Study of Specimens

In our time there has come to the front a special study of human life through such object-lessons as are furnished by the specimens in museums. These things used to be little more than curiosities belonging to the life of barbarous tribes, itself beginning to be recognised as curious and never suspected of being instructive. Nowadays, it is better understood that they are material for the student “looking before and after.” In the collections which enshrine them for perpetual knowledge, they fulfil in two different ways their illustration of the course of culture. In the way which is, and probably always must be, the more usual, all the objects which go to furnish the life of a people are grouped together, each group finding its proper level.

Thus in the Ethnographic Galleries of the British Museum, the general condition or “altogether” (to use the useful old-fashioned term) of Australians, Polynesians, Negroes, Tartars, presents more or less definite groups of objects in which art and habit have fixed themselves at a consistent level. Where the rooting-stick appears among the Bushmen as a savage implement, we find in Africa an iron hoe . The South Sea Islander can sketch a rough map, and ingeniously ties together a little framework of sticks to serve as sailing directions on his voyages across the ocean; this bears no discreditable comparison to the compass and measured chart of civilized navigation.

A Bosjesman Family [Click on image for higher resolution]

A Bosjesman Family

The group-pictures, which show not only the bodies but the conditions of a rude race, illustrate this stratification of culture in a suggestive if rough educational way. Here in the frontispiece of the first volume the Bushmenleans against a rock, which also conveniently supports his knobkerry; in his hand is the pipe of antelope-horn for smoking hemp; one child is splitting a bone for marrow with a stone implement (which, however, does not belong to modern times), while another child carries a bull-roarer, as the Berlin street-boys did lately till the police stopped the whirling of this mystic toy; the wife carries ostrich-eggs in a net, and round her neck are teeth strung as charms, while her glass beads, made probably at Murano, show the beginnings of contact with the civilized world; the small bow with its quiver of poisoned arrows, and the water-skin which makes life possible in the thirsty desert, fills up the foreground of the picture.

Among such rude tribes the simplicity of life is such that from a group like this, or the picture of a farm among the lgorotes of the Philippines Islands , which shows these rude negritos engaged in their various occupations, something like a real representation of their life as a whole is possible. More advanced states of civilization become too complex for this to be any longer possible. Among barbaric and much more among civilized peoples, a mere trophy of ordinary weapons and utensils is enough to fill the picture, and life has to be divided into many departments to give even an idea of what useful and artistic objects belong to each.

Weapons and Utensils from Melanesia and Micronesia
(Original print by the Bibliographisches Institut. Leipzig)
[Click on image for higher resolution]

Exhibit of Weapons and Utensils from Melanesia and Micronesia

In ethnographic collections, where the productions of a tribe or nation are grouped locally or nationally together, the student of culture has before him the record of similar human nature and circumstance working so uniformly as to present in each class of objects evident formative principles, developed in various degrees. He finds, or hopes by further research to find, in every such class courses of gradual invention resembling growth. Thus among the implements of different regions, the withe-bound stone hatchet of the Australian takes an early place in the series among whose later members are the bronze hatchet of Egypt and the steel axe of modern Europe. So among means of literary record, the picture-writing of the American Indian presents a lower form than the mingled pictures and phonetic symbols of ancient Egypt, which again lead on to alphabetic writing.

At Oxford, the Pitt-Rivers Collection in the University Museum is devoted to the material evidence of the laws of development of art, custom, and belief, to investigate which by means of specimens brought together from all accessible regions and ages, and arranged in series according to their form and purpose, has been one of the lifelong labours of the founder. The working of such a method may in some degree be shown from the illustrations of the present work.

The Damara bow, though no longer carried as a weapon, retains the purpose of a musical instrument which is gripped by the teeth and the tense bowstring struck with a stick; other tribes improve this primitive stringed instrument by fastening to the wood a hollow gourd or similar resonator to increase the sound, and from some such stage, by making the bow and resonator in one piece and stretching a series of strings across the bow, there arises the African harp, a typical form representing the primitive harp and lute forms of the world . Not indeed that such progressive improvement is the sole rule, for degeneration is active also, as when low culture leads to inferior adaptation of a known type. It has been thought that the rude wooden crossbow of the Fans of the Gaboon represents an early rude stage in the development of the weapon, but it is on the contrary a feeble copy of the arbalest carried by the Portuguese of the sixteenth century, and thus interesting as an example of degeneration.


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