What’s In a Name: Pitt Rivers

Art & Lit

Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers was an English army officer, enthnologist and archaeologist.

Augustus Henry Lane-Fox was born on the family estate at Bramham, Yorkshire in 1827 and educated at the Royal Military College Sandhurst. He was commissioned into the Grenadier Guards in 1845 and became a specialist in musketry instruction and in the history of firearms.  He fought for a short time in the Crimean War and served in Malta, England, Canada and Ireland. In 1880 Pitt Rivers unexpectedly inherited the Rivers estate and adopted the surname Pitt Rivers in honour of his benefactors. The estates that Pitt Rivers inherited contained a wealth of archaeological material from the Roman and Saxon periods. He excavated these over seventeen seasons, beginning in the mid-1880s and ending with his death in 1900 at the age of 73. His approach was highly methodical considering the standards of the time and he is widely regarded as the first scientific archaeologist to work in Britain.

Pitt Rivers married Alice Stanley in 1853. He was inspired by the scientific circles in which he moved after his marriage into the Stanley family, which included Herbert Spencer, Thomas Huxley and John Stuart Mill. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a big influence on him and it was around this time that he became a collector of ethnographic and antiquarian objects during his postings overseas.

Influenced by the evolutionary writings of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer, he arranged his growing collection of objects typologically and (within types) chronologically. This style of arrangement, designed to highlight the evolutionary trends in human artefacts was a revolutionary innovation in the layout of historical objects. While this evolutionary approach to material culture is no longer accepted in archaeology and anthropology, the Pitt River’s museum that bears his name has retained the original organisation of the displays, making it unique amongst other museums of this sort.

His most important methodological innovation was his insistence that all artefacts, not just those that are beautiful or unique should be collected and catalogued. This focus on everyday objects as the key to understanding history broke decisively with past archaeological practice, which had often verged on treasure hunting. This was Pitt Rivers’ most important and most lasting scientific legacy.

Pitt Rivers’ ethnological collections today form the basis of the Pitt Rivers Museum which is still one of Oxford’s leading attractions. Founded in 1884, the Museum displays archaeological and ethnographic objects from all parts of the world. He made his donation on the condition that a permanent lecturer in anthropology must be appointed and museum staff are involved in teaching Archaeology and Anthropology at the University even today. The General’s founding gift contained more than 18,000 objects but there are now over half a million, many of which were donated by early anthropologists and explorers.