The Father Of Egyptology

3D front cover of Seventy Years in Archaeology by W.M. Flinders PetrieThe pyramids of Gizeh – the only survivors of the canonical Seven Wonders of the ancient world – as well other obvious remains of Egyptian civilization, attracted the interest of western travellers from the classical period onwards: Herodotus was the most famous of these ancient tourists. However, very few Europeans had seen them with their own eyes until Napoleon overreached himself by trying to seize Egypt from its Mamluk rulers, open up the area to French trade and block the overland route of the British to India.

Famously, he took a band of scholars as well as an army with him, and during his relatively short rule in Egypt, he set up such Enlightenment institutions as a library, a botanical garden, an observatory, and an antiquities museum. Also famously, one of his soldiers came across the bi-lingual, three-script Rosetta Stone, which became ‘British property’ when the French in Egypt capitulated in 1801. (Precedence in the decipherment, as between Thomas Young and Jean-François Champollion, was thus a patriotic, as well as a scholarly issue.)

Very soon after the battle of Waterloo, European travellers were descending on Egypt in increasing numbers: the most notorious is probably Giovanni Battista Belzoni, an exponent of the crowbar-and-dynamite approach to archaeology. By the late 1830s, there were enough British visitors to the Nile for Sir John Gardner Wilkinson to rework his 1835 archaeological account, Topography of Thebes, and General View of Egypt, as the two-volume Modern Egypt and Thebes (1843), ‘Being a Description of Egypt, Including the Information Required for Travellers in that Country’. His three-volume 1837 Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians was enormously popular, and the first book in English which takes what can be described as a modern archaeological approach to his subject.

As the number of travellers grew, so did enthusiasm for bringing home antiquities as souvenirs. Governments had obelisks, museums had huge statues, rich people had large statues, while lesser individuals acquired pottery, beads, metalwork, and bits of mummies. (See, for example, the case of random Egyptian things displayed in the wonderful Town and Fenland Museum at Wisbech.) Mummy-mania especially took hold, and mummy-unwrapping dinner parties became a must in fashionable society. Thomas Pettigrew, surgeon and antiquarian (whose other claim to fame was that he vaccinated the young Princess Victoria) published A History of Egyptian Mummies in 1834, and – at a more popular level – Miss Jane Webb published a novel called The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century in 1827, before she became Mrs Loudon and turned to garden writing.

Another aspect of the interest in Egypt was the ‘mystical’ one: then as now, some people could not believe that the pyramids had been built by hand and as tombs: there must have been some sort of alien, or even divine, intervention to create such a wonder. In 1859, the journalist and magazine editor John Taylor published The Great Pyramid: Why Was It Built? And Who Built It? (coming soon!), which speculated that the pyramid had been constructed by Israelites in Egypt, under divine instruction and using a measurement which he called the ‘pyramid inch’ and which was one twenty-fifth of a ‘sacred cubit’.

Taylor had never visited Egypt and was relying on other people’s measurements, but his work was very influential, especially upon Edward Piazzi Smyth, the Astronomer Royal of Scotland, who seems unfortunately to have been among the first of the ‘pyramidiots’ (a useful term coined by the archaeological writer Leonard Cottrell). He went to Egypt and carried out his own measurements, but as the ODNB puts it, ‘His lack of proper mathematical training and his inability to distinguish real facts from chance coincidences showed only too clearly in his popular book Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid (1864), which, however, was written with panache and drew him a huge cult following.’   Sadly, the book destroyed Smyth’s scientific reputation, and he ended up resigning from the Royal Society.

But part of the cult following was one William Petrie, surveyor and engineer, who was married to the daughter of Matthew Flinders, and whose only child, William Matthew Flinders Petrie, was born in 1853. He was educated at home by his parents, encouraged to collect minerals and coins by his mother, and in his twenties roamed southern England, measuring and surveying ancient monuments. He and his father planned to go to Egypt and use their own expertise to test Smyth’s findings, but in fact Flinders went alone in 1880, and spent two winters in careful research which demolished the theory of the pyramid inch, but also in watching with increasing horror the unscientific, wasteful and destructive methods of other excavators.

He was determined to do all he could to record and preserve the monuments, as he relates in his autobiography, Seventy Years in Archaeology: ‘A year’s work in Egypt made me feel it was like a house on fire, so rapid was the destruction going on.’ His publication of The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh in 1883 led him to a meeting with Amelia Edwards, the novelist, journalist and traveller whose enthusiasm was to professionalise Egyptology in Britain and change Petrie’s own life.

Seventy Years is a very good read:  it is combative, funny, enlightening, and also astonishing in its revelation both of the stresses and dangers of early Egyptology, and of the (to us) appallingly slapdash approach of many of its early proponents. Petrie sent some small finds from Naukratis, including datable iron chisels, to the British Museum. When he asked to re-examine them so time later, he was told that ‘Mr Newton had said they were ugly things and he did not want them so they were thrown away.’  Sir Charles Newton, and the archaeologists of his generation, were interested in the aesthetics of the past: the beautiful and complete, rather than the mundane and fragmentary, were what they treasured.

Petrie, by contrast, understood the value of fragments in telling the story of the past: ‘the whole ground is thick with early Greek pottery … Pieces with fret pattern, honeysuckle pattern, heads, arms, legs of figures, horses, and suchlike lovely things were soon picked up … Such a half hour I never had before.’ He realized that Greek pottery fragments, and iron artefacts could be dated by cross-reference to Greek sites and recorded Greek history, and using these data in conjunction with Egyptian ‘king-lists’ was able to put the chronology of Egypt on a firm footing (and one that broadly has stood the test of time). This work was especially significant for the ‘prehistoric’ period in Greece, for which ‘Mykenean’ potsherds found at Tell el Amarna were such an important indicator.

There are entertaining accounts of excavating in the baking heat, either naked or in pink underwear (which had the advantage of putting off any curious European tourists). There are terrifying incidents in claustrophobic tombs and collapsing tunnels, lying under propped-up obelisks to record inscriptions or dangling from a rope ladder with a roll of paper, a bucket of water and a brush to make a paper ‘squeeze’ of a temple frieze. There are also vivid evocations of the frustrations of bureaucracy in London and bureaucracy plus corruption in Cairo.

Petrie’s energy, undiminished over a long lifetime and frequent bouts of ill-health, and his dedication to his chosen career, to say nothing of his encouragement and training of students including Howard Carter and D.G. Hogarth, fully justify the title of ‘Father of Egyptology’. (His diggers called him ‘Father of Pots’.) We have reissued a large number of his publications, from the detailed site reports of his work in the Fayum oasis and the Nile delta to his writings for the more general reader, including the multi-volume history of Egypt which he edited, and his books on Egyptian religion, crafts and folk-tales.  You can see the whole collection (so far!) here, or by going to, clicking on ‘Books’ and then on Egyptology’.


This entry was posted in Archaeology, Egyptology, History, Spiritualism and Esoteric Knowledge, Travel and Exploration and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Father Of Egyptology

  1. Really interesting review. The Petrie Museum is my favourite museum in London. This review has really whetted my appetite to take a look at this book.

  2. Delighted to hear this! Amelia Edwards’s ‘A Thousand Miles up the Nile’ is another fascinating read, if you haven’t come across it yet.

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