Thursday, August 9, 2012

Flinders Petrie

My interest was piqued when I read the headlines about people gathering at the Jerusalem grave of British Egyptologist Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) on the 70th anniversary of his death:
You can't read much about ancient Egypt without coming across his name, so I knew who he was, but knew nothing about why his remains were not intact. I was relieved to learn that the decision was his own and piece a condensed version of the story together from the articles and a 1985 biography:
After excavating several sites in Palestine, Petrie retired permanently to Jerusalem with his wife in 1933. In 1940, he was hospitalized with malaria and there, cured but weakened, he died 2 years later. Having often expressed his desire to donate his head to the Royal College of Surgeons as a specimen of a typical British skull, but also to examine the reason for his remarkable memory.* Accordingly, and with the full consent of the archaeologist's wife Hilda, the head of the hospital removed and preserved Petrie's head. Because of the progress of World War II, it was not possible to send it to England, so it was stored in the hospital's laboratory. When the head finally reached London, it languished because the museum had been badly bombed. Although Mrs. Petrie was assured a few years later that it had been studied, the reports have never been found. At some point, the specimen itself lost its label.
Decades had gone by when in 1989 Israeli archaeologist Shimon Gibson, who was working in London, was contacted by the Royal College of Surgeons. As he describes, "They asked me to help identify a head preserved in a jar. They weren't sure it belonged to Petrie. I arrived armed with photographs of him. A laboratory technician brought me the head, took it out of the jar and put it on a plate....He showed it to me and opened Petrie's eyes. They were bright blue." His hair, however, was black and had been white at the time of his death, but this may have been caused by the preservative liquid. The shape of the nose also differed from Petrie's, but Gibson ascribed this to the long interval spent pressed against the side of the jar. Conclusive proof came in the form of a scar on the forehead.
Let's let the mind behind that scarred forehead have the last word, since the quote is so prescient about the current state of affairs in Egypt: "It is sickening to see the rate at which everything is being destroyed, and the little regard paid to its preservation.” Though his head is presumably still in custody of the Royal College of Surgeons, Flinders Petrie's body must be rolling in his grave.

*Petrie did ascribe to the racial theories of the day, which among other things equated skull size with intelligence. He was acquainted with - and supported the research of - Francis Galton, who coined the term “eugenics” that is now associated with racism and Nazism. 
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