Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Alexander James Montgomerie Bell

Matt Nicholas,
Archive Archaeologist, Workplace Learning Bursary, Institute for Archaeologists

Bell whilst studying at Balliol College, Oxford. Repr. by kind permission of Master and Fellows of Balliol College  BellAJM-26-5

Bell whilst studying at Balliol College, Oxford. Repr. by kind permission of Master and Fellows of Balliol College BellAJM-26-5

Alexander Montgomerie Bell was a classical scholar and teacher, as well as an enthusiastic amateur archaeologist, natural historian and anthropologist. He spent his life collecting objects, 3,965 of which now reside in the Pitt Rivers Museum. [1] 260 of these were donated to the museum by Bell during his lifetime, the remaining 3,705 being sold to the Museum, by his son, following his father's death in 1920. 3,923 of the total are archaeological objects, and 3,835 of these are stone tools, representative of his passion for prehistoric archaeology. He is perhaps best known for his work at the palaeolithic site of Wolvercote (NGR: SP 4980 1052) on which he published three papers. (Bell 1894b, 1894c and 1904)[2] Thanks to Bell's work in recovering the large majority of stone tools, Wolvercote is now considered to be one of the most important Palaeolithic sites in the Thames Valley. (Wymer 1968: 87) Despite this valuable work, Bell, the man, and his work have remained something of an enigma. One recent publication (Lee 2001) on Wolvercote and Iffley failed to reference any of Bell's work or even mention him by name. See here for further information about Bell's Iffley collections.

Early Life

Bell was born during 1845 in Edinburgh, the fourth son of Alexander Montgomerie Bell (1808–1866) and Margaret Bell (née Colquhoun, 1812–1886). (Blaikie 2004) His father was a celebrated professor of conveyancing at the University of Edinburgh, and it would seem that A.M. Bell (he never used James in his initials) was happy to follow his father into a life of teaching and academia. After graduating from Balliol College (University of Oxford) in 1869, he held positions at Worcester College (1869, University of Oxford), Marlborough College (1870, Wiltshire), Fettes (1870-1875, Edinburgh), St. John’s College (1876-1877, University of Oxford) and Limpsfield School (1877-1890, Surrey). (Edward 1914: 23-24)

Bell at Balliol. Reproduced by kind permission of the Master and Fellows of Balliol College  Bell AJM-26-008 [10]

Bell at Balliol. Reproduced by kind permission of the Master and Fellows of Balliol College Bell AJM-26-008 [10]

Bell was by trade a classical scholar. Whilst studying at Balliol he won the Gaisford Prize for Greek Verse with his composition 'Dante poeta apud Inferos', (Bell 1867) and over the course of his life published further classical and literary texts including Poems selected from the works of Robert Burns, (Bell 1876) the Second Greek Reader, (Bell 1879) and The Johnson Calendar. (Bell 1916) (See the Bell reading list below for details). His professional career never wavered from this path, and his interest in natural history and archaeology seems to have been a hobby rather than a quasi-professional undertaking. What sparked this interest is uncertain, but it would seem that his collecting activities began whilst he was working at Limpsfield School. In 1883 he first acquired palaeolithic tools from gravel pits in the district. (Evans 1897: 610) Between 1883 and 1906 Bell amassed 961 objects from Limpsfield. [3] Most of his items from Limpsfield were acquired by 1891. (pers. comm. Sarah Milliken and Laura Phillips to Alison Petch)

Oxford life and the Ashmolean Natural History Society of Oxfordshire

Bell married Anna Mary in 1875. (Edward 1914: 23-24) In 1890-91 they moved to 7 Rawlinson Road, Oxford. This relocation seems to mark the start of an expansion in his archaeological activities (although it limited his activities at Limpsfield). 1891 also marks the start of the relationship between Bell and the Pitt Rivers Museum - in spring of that year he donated his first three objects: in March a flint scraper from Shotover Hill [1891.11.1] and in May two scrapers from Shotover Hill and Sinodun Hill respectively [1891.14.1-2]. During the next nine years Bell donated only a further nine archaeological objects to the museum. His energy appears to have been devoted instead to collecting and studying palaoelithic artefacts at Wolvercote and elsewhere. In 1894 he published two short reports on Wolvercote in Antiquary and a further article on 'Flint Implements from the Chalk Plateau of Kent'. (Bell 1894b, 1894c, and 1894a respectively)

On 5 April 1894 Bell joined the Ashmolean Natural History Society of Oxfordshire (ANHSO), and almost immediately became one of the society's most active members. In 1895 he gave his first exhibition to the society of "a number of neolithic and palaeolithic implements recently found by him at Wolvercote" (see exhibitions list below for details) and organised the first of a series of group trips to the brick works at Wolvercote. These trips were later fondly remembered by Frank Bellamy (1908: 105) "his discourses on the spot were of interest and much appreciated. Upon seven occasions has he conducted geological parties there, and seven times he has brought them back without loss" (intriguingly later in the same volume twelve excursions to Wolvercote between 1895 and 1900 are recorded, are we to perhaps infer that these five extra trips were not 'without loss'?). Unfailingly after these excursions Bell and his wife (also a member of the society) would open their home and provide tea and refreshments to the weary group.

On 28 January 1898 Bell assumed the presidency of the society and embarked upon an ambitious program. He developed a more active series of lectures for the society, instituted the regular publication of the society's activities (as the yearly Report of the ANHSO, published from 1901 to 1907, subsequently titled from 1908 the Report and Proceedings of the ANHSO) and in 1898 started a long running series of fundraising Christmas lectures for children. (Bellamy 1908: 105-106) In 1899 Bell was also elected a fellow of the Geological Society, and published a paper 'On the Occurrence of Flint Implements of Palaeolithic Type on an Old Land-Surface in Oxfordshire, Near Wolvercote and Pear-Tree Hill' in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. (Sollas 1921: 73; Bell 1899)

After standing down from his presidency on 24 January 1900 Bell's activities quietened down. He was succeeded as president by Henry Balfour (Bellamy 1908: 106), the Curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum, who was himself a keen collector of stone tools. Bell exhibited little, just one display of four Palaeolithic implements, and completed only one publication (Bell 1901) which was written in 1900 but its publication delayed, see Bellamy 1908: 106. In 1902 his wife Anna Bell passed away (Bellamy 1908: 466) and although Bell was to stay heavily involved in ANHSO for the rest of his life there were to be no more day trips to Wolvercote and no more afternoon teas.

Bell's sphere of activity

Bell never wrote about the methodology (explicit or implicit) which governed his archaeological activities. Within Oxfordshire and Surrey his activities seem to have focused on a small number of sites (such as Limpsfield, Wolvercote or Iflley), with acquisition occurring over a long period of time (see table 1). There are no large 'sites' (with 50 or more objects) from which Bell collected his objects in any time less than one year [4]


Date Range

No. of archaeological objects

Limpsfield (Surrey) [3]

1883 -1906


Wolvercote (Oxon.) [2]

1894 - 1908 [4]


Iffley (Oxon.) [5]

1897 -1910 [4]


Boars Hill (Oxon.) [8]

1908 - 1912


Table 1: selected sites showing date range over which archaeological objects were collected.

The blue arrow marks the position of Bell's house at 7 Rawlinson Road. Base map data Copyright 2009 Google

The blue arrow marks the position of Bell's house at 7 Rawlinson Road. Base map data Copyright 2009 Google

Those sites from which he collected in detail rarely seem to be more than a few miles from his house. The map alongside this text illustrates four of Bell's collection sites around Oxford with the red targets. These four sites have an (arbitrary) minimum of 40 stone tools each; together these four points represent 35% (1,115 individual artefacts) of all the Oxfordshire archaeological objects (2,968 total) in the Pitt Rivers Museum's collection and 82% of Bell's Oxfordshire archaeological objects in the Pitt Rivers Museum (1,366 total). The sites on the map are (1) Wolvercote [2], (2) Summertown [7], (3) Iffley and (4) Boars Hill [8]. In Limpsfield in Surrey the approach appears to have been similar, with the majority of tools being collected whilst Bell was employed locally. There were occasional acquisitions from further afield such as 1912.19.4, a 'Sand-blown pebble' collected by Bell in 1890 from Aberdeenshire. [Base map data Copyright 2009 Google, 2009 Tele Atlas]

Bell's object acquisition methods are an enigma, it is not known whether he collected the tools himself or purchased them from gravel pit workers. (pers. comm. Sarah Milliken to Alison Petch) We can possibly infer his actions based on comparisons with the recorded activities of contemporary collectors such as Worthington George Smith [1835-1917]. (O'Connor 2007: 89-90) It is, therefore, suggested that the collection was amassed through a mixture of personal collection Bell's description of the Iffley site and Wolvercote gravel deposits suggests an intimate acquaintance with the deposits, (for further details see Bell 1904), purchases off workmen (who may have been paid in advance to look out for artefacts) and acquisitions from fellow enthusiasts (see 1921.91.459 .108, probably collected by the Rev. Canon Laurence William Grensted).

Wolvercote Brick Pit Section [Bell 1904:128, figure 2]

Wolvercote Brick Pit Section [Bell 1904:128, figure 2]

Bell does not seem to have ever excavated any sites himself. His neolithic tools from Iffley appear to have all been surface finds, and his palaeolithic tools were collected from gravel quarries and brick pits.[9] Although not directly responsible for the objects excavation he did take the time (at least at Wolvercote) to draw sections and photograph the deposits. (see Bell 1894b, Bell 1894c and Bell 1904)

Oxford University Anthropology Society

In 1909 Bell was instrumental in the foundation of the Oxford University Anthropology Society (OUAS):

The idea of forming an Anthropological Society, which had been simmering in Oxford for many years, took definite shape during the Christmas Vacation of 1908-1909 in the minds of Dr. R.R. Marett M.A. and Dr. G.C. Robson of New College. Not only were their views independently conceived, but they were so far different that whereas Dr Marett's project was for a general Anthropological Society (upon the lines of the University Diploma for that Science), Dr Robson's more directly contemplated Field work of an archaeological kind in the neighbourhood of Oxford along with the considerations of such problems as would therewith arise. However, having become aware of one another's designs through the common proselytizing of Mr. A. Montgomerie Bell, they decided to make common cause... (from a Historical Note in the Oxford University Anthropology Society meeting book I, transcribed by Alison Petch)

Although initially active, he presented a lecture on 'The Neolithic Invasions of England' on 5 March 1909, he seems to have quickly retired from participation as he entered the final decade of his life.

Final Years - South Newington

In 1911 the ANHSO register of members notes that Bell moves from 7 Rawlinson Road, Oxford to The Barn House, South Newington. It would seem that, with the move to South Newington, Bell's collecting activities ceased. Based on the data contained in the Pitt Rivers Museum catalogue and the information written on the objects it would appear that no stone tool was collected after 1912 [4].

The accession of objects collected by Bell into the Pitt Rivers Museum declined during the last six years of his life, with no archaeological objects being acquired by the museum between 1914 and 1920 (during this period he did donate three ethnographic objects, two links used for repairing the chains of cart-horse traces [1916.8.1-2], and a cow horn used for administering medicine to cattle [1915.29.1]). In 1920, shortly before his death, Alexander Bell sold two final objects to the museum; a Neolithic bone pin from Iffley [2007.72.1] and a socketed and barbed iron arrow head [2008.33.1]. Both of these items were found unentered in museum records fairly recently and finally accessioned. The arrowhead had also formed part of the last exhibit Bell provided to the Ashmolean Natural History Society in 1912.

Letter from Bell to Balfour dated 8 November 1920. [RDF] Copyright PRM

Letter from Bell to Balfour dated 8 November 1920. [RDF] Copyright PRM

On the 3 July 1920, at the age of 74, Bell passed away. The ANHSO mourned the loss of "one of the earliest...[and] for many years most active members" (ANHSO 1921: 11) and Professor W.G. Sollas writing in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society mourned the passing of "A kindly man, an enthusiastic supporter of Eoliths, and a good friend to Geology" (Sollas 1921: 73).

During his lifetime Bell had donated 260 objects to the Pitt Rivers Museum, however, thousands remained in his private possession (including the majority of the Limpsfield, Wolvercote and Iffley stone tools).

Posthumous acquisition of the Alexander James Montgomerie Bell collections by the Pitt Rivers Museum

Letter from Bell to Balfour dated 8 November 1920, page 2. [RDF] Copyright PRM

Letter from Bell to Balfour dated 8 November 1920, page 2. [RDF] Copyright PRM

On 3 October 1920, Archibald Colquhoun Bell (Bell's son) wrote a letter to Henry Balfour at the Pitt Rivers Museum:

Dear Sir,
I was today looking through my late father's papers & came upon a letter from you, dated June 2nd 1919, on the subject of his palaeolithic implements. Your letter contained the following words: "In fact, I always hoped that if you should some day want to dispose of your Wolvercote & Iffley palaeos, you might, perhaps, give me a chance of acquiring them". I am therefore writing to say that my father's collection will have to be disposed of & to inquire whether you would have for me to bring your letter to the notice of the executors.

Yours truly,

A.C. Bell

Over the course of nine letters [6] between 3 October 1920 and 17 January 1921 Archibald Bell negotiated the sale of his father’s collection. The tone of the letters is genial, with Balfour and Archibald Bell at one point discussing the use of siege engines during the 1283 war of the Sicilian Vespers (letter dated 8 November 1920). In the same letter (the first two pages of which are shown here as illustrations) Bell makes a particularly interesting reference to a manuscript:

I carried the MSS, containing my father's reflections upon his collection, to the cottage when I cleared out his study, & you will find them piled up on a chair in one of the two rooms in which the implements are spread out. I did not have time to read through them, or put them into order, but in this also, I will render you any assistance that you desire.

A reference to a manuscript is also made in A.M. Bell's Times obituary:

His last years were spent at South Newington, near Banbury, where he was employed in writing a book embodying his palaelogical researches, and it is hoped that his manuscripts may be published with his own drawings of the many implements in his collection (Anon 1920)

Only fragment that the PRM has of Bell's writing, description of stone eolith 1921.91.453 .38

Only fragment that the PRM has of Bell's writing, description of stone eolith 1921.91.453 .38

Unfortunately this manuscript, containing the life's work of Alexander James Montgomerie Bell, was never published. It does not reside in the Pitt Rivers Museum. It is possible that, if Balfour did remove the manuscript from South Newington, he passed it to another person for completion. Its current whereabouts are unknown, all that currently survives in the museum is a short note torn from a notebook (the scrap of paper shown on the right).

Bell's Bibliography, lectures and exhibitions

The following is as complete a list of all Alexander James Montgomerie Bell's exhibitions, lectures and publications (publications including references to unrelated subjects) as it has been possible to compile.

Unless otherwise stated all presented to the Ashmolean Natural History Society:

13 February 1895 - Mr A.M. Bell exhibited a number of neolithic and palaeolithic implements recently found by him at Wolvercot (Bellamy 1908: 347).

26 February 1896 - Mr A.M. Bell exhibited two flint and quartzite implements found by him at Wolvercote, 17 feet below the surface. The quartzite implement is remarkably perfect and was stated to be only the second from the Thames Valley (Bellamy 1908: 348).

24 February 1897 - Mr A.M. Bell showed a spindle-whorl from near Abingdon, and some flint implements (Bellamy 1908: 348).

19 May 1897 - Mr A.M. Bell showed a piece of Samian ware from Shotover, with a picture of the actual plate, reconstructed from the remaining portion of the circumference (Bellamy 1908: 348).

17 November 1897 - Some relics of early man by Mr A.M. Bell; no details recorded (Bellamy 1908: 348).

28 January 1898 - Mr A.M. Bell showed flint implements from Wolvercote (Bellamy 1908: 348).

25 May 1898 - Mr A.M. Bell showed a knife, the sheath of which was made of a reindeer's antler, ornamented with Lapp drawings of the animal itself (Bellamy 1908: 348).

10 May 1899 - Mr A.M. Bell showed a wooden preliminary tombstone, or ihai, from Japan; and his friend, Dr. R. Hoernle, of the Asiatic Society, showed some pictures of very ancient writings and relics discovered on the site of one of the buried cities of the Tacla Makan Desert of Central Asia (Bellamy 1908: 348).

19 October 1899 - Mr A.M. Bell showed a knocking-stone from Scotland, dated 1740 (Bellamy 1908: 348).

15 March 1900 - Mr A.M. Bell showed the contents of a neolithic "cache", two similar flint axes, made for barter and concealed, in neolithic times, discovered lately near Limpsfield (Surrey) (Bellamy 1908: 348). [Note: These are possibly 1911.30.2 and 1921.91.450]

5 December 1901 - Mr A.M. Bell showed four palaeolithic implements (Bellamy 1908: 349).

5 March 1909 - 'A series of exhibits including Eolithic, Palaeolithic and Neolithic implements, Quaternary, Mammalian Remains, plans of sections etc were exhibited by the Field Section and by Mr A.M. Bell' (exhibited to Oxford University Anthropological Society, details transcribed from the OUAS meeting book 1 by Alison Petch).

23 January 1912 - Mr A.M. Bell exhibited; a sundial from Lincolnshire, tinderbox from Stow-on-the -Wold, Bone dagger from New Guinea made of a cassowary legbone (split), Flakes with edges polished from New Iffley, Fine Scottish stone axe from Forreness, Shetland, Scrapers from Boars Hill, Arrow-heads, including one Iron Arrowhead from Oxfordshire [2008.33.1] dating from 1650 and Neolithic Flint implements from Surrey, Kent, Oxford and Scotland (ANHSO 1913: 30-31).


15 June 1897 - 'Early Man in the Thames Valley' - Ashmolean Natural History Society (Bellamy 1908: 184)

6 January 1898 - 'Some old Inhabitants of Oxfordshire' - Ashmolean Natural History Society Christmas lecture (Bellamy 1908: 184).

3 January 1902 - 'Oxfordshire Old and New' - Ashmolean Natural History Society Christmas lecture (Bellamy 1908: 184).

16 May 1907 - 'Prehistoric Oxford: Neolithic Settlement at New Iffley' - Ashmolean Natural History Society (Bellamy 1908: 184). A report of this lecture was printed in the Oxford Times on May 25, 1907. Percy Manning (a well known local antiquarian) also kept notes on the lecture, these are held as part of the Manning Archive at the Ashmolean Museum, unique ID: Manning 886.

5 March 1909 - 'The Neolithic Invasions of England' - Oxford University Anthropological Society (details transcribed from the OUAS meeting book 1 by Alison Petch).

Bell Bibliography

Bell, A.M. 1867. Gaisford prize: recited in the Theatre, Oxford, June 26, 1867. Oxford: T. and G. Shrimpton.

Bell, A.M. 1876. Poems selected from the works of Robert Burns. London: Rivingtons.

Bell, A.M. 1879. Second Greek reader: selections from Herodotus and Xenophon with introductions, notes, and vocabulary. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Bell, A.M. (ed.) and Caesar, G J. 1888. C. Julii Cæsaris de bello Gallico liber primus. London: Unknown.

Bell, A.M. 1888. The Later Age of Stone, especially in connection with remains found near Limpsfield. A lecture, etc. Westerham: Hooker

Bell, A.M. 1894a. 'Remarks on Flint Implements from the Chalk Palteau of Kent'. The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 23: 266 - 284.

Bell, A.M. 1894b. 'Palaeolithic Remains at Wolvercote, Oxfordshire'. Antiquary 30: 148 - 152.

Bell, A.M. 1894c. 'Palaeolithic Remains at Wolvercote, Oxfordshire, No. II'. Antiquary 30: 192 - 198.

Bell, A.M. 1898. 'The Tale of a Flint'. Longman's Magazine 31: 214.

Bell, A.M. 1900. 'On the Occurrence of Flint Implements of Palaeolithic Type on an Old Land-Surface in Oxfordshire, Near Wolvercote and Pear-Tree Hill, Together with a Few Implements of Various Plateau Types' The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 50: 81

Bell, A.M. 1901. 'Geological Report'. Report of the Ashmolean Natural History society of Oxfordshire: 32 - 35.

Bell, A.M. 1904. 'Implementiferous Sections at Wolvercote (Oxfordshire)'. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 60: 120-132.

Bell, A.M. 1908. 'Geological Report (revised)' in Bellamy, F A (ed.). A historical Account of the Ashmolean Natural History Society of Oxfordshire, 1880 - 1905. Oxford: J. Vincent printers.

Bell, A.M (ed.) and Johnson, S. 1916. The Johnson calendar; or, Samuel Johnson for every day in the year, saying and tales collected from his life and writings by A.M. Bell. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Further Reading and references

Ashmolean Natural History Society of Oxford. 1913. Proceedings and Report for 1912. Oxford: Holywell Press.

Ashmolean Natural History Society of Oxford. 1921. Proceedings and Report for 1920. Oxford: Holywell Press.

Anon. 1920. Mr A.M. Bell. Obituaries. London: The Times (Tuesday, July 13, Issue 42461, Page 14 - Column G).

Blaikie, W.G. (with revisions by Cairns, J.W.). 2004. ‘Bell, Alexander Montgomerie (1808–1866)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/1993, accessed 24 March 2009]

O'Connor, A. 2007. Finding time for the old stone age: A history of Palaeolithic Archaeology and Quaternary Geology in Britain, 1860-1960. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Evans, J. 1897. The ancient stone implements, weapons and ornaments of Great Britain. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.

Hilliard, E. 1914. The Balliol College Register 1832–1914. Oxford: Horace Hart at the University Press.

Lee, H.W. 2001. A Study of Lower Palaeolithic Stone Artefacts from Selected Sites in the Upper and Middle Thames Valley, with Particular Reference to the R. J. MacRae Collection. Oxford: B.A.R (British Series 319).

Sollas, W.J. 1921. 'Alexander Montgomerie Bell' (in Proceedings). Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 77: 73.

Wymer J.J. 1968. Lower Palaeolithic Archaeology in Britain, as Represented by the Thames Valley. London: John Baker.


[1] Figures correct at time of writing.

[2] For Wolvercote stone tools in the PRM see: 1908.10.2-3, 1921.91.472.1-9, 1921.91.473.1-99, 1921.91.474.1-50, 1921.91.475.1-88. The Oxford University Museum of Natural History also holds a considerable number of geological specimens collected by Bell from Wolvercote, see: Q.00285 - Q.00378, Q.00829 - Q.00909 and Q.01758 - Q.01763.

[3] For Limpsfield stone tools in the PRM see: 1899.35.2, 1901.21.5, 1902.1.17–18, 1905.35.4, 1907.53.8, 1908.10.4, 1911.30.2, 1921.91.396.1–276, 1921.91.413, 1921.91.413.1–480, 1921.91.450 and 1921.91.451.1-194.

[4] Date ranges based on accession book data and details written by Bell on objects. At the time of writing not all the objects from these sites have been catalogued, and consequently the date range may be subject to alteration.

[5] For details of the Iffley stone tools collected by Bell in the Pitt Rivers Museum please click here.

[6] Correspondence from Archibald Colquhoun Bell concerning the sale of his father's collection of stone tools are archived in the Pitt Rivers Museum Related Documents File under 1921.91.

[7] For Summertown stone tools in the PRM see: 1921.91.407 .1 - .46 and 1921.91.472 .2. An approx. grid ref (the exact find spot is unknown) for these objects is SP 517 089.

[8] For Boars Hill stone tools in the PRM see: 1921.91.412 .1 - .75. An approx. grid ref (the exact find spot is unknown) for these objects is SP 485 025.

[9] Unpublished notes by Percy Manning. Notes held by The Ashmolean Museum:
Archive: Manning Unique ID: 692
Group: Iffley Item No.: 5 No. of Sheets: 3
Title: Transcript by Mr Percy Manning of Mr A. M. Bell's notes on a Neolithic site at Iffley.
Content: Describes the situation of the site and the site itself. Also lists and describes flints found there, providing rough sketches of some. (Copyright The Ashmolean Museum 2009)

[10] These photographs were reproduced by kind permission of the Master and Fellows of Balliol College, link to Balliol College Archive here