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Sir William Flinders Petrie

Sir Flinders Petrie, 1903
Sir Flinders Petrie, 1903

Sir William Mathews Flinders Petrie was responsible for making archaeology the scientific discipline it is today.

Archaeology in popular media is frequently portrayed as a treasure hunt. Many popular characters perpetuate this image, perhaps most famously Indiana Jones, a professor of archaeology who travels the globe in search of precious artifacts, which he obtains by any means necessary, and at anyone’s expense, with little regard for context beyond the value of the object. Although this is a misleading image of archaeology today, in its early years the discipline really was more like treasure hunting than science. Sir William Mathews Flinders Petrie was the man responsible for taking the first steps towards making archaeology the scientific discipline it is today.

Flinders Petrie was an English Archaeologist, born in 1853, who is remembered for introducing a systematic approach to archaeology, and for his efforts towards the preservation of artifacts. Petrie’s archaeological career was focused on Egypt, where he was responsible for the discovery, preservation, documentation, and study of countless artifacts and sites. Despite his lack of formal education, he was awarded the Edwards Professor of Egypt Archaeology and Philology, a professorial chair at University College in London, to honour his contributions to the field of Archaeology. Like him, most archaeologists at the time had little formal training in archaeology. However, unlike Petrie, they often took part in it out of personal interest in treasure or grand finds, rather than as a scientific endeavor. From his university position he was able to train a new generation of archaeologists. One of his students was Howard Carter, who did a field season under Petrie’s supervision, and went on to discover the tomb of Tutankhamun.

During his first trip to Egypt in 1880, Petrie surveyed the Giza plateau, becoming the first archaeologist to measure the Great Pyramids and conduct a proper study of their construction. Before this, no theories based on firsthand experience had been put forth about their construction. During this trip, Petrie noticed the lack of care with which historical artifacts were being treated, and was appalled by the rate at which these items of archaeological significance were being destroyed. In 1884, he began excavation at a site in Tanis, where he led a large crew without the use of foremen, who typically drove workers to uncover artifacts as quickly as possible, with little regard for the quality of their work. This became characteristic of all of Petrie’s excavations — by being in charge he could control both the quality of the excavation, and the rate at which it was carried out. The method he used to excavate involved digging the site one layer at a time, and documenting all the finds from each layer. This allowed him to uncover many of the smaller artifacts that would not have been found by using the coarser methods that were common in archaeology at the time. These excavation practices led to the discovery of many important artifacts, and also helped to build an understanding of different aspects of life in ancient Egypt. Petrie even developed seriation, a method of dating layers of dirt based on the types of pottery they contained.

Sir William Flinders Petrie at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London, 1930
Flinders Petrie at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London, 1930

Petrie’s excavation methods and the concept of seriation have greatly influenced the way modern archaeology is practiced. They stand in stark contrast to the conduct of other archaeologists at the time, who, like Indiana Jones, were often no better than grave robbers. It is thanks to Sir Flinders Petrie that archaeology is practiced as a science that is focused not on treasure, but on what artifacts can tell us about past people’s lives.

Written by Sheeba Hasan for Adventures in Pop Culture Archaeology taught by Dr. Lisa Hodgetts, Western University.

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