Egypt: William Flinders Petrie, Father of Pots

William Flinders Petrie, Father of Pots

By Marie Parsons

In the words of James Baikie, author of the book A Century of Excavation in the Land of the Pharaohs, "if the name of any one man must be associated with modern excavation as that of the chief begetter of its principles and methods, it must be the name of Professor Sir W.M. Flinders Petrie. It was hewho first called the attention of modern excavators to the importance f "unconsidered trifles" as means for the construction of the pastthe broken earthenware of a people may be of far greater value than its most gigantic monuments."

William Flinders Petrie, Father of Pots

William Matthew Flinders Petrie was the grandson of the first man to chart Australia. When he was four Petrie became so ill his mother became convinced that he was a weak child. Since she was a scholar herself, she taught him at home and introduced him to Hebrew, Latin and Greek. Later on, he was taught by a governess, but when he became ill again, his official education effectively ended.

Petrie had an inquisitive mind and developed an insatiable appetite for facts, toying with mathematics, discovering geometry and Euclid and devising chemical experiments at the age of 15. His father, an industrial engineer, taught him the use of a sextant and how to map sites, so by the time he was 18 Petrie spent days alone making surveys around his home. He wrote his first book at the age of 22 on the recovery of Ancient Measurements from Monuments, based on work he had done at Stonehenge.

In 1867 Petrie read with interest books written by a family friend, Charles Piazzi-Smyth, the Scottish Astronomer Royal, on the Great Pyramid of Giza, whose measurements, the author swore, epitomized all mathematical and astronomical knowledge, past, present and future. Petrie wrote to him that "pi" must have been used in calculating the pyramid.

Between 1880 and 1882, Petrie went to Egypt to confirm those results, since the book was heavily criticized. He traveled to Giza and the Great Pyramids, Saqqara, Dahshur and the Bent Pyramid, and Abu Rawash, exploring the pyramids interiors and measured and triangulated. Petrie also walked through the Theban tombs behind the temple of Medinet Habu. He returned again to Giza, measuring the thickness of sides and base of the royal sarcophagus and of the inside floor. He eventually found that every measurement Piazzi-Smyth had taken was inaccurate. Petries own survey, the Pyramids and Temples of Giza, was published in 1883 and remains a standard in the field.

Before he had left for Egypt, Petrie visited Samuel Birch, Keeper of the British Museum, who suggested Petrie bring back some samples of pottery. Petrie thus began the process of keeping the meticulous records he would continue to use throughout his career. He noted and marked on each pot or shard the exact location where it had been found, and also listed the other artifacts present in the same context. Petrie was eventually given the Arabic name "Abu Bagousheh", father of pots.

Dr. Poole of the British museum was so impressed by Petries work to-date that he recommended Petrie to the Egypt Exploration Fund, who needed an archaeologist in Egypt to succeed Edouard Naville. Petrie accepted and was given the sum of 250 pounds per month to cover his plus the excavations expenses. In November 1884, Petrie arrived in Egypt and excavated at Tanis, at Naucratis, a city had been built to house the Greek residents living in Egypt and which he himself discovered, and at Tell Farun and Defenneh.

Petrie was not the first excavator in Egypt. But he was severely critical of the shoddy work done by his predecessors. He wrote, "Nothing seems to be done with any uniform or regular plan, work is begun and left unfinished; no regard is paid to future requirements of exploration, and no civilized or labor saving devices are used. It is sickening to see the rate at which everything is being destroyed and the little regard paid to preservation." His two greatest supporters and patrons, Jesse Haworth, a wealthy Manchester businessman, and Amelia Edwards, one of the founders of the Egypt Exploration Fund who had herself written an account of journeying down the Nile, shared his opinion.

William Flinders Petrie, Father of Pots

From every site Petrie excavated he sent back thousands of objects, most of those tiny pieces regarded by his predecessors as unimportant. He gave a small reward to any workman who found something to ensure nothing found its way to the black market. But the Egypt Exploration Fund committee clashed with Petrie, as he was severely critical of its wasteful mis-mangement and intolerant of its criticisms of his work. In 1886 Petrie tendered his resignation from the Fund. With Haworths support, Petrie excavated at Illahun, Kahun, the tomb of Senwosret I dated from the Middle Kingdom and its workers village, and Gurob, another town nearby.

He set up an independent organization called the Egypt Research Account, later to become the British School of Archaeology in Egypt. He was also appointed the first Edwards Professor of Egyptology at University College in London, which he held from 1892 to 1933. He personally trained many, such as James Quibell, Gertrude Caton-Thompson and Guy Brunton, who themselves went on to become masters in the field.

Though he was eccentric and fickle, never quite mastering Arabic, Petrie set the standard for every other Egyptologist with his meticulous excavations, and thorough analysis. Despite his interest in the conservation and display in a museum context of all objects, he understood that excavated material would eventually deteriorate and thus should be promptly published. He wrote over a thousand books, articles and reviews reporting on his excavations and his finds.

With all his body of work in Egypt, excavating almost every major site over more than 37 years, perhaps Petries most significant contribution made to Egyptology was the discovery of the existence of an extensive period of civilization prior to what had been called the First Dynasty. This preceding period is now known as the Predynastic Period and Petrie first devised his "Sequence dating" at the site of Naqada.

William Flinders Petrie, Father of Pots

In 1894 Petrie arrived at Naqada on the west bank of the Nile, about 20 miles north of Luxor. He took on James Quibell as companion and assistant. Quibell himself would go on to work at Hierakonpolis and discover the Narmer palette in the Main Deposit there.

Over the next few months, more than 2200 shallow pit graves were discovered, each occupant curled into fetal position and accompanied by lavish grave goods, from ivory figurines and combs to simple slate palettes, and a variety of pots and jars. No inscriptions were found, leading Petrie to conjecture that these graves belonged to foreigners who had invaded Egypt during the First Intermediate Period. But by 1899, after examining more cemeteries at Abydos and Hu, Petrie concurred with the theory held by Quibell and others, that these were the cemeteries of the earliest settlers in Egypt.

Petrie began to analyze the grave goods methodically. Grave A might contain certain types of pot in common with Grave B; Grave B also contained a later style of pot, the only type to be found in Grave C. By writing cards for each grave and filing them in logical order, Petrie established a full sequence for the cemetery, concluding that the last graves were probably contemporary with the First Dynasty. The development of life along the Nile thus was revealed, from early settlers to farmers to political stratification.

Three phases of this Predynastic Naqada culture are now recognized, as first set described by Flinders Petrie. The earliest is called Naqada I or Amratian (since similar pottery types were found at the site of el-Amra). This is characterized by black-topped red ware with white cross-lined bodies. The next culture was Naqada II, or Gerzean, characterized by decorated wavy-handled pots.

Flinders Petrie left Egypt in 1923 and went on to excavate in the Near East, where he traced Egyptian trade and cultural links, and added even more information to the field of Egyptology and expanded the breadth of growing knowledge of our ancient past.

  • From World of the Pharaohs by Christine Hobson
  • From The Experience of Ancient Egypt by Rosalie David
  • From Flinders Petrie: A Life in Archaeology by Margaret S. Drower