4th May 1900. Digging the Past.
Augustus Henry Pitt Rivers who died Today in 1900 was one of the great Victorians.
Trained as a soldier he was an early pioneer of scientific archaeology by moving the study away from mindless treasure hunting to demonstrating that all artefacts, even the most menial, are vital in piecing together knowledge of pre-history.
He thus paved the way for the likes of Sir Flinders Petre and Sir Mortimer Wheeler.
Having served in the Crimea and taken an interest in the development of the rifle from the musket, he was later to develop systematic archaeological excavations on his estate at Cranbourne Chase, Wiltshire.
Having inherited from his great uncle, and with the custom of the time, he was obliged to change his name from Lane Fox. His background and interests saw him become the first Inspector of Ancient Monuments after the Act of 1882, which had been guided through Parliament by Sir John Lubbock, later to marry Pitt-River’s daughter.
Until the Act, Ancient Monuments such as Avebury Ring and Stonehenge were largely disregarded and often vandalized. Now measures could be taken to restore them to their historic significance, including Stonehenge which was re-erected.
It was the likes of antiquaries such John Aubrey who first brought these monuments to wider and influential attention notably to Charles II. As he wrote: ‘They told his Majestie (sic) what they had heard me say concerning Avebury: that it did as much excell Stoneheng(sic) as a cathedral does a Parish Church’.
It was Aubrey also who in 1663 conducted the King up,’That stupendous antiquity’, to the top of nearby Silbury Hill.
Avebury came under attack in the 14thc when the Stones regarded as pagan were attacked by the locals with many buried or used for building. It was only after Alexander Keiller the ‘marmalade king’ had bought Avebury Manor and Ring in the 1930’s, that restoration was undertaken.
Trees and houses, which had stood in the ring were removed and the stones re-erected. One macabre discovery was a male skeleton, found in one of the holes, carrying the tools of a barber-surgeon and a purse with datable coins.
However World War II stopped Keiller and the National Trust purchased the site in 1943, with the Ring only halfway erected.
These monuments to our past still have a power to move as the Author found when cutting through, in moonlight, the road which traverses Avebury on returning to Devizes RAPC Camp.
Also memorable was the sight of seeing Stonehenge for the first time after walking from Avebury over the chalk downs; the romance only spoilt by the glint of cars in the car-park.
Ref: Silbury Arch. journal. Vol 6. Dec. 7 1849.