The founding collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum

Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt RiversAll museums have to start somewhere and the Pitt Rivers Museum began when Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers gave a collection of around 30,000 objects to the University of Oxford in 1884. Since then many more objects have been given to the Museum by different people and there are now over a quarter of a million objects, many of them on public display. However, the founding collection still forms about a tenth of today's entire collection and when you look in any case in the Museum you will always find some objects from this collection.

Pitt Rivers' life and work

Pitt Rivers was born in 1827 in Yorkshire and in 1841 entered the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and was commissioned into the Grenadier Guards in 1845. He fought for a short time in the Crimean War, and served in Malta, England, Canada and Ireland. He finally retired in 1882, at the age of 55, with the honorary rank of Lieutenant-General. In 1880 he unexpectedly inherited the Rivers estate and name from his great uncle. The country estate was a substantial one and Pitt Rivers also received a large annual income; for the remainder of his life he was a wealthy landowner. In 1882 Pitt Rivers was appointed the first Inspector of Ancient Monuments. He died in 1900, at the age of 73.

Pitt Rivers' collections

Pitt Rivers' interest in collecting archaeological and ethnographic objects came out of his early professional interests in the development of firearms. Later he started to collect many other varieties of offensive and defensive weaponry and then objects other than weapons. It is generally believed that Pitt Rivers himself did very little field collecting but, in fact, he did obtain objects whilst on active service, during a tour of Europe, in Malta and during the Crimean War. Later in life he seems to have collected objects during working trips and holidays abroad. The vast majority of objects, however, came from dealers, auction houses, and from fellow members of the Anthropological Institute.

Organizing objects

He used the objects in his collection to illustrate his views on the evolution of design and technology and for this reason his objects, even before they came to Oxford, had been displayed in 'typological series'. A typological series is a set of objects that are of the same type, like weapons, vessels, or musical instrument arranged in a particular order. After 1884 the University decided to continue to display the collection in typological series which show the same kinds of objects from all over the world in one case, although they are no longer influenced by ideas about the evolution of design. This way of displaying means that you can see how many different people have solved common problems and how many different solutions have been found over time or in different parts of the world.

Some interesting objects from Pitt Rivers' collections

All over the Museum there are very many objects on display from the founding collection. He was unusual for his time because he collected both 'works of art' and ordinary, everyday objects. You can see examples of both kinds of objects in the Museum but we have selected some that you might like to find.

The Court - ground floor

Egptian boatEgyptian cat
Treatment of the Dead - Ancient Egypt, Peru and Chile Case 7.A

Ancient Egyptian boat. Such models were often placed in early Middle Kingdom tombs to provide for the deceased in the afterlife. It is probably XII Dynasty. (PRM 1884.81.10)

You could also look for an ancient Egyptian cat in the 'Animal forms in art' Case 143.A, the Rajasthani carvings amongst the religious images, or masks from the Torres straits (near the collecting box). (PRM 1884.58.79)

Lower Gallery - 1st floor

brooch Case 99.A - Brooches, Pins and Finger and Toe Rings'

You are looking for a flat brooch (PRM 1884.79.5). This is a ring-brooch of silver, edged with small silver balls, divided radially into 8 compartments by silver filigree lines, alternately enamelled green and blue, set with alternate balls and drop-shape cornelian-like stones with a row of green and blue pendants. It is from Kabyle or Shawia in Algeria in North Africa.

Upper gallery - 2nd floor

See the club cases facing you to the right as you enter the Upper Gallery

The mace you are looking for has a number of blades radiating from around its head (PRM 1884.12.3). It is an iron mace with a knob-head, composed of radiating blades with velvet handle between and inlaid gold surfaces. It was made in India. You can tell when you have found an an object from our founding collection macebecause the label will say often say 'Original Pitt Rivers Collection’ or ‘founding collection' and will have an accession number starting 1884. Happy Hunting!

Suggested reading:

Blackwood, B. 1970. The Origin and Development of the Pitt Rivers Museum. Off printed from Occasional Papers on Technology, 11, Pitt Rivers Museum Bowden, M. 1991. Pitt Rivers: The life and archaeological work of Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers, DCL, FRS, FSA. Cambridge University Press

Rethinking Pitt-Rivers - analysing the activities of a nineteenth century collector web site

Compiled by Alison Petch, Museum Registrar.