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Image/Object/Text

Objects as manuscripts in the English archaeological collections of General Pitt-Rivers

The Pitt Rivers Museum is Oxford University’s Museum of Anthropology and World Archaeology. Founded in 1884 with a donation of c. 26,500 objects by General Augustus Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers, today the Museum holds more than half a million objects.  Pitt-Rivers was a key figure in the development of modern scientific archaeology, but his own archaeological collections have received little attention and less than 5% are on display in the Museum. To start to address this historic neglect, between November 2012 and December 2013 Dan Hicks ran a project, funded through a grant from the Designation Development Fund of Arts Council England (ACE), titled Excavating Pitt-Rivers. Working in the Museum stores, the project documented the English archaeological material collected by General Pitt-Rivers between c. 1865 and 1880. The project team documented some 10,696 archaeological artefacts from across England and published them on the Museum’s online database. In most cases, this is the first time that the objects have been examined since they came to Oxford in 1884.

This basic process of collections-based documentation and enhancement has made  possible this new image gallery, Image/Object/Text. One unexpected outcome of the Excavating Pitt-Rivers project was been a realization that Pitt-Rivers wrote on almost every object that he excavated – and that this text was re-written and added to by other curatorial hands from the 1870s into the 20th century, sometimes creating complex layers of hand-written text and printed labels, the idea of turning archaeological objects into a kind of manuscript record is one interesting way of thinking about Pitt-Rivers’ innovations in scientific archaeology, and his direct approach to objectivity and documentation.

Inspired by this observation, for this online gallery we invited archaeological photographer Ian Cartwright to work with Museum curators to create twelve new images that explore the different kinds of text that is found on these archaeological objects, excavated by Pitt-Rivers between the 1860s and 1880s.  Dan Hicks has written a series of captions, exploring how each text can be read to reveal elements of the object’s modern life-history, as well as its archaeological past.  Together, the images and captions show how entangled relationships between museum artefacts and their documentation can unfold, blurring the lines between premodern archaeological objects and modern manuscripts, and transforming artefacts into unique kinds of documents.

You can read more about the project on the Excavating Pitt-Rivers blog

Professor Dan Hicks (University of Oxford

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