Petrie, W. M. Flinders

views updated

Petrie, W. M. Flinders


William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853–1942) was the founder of Egyptology. An only child, he was born at Charlton, near London. His parents were cultured people, and he inherited an adventurous streak from his grandfather, Matthew Flinders. Considered too delicate for normal schooling, young Petrie followed his mother’s interest in numismatics and collected coins for the British Museum. His own reading was extensive, and his education in mathematics, begun by his father, was reinforced by a university extension course, his only contact with orthodox instruction.

Long walks in southern England sharpened his eye to the difference between natural contours and traces of man’s early constructions, and his first book, Inductive Metrology (1877), presented his idea that the units of measurement used in ancient plans were indicative of date and culture. With his bent for mathematics, Petrie contemplated astronomy as a career, but lack of a degree barred him from it, and he was not pressed to earn a living.

Egypt. A casual interest in Charles Piazzi Smyth’s theory that Biblical prophecy was enshrined in the measurements of the Great Pyramid grew into a resolve to investigate its truth, and in 1880 Petrie began his survey, which exploded the very theory he had hoped to prove. This work, The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh (1883), remained the standard account until 1925, when it was partially superseded by a new survey.

The journey to Egypt had far-reaching effects, for Petrie saw the destruction of antiquities going on around him and realized that it was his life’s work to salvage all he could. During the next fifty years he published about a hundred books, mostly excavation reports. Funds were provided by friends and by the Egypt Exploration Fund (now Society), and later he founded the Egyptian Research Account and the British School of Archaeology in Egypt. After his marriage in 1897, he was ably seconded by his wife in the collection of funds. He became the first Edwards professor of Egyptology at University College, London, in 1892, a chair which he held until 1933.

Stratigraphy in excavation. In 1890, under the auspices of the Palestine Exploration Fund, Petrie made a brief but revolutionary excursion into southern Palestine. Despite Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations of mounds at Troy, none of the people working in the Palestinian field had examined a mound, though Schliemann and Wilhelm Dörpfeld had recognized that these common features of the Asian landscape represented an accumulation of occupation. Using pottery as the main guide, Petrie’s new system of recording all finds, however small, was put to the test at Tell el Hesy in a six weeks’ campaign, and the results were published in a book of that name (1891). Through erosion, layers of the mound were visible in section, and Petrie noted exactly where each potsherd was found. He saw that every layer had its characteristic pottery, and he outlined absolute dates for the main types, which soon proved to be correct.

Sequence dates. Petrie’s greatest work was accomplished in the last decade of the nineteenth century, based on his excavation of about nine hundred tombs in Egypt. His book, Diospolis Parva (1901), established the sequence of prehistoric periods before the coming of the Dynastic Race to Egypt, estimated by him at that time as occurring in the fifth millennium B.C., although the date is reduced in current literature by a thousand years. His conclusions were reached by stages: first, he prepared a numbered corpus of pottery; then he listed the contents of each grave, arranging them in order to bring pots (represented by corpus numbers) of like shape together in the series. New forms stood out in the arrangement, and each stage was necessarily linked to older and later phases. He assigned a relative date (“Sequence Date”; e.g., Sd 30–80) to each phase, representing a fixed order of a given series of burials. Then he checked the sequence against that based on pottery alone by repeating the process on other grave goods such as stone vases and ivories. Petrie’s system is still the standard way of placing prehistoric tomb groups in Egyptian history, and it can be adapted for research in every field.

With 25 years of experience behind him, Petrie wrote Methods and Aims in Archaeology (1904), the first book of its kind, and although in later years he may not always have followed his own precepts, they remain sound in principle.

Sinaitic inscriptions. In 1904–1905 Petrie went to Sinai; he discussed the physical and historic relations between Egypt and Palestine in Researches in Sinai (1906). Besides hieroglyphic records of Egyptian mining expeditions, Petrie found sculpture in foreign style, sometimes inscribed in a new script, perhaps an early attempt at alphabetic writing.

Excavations in Palestine. After World War I, Petrie decided to devote his remaining years to problems which could best be solved in Palestine. From 1926 onward, he or his staff dug at four sites south of Gaza, of which the most rewarding was Tell el Ajjül. The rich finds were described in a five-volume report, Ancient Gaza (1931–1952).

Petrie died in Jerusalem in 1942 at the age of 89. Dedicated to his self-appointed task, he created Egyptology where before there was dilettantism or mere plunder; and his genius imposed discipline upon the previous disorder. His autobiography, Seventy Years in Archaeology (1931), records his triumphs and frustrations on the way, but nothing can detract from his achievements or from his wide view of what archeology should be—the study of how man has attained his present position and powers.

Olga Tufnell

[See alsoArcheology.]


1877 Inductive Metrology: Or, the Recovery of Ancient Measures From the Monuments. London: Saunders.

(1883) 1885 The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh. Rev. ed. London: Field & Tuer; New York: Scribner.

1891 Tell el Hesy (Lachish). London: Watt.

1901 Diospolis Parva: The Cemeteries of Abadiyeh and Hu, 1898–1899. London: Egypt Exploration Fund.

1904 Methods and Aims in Archaeology. London and New York: Macmillan.

1906 Researches in Sinai. London: Murray; New York: Dutton

1931 Seventy Years in Archaeology. London: Low, Marston.

1931–1952 Ancient Gaza. 5 vols. British School of Archaeology in Egypt, Egyptian Research Account, Publications, Vols. 53–56, 64. London: The School. → Volumes 1–4: Ancient Gaza: Tell el Ajjül. Volume 5: Ancient Gaza and the City of Shepherd Kings.