|Spencer at the time he was studying at Oxford. |
Pitt Rivers Museum 1998.267.89
In the past I have
- completed a two year project to transcribe and annotate the 194 letters he sent to his anthropological partner Francis James Gillen in the early 1990s, a project which culminated in an academic bestseller, My Dear Spencer.
- placed objects he had collected in displays in the Upper Gallery around the same time.
- found out about Spencer’s involvement in the transfer of the founding collection during the two research projects I have been involved with about Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers in the late 1990s and from 2009-2012.
- More recently I have examined his youthful correspondence with Howard Goulty to find out more about an Oxford education in the 1880s and how early anthropology developed at Oxford during the Invention of Museum Anthropology research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust.
- I have also transcribed his correspondence with two other eminent Australian anthropologists, Lorimer Fison (Parts one, two and three) and Alfred William Howitt.
Walter Baldwin Spencer was born in 1860 in Stretford in the north-west of England. He was the second son of a cotton manufacturer and grew up in a prosperous family. He was educated at Old Trafford School and later at the Manchester of Art. It was whilst learning to sketch from anatomical and botany specimens that he was drawn to a more scientific future. He studied first at Owens College which was later to become the University of Manchester where he intended to study medicine, but he was soon fascinated by evolutionary biology. This was one of the key areas of scientific endeavour in the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1881 he moved to the University of Oxford to study the natural sciences under Henry Nottidge Moseley. As his correspondence with his Manchester friend, Howard Goulty, shows Spencer took full advantage of his Oxford education reading widely, rowing and playing tennis and enjoying the companionship of men from many different backgrounds. He attended Edward Burnett Tylor's anthropological lectures and Ruskin's famous lectures on art as well as listening to sermons from famous preachers. Between June and July 1885 he helped to move the founding collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum from London to Oxford, supervised by Moseley and by Tylor. You can find out more about his connections to Oxford and the Pitt Rivers Museum here. However, Oxford was not the last encounter he had with anthropology.
|A photograph taken of one of their informants, |
an Arrernte elder living in Alice Springs.
Photograph taken by Spencer or Gillen in 1896.
Although Spencer spent his whole career being paid to teach biological sciences it is as an early anthropologist that he has achieved fame and it is with his down-to-earth partner Gillen that he figured out methodologies, carried out fieldwork and wrote publications which made the discipline of anthropology what it is today. He died in 1929 on his last fieldwork expedition to Tierra del Fuego (a new geographical departure).
The many facets of Spencer's work and life are amply illustrated in the voluminous correspondence he held with many people across the world. After his death his two daughters decided to split his manuscripts across the world, most are now in Oxford or in Australia. I have been lucky enough to transcribe and research the letters between Spencer and Gillen, Mounted Constable Cowle and Pado Byrne (the latter two published in From the Frontier), and the correspondence between Spencer and Goulty, Fison and Howitt in the last ten years. Over the last year I have been able to work on the remaining Spencer correspondence giving the public access not only to the digital scans of the original letters but also my transcriptions. These include letters with
Henry Balfour (1863-1939)
Gilbert Charles Bourne (1861-1933)
Patrick Michael (Pado) Byrne (1856-1932)
Patrick (Paddy) Cahill (1863-1923)
R.J. Cooper (dates unknown)
Charles Ernest Cowle (1863-1922)
James Field (dates unknown)
Lorimer Fison (1832-1907)
James George Frazer (1854-1941)
Francis James Gillen (1855-1912)
Howard Goulty (unknown dates)
Alfred Cort Haddon (1855-1940)
Sydney John Hickson (1859-1940)
William Austin Horn (1841-1929)
Thomas George Bond Howes (1853-1905)
Alfred William Howitt (1830-1908)
Andrew Lang (1844-1912)
Edwin Ray Lankester (1847-1929)
James Edge-Partington (1854-1930)
Walter Edmund Roth (1861-1933)
Edward Charles Stirling (1848-1919)
Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917)
Miscellaneous people Part one (including Charles Winnecke, John Lubbock, Arthur Thomson, Edward Sidney Hartland etc), Part two (Moseley, Mrs Kell, W.H.R. Rivers etc.
Now all of the Pitt Rivers Museum's Spencer papers are available online both in the form of scans of the originals but also full transcriptions. I hope that these will prove to be an excellent resource both for interested members of the public and, more particularly to members of the communities with which Spencer and Gillen worked and any scholars working on them. Access to all these resources is available here.
|Waramungu axe from the Tennant Creek, Northern Territory collected in 1901-2. 1903.39.53|
'August 3rd Camp No 39. [Tennants Creek]. ... It is not at all an easy matter to get hold of stone implements even here and in a few years stone tomahawks especially will be very valuable. Old knife blades, pieces of scrap iron, shear blades and even telegraph line wire are being used instead of stone by the natives who also make use of glass bottles for manufacturing spear heads, they chip the glass beautifully but it is too brittle to be of much service. Spear heads of opaline quartz are here and there met with but they are obtained by exchange with some of the Northern tribes and are only used in very serious quarrels when it is intended to fatally injure. These implements are supposed to be endowed with evil magic and the slightest superficial scratch from one is said to be fatal ...' [extract from Camp Jottings *]In the book they published about the 1901-2 expedition's fieldwork they wrote:
'At the present day ground axes are much less common than flaked implements, which is to be associated with the fact that the material suitable for making them is only found in relatively few spots in the central area of the continent. ... Amongst northern tribes they are still made, but it will not be many years before they entirely disappear. We witnessed the complete operation on several occasions, as carried out by a member of the Warramunga tribe, who was supposed to be especially skilful in the art. In each case a large rounded diorite pebble was taken. By means of a small lump of hard quartzite the stone is first of all very roughly chipped down to approximately the required size and shape ... This process only occupies a comparatively short time, but during its performance the operator has to be very careful not to spoil the stone. A mistake in the cutting off of a flake might remove a part of the surface which is to form the edge and so render it useless or too hard a hit might result in breaking the stone in two. When the preliminary flaking which determines the shape of the axe is over, there follows the tedious operation of levelling the surface. For this purpose the operator takes a small rounded pebble of quartzite, and hour after hour, for a day or two in succession he will patiently hammer away or rather tap at the rough surface, each stroke removing a fragment of stone, until the whole surface is covered over with minute dents and all the irregularities are smoothed down. In a well-made axe this operation is performed so thoroughly that all traces of the first made, rough flaking are removed. ... When the hammering operation is completed to the satisfaction of the maker there follows the grinding-down process. For this purpose one of the ordinary flat blocks of sandstone used for grinding ochre or grass seeds is used. Sitting down on the ground with the stone between his knees, the operator takes a little fine sand, strews this over its surface and then sprinkling water over, rubs the axe-head backwards and forwards. Every now and then he scatters a little more sand over the ston, holding the axe-head carefully as he grinds so as to produce the two smooth surfaces which unite at the curved cutting edge, the exact shape of which has been previously determined by the preliminary flaking and chipping. When the stone has been thus prepared, there comes the hafting. For this purpose a withy is made, ... it is bent round the blunt end of the stone, so that usually a small portion of the latter projects beyond the level of the wood. The two halves of the withy are bound together with one or two bands of string. A lump of porcupine grass resin is softened by heat and pressed in between the withy and the stone, usually completely enclosing the head of the latter, and sometimes, but not often, enclosing also the part of the former which bends round the stone. The resin is finally smoothed down ... by means of a smouldering fire-stick which is passed backwards and forwards over it. The next and final operation merely consists in grinding down some red ochre and smearing this all over the handle, a pattern drawn in red, white and yellow being sometimes added to the stone by way of ornamentation. Ground axes of this kind are principally used for such purposes as cutting blocks of wood out of trees, chips out of the trunk of trees in aid of climbing, or for cutting branches open in search of animals or eggs or 'sugar-bag' [honey].'A recent Australian-funded project has drawn together all the manuscript and artefactual collections together in one place: Spencer and Gillen: A journey through Aboriginal Australia.
Alison Petch, August 2015.
Bibliography of papers and books written or co-authored by Petch relating to Spencer and Gillen:
1996. 'Anthropological Partners: Selected letters from F.J. Gillen to W. Baldwin Spencer' Journal of Museum Ethnography 5: pp. 65 84. [co-author with H. Morphy and D.J. Mulvaney]
1997. My Dear Spencer. Melbourne: Hyland House Publishing, Melbourne, Australia.[co-editor with H. Morphy and D.J. Mulvaney]
1997. 'Gillen's Scientific Correspondence: Selected letters from F.J. Gillen to W. Baldwin Spencer' Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford XXVI no. 2 1995 pp. 163 – 196 [co-author with H. Morphy and D.J. Mulvaney]
2000. From the Frontier: Outback letters to Baldwin Spencer. Allen and Unwin, NSW [co-editor with D.J. Mulvaney and H. Morphy]
2000. 'Spencer and Gillen's collaborative fieldwork in Central Australia and its legacy' Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford 31/3 (2000) pp. 309-328 [finally published in 2005]
2001. My Dear Spencer [paperback edition] Hyland House, Melbourne, Australia [joint editor with D.J. Mulvaney and H. Morphy]
2003. 'Spencer and Gillen's work in Australia - The interpretation of power and collecting in the past' Journal of Museum Ethnography, No. 15 pp. 82-93
2004. John Mulvaney. Paddy Cahill of Oenpelli. Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra. [transcription of letter for]
2006. 'Life in the Outback - Gillen's groundbreaking anthropology in Alice Springs' PRM Friends Newsletter Issue 55 March 2006
2006. 'Walter Baldwin Spencer's life as an anthropologist' PRM Friends Newsletter Issue 56 June 2006
2006. 'Paddy Cahill of Oenpelli', Friends of the PRM, Oxford Newsletter Issue 57 November 2006
2007. 'Upholding the law - Central Australian Style', Friends of the PRM, Oxford Newsletter Issue 59 July 2007
2009. 'Walter Baldwin Spencer and the Pitt Rivers Museum' Journal of Museum Ethnography 21 pp. 254-265
2013. ''The Ablest Australian Anthropologists': two early Australian anthropologists and Oxford' JASO Online 5/1 (2013) pp. 60-85.[About Fison and Howitt]
* Gillen's Diary: The Camp Jottings of F. J. Gillen on the Spencer and Gillen Expedition Across Australia, 1901-1902 Libraries Board of South Australia, 1968. Note that a new edition of Camp Jottings is due to be published in South Australia in the near future (Philip Jones will be the editor).