History of the British Collections:

Background to the Collections

The Ashmolean was founded in 1683 as a model scientific institution, designed to combine the functions of a repository for rare and curious materials as well as a research and educational institution. From the start it was associated with antiquarian interests through the first two Keepers, Robert Plot and Edward Lhwyd, both of them pioneers in the field. Later it attracted benefactions from early investigators such as William Borlase, and the first donation of a systematically excavated body of material - that recovered by the Revd James Douglas in Kent in the 1770s.

For about the first two hundred years of its existence the Ashmolean provided a focus for antiquarian and archaeological work, with the result that material from all over the country found its way into the collection, being for a long time one of the few repositories available for such material. Indeed, such was the extent and quality of the British archaeological material (unmatched at that time in the British Museum) that it was proposed in 1858 that the Ashmolean should be developed into a museum dedicated to 'national antiquities'.

During the later Victorian era the Ashmolean became a focus for the developing profession of archaeology, both in Britain and abroad. In particular, the keepership of Sir Arthur Evans did much to establish its reputation as an archaeological museum of national and international importance.

Following Evans, responsibility for collecting British material fell largely to E.T. Leeds, who joined the Museum in 1908 and remained a leading figure in medieval archaeology and the archaeology of the Thames Valley until his death in 1955. As well as his original research, Leeds also encouraged the development of innovative archaeological techniques, including the use of aerial photography (with G. Allen) and geophysical prospecting (with R. Atkinson). With the rise of professional archaeology in Britain in the 1970s, the Ashmolean ceased to be an excavating body.

The material constituting the historic core of the British archaeological collections forms a unique physical testament of this early activity. The finds are complemented by extensive documentation, often including original excavation archives. As a resource it is unmatched, and the collections of material culture and their associated archives are of the utmost value to the archaeological community, especially with regard to the emerging fields of the history of archaeology and the history of collecting.

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Alison Roberts
January 2012