Pitt-Rivers, Augustus Henry Lane Fox

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(b. Yorkshire, England, 14 April 1827; d. Rushmore, England, 4 May 1900) archaeology, anthropology, ethnology.

Pitt-Rivers was known by his father’s surname of Lane Fox until 1880, when he inherited the estates of his great-uncle George Pitt, second Baron Rivers, and took his names. He was trained as a soldier in Sandhurst Military College, saw service in the Crimea and India, and specialized in the development of firearms. His main work was on the use and improvement of the rifle, and he was commandant of the Hythe school of musketry. In 1845 he received a commission in the grenadier guards, and in 1882 he became a lieutenant-general. His wide travels and his special military interest in the evolution of firearms drove him to acquire all kinds of artifacts, and to an interest in the comparative study of material culture of primitive and prehistoric societies. His private collections—which soon outgrew his own house—were temporarily housed in the Bethnal Green and South Kensington museums; in 1883 they were moved to the specially created Pitt-Rivers Museum at Oxford. But by then he had started a fresh collection that was housed at Farnham in Dorset. The artifacts were arranged in typological sequences, and Pitt-Rivers was one of the chief nineteenth-century exponents of the very valuable typological method for the study of prehistoric artifacts.

When Pitt-Rivers succeeded to the Rivers estates, he took up residence in Dorset and set to work excavating sitese—which included villages, farmsteads, forts, burial mounds, and linear earthworks-on Cranborne Chase. He excavated with meticulous care and, with Flinders Petrie, may be said to have invented the modern technique of British field archaeology. He stressed the importance of recording all finds, especially ordinary things. His accounts of his work and the models he made of his excavations have enabled modern archaeologists to follow his work from beginning to end and to reinterpret his finds in the light of modern knowledge. He insisted on rapid publication, and he had his five-volume Excavations in Cranborne Chase (1887–1898) privately printed and distributed free.

In 1876 Pitt-Rivers became a fellow of the Royal Society and in 1886 an Honorary D.C.L. at Oxford. When the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act was made law in 1882, largely at the instigation of his friend Sir John Lubbock (Lord Avebury), he became the first inspector of ancient monuments in Britain; but he soon gave up this appointment, finding the authorities in Whitehall insufficiently cooperative.

Pitt-Rivers had very clear ideas about the cultural process in prehistory and once declared, “History is evolution.” His detailed study of British firearms, combined with his belief in the Darwinian concept of evolution, made him formulate the idea that all material objects developed in an evolutionary way and could be arranged in typological sequences. His work on firearms was the model for his thinking, as Henry Balfour, first keeper of the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford said (J. L. Myres, ed., The Evolution of Culture, p. 78), and it was from firearms that “he was led to believe that the same principles must probably govern the development of the other arts, appliances, and ideas of mankind.”

Pitt-Rivers began what may justly be called a sociological approach to artifacts, whether contemporary or prehistoric. He insisted that his collections were “not for the purpose of surprising anyone, either by the beauty or value of the objects exhibited, but solely with a view to instruction. For this purpose ordinary and typical specimens rather than rare objects have been selected and arranged in sequence.” With Flinders Petrie he was a leader not only of new techniques in archaeological excavation but also of the revolution that led archaeology away from the contemplation of objects of art to the contemplation of all objects.


For Pitt-Rivers’ lectures on the principles of classification, see “The Evolution of Culture,” in J. L. Myres, ed., The Evolution of Culture and Other Essays (Oxford, 1906). See also the memoir by H. St. George Gray in the privately published Excavations in Cranborne Chase, IV.

Glyn Daniel