Have you ever wondered where to acquire a pith helmet? In preparing my presentation for Ideas Slam at the Petrie Museum I started investigating where archaeologists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries bought their supplies. While there are surviving lists of equipment and supplies and prices paid, sourcing the stores where these goods were purchased was more challenging than I expected.
A colleague pointed me to a quote from a visitor to Flinders Petrie’s excavations at Meydum, Egypt recording that Petrie’s food supplies came from the Civil Service Stores. A bit more research into an archaeological archive revealed that George and Agnes Horsfield, who excavated in Transjordan in the 1930s, got some basic equipment - including an officer’s valise with leather straps - from the Army & Navy Stores on Victoria Street, as well as a Jaeger sleeping bag from the travel agent Cook’s. George Horsfield had served in the British Army during the First World War, so he would have been familiar with the Army & Navy Stores as a place to obtain equipment.
Both the Civil Service Stores and the Army & Navy Stores were co-operative societies, operating on a subscriptions system. For their annual subscription, members of the co-operative societies had slightly reduced prices on a wide range of items. It makes sense that archaeologists took advantage of the range of supplies offered at these co-operative stores; amongst their clients were colonial administrators and soldiers – people who spent significant time abroad. Similarly, archaeologists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries could remain in the field up to five months of the year or more.
A reprint of the Army & Navy Stores 1907 Illustrated Catalogue was published in the 1960s. Alison Adburgham’s fascinating Forward gives a brief history of the Stores. She notes the value of the catalogues for social historians and the memories the catalogues evoked in ex-colonial households. A brief look through the catalogue showed me that it was a worthwhile investment - my recently acquired copy sits proudly on my bookshelf.
The pith helmet, seen here in the centre of this image of Palestine Exploration Fund explorers in Arabah (Jordan) in the 1880s, is probably one of the most iconic pieces of equipment associated with British men and women travellers – regardless of occupation or purpose – in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. In 1907, the Army & Navy Stores priced a “Lady’s Pith” in white or drab felt at 14 shillings and sixpence, while a “Gentlemen’s Drab Felt” cost 17 shillings and sixpence.
I’ve never seen a photograph of Flinders Petrie sporting a pith helmet – he favoured other styles, including the flatcap, instead – but Liverpool archaeologist John Garstang wore a pith on site. The tents of the excavation camp in this photograph of Garstang (in pith helmet) look similar to the Army & Navy Stores’ “Double-roof Ridge Tent”, advertised in the catalogue as “The best tent for Africa”. (Yours for £7 8 shillings and upwards.)
Cornelius Holtorf has discussed influences in modern archaeologists’ clothing. A quick chat with some archaeologist chums highlighted to me the value that archaeologists still put on their basic equipment – I’m not talking about fancy GPS systems and ground penetrating radar tools, but rather the trowels and tents that make up the foundation of an excavator’s life. On a related note, I recently discovered a company making pith helmets covered not in white or drab cloth but African textiles. I wonder who wears them.
As this is a (very casual) work in progress, for now I’ll let Flinders Petrie have the last word on archaeological equipment:
"To attempt serious work in pretty suits, shiny leggings, or starched collars, would be like mountaineering in evening dress…”
-Methods and Aims in Archaeology (1904)
Adburgham, A. (Ed.). 1969. Yesterday’s Shopping: The Army & Navy Stores Catalogue 1907. David & Charles (Publishers) Ltd.
Petrie, W. M. F. 1904. Methods and Aims in Archaeology. London: Macmillan & Co.
Wilson, J. A. 1964. Signs and Wonders Upon Pharaoh. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.