Born Augustus Henry Lane-Fox in 1827 he inherited a name change when his great uncle died and unexpectedly left him a large 27,000 acre country estate in Dorset, England. Along with the Rivers estate came his great uncle’s name and in 1880 Augustus annexed the Pitt Rivers suffix to his own.
A Military Man
Pitt Rivers entered Sandhurst to begin his military career. He was a man of method and perfection. This suited the military but he was less received in social life. Early in his military profession he gained a keen interest in the historical development and improvement of weapons. He was an ardent subscriber to the new anthropological theory of evolution and believed that the same progression that had brought the rifle from the spear also could be applied to show that evolution was the method of human progression.
Father of British Archaeology
Pitt Rivers was unable fully to indulge his archaeological interests during his military career. He did however, undertake some excavation work while on overseas military postings whenever he was able. His passion was collecting artefacts. By the end of his life his personal collection had grown to more than 20,000 pieces. However, it was not his hunger to collect that endears him with the title of ‘Father of British Archaeology’ but his approach to artefact classification.
His method of classification of types he coined ‘typology’. It placed artefacts in a chronological sequence based on development technology. Pitt Rivers firmly believed that his theory of typology suggested that cultural change occurred from generation to generation through material development. His purpose in collecting so great a number of worldwide artefacts was not only for public display but to prove his theory of the chronology of human history.
Pitt Rivers undertook extensive excavations on his own inherited property at Cranborne Chase. The estate was covered with ancient burial sites and coupled with a £20,000 per year income from his late great uncle he was able to establish an archaeological framework that became the foundation of the modern scientific field approach. Pitt Rivers’ calculated, meticulous and often-criticised detailed manner produced the first basic principals in archaeological excavation.
Basic Principals of Digging
Pitt Rivers promoted a number of radical principals that, although were innate to his own methodical character, were far reaching in the evolution of archaeology.
- No excavation should ever be permitted unless directly supervised by a trustworthy and responsible person.
- Slow and meticulous precision in the field should not be regarded as a fault.
- Dating is best determined by the study of the low value rubbish remains from a site.
His professional colleagues in the field commonly scoffed at these ideas. It would be thirty years after his death before his principals were fully adopted by archaeologists. Even more radical however, was his insight into the scientific approach to research and investigation. In this, Pitt Rivers stands apart from all other contemporaries.
Basic Principals of Research
- Research Strategy: Forming an archaeological strategy to prove or disprove an idea or answer a question.
- Collection & Recording: Systematic gathering and recording of evidence from a site that would test the hypothesis.
- Assessment & Analysis: Processing the evidence in a manner that provided valid interpretation.
- Reporting: Publishing the results regardless of the outcome with a view to public education.
These improvements in technical excavation incorporated the employment of highly skilled workers including surveyors, artists and architects who were tasked with recording the data three dimensionally. Pitt Rivers’ vision for archaeology was to project the results deep into the public forum. He was consumed with the cause of educating people about evolution believing that “the working class have little time for study.”
It is unquestionable that the General managed to mould and shape modern archaeological practices with revolutionary ideas, although with a better understanding of anthropology, many of his simple techniques have now lost their savour. Throughout his life he was a hard man to get along with and had few close friends. He founded the science of archaeology upon nothing more than his own personal character of meticulous perfection.
In 1882 he asked the University of Oxford if it would house and display his extensive collection. The University’s museum needed to build a new three-storied building to accommodate all of his artefacts. Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers died on 4th May 1900 and will be remembered for bringing an intellectual basis to modern archaeology.