Jun 032014


Today is the birthday (1853) of Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, FRS, commonly known as Flinders Petrie, an English Egyptologist and a pioneer of systematic methodology in archaeology and the preservation of artifacts. He held the first chair of Egyptology in the United Kingdom, and excavated many of the most important archaeological sites in Egypt. Some consider his most famous discovery to be that of the Merneptah Stele, which was the first written document to record the existence of ancient Israel in Biblical times. Petrie also developed a system of dating layers at sites based on pottery and ceramic findings.

Flinders Petrie was born in Maryon Road, Charlton, Kent, the son of William Petrie (1821–1908) and Anne (née Flinders (1812–1892). Anne was the daughter of Captain Matthew Flinders, surveyor of the Australian coastline, spoke six languages and was an Egyptologist. William Petrie was an electrical engineer who developed carbon arc lighting and later developed chemical processes for Johnson, Matthey & Co.

Petrie had little formal education in school. His father taught him how to survey accurately, laying the foundation for his archaeological career. At the age of eight, he was tutored in French, Latin, and Greek, until he had a collapse and was taught at home thereafter. He never received any university training and so was considered by others in Egyptology as an amateur. He ventured his first archaeological opinion aged eight, when friends visiting the Petrie family were describing the unearthing of the Brading Roman Villa in the Isle of Wight. He was horrified to hear of the rough shoveling out of the contents, and protested that the earth should be pared away, inch by inch, to see all that was in it and how it lay. “All that I have done since,” he wrote when he was in his late seventies, “was there to begin with, so true it is that we can only develop what is born in the mind. I was already in archaeology by nature.”


On 26 November 1896, Petrie married Hilda Urlin (1871–1957) in London. They had two children, John (1907–1972) and Ann (1909–1989). They originally lived in Hampstead, where an English Heritage blue plaque now stands on the building they lived in, 5 Cannon Place. Their son was John Flinders Petrie, the mathematician, who gave his name to the Petrie polygon. In 1933, on retiring from his professorship, he moved permanently to Jerusalem, where he lived with Lady Petrie at the British School of Archaeology, then temporarily headquartered at the American School of Oriental Research (today the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research).

When he died in 1942, Petrie donated his head (and thus his brain) to the Royal College of Surgeons of London while his body was interred in the Protestant Cemetery on Mt. Zion. World War II was then at its height, and the head was delayed in transit. After being stored in a jar in the college basement, its label fell off and no one knew who the head belonged to. It was identified however, and is now stored, but not displayed, at the Royal College of Surgeons of London.

In his teenage years, Petrie surveyed British prehistoric monuments (commencing with the late Romano-British ‘British Camp’ that lay within yards of his family home in Charlton) in attempts to understand their geometry (at 19 producing the most accurate survey of Stonehenge). His father had corresponded with Piazzi Smyth about his theories of the Great Pyramid, and Petrie traveled to Egypt in early 1880 to make an accurate survey of Giza, making him the first to properly investigate how the pyramids were constructed (many theories had been advanced on this, and Petrie read them all, but none was based on first hand observation or logic).


Petrie’s published report of this triangulation survey, and his analysis of the architecture of Giza therein, was exemplary in its methodology and accuracy, disproved Smyth’s theories, and still provides much of the basic data regarding the pyramid plateau to this day. On that visit, he was appalled by the rate of destruction of monuments and mummies. He described Egypt as “a house on fire, so rapid was the destruction” and felt his duty to be that of a “salvage man, to get all I could, as quickly as possible and then, when I was 60, I would sit and write it all.”


There is too much to say about all of Petrie’s work in Egypt. He was a towering figure not just in Egyptology but in the development of scientific archeology in general. Two aspects of his life’s work stand out – the discovery of the Merneptah Stele and the development of contextual seriation for dating sites. I will focus here on these.

In early 1896, Petrie and his archaeological team were conducting excavations on a temple in Petrie’s area of concession at Luxor. This temple complex was located just north of the original funerary temple of Amenhotep III which had been built on a flood plain. They were initially surprised that this building which they were excavating was also attributed to Amenophis III since only his name appeared on blocks strewn over the site. Petrie dug and soon solved the puzzle: the temple had been built by Merenptah, the son and successor of Ramesses II, almost entirely from stone which had been plundered from the temple of Amenophis III nearby. Statues of the latter had been smashed and the pieces thrown into the foundations; fragments of stone jackals, which must have once formed an imposing avenue approaching the pylon, and broken drums gave some idea of the splendor of the original temple.

A statue of Merenptah himself was found—the first known portrait of this king. Two splendid stelae were found, both of them usurped on the reverse side by Merenptah, who had turned them face to the wall. One, beautifully carved, showed Amenophis III in battle with Nubians and Syrians; the other, of black granite, was over ten feet high, larger than any stele previously known: the Merenptah Stele.


The original text commemorated the building achievements of Amenophis and described the beauties and magnificence of the temple in which it had stood. When it could be turned over an inscription of Merenptah recording his triumphs over the Libyans and the Peoples of the Sea was revealed. Of key importance were these lines concerning battles in Canaan:

Seized is the Kanaan with every evil,
Led away is Askelon,
Taken is Gezer,
Yenoam is brought to nought,
The people of Israel is laid waste, — their crops are not,
Khor (Palestine) has become as a widow for Egypt,
All lands together — they are in peace.
Every one who roamed about
Is punished by King Merenptah, gifted with life,
like the sun every day.

When reading this text in the field Petrie commented, “Won’t the reverends be pleased?” At dinner that evening Petrie prophesied: “This stele will be better known in the world than anything else I have found.” It was the first mention of the word “Israel” in any Egyptian text and the news made headlines when it reached the English papers. Up until that point the only source for the history of Israel was the Bible itself. This was the first confirmation of Biblical history external to the Bible. It was a find that began the long arduous journey of comparing the Biblical accounts of Israel’s history with archeology, still in progress to this day.


Petrie’s painstaking recording and study of artifacts set new standards in archaeology, saying “I believe the true line of research lies in the noting and comparison of the smallest details.” Before Petrie archeology was pretty much of the Indiana Jones type – collect magnificent artifacts to take home and place in museums, and leaving the rest behind. Petrie showed the value of collecting EVERYTHING, even the tiniest potsherds, noting meticulously the location of every find. Indiana Jones’ style of “archeology” makes good movies, but it does little to advance our knowledge of ancient times. Sifting and sorting potsherds is a lot less romantic, but a lot more revealing in the long run.

Through the gathering of assemblages of broken bits and pieces from numerous sites Petrie developed a method of dating now known as contextual seriation. I’ll spare you the technical details. Seriation is basically a way of dating a site relative to others when no other dating method is available. Carbon 14 is a well known method of absolute dating that is very accurate. But it relies on the existence of animal or vegetable materials at the site. If you have nothing but stones and pots you have to rely on seriation. Some of Petrie’s methods are still in use today.

Apart from his fieldwork Flinders Petrie was also responsible for mentoring and training a whole generation of Egyptologists, including Howard Carter who discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb. His legacy will never fade.


Naturally there are no ancient Egyptian cookbooks. There are barely any texts at all, and they are devoted to battles and the like. But archeological sites do give evidence of the diet of the ancient Egyptians. It is not so very different from the diet of the Middle East in general which I noted on 31 May (Visitation of Mary). Meat, however, was more plentiful and more varied, although still not available daily to common people. Interestingly, excavations at the Giza workers’ village have uncovered evidence of massive slaughter of beef, mutton and pork, such that researchers estimate that the workforce building the Great Pyramid was fed beef every day. Otherwise legumes, such as fava beans and lentils were still a critical source of protein. Here’s a falafel recipe that is current but could well have its roots in ancient cooking.


Taamia Falafal

½ lb/250g fava beans, soaked and drained
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 onions, peeled and finely chopped
2 tsp cumin
1 tsp coriander
2 tsp ground black pepper
½ cup finely chopped parsley
½ tsp salt
sesame seeds
olive oil


The fava beans need to be soaked in water for 24 hours.

Remove the skins and mash them along with the garlic, onion, cumin, coriander, pepper, salt, and parsley until they are a smooth paste. Pulsing using a food processor speeds the process. Leave the paste for one hour. Shape into  flat buns and coat lightly with sesame seeds.

Fry them in olive oil in batches on medium heat until golden brown. Strain on wire racks and leave them to cool. Serve with pita bread, cucumbers, lettuce and sliced fresh onion.

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