Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie

Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) was an English archeologist who revolutionized excavation methods, thus laying the basis for modern archeological techniques.

Flinders Petrie was born on June 3, 1853, at Charlton near Greenwich. He was educated at home because of his ill health. At the age of 22, he published his Inductive Metrology, a study of ancient weights and measures. He also studied British archeological sites, including Stonehenge, from 1875 to 1880. From 1880 onward, he plunged into an active career of surveys and excavations in Egypt and Palestine interspersed with lectures in London and the publication of a prodigious output of 40 large volumes furnished with numerous plates, a series of popular books, and his autobiography.

Petrie began his excavations at the Giza pyramids in Egypt (1880). From 1881 to 1896 his archeological work was done on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Fund. He next excavated the Temple of Tanis (1884), the city of Naucratis (1885), the town of Daphnae and its environs (1886), the sites of Hawara, Illahun, and Ghurab in the Faiyûm, Egypt (1888-1890), and the temple and pyramids of Maydum (1891). In 1892 he was appointed Edwards professor of Egyptology at University College, London, a post he held until 1933. He then excavated the town of Coptos (Qift; 1895), discovering also the painted pavement of Tell el Amarna, the predynastic site of Nakada (1895), and the temples at Thebes (1897). In 1894 he founded the Egyptian Research Account as his own fund-raising and publishing venture.

Petrie spent 6 years (1898-1904) excavating the necropolis of Abydos, uncovering the royal cenotaphs of predynastic times. He excavated at Dandarah, Memphis, and again in the Faiyûm. Here he found a magnificent collection of Twelfth-Dynasty jewelry. He excavated in Palestine from 1922 to 1938.

Before Petrie, archeologists merely extracted from excavation sites any objects they considered to be works of art. But they did not follow the stratification of a site in relation to established chronologies. Petrie and his students and followers introduced systematic examination of any object found in a site. Second, he excavated so as to uncover and leave intact the different layers of the site and their relative position within it. Third, he developed what is known today as sequence dating, a system of chronology based on close study of the stylistic and technical development which every object found on a site exhibited. It was thus in his work as an excavator that Petrie made his biggest contribution. His views on epigraphy and the origin of the alphabet roused strong opposition. He was knighted in 1923 and died on July 23, 1942, at Jerusalem.

Petrie's best-known works are A History of Egypt, 6 vols. (1894-1925); The Royal Tombs of Abydos I and II (1900-1902); Abydos I-III (1902-1904); Researches in Sinai (1906); The Formation of the Alphabet (1912); Tombs of the Courtiers (1925); and Seventy Years in Archaeology (1931).

Further Reading on Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie

Petrie's work is discussed in Charles M. Daugerty, The Great Archaeologists (1962).

Additional Biography Sources

Drower, Margaret S., Flinders Petrie: a life in archaeology, Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.

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