Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Mount Caburn and Ranscombe Camp, September-October 1877, July 1878

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

This hillfort is sited on the South Downs, overlooking Lewes, in East Sussex. Bowden considers it to be Pitt Rivers' best-known early excavation. [Bowden, 1991: 85] A number of pits inside the hillfort were dug and Pitt Rivers considered their use for grain storage. He also explored the ramparts of Ranscombe Camp, close by. This was the first site that Pitt Rivers published a Relic Table, which was 'a tabulated record of every feature excavated, giving the date of excavation, artefacts recovered and dimensions', Bowden considers these tables to be the 'pinnacle of the General's 'scientific' recording techniques'. [Bowden, 1991: 85] He carried out this excavation with between three and five workmen over two short seasons.

Thompson [1977: 55] remarks that Mount Caburn is a steeper hill than Cissbury, so that the centre of the camp is a domed hill top. During his excavations Pitt Rivers unearthed small pits about 3 feet in diameter and 2 to 5 feet deep were revealed. These have been described as 'storage pits', Pitt Rivers concluded that they were not graves or habitations but was not clear what their purpose was. He found evidence for the use of timber in the defences, postholes at the front of the inner rampart and other timber remains on the outer rampart. He found British coins which gave firm dates for the occupancy of the camp, as well as slingstones, spindle whorls and weaving combs. There were also iron artefacts. Pitt Rivers presented his findings to the Society of Antiquaries on 20 June 1878.

According to Thompson, because of his findings at Mount Caburn, Pitt Rivers added a new technique to his archaeological roster:

the extension of the section back into the interior of the hillfort had revealed the characteristic Iron Age pits, and from this of course had arisen the idea of baring large areas of chalk. Sections and baring the chalk were, then, his two main procedures, both of course fairly easily done with paid labourers. The removal of top-soil was a rather crude processs in an area that was not divided up into a grid and the whole operation carried out with pick and shovel lacked refinement. [Thompson, 1977: 117]

Bowden also criticises Pitt Rivers' technique on this site. [1991: 85]

Ranscombe Camp is described as a 'bank and ditch that runs along the south and east edges of a rise to the west on the same spur' as Mount Caburn. [http://www2.prestel.co.uk/aspen/sussex/caburn.html] At Ranscombe Pitt Rivers found Roman pottery in the upper level of the ditch but he concluded that the camp itself was earlier than Mount Caburn. [Thompson, 1977: 55]

Artefacts from Mount Caburn and Ranscombe

The largest number of artefacts personally excavated by Pitt Rivers in the founding collection are from Mount Caburn.

Find out more about the artefacts from Mount Caburn and Ranscombe in the Pitt Rivers Museum

Further reading

Bowden, M. 1984 [reprinted 1990] General Pitt Rivers the father of scientific archaeology Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum
Bowden, M. 1991. Pitt Rivers - The life and archaeological work of Lt. General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers DCL FRS FSA. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
[Pitt Rivers] Lane Fox, A. 1869 'An examination into the character and probable origin of the hill forts of Sussex' Archaeologia 42 pp 53-76
Pitt Rivers] Lane Fox, A. 1881 'Excavations at Mount Caburn camp, near Lewes, conducted in 1877 and 1878' Archaeologia 46 pp 423-95
Thompson, M.W. 1976 Catalogue of the correspondence and papers of Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt -Rivers (1827-1900) Royal Commission on Historical MSS List 76/75
Thompson, M.W. 1977. General Pitt Rivers: Evolution and Archaeology in the Nineteenth Century. Moonraker Press, Bradford-on-Avon UK