Open main menu

Notes on the Present and Future of the Archaeological Collections of the University of Oxford

PRICE SIXPENCE.

NOTES

ON THE

PRESENT AND FUTURE

OF THE

ARCHÆOLOGICAL COLLECTIONS

OF THE

UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD.


BY

GREVILLE J. CHESTER, B.A.,

MEMBER OF THE ROYAL ARCHAEOLOGICAL INSTITUTE;

AUTHOR OF " IRANS-ATLANTIC SKETCHES,"

"JULIAN CLOUGHTON," ETC.




OXFORD: A. THOS. SHRIMPTON & SON, BROAD STREET.

LONDON: SIMPKIN, MARSHALL & Co.



NOTES, &c.




Can nothing be done to protect, utilize, consolidate, and properly arrange the Archæological Collections belonging to the University of Oxford? Not even the most bigoted admirers of the status quo can think that their present condition is creditable to Oxford as a Place of Learning, while all Archaeologists must regard it as simply disgraceful. Every Oxford man, indeed it may almost be said every Englishman—for is not Oxford the glory and the pride of England?—who considers the subject, must allow that duty and piety towards those who in past times enriched the University with their gifts and their bequests, no less than regard to the present and coming generations of students, alike demand the radical reform of the present system, or rather the contemptuous and apathetic want of system which prevails in the University with respect to the treasures of ancient art committed, for educational purposes, to its care. This being so, it may perhaps be allowable for an old Oxford man, who deeply loves his Alma Mater, although, unhappily for himself, no longer connected with it, to make a few remarks and suggestions on the subject, and this the more so, since words of blame will come with greater grace and with less offence from an outsider than from a resident in the University itself.

Of the immense importance of Archæological Collections to those engaged in the teaching or in the study of classical authors, or of ancient and mediæval History, little need he said, as it is evident to all. Two illustrations only will suffice. The History of Egypt is written upon her ancient monuments, and the student of Herodotus who has before his eyes a well-arranged collection of Egyptian antiquities will learn more of the arts, manners, customs, mythology, and religion of the ancient Egyptians in a week than he would in months employed in the study of hooks. Works of ancient art are indeed the flesh and sinews which cover and give life to the dry hones of History; the flowers which sweeten and embellish the waste places of laborious study. How interesting and instructive, moreover, to the students of mediæval English History would he a fine collection of the local antiquities of Oxford and its neighbourhood, and how it would help them to re-people the Past, and to realize the actual state of the University and City in the Middle Ages! These obvious truths, forgotten or disregarded in Oxford, are recognized and acted on elsewhere. Cambridge spends her hundreds a year in augmenting and improving the collections of the Fitzwilliam Museum; even Aberdeen is buying medals, and the generous Head Master of Winchester is at his own expense forming a cabinet of coins, the better to teach History to the lads of his noble school. Oxford alone does nothing, or, if she does anything, does it in the spirit of jealousy and rivalry; her counsels are divided; there is no central or controlling authority; every man's hand is against his brother; and the result, so far as Archaeology is concerned, is complete chaos.

But further, Archaeology, in order to be of any real use, must be taught and studied as a whole. Types of art are so intermingled and so run into each other, that ancient objects brought from one country must be studied side by side with those brought from another, in order that the influences which cause various forms to assimilate or disagree may be traced out and appreciated. It is, for example, as misleading and unreasonable to divorce Greek from Roman antiquities, or Cyprian and Assyrian from Egyptian, as it would be to separate the Birds from the Reptiles in a Museum of Natural History, or to cut off the Saurians of the Lias from the Crocodiles and Alligators of the present day.

The Archaeological Collections belonging to the University are five in number, or to speak more correctly, the ancient objects belonging to it are divided into five Collections, to the great injury of each, and these are stowed away, I can scarcely say arranged, in at least four different buildings. Were all these scattered objects combined into one Collection Oxford would possess the nucleus of a fine Museum, whose gaps her loving sons might be trusted to fill up; but just where consolidation or combination are needed, there are found division and dispersion. Of these Collections the largest, most varied, and best is that upon the ground floor of the Ashmolean Museum, a quaint, characteristic, and not unpleasing building, erected at the charge of the University to contain the Collections of Elias Ashmole, given to the University on that condition, a circumstance, by the way, which ought to go far towards nipping in the bud any project for confiscating the building to other uses, and amalgamating its Archaeological treasures with the Gorgonias, Stuffed Monkeys, and Fish Skeletons in the New Museum. In the vaulted room under the Ashmolean, besides the remainder of its Collection proper, is a moiety of the once celebrated and highly-prized Arundelian Marbles, whereof the rest remain in a small chamber in the Court of the Schools. Lately the ruling spirits of the Natural History Museum, on the principle, probably, that "all is Fish that comes to their net," have commenced a rival Collection of Antiquities, which contains indeed some valuable and interesting specimens, but these are so jammed together that they cannot be seen or studied to advantage, while every canon of good taste is violated by the incongruity of their surroundings. Next, there are the ancient Sculptures of the Pomfret Collection stowed away out of sight and out of mind in the dreary vaults of the Taylor Buildings, or incongruously stuck about amongst the casts of the Chantrey statues. There may be seen a gigantic Mr. Pitt (in plaster of Paris), who completely dwarfs his neighbour, a middle-sized ancient Philosopher (in white marble), and the tail of the toga of the English Statesman (not of the Philosopher) hides two Roman sarcophagi. On the staircase two venerable slabs of Assyrian Sculpture from Nineveh look strangely out of place under a spic-and-span Muse made of white "compo.," and in the Avernus below a white marble bust of "S.Woodburne, Esq., by Behnes," surmounts the sarcophagus of a Roman child! But the most extraordinary thing remains to be told. A few years since the Cavalliere Alessandro Castellani of Rome presented some valuable Etruscan antiquities to the Ashmolean, and shortly afterwards the University purchased from the same gentleman a small but good collection of Greek and Etruscan terracottas and other kindred objects. This unwonted fit of liberality, by the way, seems to have so much alarmed the authorities of the University that it has never been repeated. Now anyone would have supposed that seeing that the first part of the Castellani Collection was exhibited in the Ashmolean, the second part would have been exhibited there also. But no such thing. It seemed good to some learned persons in authority to separate what a common origin, epoch, and locality had joined together, and so the second portion is placed in the Taylor Buildings, where, at the end of a vapid vista of plaster casts, it can only be seen from afar off, in an un-arranged condition, and through a glass door! When I mentioned this circumstance to Cavalliere Castellani he appeared much surprised. Well he might; probably nothing more stupid exists in Europe. Some fine Cyprian vases, presented I believe by Mr. Ruskin, are, with other objects, actually placed higgledy-piggledy on the floor of the same unworthy and obscure place, into which, on the occasion of a recent visit, the rain was dropping freely through the skylight. This act of vandalism, I confess, makes me afraid as to the ultimate fate of another collection of vases, now on its way from Cyprus, as a gift to the University from Mr. Roland Michell, H.M. Commissioner at Limassol, and myself. Lastly, there are a certain number of antiquities, scarcely suited to a Library, but which, with the almost inaccessible cabinet of coins, are preserved in the Bodleian. Besides the above, which are the property of the University there is in Oxford a secret and rapidly-perishing collection of Egyptian Antiquities in the Library of Queen's, and a cabinet of ancient coins exists in New College, which last, however, can only be seen in the august presence of the Warden himself, and consequently are of no more use for purposes of study and education than they would be if buried in the mud of the Tiber or Isis. With regard to these College as distinguished from University Collections, it is hard to see why, if they cannot be given to the University outright, they should not be deposited for exhibition to the public under proper restrictions as loans. Where they are they are of use to no one. This, however, is only by-the-by.

I now proceed to say a few more words upon the present condition of the objects of ancient art possessed by the University. It may here be repeated again, and that without fear of contradiction, that Antiquities, in order to be of any real educational use, ought to be exhibited together, where like can be seen with like, where differing types can be contrasted, and where a proper chronological and ethnographical sequence can be observed. This, however, is exactly what is not done in Oxford. As already stated, the fine series of Saxon-English objects from Kent and the Fairford Graves,—a series which is surpassed in England by that in the Mayer Collection at Liverpool alone,—is divorced from the Saxon-English urns and implements in the new and rival collection in the Parks. For some years past a number of Greek ear-rings from Cyprus have been exhibited in the Ashmolean; this year other Greek ear-rings and a noble gold necklace appear close to some models of Intestines in the Natural History Museum, No donor's name is appended to these last, but a card sets forth the simple and highly intelligible fact that they were found at "Gurgan" It is possible that some of the most learned Heads of Houses might be able to state forthwith where "Gurgan" is, but the mystery must be great to many in statu pupillari and, in pity for the unlearned, one is justified in craving a more descriptive label.

In the Ashmolean the Antiquities are often so crowded together from want of space that the objects can be neither properly displayed nor adequately studied. In addition to this, while several casts of objects of inferior interest are exposed to view, numbers of genuine Antiques are shut up altogether out of sight in drawers. A Collection of inlaid pottery from Tel-el-Yahoudeh, in the Delta, has for some years past been partly concealed by slabs of wood, on which are laid photographs of Roman sculpture; and access to the principal case of Egyptian Antiquities is altogether prevented by a large work-table, at which the attendant sits before the fire to do his work of ticketing, and sometimes, alas! of cleaning and polishing up the treasures of the Museum[1] Many interesting pictures, including one of Charles 1st, have within a short period been ruthlessly torn down from the walls on which they have probably hung for near upon two centuries, and I am informed that they have been packed up in boxes and stowed away in one of the Upper Chambers of the Clarendon! An outsider might be excused for supposing that the Bodleian Gallery or the Picture Gallery in the Taylor Buildings would be a more fitting receptacle for these historical relics, but this is not the view—of "the powers that be" in Oxford, and, "Dîs alitèr visum est."

The most interesting object in the Ashmolean, and that, undoubtedly, which learned foreigners would be the most likely to come to see, is the celebrated stone which bears the name of a King of the Second Egyptian dynasty—by far the oldest piece of sculpture in Europe. Will it be believed that the other day the written description appended to this venerable monument contained no less than two instances of false spelling?—it was ascribed to the "eartiest" (sic) period of Egyptian art, and amongst the list of offerings is enumerated "Insence"(sic)! Surely such a glaring instance of gross ignorance and carelessness ought to be impossible in a Seat of Learning. Now the cause of the over-crowding of the Ashmolean is the action of the University authorities, who for the sake of holding occasional examinations of undergraduates have during the building of the new Schools, for years past, confiscated the upper room. Some one might surely have remembered that, after all, education and instruction are better than examination, and that some of these young men might he better fitted for their examination itself if objects illustrative of History and Archæology were presented to their view in an intelligible manner. But, if the state of the Ashmolean Museum in its principal room is bad, what can be said of the vaulted room underneath, which contains a fine Collection of Roman lamps and other terracottas, and the really important sculptures and inscriptions of the Arundelian Marbles? In visiting this apartment a few days since I found access to some of the best Greek inscriptions barred by the presence of an immense stuffed Bullock. The body and legs of this truculent-looking beast are cased in matting, but his head and horns stick out in a threatening manner, and this obscene quadruped seems to be sniffing defiance at every would-be student of Greek Archæology. On inquiring the reason of the presence of this unlooked for apparition, I was officially informed that it was placed there "at the request of Professor Williams!" Approach to other antiquities I found to be prevented by cases containing specimens of curry-powder, castor-oil, and fennel seeds, and other vegetable productions, which would certainly seem to be more appropriate to the Museum of Natural History. There, however, the space is required for bronze celts, "Samian" ware, and Anglo-Saxon pottery! The castor-oil beans, I learned, like the Bullock, were also placed amongst the Greek Antiquities, "at the request of Professor Williams" and unless an earthquake or revolution takes place it is intended that they should remain there until the Greek Calends, or the completion of the Indian Institute. It seems a pity that it did not fall to the lot of this learned Professor to solve the question of finding additional space for the Natural History Collections of the British Museum. He would simply have stuffed the Brahmin Bulls, Gorillas, and Sharks into the Elgin Gallery, and the Seaweeds into the Medal Room, and then the Nation would have been saved the expense of erecting a new Natural History Museum at South Kensington.

Before quitting the subject of the Ashmolean Museum allusion must be made to the recent discovery that for years a number of valuable articles in silver, amber, agate, and other precious materials from the old Tradescant Collection, and enumerated in the quaint and valuable old Tradescant Catalogue, together with a portion of the Saxon-English collection figured in the Nenia Brittanica, had been packed away in a box in an outhouse in the basement, to which access by a ladder might easily have been had from the street. This circumstance has been the subject of a painful correspondence between the present learned Keeper of the Ashmolean, J. H, Parker, Esq., Hon. M.A. and C.B., and the ex-Assistant-Keeper, who admits that the objects in question were "turned out" of the Museum, but he alleges that this was done under the direction of the late keeper, Dr. Duncan, who is no longer alive to defend himself from such a preposterous charge.[2] This serious and disgraceful matter is only alluded to here in order that members of the University may note the spoliation to which, under the existing machinery, they are liable to be exposed. The possibility, even, of such an outrageous occurrence is, moreover, little likely to conciliate further gifts to the University in future.

The above slight sketch conveys but a feeble idea of the wretched state of the Archæological Collections at Oxford,—a condition of things disgraceful, not only to the University, but to England itself. And why should Oxford, in this not unimportant matter, be so far behind Cambridge? The keepership of the Ashmolean seems to have had, until recently, no endowment at all, but by the munificence of the present keeper, Mr. John H. Parker, it has been permanently endowed with £100 a year. This sum, however, is barely sufficient to provide a salary for the assistant-keeper and a boy, and leaves nothing over for current expenses, much less for the purchase of additional antiquities. What is really wanted is an assistant-keeper who is an educated man, a Member of the University, and one possessed of a fair amount of taste and archæological knowledge. Instances of false spelling in the labels, and the destruction of ancient objects by polishing would not then occur, and such an one would be able to give to inquiring students the information they require. Of course, a sufficient salary would be necessary, but if the University intends to continue to possess Antiquities, such a salary must be forthcoming.[3] Probably, when the next vacancy occurs, it would be desirable to join the office of Keeper of the Ashmolean to that of a Professor of Archæology, and then to commit to the holder of those combined offices the charge of all the Archæological Collections belonging to the University. One responsible Head being thus obtained, the various collections should be assembled in a single building, and for this purpose the venerable Ashmolean, restored to its original use, would probably for the present be found sufficient. "When the present apathy and utter disregard of Archæological subjects is overpast, and when, under improved managemant, the Collections become enlarged by further gifts, it will be time enough to discuss the question of a new Archæological Museum.

Several things, however, are of instant importance,

1. The immediate printing of a Catalogue to be sold in parts at the cheapest rate in the Ashmolean Museum. The Catalogue of the Greek and Etruscan objects prepared by Mr. Vaux and those of the Egyptian and Roman objects, compiled, in the absence of one more competent, by myself, with the kind assistance of Dr. S. Birch, of the British Museum, already exist in MS., and their publication in the University Press was only delayed and then finally abandoned in consequence of Mr. Rowell's delay in finishing the Mediæval Catalogue, with which, having nothing else to do, he had charged himself, and which, with all its errors uncorrected, he had sent to the Press without the knowledge of the Keeper. The Egyptian and Greek Catalogues are about to be printed privately at the expence of Mr. Parker, but surely the University ought to publish its own Catalogues in its own Printing Press, and not saddle the expense upon an individual to whom, in a pecuniary way, it already owes so much. In a collection wherein, from the multiplicity of small objects, it is difficult to affix a descriptive label to every article, the importance of a Catalogue can scarcely be exaggerated. The price of each Division of the Catalogue ought not to be more that a penny, a sum which would bring it within the means of every visitor, but it is noteworthy that the first edition of the Catalogue of the Egyptian Collection at Liverpool, compiled by Mr. C. T. Gatty, price one shilling, was almost immediately sold out. This was, however, illustrated. 2. More cases for the exhibition of antiquities are urgently needed, and until they are provided no room exists to display future acquisitions, while existing specimens are either crowded together or shut up out of sight. 3. The restoration to its proper use of the upper chamber of the Ashmolean. 4. The immediate removal of Indian beasts and seeds from the basement of the Ashmolean. 5. The restoration to light and air of the ancient pictures now banished in packing cases to a garret in the Clarendon. 6. The combination of the few Egyptian and other Antiquities in the Natural History Museum with the many in the Ashmolean. 7. The issue of a strict order to the attendant or assistant-keeper not to withdraw from their cases and mountings delicate objects of ancient metal work, for the inspection and handling of casual visitors to the Ashmolean, without a special order from the keeper himself. This dangerous and indeed fatal practice probably airses from the circumstance that the assistant-keeper is permitted to receive although not to demand fees from visitors. If his salary is not deemed sufficient, it should be raised by the University itself. 8, The combination of the Castellani Antiquities in the Taylor Buildings with the Castellani Antiquities and those of the Henderson bequest in the Ashmolean. 9. The re-arrangement in proper chronological order of the ancient sculptures in the Taylor Buildings, and especially their separation from the modern Chantrey casts.

These hasty notes are offered with much deference to members of the University, and the object of the writer will be attained if any who read them can be induced to inquire and see for themselves.

May 23, 1881.

  1. This polishing process ought to be forbidden altogether to one unacquainted with Archaeology. It generally means destruction of the object polished.
  2. See correspondence between J. H. Parker, Hon. M.A., C.B., and Mr. Rowell; printed for private circulation by the former.
  3. Why has the Commission done nothing for Archæology in Oxford?

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.