Magazine article The Spectator

What about the General?

Magazine article The Spectator

What about the General?

Article excerpt

Every so often during the summer four parrots fly across my garden in formation like bright blue and yellow Chinooks on army exercises. When they land in the trees the branches groan beneath their weight before they take off heading south across the Cranborne Chase on the Dorset, Wiltshire border. Later they return, screeching amongst themselves, on their journey home to the Victorian pleasure gardens on the Rushmore estate which surrounds me.

The gardens were created by a remarkable man called General Augustus PittRivers who was an early archaeologist in the late 19th century. He founded an anthropological museum in the nearby village of Farnham which housed some of the artefacts he had brought back from abroad as well as those he excavated on the Cranborne Chase, once a royal hunting ground. The museum was created from an old gipsy school but some years after his death, through break-ins and family circumstances, it was moved to Oxford to join the rest of his collection where it remains. Each afternoon this week Radio Four has been broadcasting a series called A Week at the Pitt-Rivers, a look at this museum through the eyes of different people.

My deadline for this column enabled me to listen only to the first programme on Monday afternoon and I found it rather disappointing. Pitt-Rivers was fascinating enough to be the subject of his own halfhour documentary but there was little about him in the first edition, except that he studied ways of improving firearms while he was an army officer, and that he was afraid of losing his estate to a revolutionary peasantry. An engineer and cartoonist, Tim Hunkin, was the first of this week's visitors to the museum to offer his thoughts about the collection. Apparently, Hunkin was inspired by its West African Yoruba carved heads to design an automated collecting box and we heard something about that. What about the General? I kept muttering to myself, never mind the collecting box. I noticed in the Radio Times that Wednesday's edition has the novelist P.D. James discovering more about the museum's origins and so presumably she will have covered some of the ground before you read this.

In fact, according to Desmond Hawkins, a founder of the BBC's Natural History Unit, in his Cranbome Chase (Dovecote Press), a brilliant account of the history of this glorious landscape which stretches roughly from the Salisbury Plain down towards the Dorset coast, Pitt-Rivers was a pioneering archaeologist of whom Sir Mortimer Wheeler said, `Pitt-Rivers is the bridge between the old world of science and the new . …

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