ESRC Impact Accelerator Award: From Museums to the Historic Environment

Image: A selection of Bronze Age copper alloy axes from the UK and Ireland, collected by General Pitt-Rivers between c.1851 and 1881, from the founding collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum. Photograph by Carlotta Gardner, taken as part of the Excavating Pitt-Rivers project in 2013
We were delighted to receive news today that our application through the ESRC Impact Acceleration programme for funding for a pilot programme of knowledge exchange in partnership with the British Museum was successful. The programme builds directly on the documentation work, funded by an award from Arts Council England, that was undertaken on the English archaeological collections in the founding collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum in 2013. The project is led by Dan Hicks (Pitt Rivers Museum) and Dan Pett (British Museum).

The award of £28,947 will fund a pilot programme titled 'From Museums to the Historic Environment': using the Pitt-Rivers archaeological collections to explore the ways in which historic archaeological museum collections hold significant, untapped information about the historic environment of England that is of wider public value.

The project will involve enhancing our knowledge of the sites from which the archaeological objects acquired by General Pitt-Rivers derived, and exploring the wider value of this information through knowledge exchange.

Our aim is to experiment with how a range of new users across the fragmented heritage sector could benefit from knowledge generated from collections-based research into historic collections: from local government planning authorities and Historic Environment Records to archaeological contractors, community heritage groups, local historians, regional museums and national heritage agencies.

This pilot project will run during between April 2014 and October 2015. A project officer will be appointed in the first half of 2014, and a cross-sector workshop will be held in Oxford in Spring 2015. More details will be posted on the Excavating Pitt-Rivers blog as the project develops.

Report on Designation Development Fund award for the Excavating Pitt-Rivers project

Between November 2012 and December 2013, the work of the Excavating Pitt-Rivers project was supported through an award of  £76,654 from the Designation Development Fund of Arts Council England. We have now published a Report, summarising what our team has achieved during through this award, and our plans for future work on the collections. The document is available here and the summary is provided below. 

The Excavating Pitt-Rivers project continues in 2014, building on the crucial proof-of-concept work funded through thus Arts Council England award, through further publication and public dissemination,  and further grant applications.


Through an award of £76,654 from the Designation Development Fund, the Excavating Pitt-Rivers project has enhanced the care, documentation and public understanding of the earliest archaeological collections that were acquired by General Augustus Pitt-Rivers from sites across England, and which are held at the Pitt Rivers Museum (PRM). Led by Dr Dan Hicks (Lecturer-Curator in Archaeology), the project team has documented, photographed and published to the Museum’s online database c.10,687 archaeological objects that were collected and excavated by General Pitt-Rivers from across England between c. 1864 and 1880.

Our understanding of this unique archaeological collection has been completely transformed by the project. In our application to the Designation Development Fund, we stated that “Our initial estimate is that this collection comprises c. 5,000 artefacts from more than 61 sites across at least 12 English counties”. Through a collections based approach, the number of objects recorded in the database has more than doubled to c. 10,687. The number of sites from which objects derive has risen from just 61 across 12 English counties to 267 across 32 counties. Before the project the vast majority of the objects had not been examined since their arrival in Oxford in 1884: the taking of more than 20,800 photographs of objects by the project team – now fully uploaded to the Museum’s database and website – is therefore a watershed moment. The newly enhanced documentation transforms not just our understanding, but also the future potential of the collection for research and display. It also highlights the potential of applying the highest standards of documentation to historic archaeological collections that have conventionally been treated in a more broad-brush manner.

At the same time, the project has pioneered an approach to collections-based documentation enhancement and desk-based research that is grounded in a programme of public engagement. A project blog ( has attracted more than 20,000 unique visitors over 12 months, and an additional estimated 100,000 people have been reached through an active Twitter campaign led by Pitt Rivers Museum (Twitter) and Dan Hicks (Twitter).

Seven public events have been held across the country, in Folkestone, Leeds, York, London, Lewes, Guildford and Oxford. Four visits by local archaeological societies have been hosted at the Pitt Rivers Museum, and have included talks and object handling sessions. Published outputs have ranged from a feature in British Archaeology magazine, and articles in the journals and newsletters of regional archaeological societies, to an open-access peer-reviewed paper in the distinguished American journal Current Anthropology (December 2013). The project has achieved extensive regional and national media coverage, including appearances by Dan Hicks on the BBC4 documentary Heritage! The Battle for Britain’s Past, and on Radio 4’s In Our Time.

The legacies of the project include a series of new connections across the museum and heritage sector that have already led to funding applications for new initiatives that build on the momentum built up through Excavating Pitt-Rivers, grounded in excellence, public engagement, and sustainability. The results of the project will also directly inform the re-display of the archaeological collections in the Museum’s permanent displays through the Museum’s £1.6m Heritage Lottery-supported redisplay and outreach programme VERVE (Visitors, Engagement, Renewal, Visibility, Enrichment), which runs from 2012-2017.

Unrolling a large watercolour of Stonehenge

images: Pitt Rivers Museum curatorial staff unrolling a large watercolour of Stonehenge for photographic documentation. This previously unknown item appears to be one of a series of visual aids made for, and used by, General Pitt-Rivers in lectures in the 1870s. Photograph by Ian Cartwright, Archaeology Imaging Unit, Institute of Archaeology, Oxford

In December 2013, the Excavating Pitt-Rivers team, in collaboration with the Institute of Archaeology and Philip Grover of the Pitt Rivers Museum, undertook a programme of photographic documentation for a selection of oversized archival material from the Pitt Rivers Museum archival collections. 

This material had been catalogued in the mid 20th century as from the collection of E.B. Tylor, and our documentation work has confirmed that a wide range of images made for use in Tylor's publications is present. However, documentary research also indicated that there may be some of General Pitt-Rivers' lecture aids amongst the items. They were accessioned by the Museum in 1944, shortly after the death of the Museum's curator Henry Balfour, and were recorded as used 'to illustrate lectures in places & at a time when lantern-slides could not be had or used'.

The process of documenting the material has led to some potentially important discoveries, including a series of seven large-format watercolours of British archaeological megalithic monuments, and a series of illustrations of firearms. Three working shots of one of these - a unique large-scale watercolour illustration of Stonehenge  - being carefully unfolded for photography by members of the museum's the curatorial team, is shown above.

Research and documentation is ongoing, but the evidence seems to indicate that these images were made for General Pitt-Rivers during the 1870s, for use by him as visual aids in  lectures (and possibly also in museum exhibits), before being transferred to the Pitt Rivers Museum. The watercolours bear some similarities to other (much smaller) images made for Pitt-Rivers by his illustrator, William Stephen Tomkin. 

These re-discovered images of archaeological monuments will be fully researched, documented and published as work continues, and updates will be posted through this blog. In the mean time, these rediscovered images are another reminder that processes of re-discovery and documentation that are akin to archaeological excavation can be undertaken within museums, as well as at more conventional archaeological sites.