Born Augustus Henry Lane Fox at Bramham, Yorkshire on 14th April 1827, he was the son of William Lane Fox and Lady Caroline Douglas, a Scottish noblewoman. Educated at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and commissioned into the Grenadier Guards, Lane Fox had a long and successful military career, primarily as a staff officer. He retired in 1882 as a Lieutenant-General. Two years before retirement, Lane Fox inherited the estates of a cousin: Henry Pitt, Baron Rivers. He thereafter adopted the surname Pitt Rivers (sometimes spelled Pitt-Rivers) in honor of his benefactor.
Pitt Rivers' interests in archaeology and ethnology began in the 1850s, during postings overseas, and he became a noted scientist while he was still a serving military officer. He was elected, in the space of five years, to the Ethnological Society of London (1861), the Society of Antiquaries of London (1864) and the Anthropological Society of London (1865). By the time he retired he had amassed ethnographic collections numbering tens of thousands of items from all over the world. Influenced by the evolutionary writings of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer, he arranged them typologically and (within types) chronologically. This style of arrangement, designed to highlight the evolutionary trends in human artifacts, was a revolutionary innovation in museum design. Pitt Rivers' ethnological collections today form the basis of the Pitt Rivers Museum which is still one of Oxford's leading attractions.
The estates that Pitt Rivers inherited in 1880 contained a wealth of archaeological material from the Roman and Saxon periods. He excavated these over seventeen seasons, beginning in the mid-1880s and ending with his death. His approach was highly methodical by the standards of the time, and he is widely regarded as the first scientific archaeologist to work in Britain. His most important methodological innovation was his insistence that all artifacts, not just beautiful or unique ones, be collected and cataloged. This focus on everyday objects as the key to understanding the past broke decisively with past archaeological practice, which had often verged on treasure hunting. It is Pitt Rivers most important, and most lasting scientific legacy.
From 1882 Pitt Rivers served as Britain's first Inspector of Ancient Monuments: a post created by anthropologist and parliamentarian John Lubbock. Charged with cataloging archaeological sites and protecting them from destruction, he worked with his customary methodical zeal but was hampered by the limitations of the law, which gave him little real power over the landowners on whose property the sites stood.