Recently, a visitor to Special Collections asked to see a selection of manuscript letters written by Sir Flinders Petrie. I was immediately intrigued and taken back to the time when, many moons ago now (!) I was a young archaeology student and Petrie was one of my great heroes. Hoping to follow in his footsteps by making a fantastic discovery in the sands of time helped to motivate me during many long days of back-breaking labour under a burning Mediterranean sun. Well, we all have our youthful dreams!
It was a real pleasure to come across him again and be reminded of his remarkable career and achievements in the fields of Egyptian and Palestinian archaeology, and discover how this is documented in a small way through some remarkable correspondence now in Special Collections (MR 54/1, 2, 3a , 5 and 15a). This consists of letters from Petrie, under the auspices of the British School of Archaeology in Egypt, to the Hunterian Museum, listing antiquities which he has allotted to the University of Glasgow’s collections at the Hunterian Museum.
Sir (William Matthew) Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) was born near Greenwich on 3rd June 1853, the only child of William Petrie and his wife Anne, daughter of Captain Matthew Flinders, renowned explorer of Australia. Petrie first visited Egypt in 1880, at the age of 26, on behalf of his father who, as an engineer and surveyor, had a keen interest in ancient mathematics and symbolism and wished to test the accuracy (or otherwise) of measurements of the Great Pyramid recently published by the distinguished astronomer and pyramid theorist, Charles Piazzi Smyth. The younger Petrie’s painstaking work revealed that these measurements were somewhat wide of the mark, thus quashing some of the more fanciful ideas of Smyth and other contemporary Pyramidologists. Although this was a fairly modest start to his Egyptian activities, from then on there was no stopping him! Bitten by the bug of archaeological detective-work, Petrie was for the next five decades at the forefront of Egyptian archaeology, for a time working on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Fund, then freelance, and then finally for the British School of Archaeology in Egypt, a society which he formed in 1906 and which provided the financial backing for the rest of his career. One of his key achievements was to pioneer a systematic methodology which emphasized the need for the careful recording of provenance and the preservation of artefacts. He also developed a system of chronology based on styles of pottery, thus earning himself the enduring nickname “Father of Pots”.
Over the course of his long career in the field he excavated most of the important archaeological sites in Egypt, including Hawara, Meydum, Abydos and Tell-el-Amarna, the site of the short-lived capital city of the religious revolutionary Pharaoh Akhenaten, and probably the birthplace of Tutankhamun.
In 1892, under the terms of a bequest by his long-term supporter and mentor, Amelia Edwards, the novelist, traveller, journalist and co-founder of the Egypt Exploration Fund (now the Egypt Exploration Society), Petrie was appointed to the Chair of Edwards Professor of Egyptian Archaeology and Philology at University College London, the first professorship in Egyptology in the United Kingdom . Nevertheless he continued to excavate in Egypt and, from 1926 onwards, in Palestine, in the process training the next generation of archaeologists, including Howard Carter, discoverer of the tomb of Tutankhamun. His personal collection of Egyptian antiquities was eventually sold to University College London, forming the basis of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology.
Following his death in 1942, his body was buried on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, where he had been living for a number of years.
Petrie was undoubtedly one of the remarkable characters of his generation: although the theory and practice of archaeology has undergone enormous changes since his day, nevertheless it has rightly been said of him that “he found Egyptology a treasure-hunt, and left it a science”. (Drower, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article on Sir W.M. Flinders Petrie).
As well as Petrie’s letters, there are other items in Special Collections with an Egypt connection: in particular, other correspondence, mostly from the British School of Archaeology in Egypt, but also from other field-workers, listing objects presented to the Hunterian Museum or to Glasgow Egypt Society (MR 54), Oxyrhyncus papyri, and early photographs of Egypt in both the Dougan and Waddell collections. All of these are available for consultation in the department.
The Hunterian Museum holds around 2,300 ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern objects, including many items from Petrie’s excavations, although only a few ancient Egyptian objects are part of the permanent display.
The Archive of the Glasgow Egypt Society is held by the University’s Archive Services
Drower, Margaret S., Flinders Petrie: A Life in Archaeology (Madison, Wisc., University of Wisconsin Press, c.1995) Archaeology WB5.P3 DRO
Drower, Margaret S., Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Article on Flinders Petrie [Page accessed 09/05/2013]