“Father of Pots” – Sir Flinders Petrie’s Letters from Egypt

Dougan 105 Item 45

Dougan 105 Item 45 . Early photograph of obelisk at Temple of Luxor in Egypt

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.


Letter on card offering various objects to the Hunterian Museum

MR 54/l
Letter on card offering various objects to 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”.

Mr 54/2 Letter confirming a large stele has been allotted to the museum along with other objects

Letter confirming that a large XIth Dynasty stele has been allotted to the museum, along with other objects

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.








MR 54/3a

MR 54/3a
The British School of Archaeology in Egypt has selected the “largest and most varied group of artefacts” for the Hunterian Museum



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.




MR 54/5 Lost in the post! Confusion over cases of antiquities being sent to the University instead of Kelvingrove

MR 54/5
Lost in the post! Confusion over cases of antiquities being sent to the University instead of Kelvingrove


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

Signature of Sir Flinders Petrie

Signature of Sir Flinders Petrie


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]

Categories: Library, Reflections, Special Collections

Tags: , , , , , , ,

3 replies

  1. Fiona,
    Thanks for an interesting article! I used to teach Ancient Egyptian history at the University of Glasgow, and I’m also a long-time fan and scholar of Flinders Petrie, so I was excited to read this. I studied the issue that took Petrie to Egypt in the first place, in depth. You touch on the issue here, which was his 1882/1883 survey carried out in order to understand the geometric designs of the pyramid architecture at Giza. I recently wrote an article related to this issue and relating to an artefact in the NMS. The article is published here:
    I also wrote a book on this subject back in 2008 – there is a copy in the Glasgow University library:
    There is one point in your article which I think needs clarification, when you refer to this early survey work as ‘humble beginnings’.
    That is not the case. Petrie’s 1883 survey, which was republished in an updated form in 1885, and again in 1990, was a truly outstanding piece of scientific publication by any measure. The survey was so accurate that the data are still used regularly by architectural historians, archaeologists and Egyptologists working with the latest technologies. The precision analysis and analytical discussion ran to nearly 250 pages, and it was this formidable work that first brought Petrie to the attention of his long-time mentor and financial backer, Amelia Edwards, who was involved with the EEF at the time.
    An online version was compiled by Graham Oaten and Ronald Birdsall:
    This work was as good, or better, than anything Petrie accomplished during his long and productive life, and he still talked about the conclusions drawn by the survey many decades later. Unfortunately, the conclusions of the survey were not properly understood or acknowledged by most mainstream Egyptologists of his era. This situation left Petrie somewhat exasperated, and unfortunately the situation remains to some extent.
    My own work has focused on verifying Petrie’s conclusions, and elucidating those conclusions, based on the latest information available such as papyri that have been found since he passed away. All of my work indicates that his conclusions regarding the symbolic proportions he uncovered at Giza were quite correct, and they certainly should be fully acknowledged and addressed by mainstream Egyptology departments, particularly, I would suggest, those in England where he was based.
    This may seem like a somewhat obscure subject matter, but that is not the case.
    The issue relates to the formative years of the fundamental principles of mathematics including three-dimensional geometry, and architectural principles of design and construction, that are still used by us today, in only lightly modified forms. This is an important issue in the development of complex human culture.
    By the way, I suspect the members of Egyptology Scotland including my old friend and colleague Claire Gilmour, who teaches at the Center for Open Studies of the University of Glasgow, would be very interested in evaluating the collection of correspondence.
    Best Regards,
    David Ian Lightbody PhD.
    Joint Editor in Chief, the Journal of Ancient Egyptian Architecture.

    • David,
      Thank you for taking the time to provide this helpful and detailed comment and for elucidating a few points about Petrie’s career and achievements. I will contact Egyptology Scotland with information about the correspondence. Best wishes, Fiona

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