Navigation Menu+

Heroes of Science – Episode 10

What’s unique about Pitt Rivers in many respects is the way in which he’s approaching excavation.

So Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers, he was your classic Victorian polymath and he was a military man.  And in the mid 19th century, he’d been asked to improve the British rifle – sorry, just to give you a very long answer to that question – he’d been asked to improve the British rifle and he’d noticed that by very slight changes over time that there had been gradual improvements.  And of course this is the same time that we’ve got Darwinian evolution being discussed, also conversations about cultural evolution, and so Pitt Rivers starts to expand these ideas of technological gradual change to other types of objects, to collect other types of material, so he has a real interest in how change can be seen in material culture and doing that in a very systematic way, so that’s one side of the story.

The other side of the story is that Pitt Rivers also starts to be interested in archaeology and, in the 19th century, archaeology is starting to emerge as a distinct area of discussion.  So, I mean, he’s a member of the Anthropology Society, the Archaeological Society, and he’s talking about his typologies but he’s also engaging in excavations, and what’s unique about Pitt Rivers in many respects is the way in which he’s approaching excavation and he records it in such a detailed way: many of his contemporaries would dig and find something and go, ‘Aha! Look at this object.’  This is how the Victorians really knew about the past, through these sequences and typologies, but Pitt Rivers was going much more emphasis, like a few others at the time, but he really took it to the great, you know, great detail to record where things were found.  And he undertook some of the most famous excavations at that time, particularly on his estate on Cranborne Chase, and as a wealthy land owner he could really invest in the kind of detailed field reports that typify how we record and what’s behind our thinking of recording today.