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History and Theory of Archaeology: Museum Field Trip Essay

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Updated: Feb 26th, 2021

The Pitt Rivers Museum

Think about the historical context of the collections. Are the theoretical motives that Pitt-Rivers based his collection on still recognizable?

Pitt Rivers emphasized the need to collect and examine every artifact that could throw light on a certain culture or civilization (Maschner & Chippindale, 2005, p. 82). In his opinion, one should not focus only on the objects that have some aesthetic value. Instead, more attention should be paid to the objects that people could use on a daily basis (Maschner & Chippindale, 2005, p. 82). In this way, archeologists can better understand the technological, economic, or social development of a certain community. This principle is still recognizable because the visitors can see that the exhibited artifacts represent the diversity of material culture that existed in the nineteenth century. For instance, one can see toys, clothing, cooking utensils, or various tools used by artisans.

Is archaeological theory represented in any of the museum collections and is this apparent to the public?

One can argue that the principles of archeological theory manifest themselves in the collections that are showcased in the museum. Much attention should be paid to cultural archeology. This model is premised on the assumption that the material objects can throw light on the norms established in a community or aesthetic values (Thomas 2000, p. 39). For instance, one can look at the photographs depicting the everyday life of Native Americans in the nineteenth century. The portrayed people tended to make their headwear out of feathers. Furthermore, the pottery is decorated with images of animals or birds. Thus, one can assume that these people attached much importance to wildlife. The use of this archeological theory is apparent to professional historians or students who visit this museum.

How are the different interpretations of the past represented if at all? Are different narratives or archaeologies apparent?

Overall, this museum contains evidence that can give rise to different interpretations of the past. For example, there are manuscripts and diaries illustrate the experiences of people who lived in the nineteenth century. In particular, one can look at the narratives of people who lived in Australia, America, and Asia. These people could perceive events or social phenomena in different ways. Furthermore, there are objects that were created by different representatives of various cultures. Moreover, these people could often live in the same territory.

Do any of the ethnographic collections make you think differently about archaeological sites you know of?

Overall, ethnographic collections showcased in this museum prompt me to re-evaluate archeological sites that I know about. For instance, the exhibits illustrate the material culture of Native Americans. They have been discovered on such archeological sites as the Great Serpent Mound, Gunston Hall, or Chaco Canyon. The material objects displayed in the Pitt Rivers Museum suggest that these sites can still be of great value to archeologists who should study the material culture of people who lived in these territories. Overall, these sites can be regarded as valuable sources of information that can help modern archeologists learn more about the way in which different groups interacted with one another. This is one of the points that can be made.

What about the relationship of natural history to archaeology/ethnography? Does this reflect attitudes to 19th-century history?

The objects displayed in this museum can show the connections between natural history and archeology as well as ethnography. In many cases, the material objects discovered by archeologists can throw light on plants, animals, or birds that were widespread on a certain territory (Cato 1991, p. 120). Various collections stored at this museum contain objects that are decorated with images of birds, animals, trees, and so forth. Moreover, one should speak about photographs that are showcased in the museum. For instance, they can throw light on flora and fauna in North America, Africa, Asia, or Australia in the nineteenth century. Therefore, this object can be of great interest to people who study natural history. This is one of the details that can be identified.

Overall, the Pitt-Rivers Museum shows that modern historians and archeologists want to examine the history of the nineteenth century by using a variety of primary sources that can enable them to make a more objective evaluation of material culture or social life.

The Ashmolean Museum

Context of the artifacts and how they relate to the history of archaeology

The Ashmolean Museum contains exhibits that represent a variety of historical periods such as Renaissance, Antiquity, or Middle Ages. Overall, this museum represents Antiquarianism which is a significant period in the history of archeology. During this period, archeologists paid more attention to objects that could be distinguished because of their beauty or uniqueness (Miller 2007, p. 259). Among the exhibits, one can distinguish the Alfred Jewel, violins made by Stradivari, or the Abingdon Sword (MacGregor 2001). It should be kept in mind that the Ashmolean Museum was initially founded as a cabinet of curiosities, and it was not related only to archeological studies (Yanni 2005, p. 20). Thus, this organization differs significantly from the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Do they say anything about the original motives of the museum?

Overall, the artifacts stored at this museum were collected in order to highlight the power and wealth of the British Empire or the people who represented this state. In the beginning, this museum was supposed to show that the country attained prosperity. Moreover, this state could get access to the best examples of material culture that could be created in the course of history (Hagerman 2013, p. 3). This motive is helpful for explains the way in which material artifacts were selected or displayed.

Think about the use of archaeology in imperialism – Egypt, Britain, etc – how does that relate to the modern world? Think about current debates such as the Parthenon friezes – do museum collections say more about us than about the cultures they came from?

Many states that were regarded as empires often took artifacts discovered on the territories of their colonies or dependent countries. In order to understand this trend, one can look at several exhibits that are now showcased in the Ashmolean Museum. Among them, one can distinguish the Kish tablet which represents the Sumerian civilization (Waddell 2004). Furthermore, many artifacts were imported from Egypt (Jeffreys 2003, p. 173). This is one of the reasons why Egyptology is well-developed in the United Kingdom. To a great extent, such a collection can highlight the values of the people, who established this museum. As it has been said before, they attempted to emphasize their superiority or material prosperity.

How many “stories” are being told here, how are multiple archaeologies represented?

Overall, the Ashmolean Museum does not enable the viewers to understand the complexities of cultures because it showcases objects that were created or used mostly by elite groups. However, it cannot throw light on the lives of ordinary people who might not have the opportunity to own or use the displayed artifacts. This is one of the limitations that can be identified. Nevertheless, this collection can still be very informative. For example, the Metrological Relief can give visitors some idea about the culture and aesthetics of Ancient Greece (Spivey 2013).

Think about the two museums – how do they do things differently? How do they show interpretations and archaeologies?

Overall, the Ashmolean Museum and the Pitt Rivers Museum differ in several ways. One of them is aimed at showing the diversity of material cultures that could be created during different periods, such as the nineteenth century (Binford 2008, p. 314). This argument is particularly relevant if one speaks about the museum established by Pitt Rivers (Lucas 2012, p. 129). In contrast, the Ashmolean Museum highlights the most eloquent examples of various material cultures. Therefore, these different approaches can give rise to different interpretations of the same historical period.


Binford, S 2008, Archeology in Cultural Systems, Transaction Publishers, New York.

Cato, P 1991, Natural History Museums: Directions for Growth, Texas Tech University Press, Austin.

Hagerman, C 2013, Britain’s Imperial Muse: The Classics, Imperialism, and the Indian Empire, 1784-1914, Palgrave Macmillan.

Jeffreys, D 2003, Views of Ancient Egypt Since Napoleon Bonaparte: Imperialism Colonialism and Modern Appropriations, CRC Press, London.

Lucas, G 2012, Understanding the Archaeological Record, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

MacGregor, 2001, The Ashmolean Museum: a brief history of the museum and its collections, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Maschner, H & Chippindale, C 2005, Handbook of Archaeological Methods, Rowman Altamira, London.

Miller, P 2007, Momigliano and Antiquarianism: Foundations of the Modern Cultural Sciences, University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

Spivey, N 2013, Metrological Relief, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Thomas, J 2000, Interpretive Archaeology: A Reader, Continuum, London.

Waddell, L 2004, The Makers of Civilization in Race & History, Kessinger Publishing, New York.

Yanni, C 2005, Nature’s Museums: Victorian Science and the Architecture of Display, Princeton Architectural Press, Princeton.

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