British Collection Highlights:

Professor George Rolleston Archive

George Rolleston, FRCP; FRS. (1829-1881) was the first Linacre Professor of Anatomy and Physiology at the University of Oxford (1860-1881). Rolleston was a close colleague and protégé of the evolutionary biologist Thomas Huxley, and was one of the most influential and distinguished scientists in Oxford during the later nineteenth century.

During his time at Oxford he developed innovative teaching and research in anthropology and archaeology as well as in his specialism of comparative anatomy and physiology. He was especially interested in brain development and the study of human and animal skulls, and during his research he built up an extensive collection of human skulls from around the world. This collection was presented to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUM), and much of it survives there today.

He was also a pioneer in archaeological practice, advocating scientific rigour in fieldwork and research. Rolleston participated in a number of archaeological excavations: he opened Anglo-Saxon graves at Frilford in 1867–68; with his friend, A.H.L.F. Pitt-Rivers, he explored barrows at Sigwell and at Rushmore, and contributed reports on skeletal remains uncovered from Pitt-Rivers work at Cissbury; in 1877 he published a book on British Barrows with Canon William Greenwell, his contribution focussing on crania; and with John Thurnam he dug in Wiltshire. His archaeological collections and archive were transferred from the OUM to the Ashmolean Museum in the mid-1880s as part of a wider reorganisation of the university's collections. At about the same time his ethnographic collections were transferred to the then newly-founded Pitt Rivers Museum.

The archive held by the Ashmolean Museum primarily relates to aspects of George Rolleston’s professional career, specifically his involvement with the OUM, as well as his craniological and archaeological research. Only a minority of the papers concern his work on comparative anatomy and zoology, and very few papers are personal or family-related. The largest section is the correspondence files, which date from 1861 to 1881. The archive is of considerable importance both to research into the development of the natural sciences in Oxford the late19th century, and to the documentation of archaeological, anthropological and human skeletal material held by University of Oxford museums.

In 2011-2012, the John Fell University Press (OUP) Research Fund supported an inter-museum research project to catalogue the George Rolleston archive. The aims of the project were to enhance access to the papers, and to assess the potential for contributing to further reseach on the archaeological and anthropologial collections to which they relate, and to the history of science and scientific collecting in Oxford in the 19th century.

A copy of the catalogue by Alice Stevenson is available to download.
Please cite this work as follows, indicating the author, year, title, date accessed or downloaded, and that it is available on the Ashmolean website.

Click to enlarge

Portrait of George Rolleston by William Edwards Miller (Click to enlarge)

George Rolleston, by William Edwards Miller, pencil and chalk, 1877. NPG 1933. (Image by permission of the National Portrait gallery under a CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 licence).

Click to enlarge

Skulls forming part of the anatomical collections display (Click to enlarge)

Skulls forming part of the anatomical collections display, University Museum, Oxford, c.186090 © Oxford University Museum.

Further Information

The Pitt Rivers Museum research project 'Scoping Museum Anthropology' (2012-2013) is conducting further work on the George Rolleston archive and has made additional information and transcriptions of some of the papers available on-line. The project concerns the history and development of museum anthropology at the University of Oxford from 1850 to 1920. Alison Petch has also transcribed a draft letter from Rolleston to the Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford in 1867 concerning the future of ethnological material in the University Museum. This letter is catalogued as AMS 45/10, although it may once have been part of the Rolleston archive.

The Pitt Rivers Museum research project 'Rethinking Pitt-Rivers' (2009-2012) conducted further work on the letters from Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers in the Rolleston archive, and has made additional information, tracings of sketches and transcriptions of these letters available on-line. The work took place immediately after the archive was catalogued in 2012. There is also an article on the friendship and collaboration between Pitt Rivers and Rolleston.

M. Nowak-Kemp and Y. Galanakis, Ancient Greek skulls in the Oxford University Museum, Part I: George Rolleston, Oxford and the formation of the human skulls collection. Journal of the History of Collections(2011) pp. 1–16. (Advance access copy available online from the Journal of the History of Collections and Oxford University Press)

The Wellcome Library holds further archival material relating to George Rolleston and the Rolleston family.

Rolleston's published papers were collated after his death by his colleagues William Turner and Edward Tylor (1884). Scientific Papers and Addresses by George Rolleston. Arranged and edited by William Turner, with a biographical sketch by Edward B. Tylor. Two volumes. Both volumes are available online from the Internet Archive. Volume 1; Volume 2.

William Greenwell, George Rolleston, British barrows, a record of the examination of sepulchral mounds in various parts of England. the Clarendon press. Together with description of figures of skulls, general remarks on prehistoric crania, and an appendix by George Rolleston. (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1877). Available online from the Internet Archive.

Find out more about:

Alison Roberts
May 2013