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1998.356.17.1 Balfour1998.356.17.1 Henry BalfourFrances Larson

This document was written during the ESRC funded Relational Museum project between 2002 and 2006 by Frances Larson (one of the researchers on the project). The project looked at the networkers of collectors and museum staff who had formed the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum up to 1945 and the history of the Museum up to 1945. This document reflects those interests.

This document includes

  • Beginnings – HB’s early career
  • Teaching
  • Theorizing
  • Travels
  • A note on the Naga Hills trip 1922-23
  • Networking
  • Later career
  • Balfour’s health
  • Balfour’s fire-making collection
  • Obituary of Balfour by R.R. Marret
  • Bibliography
  • Balfour publications summary


In October 1885, Henry Balfour, who had recently graduated from Oxford with a degree in Natural Sciences, received a letter from Henry Nottidge Moseley, one of his Oxford tutors, asking for his assistance unpacking and arranging the ‘Pitt Rivers Anthropology Collection’ at the University Museum. Balfour accepted the offer, which included a stipend of about £100 for the year. He was twenty-two years old when he took up the new position and, although it was many years before he enjoyed any kind of long-term job security, he would devote the rest of his life, until his death in 1939, aged seventy-five, to curating the collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Balfour was born in Croydon on 11th April 1863. His father, Lewis Balfour, was a silk broker, who sent his son to school at Charterhouse. Balfour went up to Trinity College, Oxford, in 1882 to read for a degree in Natural Sciences. The Natural Sciences degree at that time was designed to give a very broad scientific training, and candidates had to satisfy their examiners in physics, chemistry and general physiology (‘biology’) before they could specialize in any one of these subjects. Once they had passed these general exams, they could elect to be examined in one or more of physics, chemistry and biology, while the more focused areas of crystallography and mineralogy, geology and palaeontology, zoology, physiology and botany were offered as optional subjects (Oxford University Gazette, 30 October 1883: 75; Fox 1997: 689, Howarth 2000: 488). Balfour was in one of the last generations of students also required to pass an initial examination after their fourth term, Moderations, that was predominantly classical (Fox 1997: 688). This broad, inflexible syllabus was only altered in 1885, the year Balfour graduated.

Thus, Balfour’s training at Oxford was firmly in the tradition of broad scholarship that had led to the building of the University Museum, which was completed in 1860. The group who had lobbied for a centralized Museum in the 1850s, led by Charles Daubeny, Robert Walker and Henry Acland, argued that a broad foundation in science should be at the heart of any liberal education and a compulsory part of the undergraduate degree (Fox 1997: 643). The Museum, where Balfour received his training as a student, was intended to provide for the teaching and study in all the sciences under one roof. The belief in the ascendancy of the links between the different branches of the sciences was manifest in the building itself, where the accommodation for each discipline was provided around a common central court, arcaded and open to the upper floors. Lecture rooms and laboratories were arranged around this focal point (ibid: 660). It is also worth emphasizing that Balfour’s scientific training was framed by the Museum’s collections of insects, bones, skins, plants, fossils and stones, which formed an integral part of his education. Indeed, the Museum found itself struggling to house its burgeoning collections within a decade of its opening in the late 1860s, so by the time Balfour arrived the masses of artefacts and specimens must have been hard to avoid. It was while working as a student in the Museum’s lecture rooms and laboratories that Balfour was trained in the skills of scientific observation and analysis; skills that he would later apply to cultural artefacts as curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Balfour was one of a relatively small group of students taking the Natural Sciences degree during the first half of the 1880s: only 22 students graduated in 1885 (Howarth 2000: 458). He specialized in biology and animal morphology, and was taught by John Obadiah Westwood, an entomologist and palaeographer and the first Hope Professor of Zoology; Edward Bagnall Poulton, an evolutionist who was then lecturer in zoology and later succeeded Westwood as Hope Professor; and Moseley, with whom he must have had a good working relationship. Moseley, much influenced by Darwin’s work, had travelled to Ceylon in 1871, and then joined the Challenger four-year voyage around the world. He was an avid collector of plants and natural history objects during both these trips. Moseley has been described as ‘an effective lecturer, very genial outside the classroom, and a staunch friend’ (Woodward and Romano 2004). He became Linacre Professor of Human and Comparative Anatomy at Oxford in 1881 just before Balfour arrived as an undergraduate. As well as the courses he took with Moseley, it is likely that Balfour attended Edward Burnett Tylor’s lectures following Tylor’s appointment as Reader in Anthropology at the Museum in January 1884.

Writing to Balfour many years later his contemporary on the Natural Sciences degree, Walter Baldwin Spencer, remembered working with Tylor and Moseley on the Pitt Rivers collections when it first arrived in Oxford:

‘…I remember well that Moseley seemed to know a great deal more than Tylor in regard to detail + of course after his experience on the ‘Challenger’ he could speak of many things with first hand knowledge but Tylor with his curious way which you may remember of every now + then as it were ‘drawing his breath’ – I don’t know how otherwise to express it – simply fascinated me. It was intensely interesting to a young man like myself + also a great privilege to come into such personal contact with two such workers. Of the two it struck me at the time that Moseley had the greater technical knowledge but Tylor the wider outlook.’ (24 September 1920; Spencer, box 4.21, PRM ms collections)

Spencer obviously remembered his time at Oxford as an undergraduate fondly. In an earlier letter to Balfour he reminisced about the friends they had made:

‘It seems ages ago since you + Bourne + Sclater + little Pode + Tommy Roth + myself were working in the old lab but it was a very pleasant time + I wish that those of us who yet remain in the flesh could meet together for an evenings confab. I have often thought over this + really if one of you men at home could communicate with those of us who are now scattered over the world it might be possible for us to plan a meeting…If we had long enough notice the original members of the ‘science club’ of 1885 or 1886 might come together.’ (6 January 1903, Spencer, box 4.8, PRM ms collections)

Spencer may have been referring to the University’s Junior Scientific Club here. Founded in 1882, the club met fortnightly to hear papers by undergraduates and senior members as well as organizing larger, biennial conversaziones in the Museum (Howarth 2000: 492). Alongside his attendance at more academically orientated meetings like these, Balfour was an accomplished oarsman and a keen fencer while at Oxford (Hutton 1995). There is a small drawer of his notes still kept at the Pitt Rivers Museum which is stuffed with letters, reports, announcements, lists, entrance forms and scoring cards from the Amateur Fencing Association and the Oxford Fencing Club; and Balfour served as President of the latter organization during the early 1900s.

Returning to the story of the Pitt Rivers collection at Oxford: Moseley had played a large part in securing the collection for the University during his early years as Linacre Professor. The collection was eventually accepted by the University in May 1882, and arrived from London in 1884. The following year building work began on an annexe at the back of the existing University Museum (on the eastern side) designed to house the new collection. The new building included a court on the ground floor, open to the glass and cast iron roof, and two upper galleries giving further display space and views over the exhibits below.

Since building work had begun only a matter of months before Moseley’s letter to Henry Balfour, it is more than likely that his work unpacking and cataloguing the Pitt Rivers collection began in the existing University Museum where Moseley himself was based as Linacre Professor of Human and Comparative Anatomy. Moseley’s letter included a description of the kind of work Balfour could expect:

‘It would be pretty hard work of all sorts making little drawings, writing and [?typing out] very neat labels, writing catalogue descriptions, arranging things in cases, mending and batching and cleaning, helping a carpenter fix things on screens, looking up objects of all kinds in illustrated books, Cooks travels etc.’ (11 October 1885: PRM ms collections, foundation volume)

The initial offer was extended to Balfour for only a year. Moseley was rather apologetic about this in his letter, but wrote that there might be other openings if the project was a success. In the event, Balfour’s work must have been extended, although the exact details of the ongoing arrangement in these early years are not known. Most likely it was funded by the University year-to-year, with no long-term security. Two years into the project ill-health forced Moseley to hand over his work as Linacre Professor to a deputy, prompting Dr. Thomas Fowler, then President of Corpus Christi College, to ask Balfour for a report on the ongoing arrangement and cataloguing of the Pitt Rivers collection. His letter, written in November 1887, was considered by Convocation and a decree was passed allowing a further £1200 for work on the collection over a three year period from 1 January 1888.

In his letter to Fowler, Balfour noted that since Moseley’s unofficial retirement he had continued to work on the Pitt Rivers collection alone. It is not a long statement, but it is shrewd and careful and not a little self-assured for a twenty-four year old. Balfour wrote that he felt unable to promise that the initial work of cataloguing and arrangement would be completed within three years, adding that, ‘any attempt to fix a definite term for the work would be liable to create confusion, and would throw great responsibility on me’. Work on fitting out the lower gallery had not been completed, and the cost of that work would not be known for a further two years. He thought that the ‘present specimens’ would be in place within three years, meaning that expenditure on cases and carpentry would be ‘reduced to a very small amount’ by that time. He drew attention to the fact that the work was unpredictable: ‘one series [of objects] may take a long time and require frequent reference to the literature, while another will take a comparatively short time’. He signed off his letter with a statement that must surely be read as a challenge:

‘It is greatly to my own advantage, as well as that of the University, that the work should be completed as soon as possible, and I am very anxious that this should be done, but, at the same time, if the time at my disposal is too brief to allow of the work being done as thoroughly as I am able, I would prefer to leave it in other hands.’ (Oxford University Gazette XVIII: 149)

In other words, if Balfour was not given adequate time to complete the work to his own standards he would be prepared to relinquish his position at the Museum. This gutsy statement is entirely in keeping with Balfour’s later negotiating style when it came to his official status at the University (discussed below). He was a force to be reckoned with in University meeting rooms throughout his career.

Another striking feature of this letter is that Balfour addressed it from the Anatomical Department at the University Museum. As already mentioned, Moseley, who was Professor of Anatomy, was responsible for the Pitt Rivers collection when it first arrived at the University Museum. A University Statute of May 1882 specified that ‘the Linacre Professor is Curator of the Ethnological Collections at the University Museum’ (see letter from Hatchett Jackson to Price, 3 May 1890, PRM ms collections foundation volume). This fact was also referred to in Balfour’s 1887 letter when he noted that, since Moseley was currently absent due to ill health, he could not be sure ‘how far his [Moseley’s] ideas will be carried out, or whether on his return he will require any rearrangement’ (ibid). Balfour’s comment suggests that Moseley had so far played a key role in the work on the Pitt Rivers collection, while overseeing the progress of his ex-pupil.

The fact that Pitt Rivers’ collection was initially incorporated into the Anatomical Department is particularly interesting in the light of Edward Burnett Tylor’s appointment as Oxford’s first Reader in Anthropology in January 1884. In actual fact, Tylor had been made Keeper of the University Museum in 1883, before he was given the Anthropology Readership, and as Keeper he oversaw all new accessions to the Museum, listing them for the purposes of his annual reports under the subheadings ‘Anatomy and Zoology’ in 1884, and thereafter ‘Anatomy and Zoology’, ‘Anthropology’ and ‘Geology’ (Oxford University Gazette XIV: 475; XVI: 160).

As Keeper of the Museum and Reader in Anthropology, Tylor may have been less involved with day-to-day work on the objects themselves, and, with no pre-existing Anthropology Department, the job of dealing with the new ethnographic collections donated by Pitt Rivers fell to Moseley and, subsequently, Balfour. However, it has always been assumed that Tylor played an intimate part in organizing and arranging the Pitt Rivers Museum. Later in life, Balfour was quick to correct this version of the story. When, in his address to the Museums Association in 1919, Sir Herbert Warren stated that Tylor had ‘created and inspired’ the Pitt Rivers collection and that Balfour had been Tylor’s successor, he received a firm letter from Balfour:

‘Tylor never played any part in the internal administration of the Pitt Rivers Museum + was not responsible in any way for its classification, organization or administration. When the collection came to Oxford to form the nucleus of the Pitt Rivers Museum, it was placed under the care of Prof. Moseley (this, I believe, in accordance with the wish of Gen. Pitt Rivers). When the building was ready, Moseley asked me (I was one of his students) to undertake the work of arrangement etc, as Assistant Curator acting under his general supervision. This I agreed to + was appointed Assistant Curator by the University. I held this post until Prof. Moseley retired + I succeeded him as Curator, when he died. …Tylor played no part in the organization + was never asked to do so. It is true that in 1890 an attempt was made by Council to place Tylor over my head, but this fell through, as I very naturally refused to have anything to do with so unfair a scheme, which would have meant his getting the credit for the work I had done + was doing…in crediting him with many years of my work, a great injustice is done to me, + I have long suffered from the totally erroneous impression which appears to be so prevalent. Tylor’s appointment was Reader in (+ later Professor of) Anthropology + this did not involve his having supervision of or responsibility in regard to the Pitt Rivers Museum.’ (1 October 1919, PRM ms collections foundation volume)

 I cannot find any official record of Balfour’s appointment as ‘Assistant Curator’ during the 1880s. He filed his first Annual Report in May 1889 as ‘Sub-Curator of the Pitt-Rivers Museum’, and was made Curator for the first time in December 1890 (Oxford University Gazette XIX: 403; XXI: 178).

Balfour went on to ask Warren if he would write a note to the editor of the Museums Journal (he helpfully supplied the gentleman’s name and address) asking for a correction to be published in the next edition. Warren replied very apologetically and said that he had written to the editor to correct any misunderstanding. It would appear that Balfour took a similar course of action when Andrew Lang’s biographical note was published in Tylor’s festschrift, if Lang’s letter apologising for ‘the confusion over Tylor arranging the specimens in the Pitt Rivers Museum’ is anything to go by (30 November 1908, PRM ms collections, Balfour papers). Lang suggested an erratum slip to appease Balfour and a note to the Athenaeum explaining his mistake.

If Balfour’s passion on this point seems striking, it must be viewed in the context of his constant struggle to establish financial security and a stronger status for the Pitt Rivers collection at the University during the first decade of his career. His dealings with the University during the early years were almost completely devoted to carving out a self-sufficient niche for himself and the collections, and in respect to his own career this included emphasizing his independence from Tylor. A crucial moment during this latter undertaking came in 1890, as Balfour mentioned in his letter to Warren, above. The Curators of the University Chest had allotted funding for the Pitt Rivers collection for three years from 1 January 1888 (Oxford University Gazette XVIII: 149, as above), and the funds were due to expire at the end of 1890. Moseley’s deputy, W. Hatchett Jackson, wrote to Bartholomew Price, Sedleian Professor of Natural Philosophy, explaining that ‘unless the University comes to some fresh arrangement, the [Pitt Rivers] Museum and Collection will be left without a separate staff, without means of maintenance, and in a state which can hardly be considered to be what is either desirable or suitable to its great value and importance’ (3 May 1890, PRM ms collections foundation volume).

Jackson pointed out the need for a separate staff to look after the Pitt Rivers collection, a job that was beyond the capacities of the Anatomical Department. He noted that the Readership in Anthropology was not at present a permanent position, even though the Deed of Gift of the Pitt Rivers collection provided that there should always be a person to lecture on anthropology at the University, and concluded that the University should maintain a curator ‘bound to residence and to devote his time to the Collection and its interests’. Jackson suggested Balfour for the post. ‘His intimate knowledge of the collection in its entirety, the manner in which he has fulfilled his duties beyond all praise and his knowledge of the literature which gathers round said collection, entitle him in all fairness beyond any one else to carry on the work with which he has been hitherto charged’ (ibid).

Jackson enclosed a progress report written by Balfour in his letter. Balfour stated that while the initial arrangement might be finished by the end of the year, there was much work still to be done cataloguing and arranging new series of objects, making drawings and maps and putting together a handbook for the general public. He outlined the need for a curator’s room for administrative work and a working room for storing and dealing with objects. He, too, pressed for a more permanent financial arrangement for the collections, and the appointment of a curator and two trained assistants.

Later that month a statement was published as part of a decree in the University Gazette that work at the Pitt Rivers Museum should be completed by the end of the year. Balfour immediately wrote again to Price complaining that the wording of the notice was ‘calculated to mislead and create misunderstanding’, pointing out that Museum work could never be ‘completed’ and that it was ‘fatal to assign a term to the growth and improvement of any collection’ (1 June 1890, PRM ms collections foundation volume). Hatchett Jackson also wrote in support of Balfour’s letter, but, although Balfour received a letter clarifying the terminology used in the Gazette, at some point during the next fortnight dialogue began to break down. Although part of the correspondence is lost, it would appear that during that time Balfour wrote again to Price, notifying him that he would not commit to another year of work unless he could take the title of curator and enjoy the same status as other heads of departments at the Museum. This occasioned a response from Tylor, who had lent his support to Hatchett Jackson’s earlier suggestion that Balfour be considered for a curatorship, but now rebuked Balfour for implying that he ‘did not wish to work through 1891 except if made the permanent curator’ (12 June 1890, PRM ms collections foundation volume). Tylor was concerned that unless Balfour clarified his position nothing would be done for the Pitt Rivers at all and ‘arrangements will be stranded at Christmas’.

It appears that Balfour was also disputing a proposal that would render him answerable to Tylor rather than the Linacre Professor. And so he wrote to Price again, stating that he would only continue his work for another year if given the title and status of curator for the duration of that year (in other words, he was not requesting a permanent post). He added that since Tylor had admitted that he could not devote even a quarter of the time necessary to oversee the collection, and did not know how the department worked, ‘I am somewhat surprised that he should be so ready to accept the responsibilities’ (15 June 1890, PRM ms collections foundation volume). He demanded the credit he deserved for the five years of work he had given to the collection, noting that as the election of the Deputy Linacre Professorship – which carried the ethnological curatorship with it – was due, this was a good time to make a change. He finished:

‘Tylor writes that a collapse must happen if I resign my post. I would be sorry for this, but it would underline the necessity and reasonable nature of my conditions.’ (ibid)

The following day, Council passed a resolution stating that Balfour should be asked to continue for another year under the same conditions as before. He responded by writing to the Vice-Chancellor that he could not undertake a further year on the existing terms, and pointing out that no valid reasons had been given for their refusal to make the changes he had suggested. He finished by saying that although he would continue to work until the end of the year, he reserved the right of ‘perfect freedom of action’ (17 June 1890, PRM Ms collections foundation volume).

At this point the surviving letters run dry for over four months, and the next extant references confirm that Balfour’s demands were finally met: on 31 October 1890 Balfour was notified in a letter from the Vice-Chancellor that a decree would be passed making him curator of the Pitt Rivers collection and giving him the same status as other professors at the University Museum. At this point, however, a spanner was thrown into the works by General Pitt-Rivers. Balfour had written to Pitt Rivers to find out if he had any objections to Balfour publishing a paper on the evolution of ornamental patterns in art, using a series of objects in the Museum to illustrate his argument. Much to his consternation, the General was extremely defensive and negative in response. He told Balfour that he objected to anything at all being published about the Museum or any part of the collection before he had explained its principles, arrangement and history to the University. Although he acknowledged that Balfour had added to the collection in the intervening years, he voiced some concern that it should be successfully developed along the same lines as his originating collection and stated that he should speak on the original collection before Balfour took any further action. Paradoxically, he added that he considered ‘6 years an unreasonable time for it [the collection] to have been kept in the background at Oxford’ (PRM ms collections, foundation volume). On the basis of this letter alone, it would seem that Pitt Rivers was both fearful of losing control of his collection and, simultaneously, irked that it was not enjoying a higher profile.

Balfour’s immediate response, on December 1 1890, was to write again to the Vice-Chancellor, before replying to Pitt Rivers, stating that he would only accept the new curatorial position if he could reserve the right to resign, citing the lack of permanent provisions for the Museum’s maintenance, the General’s ‘strange attitude’ and the department’s irregular management structure as reasons for his decision. The Vice-Chancellor was, perhaps understandably, disappointed and annoyed. Having helped to secure the terms of employment that Balfour originally asked for, he stated that Balfour should now accept these terms, adding that a more permanent arrangement for the Museum ‘is a different matter’. Balfour then forwarded the General’s letter and his own draft response, which was unmistakably critical (‘Had I supposed the work was to be of a purely mechanical nature, to be finished and done with, I should never have undertaken it, but should have continued to pursue the study of Animal Morphology in which I was then engaged, and which offers a wide scope’) (all letters from the PRM ms collections foundation volume).

Not surprisingly, the Vice-Chancellor asked Balfour to meet him for ‘a chat’ before he sent the penned response. The letter that Balfour actually sent to Pitt Rivers, the following day, was in complete contrast to the one his initially drafted. This time, he was perfectly measured and deferential, confirming that he would not write on the objects until Pitt Rivers had given his lecture at the University, and adding that he did not think the collection had been kept in the background, ‘except to an unavoidable extent’ while the Museum was catalogued and arranged (ibid). Balfour then took up the curatorship, and General Pitt Rivers arrived in Oxford on 30th April 1891 to lecture on ‘The Original Collection of the Pitt-Rivers Museum: its Principles of Arrangement and History’ (Oxford University Gazette XXI: 414).

Just over a year after Balfour was first appointed to the curatorship, in February 1892, he was provided with a little more job security when a decree was carried appointing him curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum for a further seven years, until 31 December 1898. Balfour continued to be reappointed as curator by University decree for terms of seven years throughout his career (in 1905, 1912, 1919, and in 1927). In an obituary for Nature, Marett wrote that from 1893, ‘and for the forty-six years to come [Balfour] presided, more or less despotically, over the destinies of a treasure-house henceforth filled to bursting point with the spoil of the primitive world’ (Marett 1939: 291).

Balfour saw himself in a constant struggle to win for the Museum (and for himself) the recognition and resources it deserved from the University. (General Pitt Rivers’ personal misgivings in the early years seem to have been replaced by a complete lack of interest in the Oxford Museum as he built up a second private collection that was displayed at his own museum in Farnham, Dorset.) In the same year, 1920, Balfour reflected on this aspect of his curatorial life to Spencer:

‘in Oxford one never gets any credit for one’s labours unless one perpetually thumps a big drum + makes oneself generally unpleasant by blaring away on a trumpet. I have slaved singlehanded for the University for 35 years or so + have spent a heap of money to keep the Museum going, + have never received any encouragement, except from the outside. However I still survive + am awfully keen on the work.’ (ibid)

Balfour began ‘thumping his big drum’ on behalf of the Pitt Rivers Museum as early as 1890, when he outlined the need for curator’s room and workrooms for storing and repairing objects at the Museum (see Balfour’s report enclosed with Hatchett Jackson’s letter, 3 May 1890, PRM ms collections, foundation volume). His wish was granted in June 1891 when a University decree was passed for the building of two extra rooms on the south-west side of the Museum (Oxford University Gazette XXI: 526), and the work was completed in time for the lower gallery, which had previously provided a place for staff to prepare objects for display and carry out administrative work, to be opened to the public for the first time in the Autumn of 1892 (Oxford University Gazette XXIII: 620).

Only a couple of years later, just a decade after the Museum was built, Balfour’s annual reports start mentioning the ‘unavoidable crowding of specimens’ (1894/1895) and his efforts to create ‘some very much needed space’ in the Museum (1896). References to the lack of display space, and cramped working conditions, were to litter Balfour’s annual reports throughout his life, and are hardly surprising in light of the increasingly long lists of accessions that were appended to these documents every year.

Balfour’s discontent grew in the final years of the nineteenth century, when he lost his chief assistant, J.T. Long, to a job offering higher wages in the Anatomical Department in October 1898. The following August Balfour appointed a replacement, Harold St. George Gray, but in less than two years Gray had also left to take up a curatorship at Taunton. Meanwhile, despite a grant of Convocation which enabled the Museum to purchase 60 feet of wall-cases in 1899, Balfour voiced his need for more of these cases that would enable valuable exhibits to be protected under glass rather than fixed to screens that exposed them to the elements. The pressure of these two financial outlays – exhibition cases and staff salaries – meant that Balfour worked without the help of a skilled assistant from March 1901 until June 1905, while he diverted funds towards buying and erecting more display cases. During this period he complained bitterly in his annual reports of the lack of money and resources available to the Museum and the strain this put on his own working life. In the end, it was a grant of £50 from Magdalen College that enabled him to finally employ another assistant in 1905.

As well as maintaining the existing displays, of course, Balfour oversaw the addition of hundreds of new accessions every year. New exhibition cases were constantly being acquired and filled with new objects, which had to be examined, researched, catalogued and stored, if necessary, while existing displays were rearranged accordingly. This put immense pressure on the Museum’s tiny staff (initially just Balfour and one or two technical/curatorial assistants) and physical resources, as the existing building became more and more cramped. Balfour was constantly battling for more space and more staff support. He made an application for an extension to the building for working rooms and a ‘fuming’ or ‘disinfecting’ room for treating objects in 1906 and the resulting rooms, built along the south wall, were completed the following year. However, in 1911 Balfour started another campaign for a further extension, initially for the growing musical instrument series, but soon Balfour was protesting at the general lack of space. Although the Museum took over one of the buildings previously used by the Engineering Department in 1915, the onset of the War put an end to any hopes of a more substantial University investment in the Museum (notwithstanding a £150 award in 1918 for a scientific assistant or demonstrator).

Thus, Balfour was left to start another crusade on behalf of the Museum in the late 1920s. In every annual report he submitted between 1928 and 1938 (his last), bar one in 1930, Balfour wrote about the near impossible conditions at the Museum due to lack of space and each year his descriptions were more desperate than before. Over this period he described how the congestion at the Museum had become ‘critical’, making research, teaching and administration almost impossible, never mind giving any scope for the expansion of research and teaching facilities at the Museum. Reading these reports, one gets the sense that the proper functions of the Museum were gradually paralysed as more and more objects were incorporated into an institution that was already working at full capacity. And yet, Balfour’s pleas largely went unheard. Although a row of sheds were erected at the back of the Museum in 1936, they were described as ‘small relief’ given that the general lack of space was such a serious factor. The death of Balfour’s assistant, E. S. Thomas, in June that year, and the dreadful conditions at Museum House, where some of the collections were in storage, prompted another tirade:

‘The Museum never has been provided with an adequate staff, and when a loss occurs in personnel, the administrative machinery is largely brought to a standstill for lack of trained assistance, continuity in the work is broken, and an impossible situation arises. To carry out the necessary routine-work with reasonable efficiency two Assistants at least with scientific training are essential, either of whom is capable of performing the other’s normal duties, at any rate temporarily, so as to tide over emergency periods. Without such assistance the objectives of the Museum cannot possibly be carried out.’ [Annual Report 1937]

The following year, Balfour’s last annual report took a similar tone. Now in his mid-seventies, he, rather succinctly and with a somewhat fatigued tone, reminded readers that ‘[t]he inadequacy of the staff and the want of storage-rooms, working-rooms, lecture-room, and dark-room are the chief obstacles to progress. Increased exhibition space is very urgently needed, in order that the growing series may be scientifically displayed, so as to ensure the full use of the very valuable collections for educational and scientific purposes.’

With the benefits of hindsight, it is clear that Balfour’s early struggles on behalf of the Pitt Rivers Museum, which reached a climax during the second half of 1890 as he fought for a permanent curatorship that would benefit him personally and the future of the Museum as a University ‘department’, set the tone for his later campaigns. Balfour was still fighting for resources during the last year of his life, but such difficulties, restricting though they were, formed only one part of his career. Balfour’s skills as a teacher, researcher, collector and traveller, the extraordinary breadth of his ethnographic knowledge, and the wide circle of friends, colleagues and students who turned to him for advice and direction, are the real testament to his professional achievements. It is these aspects of his life that I will discuss next.


According to the University Gazette, Balfour gave his first official series of lectures to students during the Michaelmas Term of 1893. He talked on the ‘Arts of Mankind’ and used objects in the Pitt Rivers Museum collections to illustrate his words. As Reader in Anthropology, Tylor had been giving a series of anthropology lectures every term since January 1884, but in 1893 his lectures were announced in the Gazette alongside Balfour’s and another series devoted to Physical Anthropology to be given by Arthur Thomson, then lecturer in (soon to become Professor of) Human Anatomy. A special notice announced that, while they were open to anyone who was interested, all these lectures were ‘adapted to meet the requirements of Students taking up Anthropology as a Special Honour Subject’ at the University (13 June 1893, University Gazette XXIII: 603).

In 1895, Tylor led a petition to establish a final honour school in Anthropology at Oxford, but Convocation rejected his proposal, something he felt bitter about throughout his life. John Myres remembered that Tylor, ‘resented the rejection of his project for a degree examination in anthropology. It was an unholy alliance he said, between Theology, Literae Humaniores, and Natural Sciences. Theology, teaching the True God, objected to false gods; Literae Humaniores knew only the cultures of Greece and Rome; Natural Sciences were afraid that the new learning would empty their lecture rooms. And the arch-villain was Spooner of New College, whom he never forgave.’ (1953:7) Anthropology could be taken as a special subject within the honour school of Natural Science, and this remained the case for undergraduate teaching until a final honour school was established. Balfour gave lecture series for students when he could from 1893 onwards, as well as various occasional lectures in and around Oxford. In 1894, for example, he ran another series on ‘Progress in the Arts of Mankind, particularly as illustrated by the Pitt-Rivers Collection’, as well as lecturing on ‘Primitive Musical Instruments considered especially in their relation to the early development of the higher forms’. Three years later he gave a course on the ‘Realistic and Decorative Art of Primitive People’. Balfour was not required to give lectures to students, and it would appear that he only did so when he could afford the time. In 1904, he noted in his Annual Report that because he had no assistant working in the Museum, and he himself had suffered from ill health, he had been unable to give lecture courses, but he had still given frequent informal instruction and demonstrations in the Museum during the year (University Gazette XXXV: 568). He spent time over the following two years tutoring Barbara Freire Marecco, who was at Lady Margaret Hall, and Cecil Mallaby Firth, at Exeter College, through a course in Prehistoric Archaeology at the Museum (University Gazette XXXVI: 608, XXXVII: 659).

It was not until 1905 that Anthropology teaching at Oxford became more centrally coordinated under the new Committee for Anthropology, which held its first meeting in October 1905 (Oxford University Archives, DC 1/2/1). The Committee included the Professors of Anthropology (Tylor), Human Anatomy, Moral and Metaphysical Philosophy, Mental Philosophy, Comparative Philology, the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum and Balfour, as Curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum (Oxford University Archives, DC 1/2/3, Paper 3). It was responsible for organizing the teaching and examining of students taking the new Diploma in Anthropology, which was established by University Statue during the Trinity Term of 1905 (Oxford University Archives, DC 1/2/3, Paper 10). From the beginning, the Committee hashed out a syllabus, formulated a list of lectures and created a reading list for the students. Five men – Myres, Thomson, Balfour, Marett and Tylor – who together formed a Sub-Committee on Regulations for the Diploma, were central to driving and shaping the work of the new Committee through its earliest years.

Students taking the Diploma had to take courses in Physical Anthropology (subdivided into Zoology – ‘the zoological position of man’, Palaeontology – ‘the antiquity of man’, and Ethnology – the comparative study of man’s physical characteristics), and in Cultural Anthropology. This latter section of the syllabus was subdivided into: Archaeology, focusing on the remains of man’s ‘handiwork’ from the prehistoric periods and their ‘persistence…in later times’; Ethnology, which here referred to the comparative analysis of peoples based on their material culture, language, religious and social institutions; Sociology, including a study of government and law, moral ideas and codes, and magical and religious practices; and Technology, comprising a study of the origin, development and distribution of arts and industries. Students attended lectures and practical sessions in the relevant University department for each of these, and Balfour gave ‘informal demonstration-lectures’ at the Museum on prehistoric archaeology ‘and the survival of primitive conditions of culture amongst savage peoples’ (Oxford University Archives, DC 1/2/3, Paper 17). He also gave ‘informal instruction’ on Comparative Technology, dividing his subject into the ‘useful arts’ and the ‘aesthetic arts’ (see, for example, (Oxford University Archives, DC 1/2/3, Paper 108).

Thus, teaching formed a considerable part of Balfour’s working life from the 1890s onwards, and he took a central role in the founding of systematic anthropology teaching at the University. He continued to serve on the Committee for Anthropology throughout his life, and regularly acted as an examiner for the Diploma. Wilson Dallam Wallis, who started the Oxford Diploma in 1908 as a Rhodes Scholar, and later became Professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, remembered his classes with Balfour nearly fifty years later:

‘Our work with Henry Balfour was done entirely in the Pitt-Rivers Museum, of which he was Curator, before exhibition cases which frequently were supplemented with trays or handfuls of additional specimens. He was especially interested in the development and distribution of technological products and processes, and sought to demonstrate both independent origins and diffusion. Many of the Museum cases contained maps indicating the distribution of boomerangs, types of basketry, and so on, and to these Balfour made additions from time to time. He thought there was a place in the world for a museum illustrating typology; I never heard him speak disparagingly of ethnographic arrangements. The handful of notes which he brought to the peripatetic lecture were suggestive of Darwin’s use of every scrap and kind of paper; they were any size and shape, sometimes interspersed with press clippings and portions of letters…The examination included written work six hours a day for three days, and an oral given jointly by Balfour, Marett and Thomson. We were called into a room individually, and when dismissed were not allowed to communicate with waiting victims. Balfour’s examination consisted largely of having us identify various specimens which we had not seen in the course of our work with him.’ (1957: 786-7)

During the Trinity Term of 1909 a University Statue was passed that recognised the diploma as equivalent to two pass subjects which could count towards students’ Second Public Examination in the Bachelor of Arts degree. This meant that, for the first time, students could combine an ordinary degree course with specialized study in anthropology (Committee for Anthropology Annual Report 1909, Oxford University Archives, DC 1/2/3, paper 53). While the diploma would be equivalent to two pass subjects within the degree, a student taking either physical or cultural anthropology alone could claim one pass subject. For Balfour, the comparative study of technology, and prehistoric archaeology, were vital elements of the cultural anthropology course, which he felt should be as broad ranging as possible.

Beatrice Blackwood was taught by Balfour while studying for the Diploma in Anthropology from 1916 to 1918. Some of her lecture notes from the period survive, including notes she took during Balfour’s classes (PR ms collections Blackwood papers box 1 and 1A). The lecture courses cover ‘The Aesthetic Arts’ and ‘The Industrial Arts’ and ‘Prehistoric Archaeology’. The lectures follow Balfour’s written work, where applicable, very closely. Under the ‘Aesthetic Arts’, he discussed ‘1. art, decorative and realistic 2. music, mainly the instrumental side 3. personal ornament’ (PR ms collections Blackwood papers box 1). His lectures on the ‘Industrial Arts’ including fire-making technologies, ‘the art, or industry, of war’, fishing, the history of agriculture, navigation, and manufacturing industries, including pottery, textiles, basketry and metal work. The lectures combined a comprehensive overview of the main practices, techniques and finds from around the world, with some general theorizing about the probable historical and cultural relationships between different traditions: which was the most primitive, what course did the historical development take as practices spread from culture to culture, had things emerged independently or might there be a link between similar cultural traditions from different places. He used maps to show the global distribution of certain practices and technologies, and there are suggestions as to his use of objects during the lectures. During Balfour’s lecture on musical instruments, Blackwood has written, ‘Within this series a large amount of material to illustrate the evolution of type from simple to complex…’ (PR ms collections Blackwood papers box 1) which suggests that the student were studying the series of musical instrument in the museum. She wrote notes on a ‘series of wooden spoons’ used to study the development of design; she inserted a list into her notebook of ‘inherently resonant materials caused to vibrate by percussion function’, including the clapper series, the gong series, the sistrum series, hollow rattles, etc; she wrote out a list of the Museum’s currency cases and objects used as currency. However, it is impossible to know whether these lists refer to her own lectures (added and worked on later) or to Balfour’s.

There are a couple of interesting references to General Pitt Rivers in Blackwood’. In each case, Balfour disagrees with Pitt Rivers’ theorizing. When discussing defensive weapons, Balfour distinguished shields – ‘a kind of screen’ – from parrying shields, which had their ‘origin in simple stick for warding off missiles’ (PR ms collections Blackwood papers box 1A). He went on to explain that Pitt Rivers had argued that the shield ‘proper’ derived from the parrying shield, Balfour, Blackwood wrote, ‘won’t go as far as that – [and] prefers to say two lines of development…which to some extent borrowed ideas from each other – hybridised’ (ibid). During another lecture on ‘primitive navigation’, Balfour explained that Pitt Rivers believed the outrigger canoe was derived from log rafts. Bracing the outer logs together at some distance from each other meant that there was less resistance from the water. According to Pitt Rivers, it followed that one log developed into the canoe, while the other remained as a float. However, Blackwood noted that this theory was ‘not very satisfactory. H.B. thinks outrigger was evolved from double canoe – two canoes tied together are very stable’ (ibid).

Comparative technology and prehistoric archaeology were both subjects that demanded a serious, detailed and critical analysis of material culture. For Balfour, artefacts, studied carefully, were the hard evidence for cultural practices, and by tracing the geographical and historical distribution of different manufacturing techniques and design elements a world-wide picture of inter-cultural contact and innovation could be pieced together. No wonder Wilson Wallis remembered nomadic lectures, following Balfour around the display cases at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Objects were at the heart of Balfour’s learning and teaching, and this may well be part of the reason he did not rely on detailed lecture notes: the objects themselves told him what he needed to know about the history of human culture. Balfour’s belief that material culture provided a vital window on human nature, and his conviction that the parameters of anthropological investigation should be global as well as local, combining specialist regional research with broad conclusions about cross-cultural contact, came to be challenged towards the end of his life. It was only during the 1930s, when efforts were made to restructure the teaching of anthropology at Oxford, that the true strength of Balfour’s feelings on these matters were expressed. It is worth outlining the events of the 1930s to the extent that they cast light on Balfour’s increasingly isolated intellectual position during the last decade of his life and the passion with which he clung to his beliefs, which were rooted in an earlier time.

In late 1932 and throughout 1933, key figures in the teaching of Anthropology at Oxford – Myres, Marett, Balfour and others – began preparing a draft ‘Memorandum on the Position and Prospects of Anthropological Studies at Oxford’ to present to the University Council in the hope of attaining more funds for facilities and teaching staff. In his suggestions for the draft, Balfour was firm on two key points: that his teaching work at the Pitt Rivers Museum was designed to emphasise the close relationship between archaeological and ethnographic material, giving equal weight to both; and that the teaching of social anthropology should not be allowed to obscure either work on material culture or the study of physical anthropology.

‘I have throughout given the course in Prehistoric Archaeology which is prescribed in the schedule, devoting the whole Michaelmas Term to this. The other two terms are given to Comp. Technology (there here, too, the prehistoric material is combined with the Ethnological).

‘Also…I have deliberately arranged the material in the P.R. Museum to bring into close relationship the Archaeol. + Ethnol. material, and make a point of the importance of this association…

‘Then, there seems to be a suggestion…that anthropology should be dominated by one of its sections (Social Anthropology). This appears to me to be most undesirable + against the original scheme which divided Anthropology into three sections of equal status + importance (1. Physical 2 Technology + Prehist. Archaeol. + 3. Social). The School has, I consider, suffered as a whole from undue enthusiasm on behalf of one section…’ (2 February 1933. JL Myres Papers, MSS. 80)

Balfour was disagreeing with the suggestion that the Ashmolean Museum dealt with all archaeological material, pointing out that the Ashmolean’s collections covered only the late phases of prehistory and the early historic phases of archaeology (ibid). As is often the case, much effort was put into presenting a united front as far as the teaching of anthropology was concerned in order to achieve University investment for the future. Despite the efforts put into the Memorandum, University Council rejected the application for more funds in June 1934, but hope was kept alive by their promise to consider the requirements of anthropology as part of the University’s plan to apply for Rockefeller funding for social studies at Oxford. This sparked more work and debate on the financial costs of establishing a Anthropological Institute, and a second Memorandum outlined various requirements, including the need for a permanent Chair in Anthropology. In the event, it was an endowment from All Souls which led to the establishment of a Chair two years later. The new position was advertised in June 1936. Balfour wrote to Blackwood,

‘I am anxious about who will be chosen to fill the new professorship of Social Anthropology. There may be a big ‘field’ for it, but the electors are not likely to know much about the candidates + are quite likely to select the wrong one.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 19, Balfour to Blackwood, 26 August 1936)

In the event, Balfour’s fears seem to have been well-founded, from his perspective at least. Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown was appointed in October that year, although he did not arrive in Oxford until 1938.

The appointment of the new Professor led to more strife between the different strands of anthropology at Oxford. Well aware that Oxford lagged far behind Cambridge and London in terms of the number of students it attracted and the degrees offered, Radcliffe-Brown put together a draft proposal for a Final Honour School in Anthropology as soon as he arrived in Oxford, but he failed to properly consult other members of the Committee for Anthropology before doing so. The ensuing debate over the proper structure for anthropological teaching, and the limits of what could be achieved within certain bureaucratic structures at Oxford, were to continue well beyond the Second World War. Radcliffe-Brown was appalled at the low standard of the Oxford diploma, which provided one term of general ethnography, followed by two terms during which students could focus more on Physical Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology or Technology and Prehistoric Archaeology (in other words, each student chose two of the three options and studied one per term). The problem was that each of the three parts of the Anthropology syllabus had grown in scope considerably over the first three decades of the twentieth century, and Radcliffe-Brown (supported by Wilfred Edward Le Gros Clark, the new Linacre Professor of Anatomy) felt the current diploma was so general and preliminary in scope as to be virtually useless. He proposed a new diploma in which students chose only one specialist area to which they devoted two full terms following their general training during the first term.

Balfour was dismayed at this plan. He thought that a single term of general study was a ‘ludicrous allowance’ given that the current diploma provided a full year of general anthropological grounding. He confided to Myres that he thought Radcliffe-Brown’s new structure would, ‘turn out a lot of incompetent ‘specialists’, with too little general preparation, and not enough within their own field to be of great use’. He also recognised that most students, many of whom were linked to the colonial service or planning a career in the colonies, would opt for social anthropology and therefore, ‘lose the valuable tie with those branches of the subject which require paying strict attention to concrete evidence which cannot be denied, and which gives solid foundation to the subject’ (J.L. Myres Papers, MSS. 80). For Balfour, material culture provided both hard data and the scope for a broad view, and he believed that striving for both of these elements had to be the ultimate aim of anthropological research, but he must have sensed that others disagreed.

John Linton Myres tried to mediate the situation. He agreed with Radcliffe-Brown that the standards for the diploma were too low, and felt that foundation for dividing the different elements of anthropology had been laid long ago when the University first started offering separate ‘Certificates’ in Physical and Cultural Anthropology for students who only took one term of specialist study. On the other hand, Myres had been a member of the original Committee who set up the first diploma, along with Balfour, and his sympathies lay with the tripartite system. On finding that Balfour – who seems to have been rather isolated, at least by the strength of his feelings on the matter – was ‘rather disturbed’ by Radcliffe-Brown’s proposals in late 1938, he encouraged Brown to make sure the opening course in general ethnography was as thorough as possible and kept integral to the whole plan, in an effort to alleviate Balfour’s grievances over the specialist nature of the new syllabus.

Discussions rumbled on, and in January 1939, Penniman, who was acting Curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Balfour’s absence, and who was himself concerned by the teaching pressures that would be associated with Radcliffe-Brown’s plan, proposed a postponement of the committee meeting due to discuss Radcliffe-Brown’s ideas until Balfour himself could attend. Radcliffe-Brown, for his part, told Myres that if his ideas were dropped there was a real possibility that the three subjects would fall apart completely. Physical Anthropology would fall under the jurisdiction of the Faculty of Biological Sciences, while Cultural Anthropology would be co-ordinated by the Committee for Colonial Studies or as part of the B.Sc. course. So that Myres could have no misapprehensions as to his own priorities in the matter, Radcliffe-Brown added,

‘That leaves the question of developments in the subjects of Prehistoric Archaeology and Comparative Technology and that is not, of course, directly my concern. My idea was that a separate diploma would have permitted students to get a more thorough knowledge of those subjects than they can at present. With the dropping of the plan for three diplomas it will be up to some one else to formulate a plan for giving prehistoric archaeology the place it deserves in University Studies at Oxford.’ (JL Myres Papers, MSS. 81)

With the future of Balfour’s subject under serious threat, from negligence in his absence as much as anything, Myres wrote to Balfour on 24 January 1939, asking him to reconsider his position and give his blessings to the new scheme for a more specialized diploma.

‘I think that if the present proposals go through, they will serve to maintain the traditional association of the three subjects; whereas there is a real risk that, as things are, that association may cease, through the superior facilities available in other directions to Physical + Social Anthropology; and that means the disappearance of all hope for an eventual Final School of Anthropology, for which both you + I have been hoping from the first and throughout; and it sets a very hard problem to our successors: how to create an adequate place for Technology and Prehistoric Archaeology, unsupported by the other subjects within the traditional scheme.’ (ibid)

There is no record of Balfour’s response, if any, to this letter. Little more than two weeks later he died at home in Headington, with the future of anthropology at Oxford as he knew it still hanging in the balance. Radcliffe-Brown’s proposals were postponed until the end of the year, and gradually, over the following months, Myres and Penniman tried to persuade him that their efforts would be better spent improving the standard of the existing diploma while putting careful plans in place for a Final Honour School. The onset of the War put an end to any hopes of a significant increase in funding for anthropology in the near future, and it was not until 1949 that a proposal for a Final Honour School was finally put forward.

Thus, both the beginning and the end of Balfour’s career were marked by particularly intense battles over his position within the University. By the 1930s his style of anthropological study was increasingly at variance with the rising generation of anthropologists who emphasised in-depth regional specialization and focused on social institutions at the expense of technologies and material culture. Balfour always believed that the synthesis of a range of regional knowledge should be the most important goal for anthropologists. He liked to use the analogy of weaving a piece of cloth to explain his understanding of the anthropological endeavour. ‘The work of specialists will necessarily lose half its value if there is a dearth of generalists who will gather together the threads and weave them into a substantial fabric, which shall show the importance of each individual piece of work to the progress of the science as a whole.’ (1904, see PRM ms collections, Balfour papers box 5). In 1937 he used an invitation to give the Frazer Lecture at Oxford as a timely opportunity to elaborate on his opinions. Calling his talk ‘Spinners and Weavers in Anthropological Research’, Balfour made it obvious that his sympathies lay with the ‘weavers’ or ‘generalists’. Their problems came only because of the inevitable growth of the subject, which meant that it was increasingly ‘unwieldy for adequate handling by the individual’. His tone when discussing specialists was far less sympathetic. Specialists had a ‘narrow field of vision’ which may lead to a lack of ‘perspective and depth’; the ‘hard-bitten’ specialist is likely to be biased, and may chose his subject ‘impulsively’ or on a ‘whim’ (1937: 5).

Not surprisingly, given the debates raging in Oxford at the time, Balfour went on to say that teachers had a responsibility to maintain the proper balance between these two aspects of anthropological research: primary instruction should be as wide as possible so that specialist study could be framed to fit within the developing wider picture. Specialist work could only be properly valued by virtue of its relationship to the general study of humankind, and, conversely, without careful co-ordination and incorporation into a more far-reaching survey, the value of specialist work would be reduced. Balfour placed all the importance on the weaver, who must be skilled, broad-minded and discerning, to avoid incorporating ‘faulty yarns’ (he did not miss the pun on the word ‘yarn’ which he pointed out might easily be ‘tall’), and, conversely, should not reject ‘threads’ simply because they do not fit the pattern.

‘In ‘laying the warp’, therefore, all sound and relevant ‘threads’ should be collected and accepted conscientiously and without bias, and arranged in sequence according to their relationship to one another; the pattern to be woven into the ‘cloth’ (otherwise, the theory) should, as far as possible, be determined by the set of the ‘warp threads’ which form the foundation of the fabric. The ‘weft’, which interlaces and binds together the threads of the ‘warp’, is, after all, but the ‘thread’ of reasoning, which passes to and fro inductively across the warp, contributing to the pattern and creating the material.’ (ibid: 9)

It is clear from this quotation that, for Balfour, theorizing took second place to communicating data. Both specialists and generalists, he argued, should know something of the other’s craft, but the latter kind of anthropologist would always be able to weave a broader cloth. Balfour was clearly an anthropologist of the latter type. He travelled all over the world collecting ethnographic data (of which, more below) and wrote on many different subjects throughout his life. His scholarly papers – of which he wrote many, although he only published one monograph, on The Evolution of Decorative Art in 1893 – are notable for their geographical and historical range, and the clarity of the information they present.


Balfour preferred to deal with data – his ‘concrete evidence which cannot be denied’ (quoted above) – rather than theory. Although not theoretically focused, his earlier papers show the influence both of the evolutionary approach to design traditions, popularized by General Pitt Rivers, and Balfour’s own training as a natural scientist specializing in animal morphology (see Haddon 1940: 109). In 1888 he published a paper on a series of arrows from Santa Cruz and the Solomon Islands, in which he traced the different ‘stages’ in the ‘evolution’ of their surface design, acknowledging the similar approach taken by Pitt Rivers when lecturing on a series of paddles at the Royal Institution. Various papers and lectures he gave in the early 1890s on the subject of ‘Evolution in Decorative Art’ expanded on Pitt Rivers’ general theoretical foundation, again acknowledging his predecessor’s work directly. Balfour argued that there were three main stages to the development of the artistic impulse in humans: the appreciative stage, when objects were valued on the basis of natural peculiarities that looked like intentional design; the adaptive stage, when such natural peculiarities are artificially accentuated; and the creative stage, when art forms were copied from scratch and then produced at will. Copying, achieved with differing degrees of accuracy, was the main agent producing variation in designs (Balfour 1890, 1894; PRM ms collections, Balfour papers box 4A). Copying led to degeneration as well as innovation; equally, meanings could be lost over time, leaving design ‘survivals’ from an earlier cultural stage.

Thus, Balfour’s early work on material culture followed an existing intellectual format, which took design traits to be analogous with cultural groups and sought to fit both into a hierarchy of developmental stages. In his Presidential address to the Anthropology Section of the BAAS in 1904, Balfour confirmed his position clearly enough:

‘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.’ (PRM ms collections, Balfour papers box 5)

However, in the same address, Balfour argued against the notion of a single historical line of development, from the primitive to the civilized. Instead, he suggested a ‘system of chains’, which he likened to the complex interconnected paths of a system of rivers. He expanded on the analogy of a river in his 1937 Frazer Lecture, in which he stated that there were two kinds of progress discernable from the study of material culture: firstly, a process similar to unilinear evolution, ‘a process of direct improvement, suggested by the thing itself, and arising directly from the previous stage’; and secondly, the force of outside influences and the, ‘hybridization of ideas, or the grafting of one idea upon another’ (1937: 14). Progress was the result of the coming together of many greater and lesser ideas, each modifying the others and each created in the same way, in much the same way that a river is fed by its tributaries but also has stretches of undisturbed, onward-flowing water.

‘In all probability, the growth of any artefact or idea, which has undergone a long, progressive history of development, has been a metamorphic process of great complexity, painfully retarded and halting in the early phases, but becoming speeded up more and more as the number and variety of ideas and experiences which can be brought to bear upon the evolving item increase.’ (ibid)

Various forces complicated the historical picture: migrations, changes in food availability and the general environment, and the constant mixing of ideas. In 1904, Balfour had pointed out that practices which seemed to illustrate cultural ‘degeneration’ might, in fact, have been adopted as a result of contact with a more ‘civilized’ society. Accidental similarities between material forms might also be wrongly theorized as ‘morphological affinities’, when in fact there was no ‘developmental link’.

‘If we accept the theory of the monogenesis of the human race, as most of us undoubtedly do, we must be prepared to admit that there prevails a condition of unity in the tendencies of the human mind to respond in a similar manner to similar stimuli. Like conditions beget like results…’ (1904, PRM ms collections, Balfour papers box 5)

In these cases, Balfour argued, different examples of the same practice could help to illuminate each other, particularly in archaeological cases when important data was not available. But, it was difficult, when tracing progress backwards, to show exactly which tributary is the main one (1937: 16). For Balfour, then, material culture held vital clues to cross-cultural relationships, which spanned history, and unpicking the complexities of these relationships was the ultimate aim of anthropological research. The vast majority of his writings follow the same pattern, in which Balfour took a single type of object – the bone skate (1898), the fire-piston (1907), or the fishing-kite (1913), for example – and laid out the evidence, found in the variations of physical form, for its geographical and historical distribution. As Wallis remembered, Balfour ‘sought to demonstrate both independent origins and diffusion’ as part of the far greater goal of reconstructing human innovation and influence stretching across the globe (1957: 786, above).

At the same time, Balfour never lost his interest in animal morphology, which he studied as an undergraduate. He was particularly fond of birds. His travel diaries are littered with lists of local bird species, and his love for birds is beautifully expressed in a series of illustrated limericks on different birds that he kept in a notebook (Balfour was an excellent artist) (PRM ms collections, Balfour papers box 4). He occasionally published on birds and animals (1889, 1907, 1921), and there are hints of his training as a biologist in his anthropological publications also. In his 1889 paper on ‘The Structure and Affinities of the Composite Bow’ (again, acknowledging the work of Pitt Rivers), he gave a ‘description of the details of the anatomy of the higher types [of composite bow], with mention of some of the more primitive types for comparison’ (1889: 221). Balfour described in great detail, through a study of the objects themselves and writings on them, the intricacies of their design and material composition in an attempt to analyse their relationships, charting the occurrence of different types of bow across North America and Asia. Balfour’s utter reliance on the evidence presented by the particular formal properties of each object he described clearly benefitted from his scientific training. His description of a Tungus bow from Siberia, kept in the British Museum, which he concluded to be of ‘Tatar’ form, illustrates the thorough, ‘anatomical’ approach he took to these objects:

The “backing” is entirely covered with thick birch bark, scored over with ornamental grooves and scratches. The “ears” are short and of solid pieces of wood, with small bone wedges let into the ends, to give strength to the nocks, which, oddly enough, are in this specimen situated as the extreme ends, and not just below the ends, as in most bows. The ridges below the “ears,” so characteristic of the higher Southern forms, are here only slightly marked, the “ears” thickening rather suddenly. The “grip” is of wood, covered with birch bark, and bound at the centre with hide thongs. The belly is composed of a strip of horn along each “arm” reaching to the base of the “ears,” almost entirely exposed, except for a slight overlapping of bark round the edges. The horn is very thin indeed, and can hardly have been of great service in increasing the strength and elasticity of the weapon, and was probably added to this bow more for the purpose of carrying out the “Tartar” design, in spite of scarcity of suitable material, than for real use. The edges of this bow are finished off with bone strips, and there are bone bridges at the “elbows” for the bow-string.’ (ibid: 228)

Such detailed descriptions indicate the seriousness with which Balfour approached the physical qualities of the object he was studying: the clues to cultural history lay within the physical evidence itself, and finding them required a surgical attention to detail. Indeed, Balfour actually dissected a Persian bow, again, generally of Tartar form, for the purposes of comparison and to find out more about how it had been made. The bow, which was already broken, had been given to Tylor by Colonel Sir R. Murdoch Smith. Tylor then passed it on to Balfour. His initial dissection led him to slice up other bows in a similar way. This meant that he was able to give even more detailed descriptions of the materials used, their quantities, manufacture and arrangement. For example, an Indian bow which looked very much like the Persian bow initially, showed various differences when dissected. The former object had far less horn, and the use of sinews, glue and wood also differed considerably from both the classic ‘Tartar’ type and the Persian bow. His paper was accompanied by various diagrams showing longitudinal and transverse sections through the bows. Having given a diagrammatic ‘genealogical tree’ for the ‘different existing varieties of the composite bow’ his concluding remarks portrayed his approach as that of a biological scientist.

‘I have aimed in my paper at giving an account of the comparative anatomy of the composite bow, in order to illustrate the structure and affinities of the chief varieties. I regret that I have had so little material at my command, as the dissection of a larger number of varieties would no doubt contribute largely towards establishing the lines of connection between the types and their modes of derivation from earlier forms. Without the assistance of a ‘geological record’ and ‘embryological’ evidence, which so materially assist the animal and vegetable morphologist, in tracing the history of such an object as the composite bow, the anthropological comparative anatomist is obliged to be content with observations made upon the ‘recent’ and ‘adult’ weapon, and thus the number of his clues is considerably limited.’ (ibid: 244)

Although Balfour’s later papers were less transparent in their debts to his training as a biologist, his general approach to material culture never changed. He was a consummate ‘anthropological comparative anatomist’. Just as the different families and species of birds could be identified by careful attention to their morphological characteristics, so could different types of objects – and their associated cultural traditions – be identified and grouped together. Balfour’s acute observational skills and logical deductions were exemplified in both his passion for wildlife and his work on ethnographic artefacts. He always put data before theory.

‘Before origins can be determined, he would argue, and in order to settle once for all the parts severally played by borrowing and by independent invention, let us exhaustively chart the actual positions in time and space that the evidence enables us to assign to each of our hypothetical types’ (Marett 1939: 291)


As a travelling researcher, Balfour also worked first and foremost as a natural scientist. His travel journals are full of direct observations, sketches, photographs, exact times, names and locations, but they often lack anecdotal or personal commentary regarding the conversations he had or his thoughts and opinions on daily events and interactions. It is as if, in this context too, he prioritised data over theory. Balfour was a great traveller. He travelled to Norway, Finland and Russian Lapland to study whales and whaling traditions, he visited South Africa four times, as well as Australia, Indonesia, India, Brazil, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and other East African countries. There are diaries for all these trips in the Balfour manuscripts collections.

Balfour also visited Canada in the summer of 1924, travelling through the country by train (see JP Mills correspondence, PRM ms collections 17 March 1924, 25 August 1924 and 18 October 1924). He visited Egypt in the spring 1926 (see JP Mills correspondence, PRM ms collections 2 February 1926 and 20 June 1926). He travelled to Holland in the spring of 1927, where he spent time studying the bird life (see JP Mills correspondence, PRM ms collections 13 May 1927). He visited Sweden in the summer of 1936 (see Royal Geographical Society correspondence, 12 June 1936).

Presumably these passing references to additional travels, made in various letters, are only the tip of the iceberg. Combined with his travel diaries they show that between the winter of 1922 (when he was 59 years old) and the autumn of 1930 (aged 67), Balfour visited India, Canada, Egypt, Holland, Brazil, Kenya (twice), Uganda, South Africa, Zambia, Tanzania and Nigeria. The African countries mentioned were explored on three successive trips between 1927 and 1930. He probably travelled to other countries too, for which there is no evidence.

During his longer trips, for which there are diaries, Balfour’s time abroad was spent touring, spending only a few days in each place. Here are transcriptions of the diaries of some of Balfour’s journeys:

Lapland, 1888

South Africa, 1905 

South Africa, 1907

South Africa, 1910 

Australia, 1914

Naga Hills, India 1922-23

South America 1927

East Africa 1928

South and Eastern Africa 1929

Nigeria 1930

Finland and Norway 1933

Balfour always covered a lot of ground wherever he went and his journeys were often very sociable. At every stop he would meet museum curators, mayors, governors and consuls, collectors, other travellers and a host of local residents. Unfortunately, it is impossible to glean much from his diaries about the individual nature of these interactions.

In fact, his entry for Thursday 10 August, while staying in Cape Town, is fairly typical. In it, he notes the number of the tram he took and the names of numerous varieties of birds that he saw. He also estimates the distance of the walk he took, describes a type of seaweed that he does not recognize, and notes the exact route he took back to his hotel in Cape Town. The entry also gives a taste of Balfour’s dry sense of humour, which is often apparent in his diaries:

Thurs. 10 13y electric tram over the Kloof-route to Camps Bay, fine ride, 3/4 hour. Very fine day, sea smooth but breaking finely on shelling shore. On some of the larger rocks numbers of Dominican Gulls + duikers. Gannets fishing + great number of duikers in water. 1 Caspian tern flew by. On shore, wagtails, black + white shrikes, small reddish brown hawks. Lunched at the Pavilion. Huge hairy spider created panic. Walked along shore towards Sea Point, dead penguin on beach. Black snake close to road. Yellow vented bulbul. Walked to Sea Point, c 1 1/2 miles, + had tea at Queens Hotel. Breakers very fine. Giant sea weed very striking, some of the stems 6 in diam. at base, and 12-13 feet long crowned with long streamers. Quantities of chitons in the pools. Back by train from Sea Point via Green Point + Adderley Str.

This entry is unusual only because Balfour does not make note of the time he departed on his excursion, or what time he got back, details that he nearly always recorded. His constant notes on times, dates, routes and distances hint at a precise and scrutinizing mind. Balfour’s love for birds is also immediately and consistently apparent in his travel journals. He endlessly listed bird species, during the long ship journeys and while touring the countryside, as well as noting plants and any animals he came across. It is hard not to conclude from his journals that he was, at heart, a biologist throughout his life. Here is another example of a typical entry, dated 10 September 1914, while Balfour was travelling with members of the British Association northward along the east coast of Australia:

Thurs 10 Very wet morning. Got up at 6.30 + most of us took a special train to the Barron Falls. Vegetation very tropical + interesting. Passed through plantations of bananas + pineapples, with mangoes + pawpaws everywhere near the habitations; crotons, hibiscus, bougainvillea etc. in gardens. Then up the mountain sides through tropical forest, gums + figs of various kinds + lianas, lawyer vines + other climbers trying to destroy them. Ferns both terrestrial + epiphytic (e.g, stagshorn fern) very abundant, a few orchids but not many flowering plants. Had about 1 1/4 hours at the Barron Falls which are fine + then returned by the train getting back to the ship soon after 12.30 p.m. in time for lunch. Saw some interesting birds, at or near Cairns. Some mud-flats near the quay had on them several straw-necked ibises (Ibis molucca), Great white egret (Herodias timoriensis), a white Reef heron (Demiegretta sacra), a number of silver gulls (though the beaks are not nearly so red as in this bird further S.), gull-billed terns (Gelochelidon macrotarsa), a black-fronted dotterel (aegialitis melanops) + other small plovers + a night heron. Magpie-larks + mynahs common everywhere. On the mountain slopes large flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos, top-knot pigeons (Lopholaemus antarcticus), Forest Kingfishers (Halcyon Macleayi), a Brown-hawk (? Hieracidea orientalis), many Laughing Jackasses, some small doves (not identified) etc. At the Falls a large number of Tree martins (Petrochelidon nigricans). Tropical butterflies, ornithoptera etc. also seen.

Balfour frequently visited the local botanical gardens, and the local zoo whenever there was one nearby. He listed some of the zoo animals in his diary and sometimes met with the zoo director, presumably to find out more about the animals on show. And yet, in contrast to the wealth of information on the local wildlife he saw, Balfour almost never comments on conversations he had, or the people he met. He listed who he was with and who he met by name, but never recorded what they said or what he thought of them. On this same 1914 trip to Australia, for the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Balfour travelled as part of a large group of like-minded anthropologists, scientists and collectors, but the journals give little away, making them particularly tantalizing. During this trip, on a visit to Yallingup Cave, near Freemantle in Western Australia, this is the only suggestion Balfour gives as to the group he was with: ‘Left for Yallingup by the 7.42 a.m. train, a party of 23 Brit. Ass. in special coach’. Having given the total number in the party, he makes no further comment on who they were or what they said. On 10 August, with Balfour suffering considerably from gout, he travelled to Milang on Lake Alexandria in South Australia. He wrote of his companions on the trip:

‘Foot easier. Up at 6 a.m. + after hasty breakfast Stirling + Miss Mary Stirling, Haddon + I went off to station to catch 7.30 train for Milang on Lake Alexandria. About 30 people came on the exped. including the von Luschans, Graebner, im Thurn, the Herdmans, Mrs Daisy Bates, the Marett Twins, Marett, Hartland + Miss H., Myres + his son, Tattersall. Was presented by Dr Pulleyne at the station with a Fijian club to serve as a “crutch”! Special coaches reserved…’

Later that evening he, ‘Did not go out to Oliver Lodge’s lecture at night, but stayed in with Haddon to do some writing.’. A week later, in another typical entry written while in Melbourne, he noted that he, ‘Went to the Melbourne Club at 9.30 am. + met Haddon, Marett, Layard, Mahony, A.G.Kenyon + Man, the latter having arranged an excursion with motor cars to visit several old aboriginal camping-sites…’ In this way, throughout his diaries, Balfour listed people in much the same way as he listed birds and animals.

Balfour also recorded some of the objects he acquired while abroad, again, in a rather matter-of-fact way, but it is possible to get an impression of his style of collecting, which on the whole, as far as individual acquisitions were concerned, seems to have been opportunistic rather than premeditated. Having said that, Balfour did make a note of the occasional shopping trip – ‘Did shopping’, or, ‘Did some shopping’ – implying a very deliberate excursion, presumably carried out largely on Balfour’s own terms. Still, such vague references in his journals mean that it is impossible to know whether he was looking for objects for the Museum, or indeed his own private collection, on these occasions, or whether he was simply buying gifts or travel necessities. More frequently, Balfour just noted what he bought, making little reference to the circumstances of the sale, and these comments suggest that he did buy a lot of Museum material in shops and stores. For example, while in South Africa in 1905, he records that he ‘Bought a Calabash pipe’ in Cape Town on 9 August, and bought pipes on 18, along with two penguin eggs he had seen be unloaded from a ship which he later found in a shop. Later, at Makfeking, he ‘Bought a Kaross and some curios in a store’ (5 September 1905) Then, at Livingstone, he went on a bigger shopping trip:

‘Went with Mr. Fry in one of Carter’s canoes (from Livingstone) with five Barotse paddlers up to Livingstone. Landed there + went to F. C. Clarke’s Store. Bought a Mashukulumbwe rubbing drum, also some skin scrapers, dakka, cone-shells (+ celuloid imitation). Also went to a native curio store supplied by King Lewanika, bought a fine Barotse basket there, a carved food vessel, Kangombio etc.’ (14 September 1905)

This kind of shopping was quite typical during all Balfour’s travels and there are various examples in his diaries. During his trip to Australia in 1914, Balfour recorded that he had picked up a New Guinea spear-thrower in a shop in Melbourne, and bought an inlaid Malaita club at Tost and Rohu’s shop in Sydney, and found ‘some interesting native curios’ at Samuel Sheppard’s shop in Brisbane where he ‘bought several things’. In 1927, while in Para, Brazil, he spent £2 10d on an ‘Indian spear’, although found the shopping ‘disappointing’ on the whole. While staying at Imphal, the capital of Manipur, with the Huttons, in 1922, he records buying some things at the bazaars with Mrs Hutton, and then, then following day, he ‘went round the Bazaars with Gangeschandra Das (Rai sahib), the doctor of the Hospital + bought a pair of brass bugle armlets (2/8) + a brass head-fillet (2/8) also 4 brass saucer-lamps (Manipuri – 8 annas). We stayed there till dark.’

Balfour’s travels, although extensive, were largely busy tours involving day trips and excursions from the main towns and cities, accompanied by residents or in larger groups. Shopping in towns and buying artefacts from local stores was an important way for Balfour to acquire material quickly and efficiently as he travelled around. There simply was not sufficient time to establish long-term relationships with the people who made the objects he bought. Instead, he had to rely on middle-men, and contribute to the thriving trade in local collectables at the same time. That said, there were occasions when Balfour was able to acquire things more directly, from their original owners and users. While travelling with A.H. Cocks through the Fjeld Lapp’s summer encampment near Tromsö, Balfour bought some knives, reindeer-antler spoons and reindeer skins from two Lapp men and a woman in a tent they passed. Further up the valley, they met more women and children, and Balfour noted that ‘one small girl drove hard bargains with us, + laid down the law to the old women’. Later that day, they saw a herd of reindeer being driven into an enclosure. Balfour asked the people working with the animals if one of the deer could be lassoed – ‘a difficult matter in such a crowd of deer’ – and afterwards promptly bought the lasso.

There were other times when Balfour bought objects he had seen being used or made. While travelling with J.P. Mills amongst the Konyak villages in the Naga Hills, he watched the women making false hair pieces before buying some examples (15 November 1922). The next day, he spent some time watching a brass-caster at work using moulds, and ‘bought some of his outfit + unfinished armlets + also the ‘bismar’ with which he weighed out his metal, for 7 rupees’. Afterwards, he ‘went to see a blacksmith at work making dao blades. The smith was stark naked + black from head to foot with soot and dirt. He made a dao blade from an old Assamese trade hoe-blade. It took him a good hour to make the blade, + when it had been hafted, I bought it for two rupees’ (16 November 1922). In the Zaria region, during his trip to Nigeria in 1930, the local Emir showed Balfour some ‘very fine’ tandu skin vessels, which Balfour asked to see being made. This was arranged and led to the Emir organizing for a complete set to be made especially for Balfour. A few days later, he went into Kano and ‘hunted about for weavers’, and finding some working in a back street bought ‘a complete man’s loom’. Later, while visiting an Ibo village he ‘got a weaver to start making a bag of raphia-leaf-strips on a vertical loom’ before buying the apparatus. Similarly, on the journey home from Australia, while in Surabaya, Indonesia, in September 1914, Balfour came across some women doing batik work at the back of a hotel and bought some of their wax pens. Buying objects he had seen being used, like this, was not unusual.

On other occasions, Balfour bought items of adornment from the people who he saw wearing them. In August 1928, while in Kapsabet in Kenya, Balfour was at the District Commissioner’s Office when he took the opportunity to purchase ‘a large wooden cylinder which one man was wearing in his ear-lobe’ from a Nandi man who was there, and, from another Nandi, ‘a locally-made iron armlet which took a long time to remove from the man’s upper arm’ (8 August 1928). Many years earlier, while anchored at Aden, Somalia, on the way home from South Africa in 1905, he bought an ‘amber’ neck ornament made in Jiddah in the town, but then saw a Somali wearing a finer one and bought that too (18 October 1905).

Although there is evidence for a number of more direct, impromptu sales in villages and towns, like these, they always took place against a backdrop of frequent acquisitions from traders and at local markets. These latter purchases seem to have been the mainstay of Balfour’s collecting during his travels. Still, some of Balfour’s trips gave him more scope for buying objects directly from their makers and users than others. There was little time for this kind of interaction with locals during his trip to South Africa in 1905, when he travelled with the British Association for the Advancement of Science, nor during his lecture tour to South Africa in 1910. These visits were packed with meetings, lectures and socializing. Both the Australian trip of 1914 and his journey to South and East Africa in 1929 were also made in his capacity as a member of the British Association, the latter when he was President of the Anthropology Section, and so involved more organized group tours and a busy socializing schedule. And his trip down the Amazon to Manaos in 1927 was a passenger cruise, which left him little time to explore on land. However, on the other trips there was more time for visiting local villages and towns, particularly during his visit to the Naga Hills, when he travelled from village to village with J.H. Hutton and J.P. Mills, and during his visit to Nigeria in 1930.

That said, Balfour relied heavily on the colonial infrastructure during all of his travels (apart from those in Norway and Finland, for obvious reasons). Even when he had more opportunity to visit locals in their own home environment, such visits were brief and conducted under the auspices of the colonial system. During the Naga trip he joined first Hutton and then Mills on their routine district tours as officers in the Indian Civil Service, staying in the Government Inspection Bungalows provided for this purpose. While in Nigeria, Balfour always stayed at the local Government Residency or with the local District Officer. On all his trips he was a regular at Gentlemen’s Clubs, Government Houses and hotels, and was frequently a house-guest with Government officials. He travelled by boat, car, train or on foot, and was nearly always accompanied by one of his colonial hosts, and he often travelled with a ‘boy’ who took care of his luggage. His visits to indigenous villages and towns were brief – perhaps only for an hour or two, or a day – and were interspersed with appointments to look over hospitals, schools and educational facilities, prisons, museums, libraries, botanic gardens, court houses, mines and factories. He dined every evening in the comfort of a friend’s house, a hotel restaurant or at the local club. In fact, his journeys were often incredibly sociable, as he lunched, dined and enjoyed tea with numerous associates, friends and acquaintances who were either resident or also happened to be travelling through the area. Games of tennis and evening concerts were not unheard of.

Not surprisingly, then, a number of the objects Balfour acquired while abroad were actually presented to him by the people who helped him and met with him along the way. There are many examples, but a selection will illustrate the point. While travelling through Ladysmith in South Africa, Mr. W.A. Illing of Illing Brothers, ‘large store keepers’, gave Balfour some shell pieces and a hide walking stick (27 August 1905). A month later, Balfour selected samples of Khami pottery which were to be given to him by the Bulawayo Museum (27 September 1905). In Victoria Falls, in 1907, Balfour was given a Barotse pot and two ivory hair pins by P.C. Clarke (21 August 1907). At Grahamstown in 1910, Archdeacon Woodroofe gave him ‘some native things’ (29 July 1910). In Kenya, in 1928, the District Commissioner at Kapsabet gave Balfour an ear pendant (8 August 1928). During meetings of the BAAS Anthropology Section in Stellenbosch in 1929, Colonal Hardy gave Balfour some of the stone implements he had collected from the area (23 July 1929), and a few days later more stone tools were presented to him by Miss Wilman, curator of the Kimberley Museum, and Dr Broome (27 July 1929).

Other acquisitions do not fall into such neat categories as ‘gift’ or ‘purchase’, but equally reflect the ever-present influence of colonial infrastructures on Balfour’s collecting while abroad. For example, during Balfour’s 1928 tour of Kenya and Uganda, he went to see a ‘huge mass of magical + ceremonial apparatus’ which had been confiscated from Meru ‘witch-doctors’ and was being held at the District Commissioner’s office at Isiola. Having looked through the material, Balfour simply noted that he had ‘brought away some specimens connected with the initiation ceremonies’ (20 August 1928).

A note on the Naga Hills trip 1922-23

The letters of J.H. Hutton and J.P. Mills mean that there is a little information about Balfour’s 1922-23 visit to the Naga Hills than is provided in Balfour’s personal diary. Arrangements for the trip seem to have been made in late 1921 and early 1922. Mills wrote to Balfour in January 1922,

‘It is indeed good news that you may really come out to the Naga Hills next autumn. Don’t forget that I shall claim a large share of you. We will study both Nagas + birds together. There is no book that I know of on the ornithology of that part of the world, but I think when I get back + have a little time I can make out a fairly complete list of the birds from my notes…’ (JP Mills correspondence, PRM ms collections letter to Balfour, 13 January 1922)

It is not surprising that birds featured on Balfour’s ‘to do’ list for the trip. Meanwhile, Mills and Hutton worked together to organize a tour of the area which would enable Balfour to ‘see a bit of every tribe’ (ibid, Mills to Balfour, 6 June 1922). During Balfour’s stay the men studied their collections (Mills and Hutton had both been sending objects to the PRM for a number of years by the early 1920s). Mills had material he wanted to show Balfour in person before packing it up to send back to Oxford (ibid, 23 November 1922). Balfour spent the early part of the trip travelling with Hutton, before the two men met up with Mills and Balfour continued to tour with him (see summary for the trip above). They collected objects for the Museum as they went, and Mills was left in charge of packing and sending Balfour’s collection after he had returned to England (JP Mills correspondence, PRM ms collections Mills to Balfour, 7 December 1922). The trip seems to have been a complete success, and Mills wrote about it affectionately afterwards (ibid).

Interestingly, Balfour used his recent experiences in Naga, and his friendship with Mills and Hutton, as the basis for his 1923 Presidential Address to the Folklore Society on ‘The Welfare of Primitive Peoples’. Mills was confident that Balfour’s collection would arrive in Oxford in time for his lecture, implying that Balfour intended to use the objects as part of his talk or at least show them to the audience (JP Mills correspondence, PRM ms collections 26 April 1923). Balfour spoke of the growing influence and spread of the Government of Assam, which was extending its area of control into the Naga Hills. He tried to evaluate the impact of the colonial administration on previously independent tribes there. He asked, ‘what changes are essential? and in what manner can they best be effected?’ (1923: 15) He advocated trying to understand the situation from the point of view of the ‘primitive mind’ as far as possible, adding that ‘the primitive outlook is fundamentally different from ours’ (ibid). He warned against hasty interpretations and suggested a more cautious approach from administrators. He pointed out that ‘Tampering with or suppressing certain special practices and observances, which our enlightened state causes us to view with contempt or abhorrence, may frequently lead to serious consequences’ and undermine social cohesion (ibid: 16). He advocated careful research into the local culture before governmental prohibitions were imposed, and suggested a gradual process of change rather than sudden, violent conversions. ‘[W]e should try to achieve our object by evolution not by revolution’ (ibid: 17).

Balfour went on to discuss the fact that the suppression of cultural traditions often led to ‘diminishing metal vigour’, ‘physical enfeeblement’, and ‘a dwindling population’ (ibid: 18). Taking head-hunting as an example, he even went on to suggest that where the practice was reciprocal between tribes, the ‘artificially augmented death-rate [is] more than counter-balanced by a higher birth-rate due to the vigour, alertness and the greater physical and mental fitness which the exigencies arising from such a custom stimulate’ (ibid: 18). He then discussed the work of Mills and Hutton (he referred to them directly at the beginning of his address, and then went into more detail later, even though he did not name them again). He attributed their administrative success in the Naga Hills to their keen interest in the indigenous culture: ‘they have acquired that intimate knowledge which alone can render administration effective’ (ibid: 20). Balfour said that he had found the people living in more heavily administrated and missionized villages in the western foot-hills and plains of Assam lacking ‘virility, alertness and zest’ and attributed this to their ‘contact with alien people and alien cultures’ (ibid: 21).

‘Evidence of any substantial benefit to the Nagas themselves from this hybridization of culture appeared to me to be singularly scanty. In fact, speaking generally, the relatively uncontaminated Nagas of the central and eastern districts appeared to my eyes to be in most respects superior to those whose culture has been considerably affected by infiltrations.’ (ibid)

Balfour called for more research into the effects of ‘culture-contact’, promoting the Naga Hills as an ideal area for this kind of research because there were communities living in a range of administrative contexts, from those that were ‘untouched’ to those that were heavily colonized. Such research could be used to everyone’s advantage.

‘By avoiding the mistakes of the past, and above all, by maintaining and stimulating the interest of the natives in themselves, we may yet develop a fine, if primitive race, having considerable potentialities, into an efficient ethnic unit, enjoying a stable organization – a race equipped to play a useful part in the world and with an undeniable claim to a ‘right to exist’.’ (ibid: 21-22)

Balfour clearly felt that he had to hammer home the point that such work was ‘worth while’, because he reminded his audience that two thousand Nagas had selflessly volunteered for service in labour corps in France during the Great War. He added that, as a people, they must ‘either advance or disappear’, and the colonizers had a moral obligation to ensure they avoided the latter fate. Not surprisingly, he finished by hoping that governments would sponsor anthropology and local ethnography more widely.

This exposition of the potential benefits of colonial administration must have developed, at least in part, through Balfour’s discussions with Mills and Hutton about their work during his visit. Balfour sent a copy of his talk to the British Government in India, and Mills reported that it had eventually reached the desk of the Governor (presumably the Governor of Assam), who then spoke to Mills about it (JP Mills correspondence, PRM ms collections 1 June 1923). Mills added, ‘Addresses like that are a most valuable help to us – especially now that the missionaries are showing signs of setting their battle in array.’ (ibid) Mills and Hutton must have seen themselves in much the same way as Balfour did, as paternalistic administrators, with a moral responsibility to those they governed, who constantly had to balance their ethnographic interests with their governmental responsibilities.

In 1927, Balfour was contemplating a return to the Naga Hills. Mills wrote to him, ‘Do try + work the Konyak stunt. Wouldn’t it be glorious if I could do it, with Hutton a D.C. + helping in his spare time…’ (JP Mills correspondence, PRM ms collections 13 May 1927) In June, Mills wrote again imploring Balfour not to forget the possible ‘Konyak Expedition’. However, Balfour’s plans took him elsewhere, to South America in the summer of 1927, to East Africa in 1928, to South and East Africa in 1929, and to West Africa in 1930.


While at home as well as abroad, much of Balfour’s work was defined by the social networks he was able to nurture and maintain. For example, he often used publications as a straightforward tool for communication. He authored numerous notes in the journal Man, announcing recent acquisitions to the Museum which particularly interested him and about which he would like to learn more. He frequently finished an article with a request for more information from anyone who had come across similar objects or traditions, and his personal off-prints (now held in the Balfour Library, PRM) are often stuffed with letters and notes sent by interested readers as well as Balfour’s own additional notes over the years. Indeed, the main thrust of Balfour’s research work was accumulative: as well as collecting objects, he gathered literary and ethnographic data from hundreds of sources throughout his life in an effort to build up as complete a picture as possible of the manufacture and use of particular types of object throughout the world. His cabinet of loose notes is still kept intact at the Pitt Rivers Museum, and comprises a number of drawers – labelled ‘bellows’, ‘fire-making’, ‘fishing’, ‘writing’, and the like – each stuffed with slips of paper, photographs, notes, sketches and letters, giving references to the use of a type of object or technology. It would seem that, for Balfour, material culture, literature, photographs and first-hand observation were all equally essential, incontestable forms of evidence for cultural traditions, and, as far as his particular research interests were concerned, he collected all these forms of data unreservedly. Perhaps the small slips of paper, each devoted to a single literary reference, sketch or photograph, enabled him to spread out all the evidence in front of him before working out the most appropriate geographical and historical relationships between the named technological tradition and rearranging the notes accordingly. Such a methodology is suggested in his published papers, which collate and lay out the information from innumerable sources, building up a picture of the worldwide, historical distribution of an object type.

This research mentality depended entirely on Balfour’s ability to nurture an impressively wide network of information, gleaned through people, objects and institutions. For his results to be successful, his network had to be as thorough and complete as possible. Indeed, only the meticulous observational skills he displayed coupled with his ability to access and process vast amounts of ethnographic data ensured the accuracy of his work. His papers acknowledge references and objects sent to him from all corners of the world, as well as numerous literary and historical sources of information. Many of the people who sent Balfour objects and information had been students of his on the Oxford diploma course, which attracted regular numbers of colonial civil service probationers and officers on leave from service overseas (Hutton 1949) as well as people keen to start ethnographic research. Of course, these interactions were reciprocal. Balfour activated certain relationships when he wanted to acquire particular objects from particular places for his research and for the museum collections more generally. He made direct requests for specific types of material culture from friends and acquaintances, as well as frequenting auction houses and purchasing from dealers. Simultaneously, Balfour quickly became known as an expert on technology and material culture, and often people – some of them strangers to Balfour personally – sent information and objects to him unsolicited. His status as curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum, an extremely well recognised institution as far as the anthropological community were concerned, both enabled him to ask people for objects and made him the beneficiary of unexpected channels of information. As far as the collections are concerned, Balfour and the Pitt Rivers Museum were often indistinguishable, because each benefited so keenly from an association with the other.

Later Career

From the early 1900s onwards, Balfour's position as a prominent anthropologist was assured, and his work was recognised in a number of Institutional appointments. He had been a member of the Council of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in 1891, and in 1903-1904 he served as President of the Institute, giving presidential addresses on ‘The Relationship of Museums to the Study of Anthropology’ (published in 1904). He used his second, untitled address (published in 1905) to promote the idea of establishing a scientific system of nomenclature to aid the historical classification of material culture. In 1904 he also served as President of the Anthropological Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and presided over the meetings held that year in Cambridge. In his presidential address for the BAAS he argued that the strength of anthropology lay in the fact that it was a ‘diffuse’ science. He also discussed the contributions made by General Pitt Rivers and defended the system of classification he had popularized (see Balfour pamphlets). In the same year, Balfour was elected Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, and the College’s Stapledon Magazine recorded that he ‘hopes also during the years in which he holds our Fellowship to bring out a treatise on the History of Musical Instruments, at which he has long been working’ (Vol. 1., no. 1., June 1904, p. 2.) Balfour held this Fellowship until 1911 (Hutton 1949).

In 1909 Balfour became President of the Museums Association. In his presidential address, given at Maidstone on 13 July, he argued for a more systematic, national approach to preserving and studying the ethnology of Great Britain. This was a theme he had explored in his 1904 address to the Royal Anthropological Institute, and he used both occasions to push for a national folk museum, using the open-air folk museums found in Scandinavia as models, which would help to co-ordinate efforts to save local customs and material culture before British folk practices ‘died out’.

In 1910 he was invited to give a series of lectures in South Africa by the South African Association for the Advancement of Science (see outline of this trip above). In 1919 he was re-elected Fellow of Exeter College, a position he seems to have held for the rest of his life (Hutton 1949). In 1923 he became President of the Folklore Society, giving two successive presidential addresses, one on ‘The Welfare of Primitive Peoples’ (discussed above in relation to his Naga Hills trip), and another on ‘The Geographical Study of Folklore’. In the latter address he explored the benefits of studying the geographical dispersal of ideas, beliefs, observances, and objects, and the practice of preparing ‘dispersal maps’ to illustrate their distribution. He advocated the ‘card-catalogue system of registering separate items’, which allowed loose cards to be arranged ‘serially’ and new cards to be added easily when required (1923: 22). This was the system he himself used at the museum (as discussed above).

The following year, in 1924, Balfour was elected Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1929 he served a second term as President of the Anthropological Section of the BAAS, and this time he travelled to South Africa, touring the country with other members of the Association and presiding over meetings held in Cape Town and Johannesburg (see outline of the trip above). He gave an address on ‘South Africa’s Contribution to Prehistoric Archaeology’. In 1935, at the age of seventy-two, Balfour was accorded the personal title of Professor of Ethnology by the University of Oxford. Some felt that this final honour was long overdue: in September 1920 Balfour’s friend and fellow Oxford graduate, Walter Baldwin Spencer, signed off a letter to him somewhat hopefully, ‘I wish I could hear news of your being appointed Professor’ (PRM ms collections, Baldwin Spencer collection, box 4: 21), but it was not to happen for another fifteen years, and six years after Spencer’s death.

Even though Balfour’s later years were wracked with illness and discomfort, he served as President of the Royal Geographical Society from 1936 until 1938. After fairly constant absences due to his health (see below) Balfour decided against standing for a third term as President, even though he had been re-nominated, because his condition was ‘too uncertain’ (Royal Geographical Society correspondence, Balfour to Hinks, 15 May 1938). However, he continued to serve the Society as Vice-President until his death. In 1937 he gave the Frazer Lecture at Liverpool on ‘Spinners and Weavers in Anthropological Research’, exploring the role of specialists and generalists in the discipline (this paper is discussed above under ‘teaching’).

Balfour was also President of the Prehistoric Society of East Anglia, although I am not sure of the dates he held this position (Hutton 1949). Hutton also states that Balfour had ‘a useful knowledge of the classics’, ‘a working knowledge of German’ and fluent French. Blackwood’s lecture notes record that Balfour could produce fire using the sawing method with fire sticks in 35 seconds (PR ms collections Blackwood papers box 1A). Hutton describes him as ‘a craftsman’ and ‘a musician’, and wrote that ‘examples of his handiwork in flint may be seen in the Pitt-Rivers Museum’ (Hutton 1949).

The Balfours lived in Headington during their later years (I am not sure when they moved there), in a large house on Pullen’s Lane called Langley Lodge that was built in 1889 and first owned by Phillip Gell, the Manager of Oxford University Press. After Balfour’s death the house became part of Rye St Antony School, which had just 59 pupils by the end of the Second World War.

Balfour’s health

Balfour died, at his home, Langley Lodge in Headington, on 9 February 1939. It is not clear exactly what he died of, but the death of his wife, Edith, who ‘shared his many interests, his work, and often his travels’ (Hutton 1949) less than a year earlier, on 17 May 1938, must have had a significant impact. According to Penniman, Balfour died peacefully, but ‘after a long illness’ that left him ‘seriously crippled’, and yet even to the last he was planning his return to the Pitt Rivers Museum to continue his work there (Report of the Acting Curator of the Pitt-Rivers Museum 1939). He certainly suffered from arthritis, which led him to keep a Roll-Royce and chauffeur in later years (La Rue 2004), and this condition probably led to his demise, but he was also regularly handicapped by other ailments throughout his life.

Even in his early thirties and forties Balfour seems to have had problems with his health. There was no Annual Report for the Museum in 1894 due to Balfour’s ‘serious illness’, and he suffered ill health again in 1899, which meant that there was no Annual Report issued for 1898. In 1904, he reported on the ‘loss of time which I have incurred through somewhat prolonged ill-health’ (Annual Report 1904). Although it is hard to know what conditions these statements refer to, he certainly suffered from gout on a number of occasions. At the start of his journey to South Africa in 1907 he was ‘very lame’ with gout (PRM ms collections Balfour diary, 11 July 1907), and he suffered a long, ‘very painful and awkward’ period of gout during his journey to Australia in 1914 during which he could ‘only crawl about’ (PRM ms collections Balfour diary, 6 August 1914). He was lame with gout again while en route to East Africa in 1928 (PRM ms collections Balfour diary, 15 July 1928). Gout, an intensely painful form of arthritis in the joints, probably plagued him throughout his life, and may well have been a contributing factor to the illness he suffered in his final years.  

Balfour also suffered from heart trouble. His heart failed in late 1918 (when Balfour was fifty-five) while he was in France volunteering for the Anglo-French Red Cross. He later remembered the incident, with characteristic humour, in a letter to Baldwin Spencer:

‘I got rather bowled out during the war, as I had a roving commission on behalf of the Anglo-French Red Cross, + I managed to overdo it. Result, my heart went all to pieces + I was picked up for dead in Amiens. Got bored with being dead + came to after a couple of hours + was packed off to a military hospital in Rouen. Eventually I got home + got back to my work. I’m much better, though I have to go slow + avoid physical exertion, though how to avoid it is a puzzle to me which I have not yet solved.’ (PRM ms collections Spencer box 4, letter 20, 4 August 1920)

The incident is also memorialized in one of Balfour’s notebooks, which he named ‘Irresponsible Doggerel’ and filled with light verses and limericks reflecting on Oxford life and events at the University. In this notebook he copied out a poem which he had originally written in ‘a Sister’s autograph book’ at the No. 8 General Hospital in Rouen, where he had been sent to recover from his heart attack. According to the notebook, he stayed there from 30 December 1918 until 7 January 1919, in Ward 02. There is a photograph of the ward also stuck into the notebook and a hand-drawn arrow identifies Balfour, lying on a bed surrounded by the war wounded and their nurses.

An Oxford itinerant donwas brought to the Hospital onA stretcher & shotInto No. 4 cot,For his health was considered ‘no bon’.

The ‘D.A.H.’* verdict was notA good diagnosis, for whatWas really amissWas a puncture, and thisI can prove, so you needn’t say ‘Rot’!

For when his turn came to departWith advice to look after his heartWhen bidding adieuTo the sisters, he knewThat that organ was pierced by a dart.

* ‘D.A.H’ = Defective action of the heart

(PRM ms collections, Balfour box 4)

Despite Balfour’s self-depreciative wit, the condition continued to bother him and caused particular upheaval during his travels with J.P. Mills in the Naga Hills in 1922. On the 4 November they left Mokokchung, where they had been staying for a few days, with 25 coolies in tow, to visit the outlying villages. Balfour recorded in his diary that,

‘Soon after starting + before reaching Mokokchung village, I had a nasty heart attack, which made me unconscious + black in the face for some time, much to Mills’s anxiety. Pretty sharp, but it passed off after a while + I was able to mount my pony (hired from Ngaku) + rode all the way to Mongsemdi, through fine jungle scenery, varied by ‘jhum’ cultivation areas.’ (PRM ms collections Balfour diary, 4 November 1922)

The incident did not prevent Balfour from writing very full entries describing the village in great detail, although the following day he did not accompany Mills when he went out shooting deer, but stayed in the village ‘sketching + photographing’. On the 6th, they set out on their travels again, initially walking, but soon Balfour

‘got into a carrying chair which had been improvised for me with an armchair from Mongsemdi bungalow, fitted with bamboo carrying-poles, lashed with cane thongs. I was carried uphill by 6 coolies, who chanted rhythmically all the way, each giving a single note (like a Russian horn band). The narrow path was very steep + it was difficult to get the chair up. It swayed + tipped so as nearly to throw me out.’ (PRM ms collections Balfour diary, 6 November 1922)

Over the next few days Balfour travelled in the chair or rode a horse as they journeyed onwards. Then, on 9th, while at Merangkong, he fell sick with malaria and was confined to bed with a temperature of 103°, prompting Mills to send for the doctor. Dr. Bailey, who was with the American Baptist Mission, arrived from Impore (32 miles away) the next day.

‘He said that I certainly had malaria + examined my heart, about which he was moderately reassuring, provided that I avoided walking up hill + kept out of the sun as much as possible etc. He gave me some medicines to take.’ (PRM ms collections Balfour diary, 10 November 1922).

Balfour had to take it easy for the rest of his trip (he departed for home from Bombay on 6 January 1923), although it is not easy to tell from his diary entries, which remain very full and factual. On his return to England he wrote to Spencer and described his experiences:

‘In the Naga Hills proper there are no roads, + only jungle paths + it is all walking or riding. I found it very strenuous work, averaging 10 miles a day in great heat, especially as my heart had gone to bits at the end of the War, through my having overdone it a bit doing Red X work abroad. However I got through fairly well, with only one bad heart attack. I got malaria all right, but that is inevitable + I don’t see how it can be avoided.’ (PRM ms collections Spencer box 4, letter 22, 30 August ?1923)

He added, ‘I wish I could get back to the Naga Hills + go on with the work, but I doubt if my doctor would allow it even if I could afford another trip’ (ibid).

Balfour endured a prolonged period of ill health at the time of the Naga trip. In February 1922, before setting out for India, he had suffered from a bad bout of influenza (see JPM correspondence, letters to Balfour, 5 and 8 February 1922). And, on his return he continued to suffer from malaria for a number of weeks (PRM ms collections JP Mills correspondence, letter to Balfour, 25 March 1923). A letter from Mills also reveals that Balfour had lost one-and-a-half stone in weight during his travels in India (ibid).

It is later on in 1923 that the first reference is made to Balfour having to have various digits amputated. In November, Mills writes and conveys his sympathy on hearing the news that Balfour had ‘lost’ one of his fingers. ‘You speak lightly of it, but I should hate to be shorn.’ (PRM ms collections JP Mills correspondence, letter to Balfour, 4 November 1923) A year later Balfour’s condition seems to have required further surgical attention, and Mills wrote afterwards,

‘I was immensely relieved to get a letter from you. The idea of your going under an anaesthetic did not please me at all. You evidently had a bad time, but thank goodness it is all over. Don’t go + have any more bits chopped off!’ (ibid, 24 December 1924)

Balfour’s amputations did not stop there, because a few months later Mills wrote again,

‘I am most awfully sorry you have had to have a toe pruned. You mustn’t overdo this lopping business. Nevertheless I rejoice that you are taking a rest, albeit a forced one in the Acland House.’ (ibid, 25 April 1925)

Balfour described this incident, which must have taken place in April 1925, as ‘a slight operation’ when writing to the Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society about other matters (Royal Geographical Society correspondence, block 1921-1930, Balfour to Hinks, 5 March 1925). It was more than likely linked to his gout. Mills – whose letters provide a revealing insight into Balfour’s health during this period – continued to be concerned for his friend the following year. In February 1926 he wrote,

‘I feel very worried about your illness. Do, for heaven’s sake, be careful of yourself, + don’t overwork. I will come down on Saturday morning, if that suits you, with the deliberate intention of diverting you from work as much as possible.’ (ibid, 2 February 1926)

Despite these set backs, and increasing discomfort from the arthritis, Balfour travelled to Africa three more times, in 1928, 1929 and 1930, as well as undertaking a cruise down the Amazon in Brazil (1927) and a holiday in Norway and Finland (1933). However, his health took another turn for the worse while in Norway in 1933. Mills was concerned:

‘[Y]ou must take care of yourself. A rupture is a fearful nuisance + a truss a burden. And that discharging finger of yours sounds bad. I hope you got it under control as soon as you reached England.’ (ibid, 24 September 1933)

Letters from Mills also indicate that Balfour was suffering from neuritis in his wrists in late 1933, which made writing and museum work difficult. He also had a ‘bad turn’ with his foot in December 1934, which may have been connected to the gout he had suffered previously, but in any case led to another operation in early January 1935 (see Royal Geographical Society correspondence, Balfour to Hinks, 9 December 1934, and Edith Balfour to Hinks, 5 January 1935). He was back in a nursing home in November that year for another operation on his foot (Royal Geographical Society correspondence, Balfour to Hinks, 1 November 1935). However, he still travelled to Sweden in June 1936 (ibid, 21 June 1936). He was not up and about for long, by early February 1937 he was back in a nursing home with an abscess on his foot (ibid, 2 February 1937), and by March he was reporting that he had to have ‘grafts’ for his foot. His ongoing ill health led him to resign from the Presidency of the Royal Geographical Society in 1938, although he continued as Vice-President until his death.

In his Annual Report for July 1936-July 1937 Balfour wrote that, ‘having had myself to spend some months in a nursing home, my own work has suffered serious curtailment, and, as a result, arrears of ordinary routine-work have accumulated.’ T.K. Penniman took on Balfour’s teaching commitments during this period, but the following year work in the Museum was again hampered by the Curator’s ‘prolonged illness’ (Annual Report July 1937-July 1938). However, Balfour and his wife were able to ‘give a big party’ to celebrate their Golden Wedding Anniversary on 12 June 1937 (PRM ms collections Blackwood General Correspondence T-Z, Blackwood to F.E. Williams, 23 September 1937). By January 1938 he could not walk at all and was in constant pain, presumably because of his arthritis (Royal Geographical Society correspondence, 4 January 1938). By March 1938 (two months before Edith’s death), he wrote that he had suffered from 16 months of continuous pain, with a bad left leg and was feeling ‘wretched’ (Royal Geographical Society correspondence, 16 March 1938). By April, he reported that he could only move a few yards with the help of crutches, and was undergoing treatment for ‘rheumatic gout’ at the Brine Baths Hotel at Droitwich Spa, where he stayed throughout May and possibly for longer (ibid, 18 April 1938 and 20 May 1938). In May, acute lumbago and sciatica were added to his list of symptoms (Royal Geographical Society correspondence, 3 May 1938).

On 27 May 1938, Edith died at the age of 71. Balfour wrote that she ‘could not recover from the shock of her fall’ and got progressively weaker until she passed away on the evening of the 27th. He added that, ‘[i]t is the greatest blow which a man can experience and it leaves me dazed and wondering why such things can happen’ (Royal Geographical Society correspondence, 28 May 1938). It is interesting that Balfour was writing to the Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society less than 24 hours after Edith’s death, and the notion of continuing his work must have been some comfort to him, even though he had already been absent from the Museum for many months. Penniman noted afterwards that Balfour had always intended to return to the Museum, even at the very last (Penniman, Annual Report 1939). A letter written to Blackwood in July 1938, in a very shaky hand, reveals that Balfour was still enduring ‘acute leg pain’ and suffering from malaria again (PRM ms collections Blackwood General Correspondence A-D, Balfour to Blackwood, 27 July 1938).

Balfour died in February 1939. He had been largely absent from the Museum for the preceding year, and had had to spend a significant amount of time away in nursing homes since early 1937. He seems to have been a sickly man, particularly in later life (although perhaps no more so than was usual at the time), with a catalogue of complaints: gout and arthritis, heart trouble, malaria and periodic nerve pain (neuritis and sciatica). However, none of this seems to have dampened his dedication to the Pitt Rivers Museum, and his enforced absences always seemed to infuriate him more than they depressed him. He continued to travel until at least the summer of 1936. There is no record of him ever contemplating retirement. Penniman summed up Balfour’s commitment to the Pitt Rivers Museum, when he wrote that ‘in spite of frequent and painful crippling illness which increased with the years, [Balfour] gave a life of distinguished and devoted service to the Museum’ (1953: 13).    

Balfour’s son, Lewis, who lived in London, was named in his father’s will as executor. Balfour made a short will in January 1916, naming Edith and Lewis as his executors. He left one thousand pounds to the Governing Body of Exeter College, ‘to be used for the benefit of the College in such a manner as they think fit’; five hundred pounds to the Royal Anthropological Institute; fifty pounds to the Ashmolean Natural History Society; fifty pounds to the Oxford University Junior Scientific Club; and fifty pounds to the Museums Association. He left H. Walters and George Kettle fifty pounds each. His will stated, ‘I further bequeath all the rest of my estate my furniture books specimens pictures and all other effects belonging to me unto my wife, Edith Mary Louise absolutely’. Since Edith had already passed away, Balfour’s estate was left in the hands of his son.

Lewis gave his father’s collection of 3-4,000 books and 6,000 pamphlets to the Museum, along with his ‘large and beautiful collection of musical instruments, fire-making apparatus and general ethnographical specimens … [that] were designed to augment or complete collections in the Museum, but these collections and the library were kept in his house because of severe congestion in the Museum’ (Penniman, Annual Report 1939). Penniman secured the use of the house at 9, Crick Road to display Balfour’s collections temporarily. His library was arranged and catalogued with the help of Mr R.J. Bates and Mr R.C. Gurden of the Radcliffe Science Library (ibid).

In 1969, Diamond Jenness, who had been taught by Balfour as a diploma student between 1908 and 1910, wrote to Beatrice Blackwood,

‘…the changes that have taken place in Oxford during the last 50 years have made it seem almost a foreign land. In my memory the kindly figure of Henry Balfour still stalks the museum halls and broods over the exhibition cases.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood General Correspondence J-M, 25 September 1969)

The collection

Through the vast network of people Balfour knew, and his own frequent travels, he built up an extremely large ethnographic and archaeological collection. As a field collector, Balfour has contributed more objects to the Pitt Rivers Museum than any other individual throughout its history. He is recorded as field collector for over 12,000 objects, nearly 2500 more than than the second highest contributor, Ernest Westlake, and nearly twice as many as the third ranking field collector, Beatrice Blackwood. As a donor, Balfour gave the second highest number of objects to the Museum after General Pitt Rivers: Balfour is recorded as the source for well over 15, 000 objects behind Pitt Rivers’ donation of nearly 18,500 objects. These numbers are calculated to include all objects catalogued on the Pitt Rivers Museum database up to 2004. Since objects are constantly being found and added to the Museum catalogue, the size of Balfour’s collection including only those objects with a 1945 or earlier accession date is somewhat different. As a donor, field collector and other owner (cancelling out all overlaps between these three categories), Balfour is linked to 12,732 objects with a 1945 or earlier accession date. This figure, of 12,732, is the one I have used for the purposes of the following research on Balfour’s collection.

Balfour collected material both directly for the Pitt Rivers Museum, in his capacity as Curator, and for his own private collection. The lines between these two collections are almost impossible to draw, especially since Balfour’s identity was so bound up with the character and development of the institution as a whole. According to Penniman (see quotation from the 1939 Annual Report above), and perhaps not surprisingly, Balfour’s private collection was intended to compliment the Museum’s collections but was kept at Langley Lodge because of the congestion problems at the Pitt Rivers. Of 12,732 objects linked to Balfour and accessioned pre-1945, 4554 were accessioned after his death. 3472 (76%) of these objects were given an accession date of 1938, the year before Balfour died, but since this is the bulk of his bequest it is likely that they were accessioned in 1939 and numbered retrospectively, particularly since no objects in his collection were given a 1939 accession date. It seems reasonable, therefore, to assume that these objects were kept as part of Balfour’s private collection until he died, when they were accessioned into the main Museum’s collections. As such, they invite a little further analysis.

Fire-making techniques and technologies were a lasting interest of Balfour’s, but it is especially interesting that the vast majority of objects classes as ‘fire’ in the Balfour collection came as part of the 1938 accession. In the Balfour collection as a whole there are only 62 additional objects classed as ‘fire’ meaning that virtually all of Balfour’s fire-making material was bequeathed at his death, rather than being added to the Museum’s general collections year by year as it was acquired. Balfour’s other great interests included musical instruments, lighting techniques, stone tools, and weapons. Music is another strikingly large category within the 1938 accessions. It would be fair to say that the second largest category of objects in this group of accessions as a whole are related to music. Again, the majority of Balfour’s music collection was part of the 1938 accession, which comprises 73% of all the Balfour accessions classed as ‘music’. To summarize, objects relating to fire and music dominate the 1938 accessions and also comprise the bulk of Balfour’s overall collection in these areas.

Since Balfour’s collection is so enormous, I will look in more detail at some of his research interests as suggested by this initial analysis of key classes in the collection. I will try and outline his intellectual work and publications alongside a consideration of some of the people he was in touch with, who sent him objects and information, and some of the places he was interested in and visited. This seems a reasonable approach, because Balfour himself organized his research into technological categories, as exemplified by his cabinet of notes, where each drawer contained notes and letters relating to a different field of interest, including ‘fishing’, ‘games’, ‘currency’ and so on. Three of the twelve drawers in Balfour’s cabinet – the largest number devoted to a single theme – are labelled ‘Fire-making’, and I will start by looking at this aspect of his collecting interests.

Balfour’s fire-making collection

Balfour’s interest in objects relating to fire-making technologies seems to have started early. He acquired several things in 1888 and 1889, which were eventually bequeathed to the Museum in 1939, indicating that he was beginning to build up a private collection relating to this subject only three years after he started working at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Interestingly, during these first two years, his acquisitions were made relatively close to home. He bought several bundles of sulphur matches from Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire and Brittany; tinder boxes from Guernsey, Surrey and Norway (he visited Norway between August and October 1888); matchboxes from Norway, and one from Scotland (previously in the Sturrock collection); a flint, steel and sulphur cup from Norway, a lighter and a matchbox lighter from France. This little clutch of objects comprises the relatively modest beginnings of what would become a substantial collection. It is likely that Balfour acquired all these objects himself, although he would soon be receiving similar things from a variety of friends and acquaintances. These earliest acquisitions explored ignition techniques that were in daily use little more than fifty years earlier: the design of matches, lighters and tinder boxes. That Balfour began with matches, matchboxes and lighters, objects that most British people took for granted during their everyday life, shows the fascination and respect he had for the workings of the material world around him, to which others barely gave a second glance.

It is difficult to know for certain what drew Balfour to fire-making technologies in particular, but there are various possible threads that may have led him in this direction. As a young man working in the Pitt Rivers Museum it is hardly surprising that he was greatly influenced by the work of General Pitt Rivers during the 1880s and 1890s. Pitt Rivers had spent a considerable amount of time exploring the development of firearms, which had led him to the conclusion that improvements in such weapons were made very gradually ‘as the cumulative result of a succession of very slight modifications’ (Balfour 1904: 3). This realization was at the root of Pitt Rivers’ more general theories concerning the cultural ‘evolution’ of material forms. Balfour acknowledged this work as the basis for a theory of development that could be applied to other ‘arts, appliances and ideas’ (ibid). Thus, Balfour himself accredited Pitt Rivers’ work on firearms as forming the foundation for a general, scientific approach to all kinds of material culture.

In the PRM ms collections, one of Balfour’s notebooks is dedicated to the history of western firearms (box 4). The pages are, as always, interspersed with additional sketches and loose notes and references added over time, and they chart the different historical stages from the early use of bows and cross-bows ‘for throwing pellets’, through to the needle guns and snider rifles of the mid-nineteenth century. It goes without saying that fulmination techniques were key to improvements in the efficiency of western firearms. In his notebook, Balfour explored the development of these ignition techniques. He described the use of the matchlock gun in the sixteenth century (where a moveable arm, holding a lighted wick, was brought down to light the gunpowder when the trigger was depressed); the wheel lock gun (where a flint was depressed against a moving metal wheel to create the spark); the flint lock gun in the seventeenth century (where the flint hit a metal striking surface); and, in the early nineteenth century, the percussion system (where a hammer hit a cap containing a fulminate of mercury which exploded on impact and ignited the gunpowder). Balfour’s carefully written notes show not only his own keen interest in an area that had also fascinated Pitt Rivers, but also the centrality of innovative ignition technology to his history of firearm design.

By the end of his life, Balfour had created a sizable collection of firearms and their accessories himself: 539 objects in his collection are classed as ‘firearm weapon’, and all but fifty of these were bequeathed to the Museum when he died. Although it is impossible to know for certain, his own research into fire-making technologies more generally might have been a natural expansion of his work on General Pitt Rivers’ collections and writings in this area.  

The need to produce fire was also common to all people throughout the world, and, as such, must have appealed to Balfour’s keen sense that artefacts provided clues by which scientists could unpick cross-cultural relationships over time. His overarching theoretical approach as an anthropologist was best applied to types of technology that had the broadest geographical range, because these objects allowed him to piece together a more complete history of cultural development. Fire-making techniques provided a perfect case study for tracking cultural ‘developmental links’ worldwide: not only did they unite humanity, they also distinguished people from all other living things. Fire-making also lay at the heart of various other technologies, many of which fascinated Balfour in their own right, such as lights and lighting practices, the use of bellows for metal furnaces, pottery and ceramic traditions, and, as we have seen, the development of weaponry. In short, the fundamental necessity of fire to human cultural life made it an obvious choice for the kind of anthropological investigation Balfour was interested in.

And, incidentally, Balfour had first-hand experience of the need to produce fire successfully in less than ideal circumstances during his 1888 trip to Norway. Having spent the best part of a month visiting towns along the northern Norwegian coast studying whaling traditions, Balfour and his travelling companion, Alfred Heneage Cocks, set out in two small boats from Elvenaes, and, accompanied by four local guides, made their way to the Norway-Finland-Russian border. This trip seems to have been more of an adventure than a research trip, and was achieved in fairly trying conditions. Their rowing boats were rather ‘cranky’ and periodically had to be hauled over land or up rapids.

‘Each about 14ft long, roughly constructed with three planks to a side, these being stitched together with the roots of the Red Fir, + pegged with the trenails to the ribs. No iron nails or clinkers. My boat was especially leaky, + required bailing out every 1/4 or 1/2 hour, which kept me busy all the time while afloat – in fact, to keep her afloat.’ (Balfour diary, 29 August 1888, PRM ms collections)

Along the way they stayed in small huts (that did not always have their roofs intact), on beds made of hay, grass or birch branches with reindeer skin blankets, or else they slept out in open with the up-turned boat as a shelter. They ate fish – grayling or trout – they had caught or squirrels they had shot, cooked on open fires, with potatoes and coffee from their supplies. On one of the more pleasant evenings:

‘We landed + cut down some trees for fire-wood. We hauled one of the boats ashore + turned it upside down to serve as a hut for Cocks + myself, stuffed moss between the gunwale + the ground to keep the wind out, + spread fir + birch branches for beds. We soon had a roaring fire + cooked grayling for supper.’ (Balfour diary, 30 August 1888, PRM ms collections)

During the night, Balfour and his companions had to get up several times to replenish the fire they had made. But, this was little hardship when compared to some of their later experiences. During the second half of the trip it rained constantly, and Balfour spent the last three days and nights of the journey soaking wet. Not surprisingly, this made the business of creating and maintaining a campfire extremely difficult. One particularly wet night,

‘It was impossible to make a fire, + anyway, as I had been unable to shoot or fish, there was nothing to cook, so I turned in on the billets to get out of the rain + slept, a wringing-wet ulster + macintosh doing duty as bed-clothes. The leaky boat dripped water onto me, but as I was already as wet as I could be, this made little difference. The wood billets were hard + angular, +, Lord, it was cold! I was shivering all over, but somehow I managed to get off to sleep.’ (Balfour diary, 5 September 1888, PRM ms collections)

The following day they tried to make a fire again, but it was still too wet and they had to settle for a meal of cold squirrel. Although Balfour’s diary retains its matter-of-fact, and sometimes even humorous tone, the final days of the excursion must have been very uncomfortable and difficult for him. Although he does not record how they made their fires, or go into any details about this particular aspect of the experience, travelling in these conditions must have helped him to appreciate the gift of fire-making and how vitally important it was for every human to be able to create and control fire, whatever their circumstances. (Incidentally, Balfour also became interested in local firearms on this trip, and bought two flintlock muskets ‘of the crudely made ‘snaphaunce’ type’ and two ‘percussion rifles of primitive make’ from the locals on 4 September, while at Lake Inari in Finland.)

Whatever the reasons behind Balfour’s first few fire-related acquisitions, this aspect of human cultural life became a real passion of his, and one that he fed and explored through his numerous friendships and professional contacts. The remaining evidence suggests that Balfour acquired a greater proportion of his fire-related objects through other people than for his collection as a whole. There are 361 people or institutions linked to Balfour’s collection in its entirety, either as field collectors or as ‘other owners’. Although fire-related objects only make up about 14% of the whole collection, 119 (almost exactly a third) of these people or institutions were Balfour’s source for fire-making objects. Of course, many of them gave or sold him other artefacts too, but it is interesting that such a high proportion of Balfour’s friends and acquaintances assisted him, at some point, in acquiring objects related to fire-making.

It may simply be that this part of his collection is better documented, but this in itself would be significant, particularly as much of the collection was not accessioned until Balfour’s death, many years after the objects were acquired, during which time such information could easily have been lost. Another interesting hint that his fire-making collection is slightly differently structured – or documented – than his collection as a whole is the fact that while Balfour is recorded as field collector for 77% of his whole collection, he is recorded as field collector for only 59% of his fire collection. These figures are a reflection of the numbers given above, but they reinforce the point. They imply that either more of the fire collection was acquired in the field by others, or that information regarding field collectors was kept more carefully for this group of objects.

One of the earliest recorded field collectors to give fire-making material to Balfour was Henry George Ashworth Leveson. [1] Only one letter survives from Leveson to Balfour in the PRM ms collections, so the details of their friendship remain unclear, but Leveson’s first contributions to Balfour’s collection arrived in 1890, less than a year after he had arrived in Burma as Assistant Commissioner with the Indian Civil Service (ICS) which implies that the two men knew each other during their undergraduate years or soon after. Leveson matriculated at Clare College, Cambridge during the Michaelmas Term of 1887, but never graduated. Instead, he took his exams for the ICS that same year (see Venn's Alumni Cantabrigiensis). He arrived in Burma on 14 December 1889, becoming Assistant Superintendent for the Southern Shan States in July 1892 and Deputy Commissioner in August 1901. He was stationed in Burma for twenty-five years, until his retirement in September 1914. Leveson died in January 1928. He gave 221 objects to the Pitt Rivers Museum during his career, 96 of which record Balfour as the donor and Leveson as the field collector. The majority of the objects given via Balfour were presented to him by Leveson between 1890 and 1900. The only group of objects not given between these dates are twenty objects he gave in 1909. Of these 96 objects, 76 were associated with fire, making Leveson’s contribution to Balfour’s fire collection not only the earliest but easily the most significant in terms of number of objects.

In 1890, Leveson presented Balfour with two specimens of local tinder from Burma, each in a glass-topped cardboard box, one of which was an example of the kind of tinder used with a mi-put or fire piston. Leveson also sent an example of the latter, with a piston of black buffalo horn, which he had obtained from a Buddhist monk at a monastery in the Southern Shan States (see the accession book entry for object 1938.35.80). Leveson gave Balfour a second fire piston the following year, this one was made entirely of black buffalo horn, and the head of the plunger was inlaid with metal studs (accession number 1938.35.81). He presented a box of four fire flints and a steel, and three fire-saw apparatuses along with this piston in 1891. Fire pistons – which create a spark when air is compressed suddenly as the piston is forced down the tube, igniting the tinder within – were of great interest to Balfour, who wrote an article about them for Edward Burnett Tylor’s Festschrift in 1907. In this essay he described those given to him by Leveson (eight in all), including these first two given in 1890 and 1891, but gave little contextual information about the transactions themselves. Although the other pistons collected by Leveson ‘were collected for me by my friend Mr. H.E. Leveson’, the earlier two were simply ‘given me by Mr. H.E. Leveson’ (1907: 23, 24, 26). It would be wrong to place too much importance on phrases like these, but whatever the circumstances of the donation, Leveson gave Balfour his first fire pistons, as well as numerous tinder boxes, fire-saws and fire flints from Burma over the years.

Fire pistons were well known in parts of South East Asia, and Balfour’s purpose in writing about them was to lay out the evidence for their geographical distribution, as far as it was known, and on this basis explore the possibility that they had originated there independently from those known to have been invented and used in Europe during the early nineteenth century. This question, of whether ‘the fire-piston has been transmitted from one geographical area to the other, or whether it was independently arrived at in the two regions’ caused Balfour some difficulties. He found it hard to conclude that these ‘relatively primitive peoples’ could have invented the apparatus themselves, but also recognised that because the evidence for its use across a wide-ranging geographical area dated back to the 1860s it was highly unlikely that it had been introduced by European travellers. He felt sure that if the ‘Eastern’ fire piston had been independently invented, it must have had its origins in some ‘happy accident’. In the end, he suggested such an accident might have occurred during the cleaning of one of the small muzzle-loading cannons found in the area. If a tightly-fitting cleaning rod was driven up the bore of the cannon with enough force it might have erroneously produced a spark. Balfour did not present this theory with any great confidence, but thought that it seemed ‘the least unlikely of the possible suggestions as to the prototype of the fire-piston’ (1907: 46).

Balfour’s essay on fire pistons reflected a general interest he had in fire-making practices in South East Asia. Although the vast majority of Balfour’s fire collection is European – (65%) – by far the second largest proportion of the collection is Asian. Within Asia, 200 objects are recorded as coming from countries within South East Asia, that is, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam; there are no objects from Brunei or Philippines in this part of Balfour’s collection. Over half of all the fire-related objects from South East Asia are from Myanmar (Burma). Looking back on H.G.A. Leveson’s contribution to the collection in light of this information, the objects he donated from Burma are shown to be particularly important.

And yet, numerous other people gave fire-making artefacts to Balfour from Burma and South East Asia. Some of these, like Leveson and Thomas Nelson Annandale, a Research Fellow in Anthropology at Edinburgh and later Deputy Superintendent of the Indian Museum, Calcutta, sent Balfour objects they had collected themselves during their travels. Others, like Donald Gunn, a medic based in London, and Enrico Hillyer Giglioli, a Museum Director and Professor of Zoology in Florence, gave Balfour objects they had acquired from other people, acting as middle-men in the chain of transactions.

Before taking up his post in Edinburgh, Thomas Nelson Annandale travelled in the Malay Peninsula during 1899 and again from 1901-1902, and Balfour received objects from both these trips. Annandale was educated at Oxford as an undergraduate, and from the few surviving letters he wrote to Balfour it is clear that he looked upon the latter as something of a mentor during this time. He seems to have written to Balfour fairly regularly during his travels, reporting on his route and on the collection he was building up. He also asked Balfour to arrange for him to give a paper on ‘the races of the Malay Peninsula’ at the BAAS meeting to be held in Belfast in 1902 (Balfour Fire-making 2, PRM ms collections). And in a later letter, dated April 1923, Annandale asked Balfour whether he thought it would be worthwhile for him to write up the information he had gathered concerning the distribution of the bismar in India (PRM ms collections Balfour correspondence, 9 April 1923).

From Annandale’s letters it is also clear that Balfour was writing back with specific questions regarding the cultural traditions Annandale was seeing first hand. For example, Annandale answered questions about the use of nose flutes in the Malay Peninsula, and whether the use of the fire-syringe was originally a Siamese or a Malay custom (PRM ms collections Balfour papers Fire-making 2, June 1902). Later, while in India, he sent photos of Nagas and Kuki that Balfour had asked for specifically (PRM ms collections Balfour papers correspondence, 29 January 1923). Thus, the few remaining letters suggest a fairly close relationship, in which both men looked to the other for help in certain areas of their career and research. Annandale’s collection at the PRM is certainly impressive in its size: there are 1364 objects, nearly all collected by Annandale himself (according to Objects PRM ms collections 10/2004).

Balfour also received fire pistons from Burma through his friendships with men like Donald Gunn, who passed on a Burmese fire piston collected by Frank Atlay (as well as a matchbox he himself may well have collected in Sudan, and a fire steel from Idaho, USA), and Enrico Hillyer Giglioli, who acted as intermediary in a number of transactions for Balfour. Giglioli was twenty years older than Balfour and had studied zoology in London in the early 1860s. During this period he had met Edwin Lankester, whose son Ray was the same age as Giglioli and became his ‘most constant companion and intimate friend – a friendship which [was] maintained by frequent exchange of visits and regular correspondence for nearly 50 years’ (The Times, 28 December 1909). Ray Lankester became Linacre Professor of Comparative Anatomy at Oxford in 1891, and although he made many enemies during his seven years in the Chair, it may have been through this link with the Oxford University Museum, where Lankester was based, that Balfour met Giglioli and became his friend. After his death in 1909, Giglioli’s wife, Constantia, wrote to Balfour and acknowledged the comfort she felt from knowing ‘what friendship bound my dear husband to you and how sincere and deep is your regret for his loss’ (PRM ms collections Balfour papers correspondence, 22 March 1912). Giglioli was also a passionate collector. As well as his professional commitments as Director of the Royal Museum of Natural History and Professor of Zoology in Florence, he built up a large private collection, which benefited from his ‘extensive acquaintance with all the museums and collectors of the world’, and he was remembered as a prehistorian and ethnologist as well as a Zoologist (The Times, 28 December 1909).

Giglioli was clearly a useful man to know. Balfour exchanged some material with him in 1895, receiving in return a set of fire sticks and a tinder pouch collected by Luigi Balzan from Paraguay. Interestingly, Balfour sent Giglioli six Burmese stone axes collected by H.G.A. Leveson, and donated by him in 1899, in exchange for these things, as well as 3 stone implements from Malaysia collected and donated by Robert Sandilands Frowd Walker in 1892. Then, in 1903, Giglioli and Balfour exchanged more objects. This time, Balfour received a fire piston from Burma, collected by the Italian explorer and zoologist, Leonardo Fea, who died in the same year, 1903. Giglioli also gave Balfour two sets of fire sticks from the Nicobar Islands, collected by Edward Horace Man (who had been Deputy Superintendent of the Andaman Islands and had contributed material to Pitt Rivers’ collection); a fire-making apparatus of flints and bamboo tubes from Indonesia given to Giglioli by A. Suchetet; a Corsican strike-a-light, and, from Italy, two fire steels given to Giglioli by ‘Balducci’ and P. Bonomi; and two gun flints which may have been collected by Giglioli himself. The Italian gave other, non-fire related objects as well: a bullroarer from Brazil, and arrows from New Guinea (including 4 from the Fly River district ‘taken by’ Sir William McGregor in 1896). In return, he received three more stone implements from the Frowd Walker collction, a flint scraper from Petrie’s excavations at Abydos, two stone adze blades collected by Mr. Clough from the Chatham Islands and bought from H.C. Palmer in 1893, and a group of stone implements from Pitt Rivers’ collection, including 3 flint arrowheads and three stone celts from Ireland, 3 hammer stones from the Isle of Thanet and a flint implement from the South Downs. Some of these objects may also have been given in exchange for the two Congolese chert blades from Sir John Evan’s collection given by Giglioli in 1904.

Various other items made it from Giglioli’s collection to Balfour’s over the years, including three flutes from South America originally in the Giglioli collection but bought by Balfour from William Ockelford Oldman in 1908. Giglioli also presented the Pitt Rivers Museum with musical instruments and stone tools in 1907, and negotiated the sale of a group of nephrite blades and sling stones with their bags, collected by Gustave Glaumont and bought by Balfour for £16 in March 1903. Thus, Giglioli and Balfour, both curators of important Museum collections and their own private collections, were linked by a two-way flow of objects and a strong friendship during the fifteen years or so before the Italian’s death in 1909. The 1903 exchange in particular enriched Balfour’s fire-making collection, while Giglioli benefited from the Pitt Rivers Museum’s strong collection of stone tools, a few of which he received in return. Through Giglioli, Balfour received fire-related objects from well-known field collectors like Leonardo Fea and Edward Horace Man, whose material does not appear elsewhere in Balfour’s collection.

Another museum curator with links to Oxford who helped Balfour to find out about the fire-making traditions of Asia and South East Asia was Robert Walter Campbell Shelford. Shelford, born in 1872, was a graduate from Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and had worked as a demonstrator in biology at the Yorkshire College, Leeds, before becoming curator of the Sarawak Museum in 1897. He lived in Sarawak until 1905, when he moved to Oxford to work in the Hope Department at the University Museum, under Edward Poulton, where he stayed until his premature death from tubercular disease in 1912 (Poulton 1916). The surviving letters between Balfour and Shelford date to 1904, but are clearly fragments from an on-going correspondence between the two men. Shelford was also corresponding with and sending specimens to Poulton during this period, who was Hope Professor of Zoology at Oxford (see Shelford to Balfour, 9 September 1902, PRM ms collections).

Shelford’s three surviving letters to Balfour in the PRM ms collections are very thoughtful, focused and helpful, and relate directly to the objects he had acquired for Balfour, or those he was hoping to acquire. In 1902, he wrote to say that although it would be impossible to get Balfour a ‘Milano skull’, he had managed to get him ‘the simple band-drill for fire production’, and had ‘ordered 3 fire-syringes’. He explained to Balfour that he thought the Saribas Sea-Dyaks had borrowed the use of the fire piston from the Malays, who they had intermarried with to some extent, and he offered some information on the game of ‘knuckle-bones’ and a kind of trap that Balfour had obviously asked him about. He was also planning to send Balfour a medicine-basket (PRM ms collections Balfour papers Fire-making 2, 9 September 1902). Their correspondence concerning fire pistons continued in 1904, when Shelford wrote two letters in April to accompany objects he was sending on to Balfour (ibid). In the first letter, Shelford repeated his belief that the Sea Dyak fire piston was originally a Malay invention, and offered Balfour a classification of Bornean fire-making appliances generally.

Shelford also acted as an intermediary in exchanges that benefitted Balfour and the Pitt Rivers Museum. A few days later he wrote to Balfour again to say that he had just received two fire pistons which he was forwarding from D.I.S. Bailey, Resident of Simanggang, who wanted to present them to the PRM.

‘…he was urged some years ago to collect specimens for the Pitt-Rivers Museum by a friend who’s wife’s uncle was either you or Professor Tylor (I can’t make out from Bailey’s letter which of you he means, but I think it must be Professor Tylor as you are much too young to be B’s friend’s wife’s uncle); however, Bailey has always considered that the Sarawak Museum had first claim on him so we have benefited largely at your expense as it were. Now you are getting your just dues – at least you will think so... I send the parcel by this mail and hope that you will receive it all right; don’t forget that the pistons are presented by Bailey and not by me.’ (ibid, 17 April 1904)

These fire pistons, although clearly sent as a result of Balfour’s personal interest in the history and use of fire pistons in South East Asia, were accessioned under Bailey’s name who was given as both the field collector and the donor, as Shelford had requested (PRM accession number 1904.19.1 and .2). Shelford’s letters also reveal that he was instrumental in securing fire-making material for Balfour from Charles Hose, who was Resident of Sarawak’s fourth administrative division, and served on the Council Negri (state council). Hose was a collector of plants and natural history specimens, many of which he contributed to the Sarawak Museum having been encouraged to do so by the Museum’s founder, Raja Charles Brooke (Baker 2004). Shelford, as curator of the Museum from 1897 to 1905, knew Hose well and they co-authored a paper in the JRAI on Bornean tattooing methods in 1906 (Hose and Shelford: 1906). As a result of this friendship, Shelford could write to Balfour in 1904,

‘I am glad to say that I was instrumental in getting Hose to send you a Kyaw fire-making appliance (‘pesong’); I worried at him until he got quite keen and he writes me that he has sent you an example...Hose writes me that he is certain that the fire-piston is a Malay invention and that the Dyaks have borrowed it from them in comparatively recent times; I quite agree with him, the Malays and Sea-Dyaks of the Saribas river were at one time associated a good deal in piracy etc. and there was a good deal of intermarrying, at the present day the ‘orang Saribas’ have more of the Malay in them than any other tribe of Sea-Dyaks, and as far as I can make out are the only tribe who know the use of chelop [Sea Dyak fire piston].’ (ibid, 11 April 1904)

The pesong (wooden stick) and pusa (rattan thongs) fire-making apparatus were duly sent by Hose, along with a letter from him explaining that they were used during naming ceremonies, when the Kayan people prayed to the god Laki Pesong (both God of Fire and Protector of Children (see Balfour 1926: 103)) for the child’s long life, and that if fire was produced the first time it was considered ‘the best possible omen’ (accession numbers 1904.10.13 and .14; RDF, 12 March 1904). Hose also mentioned that he had had an example of ‘the more ordinary kind’ of fire-making apparatus made for him so he could send it to Balfour to illustrate the process. Balfour, who wrote the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’s entry for Hose after his death in 1929 (see PRM ms collections Balfour papers box 5, PRM ms collections archives), bought another fire stick from Hose in 1906, each end of which was carved to represent the head of Laki Pesong.

Interestingly, Hose was a contemporary of William Skeat’s while in Malaysia. Skeat was another Cambridge graduate who had joined the colonial services in Malaysia, and both men were mentored in their ethnographic work by Alfred Cort Haddon (see Balfour also corresponded with Skeat about his interest in fire making appliances, although the surviving letters date to 1901 and 1902, by which time Skeat was back in Cambridge having been forced to resign the colonial service due to ill health. His illness had been contracted while leading the 1899 expedition to the Malay States of Trengganu and Kelantan, the same expedition which Thomas Nelson Annandale had joined as junior zoologist, an experience that had stimulated the latter man’s own interest in ethnology. Annandale gave seventy-three objects from the expedition to the Pitt Rivers Museum between 1899 and 1901, as part of his larger contribution to the collections mentioned earlier.

Meanwhile, Skeat sent Balfour three Malaysian fire pistons in August 1901, on loan, so that Balfour could, ‘do exactly what you like with them in the way of photographing them, measuring + describing them +c.’ before sending them back (PRM ms collections Balfour papers Fire-making 2, 30 August 1901). Skeat wrote again about the fire pistons a few weeks later, saying that they came from the interior of Patani, about thirty miles up the Patani River, and that they were used by the Siamese more commonly than the Malays, ‘who appeared to have borrowed the idea from them’ (ibid, 22 September 1901). Skeat was also helpful in suggesting other people who might be able to give Balfour more information: W.H. Flower, formerly at the Bangkok Museum, but by 1901 working in Cairo; the present curator of the Bangkok Museum, or people at the Siamese Legation in Ashburne Place; H.N. Ridley (an Oxford graduate), who was Superintendent of Gardens and Forests in Singapore and could tell Balfour if there any fire-pistons in the Singapore Museum and where they come from; and Professor Giles at Cambridge, or Professor Douglas at London who could help on whether the fire-syringe was to be found in China (ibid).

Thus, Annandale, Skeat, Hose and Shelford were all linked to each other as well as to Balfour’s fire-making collection. Balfour’s contacts for the countries of South East Asia were certainly impressive, but his interest in fire-making benefited from a host of other contacts with people who could provide him objects and information from other parts of Asia as well. For example, four people who each made significant contributions to Balfour’s collection generally also gave him fire-related material from India: John Henry Hutton, A.C. Lovett, William Crooke and Edward Lovett. There are 67 objects from India in the fire-making collection, and 16 of these were collected by Hutton while he was living in Assam as a member of the Indian Civil Service. Hutton gave Balfour an example of leaf tinder used in the Naga Hills in 1914, and a group of fire sticks, fire thongs and more tinder in 1915. In 1920 he gave a small, basketry work tinder-box. Balfour and Hutton were friends, and during the winter of 1922-1923 Balfour visited Hutton and his ICS colleague James Phillip Mills, and joined them on their official tours through the Naga Hills. There are numerous references to local fire-making practices in Balfour’s diaries for the trip. He was given an ‘exhibition of fire-making in the Naga fashion, with a cane thong sawn round a forked stick which was held in the ground’ while at Baimho in October 1922, and watched a ‘youth making fire with a stick and cane thong’ while at Mongsemdi in early November. On both occasions, Balfour was interested enough to note the time it took to create fire: 20 seconds on the first occasion, and 25 seconds on the second (PRM ms collections Balfour papers diaries, box 3).

Balfour was generally observant of the evidence for fire-making as he travelled, noting when he saw fire-making sticks which had been thrown away by the side of the track they were travelling along near Seromi, and the presence of fire sticks in nearly every house in the fields by the Doyang River. One of the graves he saw in the village of Chipoketami displayed fire sticks alongside other ‘trophies’ (ibid, 21 October 1922, 27 October 1922, 23 November 1922). The custom in the Naga area was to split the ‘hearth’ fire stick longitudinally, part the way down, and hold the split open with a stone or a piece of wood. This meant that the tinder could be placed in the split, so that when the thong was ‘sawn’ across the stick the resulting spark would catch the tinder straight away. Balfour published a comprehensive paper on ‘Frictional Fire-Making with a Flexible Sawing-Thong’ in 1914, which described all known forms of the custom, including its use in the Naga Hills. In fact, Balfour described in this paper a fire-making set with a hearth of split lime wood and a thong of bamboo, which he had ‘just received, through the kindness of J.H. Hutton’ (1914: 33). Given this knowledge, Balfour was particularly interested to find an example of a fire stick that was not split during his visit to the Naga Hills:

‘On enquiry, I learned that this kind was used for divination only, it not being essential to obtain a spark for this purpose, but only to char + break the thong in the process. Later, we had a demonstration of divination by stick + cane thong frictional fire-making. When the thong broke at the end of the sawing process the fibres standing out on the two broken ends were examined to see whether they were longer on the strip of cane held in the right hand or on that held in the left; if the former, the omen was good. [The thong in the right hand represents the person or unit consulting the omen, that in the left represents the opposing force, e.g. disease, enemy, game hunted, evil spirits, etc].’ (8 November 1922, while at Chantongia)

Later, when he was about to leave Mokokchung and embark on the last leg of his journey (without Mills or Hutton) to the Plains, he had been asked by an Ao man whether he would like to consult the omens himself, to find out whether his journey would be successful. Balfour accepted the invitation and experienced this divination using fire-sticks first hand. When the thong broke the parts were of unequal length, indicating that he would travel onwards untroubled, which Balfour found ‘satisfactory’. Although he added that,

‘It occurred to me afterwards that I was perhaps unwise to resort to divination, since, if the omen has been inauspicious, the carriers would probably have refused to start + I might have been delayed, with awkward results.’ (ibid)

Balfour wrote up his findings on this form of divination for a short paper in Man which was published in 1926. He pointed out that the ceremonial use of fire-making technologies put a different slant on the interpretation of material culture that had often been assumed to be purely practical in application. In these cases, it was not essential to get a spark, since the place where the thong broke was the ‘all-important factor’ (1926: 103). By way of comparison, Balfour mentioned the information he had received from Charles Hose regarding the use of fire-making apparatus during naming ceremonies in Sarawak. During these ceremonies, the fire-stick was often carved in anthropomorphic form to represent the god Laki Pesong with the split in the wood becoming the god’s legs, and the thong was sometimes drawn across only one of the legs, a practice that would be useless for actually producing fire. Furthermore, the omens were read by comparing the lengths of the broken thong, in a similar way to the Naga’s divination practices. Balfour argued that obtaining fire might be irrelevant in the ritual context in Sarawak too and he finished his paper, as he often did, with an invitation for confirmation on the matter from his readers.

William Crooke, like Hutton, was a member of the Indian Civil Service working in north-west India. Both men were keen ethnographers and took a great interest in the cultures around them in India and in the developments in ethnographic and folklore scholarship at home. Their careers covered the years between 1878 and 1920 when the government took a keener interest in trying to understand the local Indian populations and encouraged their employees to take an interest in cultural traditions and beliefs (Osman 1989: 8). Crooke was of a slightly earlier generation than Hutton and retired from the Civil Service in 1895, after which he became a leading figure in folklore circles in Great Britain. He was President of the Anthropology Section of the BAAS in 1910, and President of the Folk-Lore Society for two years following that, as well as editing the Society’s journal, Folk-Lore. There are six objects in Balfour’s fire-making collection that were presented to him by Crooke: three fire steels from Uttar Pradesh, given in 1893, and a set of fire sticks from the same area (1938.35.35; 1938.35.651-.653). Crooke and Hutton contributed similar numbers of objects to Balfour’s collection as a whole: Crooke collected 33 objects and Hutton collected 41 objects that were donated by Balfour. Perhaps more tellingly, the two men’s entire collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum are significantly larger. Crooke is linked to over 1100 objects to the PRM), while Hutton is linked to over 3500. The size of these collections alone indicates a close relationship with Balfour and the Museum, and it is hardly surprising that these two men also contributed some material to Balfour’s fire-making collection.

It is not entirely surprising that these two ethnographers, who spent their working lives in India, would contribute Indian material to the PRM and to Balfour’s collection, but Edward Lovett, who lived in London, is better known for his collection of objects relating to British superstitions, magic and folklore. Lovett was head cashier at a city bank in London, but his collection was his real passion. He wrote about it in a book called Magic in Modern London, published in 1925. ‘Lovett's magic objects were labelled and packed into boxes which filled three rooms in his house; 100 mangles lined the staircase and children's dolls stared out from floor to ceiling shelves’ (Thomas). Lovett contributed a set of Indian fire-sticks (given in 1892), a fire steel with cotton cord tinder also from India (given in 1893) and a strike a light pocket knife from the Netherlands (1893) to Balfour’s fire collection (1938.35.32, .658 and .679), and nearly 50 objects to Balfour’s collection as a whole. He also gave Balfour two tinder bags containing fire-making accessories, one from India and the other from Bangladesh, in 1892 and 1893 respectively. Both bags may have been collected by A.C. Lovett, and although the identity of A.C. Lovett is unclear, it would be surprising if the two men were not somehow related.

Edward Lovett corresponded with Balfour, although there is little remaining evidence of their relationship beyond a couple of letters dated 1902 and kept in amongst Balfour’s notes on writing traditions, in which the two men debated the origin of the tally and the history of the term ‘to tally’ (PRM ms collections Balfour papers Cabinet ‘writing’, 9 November 1902, 30 November 1902). Balfour also kept copies of some of Lovett’s papers, and a circular letter Lovett sent regarding the museum for children he was planning and which gave a ‘Scheme of Arrangement of the Lovett Collection of Toys, Playthings, and Games’. There is also, amongst Balfour’s notes, a newspaper clipping giving details of a paper Lovett read at a meeting of the Croydon Microscopical and Natural History Club, on ‘Coinage: its evolution and its curiosities’ (See PRM ms collections Balfour papers Cabinet, ‘games’ and ‘currency’). Such scraps of paper indicate Balfour’s on-going interest in Lovett’s work and his collection. Lovett contributed a number of British and Irish candles, rush lights and lamps, and Albanian gun-flints to Balfour’s collection over the years. Although we do not know when Balfour and Lovett met, it is worth noting that Lovett, who was born in 1852, actually lived in Croydon and that Balfour himself had been born in Croydon (although he was eleven years younger).

Lovett and Balfour also had a common acquaintance in the form of Fred Snare, an antiquarian based in Suffolk who wrote letters to Balfour largely lacking in any punctuation or grammar. In October 1899, Snare wrote to tell Balfour that he had, ‘forwarded to your address 2 flint axes 5 a lids [sic] ordered by Edwd Lovett Esq Croydon’ and added that he had, ‘sent Mr Lovett a splendid collection of flint and glass arrow head’s [sic] 7 or 8 colours today’ (PRM ms collections Balfour papers correspondence). At the end of another letter, sent in January 1913, he asked, ‘Did Mr Lovett ever show you the nude Roman Pottery votive offering I found’ (ibid). Snare seems to have mainly supplied Balfour with stone implements, both local ones and examples from overseas, but he did send Balfour a French, sheet brass, pocket tinder box in 1913 which made its way into the latter’s fire collection and was donated to the Museum in 1939 (1938.35.801). There are also hints that Balfour sent Snare objects in exchange. On one occasion, Snare hoped Balfour could ‘get me one of those cigarette lighters I fancy the wheel is Aner metal ([cerium] of iron and silicon) invented by Dr. Aner to kill our flint industry…’ (ibid).

Snare’s contribution to Balfour’s fire-making collection would have taken its place within the largest section of objects: that is, those that originated in Europe. It may well be that information regarding field collectors has been lost over the years as memory fades (and if written documentation was not retained), and as a result Balfour might have been recorded as the possible field collector for objects he did not acquire first hand. However, it is also realistic to assume that Balfour was better able to access European material himself from his base in Oxford, particularly as more than half the European collection was actually from the United Kingdom.

That said, one of the most important contributors of European material to Balfour’s fire collection was Edward Bidwell, including two Indian fire-sticks that were collected by A.C. Lovett. These fire-sticks apart, all the objects Bidwell gave to Balfour were European. Bidwell contributed the second largest number of objects to Balfour’s fire collection of any individual. Unlike Lovett, who appears to have collected all manner of material, Bidwell’s collection was almost exclusively focused on the history of fire-making techniques and he was acknowledge to be an expert on the subject. In 1926 his private collection was bought by the match manufacturing company Bryant and May, who exhibited it in a gallery at their firm’s offices in Bow, East London (Christy 1926). In his catalogue for the new Bryant and May Museum of Fire-Making Appliances, Miller Christy wrote that the collection had been formed ‘through the enthusiasm and diligence of an exceptionally-skilled private collector, Mr Edward Bidwell, of London’ (ibid: 4) and acknowledged the collector’s help and advice during the production of the catalogue.

Bidwell, Christy and Balfour all knew each other, and Balfour’s collection includes objects given to him by both these men. In fact, it would seem from a letter Bidwell wrote to Balfour in 1926 that Balfour had commented on Christy’s catalogue for the Bidwell collection: in the letter Bidwell thanks Balfour ‘for the catalogue proofs’ (PRM ms collections Balfour papers, ‘Fire making [2]’). The earliest surviving correspondence between Bidwell and Balfour in the PRM ms collections dates to November 1889, only a year after Balfour’s first recorded fire-related purchase, when Balfour wrote inquiring about an ‘Instantaneous light box’ in Bidwell’s collection that he was hoping to examine. Bidwell, in his reply, stated that he could not spare the artefact because some friends were coming to view his collection, and he added that he did not know of any other examples that Balfour might be able to procure for himself. He finished his letter by commenting on his most recent purchases:

‘Last week I picked up a nice little brass Compression tube + I have just obtained a pistol tinder box with a percussion cap instead of a flint – made by old Joseph Egg.

‘I should like when next in Oxford to see your collection as it is only by this means that one can find out what to look for.’ (PRM ms collections Balfour papers, ‘Fire making [3]’)

In a follow-up letter a couple of weeks later, Bidwell discussed the Instantaneous light box further and added that he hoped Balfour would be able to come and see his collection when he was next in London. He also wrote that he knew of a Roman lamp in town with ‘a swivel and twisted hook’ he would like to show Balfour one day (ibid). Other comments in Bidwell’s letters suggest that the two men used each other’s collections as a means of measuring and improving the quality of their own: in 1926, Bidwell wrote that he ‘should like to know what are the many things wh[ich] I lack and you have’ (PRM ms collections Balfour papers, Fire making [2]’).

Both Bidwell and Christy mentioned each other in their letters to Balfour. In 1903, Christy wrote to ask Balfour’s advice on whether to include a discussion of the fire piston in an article he was writing on ‘Instantaneous Lights’. Bidwell, he wrote, thought that he ought to mention it even though it was not a ‘chemical contrivance’, and Christy wanted to reassure Balfour that if he did so he would ‘do no more than notice it briefly’ and was not intending to ‘cut into your field’ (ibid). Christy, in January 1924, updated Balfour on the situation as Bidwell’s collection was installed in Bow: ‘You ought to contrive to get to Bow before long. I know Bidwell wants to take you there. His collection will be spaciously housed + well displayed when contemplated arrangements have all be carried out.’ (PRM ms collections Balfour papers. ‘Fire making [3]’). In 1926, as the men debated the distribution of the fire plough in the Pacific Islands, Bidwell wrote to Balfour, explaining that Christy had thought the fire plough was restricted to the Pacific Islands but ‘he would be much interested in hearing of any other part of the world it is used in’ (PRM ms collections Balfour papers, ‘Fire making [2]’). Taken together, the few remaining letters between these three men suggest that they enjoyed a reasonably close relationship, centred on the study and exchange of objects relating to fire making.

Christy also had an on-going relationship with Bidwell’s collection once it had been installed at Bow, because he wrote to Balfour in November 1927 to inform him that a kind of fire piston combined with a walking stick – an idea patented in England in 1807 by Richard Lorents – ‘has turned up and has been acquired for Bow’. Christy sent details of the instrument in the form of a draft copy of the object’s catalogue entry, which he was planning to add to the existing catalogue he had written for the collection (Christy’s letter and the catalogue entry he sent are inserted in Balfour’s hard-bound copy of his 1907 Fire-Piston article. Edward Lovett may have played some part in these exchanges, particularly as some of his objects were subsumed into Bidwell’s collection over the years as well as Balfour’s (Christy 1926: 4)

In an earlier letter, dated 16 January 1926, Christy ponders the possibility that Balfour’s collection might be combined with Bidwell’s in some way:

‘Yes: if your collection + Bidwell’s could have been combined, the arrangement would have been ideally perfect; but, on the other hand, there is one great advantage of keeping them separate – that there is no probability of both being destroyed by fire. If the combined collection had been in some great National Museum, there would be practically no need to consider such a contingency; but, if in private hands, the risk must be taken into account.’ (ibid)

His comments are clearly in direct response to some suggestion made by Balfour in an earlier letter. It is unlikely that Balfour would have considered parting with his own collection, seeing it go either to Bidwell or to a National Museum, so he may have raised the possibility that the two could be united to form an independent collection or one under his own curatorship (1926 was the year Bidwell’s collection was sold to Bryant and May). Miller’s point that there was a greater risk of damage by fire when a collection was in private hands implies that Balfour had wondered about subsuming Bidwell’s collection into his own.

Nearly all Bidwell’s contributions to the Pitt Rivers Museum came via Balfour’s fire-making collection: only three – a Chinese whistling arrow, an English bismar and a Spanish hanging lamp – did not. Bidwell gave Balfour objects on numerous occasions between 1891 and 1923 (three years before his collection was sold), but the vast majority were kinds of matches or matchboxes. Forty of 57 fire-related objects were matches, sets of matches or matchboxes, from the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Sweden. In addition, Bidwell gave a variety of cigar lighters from France, Austria and Germany, two English ‘instantaneous light boxes’, two fire-making hydrogen lamps, a Hungarian fire steel and two English tinder boxes, along with the Indian fire-sticks already mentioned.

Many of the other people who gave European fire-related objects to Balfour have already been discussed: among them Giglioli, Lovett, Snare and Gunn. To round up this overview of Balfour’s fire-making collection, I will have a brief look at some of the people who contributed to the collection and had particular links to Oxford, before drawing some conclusions regarding the collection’s general characteristics. Men like Alexander James Montogomerie Bell, Sydney Gerald Hewlett and Francis Llewellyn Griffith were all educated at Oxford and collected European material which found its way into Balfour’s fire collection. Bell, Griffith and Balfour were all members of the Ashmolean Natural History Society in Oxford. Bell (born in 1845) was a Balliol graduate who went on to become a lecturer and school teacher, work which brought him back to Oxford between 1890 and 1911 during which time he worked as a private tutor. He was president of the Ashmolean Natural History Society from 1898-1899 (Hilliard 1914: 24) and published on local prehistoric flint industries in journals like the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (e.g. Bell 1894, 1900). Although only one letter from Bell to Balfour survives, relating to one of Balfour’s papers on Easter Island art, Bell gave Balfour a strike a light flint from Corsica in 1905, as well as a gun flint from Iffley, Oxfordshire the following year, and two flint tools from Suffolk.

In 1901, Francis Llewellyn Griffith, a graduate of Queen’s College, became Oxford’s first reader in Egyptology. He became Professor of Egyptology in 1924. He lived in the Oxford area until his death in 1934 and bequeathed his considerable fortune to the University to establish a permanent centre for the teaching and research of Egyptology (Simpson 2004). Griffith’s contribution to the collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum is substantial: he is recorded as a field collector for nearly 5490 objects, and whilst nearly all those objects are from Egypt or Sudan, amongst them is a tinder box from Bedfordshire, containing two fire steels, a flint and a damper, given to Balfour in 1909 and bequeathed by him to the Museum in 1939 (1938.35.1120). Although there are no surviving letters between Griffith and Balfour, the two men must have known each other quite well even if only in a professional capacity. For example, as part of the preparations for the Anthropology Diploma in the early 1900s, both A.M. Bell and Griffith were asked whether they would be willing to help by teaching anthropology students should the plans for the Diploma go ahead. Bell offered his ‘hearty assistances’, and wrote that he would be giving eight lectures on the Neolithic Age in any case and anthropology students were welcome to attend; Griffith also replied positively, saying that he would be happy to help ‘any serious students’ (Oxford University Archives, DC/1/2/1).

Not surprisingly, various other Oxford graduates figure in Balfour’s fire collection and amongst them are three who were taught by Balfour on the Anthropology Diploma course in the early decades of the twentieth century: Barbara Whitchurch Freire-Marreco, Melville William Hilton-Simpson, and Charles Kingsley Meek. A brief look at each of these students will give an indication of what was, in fact, a much wider set of diploma graduates who kept in touch with Balfour and contributed material to the Pitt Rivers Museum during his life time. Freire-Marreco was one of the first Oxford students to have been taught by Balfour for any prolonged period of time. In his 1905 annual report for the Museum, Balfour noted that Freire-Marreco had undertaken ‘a course of study in Prehistoric Archaeology under my direction during the Summer Term’. She continued her studies with Balfour the following year, and in 1907 was one of the first students to be admitted on the new Diploma course. She kept in touch with Balfour over the years (although only a couple of letters, one undated and the other dated in July 1918, survive in PRM ms collections Balfour papers), and gave nearly 700 objects to the Museum’s collections. Freire-Marreco undertook fieldwork in the USA in 1910, and returned there in 1913. The only specimen collected by Freire-Marreco recorded as part of Balfour’s collection is an example of cedar bark tinder from Arizona, given to him in 1913.

Hilton-Simpson was admitted to the Oxford Diploma course in 1911, and in 1913 he became a research student working under the auspices of the University’s Committee for Anthropology. By this time he had already spent many years travelling and collecting in North Africa and the Belgian Congo. Having taken his Diploma, he went back to Algeria and spent many years researching there. A letter he wrote to Balfour in March 1914, while he was near Batna, makes it clear that they had an agreement by which his Algerian collection would be sent to the Pitt Rivers Museum. In his letter, Hilton-Simpson lists some of the objects he has acquired for the Museum, ‘as samples of the sort of things I have gone for’. He clearly had the PRM collections in mind as he acquired material, mentioning, for example, that he had ‘collected one or two odd flint worker’s tools as one is necessary for your gun series, it being used as a turnscrew etc as well’, and that he had got a series of charms which he hoped would ‘be a nice addition to the P.R, especially as it has good notes’. He was apparently working to strict terms, which meant that he needed to check with Balfour in specific cases when he wanted to keep something for himself:

‘My wife has had several articles of jewellery etc given her by wives of sheykhs etc + I have received an old silver mounted pistol + a little leather pouch, which when cleaned should prove to be gold-embroidered.

‘I hope the P.R will not think I am stealing if I retain these presents + also 3 or 4 silver objects I have bought for my wife. I have not collected any other things for myself + you may be quite sure that the price paid for objects sent to the P.R does not represent what they cost to collect.’ (PRM ms collections Balfour papers, correspondence)

By the time Hilton-Simpson wrote this letter, he had already given Balfour two Algerian fire steels and two flints for his fire collection (given in 1913), which Balfour later bequeathed to the Pitt Rivers Museum. Ten years later, in 1923, he gave Balfour a further six sets of fire sticks (twelve objects in all), also from Algeria and which also formed part of Balfour’s final bequest, so their friendship must have been a long one.

Charles Kingsley Meek was registered on the Oxford Diploma course in 1913, a year after he had been posted to northern Nigeria with the colonial civil service. He had been at Brasenose College as an undergraduate three years earlier, and returned to Oxford later in life, in the early 1940s, after his retirement from the Civil Service in 1933, to take up a Research Fellowship back at Brasenose. During his time in Nigeria he studied and wrote about the social institutions of those he administered, and became a well-respected ethnographer and teacher (see Kirk-Greene 2004). Again, unfortunately little survives of his correspondence with Balfour, only a single letter remains amongst Balfour’s papers, written by Meek in December 1920 while in Oxford on leave, concerning the use of brass rods as currency in the Nigerian province of Bassa (PRM ms collections Balfour papers, ‘Currency’). And yet, Meek gave 144 objects to the Pitt Rivers Museum, and eight via Balfour. All eight of these were given to the Museum as part of Balfour’s bequest in 1939. Seven are Nigerian voice disguisers (one given in 1922, and the others in 1931), which form part of Balfour’s important collection of musical instruments, and one is a specimen of vegetable tinder for use with a flint and steel, given to Balfour in 1922 (1938.35.122).

My discussion has only touched on a fraction of the vast network of people and objects that shaped Balfour’s collection as a whole. There are many more who contributed to his fire collection alone, which only makes up 14% of Balfour’s entire collection (as it was in 1945). I hope, by dipping into some of these relationships, to have shown the vast complexity of the network of people and things that flowed around Balfour and the Pitt Rivers Museum. One gets the sense of a large, fluctuating group of academics, amateurs and professionals who accepted objects as a natural extension of their intellectual analysis and debates. The objects that found their way into Balfour’s collection had often passed through more than one set of collector’s hands on the way. Objects were a means by which these people communicated with each other and explored each other’s worlds. Although Balfour travelled extensively himself, as a full time curator and teacher he had no opportunity for learning first-hand about different cultures in any depth. For this, he nurtured a stream of objects and information channelled through friends who were either in the field themselves or able to access objects as they moved through European networks and markets.

When friends and acquaintances were far away, objects could be more telling than words. Balfour used objects as the physical evidence for cultural and social characteristics that words would have made too bulky for him to handle on such a grand geographical and historical scale. Objects are more immediate than verbal descriptions and have a clarity and simplicity that words can sometimes complicate. They are themselves first-hand evidence for the cultural, personal and physical forces that have shaped them. Objects allowed Balfour to bring the wider world into his life in Oxford in a very unequivocal sense, but in order to fully understand that world Balfour had to take the physical characteristics of the object extremely seriously. In many cases, these material traits were all he had to work with. Reading one particular exchange between Balfour and his friend Miller Christy, I was struck by the fact that the physical details of the objects themselves were really at the heart of all Balfour’s collecting relationships. Miller wrote to Balfour in January 1926 and explained a new theory he had come up with for the origin of the fire piston in South East Asia. Christy thought that the fire piston may have been an ‘accidental development from the blow-gun’. Both were used in the same regions of the world, and both used the same ‘palm-scurf’, which was employed as tinder for the fire piston and to ‘secure proper ‘windage’ for the dart’ in the blowgun. Christy suggested that if the gun’s tube had become blocked, trying to fire the dart from the gun might accidentally ignite the palm-scurf within, leading to the invention of the fire piston.

Already, it is clear that Christy believed that the physical workings of the two objects in question held the key to their historical relationship, but it was Balfour’s response which really struck me because of its precision, method and scrupulous attention to detail. He wrote his notes on the bottom of Christy’s letter, heading them ‘Comment by H.B.’:

Compression of air in boring blowguns improbable, as it is hard to see how a chisel-ended boring-rod can compress the air in the tube. If sufficiently tightly fitting to confine the air, the borer becomes unworkable. Doubtful if wood-dust would ignite quickly enough, + if it did, the oxygen would be exhausted too quickly to give indication of a spark. Ignition during use of blowgun unlikely. Lunger [sic] could not compress the air forcibly enough to cause a spark to ignite the palm-scurf, which is not always used behind the dart, but only locally. Even if ignition took place, the jammed palm-scurf ‘tinder’ would not be withdrawn at once, so that the spark would not be noticed.’ (Christy’s letter is in HB’s hardbound copy of his article on The Fire Piston, 1907)

Balfour’s response to Christy’s suggestion regarding the blowgun shows a deep working knowledge of both fire pistons and blowguns, and a real familiarity with the physical qualities of the objects in question. Balfour had actually used some of the fire pistons in his collection. One French, pocket fire piston given to him by Christy in 1902 ‘works very satisfactorily with a really ‘quick’ form of tinder’, and the Burmese piston collected by Frank Atlay and given to Balfour by Donald Gunn in 1907 came with a small bag of vegetable floss tinder, ‘with which I have been able to produce fire with considerable ease on many occasions’ (Balfour 1907: 22, 24; objects 1938.35. 92 and 1938.35.83). This brief exchange with Christy highlights the fact that, for Balfour, the observable, working qualities of different kinds of material culture lay at the heart of any possible theory about the history of human society. Objects were a kind of extension of the people who had produced them and used them, as well as becoming an expansion of Balfour’s own thinking about these people as he studied, used and theorized with them. They were also seen as revelatory, in that they had the capacity to reveal truths about the world if they were analysed in the correct way. For all these reasons, the ability to gather together and study first-hand a vast number of similar objects from around the world was fundamental to Balfour’s anthropological approach.

It is a credit to Balfour that he was able, with seeming ease, to draw on such a range of friendships and associations that could supply him with objects and information according to his interests at any one time. He was obviously a man who enjoyed a wide circle of acquaintances and friends. It would also be true to say that many of these people were known to him through his work at the Museum, and that he was one element in a much larger network of collectors, traveller and ethnographers who customarily exchanged objects and ideas. And yet, the complexity and size of Balfour’s collecting network is impressive. The surviving written documentation – in the form of biographical information, letters, published works and diaries – that resulted from this mass of contacts over the years is relatively meagre. It is impossible to trace with any degree of accuracy the precise nature of many, if not most, of Balfour’s acquaintances and friendships because only a handful of letters and references remain. And yet, it is possible to trace the flow of objects between these men and women using the Museum’s object-related documentation. And, in the case of Balfour’s fire-making collection, such work benefits from the level of information regarding dates and exchanges which survives despite the fact that the bulk of the collection was accessioned in 1939, many years after Balfour acquired it.

Although my analysis has tended to focus on the human relationships that structured Balfour’s fire collection, it seems appropriate to tie up this discussion with a brief overview of the objects themselves. Although it is difficult to give definite figures, a quick run through of all the objects in the collection indicates that tinder boxes and tinder pouches, and matches are the strongest categories, followed by fire sticks, fire steels (including strike a lights), tinder and fire pistons. The strength of the European collection, which has already been mentioned, and the dominance of tinder boxes and matches indicates that Balfour was just as interested in the history of western fire-making traditions as he was in more remote cultural practices. As I mentioned at the beginning of my discussion, Balfour’s first acquisitions in this area were from Great Britain, Norway and France. In fact, it might be more appropriate to think less of a divide between ‘the west’ and ‘the non-west’ generally, since, for Balfour, all cultural traditions were part of the same unified history of mankind. This meant that it was just as important for him to study the material culture of his own society as it was to analyse data from places further a field. The need to produce fire, quickly and efficiently, united humankind and distinguished humanity from all other living things. It would be surprising if the very fact that fire-making was common to all human groups did not attract Balfour to the subject, even though his theoretical inclinations led him towards constructing a cultural hierarchy out of this fundamental unity.

How far non-western people were to be credited with technological innovations was something which Balfour clearly struggled with, but despite his own cultural biases, his writings seem to be infused with a real respect for the ease and skill with which people manipulated the material world around them. In his essay on ‘The Fire-Piston’ in 1907 and his 1914 paper ‘Frictional Fire-making with a Flexible Sawing-thong’, he carefully considered the possibility that these particular techniques for creating fire had arisen independently in each distinct geographical area because there was no evidence for a cultural or historical connection. In both cases, he, somewhat reluctantly, concluded that their occurrence in Europe probably came about independently from their use in other parts of the world. Balfour’s fascination with local fire-making techniques while he was in the Naga Hills in 1922-1923 – arguably the most [‘involved’] of all his travels – is evident in his diaries, which record the occasions when he requested demonstrations, observed people creating fire, and collected fire-making objects. He carefully noted down the time it took for different people to create fire despite their unsophisticated tools. Although there is no evidence for a specific case, the fact that Balfour experimented with the fire pistons he had acquired, played some of the musical instruments he collected, and gave demonstrations of flint knapping to his students, adds weight to the notion that he might have tried creating fire with two fire sticks as the people of the Naga Hills did. I cannot help concluding that Balfour’s fire collection, although created by a man who saw himself as a dispassionate scientist and who wrote papers characterized by their impartiality, actually allowed Balfour to empathize with those he studied rather than distance himself from them.

Obituary of Balfour by R.R. Marett

The Stapledon Magazine [magazine of Exeter College, Oxford] Vol. IX., no. 64., June 1939

‘In Memoriam. Professor Henry Balfour, F.R.S., Fellow.’ By R.R. Marett pp. 284-285

Exeter College and the University as a whole are the poorer for the loss of Henry Balfour, who, though of ripe age, and latterly the victim of a painful and persistent infirmity, displayed to the end the full force of a strenuous character and keen intellect. Indeed, one might think of him in terms of his favourite diversion, fencing. For, with a heart as true as steel, he had an understanding of like temper, while there was a rapier-like quality in the very build of his light, but tough and elastic, body.

Entering Trinity in 1881, he proved himself a notable oar, and with a little more weight could have stroked the University boat. Exeter, however, seeing that, with both Moseley and Ray Lankester to its credit, it could claim a certain pre-eminence in biology, was to some extent responsible for Balfour’s education; since he graduated in that subject, and throughout his life retained a lively interest in all its branches. Nay, his whole career was determined by the accident that Moseley, whose experience in the ‘Challenger’ had made him an anthropologist second only to Tylor, persuaded the youthful Balfour, and with him Baldwin Spencer of Exeter, to help with the arrangement and actual transport of the rich collection of primitive handiwork just then presented to the University by General Pitt-Rivers.

Those were the days when Darwinism, having at length won a public hearing, was searching for crucial evidence in all directions. It was thus a timely discovery on the part of Pitt-Rivers, who may be said to have anticipated Darwin up to a point, that the arts and crafts of mankind are subject to special development of their own; so that, for instance, the bow generates instruments so diverse as the piano and the rifle. Hence it was highly important that a trained biologist should be in charge of the new Museum, the first of its kind to embody the evolutionary principle. Balfour, who got the job and held it for the [p 285] next forty-six years, had a ticklish problem to face; for he must apply to a human activity the kind of evolutionary law appropriate thereto – one by no means to be identified off hand with the law that regulates our own heredity.

Not only then, did Balfour show himself a master of sound method, submitting every working hypothesis to verification in the most rigorous detail; but, when later on the Diploma of Anthropology was instituted, he proved himself a teacher who could lead others in the right way. In particular, he could show them how to discipline the mind by use of the eye. Moreover, in his own case the eye found an ally in the hand; for not only did he unfailingly recognize a given technique but could likewise reproduce it almost as neatly as the original artist. Wherefore woe to those who tried to force a fake upon him.

So much for his work; and one might go on to recount his various honours, his Exeter Fellowship, given in the first instance for research, his F.R.S., and his numerous Presidencies, ranging from that of the Royal Anthropological Institute, which came early, to that of the Royal Geographic Society, which he held but the other day. For us, however, the outstanding memory must be ever that of a very loyal member of the College, and a close friend of us all; who sincerely mourn a comrade for whom we felt not only admiration but cordial affection.


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Howarth, Janet 2000 ‘ ‘Oxford for Arts’: The Natural Sciences, 1880-1914’ in M.G. Brock and M.C. Curthoys (eds) The History of the University of Oxford volume VII Nineteenth-Century Oxford, Part 2 Oxford: Clarendon Press

Hutton, J.H. 1949 ‘Balfour, Henry 1863-1939’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press

Kirk-Greene, A. H. M. 2004 ‘Meek, Charles Kingsley (1885-1965)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press [accessed Oct 2004:]

La Rue, Hélène 2004 ‘Balfour, Henry (1863-1939)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press [accessed Oct 2004:]

Marret, R.R. 1939 ‘Prof. Henry Balfour, F.R.S.’ in Nature no. 3616, 18 February 1939, p. 291

Myres, J.L. 1953 ‘Memories of Sir Edward Tylor’ in Anthropology at Oxford: The Proceedings of the five-hundredth meeting of the Oxford University Anthropological Society, held on February 25th, 1953, under the chairmanship of Sir Alan Pim Oxford: Holywell Press, pp. 6-7

Osman, Talib 1989 William Crooke, a folklorist Bhubaneswar: Mayur Publications

Penniman, T.K. 1953 ‘A Note on the Beginning of Anthropology in Oxford’ in Anthropology at Oxford: The Proceedings of the five-hundredth meeting of the Oxford University Anthropological Society, held on February 25th, 1953, under the chairmanship of Sir Alan Pim Oxford: Holywell Press, pp. 11-14

St. George Gray, H, John Myres, et al. 1953 Anthropology at Oxford Oxford: Holywell Press

Thomas, Chloe ‘Lucky Charms Of Old London’ in The Croydon Guardian [accessed Oct 2004]

Wallis, Wilson Dallam 1957 ‘Anthropology in England Early in the Present Century’ in American Anthropologist vol. 59, No. 5, pp. 781-790

Woodward, B.B. 2004 ‘Moseley, Henry Nottidge (1844-1891)’, rev. Terrie M. Romano, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, [accessed Oct 2004:]

Summary of Balfour’s publications:

1888 ‘On the evolution of a characteristic pattern on the shafts of arrows from the Solomon Islands’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute vol. 17 pp. 328-332

1889 ‘Exhibition of Arrows from the Solomon Islands’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute vol. 18, p. 30

1889 ‘Note on the use of ‘Elk’ Teeth for Money in North America’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute vol. 19, p. 54

1889 ‘On the Structure and Affinities of the Composite Bow’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute vol. 19, pp. 220-250

1889 ‘The Fin Whale Fishery in North Lapland’ Midland Naturalist

1890 ‘The Origin of Decorative Art as Illustrated by the Art of Modern Savages’ Midland Naturalist

1891 ‘The Old British ‘Pibcorn’ or ‘Hornpipe’ and its Affinities’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute vol. 20, pp. 142-154

1892 ‘Some Implements from the Malay Peninsula in the Pitt-Rivers Museum’ Archaeologia Oxoniensis

1894 ‘Evolution in Decorative Art’ Journal of the Society of Arts

1895 ‘Ancient Double Hooks of Bronze’ Reliquary and Illustrated Archaeologist

1896 ‘A Primitive Musical Instrument’ Reliquary and Illstrated Archaeologist

1897 ‘Life history of an Aghori Fakir; with exhibition of the human skull used by him as a drinking vessel, and notes on the similar use of skulls by other races.’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute vol. 26, pp. 340-357

1897 ‘On a Remarkable Ancient Bow and Arrows believed to be of Assyrian Origin’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute vol. 26, pp. 210-220

1898 ‘Notes on the Modern Use of Bone Skates’ from Reliquary and Illustrated Archaeologist  

1898 ‘Sledges with Bone Runners in modern use’ Reliquary and Illustrated Archaeologist

1898 ‘Notes and News: Note on Musical Bows’ American Anthropologist vol. 11, No. 6, p. 187

1899 ‘The Natural History of the Musical Bow. A Chapter on the developmental history of stringed instruments of music. Primitive Types’ Oxford: Clarendon Press

1900 ‘Beschreibender Catalog der Ethnographischen Sammlung Ludwig Biros aus Deutsch-New-Guinea (Berlinhafen)’ review in Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute vol. 30 p. 36

1901 ‘A Spear-head and Socketed Celt of Bronze from the Shan States, Burma’ Man vol. 1 pp. 97-98

1901 ‘Guilloche pattern on an Etruscan Potsherd’ Man vol. 1 p. 8

1902 (with H.D.R. Kingston) ‘Native Smoking Pipes from Natal’ Man vol. 1. pp. 11-12

1902 ‘New Hebrides. Memorial Heads in the Pitt-Rivers Museum’ Man vol. 1 pp. 65-66

1902. ‘Australia. A swan-neck Boomerang of unusual form’ Man vol. 1 p. 33

1902 ‘Australia. Three Bambu Trumpets from Northern Territory, South Australia’ Man vol. 1 pp. 33-34

1902 ‘Australia. Strangling-cords from the Murray River, Victoria, Australia’ Man vol. 1 pp. 117-118

1902 ‘The Goura, a stringed-wind musical instrument of the Bushmen and Hottentots’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute vol. 32 pp. 156-176

1903 ‘On the method employed by the natives of N.W. Australia in the Manufacture of Glass Spear-Heads’ Man vol. 3 p. 65

1903 ‘‘Thunderbolt’ celts from Benin’ Man vol. 3 pp. 182-183

1904 Presidential [of the section] Address to the Anthropological Section of the BAAS, Cambridge

1904 ‘The Relationship of Museums to the Study of Anthropology’ Presidential Address at the Anthropological Institute, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

1904 ‘Report on a Collection of Musical Instruments from the Siamese Malay States and Perak’ in Fasciculi Malayenses Anthropological and Zoological results of an expedition to Perak and the Siamese Malay States, 1901-1902 undertaken by Nelson Annandale and Herbert C. Robinson

1905 Presidential Address at the Anthropological Institute, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

1905 ‘Fiji. A double-headed club from the Fijian Islands’ Man vol. 5 p. 17

1905 ‘Solomon Islands. Bird and Human Designs from the Solomon Islands’ Man vol. 5 pp. 81-83

1906 ‘Note upon an implement of Palaeolithic type from the Victoria Falls, Zambesi’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

1907 ‘Flint Engraved Pottery from the Ruins at Khami and Dhlo Dhlo, Rhodesia’ Man vol. 6 pp. 17-19

1907 ‘The Fire-Piston’ from Anthropological Essays presented to Edward Burnett Tylor in honour of his 75th Birthday

1907 ‘Haida Portrait Mask’ Man vol. 7 pp. 1-2

1907 ‘The Friction-Drum’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute vol. 37 pp. 67-92

1907 ‘A Short Holiday in Lapland’ The Stapledon Magazine

1909 Presidential Address to the Museums Association, Maidstone Meeting

1909 ‘The Origin of West African Crossbows’ Journal of the Royal African Society vol. 8, no. 32, pp. 337-356

1910 ‘Archaeological and Ethnological Research in South Africa’ from The Times

1910 ‘Modern Brass-casting in West Africa’ in Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute vol. 40 pp. 525-528

1911 ‘The Origin of West African Crossbows’ from the Smithsonian Report for 1910

1912 ‘Notes on a collection of ancient stone implements from Ejura, Ashanti’ Journal of the Royal African Society vol. 12, no. 45, pp. 1-16

1913 ‘Kite-fishing’ in, Essays and Studies presented to William Ridgeway on his Sixtieth Birthday

1914 ‘Frictional Fire-Making with a Flexible Sawing-Thong’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute vol. 44 pp. 32-64

1915 ‘Note on a new kind of Fish-hook from Goodenough Island, D’Entrecasteaux Group, New Guinea’ Man vol. 15 p. 17

1916 *‘Origin and Relationship of Hani, Tewha-Tewha, and Pou-Whenua’ in Man vol. 16 (Dec) p. 181

1917 ‘Some types of native hoes, Naga Hills’ Man

1917 ‘Ceremonial Paddle of the Kalabari of Southern Nigeria’ Man vol. 17 (April) pp. 57-58

1917 ‘Some Ethnological Suggestions in regard to Easter Island, or Rapanui’ Folk-Lore

1918 ‘Some Specimens from the Chatham Islands’ Man vol. 18 (Oct) pp. 145-148

1919 Presidential address as President of the Somersetshire Archaeological and Natural History Society

1919 ‘An Eskimo Week-Calendar’ Man

1921 ‘Varieties of the Common Gannet’ British Birds

1921 Correspondence ‘The Statues of Easter Island’ in Folk-Lore

1921 ‘The Archer’s Bow in the Homeric Poems an attempted diagnosis’ Huxley Memorial Lecture for 1921, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute vol. 51 pp. 289-309

1922 ‘Earth Smoking-Pipes from South Africa and Central Asia’ Man Vol. 22 (May) pp. 65-69

1922 ‘The Use of the Term ‘Sikh.’ Man vol. 22 (Nov) pp. 165-166

1923 ‘The Welfare of Primitive Peoples’ Presidential Address reprinted from Folk-lore

1923 ‘The Geographical Study of Folklore’ Presidential Address reprinted from Folk-Lore

1924 ‘The Origin of Stencilling in the Fiji Islands’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute vol. 54 pp. 347-352

1925 ‘The Status of the Tasmanians among the Stone-Age Peoples’ from the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society of East Anglia

1925 ‘Thorn-Lined Traps and their Distribution’ Man vol. 25 (March) pp. 33-37

1926 ‘Ceremonial Fire-making in the Naga Hills’ in Man, vol. 26 (June) pp 101-103

1929 ‘Concerning Thunderbolts’ in Folk-Lore

1929 ‘South Africa’s Contribution to Prehistoric Archaeology’ British Association for the Advancement of Science, South Africa

1929 ‘Stone Implements of the Tasmanians and the Culture-Status which they Suggest’ Australian AAS, Hobart Meeting 1928

1929 ‘Music’ reprinted from Notes and Queries on Anthropology, fifth edition

1932 Foreword to Al’Adun Hausawa by F.W. Taylor and A.G. Webb

1932 ‘Thorn-lined traps in the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford’ Man vol. 32 (March) pp 57-59

1932 ‘Notes on the Composite Bow from Hunza’ Man vol. 32 (July) p. 161

1934 ‘The Tandu Industry in Northern Nigeria and its Affinities Elsewhere’ from Essays presented to C.G. Seligman

1934 ‘IV An Account of the Artefacts Collected in Patagonia and Fuegia’

1934 ‘Occurrence of ‘Cleavers’ of Lower-Palaeolithic Type in Northern Nigeria’ Man vol. 34 (Feb) pp 21-24

1937 Address at the Annual General Meeting (Royal Geographical Society) of the President, Henry Balfour

1937 ‘Spinners and Weavers in Anthropological Research’ The Frazer Lecture

[1948 (posthumous; ed. B.M. Blackwood) ‘Ritual and Secular uses of Vibrating Membranes as Voice-Disguisers’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute vol. 78 no. 1/2 pp 45-69]


[1] There is a slight mystery regarding Leveson’s identity because the accession book refers to him as ‘H.E. Leveson’, as did Balfour in his 1907 article ‘The Fire Piston’ (e.g. page 23 and 26). However further research has not revealed any information about an ‘H.E. Leveson’, while H.G.A. Leveson’s career is chronicled in the India Office List. Furthermore, a letter from H.G. Leveson to Balfour can be directly linked to objects that are recorded in the accession book as collected by H.E. Leveson, suggesting that the two are in fact one and the same person.

This document was written by Frances Larson during the Relational Museum project, funded by the ESRC, 2002-2006

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