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.
Early Bronze Age copper alloy flat axe
about Early Bronze Age copper alloy flat axe
This early Bronze Age copper alloy flat axe has a triangular panel of vertical 'rain pattern' decoration, over which the word ‘ENGLAND’ is written in white paint, along with the number ‘P.R. 1437’ above. The provenance is unspecific, but the numbers refer to an entry in the hand-written list made in 1874, just before the first public exhibition of Pitt-Rivers’ collection at Bethnal Green Museum: Bronze period 1437; 39 Bronze celts. The modern text offers a glimpse into one moment in the object’s life-history, when it was exhibited 140 years ago in East London (Pitt Rivers Museum Accession Number 1884.119.39).
Neolithic stone scraper
about Neolithic stone scraper
Three curatorial hands inscribe this Neolithic stone scraper. Modern writing reads “YORKSHIRE WOLDS”, giving two museum catalogue numbers. The number ‘10’ and an illegible word are written in pencil. Their meaning is obscure, but the single faded word “GREENWELL” connects the scraper with a seminal moment in Victorian archaeology. Canon William Greenwell pioneered the excavation of prehistoric burial mounds in Yorkshire, and Pitt-Rivers spent time excavating with him in April 1867 –later reminiscing that he gained crucial early experience in digging from Greenwell. Acquired at some point by Pitt-Rivers from Greenwell, this scraper represents evidence not just of prehistoric Yorkshire, but also of a personal exchange between Victorian antiquaries (Pitt Rivers Museum Accession Number 1884.133.56).
Prehistoric flint knife
about Prehistoric flint knife
This prehistoric flint knife, with a curved edge and straight back, is probably Neolithic in date. Its recorded provenance, “Yorkshire”, is unspecific, but the faded number in black ink, ‘1337’, matches with a manuscript source dating from 1874 in which Pitt-Rivers recorded a “triangular flint knife or arrowhead” in his collection. Pitt-Rivers was a Yorkshireman by birth, and returned there throughout his life, so the object could have been acquired by him any time before 1874, in the first 47 years of his life (Pitt Rivers Museum Accession Number 1884.123.333).
A ceramic jug that dates from the Romano-British period
about A ceramic jug that dates from the Romano-British period
This ceramic jug dates from the Romano-British period, and is made from a fine grained black burnished ware known as Upchurch ware. The writing on the object, copied from earlier markings and labels, records the provenance of the object as Uriconium – the Roman name for Wroxeter. Together with a contemporary label, it also records a detailed sequence of acquisition – its discovery in 1866 by ‘Mr Stannier who farmed the land’, its sale to a dealer in Shrewsbury named Mr Last, and Pitt-Rivers’ purchase of the object from Last in 1870 (Pitt Rivers Museum Accession Number 1884.37.31).
Plaster cast of a 400,000-year-old Palaeolithic hand-axe
about Plaster cast of a 400,000-year-old Palaeolithic hand-axe
This object is a plaster cast of a 400,000-year-old Palaeolithic hand-axe. A label bears the text “FOUND AT HOXNE, SUFFOLK IN 1797”, which is re-written onto the object – a reference to a discovery by John Frere, who published his ‘Account of Flint Weapons Discovered at Hoxne in Suffolk’ in the journal Archaeologia in 1800. The object is one of ‘3 casts of implements in the British Mus’ that Pitt-Rivers recorded in his collection. It demonstrates the importance to Pitt-Rivers of acquiring casts of museum objects for comparative purposes. The original axe is still held by the British Museum today (Pitt Rivers Museum Accession Number 1884.122.2).
Prehistoric discoidal flint knife
about Prehistoric discoidal flint knife
This prehistoric discoidal flint knife has been made by being bifacially flaked and ground on the edges. The 20th-century label has been made for display purposes in the Pitt Rivers Museum, but includes information from the museum’s documentation and almost certainly from other earlier labels that do not survive. As with other objects, the text provides information about its modern history. ‘Rev. J.C. Clutterbuck’ was a vicar in the village of Long Wittenham, which is on the River Thames in south Oxfordshire. Pitt-Rivers acquired various other Romano-British objects from him, from London and Oxfordshire, as well as this object. (Pitt Rivers Museum Accession Number 2007.74.1)
Bronze Age copper alloy palstave axe
about Bronze Age copper alloy palstave axe
This is a Bronze Age copper alloy palstave axe, from which a metallurgical sample has been taken during the mid 20th century. The meanings of the red dot and the text ‘No. 2’ are obscure. The text ‘FOUND IN FORTY ACRES FIELD NEAR WORTHING 1871’ is copied from earlier text, and the date seems to be a mistaken transposition for 1877 – when E.C. Patching discovered a hoard of 40 bronze axes buried in a ceramic urn at this West Sussex location. The text is a reminder of the dangers of introduced errors with each layer of copying and re-writing museum documentation (Pitt Rivers Museum Accession Number 1884.119.111).
Romano-British leather shoe (top and bottom view) with iron hobnails
about Romano-British leather shoe (top and bottom view) with iron hobnails
This is a Romano-British leather shoe (top and bottom view) with iron hobnails. The text written onto it– “ROMAN SOLDIER CALIGA, LONDON WALL, 22 FT IN PEAT DEC 11 1866” – refers to Pitt-Rivers’ pioneering salvage recording, undertaken during the construction of a warehouse at London Wall in the City of London. The deep excavations revealed organic materials preserved in waterlogged deposits. Pitt-Rivers wrongly thought the site was a ‘lake village’ that was the stronghold of Cassivellaunus – the chieftain who led defence against Julius Caesar in 54 BC. A soldier himself, General Pitt-Rivers’ recording of a Roman military boot (caliga) conveys a sense of his imaginative interest in archaeological evidence of the encounters between prehistoric and Roman populations (Pitt Rivers Museum Accession Number 1884.92.42).
Neolithic stone axe
about Neolithic stone axe
Two museum catalogue numbers are written onto this Neolithic stone axe from West Sussex. One matches a museum manuscript catalogue entry from 1882: “4 flint celts Lancing 2.7.79 - 98/9680”. Two historic labels are attached. “Pol.” simply records that it is a polished stone axe. “Lancing nr Brighton” refers to the site of excavations by James Medhurst in the 1820s. Cross-referencing textual sources, we can place this object at a Sotheby’s auction on 2.7.1879, at which we know Pitt-Rivers bought other items. The catalogue listed items from “the Museum formed by the late Mr James Medhurst of Worthing”. The axe’s multiple texts thus link Pitt-Rivers’ metropolitan collection with an earlier provincial history of archaeological fieldwork and collecting. (Pitt Rivers Museum Accession Number 1884.123.37).
Neolithic flint axe
about Neolithic flint axe
An excavation at Cissbury in West Sussex in 1867-8 was one of the first field projects directed by Pitt-Rivers, and was one of the first modern scientifically recorded archaeological excavation. This Neolithic flint axe offers some textual evidence to support this claim. Attached to it is a pre-printed label, completed by hand: “CISSBURY PIT NO. 22 FEB 4 1868 ALF”. The label is a very early example of the recording of archaeological features or contexts from which objects were recovered. This modest 150-year-old label is just as significant as the Stone Age axe to which it is glued – perhaps more so. The letters “ALF” stand for Augustus Lane Fox – as the fieldwork was undertaken before the General took his full name, Augustus Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers. (Pitt Rivers Museum Accession Number 1884.125.153).
An abraded ceramic tile
about An abraded ceramic tile
This abraded ceramic tile, of Romano-British or post-Roman date, is from Pitt-Rivers’ fieldwork at Castle Hill in Folkestone, Kent in 1878. Initially believing its earthworks (known locally as ‘Caesar’s Camp’) dated from the Roman invasions of Britain, his excavations revealed the monument in fact to be a medieval castle. Four different museum catalogue numbers are present, and a hand-written label describes the circumstances of discovery. Written for museum display, the label’s text retains elements of the General’s interpretive challenges in the field – singling out this possibly Romano-British find from a site that proved to be medieval in date, and describing the monument as a ‘camp’ rather than a castle. (Pitt Rivers Museum Accession Number 1884.138.25).
A shell-tempered ceramic bowl
about A shell-tempered ceramic bowl
This shell-tempered ceramic bowl has been partially reconstructed after Pitt-Rivers acquired it, and bears one single word, painted onto the outside: THAMES. Many objects from Pitt-Rivers’ collection are recorded simply with the provenance of the River Thames – which may mean an object recovered from dredging the river, may imply it was found on the Thames foreshore in London or along the banks of the river further upstream, or even may represent a purposefully vague provenance given by a dealer that usefully removes any possibility of coming from privately owned land. Whatever the case for this object, there is no doubt that today the modern text has become an integral part of this medieval object. (Pitt Rivers Museum Accession Number 1884.35.38).