Professor Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie FRS (3 June 1853 – 28 July 1942), known as Flinders Petrie, was an English Egyptologist and a pioneer of systematic methodology in archaeology. He excavated at many of the most important archaeological sites in Egypt such as Abydos and Amarna. Some consider his most famous discovery to be that of the Merneptah Stele, an opinion with which Petrie himself concurred.
Born in Maryon Road, Charlton, Kent (now part of south-east London), England, Petrie was the grandson of Captain Matthew Flinders, surveyor of the Australian coastline. He was raised in a devout Christian household (his father being Plymouth Brethren), and was educated at home. His father taught his son how to survey accurately, laying the foundation for a career excavating and surveying ancient sites in Egypt and the Levant.
Flinders Petrie was encouraged from childhood in his archaeological interests. At the age of eight he was being tutored in French, Latin, and Greek, until he had a collapse and became self-taught. He also ventured his first archaeological opinion aged eight, when friends visiting the Petrie family were describing the unearthing of Brading Roman villa in the Isle of Wight. The boy was horrified to hear the rough shovelling 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."
After surveying British prehistoric monuments in his teenage years (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 tackling Stonehenge), Petrie travelled to Egypt early in 1880 to apply the same principles in a survey of the Great Pyramid at Giza, making him the first to investigate properly how they were constructed (many theories had been advanced on this, and Petrie read them all, but none were based on first hand observation or logic - the English astronomer Piazzi Smith, for example, argued that the number of stones in each row represents the upward rise of civilization).
On that visit he was appalled by the rate of destruction of monuments (some listed in guidebooks had been worn away completely since then) 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 down".
Having returned to England at the end of 1880, Petrie wrote a number of articles and then met Amelia Edwards, journalist and patron of the Egypt Exploration Fund (now the Egypt Exploration Society), who became his strong supporter and later
By the end of the Tanis dig he ran out of funding but, reluctant to leave the country in case this was renewed, he spent 1887 cruising the Nile taking photographs as a less subjective record than sketches. During this time he also climbed rope ladders at Sehel Island near Aswan to draw and photograph thousands of early Egyptian inscriptions on a cliff face, recording embassies to Nubia, famines and wars. By the time he reached Aswan, a telegram had reached there to confirm the renewal of his funding.
He then went straight to the burial site at Fayum, particularly interested in post-30 BC burials, which had not previously been fully studied. He found intact tombs and 60 of the famous portraits, and discovered from inscriptions on the mummies that they were kept with their living families for generations before burial. Under Auguste Mariette's arrangements, he sent 50% of these portraits to the Egyptian department of antiquities. However, later finding that Gaston Maspero placed little value on them and left them open to the elements in a yard behind the museum to deteriorate, he angrily demanded that they all be returned, forcing Maspero to pick the 12 best examples for the museum to keep and then returning 48 to Petrie, which he sent to London for a special showing at the British Museum.
Resuming work, he discovered the village of the Pharoahonic tomb-workers.
In 1890, Petrie made the first of his many forays into Palestine, leading to much important archaeological work. His six-week excavation of Tell el-Hesi (which was mistakenly identified as Lachish) that year represents the first scientific excavation of an archaeological site in the Holy Land.
At another point in the late nineteenth-century, Petrie surveyed a group of tombs in the Wadi al-Rababah (the biblical Hinnom) of Jerusalem, largely dating to the Iron Age and early Roman periods. Here, in these ancient monuments, Petrie discovered two different metrical systems.
Next, from 1891, he worked on the temple of Akhenaten at Tel-al-Amarna, discovering a 300 square foot New Kingdom painted pavement of garden and animals and hunting scenes. This became a tourist attraction but, as there was no direct access to the site, tourists wrecked neighbouring fields on their way to it. This made local farmers deface the paintings, and it is only thanks to Petrie's paintings that their original state is known.
The Edwards Professor of Egyptian Archaeology and Philology at University College, London was set up and funded in 1892 by Amelia Edwards. Petrie's supporter since 1880, she made him its first holder. He continued to excavate in Egypt after taking up the professorship, training many of the best archaeologists of the day. In 1913 Petrie sold his large collection of Egyptian antiquities to University College, London, where it is now housed in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology.
1923 saw Petrie knighted for services to British archaeology and Egyptology. In 1926, the focus of Petrie’s work shifted permanently to Palestine (though he did become interested in early Egypt, in 1928 digging a cemetery at Luxor which proved so huge that he devised an entirely new excavation system, including comparison charts for finds which are still used today). He began excavating several important sites in the southwestern region of Palestine, including Tell el-Jemmeh and Tell el-Ajjul. 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 called the Albright Institute).
Upon his death in Jerusalem in 1942, influenced by his interest in science, races and different civilisations, 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, due to the wartime conditions in the area (then still under threat from Rommel's attacks in the North African campaign, which were not repelled until the Second Battle of El Alamein later that year), 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.
His painstaking recording and study of artifacts set new standards in archaeology. He said himself:
"I believe the true line of research lies in the noting and comparison of the smallest details."
By linking styles of pottery with periods, he was the first to use seriation in Egyptology, a new method for establishing the chronology of a site.
Flinders Petrie was also responsible for mentoring and training a whole generation of Egyptologists, including Howard Carter.
A number of Petrie's discoveries were presented to the Royal Archaeological Society and described in the society's Archaeological Journal by his good friend and fellow archaeologist, Flaxman Charles John Spurrell. Petrie published a total of 97 books.
For a complete bibliography of Petrie’s works, published in 1972, refer: