Monday, 3 December 2012

Characterizing the World Archaeology Collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum

image: Photograph of the excavation of the ditch at Wor Barrow by General Pitt-Rivers, Sept-Oct 1893. Pitt Rivers Museum photograph collections 2002.73.1

My overview of the archaeological collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum, edited with Alice Stevenson, will be published in March 2013. The book is a product of a research project funded by the John Fell OUP Research FundThe introduction to the volume,  introducing the idea of 'Characterization', is published below. You can see the table of contents for the book here.
Cite this paper as: Dan Hicks 2013. Characterizing the World Archaeology Collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum. In D. Hicks and A. Stevenson (eds) World Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum: a characterization. Oxford: Archaeopress. For a pdf of this paper, see 

Characterizing the World Archaeology Collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum
Dan Hicks

The Pitt Rivers Museum (PRM) is the University of Oxford’s museum of Anthropology and World Archaeology. It was founded in 1884 with a donation of a collection of c. 22,092 archaeological and ethnological objects, which had been assembled between c. 1851 and the early 1880s by General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers (1827-1900) – who was known until 1880 simply as Augustus Henry Lane Fox (Chapman 1981: 34–5; cf. Bowden 1991; Chapman 1984, 1985, 1989; Lane Fox 1877; Thompson 1977). The PRM founding collection was donated to the University four years after Pitt-Rivers had inherited a large estate (and his new surname): an event that transformed his life.[1] After 1884, and especially through the activities of Henry Balfour, who was Curator of the Museum between 1891 and 1939 the PRM collections rapidly grew in size (cf. Balfour 1893, 1906). Today, the Museum is a very different collection from that donated by the General: it holds c. 312,686 artefacts, as well as more than 174,000 photographs[2] and extensive manuscript collections. The ‘typological’ arrangement of archaeological and anthropological material in the Museum (Lane Fox 1884; Pitt-Rivers 1891) was reimagined and reordered under the curatorships of Balfour, Tom Penniman (Curator 1939-1963), Bernard Fagg (Curator 1964-1975), Brian Cranstone (Curator 1976-1985), and most recently the directorships of Schuyler Jones (Director 1985-1998) and Michael O’Hanlon (Director 1998-present).
            This volume presents an overview of the archaeological collections of the Museum. It is the product of a research programme that ran between 2009 and 2011, titled Characterizing the World Archaeology Collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum: defining research priorities, and supported by the University of Oxford’s John Fell OUP Research Fund. This introductory chapter outlines the approach adopted by the project, which we have termed ‘characterization’, and considers the definition of ‘archeological’ collections, before introducing the rest of the volume, and drawing brief conclusions.

The chapters of this book were written by specialists in the various periods and regions of archaeology represented in the collections, in collaboration with a project research team based at the Museum. The project team (Dan Hicks, Alice Stevenson, Matt Nicholas and Alison Petch) undertook primary research to enhance the documentation of the archaeological collections: retrieving objects, updating and correcting database records, researching the locations of archaeological sites, identifying where objects had been published, etc. In collaboration with the external specialists, the team developed the new descriptive overviews of collections. These ‘characterizations’ sought, through a processs of documentation and description, to suggest what might represent the main strengths of the archaeological collections, and to indicate priorities for collections-based research for the next ten or fifteen years.
In practice, the research process bore some similarity to the process of ‘post-excavation assessment’ undertaken after developer-funded excavations (English Heritage 1991). Rather than assessing a single body of material from one programme of excavation, it treated the whole collections – derived from many different field interventions, and many different parts of the world – as a single assemblage. Indeed, by developing descriptive accounts of the collections, the research process sometimes came close to older museum practices of creating catalogues or ‘hand-lists’. But generally such catalogues are focused on more closely-defined bodies of material (e.g. Hook and MacGregor 1997; MacGregor 1993, 1997), rather than the full range of archaeological materials explored here. So, perhaps the exercise undertaken here stands as much in a tradition in the study of the collections of the University of Oxford that begins with the 1836 Catalogue of the Ashmolean Museum: descriptive of the zoological specimens, antiquities, coins and miscellaneous curiosities (Ashmolean Museum 1836) as it does in that of more fine-grained interpretive scholarship.
In developing the idea of characterization, we took as a principal challenge Hedley Swain’s idea, set out in his Introduction to Museum Archaeology, that ‘conceptually every item in a collection [might be] given equal value’ (Swain 2007: 297; cf. Thomas 1991: 3).  Existing models of museum curatorship are dominated by art historical and anthropological approaches, but we wanted to find more adequately archaeological ways of undertaking research in a museum environment: bringing archaeological approaches and sensibilities indoors. In other words, we sought to understand the Pitt Rivers Museum as a kind of archaeological site.
Imagining the museum as an archaeological site, we envisaged the research process as akin to undertaking a programme of evaluative fieldwork. Our hope was to lay the foundations for future more detailed ‘excavations’ of particular bodies of archaeological material in the museum, as well as perhaps to develop a methodology that it might be possible adopt in other museums. Our sense from the outset was that by seeking to present a descriptive overview of the whole ‘archaeological’ collection, we would not simply rediscover significant artefacts and collections, but would find new assemblages and juxtapositions that have been formed through the 130-year history of the museum. We would, we imagined, transform the archaeological collections by documenting them: in a similar manner to the transformations undertaken in archaeological fieldwork. Archaeologists document in order to understand, and in doing so they transform, and thus re-create, their objects of enquiry. This is most clear in the interventionism of excavation – which is often defined as destructive of the archaeological record – but can, perhaps, be equally true of doing archaeology in museums.
We sought to develop written overviews of the collections that are not closed descriptions: since our main aim is to present material so that it can be added to, and corrected, by future research. But we also did not want simply to present interpretations, but to take longer over describing, sometimes with inevitable repetition, the material, rather than hurrying to humanistic perspectives. Our use of the term ‘characterization’ will, we hope, capture the method that we have sought to develop and experimented with here: creating interested overviews of each tranche of the collections, highlighting unexplored strengths and pointing to areas for future work. As I shall argue below, what we have learnt was that this process has also served to transform the collections themselves, in a manner akin to the interventionism of archaeological excavation: since documentation is an integral element of the archaeological record (Lucas 2012).

What counts as ‘archaeological’
A note on the definition of ‘archaeological’ collections is necessary. One might suggest that any distinction between anthropology and archaeology is simply inappropriate for the PRM. Pitt-Rivers’ own interests made little distinction between archaeology and anthropology, and in its early history the museum was generally defined as concerned with ‘ethnology’: a term that encompasses both archaeological and archaeological concerns, sometimes with a particular focus on technology. Only in 1958, during the curatorship of Tom Penniman, was the Museum re-defined as the ‘University Department of Ethnology and Prehistory’ – a terminology that was retained until the current terminology – ‘Oxford University’s Museum of Anthropology and World Archaeology’ – was adopted in the 1980s.
However, these earlier permeabilities between disciplines were hardly straightforward. As Arthur Evans’ reflection on the transfers of material from the Ashmolean Museum to the newly-opened PRM made clear, a distinction between Classical and non-Classical archaeology was enacted (A. Evans 1884; cf. Chester 1881).  Although Evans saw it as ‘impossible to lay down any hard and fast lines of distinction between objects of Archaeological and Anthropological interest’, he saw the kind of archaeology represented by the Ashmolean Museum as being concerned with ‘objects illustrative of the arts and history of Great Britain, of the European peoples, and of those parts of Asia and the Mediterranean world with which they are historically and, in some cases, ethnographically bound’ – ‘the early ages of our own quarter of the globe’ – while the Pitt Rivers Museum took precedence as to material from ‘the more remote parts of the world ’ (A. Evans 1884: 4-5; compare White 1994; Impey 1995; Larson 1998).
            The result has been that the PRM archaeological collections have developed as particularly strong in Stone Age/Palaeolithic material from around the world (including very considerable European collections), and in later archaeological material that derives from outside Europe and the Near East. That said, there are also many significant bodies of material that fall outside of this rubric, especially from the PRM founding collection. For example, there are considerable amounts of Romano-British and medieval material excavated by the General himself (Chapters 11 and 12), or later prehistoric Cypriot ceramics that were, unusually for the time, not exhibited in the context of Greek and Roman material Chapter 15). Beyond Europe, it is clearer still that purely chronological distinctions between ‘archaeological’ and ‘anthropological’ material are difficult to define in an a priori manner. In southern Africa, the continuity of stone tool use and rock art production until very recent times means that the distinction between the 'Stone Age', rock art and San (Bushman) ethnographic holdings of the PRM is at best an artificial one (Chapter 2).
Drawing classificatory lines between archaeology and anthropology can also be politically complex. On one hand, in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego (Chapter 17) or Tasmania (Chapter 27) the definition of ethnographic material as ‘archaeological’ problematically recalls 19th-century ideas of contemporary peoples as ‘survivals’ – through the anthropological trick of collapsing geographical distance into temporal distance (Fabian 1983). On the other hand, whether in Africa or even in North America, definitions of material as ‘ethnographic’ has excluded some regions from being recognised as significant in archaeological accounts of the past.
In Britain, the historical distinctions between ‘archaeological’, folkloric and ‘ethnographic’ objects relates mainly to conceptions of the limits of archaeology – as prehistoric, or as perhaps including the Romano-British or medieval periods. A central issue here is the historical nature of both anthropological and archaeological collections. As archaeology has, over the past half-century, increasingly been understood as a discipline that can be applied to 19th- and 20th-century material just as much as it can to the more distant past, and as parallel debates over the historical nature of apparently atemporal accounts of ethnographic situations have developed, distinctions been ‘archaeological’ and ‘ethnographic’ material today perhaps lie not so much in the period of time in which an object was made, but the disciplinary thinking that went into its collection and subsequent curation.
            In other words, the ‘archaeological’ nature of collections derives to a large extent from the archaeological methods and practices through which objects have been assembled, rather than simply from the contexts from which objects were made or used. In the PRM, the history of these methods and practices include a very wide range of collecting strategies. The history of collecting is, in this case, best understood as a history of enacting objects through different disciplinary methods and practices, rather than simply as the gathering of assemblages. Perhaps this is most clear in the ‘archaeological’ objects in the PRM that are artefacts made from stone or glass by Museum curators for the purposes of comparative technology. But in all cases, any account of the archaeological collections must highlight the role of curators who defined themselves – to a greater or lesser extent, or not at all – as archaeologists.[3] The regional traditions in which these individuals were trained and practiced – Africanist, Americanist, European prehistorian, etc – shaped the agendas and definitions for archaeology in the Museum over time.
Large programmes of excavation are relatively rarely represented in the collections: indeed, a major part of the challenge in studying the collections is that a clear archaeological provenance is currently not recorded for many objects, especially those acquired through dealers, auction houses, and from other collections. As the results of this volume show, sustained documentary and collections-based research can often provide clearer contexts for particular assemblages and objects, and many of the future challenges for research into the archaeological collections lie in unpicking the processes through which they were formed, to resolve basic questions of provenance and history – most starkly, perhaps, with the entangled histories of material recorded as from Arica (Chile) and Ancón (Peru) (Chapter 17). Here, the processes of research and documentation must be understood as commensurable with the processes of fieldwork itself – shaping and re-shaping the geographical and temporal distribution of the collections.
In practice, for the present volume the definition of ‘archaeological’ collections has followed (and, where appropriate, has updated) the distinctions made on the PRM database. Any object defined as ‘Archaeology’ or ‘Archaeology/Ethnography’ (but not ‘Ethnography’) in the database field ‘Archaeology/Ethnography’ has been included in the material described here. Clarification of the numbers of objects represented by single records, the incorporation of previously unaccessioned material, and the correction of mistaken attributions of clearly archaeological material (whether Palaeolithic hand-axes or excavated clay pipe stems) to the ‘Ethnographic’ category, meant that over the course of the project, the number of archaeological objects listed on the database increased from 127,684 in November 2009 to 136,025 in November 2012. To give one small illustrative example, , the project team’s collections work has shown that the PRM’s material from Cornish’s Pit in Iffley, Oxford consists of c. 185 objects rather than the 28 reported by Wymer (1968), and that it was associated with faunal remains, and the location of the site has been identified (Chapter 12). This kind of documentation work is often tedious, and always labour-intensive, but as with the processes of excavation the cumulative effect is to allow new understanding of the material to emerge. Such work is not just valuable, but crucial, if we understand our objects of enquiry to be the effects of our practice as researchers, rather than readymades just waiting to be studied (Hicks and Beaudry 2010: 21).
 Where objects have been excavated, definitions are perhaps most clear. In other cases, unhafted stone tools may be listed as ‘archaeological’ while hafted stone tools from the same collection are listed as ‘ethnographic’: a distinction that is clearly unhelpful, since any stone tool could be re-hafted at any point. Countless other examples of the permeabilities between ‘archaeological’ and ‘ethnographic’ objects could be pointed to. There are examples in the PRM collections of ethnographic objects collected for comparative archaeological purposes, modern objects recovered through archaeological techniques, and even archaeological objects excavated by indigenous people. But having noted these difficulties, we must underline that in this volume ‘archaeological’ is a contingent and provisional definition that must rely on an understanding of the historical – and ongoing – formation of the PRM collections in the context of overlapping disciplinary histories and agendas.
Today, around 44% of the artefact collections – c. 136,025 objects – is defined as ‘archaeological’. This contrasts with the c. 13,687 ‘archaeological’ objects in the PRM founding collection – i.e. around 62% of the collection in 1884. Until the present volume, the most sustained ‘archaeological’ research activity conducted in the museum until the present volume related to the scientific study of technology, and particularly to the production of stone tools and metallurgy. This focus is most visible in the museum’s own publications (but see also Penniman and Allen 1960). The Pitt Rivers Museum Occasional Papers on Technology series ran from 1944 to 1970, and included Francis Knowles’ studies of The Manufacture of a Flint Arrow-Head by Quartzite Hammer-Stone (Knowles 1944) and The Stone-Worker’s Progress: a study of stone implements in the Pitt Rivers Museum (Knowles 1953); Henry Coghlan’s metallurgical studies of European prehistoric copper and bronze (Coghlan 1951) and iron (Coghlan 1956); and Allen’s Metallurgical Reports on British and Irish Bronze Age Implements and Weapons in the Pitt Rivers Museum (Allen 1970). Beatrice Blackwood’s contributions to the same series – The Technology of a Modern Stone Age People in New Guinea (Blackwood 1950) and The Classification of Artefacts in the Pitt Rivers Museum Oxford (Blackwood 1970) – related less directly to archaeology, although a part of the context for the first of these volumes was Blackwood’s pioneering interests in ethnoarchaeology. In contrast, not one of the eight volumes in the Pitt Rivers Museum Monograph Series, published between 1977 and 1998, was on an archaeological theme (Bockstoce 1977; Blackwood 1978; Bowden 1983; Morphy and Edwards 1988; Mowat et al. 1992; Tayler 1996, 1997, 1998). As with the editorial direction of the monograph series, so in the active research culture of the PRM since it was discontinued in the 1990s, ethnographic themes and approaches have continued to dominate the research undertaken in the museum. However, significant advances in the development of an electronic catalogue for the PRM collections, and of the documentation of the PRM founding collection, have been made during this period – without which the present volume would have been impossible (Coote et al. 1999; Petch 1998a, 1998b, 2002 2006).
Thus, our definition of archaeology is a contingent one – based on the history of the museum. In some cases it is arbitrary, while in others it is clear-cut. In all cases, it is provisional. As with all the information put forward in this volume, it is there to be questioned, corrected, expanded upon, or re-oriented. There has been a handful of accounts of particular elements of the archaeological collections (e.g. Milliken 2003, Karageorghis 2009), the body of scientific studies of prehistoric technologies mentioned above, the work of Derek Roe and his students on the Palaeolithic collections (Milliken and Cook 2001), especially through the PRM’s association with the Donald Baden-Powell Quaternary Research Centre between 1975 and 2003, and the displays of archaeological material made and used by Ray Inskeep between 1984 and 2000 at the Museum’s former annexe 60 Banbury Road (now dismantled). But with these exceptions, the PRM’s archaeological collections – including those made by General Pitt-Rivers himself – have remained unstudied since 1884.

 The Rest of the Volume
As set out above, the present volume aims to begin a process of studying the collections by documenting and describing them – a process that we have called ‘characterization’. A starting point was to identify a country of origin for each object – something that has been possible for the majority of artefacts (Tables 1.1 and 1.2), and to divide these collections by continent (Tables 1.3-1.7). The documentation of geographical provenance was enhanced wherever possible with regions or archaeological sites, using contemporary (21st-century) territorial boundaries. The resulting chapters are divided not only across geographical but also, where appropriate, chronological divisions. We paid no attention to equalizing the relative numbers of objects discussed in each chapter, since all the chapters are documents that aims to begin, rather than to conclude, research. Thus, the largest section in terms of numbers of objects – the 47,469 ‘archaeological’ objects from the continent of Africa (Section I) – incudes a chapter on Stone Age Sub-Saharan Africa that discusses c. 17,611 objects (Chapter 2), while the chapter on Greco-Roman Egypt (Chapter 7) examines just 252 objects. Similarly, in Europe (Section II) our account of later prehistoric and Roman Europe (Chapter 11) considers c. 24,150 objects, which contrasts with 648 objects from Iron Age and Roman Italy considered in Chapter 16.
The ‘world archaeology’ collections of the PRM derive from 145 of the 196 countries of the world. By far the largest element of the ‘archaeological’ collections (c. 29,848 objects, or around 22%) derives from the UK, but there are also collections of more than 1,000 ‘archaeological’ objects from 20 other countries, comprising (in order of size) Australia, Egypt, South Africa, Kenya, Sudan, India, Zimbabwe, France, Peru, USA, Israel, Algeria, Mauritania, Zambia, Sri Lanka, Mexico, Nigeria, Chile, Jordan and Italy (Table 1.2). One principal factor in the formation of these collections is that artefacts from the former territories of the British Empire dominate. Another factor is that the vast majority of the ‘archaeological’ objects were collected before World War II, after which time radical changes in the international movement of antiquities took place. For the PRM, the year 1939 also, of course, marked the end of the longstanding curatorship of Henry Balfour (Curator 1891-1939), who shaped the formation of the archaeological collections so much. Another major factor in the formation of the collections were the numerous transfers from other museums: from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the Ashmolean Museum (E. Evans 1884) within the University, from large collections such as those of Edward Burnett Tylor and John Evans, and from beyond Oxford – for example in the 1966 purchase of large archaeological collections from Ipswich Museum. Indeed much more than half of the ‘archaeological’ collections of the PRM were acquired from just 25 principal sources: ranging from the PRM founding collection (which included c. 13,678 ‘archaeological’ objects) through Ernest Westlake’s collection of 12,525 Tasmanian stone tools, to smaller collections made by Beatrice Blackwood, George Fabian Lawrence and Henry Nottidge Moseley (Table 1.8).
            Each chapter presents an overview of a defined tranche of the collection, exploring the history of its formation and its scope, especially in relation to the PRM founding collection and subsequent accessions. The chapters run from Africa and Europe to the Americas (Section III), Asia (Section IV), and Australia and Oceania (Section V). The accounts conclude with reflections on particular strengths and future research priorities for the material discussed. Taken together, the chapters present a ‘characterization’ of the archaeological collections of the PRM.

1.5       Conclusions
Over the course of the 20th century, the popular understanding of the status, set out by Arthur Evans in 1884, of the PRM as the University of Oxford’s repository for non-classical archaeology, rather than purely ethnographic collections, was gradually lost. To give just one example, an account of the transfer of the British archaeological element of Pitt-Rivers’ second collection to Salisbury Museum referred to ‘the mainly ethnographic collection which is to be found in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford’ (Benthall 1984: 5). In broader perspective, this is unsurprising: the majority of ‘ethnographic’ museums in Europe similarly hold many non-western archaeological collections. These problems of definition and terminology are, perhaps, a major factor in the limited development of world archaeology undertaken from western museum collections. This is certainly the case in Oxford.
            The descriptive approach adopted in this volume, and the focus on enhancing documentation, is unfashionable. Museum research has, in recent years, been dominated by various forms of socio-cultural studies. Humanistic approaches to museums developed from socio-cultural anthropology have explored museums’ roles as ‘contact zones’ (Clifford 1997), and their historical emergence as ‘relational’ entities (Gosden and Larsen 2007) or within ‘social networks (Larson et al. 2007). The direction of this volume is in precisely the opposite direction: to explore how, despite human intentionality, the archaeological collections of the PRM have become an archaeological site. While anthropologists have shown that museums can be sites for ethnographic fieldwork, the challenge for archaeologists is to begin to see the museum as a place for new kinds of excavation: new forms of historical archaeology, from which histories of archaeological practices and materials can complement conventional histories of archaeological thought, and where the contemporary value and significance of archaeological collections can be characterized. There remain some uncatalogued and un-numbered collections, to which this volume points, which will add to the material described here. But equally, all further archaeological attention to these collections will re-shape them, just as excavation constantly re-shapes the archaeological record.
Today, just c. 3,034 (10%) of the c. 27,800 objects on permanent display in the PRM are identified on the Museum database as ‘archaeological’. There are challenges for the display of archaeological materials, but the challenge of understanding the objects in the storerooms must take priority. In developing these understandings, perhaps the major revelation from archaeology is that – as an archaeological object in its own right – the formation of any museum collection is always ongoing, rather than fixed. This volume, by characterizing the material and suggesting directions for future work, adds another layer to the collections. In doing so, it aims to make a clear contribution to the pressing question that have been asked of university museums over the past twenty years (Merriman and Swain 1999, Swain 2007): how can we reimagine museums as places for archaeological research? We hope that the approach outlined here, which we have termed characterization, makes a useful contribution to continued efforts to answer that question.

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[1] In the final two decades of his life, Pitt-Rivers developed a second collection, similar in composition and size to his first, much of which he displayed at his private museum at Farnham, Dorset, close to his country estate. The second collection was sold off and dispersed during the 1960s and 1970s, although much of the British archaeological collections are today held by Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum.
[2] Chris Morton, PRM Curator of Photograph and Manuscript Collections, estimates the total number of photographs held by the PRM to be around 200,000. There are c. 174,000 photographic objects currently recorded on the PRM database (Chris Morton pers. comm. November 2012; cf. Edwards 1984).
[3] From Tom Penniman and Beatrice Blackwood to Bernard Fagg, Peter Gathercole, Donald F.W. Baden-Powell Audrey Butt, K.O.L. Burridge, B.A.L.Cranstone, Schuyler Jones, Dennis Britton, J.B. Campbell, Ray Inskeep, Howard Morphy, Elizabeth Edwards, Donald Tayler, Hélène La Rue, Peter Mitchell and Chris Gosden, as well as current PRM staff.

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