PETRIE, Sir Flinders (1853-1942)
Plaque erected in 1954 by London County Council at 5 Cannon Place, Hampstead, London, NW3 1EH, London Borough of Camden
Archaeology and Ethnography
SIR FLINDERS PETRIE 1853-1942 Egyptologist lived here
Flinders Petrie was a pioneer of modern archaeological methods, applying meticulous record keeping and use of everyday fragments for historical dating. He was also an advocate of eugenics – his views on race shaped his collecting practices and analysis of ancient civilizations. A blue plaque was erected to Petrie in 1954 at 5 Cannon Place, Hampstead, where he lived between 1919 and 1934.
(William Matthew) Flinders Petrie was born in Charlton, London. He was educated by his parents – his father was an engineer and surveyor, and his mother was a scholar. Though he later claimed that he owed his passion for discovery to his grandfather, Captain Matthew Flinders, the first circumnavigator of Australia.
By the time Petrie was 16, he could be frequently found at the British Museum, to which he sold ancient Greek and Roman coins. He went on to make a series of surveys of sites and structures across England in his early 20s. This included a detailed survey of Stonehenge, begun in 1874 and published in 1880.
Egypt and Palestine
Petrie first visited Egypt in 1880 to survey the pyramids, making detailed measurements of their structure and alignment. The resulting work, The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh (1883), was the chief authority on the plans and dimensions of the great royal tombs of the Fourth Dynasty until at least the mid 20th century and is still used for reference today.
In 1884 the Egypt Exploration Fund, co-founded in 1882 by writer and Egyptologist, Amelia Edwards, gave Petrie the opportunity to dig in the country for the first time. Over the next 50 years he led almost annual excavations in Egypt and later Palestine, supervised a generation of archaeologists in the field (including a 17-year-old Howard Carter), and did not stop digging until 1939. The resulting artefacts were distributed to subscribing institutions, and many remain in national collections, including the British Museum.
Petrie’s own collection was purchased by public subscription for University College London. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology opened in 1915 and now holds one of the finest collections of Egyptian and other archaeology in the world.
As a pioneer in the field, some of Petrie’s theories were challenged but he is still known as the ‘father’ of Egyptian archaeology. His work in Egypt and Palestine also cast new light on the study and interpretation of the Bible.
London and Later Life
Petrie became the first (Amelia) Edwards Professor of Egyptology at University College London in 1892, a post he held until 1933. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1902 and knighted in 1923. He wrote hundreds of books, articles and catalogues, his Methods and Aims in Archaeology of 1904 being a first guide to archaeological fieldwork. Two autobiographical accounts, Ten Years’ Digging in Egypt, 1881–1891 and Seventy Years in Archaeology were published respectively in 1892 and 1931.
A number of his years in London were spent living at 5 Cannon Place, Hampstead, one of two large houses built along this newly developed road in about 1875. Petrie lived here from 1919 until 1934, when he and his wife Hilda, an archaeologist ‘on whose toil most of my work has depended’, moved to Jerusalem. He died in Jerusalem in 1942.
Archaeology and Eugenics
While Petrie had great respect for some of his Egyptian workers, he nonetheless applied Galton’s theories on race and inherited characteristics – which placed white Europeans at the top of a specious hierarchy – to his interpretations of archaeological evidence in Egypt and later Palestine.
Galton also funded Petrie’s Racial Portraits – photographs and casts of the profile portraits carved on tombs. They categorised these as Egyptian, Hebrew, Aryan, and others, based on crude stereotypes. In turn, Petrie supplied the human remains for the research undertaken by Galton and Pearson at the Eugenics Laboratories at UCL.
Some of Petrie’s published works also recommended eugenic solutions in modern society. He suggested, for example:
...giving partial state maintenance to the best stocks, so as to ensure large returns from them, and taxing down the worst stocks – exactly the opposite of course to the present craze.
(Janus in Modern Life, 1907)
These opinions were far from unusual for the time. In The Revolutions of Civilisation (1911) he also speculated that:
...eugenics will, in some future civilisation, carefully segregate fine races and prohibit continual mixture, until they have a distinct type which will start a new civilization when transplanted.
Debbie Challis, The Archaeology of Race: The Eugenic Ideas of Francis Galton and Flinders Petrie (London, 2013).
KL Sheppard, Flinders Petrie and Eugenics at UCL, Bulletin of the History of Archaeology, (2010) (accessed 12 Oct 2020)
Margaret S. Dower, Flinders Petrie: A Life in Archaeology (London, 1995)
Margaret S. Dower, Sir (William Matthews) Flinders Petrie, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (subscription required: accessed 12 Oct 2020)
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