William Flinders Petrie wasn’t the first Egyptologist to refer to himself as an “archaeologist” as well. By the latter half of the 19th century, as he was making his name on the Giza Plateau and elsewhere, the newer word had been in the process of replacing the older “antiquary” or “antiquarian” for quite some time.
Nevertheless, one could argue that Petrie really was the first to embody all of the qualities we associate with the serious archaeologist of today. “He found archaeology in Egypt a treasure hunt,” writes his biographer Margaret S. Drower. “He left it a science.” Petrie was the first to recognize that the big, spectacular finds — the sort which captured worldwide newspaper headlines and made international heroes out of men like Giovanni Belzoni and Auguste Mariette — weren’t always the most important to the cause of understanding the civilizations of the past. Fragments of pottery and plebeian household utensils — the sort of things the treasure hunters had impatiently tossed over their shoulders and heedlessly trodden upon — could tell as much or more about the real ancient Egyptians as their most magnificent ceremonial monuments. Consider the question in the context of the artifacts we too must someday leave behind us. What will tell the archaeologist of the future more about the way most of us live now, the Statue of Liberty or the contents of an average suburban home?
In light of all this, it’s remarkable and more than a little ironic to realize that Flinders Petrie, that foremost pioneer of scientific Egyptology, owed his career to the mystical imaginings of Charles Piazzi Smyth. Indeed, he owed the Smyth family even more than that. “The first chance in life is ever being born at all,” he wrote to open his autobiography, “and a mighty uncertain affair it seems to us mortals.” But for the Smyth family, that first and most fundamental chance of all would never have come for him.
Well before Flinders Petrie’s birth, the Petrie and Smyth families inhabited the same London social circles, and were frequent guests in one another’s drawing rooms. They were similar in many ways: proud, respectable, relatively prosperous but not so much so that they could count themselves full-time members of the leisured class. On the contrary: they were known for their professional and intellectual achievement, for combining Christian piety with a dedication to the practical principles of science and engineering.
Thus it was that the young William Petrie, an up-and-comer in the new field of electrical engineering, met his future wife at the Smyth’s house circa 1845. Anne Flinders was a member of another prominent family within the same social circle, a somewhat older woman of considerable intellectual prowess in her own right, who had anonymously published novels, stories, and poems, usually with religious themes, and had authored a grand study which attempted to link all of the world’s religions back to the Old Testament. William and Anne were married in 1851, after a courtship that had lasted more than five years. They had only one child, for Anne was already 40 years old at the time of the marriage. That child was William Flinders Petrie, born on June 3, 1853.
The youngster was brought up in the best Petrie tradition of piety and intellectualism. He would later reckon that he became an archaeologist in spirit if not in title at the age of 8, when he discovered coin collecting; he took to spending his weekly allowance on random piles of old coins down at the London wharf-side shops, then painstakingly sorting through them to determine their provenance. By his teenage years, he had taken to tramping around Kent, surveying the earthworks and other ancient remains to be found there. Unlike most of the male Petrie line, he was apparently little troubled by the need to find a paying career, thanks to adoring parents who were more than happy to regard him as an intellectual prodigy. He thus spent much of his early- and mid-twenties assembling a record of the ancient monuments of southern England, including Stonehenge. His work was distinguished by its meticulous commitment to accuracy, which gradually made a name for him despite his lack of formal university credentials; he gave his first lecture to the Royal Archaeological Institute in 1877.
Yet the budding archaeologist remained devoutly religious, and still adhered to a Bible-centric view of history. He and his father became dedicated students of the pyramidal teachings of the old family friend Piazzi Smyth, and became stalwart allies with him in his battles against a skeptical archaeological establishment. They constantly searched for new mathematical correspondences to add to the Pyramid of Khufu’s storehouse of mystical wisdom. It was, for example, William Petrie the senior who first pointed out to Smyth that the pyramid’s height was by his reckoning exactly one-billionth of the mean distance from the earth to the sun, a “discovery” which promptly found its way into Smyth’s latest writings and lectures. William Petrie soon began giving lectures of his own for church congregations, with titles like “The Great Pyramid; showing reasons for its sanctity in God’s sight and why it is not mentioned expressly as well as implicitly in Scripture.” He even made plans to visit the Giza Plateau with Smyth in 1872, as part of his preparations for a possible book of his own on the subject, but familial and professional commitments ultimately forced him to cancel.
Even as the elder Petrie was talking about writing a book on the religious implications of the Pyramid of Khufu, the younger Petrie, who was every bit as committed as his father was to the ideas of Smyth during this period, was actually doing so. No respectable archaeologist has ever written a less respectable first book than Flinders Petrie. His stated purpose in Researches on the Great Pyramid, published in 1874, was to “confirm those distinctive principles of its design and construction, first announced by the sagacity of John Taylor and Professor Piazzi Smyth.” The hunt for new mystical meanings in the Pyramid of Khufu had long since become a free-for-all among the true believers, and Petrie now gleefully piled on to the accumulating store of wisdom. The “coffer” — i..e., sepulcher — inside the King’s Chamber was a scale model of the pyramid itself if you twisted its measurements around just so; the northeast diagonal of the pyramid pointed directly to Mount Ararat, believed by many to be the location of the fabled Lost Ark of the Covenant; etc., etc.
Perhaps luckily for Petrie’s subsequent career, his book attracted little notice amidst the flood of such works unleashed by Smyth. After writing it, he remained committed to the theories it contained for at least some period of time, but also departed from Smyth, from his father, and from most of their fellow travelers by developing a passion for the real ancient Egypt as well. He studied closely the Egyptian artifacts in the British Museum’s collection; learned to some extent to read hieroglyphs; talked for hours on end with his informal advisor Samuel Birch, who forty years after serving as Vyse’s hieroglyph translator was still employed at the British Museum as its Egyptologist in residence. It was all preparation for a journey he felt he simply had to take: a trip to the Giza Plateau, to see and to measure for himself.
For a long time, the plan was for the elder and younger Petrie to visit Egypt together, but the former kept dragging his feet — perhaps out of fear of what a sober-minded look at the place would mean for Smyth’s theories, or perhaps out of fear of Egypt’s sheer exoticism. The younger Petrie, it seems likely, was already growing skeptical of Smyth’s theories by this point, as the extraordinary scope and achievements of the real ancient Egyptian civilization revealed themselves to him:
The object in view was to decisively test the various theories concerning the pyramids, which were then being widely discussed on very insufficient knowledge. If all, or any, of these theories were correct, there were some very tough questions to be picked over between different parties; but the first question to be settled was whether the theories agreed with the actual facts of the case, as if they did not there was no need of further discussion. They must pass the test of fact before they could be further considered on the grounds of their abstract probability or metaphysical coherence. One of the most obvious of all the facts, and most deeply concerned in the various theories, was the actual size of the great pyramid; yet this was not known with any accuracy, the best measurements varying by several feet. Most of the theories involved the notion of extreme accuracy of workmanship, yet we were entirely ignorant of the amount of accuracy in the form of the pyramid, and in most of its internal construction.
Finally, the son grew tired of waiting for the father. On November 29, 1880, a 27-year-old Flinders Petrie boarded a passenger liner in Liverpool for the passage to Alexandria. He was accompanied by nineteen boxes of surveying equipment, most of it of his own design. The polite fiction had it that his father would follow shortly. In reality, he never would, offering up an almost comical litany of excuses: Flinders’s mother had the flu, a storm had blown the garden fence down, etc.
The younger Petrie hadn’t secured any advance permission to work on the Giza Plateau from Auguste Mariette, whose control over all of the ancient sites in Egypt remained as absolute as ever. But, upon his arrival in Cairo, he learned that the French Director of Antiquities was gravely ill, in fact on the verge of death. His countrymen in Cairo advised him to take advantage of the rare chance this represented: he shouldn’t seek an audience with the Office of Antiquities to submit an application for a formal permit that would take months to obtain if it wasn’t rejected outright, but merely set up his camp on the Giza Plateau and start measuring. As it happened, this attitude that it’s better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission suited Petrie’s personality perfectly.
Flinders Petrie truly was the first of a new breed of Egyptologist. In contrast to the veritable army of native workers with which a stiff character like Vyse had surrounded himself, he employed only a single manservant, a grizzled old Egyptian who had worked for Vyse back in 1837, then assisted Smyth as well in 1865. Then, too, Petrie greeted his new surroundings without a trace of the snobbish contempt shown by Vyse. The first thing he did was to make himself a hammock to sleep in. Then he considered where to put it.
The first consideration on reaching Egypt was where to be housed. In those days there was no luxurious hotel close to the pyramids; if any one needed to live there, they must either live in a tomb or in the Arab village. As an English engineer had left a tomb fitted with door and shutters I was glad to get such accommodation. When I say a tomb, it must be understood to be the upper chamber where the Egyptian fed his ancestors with offerings, not the actual sepulchre. And I had three rooms, which had belonged to separate tombs originally; the thin walls of rock which the economical Egyptian left between his cuttings, had been broken away, and so I had a doorway in the middle into my living-room, a window on one side for my bedroom, and another window opposite for a store-room. I resided here for a great part of two years; and often when in draughty houses, or chilly tents, I have wished myself back in my tomb. No place is so equable in heat and cold, as a room cut out in solid rock; it seems as good as a fire in cold weather, and deliciously cool in the heat.
This fearless young eccentric’s earliest days in Egypt have passed into archaeological lore. “Life here is really comfortable,” he wrote to friends back home, “without many of the encumbrances of regular hours: bells, collars and cuffs, blacking, tablecloths or many of the other unnecessaries of Civilization.” He lived on rice, tomatoes, eggs, hardtack, and oranges, preparing his meals himself in his single frying pan. His constant bane were the tourists, of whom ever-increasing numbers were visiting the Giza Plateau in this age of steam and economic prosperity. To keep them out of his way, he deliberately cultivated a reputation for himself as the homeless lunatic who lived full-time in a tomb. He often worked naked or nearly so inside the Pyramid of Khufu — quite a horrifying sight indeed for prudish Victorian ladies! Outside, he had to dress himself to keep the sun off his delicate English skin, but he favored the color pink to “keep the tourist at bay, as the creature seemed too queer for his inspection.”
Working all by himself for twelve hours or more at a stretch, six days per week, Petrie conducted the most exhaustive survey of the Giza Plateau yet attempted. Unlike Smyth a decade and a half before, he surveyed all three of the great pyramids with equal interest, along with the half-dozen smaller ones that surrounded them. And in addition to his survey work, which in some corners of the plateau has yet to be bettered, he did the sort of thankless, detail-oriented archaeological work that no one before him on the Giza Plateau had even dreamed of attempting.
For example, he picked up every pottery fragment he came across, filing it away with a note stating exactly where he had found it. The plateau being the historical palimpsest it was, the fragments were of many different styles. In time, Petrie came to be able to distinguish their differences and thereby to tie the various fragments to various epochs: Roman, Ptolemaic, New Kingdom, Middle Kingom, or — in the case of the rarest and most precious finds of all — the Old Kingdom of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure. He also collected, examined, and recorded beads, fragments of tools, and even bits of the smooth casings that had once covered the pyramids, all with the same meticulousness. No one had ever paid much attention to this stuff before, but it would in its way prove to be every bit as valuable as the pyramids themselves for understanding Egyptian culture and history.
After some five months’ work on the Giza Plateau, Petrie was finally forced out of his tomb by the scorching Egyptian summer; he arrived back home in London on June 23, 1881. But he already knew that he would return as soon as the weather permitted. His greatest frustration the previous season had been his inability to accomplish the seemingly simple task of getting an exact measurement of the pyramids’ dimensions. Like everyone who had attempted such a thing before him, he’d been stymied by the sand and debris piled up around the pyramids, into which he had no permit to dig. Yet he had hopes of changing that: the notoriously imperious Mariette had died the previous January. The latter’s replacement, Gaston Maspero, was still French, but was showing signs of being more open and accommodating to independent — and non-French — archaeologists. Petrie planned to meet with him as soon as he arrived back in Cairo that October. In the meantime, he made sure to acquire the one kind of instrument which had been most conspicuously absent from his arsenal last time around: a camera. Characteristically, he designed and built one from scratch that would suit his purposes perfectly.
At their meeting upon Petrie’s return to Cairo, Maspero did indeed grant him a permit “to uncover some of the points of original construction which are requisite for the completion of the subject” of his measurements. The French adviser/overseer who was appointed to him as one of the mixed blessings of his newly official status was astonished at his mode of living on the Giza Plateau, and tried to persuade him to rent proper accommodations nearby. Petrie was having none of it, saying he needed only “bread, dates, and water” to live on: “I am ibn el beled, a son of the country. All the Arabs are my friends and I know them all.”
Here there is not a man on the pyramid hill but what salutes me whenever he sees me, and many shake hands, though I have never given them a farthing. It is to the unmitigated European, who shows them that he despises everything about them, that they have a dislike; the smallest entering into their ways pleases them immensely; only sit squat, return the proper replies to the salutations, catch their tricks of manner, and imitate their voice, and they will laugh heartily and treat you as a friend.
The sheer quantity of sand on the plateau remained the greatest obstacle to his endeavors. “I should like to have £100,000 to shoot all the sand and stuff off the pyramid hill into the plain below,” he wrote in a letter home. Lacking the resources to even contemplate the enormous labor of entirely clearing the sand from around the base of each of the pyramids, much less from the entirety of the plateau, he instead had his hired workers dig a series of regular holes in it for surveying purposes: 85 of them around the Pyramid of Khufu, 108 of them around the Pyramid of Khafre, 91 of them around the Pyramid of Menkaure. He descended personally into each hole to record the exact state and position of the pyramid base and the pavement on which the structure rested at that point. It was a dangerous process, replete with close calls: “It was always a chance of minutes or hours before the pit collapses.”
When he returned to London in May of 1882, Petrie felt satisfied that he had carried out his project to the best of his abilities. Posterity would validate his confidence: his measurements remain within a whisker of the accepted standard dimensions of the pyramids today. The Pyramid of Khufu measures 755.7 feet (230.34 meters) on a side at the base and is 480.94 feet (146.59 meters) tall; the Pyramid of Khafre measures 705.4 feet (215 meters) at the base and is 470.8 feet (143.5 meters) tall; the Pyramid of Menkaure is 339.3 feet (103.4 meters) at the base and 213.3 feet (65 meters) tall.
That Petrie, working alone in far from ideal conditions and with equipment far more primitive than that which would be available to future archaeologists, was able to measure the pyramids so accurately is nothing short of extraordinary. Among other things, he finally established using geometric proofs that the supposed “keystone sockets” at the four corners of the Pyramid of Khufu, which had prompted much debate since their discovery by Napoleon’s savants, didn’t represent the farthest extent of the original pavement on which the pyramid rested, but rather a section of the pyramid’s original smooth casing which had extended beyond the pavement. This solved a problem which had dogged would-be pyramid measurers ever since the time of Napoleon: the problem of where to start and stop measuring in the first place. And doing so, of course, also eliminated the wiggle room on which the numerological theories of Smyth had depended.
Indeed, his results were, as he would later put it, “decidedly destructive for the theories” of Smyth and other pyramidal numerologists. The base of the Pyramid of Khufu proved to be a good 130 feet (40 meters) too short to have squared the circle represented by the pyramid’s height, although Petrie was still willing to accept the possibility that this may have been the builders’ intention. None of Smyth’s other claimed correspondences held up any better; there was certainly nothing like a pyramidal inch to be derived from any of Petrie’s measurements. He had now completely left the numerological camp and joined the archaeologists. One of the few vestiges of his old beliefs that remained was his ongoing insistence on calling the sepulchers inside the pyramids “coffers.”
The young Petrie’s journey from Biblical fundamentalist to a thoroughgoing man of science is one of the most remarkable aspects of this remarkable man’s life. Yet it’s a story that’s been under-told, both by Petrie himself in his various memoirs and by those who have written about him since. His career’s origin in religious metaphysics has generally been treated as a slightly embarrassing detail of his youth, to be dispensed with as quickly as possible. In his own autobiography, for example, Petrie states only that Smyth’s ideas “strongly attracted my father, and for some years I was urged on in what seemed an enticing field of coincidence” — thus ignoring the inconvenient fact that the younger Petrie was himself enthusiastic enough about it all to write an entire book which full-throatedly endorsed Smyth’s theories. Similarly, Leonard Cottrell, the writer of a popular history of Egyptology, acknowledges only the “irrational religious beliefs” of his father, whilst insisting, contrary to the proof that was published by Petrie himself in the form of a book, that “the young Petrie had, from the very beginning, the strongest doubts concerning the validity of Smyth’s theories, though he never attacked them openly, out of deference to his father’s opinions.” Even Margaret S. Drower, author of the most thorough biography of Petrie to date, has oddly little to say on the subject. In her book, Petrie is a disciple of Smyth, then suddenly he isn’t any more, and very little is said about how he got from here to there.
Although it’s understandable on one level why Petrie himself and his admirers wouldn’t wish to dwell on the follies of his youth, his story has much to tell us about the relationship between respectable and alternative Egyptology — a relationship which is not always as distant as either camp might prefer to believe. And in addition, it’s fascinating as a human story. As is demonstrated by the many others over the centuries who have only clung all the tighter to mystical theories about the pyramids in the face of mountains of evidence contradicting them, surprisingly few of us are able to revise our worldview when confronted with such inconvenient realities. That Petrie started in the one camp and ended up in the other is rather more to his credit than otherwise, and hardly needs to be swept under the rug.
As it is, however, we lack even an exact timeline of how and when his thinking changed. I noted earlier that doubts seemed to be creeping into his correspondence well before the time of his first visit to the Giza Plateau. It’s clear that it didn’t take him long after his arrival to abandon Smyth’s theories entirely, if he hadn’t already done so; he was soon mocking the wide-eyed mystics and “cranks” — his word — who stopped by to chat with him from time to time as he worked there. His position on the subject would only continue to harden, with his final judgment appearing in his autobiography many years later — whilst, once again, failing to note that he himself had once been numbered among the cranks.
The theories as to the size of the pyramid are thus proved entirely impossible, and this is confirmed by later details of a survey made by the Egyptian Government. The fantastic theories, however, are still poured out, and the theorists still assert that the facts correspond to their requirements. It is useless to state the real truth of the matter, as it has no effect on those who are subject to this type of hallucination. They can but be left with the flat earth believers and other such people to whom a theory is dearer than a fact.
The progression of Petrie’s personal religious beliefs seems to have been intimately bound up with his changing view of the pyramids, but, again, the data points are frustratingly fuzzy. He had never missed a Sunday church service at the time he went to Egypt, but he came to do so regularly once there. After 1882, he had virtually nothing to say about religion as anything other than a cultural pursuit of the people whom he studied. To witness the loss of religious faith in another is a bittersweet thing at best, regardless of one’s personal faith or lack thereof, and the subject should by no means be trivialized. Still, it would be nice at least to know if this is what Flinders Petrie experienced on the Giza Plateau. As it is, we can only speculate. We can assume along with Leonard Cottrell, for example, that he was probably made more reluctant to talk openly about such matters by his parents, whom he loved dearly and who each remained devoutly religious to the end of his or her days.
Petrie published all of his measurements, along with some of the commentaries and speculations they prompted, in 1883 in a volume called simply The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh. It was an immensely important book, one which finally gave Egyptologists an absolutely trustworthy collection of measurements to work from, whilst grounding even its speculations that would later be disproved firmly in the facts on the ground, as it were. In fact, Petrie’s determination to reason from verifiable facts alone would only increase in the years that followed. His book thus became one of the few in the history of publishing to grow slimmer rather than thicker as it went through subsequent editions. It made a marked contrast to Smyth’s ever-expanding collection of anecdotes and theories.
By the time of the book’s publication, Piazzi Smyth’s promotion of the doctrine of British Exceptionalism, as mathematically “proved” by the Pyramid of Khufu, had been embraced by a movement known as the British Israelites, who claimed that the British people were the direct descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel. Smyth had gradually come to accept their theories too as gospel truth, and had incorporated them into his thesis. Thus his review of Petrie’s book appeared in The Banner of Israel, the movement’s most popular magazine. Referring to Petrie slightly condescendingly as a “smart young scientist,” Smyth noted that the author hadn’t made allowances for earthquakes, nor for the fact that the idolators who had built the Pyramid of Khufu had been forced to do so unwillingly, and thus probably hadn’t done the best job of it. With those final graspings at straws, the blending of the names of Piazzi Smyth and Flinders Petrie ended forever. The former would die in 1900, after a long life that had been in some ways hugely productive and in others hugely misguided. He remained as convinced as ever of the essential truth of his pyramidal theories to his last breath.
William Flinders Petrie, meanwhile, was just getting started. During a life that lasted even longer than that of Smyth — he died in 1942 at age 89 — he did much more vitally important work, not only across the length of Egypt but in Palestine as well. He wrote late in life that “the science of observation, of registration, of recording, was as yet unthought of” when he first came to Egypt. “Nothing had a meaning unless it were an inscription or a sculpture.” Petrie changed all that. History, he believed, must be written from “material evidence” — all available material evidence, from the monumental to the mundane. Although by no means bereft of ego in the abstract, he had an extraordinary ability to leave it behind when he traveled to a dig site. Tellingly, you won’t find his scrawled signature defacing all of the ancient monuments he visited down the length of the Nile, as you will that of a character like Giovanni Belzoni.
Petrie never made a single earthshaking discovery that captured newspaper headlines, like Belzoni or Vyse’s openings of pyramids on the Giza Plateau or Howard Carter’s entry into Tutankhamen’s tomb, but what he did accomplish was even more important in the big picture. His passion to understand ancient peoples rather than merely exploit their leavings for his own ends led him to formulate the set of ethical values that has shaped the modern science of archaeology, even as his supremely analytic mind sculpted a set of best practices that have become its practical foundation. He transmitted it all to the next generation via the books he wrote, the courses he taught, and the many younger archaeologists he took under his wing in the field.
Less positively, his later life did come to resemble that of his erstwhile mentor Smyth in some sadly ironic ways, as his status as one of the leading public intellectuals of his day led him to engage with subjects upon which he was less qualified to speak authoritatively than archaeology. Like H.G. Wells and a rather dismaying number of other leading lights of the early 20th century, Petrie was seduced by the eugenics movement, the bastard stepchild of Darwin’s theory of evolution. It came to fuel political views that were every bit as reactionary as those of Smyth, and in their way even more socially toxic. “The ideals of the present time,” he wrote, “equality of wages, maintenance of the incapable by the capable, equal opportunities of life for children of bad stock as well as good stock, and exclusion of more economical labour, are the surest means of national extinction.” The most unfortunate of the dozens of books he wrote must be those that present a grand narrative of human history seen through the lens of eugenics theory; they are as factually confused as they are morally repugnant. Some of these views even crept into his Egyptology in later years, most notably in the form of a belief that ancient Egyptian culture was the product of an invading Caucasian “dynastic race”; purely African stock, he believed, just wasn’t capable of producing the wonders found on the Giza Plateau and elsewhere. All of this makes a sorry footnote to his treatment of his native helpers during his early years in Egypt, which was marked by an unusual degree of kindness and understanding, and even a certain measure of respect.
Still, this older, more bitter Petrie should never dim our view of the high-minded young eccentric out there roaming across the Giza Plateau in his pink outfit or crawling through a pyramid’s innards in the altogether, refusing to so much as contemplate taking any of the treasures he found for himself, raging at the powers in charge of the place for failing to protect it adequately from tourists and treasure hunters, and following the data he collected wherever it led him, even if it meant the death of his most cherished beliefs. Truly one of a kind, he nevertheless managed to create a science in his own image.
(This series's cover art is by KennyOMG, and is utilized under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)