Pitt–Rivers, A. H. L. F.

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Pitt-Rivers, A. H. L. F.



Augustus Henry Lane Fox (1827–1900), the man who now holds a very high place in the history of archeology and anthropology as General Pitt-Rivers, was born into an ordinary English and Scottish aristocratic family. His father was W. A. Lane Fox of Hope Hall in Yorkshire, and his mother, Lady Caroline, was a daughter of the eighteenth earl of Morton. He changed his name to Pitt-Rivers in 1880, when he unexpectedly inherited the estates of his uncle George Pitt, the second baron Rivers. Owing to his own exceptional endowments, he and his descendants were to enter into a more intellectual aristocracy, for he himself married a daughter of Lord Stanley of Alderley, and one of his daughters became the wife of the well-known archeologist John Lubbock, afterward Lord Avebury.

He began his career in the conventional aristocratic tradition, going to Sandhurst Military College and afterward being commissioned in the Grenadier Guards.

He was, in fact, a successful soldier, distinguishing himself in the field in the Crimean War and retiring with the rank of lieutenant general. Quite early, however, his originality and gift for research made themselves felt and he was charged with tasks which involved investigating the history of small arms in the British Army and, subsequently, their improvement.

His work in this field had important military results, but far more important was the influence it had on his own thinking. This was a time when biological evolution was on everyone’s mind, and Pitt-Rivers’ study of muskets and rifles made him realize that principles similar to those of biological evolution could be applied to human artifacts. They, too, evolved in a sequence of minute improvements—or, occasionally, followed abortive lines of development which led to their disappearance.

While he thought, he also bought—and gathered in. He had soon amassed large collections of specimens, some ancient, some the handiwork of surviving primitive peoples (or savages, as he usually called them). His house in London became so crowded with weapons, skulls, stone implements, pottery, and other works of primitive art and craft that he decided to found a public museum, arranged according to his evolutionary system. The authorities established the greater part of it in Bethnal Green in east London, and Pitt-Rivers himself wrote the illustrated catalogue in time for the opening in 1874 (South Kensington Museum 1874).

In a paper presented to the Anthropological Institute in that year, he pointed out that, while archeology had imposed classifications on prehistoric artifacts, nothing of the kind had been attempted in ethnology and museums had hitherto been arranged by regions (see Evolution of Culture). His own collections were now exhibited to show the development of forms and their transmission from one people to another.

Although he classified the objects of material culture, he insisted on the mental processes behind them, seeing each category as representing an idea —the idea of the spear thrower, of the bow—each original idea subsequently being modified by lesser ideas for improvements. He carried the biological analogy so far as to say that human ideas can be divided into genera, species, and varieties.

The collections soon grew too large for the accommodation at Bethnal Green and were transferred to Oxford, where the Pitt-Rivers Museum, still arranged on evolutionary lines, now plays an important part in the teaching of anthropology at the university.

Pitt-Rivers had long been interested in ancient cultures, and when he inherited the vast (29,000 acres) Rivers estates around Cranborne Chase in Dorset, the focus of his attention inevitably shifted from ethnology to prehistory. For the Chase lay in the heart of chalk country exceptionally rich in prehistoric remains, and he found himself the possessor of large numbers of monuments dating from the Stone Age down to Roman times. It is a proof of his gifts and of his stamina that, beginning in a new field on retirement from military service, when he was over fifty years old, he was able to make himself one of the world’s pioneers in scientific archeology.

Almost at once he set to work on the excavation of burial mounds, earthworks, and prehistoric villages. And the precision and thoroughness which he had developed in the army he applied to such effect that his excavating techniques were, from the first, as accurate as those demanded by modern standards. In particular he saw that things still incomprehensible to him would be understood by later workers and that it was therefore a duty to record everything he observed in meticulous detail. This he did, regardless of either time or cost, and as a result it has indeed proved possible for modern archeologists to utilize his findings.

He was an innovator, too, in paying attention especially to the exploration of settlement sites and in excavating them completely. These laborious and expensive undertakings were in striking contrast to the hasty opening of burial mounds which was then still prevalent. They provided almost the first reliable evidence concerning the living conditions of early man in Britain.

He not only recorded every type of find on plans and sectional drawings that were far ahead of their time but also had exact models carved in mahogany of all the principal excavated monuments. Soon he had again accumulated so much material that only a museum could house it. He had one built not far from his house at Rushmore, and it is still maintained, with its fine display of local antiquities, in the midst of the Dorset countryside.

He had set altogether new standards in excavation, and he did no less in scientific publication. Between 1887 and 1898 he published his discoveries in four privately and sumptuously produced volumes entitled Excavations in Cranborne Chase. The importance of Pitt-Rivers’ work received adequate public recognition even in his own day, although his reputation has certainly increased as archeology has caught up with this extraordinary pioneer. In fact, he became the first inspector of ancient monuments in Britain after the passing of the Ancient Monuments Protection Act in 1882. He was made a fellow of the Royal Society, vice-president of the Society of Antiquaries of London, and was a most energetic president of the Anthropological Institute.

Although he had made himself a scientist, General Pitt-Rivers remained very much a soldierly aristocrat. He caused his numerous assistants to wear his colors and on occasion to ride to excavations on penny-farthing bicycles, following humbly in the wake of his high dogcart.

As a landowner he was, however, somewhat eccentric. He planted his estate at Rushmore with exotic trees and shrubs and stocked it with wild animals, which are said sometimes to have terrified visitors and countryfolk. He also provided a brass band to play for his tenants on Sundays—and expected them to attend.

He remained true to his rational and scientific principles to the end. He ordered his body to be cremated after his death and left his head to the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. This museum was destroyed by a bomb during World War II.

Jacquetta Hawkes

[For discussion of the subsequent development of Pitt-Rivers’ work, seeArcheology.]


1883 On the Development and Distribution of Primitive Locks and Keys. London: Chatto & Windus.

1887–1898 Excavations in Cranborne Chase, Near Rushmore, on the Borders of Dorset and Wilts: 1800–1896. 4 vols. London: Printed privately.

1890 King John’s House, Tollard Royal, Wilts. London: Printed privately.

1900 Antique Works of Art From Benin: Collected by Lieutenant-General Pitt-Rivers. London: Printed privately.

The Evolution of Culture, and Other Essays. Oxford: Clarendon, 1906. Edited by J. L. Myres. → Essays first published between 1867 and 1875. See especially pages 1–19, “Principles of Classification.”


Gray, Harold St. George 1905 Index to Excavations in Cranborne Chase and King John’s House, Tollard Royal. Taunton Castle, Somerset: Printed privately. → See especially “A Memoir of Lieut.-General Pitt-Rivers,” pages ix-xxxvi, and a bibliographical list of the works of Pitt-Rivers, pages xxxvii-xliii.

South Kensington Museum, London, Bethnal GreenBranch (1874) 1877 Catalogue of the Anthropological Collection Lent by Colonel Lane-Fox. London: Science and Art Department of the Museum.

Tylor, Edward B. 1901 Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers: 1827–1900. Volume 22, pages 1140–1142 in Dictionary of National Biography, Supplement. London: Smith.

Wissler, Clark 1934 Pitt-Rivers, Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Volume 12, pages 141–142 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

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