Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Alexander Montgomerie Bell's collections from Iffley

Matt Nicholas,
Archive Archaeologist, Workplace Learning Bursary, Institute for Archaeologists

Figure 1: Grensted stone tools from Iffley and Boars Hill, currently awaiting accessioning

Figure 1: Grensted stone tools from Iffley and Boars Hill, currently awaiting accessioning

Between 1897 -1910 Alexander James Montgomerie Bell (1845 -1920) collected over 600 stone tools from Iffley. During the late 19th and early 20th century Iffley was a small village and civil parish beyond the city limits of Oxford. In the mid 20th century the parish was dissolved and the area absorbed into the City. [Lobel 1957] Bell's period of investigation therefore covered the start of a time of great change, and the material he collected provides one of our most valuable resources for understanding the prehistory of the area.

Bell's collections at Iffley span both the Palaeolithic (185 objects) and Neolithic (476 objects). The Palaeolithic tools, however, have been the subject of most investigation.

The Palaeolithic stone tools from Iffley were recovered from the Summertown-Radley gravel during quarrying. The Summertown-Radley gravel is the second terrace of the river Thames - that is, deposits that built up over wide area of flat land when the Thames was flowing 20 feet (6.1 metres) higher than today. [Sandford 1924: 138] These gravels were deposited over 200,000 years ago. The Palaeolithic Iffley stone tools date from the period known archaeologically as the Mid Acheulian (between 250,000 and 350,000 years ago approximately), and were made by early hominids (Homo Erectus).

Iffley archaeological objects in the PRM

A.M. Bell (he never used James in his initials) donated 112 Iffley stone tools to the Pitt Rivers Museum during his lifetime. The majority of the objects he collected were purchased posthumously from his son Archibald Colquhoun Bell (for more on the transfer of his father's collection please see here). The following lists archaeological material acquired by Bell and accessioned into the Pitt Rivers Museum:

Iffley objects donated by Bell:
1897.45.1, 1900.37.1 - 1900.37.3, 1901.21.2 - 1901.21.3, 1901.21.5, 1902.1.1 - 1902.1.16, 1902.1.19 - 1902.1.20, 1906.9.6 - 1906.9.10, 1906.9.11 (there are an unknown number of artefacts under this heading, the collection is awaiting further cataloguing), 1912.19.8.1-60, 1907.53.1 - 1907.53.6, 1903.37.1 and 1905.35.1 - 1905.35.3

Iffley objects purchased posthumously from Archibald Colquhoun Bell:
1921.91.405 .1 - 1921.91.405 .370
1921.91.459 .1 - 1921.91.459 .161

Bell was not the only antiquarian who collected stone tools from Iffley:

Henry Balfour
1916.23.12, 1917.9.58, 1903.6.18 , 1915.7.114 .1 - 1915.7.114 .2 and 1915.7.116.

J.T. Hill

Unknown labourer

A further collection of 72 Neolithic stone tools from Iffley donated to the Museum by the Rev. Canon Laurence William Grensted in 1912 were recently discovered un-entered into the Museum catalogue. These objects are not included here as they are currently awaiting accessioning. Grensted also gave one Neolithic flint to Bell, this is accessioned as 1921.91.459 .108.


Figure 2: Red area marks possible area of Bell's Neolithic collections, blue Palaeolithic

Figure 2: Red area marks possible area of Bell's Neolithic collections, blue Palaeolithic

The gravel pit from which Iffley Palaeolithic tools 1921.91.459 .1 - .161 were recovered is often recorded as being located at SP 525 044 (see Wymer 1968: 91) or in the vicinity of SP 528 033 [Roe 1968: 250]. The former location is adjacent to the Thames and Donnington Bridge and underneath the City of Oxford Rowing Club, the latter centered on the Rose Hill estate built to the south of Iffley village in the mid 20th century. Both locations are inaccurate, and it is believed the actual location is 250 metres further east than the Wymer reference, and 1.3 kilometres further north than the Roe reference. Near contemporary reports place the site at 'Cornish's Pit'. [Pocock 1908, Sandford 1924: 145, and Arkell 1947: 220] Historic Ordnance Survey maps show only one gravel pit in the area, this pit is present on the 1st Edition 1:2500 County Series (published for this area between 1875 and 1878) and had disappeared by the time of the first revision (published between 1899 and 1900). By the mid 20th century the pit had been built upon, and it is now buried beneath the rear garden of number 52 Donnington Bridge Road (SP 5272 0450).

In 1924 Dr. K. Sandford reported that the pit had been reopened and that he had examined it himself. He described the location as being "situated between New Iffley Lane and Fairacres Road, between Fairacres housing estate and the Thames; about 50 yards from the former and 300 yards from the latter" [Sandford 1924: 145]. New Iffley Lane (or road) was renamed Donnington Bridge Road (NGR SP 526 044) in the early to mid 20th century (Talbot, date unknown). This description puts the reopened pit on the opposite (northern) side of Donnington Bridge Road to the original pit. The discrepancy in location is likely the result of the original pit being exhausted or the land being already set aside for construction. With a 30-40 year period of development around Donnington and the Fairacres estate it is possible that quarrying continued on an ad hoc basis with the extraction point varied as necessitated by construction. None of the Iffley stone tools the Pitt Rivers Museum holds were collected prior to 1921, and it is likely that they are from the original pit at SP 5272 0450.

Figure 3 Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited 2009. All rights reserved. 1878.

Figure 3 Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited 2009. All rights reserved. 1878.

Stone tools 1900.2.4 - 1900.2.9, 1905.4.4 - 1905.5.7 and 1905.53.5 - 1905.53.7 are recorded in the accession book as being from New Iffley. The exact location of the New Iffley referred to is unknown but there are two possibilities:

  • The village of Iffley underwent rapid expansion in the early 20th century. The majority of the new development (centred on NGR SP 531 032) was to the immediate south of the historic core of the village. It is possible that the new development was locally known as ‘New Iffley’, and these stone tools were found during construction.
  • Donnington Bridge Road (located to the north of the village) was previously named New Iffley Road (see above). This road is in the vicinity of the gravel pit (SP 5272 0450) from which the majority of the Palaeolithic tools from Iffley were recovered.

In light of the large collection of Palaeolithic tools in the museum that were recovered from near Donnington Bridge Road by both Balfour and Bell it is probable that the ‘New Iffley’ tools are from this area too.

The Neolithic stone tools comprise the majority of the Iffley collection, yet until recently the collection location was subject to ambiguity. The artefacts themselves were recorded as being from 'a Neolithic site at Iffley' in the Museum catalogue or 'Iffley' (as written on the objects). Bell published nothing on the Neolithic tools, and the Museum holds no details of the location of the Neolithic remains (the manuscript which may hold Bell's original notes being lost). Luckily Percy Manning, a prolific recorder of archaeological data in Oxfordshire (see Manning and Leeds 1921), made a copy of Bell's notes:

Behind Fairacre House, towards Donnington House over about 10 acres. Gravel overlaid by humus about 2'6", many flints found on surface. In places shallow linear shaped hollows sunk down to gravel c. 15 ft diam. Factory of flint, numerous core + flakes, cores mostly small, some larger. Mostly quite black + transparent, 3 or 4 fabricators (small fragment of entirely polished celt; surface)
Percy Manning. From the Manning Archive (Unique ID: Manning 692). Copyright Ashmolean Museum 2009. [1]

Based on this description it is possible to place the site at SP 5278 0470 (approx. centre), between Fairacres Convent of the Incarnation and Donnington Lodge. The two maps to the right show the approximate locations of Bell’s Neolithic (red polygon) and Palaeolithic (blue polygon) sites. The first is a Google map [Copyright Google 2009] showing the modern street layout, the second is a historic Ordnance Survey map showing the gravel pit.

Further 'spot' finds by Bell were made across Iffley Parish. The museum holds two objects from between Iffley and "The Gut" donated by Alexander James Montgomerie Bell, see 1900.2.2-3. According to Oxford University Rowing Clubs the Gut is defined as a "narrow stretch of the Isis [Thames] between Timms boathouse and the Canoe Centre" [Anon 2008]. It starts approximately around Hinksey Weir and runs for 250 metres, ceasing approximately 170 metres upstream of Donnington Bridge. An approximate grid reference for the Gut is SP 522 046. Whilst the location of the 'Gut' is fairly well known it is harder to interpret what Bell meant by Iffley, he may have been refering the historic core of the village or alternatively the new estates around Donnington (where the Cornish's Pit tools are from). In the case of the former this leaves a potential 900m long stretch of Thames bank from which these tools may have been recovered.

Stone Age Iffley in the 20th Century

Figure 4 Palaeolithic tools and eoliths 1900.37.1- 3 from Iffley

Figure 4 Palaeolithic tools and eoliths 1900.37.1- 3 from Iffley

The first published reference to Palaeolithic tools from Iffley was made by Bell in a 1904 paper predominantly devoted to Palaeolithic deposits around Wolvercote to the north of Oxford:

at Iffley, a mile below Oxford, there is another implement-bearing gravel. It stands at a lower level than those previously described [Wolvercote and Pear Tree Hill]; its base is very nearly on a line with the surface of the present river, about 300 yards distant. It is consequently of a later age than either of the Wolvercote deposits; but it does not follow that all its contents are of a later age, or contemporary with the deposition of of the gravel-bed in which they lie. Quite the contrary; it is an omnium gatherum [a miscellaneous collection or a hodgepodge] of all the debris that ever rolled in to the Thames Valley: Oolitic fossils; Cretaceous fossils, Tertiary conglomerate, Northern-Drift quartzites, jaspers, and volcanic rocks, gravel, and sand. When in this gravel an unweathered implement occus, I think that I am justified in correlating it with the unweathered river-bed implements of Wolvercote; whereas, if the implement has an ochreous staining, I consider that it once belonged to the drift-bed, of which so few fragments now remain in situ. Such an inference encroaches upon certainty: I feel inclined to add that all ochreous or deeply-patinated implements are of the same or similar age, wherever they are found. [Bell 1904: 129]

This was the only published mention of Iffley that Bell ever made, despite collecting a considerable number of tools from the site. It is possible that Bell published little on Iffley as he saw the 'hodgepodge' nature of the deposits as less important than the well stratified, well preserved tools of Wolvercote [2] (on which he published three papers replete with section drawings and photographs, Bell 1894a, 1894b and 1904)

Pocock [1908] and Sandford [1924a, 1924b and 1926] produced the next publications to mention the site. Both were geologists and neither go in to specific detail on the Palaeolithic assemblage. In the case of Sandford, however, this is through necessity rather than design as he reports that:

A large number of very ocherous and much waterworn implements were obtained, as also a number of less worn, slightly ocherous, patinated specimens, apparently of Chellean type...It is to be regretted that, so far, the whereabouts of most of these implements is still unknown to me; but, in the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Mr. H. Balfour has a large boucher [a defunct tool classification named after 19th Century French geologist Jacques Boucher de Crevecour de Perthes]...The whole series, if bought to light again, should be of considerable interest. [Sandford 1924: 145]

Unfortunately for Sandford he either neglected to ask Balfour, or Balfour had forgotten, that in 1921 the museum had in its possession 185 Iffley tools, and had only purchased the majority of these three years earlier (1921.91.459 .1-161) from Archibald Bell. It appears that the majority of the Iffley tools remained 'lost' for at least the next 60 years as Roe [1966: 250], Wymer [1968: 91] and Briggs et. al. [1985: 12] refer to between 25 and 29 handaxes as the known surviving extent, with Briggs et. al. adding "sadly, many of the palaeoliths have been lost to private collections" [1985: 12].

John Wymer in his gazetteer of Lower Palaeolithic Archaeology in Britain [1968: 91-92] became only the second person (after Sandford) to study stone tools from Iffley in detail. He recorded 28 known handaxes, all from the Pitt Rivers museum. Wymer's classification system showed 14 (the majority) of the axes to be a 'Type E', that is pointed handaxes that are 4 inches [10.16 cm] long. Unfortunately no accession numbers are provided and it is not known which tools he examined. The collection was summarised after this analysis to be a 'typical Middle Acheulian assemblage' [page 92], and Wymer concurred with Sandford [1924] that the deposit was from the Summertown Gravel terrace.

Many more publications have briefly mentioned Iffley and Cornish's Pit as being a known palaeolithic site, these include Manning and Leeds [1921: 250], Hardaker [2008: 7 & 15] and Roe [1986: 14, 1994: 11].

During recent cataloguing of the tools a handwritten card and a typed sheet of A4 were discovered. Both were written by R. J. MacRae, an archaeologist and researcher at the Donald Baden-Powell Quaternary Research Centre. They record MacRae's sorting of the Iffley Palaeolithic tools, the card in 1995 and the A4 paper on the 12th October 1990 (both documents are now archived in the Museum's Related Documents File under 1921.91.459). The typed A4 sheet contained the following text:

Two Storage Boxes.
Box 1 contains undoubted artefacts, mainly much-rolled small bifaces and flakes in flint. One small quartzite biface. A few of the flint pieces are relatively sharp, but no mint-fresh.
Severe edge-damage is noted on nearly all the pieces, and because of the heavily-rolled condition of the pieces it is sometimes difficult to distinguish from secondary working or trimming, especially on the flakes.
There is an unusual proportion of 'points' on small flakes or chips. Small bifaces and unifaces are all pointed, and the majority are made on flakes.
Box No 2. [pencil note adds 'Unknown box'] contains a slightly larger number, consisting of 'eoliths' and 'pot lids' which are patently natural. Some of the pieces are so very heavily abraded that identification is difficult (some may fall into the 'doubtful' category). Bell, as an early collector, had a liking for 'borers' and many of the natural pieces resemble these. Such shapes, however, are very common in the S/R [Summertown Radley] gravels, and are fragments of Northern Drift flint.
The box of 'naturals' should be retained, however, for future comparison.

The examination of the contents of the two boxes raises an interesting question. At no other site in the upper Thames are there so many artefacts worked on 'local' Drift flint. The largest is only 9 centimetres long, the average is about 6 centimetres, with many pieces smaller than that.

There are some larger and well-made flint handaxes, plus handaxes of quartzite, from Iffley, (Cornish's pit) in Dr Roe's Teaching collection here. These flint handaxes were unquestionably bought to the site either ready-made or as roughouts from the nearest source of good workable flint in the Chiltern foothills. (See MacRae, 1988, in 'Lithics' and in B.A.R. No 139)

Could the smaller pieces be of different age, perhaps earlier? Comparison with Bell's other collection, from the Wolvercote Channel, shows similarities in the assemblage of small flint pieces--but more than half of them are purely 'natural' and are not artefacts. There are many more quartzite flakes at Wolvercote than at Iffley.
The matter is worth more careful examination and comparison. R.J.M.

With MacRae's work the majority of the Palaeolithic tools were now located and in a fit state for a more comprehensive examination. In 2000 the Iffley tools were subject to their first in-depth analysis by Hyeong Woo Lee as part of his Ph.D thesis on the Lower Palaeolithic Stone Artefacts from Selected Sites in the Upper and Middle Thames Valley [St Cross College, University of Oxford]. The thesis was published as a British Archaeological Report [number 319, British Series] in 2001 under the same title. Lee analysed 145 tools from Iffley [2001: 104-112], and agreed with previous assertions that the assemblage was predominantly Mid Acheulian [Lee 2001: 104]. His analysis summarised that the Iffley tools tended to be shorter than nearby comparable assemblages, such as those from Wolvercote, see PRM's collection of Palaeolithic tools from this site, with the average length of a handaxe being 8.52 cm. Several different tool categories were recorded by Lee including:

  • Flake tools and debitage [scrapers etc], predominantly 'local' flint (what exactly local is for a site that is described as a hodgepodge "of all the debris that ever rolled in to the Thames Valley" [Bell 1904: 129] is not defined).
  • Chopping tools, only one quartzite tool is recorded from Iffley (Wolvercote similarly had a lack of chopping tools)
  • Handaxes, produced from cores [flakes are removed from the core, which forms the finished artefact].
  • A further number of miscellaneous core tools are recorded that do not fall into any particular category.

With the computerization of the Museum Accession books (completed by 2002, pers. comm. Alison Petch 2009), and the ongoing cataloguing it has become clear that the full extent of the Iffley tools was not realised at the time of Lee's work, and that a further 40 objects await analysis.

Neolithic Iffley

Figure 5 - Neolithic tools 1912.19.8 .1-10 from Iffley

Figure 5 - Neolithic tools 1912.19.8 .1-10 from Iffley

Bell never published any details of his Neolithic finds at Iffley, although he did give a lecture to the Ashmolean Natural History Society of Oxfordshire in 1909 on the subject [3]. The finds are briefly mentioned in Percy Manning's Archaeological Survey of Oxfordshire [Manning and Leeds 1921: 250] and the site is recorded on the Oxfordshire Historic Environment Record as a "Multi-Period Flint factory and Occupation Site" under PRN 3652. The 468 Neolithic stone tools from Iffley appear to have never been analysed despite representing 11.9% of all Bell's Archaeological objects in the Museum (3,923 total), 34.5% of Bell's Oxfordshire archaeological objects (1,366 total) and 15.8% of all Oxfordshire archaeological objects in the Museum (2,968). It is hoped that with more accurate location data, and the (currently ongoing) cataloguing that a greater awareness of the material will be achieved.

Further Reading
Anon. 2008. Chapter 2 - Rules of the River. Oxford University Rowing Clubs website:
http://wiki.ourcs.org.uk/index.php?title=Chapter_2_-_Rules_of_the_River#R11_-_Special_rules_applying_to_the_Gut [accessed 26/01/2009].

Arkell, W.J. 1947. The Geology of Oxford. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Bell, A.M. 1894a. 'Palaeolithic Remains at Wolvercote, Oxfordshire'. Antiquary 30: 148 - 152.

Bell, A.M. 1894b. 'Palaeolithic Remains at Wolvercote, Oxfordshire, No. II'. Antiquary 30: 192 -

Bell, A.M. 1904. 'Implementiferous Sections at Wolvercote (Oxfordshire)'. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 60: 120-132.

Briggs D.J, Coope G.R. and Gilbertson D.D. 1985. The Chronology and Environmental Framework of Early Man in the Upper Thames Valley: A New Model. Oxford: B.A.R (British Series 137)

Hardaker, T. 2008. The Lower and Middle Palaeolithic of Oxfordshire. Solent Thames Archaeological Research Framework. Website:
http://www.buckscc.gov.uk/bcc/content/index.jsp?contentid=-222423834 [accessed 23/01/2009]

Lee H.W. 2001. A Study of Lower Palaeolithic Stone Artefacts from Selected Sites in the Upper and Middle Thames Valley, with Particular Reference to the R. J. MacRae Collection. Oxford: B.A.R (British Series 319).

Lobel, M. (ed.). 1957. 'Parishes: Iffley', A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 5: Bullingdon hundred (1957), pp. 189-206. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=101890&strquery=Iffley Date accessed: 26 March 2009.
Manning, P. and Leeds, E.T. 1921. 'An archaeological survey of Oxfordshire'. Archaeologia 71: 227-265.

O'Connor, A. 2007. 'Finding time for the old stone age: A history of Palaeolithic Archaeology and Quaternary Geology in Britain, 1860-1960'. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pocock, T.I. 1908. 'The Geology of the Country round Oxford'. London: British Geological Survey (Memoirs of the Geological Survey).

Roe, D.A. 1968. A Gazetteer of British Lower & Middle Palaeolithic Sites. London: Council for British Archaeology (Research Report 8)

Roe, D.A. 1986. 'The Palaeolithic period in the Oxford region'. In Briggs, G.; Cook J. and Rowley T. (eds.). The Archaeology of the Oxford Region, 1-17. Oxford: University of Oxford Dept. for External Studies.

Roe, D.A. 1994. 'The Palaeolithic Archaeology of the Oxford Region'. Oxoniensia 59: 1-15.

Sandford, K.S. 1924a. 'The river gravels of the Oxford District'. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London. 80: 113-179.

Sandford, K.S. 1924b. Archaeologia 80: 145 [Despite much effort, the author has not been able to trace this article cited by Wymer, 1968, on page 92].

Sandford K.S. 1926. 'The Geology of the Country round Oxford'. London: British Geological Survey [Memoirs of the Geological Survey].

Talbot, J. Iffley Road in the Nineteenth century. Website: www.headington.org.uk/oxon/streets/name_changes/iffley_road.pdf [accessed 14/01/2009]

Wymer J.J. 1968. Lower Palaeolithic Archaeology in Britain, as Represented by the Thames Valley. London: John Baker.


[1] Manning archive record entry:

Archive: Manning Unique ID: 692
Group: Iffley Item No.: 5 No. of Sheets: 3
Title: Transcript by Mr Percy Manning of Mr A. M. Bell's notes on a Neolithic site at Iffley.
Content: Describes the situation of the site and the site itself. Also lists and describes flints found there, providing rough sketches of some. [Copyright Ashmolean Museum 2009].

Manning’s notes also include a summary of the objects found by Bell:

Several chisel headed flakes Two "pygmy" flints, rather large, [?]of the earlier patinated period. Scrapers mostly rough, many large + thick like S. Oxon type, a few quickly worked. Many hollow scarpers of all sizes. A quuartzite flake, with hollow scrapers. Many borers + pierces, some very small, few fine saws. A number of surface flakes + a few scrapers...a number of flakes reworked at a later date showing black surface underneath.

A disc c. 2in diam, 3/ thickness of sandstone, resembling discs from Uriconium of Roman date [Uriconium is an alternative spelling of Viroconium, a Roman city located adjacent to the modern day village of Wroxeter in the county of Shropshire]

It does not appear that the disc mentioned is in the Pitt Rivers Museum.

[2] For Wolvercote stone tools in the PRM see: 1908.10.2-3, 1921.91.472.1-9, 1921.91.473.1-99, 1921.91.474.1-50, 1921.91.475.1-88.

[3] 16 May 1907 - 'Prehistoric Oxford: Neolithic Settlement at New Iffley' - Ashmolean Natural History Society (Bellamy 1908: 184). A report of this lecture was printed in the Oxford Times on May 25, 1907. Percy Manning kept notes on the lecture, these are held as part of the Manning Archive at the Ashmolean Museum, unique ID: Manning 886.

Return to Bell's webpage here.