culture and handicrafts from the earliest simple germs, reflecting the mental condition of primaeval man up to the highest manifestations of the most cultured races.

These ideal conditions are, however, far from being realised. Intellectual progress has not advanced upon a single line, but, in its development, it has branched off in various directions, in accordance with varying environment; and the tracing of lines of connection between different forms of culture, as is the case with the physical variations, is a matter of intricate complexity. Migrations with the attendant climatic changes, change of food, and, in fact, of general environment, to say nothing of the crossing of different stocks, transmission of ideas from one people to another, and other factors, all tend to increase the tangle.

... There can, I think, be little doubt that Colonel Lane Fox was well justified in urging the view that most savage races are in large measure strictly primitive, survivals from early conditions, the development of their ideas having from various causes remained practically stationary during a very considerable period of time. ... Perhaps the best example of a truly primitive race existing in recent times, of which we have any knowledge, was afforded by the native inhabitants of Tasmania. The race was still existing fifty years ago, and a few pure-blooded survivors remained as late as about the year 1870, when the race became extinct, the benign civilizing influence of enlightened Europeans having wiped this extremely interesting people off the fact of the earth. The Australians, whom Colonel Lane Fox referred to as being 'the lowest amongst the existing races of the world of whom we have any accurate knowledge,' are very far in advance of the Tasmanians, whose lowly state of culture conformed thoroughly with the characteristics of a truly primitive race, a survival not only from the Stone Age in general, but from almost the earliest beginnings of the Stone Age. ...

The arts of living races help to elucidate what is obscure in those of prehistoric times by the process of reasoning from the known to the unknown. ... In like manner, the work of the ethnologist can throw light upon the researches of the archaeologist: through it broken sequences may be repaired, at least suggestively, and the interpretation of the true nature and use of objects of antiquity may frequently be rendered more sure. Colonel Lane Fox strongly advocated the application of the reasoning methods of biology to the study of origin, phylogeny, and etionomics of the arts of mankind, and his own collection demonstrated that the products of human intelligence can conveniently be classified into families, genera, species, and varieties, and must be so grouped if their affinities and development are to be investigated.

It must not be supposed--although some people, through misapprehension of his methods, jumped at this erroneous conclusion--that he was unaware of the danger of possibly mistaking mere accidental resemblances for morphological affinities, and that he assumed because two objects, perhaps from widely separated regions, appeared more or less identical in form, and possibly in use, they were necessarily to be considered as members of one phylogenetic group. On the contrary, in the grouping of his specimens according to their form and function, he was anxious to assist as far as possible in throwing light upon the question of the monogenesis or polygenesis of certain arts and appliances, and to discover whether they are exotic or indigenous in the regions in which they are now found, and, in fact, to distinguish between mere analogies and true homologies. ...

I have endeavoured in this Address to dwell upon some of the main principles laid down by Colonel Lane Fox as a result of his special researches in the field of Ethnology, and my object has been twofold. First, to bear witness to the very great importance of his contribution to the scientific study of the arts of mankind and the development of culture in general, and to remind students of Anthropology of the debt which we owe to him, not only for the results of his very able investigations, but also for the stimulus which he imparted to research in some of the branches of this comprehensive science. Secondly, my object has been to reply to some criticisms offered in regard to points in the system of classification adopted in arranging his ethnographical collecting. And, since such criticism as have reached me have appeared to me to be founded mainly upon misinterpretation of this system, I have thought that I could meet them best by some sort of restatement of the principles involved.

It would be unreasonable to expect that his work should hold good in all details. The early illustrations of his theories were to be regarded as tentative rather than dogmatic, and in later life he recognised that many modifications in matters of detail were rendered necessary by new facts which had since come to light. The crystallization of solid facts out of a matrix which is necessarily partially volatile is a process requiring time. These minor errors and the fact of our not agreeing with all of his details in no way invalidate the general principles which he urged, and we need but cast a cursory glance over recent ethnological literature to see how widely accepted these general principles are, ad how they have formed the basis of, and furnished the inspiration for, a vast mass of research by ethnologists of all nations.

...I would gladly have done fuller justice to the work of Colonel Lane Fox, but, while I claim to be among the keenest of his disciples, I must confess to being but an indifferent apostle.

I have been obliged, moreover, to pass over many interesting features in the work of this ingenious and versatile scientist. I have made no attempt to touch upon his archaeological researches, since it has been necessary for me to restrict myself to a portion only of his scientific work. In this field, as in his ethnological work, his keen insight, ingenuity, and versatility were manifested, while the close attention which he bestowed upon matters of minute detail have rendered classical his work as a field archaeologist. While the greater part of his ethnological work is associated with the name Lane Fox, by which he was known until 1880, most of his researches into the remains of prehistoric times were conducted after he had in that year assumed the name of Pitt Rivers, on inheriting an important estate which, by the happiest of coincidences, included within its boundaries a considerable number of prehistoric sites of the highest importance. That he made full use of his opportunities is amply manifested in his published works. In his archaeological work are repeated the characteristics of his ethnological researches, and one may with confidence say of his contributions to both fields of inquiry that, if he advanced science greatly through his results he furthered its progress even more through his methods. By his actual achievements as a researcher he pushed forward the base of operations; by his carefully-thought-out systems of directing research he developed a sound strategical policy upon which to ase further organised attacks upon the Unknown.'

Transcribed by AP November 2011

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