Flinders Petrie and the Birth of Archaeology

I’ve spent much of the the previous decade studying the very subject that took Petrie to Egypt in the first place; the architecture of the Old Kingdom and Giza. During that time I have built up the greatest respect for his survey and excavation work, his published reports and many of his books. A few years ago I published a webpage devoted to the great man. As the EM Hotep BBS Facebook page is running a bi-weekly special on Flinders Petrie at the moment, I’ve just dug out a few quotes from that old page and will post them below on this new blog. We can read again what some of the great archaeologists of the 20th century thought of their pioneering predecessor:


“Not only was Sir Flinders Petrie fabulously industrious; he was also amazingly original. To him the archaeologist must trace nearly all the fundamental discoveries with regard to the principles of our science. Thirty years before Reisner introduced modern methods of recording into the excavator’s camp, Petrie insisted that no human artifact was too unimportant to be described, pictured, and located in the exact spot where it had been found. He discovered the importance of pottery for purposes of dating; he first recognized the nature of a Palestinian mound and excavated one stratigraphically; he revolutionized archaeological chronology by discovering the principle of sequence-dating; he insisted on using geology, chemistry, botany and other sciences as archaeological clues long before it became the fashion in archaeological circles in general. There can be no doubt that he was the greatest archaeological genius of modern times. His expedition in Sinai in 1905, when he was fifty-two years old, was perhaps the high-water mark of his scientific career as such, though his reputation grew apace for many years. In 1926 he shifted his work entirely to Palestine, where he spent the rest of his life. During the following decade he remained just as indefatigable as ever, and quantities of material were recovered each year from the mounds of the Negeb. However, he was no longer in the van of progress; the school of Reisner and Fisher was in the ascendancy, and Petrie’s scholarly star sank slowly. Even his virtues as a pioneer became weaknesses, since archaeology had passed beyond the pioneering stage. All his archaeological chronology of the past sixteen years requires revision, much of it drastic; cf. my observations on the chronology of Tell el-‘Ajjfil, Am. Jour. Sem. Lang., 1938, pp. 337-359. Yet his careful records of locus and level provide the material for checking and revising his own chronology; altogether too many younger men have failed to provide the data with which others can control their observations. In the summer of 1935 Sir Flinders and Lady Petrie, together with the library and office of the British School of Archaeology in Egypt, moved into the building of the American School in Jerusalem, where they were to remain our honored and beloved guests for years. Nelson Glueck has written eloquently of Petrie’s personality and greatness of heart; I can only echo his words. The death of Petrie and Reisner brings an end to the second volume in the history of Near-Eastern archaeology, a volume which comes fittingly to a close amid the thunder of bombs. Bitterly these great students of the human past recognized that man had lived long without learning much, that each revolution of civilization (to use Petrie’s own phrase) ends in more terrible castastrophe, because men will not learn from the experience of the past. It is our duty to carry on where Petrie and Reisner have laid down the torch.


Petrie was, of course, a genius in the full sense of that abused term. Often we of the younger generations blame him for sinning against our own standards, forgetful that the immense stretch of his working life extended long after his period of intellectual receptiveness had passed. We might as well blame Xerxes for not having deployed torpedo boats at Salamis, or Napoleon for attacking the British squares with cavalry instead of machine-guns. Petrie fought with the weapons he knew or himself invented, and in his youth fought better than any of his contemporaries in the East. Indeed his superiority over his contemporaries was such that, encouraged by an instinctive self-sufficiency, he thought and worked excessively alone….the result was a sometimes disconcerting lack of proportion in thought and action. He would dart headlong up the road, without necessarily glancing at the sign-post…The most notorious example of that was his lasting adherence to an obsolete and untenable Egyptian chronology…

….In 1925 I think, he spent a holiday with me in Wales, at Brecon, where I was digging a Roman fort. He occupied his time by surveying stone circles and other monuments in the surrounding countryside, and I remember how on the first day I asked him what instruments he proposed to take with him. A look of ineffable cunning came into his eyes as he produced a slender bamboo pea stick and – a visiting card. The pea-stick, he said, planted into the ground gave him a line, whilst the visiting card, sighted carefully along two of its sides, gave him a right angle. At night after dinner, by the light of an oil-lamp, he would get out a notebook containing lists of measurements, resulting from his day’s work in the field, and, with the help of a logarithm-table, would ultimately reduce them to a schematic diagram.

I tell this story as a curious, rather human sidelight on the paradoxical character of a man whose microscopically precise measurements of the pyramids of Gizeh are almost legendary. By his incredible ingenuity complex problems were liable to be rendered excessively simple and surmountable, simple problems might be tangled into inextricable complexities……   …..A career of unremitting drive such as Petrie’s can scarcely have been consciously adventurous; he was too self-sufficient to experience with any great acuteness those analytical reactions to an environment which are to my mind a part of the ideal adventurer…Petrie’s life was in fact one long adventure, one long process of search and discovery in many places and under many circumstances. For let us not be mistaken : discovery is an essential part of adventure.

D.litt Fellow of University College London:

From “The Splendour that was Egypt. A general survey of Egyptian culture and civilisation, Sidgwick and Jackson Limited, London, 1963”

“No book on Egypt can be regarded as complete without some reference, however slight, to the man whose work on the glorious past of that ancient country is the foundation of all modern archaeology. As his fellow-worker for many years at University College, London, I may perhaps be forgiven for considering myself specially qualified to write of that work as I saw it.

In 1877 there appeared a little book of rather more than a hundred and fifty pages called Inductive Metrology. The author was a young man of four and twenty, who signed himself W. M. Flinders Petrie. The publication of that modest volume transformed the whole of the study of the Past and brought its author with a rush to the forefront of the learned world. Until Petrie’s appearance in the field there had been no archaeology, only antiquarianism, with collections of ‘curios’, or ‘relics from the past’. And it was the hobby of a few learned men, whose horizon was bounded by Biblical or Classical history. They were the slaves of the written word, and believed nothing that was not vouched for by documentary evidence. But even documents were not always above suspicion if they did not agree with preconceived ideas, and Herodotus’s accounts of Egypt were treated with scorn. It was considered clever to say of Herodotus “Father of History, Indeed! Father of Lies more likely!” To these people Greek Art was a sacred thing, which had come into the world full-blown. Greek literature also had no beginning. They were not quite separate and special creations of God, but were very nearly so, and it was almost blasphemy to suggest that when the Greeks themselves said how much they owed to Egypt they might in fact have been speaking the truth.

Into this milieu came Petrie’s bombshell. Inductive Metrology intimated to the learned world that a new method of investigation had come into existence, a method in which the written word had no part, and which proved that there was a form of culture and civilisation before the time of the Greeks….

..Every archaeologist owes to Petrie that systematic arrangement of knowledge which lays bare the history of the peoples of the past in every country. Without Petrie there would have been no archaeology, we should still have been bound by the written word and the dry-as-dust philologists and antiquarians.

So I end my book as I have begun it, with the name of Flinders Petrie, the man who made known to the world so much of the Splendour that was Egypt.”


Who published the first online version of the benchmark survey of Giza that started it all for Petrie in Egypt, and in Egyptology:
“Sir Flinders Petrie’s 1880–82 survey of the Giza plateau, which included the Great Pyramid of Khufu and the relatively unknown Trial Site, is probably the most detailed Egyptian study ever undertaken by a surveyor…. …Other surveys of lesser scope have been conducted on the Giza plateau, but Petrie’s contribution stands head and shoulders above them all. His extensive measurements of the Great Pyramid, in particular, have become the standard of reference for virtually all studies of that amazing edifice. At this time in history, when air pollution and tourism have wreaked severe damages upon the Great Pyramid, and it no longer stands as tall as it did in Petrie’s day, we are profoundly indebted to him for his foresight, determination, and unswerving loyalty to accuracy. He has, in his own meticulous way, saved it for us”.

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