The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxfordshire and…me (part 1)


In 2008 a cool looking job was advertised at the Pitt Rivers Museum funded by the lovely people at the Institute for Archaeologists. I was (somehow) lucky enough to get it and subsequently spent the next two years working on all sorts of extraordinary objects in extraordinary surroundings (you know a job is special when the H&S talk consists of the instruction ‘don’t stab yourself with a poison arrow…’). For the latter part of my time there I worked on the project World Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum: a characterization. Conceived by Dr Dan Hicks (Curator of Archaeology) and managed by both Dan and Dr Alice Stevenson (Researcher in World Archaeology), the project involved a host of specialists examining over 30,000 objects from 134 countries [1] in a process not too dissimilar from a  MoRPHE post-excavation assessment. The project was to result in a book (published on the 8th March, available to purchase now), and very kindly I was encouraged to throw my hat in the ring with a chapter on Oxfordshire (co-authored with Dan Hicks). The sheer size of the book (500+ pages) meant there was simply not space for everything, so I’ve cobbled together a few of my leftover notes into a series of blogs.

Myself researching and cataloguing stone tools from Oxfordshire at the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Myself researching and cataloguing stone tools from Oxfordshire at the Pitt Rivers Museum.

My initial reaction when offered the chance to write about Oxfordshire was concern as to how it would fit in a book that spanned the entirety of human existence across the globe. A second concern was that, although I had gotten to know the Oxfordshire collections, I had never really been able to get a feel for the county itself. This was predominantly the result of never living within its borders, my days were spent commuting, and it’s hard to develop a sense of place through the windows of the 07:33 from Birmingham New Street.


Oxfordshire—the most rural county in South East England (Anon 2010a)—is a curious beast. Sandwiched by the outer reaches of major urban conurbation commuter belts to the North (Birmingham and West Midlands) and South East (Reading and London) with swathes of semi-unoccupied second homes in the Cotswolds; much of the county feels a void. Its capital, a nucleated city-region, dominates regional identity, but provides little coherent structure or modern narrative for the county. The tensions inherent in this informal structure emphasize early twenty-first century fears that ill-defined regional government allows city-states to evolve into areas of ‘arid administrative convenience lacking all civic resonance’.

This lack of identity has some historical precedence. As a political entity Oxfordshire dates back to the tenth century (Salzman 1939), but its formation was not based on a coherent regional identity, rather on the existence of strong entities around it (Blair 1998, xi). In the later medieval period regular changes of lordship ensured there were no great baronial houses (Salzman 1939) to provide a medieval political identity within the county. In the post-medieval and early modern periods local government was defined by the, sometimes antagonistic, relationship between University and town (Chance et al. 1979). It may perhaps be suggested that this hampered the development of civic pride and strong regional identity, the driving force behind much of the nineteenth and early twentieth-century local government revival (Hunt 2005). Yet the weak sense of identity is contrasted with a strong geographic integrity, the county forming a significant component of the Upper Thames Basin (Martin 1962, 140). The Thames—running through the Vale of White Horse, through Oxford thence South East towards Reading—dominates the area acting as thoroughfare and resource from time immemorial. To the North the Evenlode and Cherwell, Thames tributaries, carve their way through valley and plain. Dominated by its rivers, the landscape is an archetypal fluvial scarpland, composed of repeating ‘scarps, dip slopes and vales’ (Gregory 1997, 241).

It is within this physical landscape that archaeological narratives of Oxfordshire can be situated and become relevant in terms of local identity. The chapter is intended to illustrate and characterize some of the collections from this host county of the Pitt Rivers Museum and to illustrate its potential, not just in terms of contemporary archaeological research, but also in terms of its potential to engage the Museum’s local public with their own heritage. In total, this consists of a minimum of 3241 objects. At least 2852 (88%) of these objects are stone tools, the majority being prehistoric [3]. Very few of the objects were obtained through excavation, most being recovered during field walking or gravel extraction.

Other chapters in the book discus the English collections (including Oxfordshire) in a chronological context. The decision was taken, therefore, to dispense with a traditional archaeological age narrative and focus on the collection histories. Objects and assemblages are discussed in relation to the individual collection donor and those who originally acquired them (if different). These were organized in a roughly chronological context, beginning with the Museum’s founding collection.

Unfortunately, there was not space in a single chapter to do true justice to the collection, nor the extraordinary individuals who donated their time and effort to preserve our past for us. Undoubtedly many interesting objects and individuals will have been overlooked, but I hope that others (i.e. you) will take the time to explore the online Museum database, rectify my errors, and tell the stories that deserve to be heard.

You researching the Oxfordshire collections of the Pitt Rivers

Undoubtedly many interesting objects and individuals were overlooked. So get to the Museum’s online catalogue and start researching!


In recent decades valuable work has been undertaken in reconnecting museum collections with their source communities. Often focussing on nineteenth and early twentieth-century collections, this process has sought to engage in a two-way conversation with the community from which object(s) were collected (Peers and Brown 2003, 1). Yet, ‘source community’ all too often appears an unspoken synonym for ‘faraway’, ‘exotic’ and ‘ethnographic’. This is more the result of the professions undertaking the work (ethnographers, anthropologists, museum specialists) and those who are not (archaeologists) than a symptom of any malaise within the concept itself.

With archaeological collections there can therefore be a sense of disconnection between museums and the host communities in which they are physically located. Over the past decade the government has taken a leading role in seeking to ensure that museums engage with local communities and assist other sectors of society in combating social exclusion (Golding 2010, 126; Sandell 2003). Within the frameworks developed to tackle this, heritage often forms a core component. However, whilst concepts of ‘local histories’, ‘identity’ and ‘kinship’ are frequently discussed archaeology rarely gets a specific mention. Even less frequent is the mention of specific archaeological resources or collections.

As we enter an age of austerity museums face an uncertain future. The government is planning to reduce public funding for museums and create a new generation of philanthropists to replace the state (Anon 2010b). That museums and heritage are facing a potential crisis has been widely accepted (i.e. Carver 2010; Connolly 2010; Schadla-Hall et al. 2010) and it is likely that the future will contain uncomfortable debates about what heritage is for and who museums actually serve and why. There is a very real danger that, in the scramble for survival, the significant advances of the last decade in making collections accessible will be lost. That this may occur at a time of significant retrenchment in cultural facilities available to the less well off (libraries for instance) should make accessibility—especially in a county with little identity—more important than it has ever been.


To read the full finished version of chapter 13 see here, for an extended discussion on Pitt-Rivers (the man) and his work at Dorchester Dykes here and for my concluding thoughts here.


[1] I still owe a huge debt to my former colleagues in collections who both helped and somehow put up with me moving vast amounts of objects in and out of the stores.

[3] It should be noted that for much later objects (such as post-medieval objects) the record presented may be incomplete as a consequence of their current classification as ‘ethnographic’ making them harder to identify in the wider Museum corpus.


Anon. 2010a: Facts and figures. ( Accessed 11/06/2010.

Anon. 2010b: Jeremy Hunt announces action plan to boost philanthropy.  (

Blair, J. 1998: Anglo Saxon Oxfordshire. (Stroud, Gloucestershire).

Carver, m. 2010: Editorial. Antiquity 84 (326), 933– 938.

Chance, E., Colvin, C., Cooper, J., Day, C.J., Hassall, T.G., Hassall, M.J. and Selwyn, N. 1979: Modern Oxford. In Crossley, A. and Elrington C.R. (eds.), A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 4: The City of Oxford (London), 181–259.

Connolly, D. 2010: Archaeology’s crossroad; working together or striding apart.  Antiquity 84, 935-938.

Golding, V. 2010: Learning at the Museum Frontiers: identity, race and power. (Farnham).

Gregory, K.J. 1997: Fluvial Geomorphology of Great Britain (London).

Hunt, T. 2005: Building Jerusalem: the rise and fall of the Victorian City (York).

Martin, A.F. 1962: The Upper Thames Basin. In Mitchell, J.B. (ed.), Great Britain: Geographical Essays (Cambridge), 140–56.

Peers, L.L., and Brown, A.K. 2003: Museums and Source Communities. (New York).

Sandell, R. 2003: Social inclusion, the museum and the dynamics of sectoral change. Museum and Society 1 (1), 45–62.

Salzman, L.F. 1939: Political history. In Salzman, L.F. (ed.),  A history of the County of Oxford: Volume 1 (London), 429–56.

Schadla-Hall, T., Moshenska, G. and Thornton, A. 2010: Editorial. Public Archaeology 9  (3), 125.

Written by +Matt Nicholas


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