The Catalogues of the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Farnham, Dorset

By Thompson, Michael; Renfrew, Colin | Antiquity, June 1999 | Go to article overview

The Catalogues of the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Farnham, Dorset


Thompson, Michael, Renfrew, Colin, Antiquity


Lieutenant General A.H.L.F. Pitt-Rivers remains one of the central figures in the development of archaeology during the 19th century. His Excavations in Cranborne Chase (Pitt-Rivers 1887-98) documents with exemplary clarity innovations in field technique which have proved a model for later generations, not least for Sir Mortimer Wheeler. He was the first Inspector of Ancient Monuments in Great Britain and thus played a key role in the development of public archaeology as well of field archaeology. He is remembered for his advocacy of evolutionary approaches to material culture which found lasting expression in the organization of the collection which he formed in his earlier years (Pitt-Rivers 1874) and donated to the University of Oxford in 1885, where it forms the nucleus there of the museum which bears his name. His papers on the theme of 'cultural evolution' were assembled after his death and published in 1906 by Oxford University Press. Over the years 1880-1900 he made a second collection of antiquities and of ethnographic material which, together with his Cranborne Chase finds and the models which he had made to illustrate his excavations there, formed the basis for the museum which he created at Farnham, Dorset, some three miles south of his home at Rushmore Lodge in the Cranborne Chase estate which he inherited in 1880. This too was a work of innovation, created with the specific purpose of public education. It gives us great pleasure therefore to announce that, through a generous benefaction to the University of Cambridge by the family of the late Captain George Pitt-Rivers, the grandson of the General, the manuscript catalogues of the collection formerly kept at the Pitt-Rivers Museum at Farnham are now in the public domain and available for study. This description of the catalogues has been prepared by Michael Thompson at the invitation of Colin Renfrew, to whom the catalogues were originally entrusted until the decision was taken to donate them to the University Library in Cambridge. Profound gratitude is due first to the Pitt-Rivers family for this act of generosity, and specifically to Mr Anthony Pitt-Rivers. Warm thanks go also to Mr Kenelm Digby Jones for his vision and encouragement in this and other matters.

The catalogues offer significant insights into the very wide interests of Pitt-Rivers, and form an important document in the history of collecting. Most of the acquisitions were from dealers or from auction houses and the catalogues therefore offer valuable insights into the nature of the trade in antiquities and in ethnographic materials in the later 19th century (as well as the prices). It is above all the meticulous execution of the illustrations which continues to make the catalogues useful for the identification of specific artefacts (since the contents of the Museum were dispersed in the early 1970s) and which guarantee them a place in the history of archaeological illustration.

The nine volumes of catalogues are now in the care of the Cambridge University Library (Additional Manuscript 9455/1-9). The Pitt-Rivers family had already been very generous to the University through the institution in 1989 of the George Pitt-Rivers Chair of Archaeological Science, whose first holder, Professor Martin Jones, has served since October 1990. The Chair was founded in memory of Captain George Pitt-Rivers, the grandson of the General, who had himself worked on the anthropology of the peoples in the Pacific region.

After the General's death in May 1900 the Museum at Farnham with its collections passed to his eldest son Alexander and in due course to his grandson, Captain George Pitt-Rivers. In the years following his death in 1966 it proved financially impracticable to keep the Museum open. In 1975 the British collection, formed by the General, including the important archaeological finds published in his Excavations in Cranborne Chase (Pitt-Rivers 1887-98) passed into the care of the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum. …

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