Pitt Rivers and the past…

Though our understanding of early history has been infinitely shaped by the numerous ‘digs’ in the Cranborne Chase two names stand out, one being the Victorian, General Augustus Henry Lane Fix Pitt Rivers, and the other a local farmer, Martin Green.

‘Born into a long line of farmers it was natural for me to continue in the family tradition. However, I discovered at an early age my true vocation was in trying to unravel the mysterious past which lay all around me’, wrote Martin Green in A Landscape Revealed: 10,000 Years on a Chalkland Farm (2000) a comprehensive and fascinating overview of what he and others discovered at Down Farm, Gussage St Michael.

Writing about his passion for archaeology Martin Green acknowledges how visits to the Pitt Rivers displays in the Salisbury Museum were such a source of inspiration; and just as Martin Green was fortunate to have his own farm to feed his passion for archaeology so Pitt Rivers (1827-1900) was fortunate to have inherited at the age of 53 a vast fortune and 27,000 acres attached to Rushmore Park. On his death Pitt Rivers’ ashes were placed in an extended urn at the rear of the St Peter ad Vincula church (13th century) in Tollard Royal.

Not for Pitt Rivers the pursuit of field-sports traditional for landed gentry: ‘I determined to devote the remaining portion of my life chiefly to an examination of the antiquities on my property’, he wrote, having already conducted field-work in Denmark, Ireland and Sussex. So it is from this life’s work that Pitt Rivers has been hailed as the ‘father of modern archaeology’.

Within weeks of inheriting the Rushmore property Pitt Rivers had instigated a number of digs around the park, notably at the South Lodge, while the first full season’s work took place from October 1881- February 1882 by concentrating on the Iron Age hill-fort of Winklebury overlooking Berwick St John. Later that year Pitt Rivers became the first inspector of Ancient Monuments.

Pitt Rivers was heavily influenced by Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), seeing his existing collection of firearms, tools and appliances as the basis for understanding how culture went forward by gentle evolution not revolution. This theory contained the idea of typology: the realisation that objects can be placed in chronological sequence on the basis of slight changes in design, a crucial concept for archaeology.

Today, inevitably Pitt Rivers’ interpretation of cultural change has come under attack with history being constantly revised: but what has never been doubted is that before Pitt Rivers the study of archaeology was amateurish and haphazard. By bringing meticulous planning, digging and recording – helped by his sizeable fortune – Pitt Rivers changed the whole approach of archaeology and in the process became a bridge-builder between anthropology and archaeology, as well as an educator.

It has been estimated that Pitt Rivers owned in excess of 50,000 separate artefacts, built up not only from his diggings but also an extensive programme of purchases, which became a source of great irritation to his penny-pinching wife, Alice, the daughter of Lord Stanley of Alderley.

Due to the seasonality of farm work Pitt Rivers’ extended diggings took place through the autumn and winter period when labourers were freed from estate work, while a small army of full-time clerks were employed recording, surveying and latterly photographing.

Like many Victorians the desire to educate was strong in Pitt Rivers who built a museum on the edge of Farnham (now split into apartments known as Elham Court) and to attract these visitors he built the Larmer Tree pleasure gardens with picnic bowers, an open-air theatre, with dances, sporting contests and other attractions which in its hey-day attracted up to 40,000 people.

Pitt Rivers was also fascinated by the inter-breeding of different species of animals. In his guide to the Larmer Tree attractions Pitt Rivers wrote: ‘to those interested in breeding and acclimatization, some of the breeds in the Park and paddocks at Rushmore may be worth seeing. The fallow deer has been crossed with the Mesopotamian deer, the Japanese deer with the red deer, and these again with the Formosa deer. The Yak has been crossed with the Pembroke, the Highland Cattle, the Kerry, and the Jersey. The Zebu (Indian humped cattle) with the Jersey, producing a very fine animal, and these again with the Jersey.’

In his life-time, Pitt Rivers donated part of his collection to OxfordUniversity which forms the core of today’s PittRiversMuseum in Oxford; there are also items from his collection in the Salisbury and SouthWiltshireMuseum.

Though Augustus and Alice Pitt Rivers had nine children there are no direct descendants today; while Rushmore Park house is Sandroyd preparatory school the public can access much of the park, where time if not standing still, feels as if it has only inched forwards in small increments: which Pitt Rivers, after all, believed was always the case, with the outline of the South Lodge excavation still standing in silent tribute to the ‘father of modern archaeology’.

Meanwhile Martin Green has developed a museum of his own (a former chicken-house), focusing on archaeology, local history and geology while also increasing the biological diversity of flora and fauna on Down Farm.