Palestine protests highlight ‘colonial legacy’ of archaeologist Pitt Rivers

Auction site withdraws sale of human skulls unearthed in Egypt, as Oxford museum named after Victorian archaeologist is focal point for protest

A student activist at a pro-Palestine encampment outside the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford. Getty Images
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A museum named after the Victorian archaeologist Augustus Pitt Rivers has become a muster point for pro-Palestine anger in the UK due to his colonial legacy.

Students at the University of Oxford have deliberately sited their protest against the fighting in Gaza outside the Pitt Rivers Museum, which they say is an embodiment of the university’s relationship with colonialism, “mirrored in the ongoing struggle of the Palestinian people”.

Human skulls from his private second collection, which he acquired in Egypt, have also been withdrawn from sale, highlighting the "grim reality" of his exploits.

The skulls of 10 men, five women and three people of indeterminate gender were spotted by University of Oxford archaeology professor Dan Hicks being offered for sale by Semley Auctioneers with an asking price of £200-£300 ($250-$375).

Prof Hicks told The National the skulls come from what is known as the “second collection” of Pitt Rivers, which he established at his estate in the Dorset, in the south-west of England and separate from the museum.

While other items from this collection have appeared, Prof Hicks said this was the first time he had seen human remains from there on the open market.

“It's a reminder of the grim reality that this practice is still legal,” said Prof Hicks, who is also a curator of World Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Pitt Rivers was born to a wealthy landowning family in Yorkshire in 1827 and spent most of his life as an army officer during which time he gathered a collection of artefacts from across the world.

He had begun excavating while he was in the army but his interested grew when he started digging up the 110,000 hectare estate he inherited in Dorset.

Pitt Rivers collected ancient Egyptian artefacts and visited the country in 1881. He continued his research throughout his later life and died in 1900.

He can be considered one of the founders of modern archaeology, leading the way in aspects such as a meticulous approach to excavation and recording all the findings on a given site, but his legacy remains problematic for many.

Prof Hicks explained that Pitt Rivers was interested in phrenology, a pseudoscience developed in the 19th century that involved the measurement of bumps on human skulls to determine an individual’s intellect and character.

He said this was the “beginnings of the eugenics movement”, referring to the scientifically inaccurate view that humans could be improved by selective breeding, which has been used to promote racist views. Pitt Rivers' grandson George was one of the wealthiest men in England in the 1930s. He became a director of the second collection and was prominent in the eugenics movement. He was a known anti-Semite and supporter of far-right leader Oswald Mosley, which led to him being interned in 1940 in the UK during the Second World War.

“Seeing them [the skulls] it was a surprise and shock to see human remains of any kind but especially ones of this sort of provenance on the open market.”

He said Pitt Rivers' work in archaeology and anthropology cannot be separated from its origins in the colonial era, when Egypt was made a protectorate of the UK after its military occupied the country in 1882.

“It's a completely uncontentious thing to say that these are disciplines that were built under were forged out of colonialism,” he said.

“We were dealing with their intellectual legacies, we're dealing with their legacies in museums.

“We’re having a host of national conversations at the moment about this late-phase colonialism, in the later 19th and early 20th century, and that phase of history is coming into view, for a new generation and in a different time, for how we deal with these legacies.”

That conversation is now taking place outside the Pitt Rivers Museum, established in 1884 and currently home to 500,000 objects, photographs and manuscripts from all over the world.

Announcing the creation of “liberated zone” encampments for Gaza, the Oxford Action for Palestine and Cambridge for Palestine framed much of their arguments in the context of colonialism.

They said their “universities' wealth and prestige stem directly from their role in the British Empire and its disastrous colonial legacies”.

This includes “the Oxford and Cambridge men who authored the Balfour Declaration in 1917, ceding Palestinian land to the Zionist settler-colonial project”.

Oxford Action for Palestine said its “liberated zone” was placed on the lawn outside the “infamous University of Oxford Pitt Rivers Museum, a disturbing hoard of artefacts stolen from colonised peoples across the world”.

The group said the items had been acquired through “cultural pillaging that define Oxford's legacy”.

“These processes are mirrored in the ongoing struggle of the Palestinian people and connect us to colonised peoples everywhere.”

Semley Auctioneers confirmed the items had now been removed but told The National it had nothing more to add.

Online auction site Saleroom, on which the skulls were listed, removed the items, and the company says it prohibits the sale of body parts.

“These items are legal for sale in the UK and are of archaeological and anthropological interest," it said. "However, after discussion with the auctioneer we have removed the items while we consider our position and wording of our policy.”

Updated: May 09, 2024, 6:28 AM