Banner image showing PRM Gallery

Ashmolean Museum, Department of Antiquities. AMS 45/10

We are very grateful to the Department of Antiquities, Ashmolean Museum for permission to publish this transcription of this letter on this site. If you would like any further information about this or any other aspect of the Ashmolean Museum archives then please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Envelop: "Copy of Dr Rolleston's Letter to the V.C. as to addition of Ethnology to the Museum and its lodgment in a new wing or side of a new Quadrangle."


[Page 1]

Museum Jan 26. 1867

Dear Mr Vice Chancellor [1]

[insert] I write the following letter [end insert] In accordance with the suggestion you made at the last meeting but one of the Museum Delegates to the effect that it would be well that I should put in writing the views I [insert] then [end insert] expressed as to the expediency of having the Archaeological and Ethnological Collections of the University arranged in one building lodged nearer to the other collections. I

I may begin perhaps with remarking [insert] firstly [end insert] upon the great development which the two subjects of Ethnology and Archaeology have taken within the last few years and [insert] secondly upon [end insert] the very intimate connection which subsists between them on the one [insert] side [end insert] hand [illegible] and the historical & Philological studies of the University on another and the Physical and Natural History Sciences on yet a third.

The number of works which within the last few years have issued from the Press [insert] been published upon [end insert] the habits and customs the implements and modes of life of the different Varieties of our own Species in both ancient and modern Times is very great; and the exercise which the study of these treatises will give to the faculties of observation and verification but also to those of the estimation of evidence and of ratiocination in contingent matters is one to be very highly valued. The list which I append will shew how extensive the literature of this subject has become and I apprehend will also be considered to furnish something of a reason for the adoption of any course which may be considered [insert] shewn to be [end insert] as well calculated to encourage & further the prospect of studies which have always held a place amongst us. It is [insert] also [end insert] I presume the policy of the [insert] besides [end insert] University to have within her precincts [insert] not only [end insert] the means and materials by which her students may be enabled [insert] put through courses of intellectual training but also those by which [end insert] to make themselves masters of whatever subjects as may be from time to time attracting the attention of the outer world

[Page 1 reverse]

It may be within your [illegible] that I did not venture to suggest the room could or should be found for these Collections within the walls of the present Museum but that it was under a new [illegible ? within] existing necessity for [insert] the making [end insert] certain additions being made to that Building I understand the claims of these Collections to a body plan [insert] and [end insert] in any [‘Rolleston’ added below in pencil]

[Page 2]

In the case of nations which [insert] either [end insert] never possessed or have lost a literature such records as the Archaeological remains furnish us with are the only records we have or can procure of their history. And it is well to bear in mind that the greater development of international intercourse which the application of steam as well as other causes have brought about in the present day will necessarily tend to destroy those peculiarities which isolated man has so often retained when they had fallen into oblivion elsewhere and which have been of such value for the illustration of the early history of all races. [insert] Again whilst [end insert] History is supplemented as is also Philology in many cases by the results and observations of the Archaeologist whilst it is even more obvious that both these Sciences may usefully submit their results to be confirmed or checked by the data of Antiquarian research.

I will now address myself to the question of the expediency of finding room and lodgment for the Antiquarian Collections which the University already possesses in immediate proximity to the Museum in which the various Physical [insert] Chemical [end insert] & Natural History Series are contained. The reasons for recommending the placing of the Antiquarian & Ethnological collections nearer to the latter collections and the removing of them from the old Ashmolean Museum are the following –

Very many of the data upon which the Archaeologist reasons are only obtained from by [sic] the application of the means which such sciences as Chemistry and Comparative Anatomy furnish, and it is perhaps needless to dwell upon the great advantage which facilities [insert] the student would derive from [end insert] if comparison and investigation dependent upon proximity of place invariably bring about, which such approximation of the several collections would render possible. Would make the word Antiquarian Collections of doubt unless to the student [sic]

[insert] Secondly [end insert] As Archaeology is by common consent mainly limited to such Antiquarian research as can be can be [insert] is [end insert] carried on by the aid & interpretation of Native objects it [insert] as distinguished from Philosophical & Historical data [end insert] is obvious that will be seen that there is a reason in the very fitness [insert] nature [end insert] of the things [insert] several series [end insert] especially for their being placed in as close a proximity as each other as may be possible but a more practical reason for the this proximity lies in the following considerations

[Page 3]

The analogy of most of the learned Societies which publish in their Transactive Disquisitions on habits both of Archaeological [insert] imperity [end insert] & Scientific character may serve as an illustration of the compatibility of the two classes of subjects.

If the University was already in possession of apartments available and adequate for the display of such a Collection as would be in keeping with her needs, it would be perhaps less necessary to advocate the bringing [?missing word, of] the Archaeological collections up from the Ashmolean Museum. But the present room at present assigned [insert] in [end insert] to the [sic, presumably ‘to the’ should have been deleted] Ashmolean Museum to the Archaeological series is pretty nearly quite full and it may well be doubted whether if this room when it was Divided for the purpose to which it is at present appropriated sufficient space there would be acquired to enable the University to accept any such donation as there may be reason to expect may be offered to her.

A single long Room about the twice [sic] the length of the present Ashmolean Museum and about equal in length to one of the of the [sic] sides of the quad may be constituted by the Area in this Museum would be about equal would [sic] for many years be adequate to any requirements which the University might reasonably look forward to or be expected to provide for. Should the [word deleted] New quadrangle be added to that which makes up the great [illegible] of the present Museum I would submit to your consideration that [insert] for collections [end insert] An Anthropological & Archaeological Department should find a home within it where this real connexion with the studies already established within the Museum might be [insert] at once [end insert] illustrated [insert] and strengthened [end insert] by their position

and by the adoption of some such plan Archaeology & Ethnology would not only have their connexion with the Natural Sciences both illustrated & strengthened but they would by the strengthening of this connexion have their own methods & conclusions placed on a same basis


[1] The vice-chancellor was Francis Knyvett Leighton (1806-1881) Warden of All Souls, from 1858 till his death. He was vice-chancellor from 1866-1870, (a post in which he was "distinguished by his courtesy and hospitality", according to his obituary in The Times [wikipedia]


This is clearly more of a draft than a copy as it contains a lot of additions and corrections, and no conclusion.

Alison Roberts of the Dept of Antiquities, Ashmolean Museum, has suggested that this document might have originally been been part of the Rolleston archive but became separated, perhaps during R.F. Ovenell's work on the history of the Ashmolean.

Sadly Alice Millea, Assistant Keeper of the University Archives has confirmed that she has looked through the correspondence in MU 3/3/1 but was unable to find the letter. She also searched through the Vice-Chancellor's correspondence which is held in the University Archives, but with no success.  She commented: 'It is not entirely unsurprising that we don't appear to have it; the central University (including the VC) did not systematically retain its correspondence at this relatively early date.  What often happened with letters of importance to the VC is that once reported to the relevant decision-making body, the letter was copied out and destroyed.  I have checked to see whether the letter made it to Hebdomadal Council, but it appears not to have done.  There is a record of a letter from Rolleston received by Council at its meeting of 4 February 1867 concerning the Ashmolean Museum but the letter itself has not survived.  I can't say, therefore, what its content was or whether it was even related to this.'

We are very grateful to Alice for her research and hope that during the rest of our research a fair copy of this important letter might be found.

Alison Roberts first identified the existence of this important letter to the project team. Transcribed by AP October 2012, checked by Jeremy Coote October 2012. Our thanks to Alison for photographing the original for research purposes and also for giving access to the original on the researchers timetable, and not her own! Our thanks also to Alice Millea, Assistant Keeper of the University Archives, who tried to track down the final version of this letter and who helped with the identification of some of the trickier words in the above transcript.

virtual collections logo

Supported by the John Fell OUP Research Fund


(c) 2012 Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford