In the heart of Hampstead Village, home to many famous and gifted people, is the Blue Plaque which honours Flinders Petrie, a great Archaeologist and noted Egyptologist. It can be seen at 5 Cannon Place, which was his earthly dwelling, his spiritual home being ancient Egypt.
Flinders Petrie was born at Charlton, near Greenwich, in 1853. There were adventurers in the family, Petries grandfather was the first person to chart Australia, and his own father was an inspired industrial engineer.
Poor health meant Petrie was educated at home. His mother, a scholar, taught him Latin, Greek and Hebrew. From his father he learned the use of a sextant and how to map and survey sites. Mathematics and Chemistry always fascinated him. He made studies of English Archaeological sites,including Stonehenge.His first book, ` Inductive Metrology ` was published when he was only twenty two years old. The title needs translating ! The book is about ancient weights and measures.
Before Flinders Petrie came on the scene, Archaeologists tended to wander around sites removing any object considered to be of artistic interest.
They simply ignored stratification and how it related to established chronology. Petrie, however, was a revolutionary ( rare among us Archaeologists ! ).He set up, for the first time, systematic observation of all finds. He also left intact the different layers of the site and their relative position in it. We owe sequence dating to him. This is a system of chronology which involves detailed study of the stylistic and technical development of all excavated objects. Flinders Petrie realised that when reconstructing the past, every broken pot or shard is as important as a great monument.
The mathematical and astronomical aspects of the Pyramids intrigued Petrie, and he travelled to Egypt to research them, particularly Giza. The results were published in 1833 and still used by students today. Material was sent to the British Museum and Petrie established a system of meticulous records which he followed throughout his career.
The Egyptian Exploration Fund employed him to carry out several excavations, which included Tanis and Naucratis. Later Jesse Haworth funded further work such as the excavations at Illahun and tombs from the Middle Kingdom. Following work at Naqada Petrie established the existence of an extensive period of civilisation now known as the
pre-dynastic period. This was probably his greatest contribution to Egyptology.
In 1892 Flinders Petrie was appointed to the first ever Chair of Egyptology in Uk, namely the Edwards Professor of Egyptian Archaeology and Philology at University College, London. He donated his collection of Egyptian antiquities to the College where they are housed in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology.
During my post graduate studies in classical Archaeology at UCL I spent time in that museum and wondered why some of us are drawn to a particular ancient civilisation. The answer lies in a quotation from Petrie himself,
" All that I have done since, 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."
Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie lived and worked in the Near East for some years before he died in Jerusalem in 1942.