The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxfordshire and…a conclusion (part 4)


This is the final in a series of posts on my chapter (co-authored with Dr Dan Hicks) on Oxfordshire in the book 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 in a process not too dissimilar from a  MoRPHE post-excavation assessment.

This post presents my personal thoughts on the significance and potential of the Oxfordshire archaeology collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum. It is based on notes I wrote in 2010, so some aspects are likely out of date now (particularly references to ‘big society’ and a ‘new government’). You can read my introductory thoughts here, the chapter itself here and an extended discussion on Pitt-Rivers (the man) and his work at Dorchester Dykes here.

If at any point you would like to know more about objects mentioned in the text you can search the Museum’s online object collections database using the accession numbers provided.


The rapid increase in developer-funded archaeology following the introduction of PPG16 has created vast archives of high quality archaeological data. Contemporary debate over archaeological archives is focussed on dealing with the volume of material generated by modern excavations, storage being a particular issue (Bott 2003; Smith 2011). This poses serious questions for a Museum which does not accept modern archaeological archives.[1] Archives predating the Second World War are—unless from infamous sites such as Sutton Hoo—relegated to a sub-conscious acknowledgement of their existence. In such an environment it becomes all too easy to denigrate these early assemblages as being of little contemporary archaeological research potential. Such an approach is—as stated earlier—unfair to the collections and to the collectors, and ultimately says more about our inability to engage with the collections at their own level and the paucity of our archaeological imagination.

The Museum’s collections, from Oxfordshire and beyond, primarily consist of assemblages recovered during field walking activities. Sometimes these could be relatively well-documented projects with clearly stated objectives (as with Pitt-Rivers work at Dorchester Dykes). More often than not, however, they resulted from the labour of the ‘Sunday afternoon’ antiquarian. If we are to view these collections as, at best, being of no more use than brief testament to archaeological history then one might legitimately ask, Portable Antiquities Scheme—why bother?

To the modern archaeologist—used to knowing from which context, even which square centimeter of deposit, an artefact was recovered—a catalogue of antiquarian objects with hazy geographical provenance can prove a challenge. What quickly emerged during this project however was a realization that the locational data wasn’t actually that bad. Boundary changes, appalling phonetic spellings and poor original documentation may have initially placed a veil of obscurity over the origin of objects, but this could, to a certain degree, be overcome. At the same time one needs to be aware that even with this data cleaning the location and contextual documentation is not as good as we expect in the modern age.

So where does the future of the Oxfordshire collections lie? Can they contribute to current archaeological research or should we accept (with a shrug of our shoulders and a wistful ‘so it goes’) that the value of an archaeological archive decreases with time?

An Oxfordshire charm for warts

One of the more famous Oxfordshire contributions to the Pitt Rivers Museum’s collections. Photo by Garret Coakley, provided under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence.

 (w)HER(e) next?

Raymond Wilson, who collected flints from Tackley, did not record the fields he collected from. Wilson’s collection—being located to a parish only—seems little use on its own. Its value only truly becomes apparent when combined with the other collections from the parish (i.e. Bell’s and Evetts’), at which point it becomes clear that there was a Mesolithic and Neolithic presence in the area. No recent archaeological work (survey, field walking or excavation) appears to have taken place in the area. Without these early collections Tackley would appear a prehistoric blank.

The importance of such collections was highlighted by Simon Thorpe in 1996. Thorpe, a student studying for an MSc in Professional Archaeology, researched the Museum’s card catalogue and the Oxfordshire Historic Environment Record (HER) with a view to undertaking a data exchange between the two. During the course of the project Thorpe discovered that the Museum held a quantity of flint tools from Mongewell [2] and Wallingford, [3] meanwhile the HER held little information on the area. Four years earlier Oxford Archaeology (OA) had been undertaking mitigation works in advance of construction on the Wallingord bypass (Cromarty et al. 2005), during the course of which they discovered a high-status Bronze Age settlement. If the information from the Museum catalogue had been integrated into the HER earlier then it would have provided further forewarning about the potential for Bronze Age archaeology in the area (Thorpe 1996, 9).

With the full digitization of the Museum catalogue it has become apparent that a large number of objects and collections were not featured in the card catalogue. Cataloguing and collections management work has also revealed a number of un-entered collections. Consequently, it is a recommended that an updated data exchange with the Oxfordshire HER should be a priority.

Beyond Oxfordshire a certain degree of cross-referencing with heritage databases has been possible during this current project. Over 7763 objects now have reference numbers for site and/or event records held on the English and Scottish National Monument Records (NMRs). A reciprocal exchange of information has also been undertaken with Somerset, Worcestershire and Highlands HERs. This process revealed several collections which were regarded as ‘lost’ by the wider archaeological community (see here for an example). In reality they were safe in the Museum. Within Oxfordshire this has included updating the NMR as to the location of the Lyneham Barrow excavation archive and a polished Neolithic Axe from Foxcombe Hill. [4]

Data exchange with other heritage databases will integrate the collections into the wider heritage framework and increase the accessibility of the collections to professionals, academics and amateurs. The National Museum Wales commenced such a scheme in the early years of the twenty-first century and found considerable benefits and few drawbacks:

…our decision to incorporate our data… has proved itself by generating a steady stream of public enquiries via e-mail. To date we have encountered no negative feedback… By sharing our data via these organisations, we will, for very little effort, turn our database into a resource available to a vast audience (Burrow 2007, 32).

There are of course issues with this approach. Increasing accessibility in this way, whilst a worthy ambition, does come at a cost, particularly the staff time required to deal with the increased volume of enquiries. At a time of financial difficulty for all heritage organisations the benefits have to be very carefully balanced against the requirements and needs of the institution. Nevertheless, this should not dissuade any museum from viewing this as a legitimate long-term aspiration.

Tackley in winter

A winter scene from Tackley, a parish in Oxfordshire. The Museum holds at least 165 Mesolithic and Neolithic flints from the area, a significant resource for understanding prehistoric life in a parish which has not been the focus of academic research nor been subject to any significant developer-funded excavation. Photo by Ajay Jayne, provided under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence.


Beyond integrating outside heritage datasets there is considerable scope for adding context to the collections through documentary research. A prime objective should be determining if the  Alexander James Montgomerie Bell manuscript survives. The culmination of a life’s work, the last reference to its existence has it as an optional extra for Henry Balfour (the first curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum) to collect with the Bell collection of stone tools. It would represent the best record for Bell’s significant, sizable, collection.

There remains a considerable opportunity to enhance locational data for many objects, the objects from Hatford Glebe (1989.8.1–4) being a prime example. Currently unlocated with the parish of Hatford the examination of tithe maps to ascertain the location of glebe land overlain with known Romano-British sites could enable us to place this collection in the context it deserves. Continued collections management research in this vein will enable further detail to be added to many objects, increasing their modern archaeological relevance.


Over the past decade there has been a concerted attempt to utilize cultural institutions to tackle issues such as social exclusion and community cohesion (DCMS 2000). Not always popular (Appleton 2001a, 2001b) the schemes have, nevertheless, been a qualified success in ensuring museums engage with their host communities. With a new government seeking to redefine the nature of the relationship between museums and the state there is a danger that in the race to secure new sources of philanthropic funding many of the advances of the last ten years will be lost. This need not, nor should not be the case, for museums—perhaps more than any other group of institutions—represent society[5] writ large. The collections they hold recording a network of dedicated amateurs, professionals, weekend societies and scholarly groups working throughout history to preserve the past of their communities.

The Oxfordshire collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum represent late nineteenth and early twentieth-century urban and rural county society, from nobility to labourers, amateurs to professionals. The history of these individuals, the networks between them and the objects they discovered have the ability to create a powerful narrative for the area. If correctly utilized this story need not be historical artefact, but can form part of a living present. There is significant potential to use the collections to elucidate the palimpsest of the local landscapes, situating past landscapes in narratives accessible to the public (pers. comm. Alice Stevenson).

To some extent this is already being achieved through the Museum’s education department, which since 2002 have been running a joint project with the OUNHM entitled ‘Making Museums’ (O’Hanlon 2003, 8). The project involves primary school children in behind the scenes activities at the Museum, allowing them to experience museum processes. The Oxfordshire collections have had, and continue to have a powerful role to play in the project involving the children in the archaeology of their own localities. Such education initiatives are vital in tackling ‘the wall in the head’ (Hanley 2008, 149) which limit the horizons of children from disadvantaged backgrounds; by showing them a different vision of the past we enable them to perceive new futures.

The Museum has also recently become involved in  the Archaeology of East Oxford project. The scheme seeks to develop a sense of place and community in an area of the city that ‘has always attracted the different and marginalised’ (Anon 2010c). The Museum holds considerable collections from this area, particularly around Iffley, and the inclusion of these in this valuable project will ensure the collections play an influential role in developing a cohesive narrative for the area.

Such projects are not just socially valuable. The Museum of Oxford is currently under somewhat perennial threat of closure (Gray 2009). If this museum were to close it would deprive the local community of the only institution devoted to the city itself. Utilizing the collections of the Museum may help build valuable support for accessible heritage, strengthening the ‘democratic mandate’ (Holden 2006) and creating a reciprocal relationship between local society and the museums.

 Social engagement and contemporary academic research

Since 2005 a new Solent-Thames (covering Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight) Archaeological Research Framework[6] has been under creation. The project seeks to produce a research agenda, particularly with relation to commercial archaeology, for cultural heritage within the region. Unfortunately, the collections of the Museum have not been fully utilized unless previously published (as with the Iffley and Wolvercote Palaeolithic material).

Updating the Museum’s collections on the Oxfordshire HER will ensure that they are considered in similar future projects. Research frameworks, however, tend to be rather exclusive affairs; created by specialists with consultation occurring with other heritage professionals only. Perhaps we should aim higher and seek to involve the people whose heritage this is, after all, are there any reasons why we should view the community as incapable of producing valid research objectives? To achieve this, archaeological collections could be used in a process of education that would not only enable people to discover their past but would seek to enhance the research frameworks by ascertaining what the community wants to know about their heritage.

Ten years forward

The Oxfordshire collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum offer a unique vision of archaeology as practiced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The challenge for the Museum is to ensure that the collections do not wither on the vine as historical artefact, but form part of the living present. The Museum and its collections, if utilized correctly, could offer a compelling pathway for museum archaeology in the twenty-first century. The chapter has sought to outline some potential routes by which this could be achieved. Much will have been missed, however, so to echo my introductory blog , explore the online Museum database, rectify my errors, and tell the stories that deserve to be heard.


[1] Archives from University owned land are deposited with the Ashmolean, those from elsewhere in Oxfordshire with the County Museums service (pers. comm. Alison Roberts).

[2] 76 Neolithic and Early Bronze Age stone tools: 1902.74.1–14, 1905.75.1 .1–52, 1907.1.15–22, 1912.39.15, 1917.53.76.

[3]40 Neolithic and Early Bronze Age stone tools: 1897.43.23–32, 1901.67.1–9, 1902.74.15 .1–2, 1911.80.6573, 1912.36.9–11, 1912.39.13–14, 1918.42.88–92.

[4]  The NMR entry (monument no. 336470) read ‘A Neolithic partly polished axe of greenstone or diorite was found on 14/9/1913 two feet below the tennis court at “Sandlands”, Foxcombe Hill. Its present location is not known…’. The axe is in fact in the Pitt Rivers Museum, accession number 1915.47.1

[5] If you feel you must, call it ‘big’.

[6] See also:


Anon. 2010c: Archaeology and History. (

Appleton, J. 2001a: Museums for the People? (

Appleton, J. 2001b: Museums for ‘The People’?  (London).

Bott, V. 2003: Access to Archaeological Archives: a study for Resource and the Archaeological Archives Forum (London).

Burrow, S. 2007: Unlocking archaeology: making data available. The Museum Archaeologist 30, 30–4.

Cromarty, A.M., Barclay, A., Lambrick, G and Robinson, M. 2005: Late Bronze Age ritual and Habitation on a Thames Eyot at Whitecross Farm, Wallingford: the archaeology of the Wallingford Bypass, 1986–92 (Oxford).

DCMS (Department for Culture, Media and Sport). 2000: Centres For Social Change: Museums, Galleries and Archives for All (London).

Gray, C. 2009: Museum is saved. (

Hanley, L. 2008: Estates: an intimate History (London).

Holden, J. 2006: Cultural value and the crisis of legitimacy: why culture needs a democratic mandate (London).

O’Hanlon, M. 2003: The Pitt Rivers Museum Annual Report: 1 August 2002 to 31 July 2003 (Oxford).

Smith, R. 2011. Archaeological Archives: where do we go from here? The Archaeologist 79, 8-9.

Thorpe, S. 1996: Archaeological material from Oxfordshire in the collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum. Unpublished manuscript in the Pitt River Museum.

Written by +Matt Nicholas

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