The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxfordshire and…The General (part 3)


The General in the title is Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers, the extraordinary archaeologist whose vast accumulation of objects formed the founding collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum. This post deals with his work in Oxfordshire. If at any point you would like to know more about the objects you can search the Museum’s online object collections database using the accession numbers provided in the text.

This is an earlier version of the text on pages 281-5 of World Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum: a characterization that expands slightly on the partial destruction of Dorchester Dykes and their role in the genesis of the 1882 Ancient Monuments Act.  I’ve decided to post this because – with the heritage sector under increasing pressure –  it can be beneficial to remember what a world without professionalization, guidance and legislative protection looked like. If you would like to cite anything here then please find what you require in the finished chapter.

You can read my introduction here, the chapter itself here and my concluding thoughts here.


Between 1868 and 1870 Pitt-Rivers undertook three small fieldwork projects within Oxfordshire: Ditchley (April 1868), Callow Hill (probably April 1868) and Dorchester Dykes (1870). From these three sites he collected at least 134 archaeological objects.

Ditchley and Callow Hill

As Bowden records (1991, 71), Pitt-Rivers stayed with his wife’s uncle Lord (Harold) Dillon at Dytchley Park (now spelt Ditchley) in April 1868. Dillon[1] and Pitt-Rivers shared an interest in the antiquities of the estate, examining the landscape around Grimes Dyke and Roman structures at Callow Hill (SP 3993 1700) and Devil’s Pool [2] (SP 3993 2008) collecting 75 stone tools in the process (1884.123.128–191, 356–371).  At Callow Hill, a site well known to antiquarians (for a history of investigations see Taylor 1941), Pitt-Rivers field walked the site, collecting as he went:

I picked up a piece of Samian pottery representing in relief a satyr and two woman dancing [1884.140.11], a stone spindle whorl [1884.104.75], several fragments of scored tile, and with them five flints, consisting of two flakes shewing the bulbs of percussion on the flat side [1884.123.366 and 1884.123.368], one ball about an inch in diameter chipped all around [1884.123.364], and two well-formed scrapers [1884.123.365, 367]… (Lane Fox 1869, 4).

At both sites Pitt-Rivers had recovered worked flint adjacent to Romano-British settlements. Having field-walked the surrounding countryside in some detail and found no flints he was uncertain of what to make of the association. Somewhat uncomfortably he suggests that:

 …we may, perhaps, be allowed to conjecture that the flints, occupying as they do a compact area in close contiguity to it, may mark the residences of British slaves, who dwelt in huts of wicker, or some other perishable material, in the immediate vicinity of their master’s house (Lane Fox 1869, 6).

A common belief at the time, Pitt-Rivers was nevertheless uneasy, declaring that:

…it is necessary to bear in mind that as all these remains were found on the surface, there is always a possibility of their having be-longed to different periods (Lane Fox 1869, 6).

It is interesting to note that Ditchley and Callow Hill mark an important point in the General’s methodological development (Bowden 1991, 73), discussing in some detail his field walking activities (unusual for antiquarians of the time). It was perhaps this attention to detail that led him to feel uneasy about associating Romano-British remains and flint tools. Certainly the crucial significance of the mundane (or ‘everyday rubbish’, pers. comm. Eleanor Standley) in the study of the past was coming to the fore in the General’s work.

Flints found in Oxfordshire by Pitt-Rivers

Flints found in Oxfordshire by Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane-Fox. Extract from Lane-Fox 1869 (no plate no., between pages 10 -11).

Dorchester Dykes

In the mid-to-late nineteenth century increasing grain prices, the proximity of Oxfordshire to London and the existence of a direct train route with which to export goods created an economic incentive to increase arable acreage  (Holderness and Mingay 2000, 367–8). In the face of this economic glacier, earthworks—proving somewhat difficult to plough—were to become a target for agricultural improvement. Pitt-Rivers, with his earlier ‘rescue’ interventions in London (Standley et al. chapter 12)) was aware of the risk nineteenth-century progress presented to archaeological monuments, but also of the opportunities it provided to test assumptions about form and chronology. He was therefore well placed when, in 1870, a conservation battle became centred on the site of Dorchester Dykes (also known as Dyke Hills). The dyke at Dorchester, located to the SW of the modern town at SU 5738 9358, consists of a bivallate earthwork running from the River Thames in the NW to the River Thames in the SE forming an enclosure with the Thames on the southern and western sides.

In the early nineteenth-century the earthwork could be described as having ‘banks… sixty feet asunder at bottom… their perpendicular height is twenty feet’ (Anon 1840, 104). In 1861 the land around Dorchester was enclosed (Lobel 1962). At some point in the mid–late 1860s the landowner, Mr Thomas Latham of Bishop’s Court farm, began to undertake a systematic flattening, an action which drew widespread attention. On Thursday May 26 1870 the issue reached the Society of Antiquaries:

It was proposed and carried that a letter, bearing the signature of the President, Earl Stanhope, should be sent to Mr. Latham, the owner of the ground, urging him to preserve uninjured a site which tradition connected in various ways with the earliest history of this country (Jones 1870, 496).

The letter appeared to have little effect, and on March 2nd 1871 it was being reported to the society that:

Mr.Latham… had commenced the work of destruction, and had levelled and ploughed up a considerable portion of the remains on the flat ground on the Oxfordshire side of the river.

After some discussion, in which Col. A. H. Lane Fox, F.S.A. and W. H. Black, Esq. F.S.A. took a part, it was arranged that Mr. Buckland and Colonel Lane Fox should proceed to the spot and do their best to interest Mr. Latham in the preservation of the Dykes (Buckland 1873, 92–3).

 A month later and it appeared that Pitt-Rivers had some success (Franks 1873, 132).

Dorchester Dykes

Dorchester Dykes in 2008. Photo by Howard Stanbury, used under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence.

It is worth noting at this juncture that Pitt-Rivers’ involvement in Dorchester Dykes was very much part of a team effort, not, as has been previously stated, an instance of ‘Pitt Rivers acting individually to try and save archaeological monuments’ (Petch 2009) in the ‘absence of any formal action… by archaeological and scientific societies’ (Bowden 1991, 76).

That the conservation battle was—to a certain degree—successful (some extant earthworks still survive in the twenty-first century) was the result not just of private representations, but also of a wider public relations battle. Anonymous and semi-anonymous letters and articles were sent to national newspapers such as The Times,[3] Saturday Review (below) and Pall Mall Gazette (below). In at least one case a local newspaper received a concerned plea to local residents from a distant correspondent (see letter dated 9 June 1870 from Chris Cooke of London to Jackson’s Oxford Journal). It is not known if this was a co-ordinated campaign, or the result of an increasing number of archaeological societies and publications enabling conservation battles to quickly swell. What can be suggested with some confidence is that for a gentleman farmer such as Thomas Latham—respected by the community, member of an established family and with an estate of at least 428 acres (Lobel 1962)—such national public opprobrium must have come as a surprise.

These articles and letters sought not just to campaign, but to educate the masses.  The July 2 Saturday Review (a London based periodical published between 1855 and 1938) article in particular provided a detailed historical interpretation of the site, including an assertion on the dykes origins:

Whether the Dorchester dykes were made by Aulus Plautius or by any later Roman general, there can be no doubt that they are genuine Roman works (Anon 1870, 477).[4]

On July 11 1870 a response to the article was published in the Pall Mall Gazette (issue 1687) under the pseudonym A Late Assistant-Quartermaster-General. The same year an article by Pitt-Rivers was published in The Journal of the Ethnological Society of London (Lane Fox 1870). The similarities between the letter and the article presented to the Ethnological Society (particularly with reference to the fragment of a flint spearhead) strongly indicate that the author is Pitt-Rivers. In his letter Pitt-Rivers took issue with the pronouncement that the dykes were Roman in origin, stating that:

 Having twice examined the camp at Dorchester—and I may observe en passant that I know of no place that will so well repay the military officer who has an archaeological turn of mind for the trouble of visiting it—I have arrived at a totally different conclusion from the writer of the article. First, the camp is not Roman.

He then goes on to explain why he reached this conclusion:

I examined carefully, by pacing backwards and forwards, the whole of the interior of the camp at a time when the crops were off the ground; but I failed to discover a single fragment of Roman tile or pottery… On the other hand, evidence of British occupation was abundant; I found several fragments of undoubted British pottery in the materials excavated from the dykes [1884.41.178–182], a fragment of a flint spearhead [5] and debris of the fabrication of flint implements [1884.123.29–33].  

The objects collected by Pitt-Rivers at the Dykes have been the subject of a certain amount of debate over the General’s methodology; both Harold St George Gray (1929, 20) and Mark Bowden (1991, 76) believed that he may have excavated the site. Pitt-Rivers certainly discusses examining a ‘section of a fresh cutting’ (Lane Fox 1870, 413) but does not make it clear if it was created by agricultural improvement or deliberate invasive archaeological investigation. Placing his work in the context of the Saturday Review article (‘the work of destruction is actually going on. The pickaxe and shovel were busily at work only a few days back’ (Anon 1870, 478)) and considering that time is taken to describe field walking (but not directing any excavation), it may be suggested that the cutting was the result of Mr Latham’s arable progress; the materials excavated from the dykes being the resulting spoil heaps.

Sections and profiles of Dorchester Dykes by Pitt-Rivers

Sections and profiles of Dorchester Dykes by Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane-Fox. Edited extract from Lane-Fox 1870, plate XXVI.

It is notable that of all the accounts of the site, Pitt-Rivers was the only individual to attempt to consider the dykes within the wider context of material culture and the landscape. It had long been assumed the earthworks were Roman; James Broome writing in 1700, could have been commenting 170 years later when he stated ‘that this was a Colony of the Romans is very evident from their various Coins and Medals bearing their Stamp, which have been found hereabouts’ (Broome 1700, 106). In considering the artefacts recovered from within the banks separately from the Romano-British objects discovered to the immediate north (Lane Fox 1870, 415) Pitt-Rivers became the first recorded individual to consider the possibility of an earlier antiquity for the site. Although not explicitly stated it appears that Pitt-Rivers was developing the methodological approach he would later use to such powerful effect at Caesar’s Camp (Pitt-Rivers 1883a; Standley et al. chapter 12). That he mistakenly assumed that the nearby Sinodun hill fort and the dykes were contemporary should not obscure the significant imagination and skill required to challenge a centuries old orthodoxy.

In 1868 Pitt-Rivers (uneasily) considered that metal-using Romans and flint-working Britons may have lived side-by-side (Lane Fox 1869, 5). Two years later at Dorchester he became the first individual to successfully recognize that the earthworks and Roman settlement to the immediate north (from which he collected at three coins (1884.99.21–23)) were of different ages. Thus although the archaeological artefacts collected by Pitt-Rivers from Oxfordshire (residual Neolithic flints and badly located Roman ceramics) present little opportunity for ‘modern’ archaeological analysis, their potential lies in the power of the objects to document a significant period in the General’s archaeological development.

Pitt-Rivers, Lubbock and Legislation

…there can be little doubt that the knowledge we now possess is as nothing compared to what is stored up in these primeval monuments for the benefit of future generations, and the duty of handing them down intact for the more enlightened judgment of posterity is one which the Government of a civilized country would do ill to neglect. (Pitt-Rivers 1870)

The objects from Dorchester Dykes also mark a pivotal moment in the genesis of Sir John Lubbock’s 1882 Ancient Monuments Act. The failure to fully save the Dykes (along with the narrowly avoided destruction of Avebury, also in 1871) convinced Lubbock and Pitt-Rivers that the protection of monuments required state intervention (Chippendale 1983, 5). This process, initiated by a gentleman farmer seeking to increase arable acreage, would inadvertently help to re-write the nature of property ownership in English law and society. Never again were significant monuments to be the sole commodity of an individual, in future they would belong ‘to the nation and posterity’ (Sax 1990, 1545).


[1] Dillon also collected from his estate, publishing his own paper on his and Pitt-Rivers activities in 1875. He did not donate any objects to the Pitt Rivers Museum.

[2] It is not currently thought that the Museum holds any collections from the site, but it is not impossible that some artefacts may be identified amongst the Callow Hill or Ditchley assemblages.

[3] See Thursday June 9 1870, Issue 26772, page 8, col B. for ‘The Roman camp at Dorchester, Oxon’ (Letter to the Editor).

[4] Quote from reprint of Saturday Review article in The Journal of the Ethnological Society of London.

[5] It is currently unknown if the spearhead formed part of the founding collection.


Anon. 1840: The Penny Cyclopaedia Of The Society For The Diffusion Of Useful Knowledge, Volume 17 (London).

Anon. 1870: Dorchester Dykes. The Journal of the Ethnological Society of London 2 (4), 477–9.

Buckland, F. 1873: Thursday March 2nd 1871. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries 5 (2nd series), 92–3.

Bowden, M.  1991: Pitt Rivers. The life and archaeological work of Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers, DCL, FRS, FSA (Cambridge).

Broome, J. 1700: Travels over England, Scotland and Wales (London).
Note: the edition linked to is not the same edition I reference in the text (which I haven’t been able to find online yet). Therefore the page may be different to the one in this blog.

Chippindale, C. 1983: The making of the first Ancient Monuments Act, 1882, and its administration under General Pitt-Rivers. British Archaeological Association Journal 136: 1–55.

Franks, A.W. 1873: Thursday April 20th, 1871. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries 5 (Second Series), 132.

Gray, H. St G. 1929: General Pitt Rivers. In Dudley Buxton, L.H. (ed.). The Pitt Rivers Museum, Farnham: general handbook (Farnham), 17–23.

Holderness , B.A. and Mingay, G.E. 2000: The south and south-east. In Collins, E.J.T. (ed.), The agrarian history of England and WalesVol. 7, 1850–1914Pt. 1 (Cambridge), 367–75.

Jones, J.W. 1870: Thursday, May 26th, 1870. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries 4 (Second Series), 496.

Lane Fox [Pitt-Rivers], A.H. 1869: Flint implements found associated with Roman remains in Oxfordshire and the Isle of Thanet. The Journal of the Ethnological Society of London 1 (1), 1–12.

Lane Fox [Pitt-Rivers], A.H. 1870: On the Threatened Destruction of the British Earthworks near Dorchester, Oxfordshire. The Journal of the Ethnological Society of London 2 (4), 412–16.

Lobel, M. 1962: Parishes: Dorchester. In Lobel, M. (ed.), A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 7: Dorchester and Thame hundreds (London), 39–64.

Petch, A. 2009: Pitt Rivers and Oxfordshire.

Pitt-Rivers, A.H.L.F: 1883: Excavations at Caesar’s Camp, near Folkestone, conducted in 1878. Archaeologia 47, 429–5.

Sax,J.L. 1990: Is anyone minding Stonehenge? The origins of cultural property protection in England. California Law Review 78 (6), 1543–67.

Taylor, M.V. 1941: The Roman tessellated pavement at Stonesfield.  Oxoniensia 6, 1–9.

Written by +Matt Nicholas


One thought on “The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxfordshire and…The General (part 3)

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