Our Ancient Monuments

Image: cover of the newly-discovered Our Ancient Monuments volume, made by General Pitt-Rivers in the 1880s

This month's issue of British Archaeology magazine (Jan-Feb 2013) has a full-page news article (on page 7) on the Excavating Pitt-Rivers project. The news article outlines our discovery of previously unknown material, among a new donation to the Pitt Rivers Museum from the Pitt-Rivers family. The details of the news item are below. The new material includes a unique album of watercolours, site plans and photographs, titled Our Ancient Monuments, which will be researched and published by the Excavating Pitt-Rivers project team. To subscribe to British Archaeology - which is published by the Council for British Archaeology - or to see the full news item on their itunes app, visit http://www.britisharchaeology.org/subscribe

Extraordinary treasures from founding archaeologist

A surprise collection has come to light, informing the work of a key 19th-century archaeologist and collector. Photos and illustrations – some loose, many in albums – notebooks, documents and letters had been carefully saved by General Augustus Pitt-Rivers (1827–1900) and his descendants.
image: news article about the Pitt-Rivers material in the Jan-Feb 2013 issue of British Archaeology magazine: to see the full news item see their itunes app - www.britisharchaeology.org/subscribe 
Anthony Pitt-Rivers, the General’s great-grandson, showed the material about a year ago to Jeremy Coote, curator and joint head of collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, and principal investigator on the museum's Rethinking Pitt-Rivers Project. In what Coote dubs “an extraordinary act of generosity”, Pitt-Rivers has now donated most of the items and temporarily loaned the rest.

The documents are still being catalogued, but their importance for understanding 19th century collecting, anthropology and archaeology is immediately clear. The donation includes 16 notebooks, dating back to 1840, that detail the General’s varied activities. Among them is Catalogue of Arms (1862), listing over 500 items from Madagascan lances to Chinese swords then in his house in Clapham, London, and most now part of the collection in Oxford.

Commonly known as “the father of scientific archaeology”, General Pitt-Rivers pioneered systematic excavation, public education and collecting on a truly grand scale. His first collection became the core of the eponymous Oxford museum, but his second, which continued to be exhibited by his family at his private museum in Dorset well into the 20th century, was dispersed from the 1950s. The newly revealed documents will throw light on these accomplishments.

Three large albums entitled Photographs of Rushmore & Environs, loaned to the museum, contain over 200 photos showing his house and estates, taken in the 1890s by his secretary Harold St George Gray (1867–1963), who became an archaeologist in his own right. They feature outdoor scenes and detailed interiors of the house and its voluminous contents. Two smaller photo albums are dedicated to archaeological excavations, one at South Lodge Camp (1893), the other at Martin Down Camp (1895–96), both on the General’s estate and well known to archaeologists today. Among loose items are previously unknown records of an excavation in Denmark in 1879.

What perhaps will most impress archaeologists, however, is a fat album of watercolours (by the artist WS Tomkin), drawings in the General’s characteristic style and photos, entitled Our Ancient Monuments.

Pitt-Rivers became the UK’s first inspector of ancient monuments in 1882. As part of this job he toured the country, visiting ancient sites and their owners. The album, compiled in the 1880s–90s, has the feel of a record and souvenir of those times, with many of the featured sites appearing in the 1882 Act’s schedule. Others, particularly in Scotland, are additional to that list.

Having completed the Rethinking Pitt-Rivers Project (funded by the Leverhulme Trust), the museum starts Excavating Pitt-Rivers this December (funded by Arts Council England, see excavatingpittrivers.blogspot.com), which will document the new items and English archaeological artefacts the General collected before 1884.

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