Petrie, (William Matthew) Flinders

views updated


(b. Charlton, Kent, England, 3 June 1853; d. Jerusalem, Palestine [now Israel], 28 July 1942)

Egyptology, archaeology.

Petrie’s delicate health in childhood prevented him from going to school or university. He was taught at home by his parents and developed a keen interest in antiquities and surveying. His father encouraged him in particular to make surveys of British earthworks. which led to his interest in measurement. Petrie’s first book, Inductive Metrology, appeared in 1877, and three years later he published a field survey of Stonehenge.

In 1881 Petrie’s father, inspired by the notions of Charles Piazzi Smyth regarding the pyramids, planned a trip to Egypt with his son; but in the end, Petrie went alone to survey them. He published The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh in 1883, following two years’ work. In this book Petrie disproved and abandoned Smith’s esoteric theories. In 1883 the Egypt Exploration Fund (later Society) was founded, and Petrie was appointed its first field director. He wrote to Miss Edwards, the secretary of the Fund, in 1883 that “The prospect of excavating in Egypt is a most fascinating one to me, and I hope that the results may justify my undertaking such a work.” This hope was brilliantly realized. Petrie began work at Tanis in 1884 but subsequently quarreled with the fund. In 1894 he founded the Egyptian Research Account, renamed the British School of Archaeology in Egypt in 1905. He directed this until 1926, when disillusioned by Egypt, he transferred his attention to Palestine, where he worked until his death.

For a period of ten years (1896–1906) Petrie worked again with the Egypt Exploration Society, but on the whole his career was devoted to his own excavations and publications. His annual excavations were followed by immediate publications and exhibitions in London. In 1892 he was elected professor of Egyptology at the University of London, a post he held until 1933. He was also elected a fellow of both the Royal Society (1902) and the British Academy (1912) and was knighted in 1923. Petrie was essentially an individualist and a free-lance worker; he was an authoritarian who brooked no opposition or criticism, and, as Woolley has staled, he had “a dogmatic assurance of his own rightness.” During his lifetime, he trained at least two generations of Egyptologists and Near Eastern archaeologists.

Among the most remarkable of his finds were the early royal tombs at Abydos; the Tell el-Amarna correspondence and the numerous relics at Tell e-Amarna itself; the discoveries of Mycenaean and Pre-Mycenaean pottery at Ghurob and Kahun; and the discovery of the predynastic cultures of Egypt, particularly those of Nakada and Ballas (which he examined in 1894–1895) and at diospolis Parva (in 1898–1899). Nakada was revealed to be a prehistoric cemetery of more than 2,000 graves, and gave its name to the Nakada period. The British Museum declined Petrie’s offer of the type series from this cemetery on the ground that they had been advised it was “unhistoric rather than prehistoric.” In his memoir Diospolis Parva (1901) Petrie systematically arranged the predynastic Egyptian material for the first time and invented the technique of sequence-dating, which he further described in Methods and Aims in Archaeology (1904).

When he began working in Egypt, Petrie was sharply critical of the methods of his predecessors, and wrote that “The true line lies as much in the careful noting and comparison of small details as in more wholesale and off-hand clearance.” The advances and developments in techniques and methods that he made, as well as his actual discoveries of dynastic and predynastic Egypt, made the last quarter of the nineteenth century the “heroic age” of Egyptian archaeology. In 1892 he published Ten Years’ Diggings, a remarkable record of his work. He continued to dig in Egypt for more than thirty years, and then in Palestine for nearly twenty years. His fieldwork, diggings, and devotion to archaeology were later chronicled in his autobiography, Seventy Years in Archaeology (London, 1931).

In 1889, at Ghurob, Petrie found Mycenaean pottery among the remains of the late eighteenth dynasty; he also found what he called Proto-Greek or Aegean pottery. The following year, at Kahun, he found painted Aegean or Proto-Greek pottery mixed with that of the twelfth dynasty. No pottery of this Proto-Greek style had hitherto been found in the Aegean. Petrie, however, was not content to regard the Kahun pottery as “foreign” ware; he unhesitatingly cataloged it as Aegean, a splendid example of skilled guesswork. In 1891 he visited Mycenae to verify the dating of the Ghurob and Kahun sites. He recognized examples of Egyptian influence and actual imports of Egyptian objects in Mycenae that dated to the eighteenth dynasty period. He thus established two synchronisms; one between the Aegean or Proto-Greek ware and the twelfth dynasty of Egypt, and the twelfth dynasty of Egypt, and the second between Mycenae and the eighteenth dynasty. On this basis Petrie declared that an Aegean civilization had begun about 2500 B.C. and that the dates of the late Mycenaean civilization were between 1500 and 1000 B.C. He dated the Mycenaean “treasuries” between 1400 and 1200 B.C., the Vaphio cups at about 1200 B.C., and the shaft graves at 1150 B.C. It was a remarkably fine use of cross-dating and one of the first demonstrations of this method of extending historical chronology to primitive regions

Ernest Gardner, then director of the British School of Archaeology in Athens, writing of Petrie’s chronological structuring, said that he had “done more in a week than th germans had done in ten years to clear up the matter from an Egyptian basis.” Petrie himself, writing in 1931 and looking back to his early conclusions on Greek chronology, said “there seems little to alter in the outline reached then, though forty years have since passed.”

Petrie’s contributions to the development of archaeology included not only his substantive work in Egypt and Palestine, but also his revolutionary techniques, which are of paramount importance to the study of antiquity.


Petrie’s major works are cited above. See also Margaret Murray, My First Hundred Years (London, 1966); Sidney Smith, obituary notice in Proceedings of th British Acadmy, 28 (1942), 307-324; Leonard wooley, in Dictionary of National Bigraphy 1941–1950 (London, 1959), 666–667; J.D. Wortham, The Genesis of British Egyptology 1549–1906; (Norman, Okla., 1971), 115–126; and w. R. Dawson and E.P. Uphill, who was who in Egyptology (London, 1972), 228–230, which has a complete bibliography.

Glyn Daniel