Flinders Petrie: Get to Know the Father of Archaeology

Sir Flinders Petrie excavated over 40 sites in Egypt. His collection forms the basis of the Petrie Museum of Archaeology and other archaeologists are indebted to the methodologies he developed.

Apr 29, 2020By Nicole B. Hansen, PhD & MA in Egyptology, BA Egyptology
English Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie
English Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie examining artifacts, 1930s, via Hulton Archive, Getty


No excavator has had as a huge impact on Egyptian archaeology with regards to methodology or even collecting of artifacts from a wide variety of sites as Sir Flinders Petrie. As an Egyptological student in the 1990s, I heard legendary stories that had been passed down from generation to generation by Egyptologists about his work and personality.


Flinders Petrie Brought Canned Food from England during His Excavations

McCall's Paysandu Ox Tongues
An old advertisement for McCall’s Paysandu Ox Tongues, 1884, some of the canned food Petrie may have stored and eaten, via the British Library


The story that has stuck in my mind the most was that he brought canned foods from England to eat during his excavations. These were likely foods he could not obtain in Egypt such as salted beef tongue and salmon. Sometimes he left these cans sitting around in Egypt’s dusty and hot climate for a decade or more. Yet Petrie was a skinflint who didn’t want to waste them. He was said to toss a can against a stone wall, and if it didn’t break, he would deem it safe to eat.


A black and white photo of a Flinders Petrie
Sir Flinders Petrie, 1880s, via UCL


Who was this man with an iron stomach and an iron trowel that uncovered some of Egypt’s most important archaeological sites? Read on to separate fact from fiction.


A Precocious Archaeologist from an Early Age

Flinders Petrie at the age of 8
Flinders Petrie at the age of 8 with his mother Anne


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Petrie was born in England in 1863. Like many scholars of the 19th century, he lacked any sort of formal education and the education he had ended at the age of 10. However, he read voraciously and taught himself subjects such as chemistry. His father taught him how to do surveying, with the pair surveying Stonehenge in six days. He also had formal tutoring in relevant languages such as Greek, Latin, and French from a young age.

In his autobiography penned at the age of 70, he claimed that his interest in archaeology was piqued at the age of 8. Family friends were describing the excavation of a Roman period villa, and he was horrified that the site was not excavated carefully, inch by inch. At the same age, he started purchasing antique coins, hunting for fossils, and experimenting with his mother’s personal mineral collection. While still a teenager, he was hired by the British Museum to collect coins on their behalf.


Petrie and his wife Hilda, 1903
Petrie and his wife Hilda, 1903


At the age of 25, he hired an artist named Hilda to work with him. She later became his wife and followed him to Egypt and beyond.


A Prolific Digger Who Excavated Over 40 Ancient Egyptian Sites

Some artifacts from Petrie’s excavations
Some artifacts from Petrie’s excavations


Petrie first went to Egypt in 1880 and put his surveying skills to work on measuring the Great Pyramid, living in an ancient tomb while he worked. While there, he was disturbed by the rapid destruction of archaeological sites, which farmers were plundering for the nitrogen-rich fertilizer they yielded, called sebbakh in Arabic.

He returned the next year to salvage what he could of the sites in Egypt. Tanis, the capital of Egypt during Dynasties 21 and 22, was the first site he dug. He went on to make important finds at other sites. He engaged in the first excavation of a town in Egypt at al-Lahun (Kahun). He uncovered the temple of Aten at Amarna founded by Akhenaten. During his excavations on the West Bank at Luxor, he discovered important memorial temples such as those of Ramesses II and Amenhotep III, which are still under excavation today. He also systematically excavated the pre-dynastic cemetery at Naqada and uncovered the royal First Dynasty tombs at Abydos. In total, he conducted excavations at over 40 sites in Egypt. His main focus was on collecting artifacts.


A Prickly Personality and Prejudices

After his first decade in Egypt, he wrote a book entitled Ten Years Digging in Egypt, in which he expounded on his excavations and methods. However, he also revealed his prejudices and opinions about the people he encountered during his work in this book.

He didn’t care for tourists who came to Egypt in search of a better climate for their health, which was the most popular reason for foreigners to visit Egypt during the 19th century. He wrote:

So much is Egypt the resort of the invalid, that the guide-books seem all infected with invalidism; and to read their directions, it might be supposed that no Englishman could walk a mile or more without an attendant of some kind.

However, he was welcoming to those who traveled for intellectual reasons with an interest in the ancient sites. He suggested they rough it in Egypt as he did on his own excavations by bringing along a tent and other camping supplies, including canned goods. Nonetheless, he was dismayed by an incident where some tourists destroyed the field of a farmer near his excavation when trying to come see it. The farmer retaliated by destroying the architectural feature he was excavating.


dig house in Abydos
Petrie roughing it at his dig house in Abydos in 1901, accompanied by his sister-in-law


Petrie also looked down on the local population he encountered. He compared their way of life to that of medieval England:

There is the same prevalence of the power of the great man of the village; the same rough-and-ready justice administered by him; the same lack of intercommunication, the same suspicion of strangers; the absence of roads, and use of pack animals, is alike; the lack of shops in all but large towns, and the great importance of the weekly markets in each village, is similar again; and the mental state of the people.

Predynastic skeletons
Predynastic skeletons excavated by Petrie, via Kline Books


Petrie’s racist biases also manifested themselves in his research. Most people aren’t aware he was a proponent of eugenics, or selective breeding of humans to increase desirable traits. He helped other eugenics proponents by collecting ancient skulls and taking photos of modern-day Egyptians to help with their research. He also wrote two little known books on the topic.


Death and Decapitation

The controversies surrounding Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun led the Egyptian government to change the system of dividing finds with their excavators. Petrie declared this situation “farcical.” He left Egypt in 1926 to excavate in Palestine until 1938. One of the most important sites he excavated there was Tell el-Ajjul.


Petrie with his famous ‘biscuit-tin camera’
Petrie with his famous ‘biscuit-tin camera’ at Tel al-Ajjul, Gaza, 1933.


For decades, rumor had it that he had his head removed after his death in 1942 to donate to science to support his eugenics theories. Some said his wife carried her own husband’s head back to London in a box after World War II ended, but this part of the legend is false. However, his head indeed is part of the collection of the Royal College of Surgeons of England in London. But for a long time it remained unidentified as the label had fallen off the jar that contained it.


Flinders Petrie Developed His Own Technique For Dating

Pre-dynastic wavy handled pot
Pre-dynastic wavy handled pot, Predynastic, Naqada II, circa 3500 B.C. via Met Museum


Petrie not only made noteworthy contributions to field of Egyptian archaeology, but also to the field of archaeology worldwide. The most important of these was sequence dating, a technique he developed while excavating the pre-dynastic site of Naqada. Here, he found pottery in 900 graves, and arranged them into nine types, whose popularity waxed and waned over time. He used these changes to develop a relative chronology for the graves. Archaeologists used the same technique all over the world in archaeology, but modern techniques such as radiocarbon dating have mostly supplanted sequence dating.


Workmen from Qift Monopolized Excavation Sites

Qifti Kassar Umbarak with another archaeologist
Qifti Kassar Umbarak with another archaeologist on John Pendlebury’s excavation at Tell el-Amarna


Petrie did not trust the people of Luxor to work on his excavations and instead hired and trained workmen from the village of Qift to the north. He also did not trust Egyptian foreman and supervised the hundreds of workers he hired directly himself. As a result, for many years, the Qiftis maintained a monopoly on digging archaeological sites throughout the country. Even other archaeologists sought them out and employed them.

However, archaeologists found the methods of the Qiftis increasingly outdated in a world of scientific methods and chose to train inexperienced men who didn’t have preconceived notions of how to dig. Ironically the tables have turned. Nowadays, the descendants of the residents of Luxor that Petrie shunned are now highly skilled in modern archaeological methods and in high demand around the country.


Egypt Exploration Society

A Thousand Miles Up the Nile by Amelia Edwards
A Thousand Miles Up the Nile by Amelia Edwards


In the late 19th century, there were no government grants for archaeological projects. Those who wanted to dig had to either be independently wealthy or find wealthy patrons. Amelia Edwards, best known for her popular travel account A Thousand Miles Up the Nile, set up the Egypt Exploration Fund in 1882. Its purpose was to raise money to sponsor digs in Egypt, primarily the work of Petrie in the beginning. The success of his excavations was vital to the popularity of the organization, which changed its name to the Egypt Exploration Society in 1914. The organization still exists today as the representative of British archaeological missions in Egypt and sponsors lecture series, tours and scholarships for students.


A Lasting Legacy

The Petrie Medal, via UCL
The Petrie Medal, via UCL


On 25 July 1923, Flinders Petrie was knighted for services to Egypt, hence the title Sir Flinders Petrie. Two years later the first Petrie Medal was created in celebration of his 70th birthday and his distinguished work in archaeology.

Petrie contributed an outsized legacy to Egyptology and archaeology as a whole that has lasted until the present day.

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By Nicole B. HansenPhD & MA in Egyptology, BA EgyptologyNicole B. Hansen received her PhD and MA in Egyptology from the University of Chicago and her BA in Egyptology from UC Berkeley. She worked for the Giza Plateau Mapping Project at the Giza Pyramids and for the Theban Mapping Project’s Cairo office. She taught courses on Egyptian art, language and culture at the University of Chicago, the American University in Cairo and Amideast. She has a special interest in the continuity of ancient Egyptian culture until the present day, animals, medicine, magic and culinary history and lives in a village in Luxor a short distance from the archaeological sites.