Four-Field Anthropology

Image: Table of the various sections and sub-sections of Anthropological science according to my view of the matter” by General Augustus Pitt-Rivers: Copyright Bodleian Library, Acland Papers d92, fol. 90.

As part of the research for the Excavating Pitt-Rivers project, the team has worked through primary manuscript sources as well as documenting objects in the museum collection. Archives and manuscripts are often considered as different kinds of evidence from artefacts, but this kind of distinction was alien to General Pitt-Rivers own approach - and the project team, informed by historical archaeology, has tried to approach manuscript sources as just another kind of material evidence.

With this approach in mind, in Spring 2013, as part of the Excavating Pitt-Rivers project Dan Hicks wrote this paper, about a previously unpublished drawing made by General Pitt-Rivers in 1882. The drawing shows the discipline of anthropology as consisting of four fields - Physical Anthropology, Ethnology, Culture and Archaeology - and pre-dates the 'four-field' model of anthropology associated with Franz Boas by some 24 years. This idea of anthropology as including archaeology has remained important for North American archaeology, while during the 20th century more commonly archaeology and anthropology took different directions in Europe.

The paper is published in open access form online by the journal Current Anthropology, includes a supplement that provides a transcription of the letter written by Pitt-Rivers that accompanies the drawing, outlining his view of the organisation and teaching of the discipline.

The drawing is a unique insight into the early transatlantic exchanges in the development of anthropology as an academic subject. The Current Anthropology paper argues that museums, as places that require the physical organisation of knowledge in material form, were key locations at which classificatory approaches in anthropology came to start to classify anthropological knowledge. It also explores the kind of disciplinary histories that can be written from museums and archives.

You can read the paper on the Current Anthropology website here -

The abstract of the paper is below:

"The four-field model of anthropology is conventionally understood to have begun with a paper read by Franz Boas in St. Louis in 1904. Publishing for the first time a drawing made by Augustus Pitt-Rivers in England in 1882, this paper rethinks this proposition by making two arguments. First, the paper explores the role of the classificatory anthropology of the 1870s and 1880s on both sides of the Atlantic in the emergence of the idea of organizing anthropological knowledge. It suggests that this emergence was bound up with the problem of classifying anthropological knowledge in material form in European and North American museums. Second, the paper considers how our knowledge of the discipline's past can develop from the study of objects and documents (rather than only through rereading anthropologists' published texts), in a manner akin to documentary archaeology. In this respect, the anthropological problem of organizing knowledge in material form is still with us, but with a new challenge: How adequate are our current forms of disciplinary historiography for the use of material evidence? Rather than proposing a new set of “charter myths,” the paper explores writing the history of four-field anthropology as a form of material culture studies or historical archaeology (in other words, as a subfield of anthropology), working with the “time warps” created by museums and archives in which disciplinary history is not always already written." Continue reading at Current Anthropology