Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Pitt Rivers archaeological work on the London Wall in 1866.

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

London Wall 1866, from Pitt Rivers' JAI article

London Wall 1866, from Pitt Rivers' JAI article

According to Pitt Rivers' first biographer, in 1866 Pitt Rivers was in London and read a short paragraph in The Times of 20 October reporting that 20 cartloads of bones had been removed from the site of an excavation for the foundations of a new wool warehouse being built by London Wall. He went to investigate and visited daily over next 2 months [Thompson, 1977: 46]

As Pitt Rivers puts it:

Having visited the spot the same day, I found the greater part of the area, a rough sketch of which is given in the accompanying plan, had already been excavated to a depth of from fourteen to sixteen feet. The street which now goes by the name of the London Wall appears to occupy the site of that which originally ran along, or within the city walls ... When I first saw the place about two cart-loads of bones, nearly all broken and black from having laid in the peat, were heaped up in readiness to be carted away, and I was informed that several cartloads had already been taken to the bone factory, [sic] Having secured a number of these as specimens, I showed them to Professor Owen, on whose authority I am enabled to say that they consist of the horse, or ass, the red deer, the wild boar, the wild goat, the dog, the Bos longifrons, and the roebuck. ... All the bones retain their animal matter. No remains of any kind, have, to my knowledge, been found in the adjacent gravel. [Pitt Rivers 1867 lxxi-lxxii]

However, Pitt Rivers attention was principally taken by the piles:

Upon looking over the ground my attention was at once attracted by a number of piles, the decayed tops of which appeared above the unexcavated portions of the peat ... I noted down the positions of all that were above ground at the time, and as the excavations continued, during the last two months, I have marked from time to time the positions of all the others as they became exposed to view, the result is shown in the accompanying plan. [Pitt Rivers 1867: lxxii]

Rather than directing this excavation he was opportunistically feeding off an excavation taking place for other reasons:

I was informed by the workmen that no superstructure of any kind was found here, a few Roman tiles .... were intersperced amongst the piles ... I only found two Roman bricks during the two months that I watched the excavations, and I therefore conclude that the superstructure, if any, must have been of wood or some other perishable materials, and that it must have rotted with the tops of the piles. Amongst the articles of human workmanship found in the peat the vast majority were undoubtedly of the Roman era. Amongst thm are quantities of broken red Samian pottery ... one specimen is stamped with the name of Macrinus. [possibly 1884.41.69, see below] All this pottery, in the opinion of Mr Franks [AW Franks], to whom I shewed it, is of foreign manufacture.' [Pitt Rivers 1867: lxxiii]

They also found Upchurch pottery, bronze and copper pins, iron knives, iron and bronze stylus, tweezers, iron shears, 'a piece of polished metal mirror, so bright that you may see your face in it', hatchet, leather-dressing tool, piece of a bronze vessel and or bronze and iron tools 'which, thanks to the preserving properties of the peat, are all in excellent preservation.' There wer also a quantity of leather soles, some studded with hob nails (the 'caliga of the Roman legions'), and a piece of tile. The coins found are those of Nerva, Vespasian, Trajan, Adrian and Antoniunus Pius. [Pitt Rivers 1867, lxxiii-lxxiv]

Pitt Rivers considered it remarkable that the 'Roman remains were interspersed at different levels from top to bottom throughout the peat'. Pitt Rivers had 'two excellent witnesses' to the 'sections in which the upward growth of peat has been faithfully recorded', Mr Carter Blake [1] and the Rev. Dunbar I. Heath.[2] [Pitt Rivers 1867, lxxiv] Pitt Rivers uses the remainder of the paper to consider why the stratiography could have been so confused. Again he seeks help from another source:

By information which I have received from the builder's foreman and others, it appears that throughout the whole tract of ground between this and the Thames similar remains of peat, piles, bone, and Roman pottery have been found. ... At the Mansion House, and in the line of the old Wall Brook, piles, peat and Roman pottery were discovered last year. ... [Pitt Rivers 1867, lxxvi]

In addition to the Roman material, Pitt Rivers showed the Anthropological Society the skulls that had been found on the site, 'one of these skulls is a remarkably fine one'. [Pitt Rivers 1867, lxxvii]

Pitt Rivers concluded:

Upon the whole, therefore, it appears not unlikely these piles may be the remains of the British capital of Cassibelannus, situated in the marshes, and of necessity built on piles. From the abject state in which the Romans left them ... it is easy to understand how entirely dependent they must have been upon the Romans in everything. We may, therefore, naturally expect to find them using Roman tools, weapons, and pottery ....' [Pitt Rivers 1867, lxxviii]

After Pitt Rivers had read this paper to the Anthropological Society he re-wrote it adding a new ending. In this he gives further information about his methodology at this time. The workmen had extending their excavations and:

As I was anxious to obtain some further evidence as to the thickness of the stratum in which the Roman remains are found, I determined to watch the workmen for four or five hours together during several successive days while they dug from top to bottom, commencing with the superficial earth and passing through the peat to the gravel below. [Pitt Rivers, 1867: lxxix]

He concluded that the Roman remains is within 2 or 3 feet of the gravel.

He is clearly doing more than standing observing,'I examined all the refuse heaps' and also he persuaded the workmen to be vigilant:

All the workmen were on the look out for them [bones], and I desired them to keep all they found for me [Pitt Rivers, 1867: lxxx]

The Journal records the prolonged discussion that took place at the meeting at which Pitt Rivers' paper was read on 18 December 1866, with contributions from Carter Blake and Dunbar Heath. [Pitt Rivers, 1867: lxxxi et seq.]

Pitt Rivers was involved in salvage archaeology during 'his excavations' in the City of London in the middle of the 1860s. From the accession book entries (including some of those listed below) it is clear that Pitt Rivers did not just visit one site in the rapidly developing City but several, many in 1866 but some in 1865 (and possibly 1867) also.

Please note that there is insufficient information to identify the location of this site specifically.

Find out more about the items collected on the London Wall by Pitt Rivers

Further reading
Pitt Rivers/ Lane Fox A.H. 1866 ‘On Objects of the Roman period found at great depth in the vicinity of the old London Wall’ Archaeological Journal 24 [1866] 61-4
Pitt Rivers/ Lane Fox A.H. 1867 'A description of certain piles found near London Wall and Southwark, possibly the remains of Pile Buildings' Journal of the Anthropological Society of London vol 5 [1867] pp. lxxi-lxxxiii

[1] Charles Carter Blake. (born c. 1840 died after 1887) Anthropologist, palaeontologist and comparative anatomist, Lecturer on zoology at the London Institution in 1862-3. One of the founding members of the Anthropological Society of London. I obtained this information from here http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/darwinletters/namedefs/namedef-478.html
[2] Dunbar Isidore Heath (1816-1888) Church of England controversial clergyman (see Dictionary of National Biography entry for more information). He was the editor of the Journal of Anthropology and interested in Egyptology. Further information about him from http://www.jjhc.info/heathdunbar1888.htm