Review by Andrea Byrnes. In Magazine Articles on Egyptological. april 3rd 2012.
The Man Who Discovered Egypt
28th March 2012, BBC4
Presenter – Chris Naunton
Director – Deborah Perkin
Executive Producer – Christina Macaulay
Producer – Deborah Perkin
The man in ‘The Man Who Discovered Egypt’ was Sir William Flinders Petrie, a name known to archaeologists and Egyptologists, but perhaps not very familiar to the wider world. The programme lasted for an hour, without adverts, and covered a great deal of ground, starting with Petrie’s upbringing and ending with his death. His personal life and his professional legacy were intertwined throughout, providing a rich view of a complicated man who probably infuriated and endeared in turn.
This review is separated into two sections: the overview, in which the contents of the show is summarized for anyone who missed it or who wants a reminder, and the review, which comments on the quality of both the production and the content.
As with all programmes focusing on the Egyptian past, ‘The Man Who Discovered Egypt’, opened with some a bit of hyperbole to build up interest, in this case about Egypt being a land of both treasures and tomb raiders, the former at risk from the latter, until a remarkable man took on the treasure hunters and won, ensuring that the legacy of Egypt not was not ransacked and sold off, but understood. Fronted throughout by Chris Naunton, the documentary goes on to show how the opening statements, as grandiose as they perhaps sounded, are borne out by Petrie’s activities throughout his long life.
To find out “what drove this extraordinary man” the documentary begins its search begins in southern England where Petrie was born in Kent in 1853 to a Victorian middle class family. Petrie’s father William was a surveyor and inventor and his mother Anne spoke six languages and wrote about scripture and theology for publication. Petrie was only six years old when Darwin’s theory of evolution was published. His parents took him on walking holidays to visit ancient monuments and collect fossils – but, as Naunton pointed out with considerable humour, unlike most tourists the family didn’t stand around admiring these treasures – they got out their kit and measured them with great accuracy. These childhood experiences effectively built up Petrie’s skills so that by the time he was 19 and visited Stonehenge to measure it, doing so with 100% accuracy.
Thanks to Napoleon, however, Petrie was drawn to Egypt,. Napolean virtually invented Egyptomania in the 19th century following his invasion of Egypt and the publication in Europe of the exotic monuments of Ancient Egypt. The death of Cleopatra was celebrated (or mourned) in contemporary art and Verdi wrote the opera Aida to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal. Cities imported objects, small and large, including vast obelisks. National museums now competed for the best objects.
Petrie, in his 20s, learned to read hieroglyphs (without the benefits of James Allen or Collier and Manley) and spent hours in the British Museum. At the age of 27 he made the journey to Egypt that would set his life on a new course. It took him two weeks to sail from Liverpool to Alexandria and he slept on deck because he was so il. As soon as he set foot on dry land, he made his way to the pyramids.
Petrie’s mission was to survey the pyramids. Because no accurate measurements had ever been taken it was impossible to verify or even discuss sensibly the relationship of the pyramids to star alignments or other features that required precise surveying. Petrie lacked funding so he needed a cheap place to live and found a tomb to rent for accommodation. There is a famous photograph of Petrie, still so young, standing outside it. Naunton went to find the tomb, which he says took a considerable amount of time, and had himself photographed in the exact position as that famous photo. Most wisely, the location of the tomb was not revealed. Petrie’s unusual residence consisted of two tombs broken into one, so there was plenty of space with light shining through two doorways, and Petrie was delighted with it, saying that “no place is so equable in heat or cold”. Petrie’s work at the pyramids, with the assistance of a local man, took two years. Of a night the two men discussed science and philosophy.
In the 1880s Egypt was firmly on tourist map, much to the displeasure of Petrie, who was working at the pyramids, one of the country’s key tourist resorts. But, Naunton says, he had a strategy to keep them away. In the heat, he stripped down to his pink-coloured underwear (long-sleeved vest and long-johns) so that he looked as though he was naked. Naunton very obligingly posed in an outfit of baby-pink to demonstrate the effect, although one feels that the exact shade of pink may have been a tad on the bright side! Often, in the hottest parts of the day, Petrie found it most convenient to strip entirely. One can imagine the tourists of the time being more than a little startled at the spectacle. The pyramid survey was a great success and was paid for by Royal Society.
Petrie had soon been in Egypt long enough to get a good idea of what was happening to Egypt’s heritage and he grew to despise the tomb raiders and antique dealers who emptied tombs in search of profit. In his own words he said, most evocatively, that “it felt like a house on fire”. He set out to save all that he could, but he needed funding, which is when he met Amelia Edwards. Edwards and her book A Thousand Miles up the Nile’ (partly a plea to save Egyptian heritage) were on the same wavelength as Petrie. Edwards, as obsessive as Petrie, started a foundation to explore ancient Egypt – the Egypt Exploration Fund, today the Egypt Exploration Society. She was, Margaret Mountford (a trustee of the EES) explained, fortunate in her timing because there was a widespread interest in the Book of Exodus and the route that might have taken through Egypt. A driven woman, Edwards badgered the British Museum for funding. Edwards and Petrie formed a highly productive professional relationship, with Petrie receiving EEF backing.
In 1883 the EEF sent Petrie to excavate Tanis. It was what he had always dreamed of – a site all to himself. Petrie wanted to understand the past and its inhabitants and wrote of Tanis that this was “once a living land whose people prospered on the Earth”. At Tanis Petrie pioneered a new way of working, developing the methods that underpin modern archaeology and the ground rules that we follow today in both field work and interpretation. Petrie understood a fundamentally important point – the information available from anything removed from the ground without its being recorded is lost forever. Petrie instructed his workers to dig layer by layer and, as part of the process, recorded every object. Nothing was to be deemed insignificant because to understand the whole picture and to get to grips with the civilization all fragments of the puzzle were needed. Petrie expressed this conviction uncompromisingly: “Spoiling the past has an acute moral wrong in it”. The British Museum became the surprised recipients of the domestic items from a burned house where Petrie had recorded the location in which each item was found so that the day to day uses of artefacts and movements through the house could be understood.
As his confidence grew so did his resentment of the EEF committee, who in turn thought Petrie high-handed and arrogant. After a series of disputes Petrie handed in his resignation, which was accepted. Even though she was apparently horrified at the way in which events had played out, and remained on friendly terms with Petrie, Amelia Edwards was powerless to turn back the clock. Petrie, unable to excavate without funding, accepted a commission from the Foundation for Advancement of Science to help research into evolution and racial differences. His task was to take photos of scenes at the Temple of Ramesses showing the mighty, superior Egyptians and their inferior, vanquished enemies. One of the outcomes was his rarely mentioned book ‘Racial Types from Egypt’. The man behind this project was Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin, who shared Darwin’s interest in the ideas involved in the “survival of fittest”. Debbie Challis, from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, explained that Petrie thought that not only features but personality passed through generations and would tell scientists how to select for moral character – the basics of eugenics. As Naunton said, this is a very unpopular subject today, inextricably linked in people’s minds with the Nazi atrocities of the Second World War, but Petrie’s connection with Galton carried on throughout his life.
Petrie was soon excavating again, this time with private funding. In 1888, outside the Middle Kingdom Pyramid Hawara discovered a Roman period cemetery full of mummies and found himself gazing on realistic portraits of people from time of Cleopatra. Cairo Museum’s Yasmin Al shazly said that styles of hair and clothing are so distinctive that they can be used to date the burials. They are very beautiful and are the earliest known portraits in the world. Naunton says that although they look very un-Egyptian they serve a very Egyptian function. Some people still had mummy masks produced for them at that time, and it was clearly a matter of preference which style was chosen. Petrie and his sponsors made a significant amount of money selling the Hawara mummies. Many of them came to Britain and are now in museums.
Petrie now began to receive work beyond Egypt – most significantly at a site in the southwest of Jerusalmem. Petrie was to achieve another first – he was about to initiate archaeology in Biblical lands and the first person to excavate ancient Palestine at Tell el-Hesi. Jeffrey Blakely, currently in charge of the site, says that it was expected to produce tablets that would explain what life was like in the bible – but what Petrie actually found was pottery.
The Palestine Exploration Fund holds Petrie’s photographs of Tell el Hesi. Remarkably, Petrie built his own camera out of a biscuit tin. Rupert Chapman, from the Palestine Exploration Fund, explained that Petrie didn’t like the distortion of lenses so he built a pinhole camera, ensuring that he could achieve a precise image. Felicity Cobbing, also from the Palestine Exploration Fund, explained that Petrie used photographs to advertise his work and get funding. He returned to London and Egypt, constantly battling to raise funds to preserve Egypt’s heritage. He hated the money grubbing mentality of the British, saying that the “writhing and wriggling of the maggoty world is loathsome.”
Amelia Edwards died at the age of 61, but secured Petrie’s future 8 by leaving money to UCL for a new academic post – Professor of Egyptology and Philology. Petrie could now spend half the year teaching and the rest of his time on excavation. He developed the first degree course in archaeology making UCL the place to study the subject, and he trained many of the Twentieth Century’s greatest archaeologists. He also decided to train up a workforce in Egypt, selecting workers from the town of Qift, and was so successful that today many direct descendents still work on excavations, some of whom, like Ali and Omar Farouk are deeply proud of their ancestors’ and their own involvement.
In his 40s, a celibate bachelor, he met Hilda Urlin when she came to the British Museum to draw Egyptian costumes. She had a lot in common with Petrie, sharing many of his interests. Even though she was concerned about the age gap (she was 25 and he was 43) they married in 1897 and he took her to Egypt on a boat train. She loved Egypt, appreciating the colours and the ambience, and enjoying the diggers’ life, becaming indispensible to Petrie.
Students who worked with the Petries might have had a fascinating time, but they any hopes of home comforts that they might have had in mind were soon dispelled – Petrie was renowned for his frugality and the food was terrible. The entire dig was condemned to living out of tins. If there were supplies left over he buried them in the sand and dug them up the following year. The test of whether or not they were fit for consumption the following season was to throw them hard against a rock – any that didn’t explode were fine to eat!
Between 1890-1899 he looked for origins of the Pharaohs and found skeletons buried with faces to the west in foetal position accompanied by flints, stone vases and ivories, none with writing. Petrie realized that the tombs predated the pharaohs but at first thought that they represented a new race from across the sea. Although it was impossible to date the burials without any writing to provide a date, Petrie devised a way of determining which graves were older than others. Naunton demonstrated, very nicely, that a modern mug, a prosaic cup and saucer and a decorated bone china cup and saucer were all, to those familiar with them are clearly modern, older and older still. Petrie realized that if you can get the pottery into a chronological sequence you can date the other objects you find with that pottery. He put millions of pieces of pottery into chronological order, building up sequences using original hand-written strips that formed a database. His precision was so impressive. Today the method, called seriation, is still being used to provide relative dates the world over.
Next the programme jumped to the royal burial site of the earliest pharaohs at Abydos. Following in his footsteps Josef Wegner from University of Pennsylvania gave a guided tour of the site which, as Naunton pointed out and Wegner agreed, looks and functions just like a good old-fashioned Petrie excavation. Metal buckets were transferred on shoulders and handed from person to person rising out of the tomb towards the surface to remove the debris. Petrie’s own 1904 archaeological handbook painted a dire picture of how grizzly conditions can be.
After 10 years of marriage Hilda and Petrie had a son John and daughter Ann but excavations carried on at frenetic pace. In spite of Petrie’s superior standards the excavations were carried out too fast by modern standards. A particularly poor case was highlighted, with a photograph showing workers excavating under water at Memphis, unable to see what they were digging up. The First World War put a halt to it.
At 61 he was rejected for war service and bought a family house in Hampstead, throwing himself into family life. His descendent Lisette Petrie says that he tried to teach the children about the hill figures of Wiltshire, perhaps emulating the training given to him by how own parents, but Ann, at age 9, thought that it was “terribly, terribly boring holding the end of the tape measure all day.” As well as writing about all things Egyptian, he wrote about eugenics. He wanted bright upper classes to breed and the unsuitable to opt for voluntary sterilization. Naunton says that he didn’t like anyone who wasn’t like him – including people who wasted time watching sport and reading lowly newspapers.
At the end of the war, when he was 66, he went back to Egypt. John and Ann were sent to boarding school so that the Petries could spend the winter in Egypt and summers in England. Petrie was working in Egypt in 1922 at the time that Tutankhamun was discovered by his former student Howard Carter. The upshot of the discovery was that the distribution of treasures became tightly controlled and Petrie could no longer fund his work by exporting and selling antiquities. Now a fellow of the Royal Society and a Knight of the Realm for services to archaeology he left Egypt and went to Palestine to focus on a series of frontier cities. His 1920s and 30s work was very productive and he brought back to UCL in London. Rachael Sparks, Keeper of Collections at the Institute of Archaeology, explained that the fine range of objects sent back by Petrie was very find and included the everyday objects that most interested him. In the early 1930s, quite an old man by now and increasingly intolerant, he wanted to enjoy his spare time on his excavations sitting happily in the dig house with his wife, and was often frustrated that the young people wanted to spend evenings having a good time with beer, their gramophone, and cigarettes, all part of what he saw as the problems of modern life. Petrie was happy with a good book and at night would lie with a candle stick balanced on his forehead so that he could read in the dark. Naunton tried it and commented that it works, but “you just have to keep very still”.
The Petries moved permanently to Jerusalem to work at the Albright Institute and spent the last eight years of their joint lives there. They bought an astonishing old bus that they converted into a fully equipped traveller, in which they set out to find traces of the Bible. Petrie stopped working at 86 when Britain went to war against Germany and eugenics became a dirty word due to Nazi racial cleansing.
Petrie became ill and moved to a hospital, dying later in 1942. He was buried in Protestant cemetery on Mount Sion where there remains a simple gravestone with his name and the ankh, Egyptian symbol for life, inscribed upon it.
Before he died expressed the wish to leave his brain to medical science. Lady Petrie is reputed to have flown the head back to London in a hat box. It is now stored in the Royal College of Surgeons in Britain.
Naunton concludes, of this truly revolutionary man, that he was “stubborn obsessive and eccentric but perhaps those were the very qualities he needed to be a pioneer”.
As with all reviews where one knows and likes the participants it is often difficult to maintain objectivity. Having exchanged occasional emails on practical matters with the presenter, EES Director Christopher Naunton, and bumped into him at various conferences and lectures I know him to be knowledgeable and helpful, and was predisposed to like his contribution to this documentary. Petrie I know rather better, albeit via his books and papers, and have always been somewhat staggered by his achievements. It would have been disappointing to find that neither had lived up to expectations, but although there were perhaps small gaps, this documentary did not disappoint.
To start on a distinctly quibbling note, the title of the documentary, ‘The Man Who Discovered Egypt,’ was a strange one for the documentary that followed. I suppose the inhabitants of Egypt are disqualified from “discovering” Egypt, but Napoleon certainly is not, and it was his campaign in the late 1700s and the records of all aspects of Egypt’s past and present compiled by his “savants” that brought Egypt to the eyes of the West. Petrie certainly did do a lot of discovery in Egypt, adding significantly to the database of knowledge about Egypt’s Dynastic and Predynastic past, but I am guessing that the title ‘The Man Who Discovered Many Aspects of Egypt and Gave Archaeology its Methodological Foundations” wouldn’t have sounded quite as gripping.
The documentary was presented throughout by Chris Naunton who, unlike many documentary presenters (the presenters Dallas Campbell and Liz Bonnin of “Egypt’s Lost Cities,” – which was reviewed in In Brief – spring painfully to mind), is an Egyptology expert with considerable fieldwork experience. He is also friendly, humourous and articulate, interfacing between the audience, Petrie and Egypt, making them rather than himself the main foci of interest. The jury is still out on the subject of the pink “smalls” but I enjoyed the small interjection of humour.
Naunton was supported by a number of academics, each offering some additional value to the observations about Petrie and his contributions, providing discussion and conversation, as well as adding specific perspectives on Petrie’s work. As Petrie worked in a number of periods and areas within Egypt and Palestine, the sense of what Petrie had been doing and what he achieved at each stage was given appropriate authority, as well as variety.
The BBC did not feel the need to torture their audience with actors dressed up to represent ancient Egyptians, and there were no computer graphics twirling around the screen. It was great to be treated as an intelligent person who doesn’t need gimmicks to keep her interested. The producers presumably had the sense to realize that neither Petrie’s fascinating story, supplemented by archive material, nor Egypt’s beautiful landscapes and impressive monuments needed any support from colourful gimmicks. They were dead right.
Much of the footage was fascinating. The trip to the tomb that Petrie used as a home was intriguing, but the chance to see inside the Abydos tomb, partially cleared, was not only a real treat, but provided a crystal clear view of what Petrie had seen when he had been there himself, and an insight into how his own excavations operated.
The documentary interleaved the personal life of Petrie, his personality, his professional life and his legacy to the fields of archaeology and Egyptology. The producers had a challenge on their hands to weave their way through the various competing threads of Petrie’s sincerely fascinating life, and for the greater part they navigated his life, bringing together the threads with enthusiasm, respect and great skill. As difficult as he must have been to work with, Petrie was clearly just as challenging to introduce to a largely uninitiated audience.
Petrie’s life was clearly unusual in his own time, and probably would be today. He married late in life to a much younger woman, Hilda, who delayed having children. Although Hilda loved the life in Egypt she and the children were often separated from Petrie who moved between Egypt, Palestine and England as and when the work was available. There was very little in the documentary about how this affected him and his family, whether they found it difficult or adapted well up until the children were sent away to school. And although Petrie was born into a Christian family, one of the aspects of his life that gets lost in the documentary is the extent to which his Christian upbringing influenced his adult life, and whether this caused him conflict with his belief in Darwin and eugenics, his discoveries of prehistoric tombs, and if it is what drove him to become involved in, and ultimately take up residence in, Palestine.
“The Man Who Discovered Egypt” does an excellent job of getting to grips with Petrie’s personality. He was clearly irascible, impatient of authority, demanding, uncompromising, unreasonably frugal and very self-appreciative. But at the same time he was loving, passionate about both discovering and preserving the past, and a very genuine person. He comes over as a very difficult man, but one who was probably worth every inch of effort. I would have given my eye teeth to have met him.
The interest that Petrie displayed in eugenics for much of his adult life is uncomfortable today, but the documentary did not duck this subject. It did make the point that Petrie was not a racist but was interested in the mingling of racial traits, although his alarming comments about wanting to breed out inferior members of society were quoted faithfully. For those wanting to know more about this aspect of Petrie’s work there is a short article on the Antiquity website by Kathleen L. Sheppard (Sheppard 2008).
Petrie’s professional life in archaeology is the most important part of the documentary, and the most difficult part of the programme to evaluate in terms of what its viewers would have made of it. All of the Egyptology friends I’ve talked to thought that it made a great job of conveying Petrie’s achievements (in the field, in academic life, pioneering archaeology in new areas, inventing seriation, and discovering the Predynastic) and in the one review I have read to date by Jonathan Crace (‘The Guardian’ 2012), Crace marvels at the fact that he had never heard of such a pioneer.
Petrie’s legacy to archaeology and Egyptology falls into two main categories – his scientific contribution and his efforts to save Egypt’s heritage.
Petrie’s scientific or technical contribution to archaeology was both massive and impossible to quantify. Some of this difficulty carried over into the documentary and it is difficult to know how well the audience understood just how important Petrie’s contributions to archaeology were. There was no doubt at all that Chris Naunton and all the contributors believed that his legacy is of fundamental importance, but it is difficult to know what a previously uninformed audience took away from it. I hope that the individual examples made up a convincing whole, but I do wonder what some viewers would have made of the description of Petrie’s pottery serration, because while to me it is so familiar, others might not understand the fundamental importance of this technique to all aspects of archaeology – I would have liked to see this emphasised and more thoroughly demonstrated. For me two things came over very strongly – Petrie’s emphasis on precision (those facts about a 100% accurate of Stonehenge when he was 19, followed by a complete survey of the pyramids when he was 27 were striking). I also thought that the breadth and range of his activities, temporally and geographically, were well described. Finally, I was not watching this documentary alone, and although I was impressed with much of what I saw (filling some serious gaps in my own knowledge about Petrie’s achievements) my companion said that he thought that some of the scientific achievement was overshadowed by the focus on Petrie’s life and personality.
Still, there is no doubt that Petrie himself had no concerns about how his legacy would be understood and perceived – leaving one’s brain to science demonstrates a fully confident perception of one’s abilities. That did make me smile.
At the same time, Petrie’s contribution to saving Egypt’s heritage was very clearly demonstrated by the programme, which made it clear that salvaging Egypt’s past was no easy task. Today it seems strange that preserving Egypt’s heritage was achieved by exporting it for sale to the world’s top museums. But it worked. The items that Petrie took from Egypt and Palestine, with the acceptance of the authorities, are now well preserved and available for study, in spite of the fact that they are no longer resident in their countries of origin. Unlike those items stolen from tombs by profiteers and dealers, all of Petrie’s exports were fully provenanced and documented and their sale funded future excavations and salvage work. His legacy has been directly inherited and perpetuated in the form of a series of active conservation projects by the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in London, U.K. These points were very well made.
There was very little about other archaeologists working in Egypt at the time, even at the time of the discovery of Tutankhamun. Petrie’s relationships with other archaeologists were not explored, and this seems a shame.
I am quite sure that today Petrie would be surprised at Egyptology’s lack of navel gazing. His approach was very much one of moving boundaries forward, exploring theoretical approaches and devising new methodologies. There is remarkably little visible evidence of what Clarke (1973) famously called “critical self-consciousness” in Egyptology, even though it is a long-standing characteristic of western archaeology and prehistory in particular. I would be most fascinated to know what Petrie would have made of this.
The archive photographs, and even one piece of video footage of Petrie’s life, were completely involving. For those interested, many of the photographs are in Margaret Drower’s biography of Petrie. The modern footage of sites on which Petrie had worked on brought his past work to life, as did the conversations with people who have effectively taken over his mantle in various areas of Egyptology and Palestinian research.
This was an excellent documentary, so superior to many of the frequently repeated docu-dramas that make up much of the ancient history television viewing. It was a real relief to be presented to as a rational person, instead of being treated as an overgrown child who needs tobe spoon-fedwith brightly coloured distractions.
Sir William Flinders Petrie, came over as a magnificent eccentric, one of those Victorian products who took the world in his grasp and gave it a good shaking. He upset and annoyed people, astonished his dig workers with his eccentricities, and alienated important professional colleagues who could have help him to achieve his aim of recording and preserving Egypt’s past. But at the same time he was a fabulous man, a true hero of archaeology, who is admired today for his tenacity and achievements. Most significantly, the writers did not gloss over his more antisocial opinions (eugenics) and frequently curmudgeonly behaviour (his dislike of gramophones amongst them). The view that we were given of Petrie was both entertaining and well balanced.
The possible gaps commented upon are minor, and probably the result of having to communicate so much information into the space of an hour.
‘The Man Who Discovered Egypt’ does a great job of both raising the profile of Petrie’s pioneering role in archaeology and Egyptology and of bringing Sir William Flinders Petrie himself to the notice of those who might be missing out.
A few more archaeology documentaries like this would go a long way!
All web links checked 2nd April 2012
Drower, M.S. 1995
Flinders Petrie: A Life in Archaeology, (2nd publication)
University of Wisconsin Press
Scace, J. 2012
TV review: The Man Who Discovered Egypt; The Apprentice
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 28 March 2012, 22.00
Sheppard, K.L. 2008
Flinders Petrie and eugenics
Antiquity Vol 82 Issue 317 September 2008