Matthew Flinders Petrie, FRS, FBA (3 June 1853 – 28
July 1942), commonly known as Flinders Petrie, was an English
Egyptologist and a pioneer of systematic methodology in archaeology
and preservation of artifacts. He held the first chair of Egyptology
in the United Kingdom, and excavated many of the most important
archaeological sites in Egypt in conjunction with his wife, Hilda
Petrie. Some consider his most famous discovery to be that of the
Merneptah Stele, an opinion with which Petrie himself concurred.
Petrie developed the system of dating layers based on pottery and
1 Early life
2 Academic career
4 Discovery of the 'Israel' or
5 Later life
6 Death and preservation of head
7 Personal life
9 Published work
9.1 Contributions to the Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th ed.
9.2 Selected works
12 Further reading
13 External links
Petrie was born on 3 June 1853 in Maryon Road, Charlton, Kent,
England, the son of William Petrie (1821–1908) and Anne (née
Flinders) (1812–1892). Anne was the daughter of Captain Matthew
Flinders, surveyor of the Australian coastline, spoke six languages
and was an Egyptologist. William Petrie was an electrical engineer who
developed carbon arc lighting and later developed chemical processes
for Johnson, Matthey & Co.
Petrie was raised in a Christian household (his father being a member
of the Plymouth Brethren), and was educated at home. He had no formal
education. His father taught his son how to survey accurately, laying
the foundation for his archaeological career. At the age of eight, he
was tutored in French, Latin, and Greek, until he had a collapse and
was taught at home. He also ventured his first archaeological opinion
aged eight, when friends visiting the Petrie family were describing
the unearthing of the
Brading Roman Villa
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."
The chair of Edwards Professor of Egyptian
Archaeology and Philology
University College London
University College London was set up and funded in 1892 by a
Amelia Edwards following her sudden death in that year.
Petrie's supporter since 1880, Edwards had instructed that he should
be its first incumbent. He continued to excavate in Egypt after taking
up the professorship, training many of the best archaeologists of the
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. One of his students was Howard Carter
who went on to discover the tomb of Tutankhamun.
A photograph Petrie took of his view from the tomb he lived in in Giza
In his teenage years, Petrie surveyed British prehistoric
monuments (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 producing the most accurate survey of
Stonehenge). His father had corresponded with
Piazzi Smyth about his
theories of the Great Pyramid and Petrie travelled to Egypt in early
1880 to make an accurate survey of Giza, making him the first to
properly investigate 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).
Petrie's published reports of this triangulation survey, and his
analysis of the architecture of
Giza therein, was exemplary in its
methodology and accuracy, disproved Smyth's theories and still
provides much of the basic data regarding the pyramid plateau to this
day. 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."
Returning 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
Egypt Exploration Fund (now the Egypt Exploration Society), who became
his strong supporter and later appointed him as Professor at her
Egyptology chair at University College London. Impressed by his
scientific approach, they offered him work as the successor to
Édouard Naville. Petrie accepted the position and was given the sum
of £250 per month to cover the excavation's expenses. In November
1884, Petrie arrived in Egypt to begin his excavations.
He first went to a
New Kingdom site at Tanis, with 170 workmen. He cut
out the middle man role of foreman on this and all subsequent
excavations, taking complete overall control himself and removing
pressure on the workmen from the foreman to discover finds quickly but
sloppily. Though he was regarded as an amateur and dilettante by more
established Egyptologists, this made him popular with his workers, who
found several small but significant finds that would have been lost
under the old system.
Famine Stela is an inscription located on Sehel Island.
In 1886, while working for the Egypt Exploration Fund, Petrie
Tell Nebesheh in the Eastern Nile Delta. This site is
located 8 miles southeast of
Tanis and, among the remains of an
ancient temple there, Petrie found a royal sphinx, now located at the
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
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 the year 1887
cruising the Nile taking photographs as a less subjective record than
sketches. During this time, he also climbed rope ladders at Sehel
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
In 1890, Petrie made the first of his many forays into Palestine,
leading to much important archaeological work. His six-week excavation
Tell el-Hesi (which was mistakenly identified as Lachish) that year
represents the first scientific excavation of an archaeological site
in the Holy Land. 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.
From 1891, he worked on the temple of
Aten at Tell-el-Amarna,
discovering a 300-square-foot (28 m2)
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
copies that their original appearance is known.
Petrie’s extraordinary visual memory
Mr. Flinders Petrie, a contributor of
interesting experiments on kindred subjects to Nature, informs me that
he habitually works out sums by aid of an imaginary sliding rule,
which he sets in the desired way and reads off mentally.
He does not usually visualise the whole rule,
but only that part of it with which he is at the moment concerned.
I think this is one of the most striking cases
of accurate visualising power it is possible to imagine.
Francis Galton, (1883).
Discovery of the 'Israel' or
In early 1896, Petrie and his archaeological team were conducting
excavations on a temple in Petrie's area of concession at Luxor.
This temple complex was located just north of the original funerary
temple of Amenhotep III which had been built on a flood plain.
They were initially surprised that this building which they were
'was also attributed to
Amenophis III since only his name appeared on
blocks strewn over the site...Could one king have had two mortuary
temples? Petrie dug and soon solved the puzzle: the temple had been
built by Merneptah, the son and successor of Ramesses II, almost
entirely from stone which had been plundered from the temple of
Amenophis III nearby. Statues of the latter had been smashed and the
pieces thrown into the foundations; fragments of couchant stone
jackals, which must have once formed an imposing avenue approaching
the pylon, and broken drums gave some idea of the splendour of the
original temple. A statue of Merenptah himself was found—the first
known portrait of this king....Better was to follow: two splendid
stelae were found, both of them usurped on the reverse side by
Merenptah, who had turned them face to the wall. One, beautifully
Amenophis III in battle with Nubians and Syrians; the
other, of black granite, was over ten feet high, larger than any stela
previously known; the original text commemorated the building
achievements of Amenophis and described the beauties and magnificence
of the temple in which it had stood. When it could be turned over an
inscription of Merenptah recording his triumphs over the Libyans and
the Peoples of the Sea was revealed; [Wilhelm] Spiegelberg [a noted
German philologist] came over to read it, and near the end of the text
he was puzzled by one, that of a people or tribe whom Merenptah had
victoriously smitten-"I.si.ri.ar?" It was Petrie whose quick
imaginative mind leapt[t] to the solution: "Israel!" Spiegelberg
agreed that it must be so. "Won't the reverends be pleased?" was his
comment. At dinner that evening Petrie prophesied: "This stele will be
better known in the world than anything else I have found." It was the
first mention of the word "Israel" in any Egyptian text and the news
made headlines when it reached the English papers.'
During the field season of 1895/6, at the Ramesseum, Petrie and the
young German Egyptologist Wilhelm Spiegelberg became friends.
Spiegelberg was in charge of the edition of many texts discovered by
his British colleague, and Petrie offered important collections of
artefacts to the University of Strasbourg. In 1897, the
Kaiser-Wilhelms-Universität Straßburg gratefully conferred to Petrie
the title of doctor honoris causa, and in June 1902 he was elected
Fellow of the Royal Society
Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS).
In 1923, Petrie was knighted for services to British archaeology and
Egyptology. The focus of his work shifted permanently to Palestine in
1926 (although he did become interested in early Egypt, in 1928
digging a cemetery at
Luxor that proved so huge that he devised an
entirely new excavation system, including comparison charts for finds,
which is still used today). He began excavating several important
sites in the south-west of Palestine, including Tell el-Jemmeh and
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 the W. F. Albright Institute of
Death and preservation of head
Petrie's headstone in the Protestant Cemetery,
Petrie died in
Jerusalem on 28 July 1942. His body was interred in the
Protestant Cemetery on Mount Zion, but he donated his head (and thus
his brain) to the Royal College of Surgeons of London. World War II
was then at its height, and the head was delayed in transit. After
being stored in a jar in the college basement, its label fell off and
no one knew who the head belonged to. However, it was eventually
identified, and is now stored, but not displayed, at the Royal College
Hilda Urlin (1871–1957) in London on 26 November
1896. The couple had two children, John (1907–1972) and Ann
(1909–1989). The family originally lived in Hampstead, where an
English Heritage blue plaque has been placed on the building they
lived in, 5 Cannon Place.
John Flinders Petrie
John Flinders Petrie became a noted
mathematician, who gave his name to the Petrie polygon.
Petrie's painstaking recording and study of artifacts set new
standards in archaeology. He wrote: "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.
After his death, his wife,
Hilda Petrie created a student travel
scholarship to Egypt on the Centennial of Petrie's birth in 1953.
Many thousands of artefacts recovered during excavations led by Petrie
can be found in museums worldwide.
Petrie remains a controversial figure for his pro-eugenics views and
opinions on other social topics, which spilled over into his disputes
with the British Museum's
Egyptology expert, E. A. Wallis Budge.
Budge's contention that the religion of the Egyptians was essentially
identical to the religions of the people of northeastern and central
Africa was regarded by his colleagues as impossible, since all but a
few followed Petrie in his contention that the culture of Ancient
Egypt was derived from an invading Caucasoid "Dynastic Race" which had
conquered Egypt in late prehistory and introduced the Pharaonic
culture. Petrie was a dedicated follower of eugenics, believing
that there was no such thing as cultural or social innovation in human
society, but rather that all social change is the result of biological
change, such as migration and foreign conquest resulting in
interbreeding. Petrie claimed that his "Dynastic Race", in which he
never ceased to believe, was a "fine" Caucasoid race that entered
Egypt from the south in late predynastic times, conquered the
"inferior" and "exhausted" "mulatto" race then inhabiting Egypt, and
slowly introduced the finer Dynastic civilisation as they interbred
with the inferior indigenous people. Petrie, who was also
affiliated with a variety of far right-wing groups and anti-democratic
thought in England and was a dedicated believer in the superiority of
the Northern peoples over the Latinate and Southern peoples,
derided Budge's belief that the ancient Egyptians were an African
people with roots in eastern Africa as impossible and "unscientific",
as did his followers.
His involvement in
Palestinian archaeology was examined in the
exhibition "A Future for the Past: Petrie's Palestinian
The Petrie Medal was created in celebration of Petrie's seventieth
birthday, when funds were raised to commission and produce 20 medals
to be awarded “once in every three years for distinguished work in
Archaeology, preferably to a British subject”. The first medal
was awarded to Petrie himself (1925), and the first few recipients
Aurel Stein (1928), Sir
Arthur Evans (1931), Abbé Henri
Breuil (1934), Prof J.D. Beazley (1937), Sir
Mortimer Wheeler (1950),
Prof J.B. Wace (1953), Sir
Leonard Woolley (1957).
Wikisource has original works written by or about:
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.
Tel el-Hesy (Lachish). London: Palestine Exploration Fund.
"The Tomb-Cutter’s Cubits at Jerusalem,” Palestine Exploration
Fund Quarterly, 1892 Vol. 24: 24–35.
Contributions to the Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th ed.
"Abydos (Egypt)". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). 1911.
"Egypt". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). 1911.
"Pyramid". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). 1911.
"Weights and Measures". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.).
Naukratis, Pt. I, Egypt Exploration Fund, 1886.
Tanis, Pt. I, Egypt Exploration Fund, 1889.
Migrations, Anthropological Inst. of Great Britain and Ireland, 1906.
Janus in Modern Life, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1907.
Eastern Exploration – Past and Future London: Constable and Company
Some Sources of Human History, Society for Promoting Christian
The Status of the Jews in Egypt, G. Allen & Unwin, 1922.
The Revolutions of Civilization, Harper & Brothers, 1922.
Flinders Petrie, 12 years old, c. 1865.
Flinders Petrie, as a young man, n.d.
Flinders Petrie, c. 1886.
Flinders Petrie, by George Frederic Watts, 1900.
Flinders Petrie and
Hilda Petrie in 1903.
Flinders Petrie, Luncheon Party at the House of Commons, 1908.
Petrie at Abydos, Egypt, 1922.
Petrie Exhibiting Material from Tell Fara in London.
Matthew Flinders Petrie, in Jerusalem, ca. late 1930's.
Flinders Petrie, by Ludwig Blum. Painted in
Jerusalem in 1937.
^ Hirst, K. Krist. "An Introduction to Seriation". About.com
Archaeology. About.com. Retrieved 3 April 2011.
^ Smith, Sidney (1945). "William
Matthew Flinders Petrie.
1853–1942". Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society. 5
(14): 3. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1945.0001.
^ Breaking Ground: Women in Old World Archaeology', Sharp, M. S. and
Lesko, B. S. (eds)
^ The Biblical Archaeologist, American Schools of Oriental Research
^ Margaret S. Drower, Flinders Petrie: A Life in Archaeology, 1995,
^ a b Paying homage to pioneering archaeologist who lost his head,
^ T. E. James, "Petrie, William", Oxford Dictionary of National
Matthew Flinders Petrie, Seventy Years in Archaeology, H.
Holt and Company 1932. p. 10.
^ Petrie, Seventy Years, p. 10.
^ Stevenson, Alice. 2012. 'We seem to working in the same line'.
A.H.L.F. Pitt Rivers and W.M.F. Petrie. Bulletin of the History of
Archaeology 22(1): pp.. 4–13.
^ "Sir William Flinders Petrie". Palestine Exploration Fund. 2000.
Retrieved 19 November 2007.
^ Donald P. Hansen, Erica Ehrenberg, eds. Leaving No Stones Unturned:
Essays on the Ancient Near East and Egypt in Honor of Donald P.
Hansen. Archived 4 November 2013 at the Wayback Machine. Eisenbrauns,
2002 ISBN 1575060558
^ Inquiries into Human Facility and Its Development (1883), pp.66;
Galton also noted (on p.66) that, in relation to the slide rule’s
markings, “the artist has not put in the divisions very correctly”
(illustration at page 97, Plate II, Fig.34).] Galton had conducted
research ("Statistics of Mental Imagery", Mind, Vol.5, No.19, (July
1880), pp.301-318.) into the extent to which eminent scientists used
"mental imagery". On the basis that Galton, himself, had a great
personal ability to create, manipulate and employ vivid mental
imagery, he was shocked to discover that most eminent scientists not
only did not habitually employ mental imagery, but were also,
generally, quite incapable of generating “mental images” at will
(Galton, 1880). In order to supply a contrast, Galton cited the
extraordinary case of
Flinders Petrie -- who could easily manipulate
precise technical equipment in the spaces of his own imagination.
^ Drower, Flinders Petrie, pp.220–221
^ a b Drower, Flinders Petrie, p.221
^ F. Petrie, Temples of Thebes 1896, London, 1897. pls X-XIV
^ Frédéric Colin, "Comment la création d’une 'bibliothèque de
papyrus' à Strasbourg compensa la perte des manuscrits précieux
brûlés dans le siège de 1870", in La revue de la BNU, 2, 2010, p.
28-29 ; 33 ; 40–42.
^ "Court Circular". The Times (36787). 6 June 1902. p. 10.
Flinders Petrie Blue Plaque". openplaques.org. Retrieved 3 May
^ Trigger, 1994
^ a b Silberman, 1999
^ "A Future for the Past: Petrie's Palestinian Collection". Retrieved
18 February 2007.
^ "A Future for the Past: Petrie's Palestinian Collection". Retrieved
18 February 2007.
^ Peter J. Ucko and Stephen Quirke, “The Petrie Medal”, Public
Archaeology, vol. 5, no. 1 (2006), pp. 15-25.
^ Sarah Strong and Helen Wang, “Sir Aurel Stein’s Medals at the
Royal Geographical Society”, in
Helen Wang (ed.) Sir Aurel Stein,
Colleagues and Collections (
British Museum Research Publication 184)
Library resources about
Resources in your library
Resources in other libraries
By Flinders Petrie
Resources in your library
Resources in other libraries
E.P. Uphill, "A Bibliography of Sir William
Matthew Flinders Petrie
(1853–1942)," Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 1972 Vol. 31:
Joseph A. Callaway, "Sir Flinders Petrie, Father of Palestinian
Archaeology Review, 1980 Vol. 6, Issue 6:
Margaret S. Drower, Flinders Petrie: A Life in Archaeology, (2nd
publication) University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.
Margaret S. Drower, Letters from the Desert – the
Correspondence of Flinders and Hilda Petrie, Aris & Philips, 2004.
Matthew Flinders Petrie, Seventy Years in Archaeology, H. Holt
and Company 1932
Janet Picton, Stephen Quirke, and Paul C. Roberts (eds), "Living
Images: Egyptian Funerary Portraits in the Petrie Museum.” 2007.
Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek.
Schultz, Teresa and Trumpour, Mark, “The Father of Egyptology” in
Canada. 2009. Journal of the American Research Centre in Egypt, No.
44, 2008. 159 – 167.
Stephen Quirke: Hidden Hands, Egyptian workforces in Petrie excavation
archives, 1880–1924, London 2010 ISBN 978-0-7156-3904-7
Silberman, Neil Asher. “Petrie’s Head:
Eugenics and Near Eastern
Archaeology”, in Alice B. Kehoe and Mary Beth Emmerichs, Assembling
the Past (Albuquerque, NM, 1999).
Stevenson, Alice "'We seem to be working in the same line'. A.H.L.F.
Pitt-Rivers and W.M.F. Petrie. Bulletin of the History of Archaeology,
2012 Vol 22, Issue 1: 4–13.
Trigger, Bruce G. "Paradigms in Sudan Archeology", International
Journal of African Historical Studies, vol. 27, no. 2 (1994).
Wikisource has original text related to this article:
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Matthew Flinders Petrie: The Father of Egyptian Archaeology,
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Hilda Mary Isobel Petrie born Urlin (1871–1956)
Petrie Museum of Egyptian
Archaeology in London
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