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Christy, Henry (1810–1865), anthropologist, was born on 26 July 1810 at Woodbines, Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, the second son of William Miller Christy, banker and inventor of the penny receipt stamp. Trained from boyhood to follow his father into business, he became a partner in the house of Christy & Co. in Gracechurch Street, and succeeded his father as a director of the London Joint-Stock Bank. Christy's wealth, both earned and inherited, gave him the means and the leisure time to pursue his interest in science, and he did so with the same energy that he applied to commerce.

In 1850 Christy began to visit foreign countries in order to study the characteristics of their inhabitants. He took a strong interest in ethnology, and returned from his first expedition with an extensive collection of fabrics from south-west Asia, and a large series of carved native figures from Cyprus, which are now in the British Museum. The ethnological displays at the Great Exhibition of 1851 had a strong influence on Christy, focusing his interests on the cultures of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies. He travelled to Scandinavia in 1852, and again in 1853, drawn by the ethnographic museums in Stockholm and Copenhagen. The fine public collections of antiquities also on display in those cities were a revelation to him, and broadened his interests to include prehistoric, as well as contemporary hunting cultures. Christy embarked on an ambitious American tour in 1856–7, travelling through Canada, the United States, and Latin America. While in Havana, he met Edward Burnett Tylor, a fellow Quaker and fellow student of ethnology. The pair went on to Mexico together, where Christy added to the riches of his collection and Tylor gathered material that would form the basis of his book Anahuac (1861).

The 1858 discovery of chipped-stone tools in Brixham cave, near Torquay in Devon, rekindled Christy's interest in the inhabitants of prehistoric western Europe. He joined the Geological Society in 1858, establishing his credentials for an investigation connected as much with geology as with archaeology or ethnology. When, in 1860, the well-known French palaeontologist Edouard Lartet discovered stone tools of the Brixham type at Aurignac, France, Christy initiated a correspondence. The two became friends and, beginning in 1863, undertook a collaborative examination of the caves along the valley of the Vézèré, a tributary of the Dordogne, in the south of France. The caves held numerous remains, embedded in their stalagmite floors, and the combined talents of Christy and Lartet—backed by Christy's fortune—brought forth thousands of interesting specimens. Many of these were distributed to the museums and scientific societies both of England and the continent, the remainder being added to Christy's increasingly impressive personal collection. Christy's preliminary accounts of the excavations in the Vézèré valley appeared in the Comptes Rendus of 29 February 1864, and the Transactions of the Ethnological Society of London of 21 June 1864.

Christy subsequently began preparations for an exhaustive book-length treatment of the Dordogne caves. He oversaw preparation of a large number of drawings illustrating the implements and bones, and wrote descriptions to accompany some of them, together with an interpretative essay on the relationship of these old tools to those in use by contemporary societies. This great work, unfinished at the time of Christy's death, appeared in parts between 1866 and 1875, under the title Reliquiae Aquitanicae, being contributions to the archaeology and palaeontology of Perigord and the adjacent provinces of southern France. Funded by Christy's estate, its completion was undertaken, first by Lartet, and then, after his death in 1870, by the British palaeontologist T. Rupert Jones.

The work of Christy and Lartet marked a turning point in the study of European prehistory. Their excavations in the Vézèré valley unearthed an enormous variety of artefacts—not only tools, but also the first examples of early stone age art. The English archaeologist John Lubbock (later Lord Avebury) proposed in 1865 that the stone age should be divided into two eras, palaeolithic and neolithic. Christy and Lartet argued that the artefacts from the Vézèré valley represented the work of three successive, increasingly sophisticated palaeolithic cultures. They proposed, accordingly, a threefold subdivision of the palaeolithic. The Christy–Lartet system was modified and expanded by later archaeologists, but the idea of a succession of cultures formed the basis of all subsequent studies of the palaeolithic. Many of the subdivisions in the modern system (the ‘mousterian’, for example) are in fact named after sites first excavated by Christy and Lartet.

In April 1865 Christy left England with a small party of geologists to examine some recently discovered caves near Dinant, Belgium. While at work he caught a severe cold. A subsequent journey to La Palisse with M. and Mme Lartet weakened Christy further and brought on pneumonia, of which he died on 4 May 1865.

Christy was an active philanthropist throughout his life, bestowing large and regular donations. His will bequeathed his magnificent archaeological and ethnological collections to the nation, along with a sum of money to support their care and public exhibition. The trustees of the British Museum secured a suite of rooms in Victoria Street, Westminster—in which Christy himself had lived—as a temporary home for the collections. They were exhibited there until 1884, when they were moved to newly available space at the museum itself. Augustus Wollaston Franks, the museum's keeper of British and medieval antiquities, oversaw the collection at both sites. It became, under his direction, the core of a growing body of material designed to illustrate the parallels between prehistoric and contemporary hunter-gatherer cultures.

W. J. Harrison, rev. A. Bowdoin Van Riper

Sources  

W. J. Hamilton, Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, 22 (1866), xxx–xxxi · G. Bibby, The testimony of the spade (1957) · G. Daniel, 150 years of archaeology (1975) · Guide to the Christy collection of prehistoric antiquities and ethnography, BM (1868) · D. K. Van Keuren, ‘Cabinets and culture: Victorian anthropology and the museum context’, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 25 (1989), 26–39 · B. G. Trigger, A history of archaeological thought (1989) · W. Chapman, ‘Toward an institutional history of archaeology: British archaeologists and allied interests in the 1860s’, Tracing archaeology's past, ed. A. L. Christenson (1987), 151–62 · M. Bowden, Pitt Rivers (1991) · Geological Magazine, 2 (1865), 286–8

Archives  

BL, biographical notes, Add. MS 45159 · BL, journal and letters relating to Mexico, Add. MSS 45159, 58369 · Glos. RO, travel journals


Likenesses  

T. Woolner, bust, 1867, BM

Wealth at death  

under £60,000: probate, 23 June 1865, CGPLA Eng. & Wales