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In Oxford, the Real Loot

By Nina Killham
The Washington Post
Sunday, March 1, 1998; Page E04

The very PC might begin to hyperventilate when they walk into the University of Oxford's Pitt Rivers Museum. Tucked behind the University Museum, this Victorian-age, three-tiered vault is stashed with hundreds of thousands of objects scooped up from all over the world. Looted, some might say. There's Eskimo clothing made from caribou skin and seal intestines. A 19th-century necklace of sperm whale teeth. Even a mummified young woman from 700 B.C. clinging feebly to her desiccated wraps and dignity. If you're in London, it's worth making the 1112-hour drive northwest to Oxford to explore the museum: This is armchair adventure at its best.

Gen. Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers, who began the collection in 1851, searched for "things made by people by hand," grouping items by technique. He believed that you can observe a predictable course of gradual improvements in the evolution of any man-made object. He also evidently believed that showing off three or four or 100 of something was better than one. One case contains more than 50 snuff-taking appliances.

If you have only one go, take the audio tour, narrated by Sir David Attenborough (it runs 40 minutes and costs about $1.60) -- otherwise you'll stand in the entrance, blinking like a deer caught in headlights. Cases upon cases are filled with everything from nose flutes to combs to guns to saddles (horse and camel) to teapots (modern, early Christian and Greco-Roman Egyptian) to bagpipes (Czech, French, Greek, Syrian and Transyl-vanian). Below each case are drawers filled with even more loot. Spec-imens are even screwed to the ceiling: canoes and kayaks, a dog sled, a three-story-high North American totem pole. The museum is also a center for research so you'll probably trip over a few anthropology students from Oxford, sketchbooks in hand, thinking deep thoughts.

An entire case is devoted to methods of creating fire (friction, sawing, bark fuse, drills ...). Across the room, in "Charms and Fetishes," awaits the black shiny mass of a long-expired toad, its heart exposed and stuck with thorns. Upstairs in the Captain Cook collection (booty brought back from the Pacific in 1772-75) rests a chief's mourning costume made of bark cloth with pearl shells the size of dinner plates.

But the most popular case has to be "Treatment of Dead Enemies: Head Hunters' Trophies." Peer in and go eye socket to eye socket with a smoked head, its expression much like what it must have been when the whole ordeal started. Next to it sit the shrunken heads. The head hunters would remove their foe's skull, shrink the skin with hot stones and sand to preserve the features and hair, and then keep the horror around in order to possess and control the dead man's spirit. Modern city living looks pretty tame in comparison.

The University of Oxford's Pitt Rivers Museum (South Parks Road, Oxford, telephone 011-44-1865-270927) is open Mondays through Saturdays, 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Free admission.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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