by Tom Marshall
Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie was a Victorian explorer who measured the Pyramids at Giza, laid the foundations for Egyptology – the study of ancient Egypt – and was the first biblical archaeologist in Palestine.
His insatiable curiosity led him to unearth how ancient civilization lived, worked and functioned. He discovered the world’s oldest portraits and evidence – through inscriptions – of written communication between Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Semitic alphabet. Another find was Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus, the oldest known medical text. He once stumbled across a stone slab with what is believed to be the earliest Egyptian reference to Israel.
His sense of precision was top drawer. Aged 19 he measured Stonehenge with 100 per cent accuracy and was said to know the exact distance between his eye and the tip of his finger.
In the field he was remembered as an eccentric and would dig in the nude, but dress suitably for formal luncheon in his tent. In order to maximise efficiency – on location – he often drew his findings with both hands at the same time, wielding a pencil in each. A forward thinker, he established archaeology as a science by painstakingly documenting his findings. He built a camera from scratch, a contraption that would become famous as the “biscuit-tin camera” and probably took the earliest extant group of pinhole photographs.
At home in Hampstead he would discuss and develop his beliefs in eugenics with his good friend and neighbour, the statistician Karl Pearson (1857–1936). His mission was to preserve and understand artefacts rather than simply pilfer, purloin and profit and once wrote that, “spoiling the past has an acute moral wrong in it”.
Sir William (1853–1942), was born at Ecclesbourne Cottage, Maryon Road, Charlton, near Greenwich, on June 3, 1853. He was the grandson of Matthew Flinders, a distinguished navigator and cartographer, who was the first to circumnavigate Australia and identify it as a continent. Flinders’s father was a surveyor with strong Christian beliefs. He recorded his son’s birth in his journal, “5.45 – 5.55pm Child Born” accompanied by an image of the sun – coloured in brightly. His mother was a published scholar and wrote about the relationship between mythology and scripture, using the pseudonym Philomathes (from the Greek meaning “lovers of knowledge”). She spoke six languages and owing to her son’s weak constitution tutored him at home. The family would often take walking holidays, around the country, and visit ancient monuments, collect fossils or measure sites.
Flinders was encouraged to collect minerals and coins and spent hours at the London galleries or British Museum. He taught himself how to read hieroglyphics and bought and sold – to the museums – antiques and coins he’d picked up in the country.
His father taught him surveying and in his early 20s he would travel around the south of England with measuring tape and theodolite, planning earthworks and ancient monuments. With his father’s help he measured Stonehenge, setting a new standard of accuracy for that much surveyed antiquity. The result of these expeditions was a portfolio of plans which he deposited in the British Museum, and a book, Inductive Metrology (1877), in which he sought to determine the ancient linear standards of antiquity.
But all things Egypt fascinated Flinders. Ever since Napoleon’s unsuccessful invasion of Egypt a mania had swept across Europe. Victorian Britain was enthralled with the ancient civilization. Cities around the country imported obelisks, galleries exhibited all manner of items and a hungry public applauded the culture – on stage – as depicted by Verdi’s Aida. Even Lord Byron was caught up by the trend. A painted image exists of the great poet, dressed in oriental garb.
In 1880 Flinders realised a dream and travelled to Egypt for the first time. He set sail from Liverpool – bound for Alexandria – and recalled: “I slept on the gratings behind the engine shields as I was too ill to go below. I could not even touch a drop of water for nearly two days.”
His aim to measure the pyramids at Giza was a triumph. His meticulous approach disproved longstanding theories as to how the landmarks were originally built. He found humble lodgings – for rent – in an old rock tomb and kept his provisions in the cavities carved into the walls. “No place is so equable in heat and cold as a room cut out of solid rock. It seems as good as a fire in cold weather and deliciously cool in the heat.” In the desert he would often strip down to his undergarments – which happened to be an all-in-one suit (“onesie”) made of pink fabric. On other occasions, “It was often most convenient to strip entirely for work owing to the heat and current air.” Back in England his survey, The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh (1883) was a tremendous success.
On site, whilst digging, Flinders’ philosophy was to work through the layers, noting his findings at each level and literally building up a picture of human existence. His keen eye for detail picked up on fragments as well as the obvious and eye-pleasing remnants. The latter were of financial value, but it was in the former that he was able to create an image of life in ancient times. He despised the treasure-hunters and tomb-raiders, “A year’s work in Egypt made me feel it was like a house on fire. So rapid was the destruction going on. My duty was that of a salvage man to get all I could quickly gathered in.”
In 1883 Flinders excavated Tanis – the northern capital of Egypt. He wrote, “the low mounds of the cities of the dead remain to show that this was once a living land whose people prospered.” While digging, he was known for extreme frugality. “His clothes confirmed his universal reputation for being not merely careless but deliberately slovenly and dirty”. “He was thoroughly unkempt, clad in ragged, dirty shirt and trousers, worn out sandals and no socks…. He served a table so excruciatingly bad that only persons of iron constitution could survive it.”
Between 1892 and 1933 Petrie served as the first Edwards Professor of Egyptology at University College, London. His name lives on in the college’s Petrie Museum which houses a choice gathering of some of his finds.
A London County Council plaque at 5 Cannon Place, NW3, celebrates Flinders’s time in Hampstead. He moved to the address from nearby 8 Well Road in 1919, and remained until 1935, when he and his wife Hilda (1871–1957) moved to Jerusalem. He once suggested demolishing all the structures in the Old City so that its hidden parts could be excavated, but the idea was rejected. In 1933 Flinders retired from the Edwards chair and made his home in Jerusalem.
Flinders stipulated that after his death his head should be studied, a condition that was presumably influenced by his belief in theories (of eugenics) about race, evolution and skull shape and size. When he died in 1942 the doctors in Jerusalem duly cut it off and prepared it for shipping to the Royal College of Surgeons. But the Second World War, then at its height, made this impossible, and his cranium, with its stern brow, long beard and swept-back hair, remained “pickled” in Jerusalem before finally making its way back to Britain. At the college, which had recently been bombed by the Nazis, no one seems to have paid the head much attention. The jar’s label eventually fell off and its contents were forgotten. It was finally identified in 1989.
* The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London, Malet Place, Bloomsbury, holds one of the most significant collections of Egyptian and Sudanese archaeology in the world. It is free and well worth a visit.
* This autumn The Cambridge Library Collection, published by Cambridge University Press, is reprinting the classic works by Petrie, including The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh priced £19.99.