New light on old tools

To mark the end of South Asian Heritage Month, Bryan Sitch, our Deputy Head of Collections, provides an update on some research that he started 3 years ago, attempting to find out more about some of the South Asian material in the archaeology collection.

Now I don’t make any claims to be an expert in this area but if there is one thing I’ve learnt about writing blogs it’s that you should never underestimate the potential reach nor the likelihood that someone will respond. Sometimes the writer puts something ‘out there’ and sooner or later someone will get back with the necessary information. This is what happened very recently when I received a response to a blog post I wrote just over three years ago when I was researching stone artefacts from India in the archaeology collection for Manchester Museum’s South Asia Gallery, part of the hello future redevelopment, opening in 2022.

vindhya-hills lithics
Carlyle Collection microliths from Morhana Pahar in the Vindhya Hills, in northern central India

To recap, Manchester Museum has a large collection of prehistoric stone tools and artefacts from the British Isles and other parts of the world. Some were collected and acquired from countries that had been incorporated in the British Empire. The imperial and colonial context of the collection is no secret; the heyday of the Museum’s collecting activity stretched from the mid to late 19th century to the early 20th century. As a Victorian and Edwardian encyclopaedic museum with collections covering almost every possible discipline from archery and archaeology through to zoology, the objects reflect the times in which they were acquired. The Museum endeavours to be open and transparent about the origins of the collection in order to inform its wide and diverse audiences – some of them diaspora communities from the very countries where the objects were collected during imperialism. In some cases, the Museum has repatriated human remains and sensitive cultural material to indigenous communities. The Black Lives Matter campaign has encouraged museums and galleries to review and renew their efforts in this area. Decolonising collections has become very topical.

Of course, any work of any kind in the museum, especially that connected with decolonisation, depends on having good documentation for the objects in the collections. Sadly, sometimes this simply isn’t available or is somewhat opaque at best. I often think that we may know more about people who lived thousands of years ago than someone who gave an object to the collection within the last hundred years. Accession registers are very helpful in this respect but they can only take the curator so far because the entries are a brief summary of an acquisition that may contain dozens or hundreds of objects. If the donor was relatively well-off, he or she may have acquired other collectors’ objects and collections in the course of a whole lifetime’s activity. It’s quite well-documented nowadays for the pursuit of objects for a collection to develop into a mania or a psychological condition. Curators may talk about someone having a ‘collecting fetish‘. The desire to have the objects may have been more important psychologically than necessarily what the objects were or where they came from or how old they were. Having acquired the objects, the new owner puts them away and moves on to the next acquisition. In such cases, the only available information about the objects may be the labels. And these may be the ones stuck on by the previous collector.

1 Stone dabbers in MM collection
Image of stone ‘dabbers’ in Manchester Museum collection

All this is by way of a lengthy introduction to the recent discovery in connection with a group of stone objects from India that I researched for the new South Asia Gallery. Several years ago, former colleague and Curator of Living Cultures, Stephen Welsh, asked curators across the disciplines to review what objects and specimens they held from India and Pakistan. In the archaeology collection, objects from the Indus civilisation sprang to mind. It quickly became evident that the interest that many collectors had shown in stone artefacts from different periods and from different parts of the world extended to South Asia. There were objects from the fieldwork of Archibald Campbell Carlyle (1831-1897) who was First Assistant to the Archaeological Survey of India from 1871 until his retirement in 1885. He carried out pioneering and important fieldwork in India during the 19th century. This collection was dispersed among a number of different museums and institutions when Carlyle (sometimes spelt Carlleyle) returned to the UK.

British Museum occasional paper about the Carlyle Collection

The Archaeological Survey was part of the British imperial and colonial project in India, to survey, record, and catalogue the antiquities of the country in order to understand, administer and control them more effectively. As Dilip Chakrabarti puts it: Cunningham ‘…was trying to justify the systematic archaeological exploration of India on the grounds that politically it would help the British to rule India.’ (see Prof. Chakrabarti’s ‘The development of archaeology in the Indian subcontinent’, in World Archaeology 13.3, Feb.1982).

3 label on object
Label on one of stone objects from India

One of the more puzzling groups of objects from South Asia that I looked at in my research was part of the Darbishire collection. They originally came from a Colonel Mayne and they were found in Hamirpur in the Banda region or district, in northern India. The labels on these objects read: ‘E(x) Coll(ection) of the late Colonel Mayne R (E?)’. They can be seen on a stone pestle or pounder and other objects, including ‘dabbers’ for making pottery. Prof. Dilip Chakrabarti at the University of Cambridge kindly identified them as tools, used rather like anvils, against which soft clay was pressed in order to shape it (an alternative technique to throwing pottery on a wheel or making a vessel out of coils or sausages of clay). We don’t know how old the artefacts are but I suspect this sort of stone tool could have been in use from prehistoric times practically up to the modern period.

4 using a dabber
Using a ‘dabber’ to mould the wall of a clay pot

I searched long and hard to find out who Colonel Mayne was. His collection, as so often happens, had been dispersed after his death and acquired by other collectors, including Robert Dukinfield Darbishire (1826-1908) who bequeathed these and all the other lithic objects he owned to Manchester Museum. This collection was so large that the annual report for Manchester Museum of the time says that it took three lorry loads to bring it back to Manchester.

5 Darbishire from WAG
Image of Darbishire from the Whitworth Art Gallery

Robert Dukinfield Darbishire (1826-1908) was a solicitor and one of three administrators of the estate of Sir Joseph Whitworth. Darbishire took a particular interest in the Whitworth Park and Institute (the Whitworth Art Gallery) but clearly had wide-ranging interests; not only was he a keen conchologist (shell collector) but he was also something on an archaeological pioneer, excavating the famous waterlogged prehistoric site at Ehenside Tarn in Cumbria in 1871. Darbishire was also a “founding father” of the Manchester Museum. In 1868 he was involved in the transfer of the collections of the Manchester Natural History Society Museum to Owens College (the forerunner of the University of Manchester), and played a similar role in the acquisition of the collection of the Manchester Geological Society. Darbishire’s large collection of prehistoric stone and flint artefacts, including the objects from Colonel Mayne, was transferred to the Museum in 1907-8.

Three years ago, I was unable to discover who Colonel Mayne was, because a number of Maynes had military careers in India during the 19th century and there were simply too many candidates. I am delighted to report that the internet has now worked its peculiar magic and produced a definitive answer to this question. Thanks to a most helpful email I received recently from Nicholas Otway Mayne we can be sure that the stone artefacts were originally collected by Colonel William Mayne (1818-1855).

‘Remnants of an Army’ by Elizabeth Butler portraying William Brydon arriving at the gates of Jalalabad as the only survivor of a 16,500 strong evacuation from Kabul in January 1842. Note white horse on far left of image.

William Mayne joined the garrison of Jalalabad during the First Afghan War. He was a fine horseman and led the Bengal Cavalry. He distinguished himself during the Siege of Jellalabad (sic); the Pathans called him ‘Death on the Pale Horse’ and in the famous painting by Lady Butler, ‘The Remnants of an Army’, it is said that the man coming out on a white horse to meet Dr Brydon, sole survivor of the British army in Afghanistan, was William Mayne. Having had a full and accomplished military career, Mayne, sadly, died of dysentery in Egypt in 1855 on the way back to Britain. A copy of William Mayne’s colour portrait is in the keeping of the family.

6 portrait of Mayne
Portrait of Colonel William Mayne

Nicholas Otway Mayne has confirmed that the stone artefacts came from Col. William Mayne, pointing out that William Mayne travelled widely in India and that Hamirpur, the place name written on the some of the labels, is not far from Mayne’s first son’s grave in Cawnpore (now Kanpur). Colonel Mayne’s brother was Robert Graham Mayne and it was almost certain to have been him who sold the artefacts, on behalf of his sister-in-law, on the untimely death of William. So, the name on the labels of the objects is ‘Colonel Mayne, R.G.’, the ‘R.G’ standing for Robert Graham. The mistake I made was to misread the letters as ‘R.E.’, and to assume that Colonel Mayne was in the Royal Engineers. In fact, William was in the Honorable East India Company.

Label on one of the stone tools from India

William’s cousin, Henry Otway Mayne (1819-1861) formed ‘Mayne’s Horse’ regiment, which is now the Central India Horse which celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2007. One of Henry’s brothers in Allahabad was Francis Otway Mayne (1829-1857) who was the Commissioner there and played an important role in the area. Indeed, the Thornhill-Mayne memorial library in Allahabad commemorates the two brothers, both of whom are buried at Allahabad, and there is also a memorial to Henry in Westminster Abbey. Nicholas Otway Mayne comments that his family is lucky to have such an interesting ‘tree’ and to have so much information. Manchester Museum is fortunate indeed to hold some of the objects from his ancestor William Mayne’s collection and, with his permission, to be able to share this fascinating information.

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