BMCR 1996.04.30

1996.4.30, Drower, Flinders Petrie

, Flinders Petrie : a life in archaeology. Wisconsin studies in classics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995. 1 online resource (xxiv, 500 pages, 48 unnumbered pages of plates) : illustrations, maps.. ISBN 0299146235. $17.50.

Rarely does an archaeological book so effortlessly combine scholarship with readability; happily, Ms Drower’s biography of Flinders Petrie achieves both goals.

Drower’s sweeping tome captures the life and times of one of the most important figures of modern archaeology in an erudite and thoroughly entertaining fashion. This edition is a re-release of her biography in paperback by the University of Wisconsin Press, nearly 10 years after its initial publication in hardback. In the process, the book has profited from additional information gleaned from recent research.

The author deals chronologically with Petrie’s life and work, drawn from meticulous research, interviews and personal papers. Beginning with a family history, each chapter follows successive developments in Petrie’s career: early life, introduction to science, his initial years in archaeology and subsequent career. Rather than dealing with 10 year blocks, the author neatly allows Petrie’s life to divide the book through the various stages of his work and research interests. The book concludes with an extensive index and maps of Egypt and Palestine. A useful list of Petrie’s fieldwork and publications is included as additional appendices.

This book is also a story about Hilda Petrie. She appears on the scene in Chapter 10, and thereafter became an integral part of her husband’s later success as researcher, fieldworker, fundraiser, scholar, mother, wife and administrator. Without her Petrie could not have achieved the enormous output which characterised his work. An earlier reviewer has suggested that the biography of Hilda Petrie is yet to be written, but her life became so intertwined with that of her husband (and his with hers) that one suspects Drower’s book will remain the definitive account of Hilda’s life and work for some time, despite the obvious gaps in the narrative of her life.

The author attempts to deal frankly with Petrie’s brilliance and shortcomings. Throughout the book, we glimpse Petrie’s stubborn and even opportunistic nature in his academic writing and jousting with other scholars. For example, in the 1890’s, when faced with overwhelming evidence for the presence of Predynastic Egyptians, Petrie steadfastly clung to his view that “of prehistoric man no trace has been found in Egypt.”1 Eventually the excavations of Jacques de Morgan at Naqada forced him to accept the existence of this group and an early date for his own Naqada material. Petrie was not one to readily admit his mistakes, particularly at the hands of people he despised, even in the face of weighty evidence to the contrary.

However, if one single message rings clearly from this book, it is the debt that archaeology owes to this man. For notwithstanding the fact that later in his career, archaeology as a discipline had clearly moved beyond Petrie in the area of method and recording, his brilliance stands tall in many respects. He had a great intuitive ‘feel’ for archaeological evidence. For example, his seriation of Predynastic pottery from the Naqada graves still forms the basis of pottery studies and the chronology of the period. Petrie rightly can be called the founder of Egyptian and Syro-Palestinian archaeology. Many of the next generation of fieldworkers and scholars in Egypt and the Levant passed through his hands: Howard Carter, F.L. Griffith, Olga Tufnell, G. Lankester Harding, Percy Newberry and countless others. And for an era which still regarded the role of women very narrowly, Petrie was prepared to foster and train women when presented with talented and enthusiastic female students.

In addition, basic recording methods were devised by him in the late 19th century, setting the standard for his contemporaries and making some of these early excavation reports of value today, however limited. Many of his reports remain mandatory reading, especially the many corpora of objects which are only now being superseded by more detailed studies. Perhaps these were his most valuable publications, written in his later years when the Great War forced an hiatus in excavation work. Sadly his eagerness to return to the field meant that time to write further syntheses was lost.

Many scholars still return to Petrie’s excavations to work and re-work published and unpublished data. One feels that he would be at once dismayed yet approving of projects like the DAI’s recent work at the Umm el Ga’ab at Abydos. At the site, German archaeologists have spent much time sifting through his spoil heaps and re-excavating many old tombs. Petrie would have been dismayed that he missed so much, yet pleased and approving at the additional secrets yielded by the site through further work and new scientific methods.

Indeed, Petrie’s insistence on publishing results immediately ensured that his material became rapidly available, but it suffered in being selectively published and with little of the real analysis of which Petrie was capable. In addition, his constant movement from site to site, often of completely different archaeological periods, meant that there was never an opportunity for serious reflection and detailed research on the wider implications of his results. What motivated such a voracious appetite for new sites is hard to fathom, be it a character which was easily bored or the pressures of institutional subscribers who needed fresh excitement each year. Either way it must be admitted that in his later years, many sites in Egypt and Palestine suffered under his hands, and many of these later publications are nearly useless. Drower deals rather too kindly with this aspect of Petrie’s career and personality.

However, the author also tries to give us a broader picture of Petrie by tracing his early influences, the people who shaped them and the milieu in which he lived. The sketch of Victorian middle class family and intellectual life is a remarkably honest portrait, avoiding the often sentimental approach to the era which permeates the modern media. We gain a real sense of the nature of his personal relationships with colleagues, family, students, the authorities, and his beloved fellahin. Petrie was also an activist and a person of strong political convictions. This latter aspect of his character is striking, for Petrie was a very conservative “rugged individualist”. His disdain for authority, pomposity and vanity in all its forms, and a distaste for those he thought were fools, often made for difficult, even downright hostile, relationships throughout his life.

Some minor comments can be made about the paperback release. In the hardback edition, many photographs were beautifully printed in black and white and full colour, enhancing the reader’s enjoyment of the book. Unfortunately, many of the photographs have suffered greatly in the reprint by being reproduced on very poor quality paper. While the paper and reproduction undoubtedly make the book cheaper and therefore more accessible, several photographs are so murky that little detail can be distinguished.

Secondly, a map of England noting towns mentioned in the text would have been helpful, especially for those readers not familiar with the geography of the English countryside. Perhaps this could be added to a future edition.

However, these minor shortcomings should not detract from what will remain the definitive account of the great life and work of Flinders and Hilda Petrie. It should be mandatory reading for all students who must work with Petrie’s excavation reports, in addition to those who seek a broader understanding of the development of archaeology as a scientific discipline.

  • [1] W.M.F. Petrie, A History of Egypt from the Earliest Times to the XVIth Dynasty, Vol. 1 (London, 1894), 8.