The consistent and continuous features, subjects and people in his life that made him so popular can be listed, as since he was a child until his death, he revealed enjoying some more than other. In a chronological and logical list, from earlier to latter, from less important to his legacy to most important, from a distant subject to Egyptology to a more close subject, from subjects he pursued in England to others he went abroad to study, from green pastures to ochre sand dunes, all of these were present in Petrie’s life and can be traced back to the travels he made, the writings he left us and the memoirs his family must share.
- Electricity and magnetism
|Left: Margaret Murray, right Hilda Petrie|
Petrie (1853-1942) was a man, “a man of great physical and intellectual energy” as Percy Newberry states, now he is almost a trademark, a copyright, when the subject is ancient Egypt. A Gemini, born on June 3rd, he was prone to travel a lot, pursue different subjects and directions in life until he found one they really cannot live without. Until he found Hilda, eighteen years younger, he never thought of marriage and at the day he died he had two children, one grandchild and was survived by them all and his wife Hilda. He wrote his autobiography in 1931, “Seventy Years in Archaeology”, dedicated to his wife Hilda, and this number is enough to say how fruitful his career was. The boy who was thought to be too frail to attend school was one of the most intrepid archaeologists of the early years of Egyptology.
The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, founded in 1892 by writer Amelia Edwards (1831-1892) at University College London was named after Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942), a professor of Egyptian Archaeology. Its collection grew immensely as a result of Petrie's numerous systematic excavations. In 1913 Petrie sold his large collection of Egyptian antiquities to University College, now housed in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. It has 80,000 objects but no space to display all the collection. It's housed on the first floor in University College London in two small rooms. The cabinets are full and there are drawers to open to see more. At the time of the 1941 bombings in London few items were lost as in the weeks preceding most of the objects were evacuated to the UCL basement and others to houses outside London. The ‘big’ move is under way and its mentor and active director is Prof. Stephen Quirke, a student of Petrie’s legacy for some time now.
He held the first chair of Egyptology in the United Kingdom, and he went to Egypt for the first time in 1880. Petrie was given the sum of £250 per month to cover the excavation’s expenses. In November 1884, Petrie arrived in Egypt to begin excavating. at many of the most important archaeological sites in Egypt, such as Saqqara, Naukratis, Tanis, Abydos and Amarna, the Sehel island, Fayum oasis and even Palestine.
He had photographic memory and was eccentric. Some Egyptologists working on his legacy, both his diaries, letters and notes or the objects he was responsible for bringing out of Egypt that are now scattered along the UK, say that he was eccentric as he valued small things and endured lack of confort in his accommodations in Egypt excavations, but also that he was arrogant and even insensible because he threw away findings he did not find useful or valuable.
|Petrie excavating in Memphis|
Petrie's most significant contribution to archaeology was in 1899 when he developed and applied a method of statistical analysis to the material from the prehistoric cemeteries at Naqada, Hu (Diospolis Parva), and Abadiya. Such methods were not applied again until the 1970s, at which time sophisticated computer programs were used, where Petrie had used slips of card. If you did not know that he was a devout Christian, educated at home, would you thought he would write something like The growth of the Gospels as shewn by structural criticism in 1910? He did.
In 1893 Miss Amelia Edwards died and her fortune founded a chair of Egyptology at UCL to which Petrie was elected in 1894. He lectured at UCL on Religion and conscience in ancient Egypt and continued his writings and publications onto arts and crafts, but never forgetting the history and tales of ancient Egypt, in summary, all aspects of that country were explored by him, with heart and mind and body too, as he ventured into the desert so many times. In 1933, on retiring from his professorship, he moved permanently to Jerusalem, where he lived with Lady Petrie until his death in 1942. Petrie donated his head to the Royal College of Surgeons of London, so that it could be studied for its high intellectual capacity. His body was interred separately in the Protestant Cemetery on Mt. Zion. However, his head was delayed in transit from Jerusalem to London.
It was thought to have been lost, but according to the comprehensive biography of Petrie by Margaret Drower, it has now been located in London.
A conversation on the way to the British Museum one afternoon, between the two, which went around travelling to Egypt and this, was a decision moment to Petrie, he underlined this in his diary, he was 43 and no woman until then fulfilled his desires to marry, until now.
This author wrote the biography of Petrie and also published Letters from the desert: the correspondence of Flinders and Hilda Petrie where many of his personal observations are recorded. They met not long before his first trip to Egypt in 1880 but they got married only in 1897. We can say this was a growing affection and that their love grew just like a cactus in the desert, not needing much. It was natural and instinctive. The high esteem in which he was held is shown by the references some other distinguished archaeologists talk about him. The most amazing fact I discovered while researching his life was that he lived in Portugal! His grandfather died in the Napoleonic invasions here in Portugal, while helping the Portuguese against the French, somewhere between 1823 and 1829, before moving to South Africa! From all the sources I researched upon to find details about Petrie’s personal life I gathered that his biggest fan of all times, both in life and in what we can read was his wife, Hilda Petrie as her life became so intertwined with that of her husband that, for example Drower's book can be seen as the definitive account of Hilda's life and work as she was his secretary/assistant/woman/delegate and so many other associations you might think of.
They met in a cultural and family environment and we could say this was a case of love between a lecturer and a secretary. And in her infancy and early teen years she was introspective and liked boys’ games and toys more than dolls, she had more boys as friends and then developed a taste for Gothic architecture, geology and she ended up studying hieroglyphics...what could this turn into? A conversation on the way to the British Museum one afternoon, between the two, which went around travelling to Egypt and this, was a decision moment to Petrie, he underlined this in his diary, he was 43 and no woman until then fulfilled his desires to marry, until now. In between romantic letters between the two while he was in Egypt, a measles outburst which cached Hilda when he returned from Egypt, he may have proposed, she said no, he made some emotional blackmail with her saying he would live in Syria for the rest of his life and would ever more return to England.
They finally resolved to get engaged and a movie could be made around these lives as they both have a colourful past, with both families active in History and they both carved their existence in their own time, and we can say that Petrie still lives in every Egyptologist, in his collection of objects at the museum and in storage and while they travel on loan, and I believe that Petrie will still live in the future as he left his mark very deep in the History of Egyptology and Archaeology in general. One of his pupils, Margaret Murray, was the precursor of mummy studies. Born in India where she spent most of her youth, Margaret Murray entered University College London in 1894 and had to approach a degree in Linguistics since Archaeology was still not very much available for women in those days. The study of Linguistics led her on to the study Egyptian hieroglyphics and Egyptology, and that is how she met Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, in the late 1890's. Petrie allowed her to join his excavations at Abydos in Egypt, as well as others in South Palestine and England. Under his guidance she was able to specialise in Egyptology and Archaeology.
She was the first female Egyptologist to be employed by the Manchester Museum at the University of Manchester and that is why, in 1908, she undertook the unwrapping of “The Two Brothers” mummies, excavated by Petrie in Egypt. This was the first interdisciplinary study of mummies, and pioneered the work Professor Rosalie David has been doing since 1972 inBiomedical Egyptology at Manchester.
As Margaret Murray said, I will end this article with a phrase of hers “So I end my book as I have begun it, with the name of Flinders Petrie, the man who made known to the world so much of the Splendour that was Egypt."