Adrien de Mortillet

Photograph courtesy of The Wellcome Library, London
Adrien de Mortillet (1853–1931) was the son of the famous French anthropologist and archaeologist Gabriel de Mortillet (1821–1898). He was born in Geneva and spent his early childhood in Switzerland and Italy, while his father was in political exile. The de Mortillet family returned to France in 1864, when Adrien was 11 years old.

Aged 19, Adrien travelled to Moscow in Russia, where he worked in a French perfume factory, and became a circus juggler and an aeronaut. Two years later he returned to France and completed five years of military service.

Adrien spent the next ten years of his life working with his father. He illustrated many of Gabriel de Mortillet’s books, including Le Préhistorique: Antiquité de L’Homme or The Prehistoric: Man’s Anquiquity, published in 1882.

In 1889 Adrien de Mortillet became a Lecturer at the School of Anthropology in Paris, and for the next forty-two years he taught comparative ethnology and technological ethnography. In 1903 he was appointed principal archaeologist on a scientific expedition to South America organized by the French government, and in 1929 he was made Chair of Prehistoric Anthropology.

Throughout this period, de Mortillet’s work focused on comparing prehistoric societies with existing tribal societies and cultures. He did this by studying the objects that he collected, from tools and weapons, to jewellery, clothing and ceramics.

In 1931, a few months before his death, de Mortillet sold his object collections. He ceded his collection of prehistoric objects to the Chinese government, and sold his large amulet collection to the Wellcome Museum in London. The collection was transferred to the Pitt Rivers Museum in 1985.

The objects in de Mortillet’s collection of amulets come from five continents and were made during different periods, from antiquity to the early 20th century. They reflect different beliefs, religions and folklores. Many of the amulets would have been worn on the body, but the collection also includes other protective and ritual objects, including ex-votos, icons, pottery, and stones.
muCEMThe Pitt Rivers Museum only holds de Mortillet's amulet collections. Substantial ethnographic material remained in France at the Musée National des Artes et Traditions Populaires in Parisnow rebranded MuCEM (Musée des civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée) and relocated to Marseille. View photographs of the de Mortillet collection at MuCEM taken between 1918 and 1931.

Artisans of Memory

Behind the scenes of an amulets project

This series of short films follows the progress and practices of those connected with the Small Blessings project as they unravel the stories surrounding these curious objects.

The full series of films may be viewed here.


Amulets Competition

The competition is now closed and a winner has been announced. Find out more here.

Designated Outstanding Collection LogoArts Council England LogoprmvcEmail us: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Copyright 2012 The Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford