Flinders Petrie

Anyone reading much of anything about ancient Egypt becomes familiar with the name Flinders Petrie; Barbara Mertz calls Petrie "truly the formidable figure in Egyptology" and backs that assertion up with details of Petrie's life and works like this:

When Petrie investigated this pyramid [Amenemhat III's pyramid at Hawara] in 1880 he had as much trouble as the robbers. He found the burial chamber by digging right into the pyramid, and realized that he would have to import some expert masons to chisel through the roof block. The masons came, but the tunnel through which they had to pass was dug through sand and kept caving in. Petrie, typically, regarded the possibility of being buried alive as one of those occupational hazards an archaeologist has to put up with, but he was sufficiently aware of the foibles of lesser human beings to know that the masons would have quit on the spot if they had known how dangerous the sand tunnel was. So while the experts from Cairo were employed, Petrie spent his nights in the tunnel, shoring up the worst spots and repairing what had fallen in during the previous twenty-four hours. Finally the masons finished and Petrie wriggled, head down, through the hole. The chamber was full of water; Petrie cleared the floor by pushing chips of stones and small objects onto a hoe with his feet. When the chamber was cleared, the eminent archaeologist found the original entrance by traversing the passages in reverse, from the burial chamber out. They were filled with mud, and there was just room for him to slide, stripped and lying on his back, through the traps and complications, in absolute darkness and miasmatic air, and in slime up to his ears. From this perilous and repellent trip Petrie gained nothing except the knowledge of the location of the entrance. He never dreamed of questioning that it was worth it.
     —Barbara Mertz, Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt (New York, Dodd, Mead, 1964), pp. 126-27.

Such stories caused me to locate copies of and read Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie's 1932 memoir, Seventy Years in Archaelogy, and Margaret Drower's 1985 Flinders Petrie: A Life in Archaelogy. Margaret Drower provides this summary of his accomplishments:

Flinders Petrie's output was extraordinary, his energy unflagging. He was responsible for over a hundred books, and more than a thousand articles and reviews. His research into Egypt's past, begun in 1880, continued almost without a break until a year or two before his death; he dug over fifty different sites, in the Delta and the Nile Valley, in Sinai and in the south of Palestine; he also, from time to time during his life, continued his surveys of British hill figures and stone circles which had first occupied him as a young man, before ever he went to Egypt. His restless and inventive mind was forever pondering fresh notions, and finding practical solutions to the problems he encountered, whether archaeological, mechanical or social. His scientific training, his extraordinary visual memory and his acute powers of observation led him to revolutionize excavation methods. He found archaeology in Egypt a treasure hunt; he left it a science. When he began work, the ancient temples were being ransacked for statues and inscriptions, the tombs for their furniture and jewels. Petrie was the first to emphasize the value of pottery and small objects, and the importance of recording meticulously everything found, and every trace in the ground, whether or not its significance is at the time apparent. His methods, imperfect as they were at first, influenced both Schliemann in his later work and Arthur Evans at Knossos, and though in his final years Petrie was overtaken by more modern techniques and many of his ideas were superseded, the basic principles of excavation laid down by him have been followed by archaeologists all over the world. He insisted on the importance of training students, and he was always on the lookout for possible talent. His assistants were encouraged to work on their own and take responsibility, and by observing him and following his advice they learned his methods. Those who dug with him were agreed that he had an almost uncanny "flair", when confronted with the new and unexpected, for making the right decision or finding the right answer. All to whom I have talked emphasized his ability to inspire everyone on the "dig" with his own enthusiasm, the mark of a great teacher.
     —Margaret S. Drower, Flinders Petrie: A Life in Archaelogy (London: Victor Gollancz, 1985), pp. xxi-xxii. [images below also reproduced from this biography]

Flinders Petrie at Giza in 1880, outside the rock-tomb where he lived for 2 winters
Flinders Petrie at Giza in 1880, outside the rock-tomb where he lived for 2 winters

Hilda Petrie's sister Amy Urlin and Flinders Petrie in courtyard of dig house at Abydos, 1901
Hilda Petrie's sister Amy Urlin and Flinders Petrie in courtyard of dig house at Abydos, 1901

Sir Flinders and Lady Petrie in Syria in 1934
Sir Flinders and Lady Petrie in Syria in 1934 with the bus in which they travelled and slept


For more information on Petrie, Wikipedia provides a useful page at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flinders_Petrie, and so does Tour Egypt at www.touregypt.net/featurestories/flinders.htm.

A Google search reveals that Ernest Moyer has also created a web page with images from Margaret Drower's biography: www.egyptorigins.org/petriepics.html.

Petrie's private collection of Egyptian antiquities, now at University College, London is accessible on the web at www.petrie.ucl.ac.uk/index2.html.


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Last modified on November 8, 2009 by Kay Keys (kay@kaykeys.net)