Indiana Jones, that daring archaeologist of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and his real-life counterparts owe a tremendous debt to a man that many people today barely know: Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, considered by many to be the father of Egyptology. Thanks to Flinders Petrie, as he’s known, even fictional archaeologists like Indiana understand that the smallest artifact can reveal a world of historical wonders.
Flinders Petrie couldn’t have been more unlike his fictional counterpart. He was born in Charlton, Kent, in England on June 3, 1853. He suffered from ill health as a child and his mother, a scholar herself, tutored him until he was a teen-ager, when another bout of illness ended his formal education. However, as the grandson of the first man to map the coasts of Australia, Captain Matthew Flinders, young William inherited his ancestor’s penchant for exploration despite limitations. As the first archaeologist to be termed an Egyptologist, Flinders Petrie was particularly good at mathematics and measurements. Those two skills not only gained him personal fame, but also steered archaeology onto a more scientific course.
In fact, in her biography of Flinders Petrie on the website Tour Egypt, writer Marie Parsons quotes James Baikie, author of the book “A Century of Excavation in the Land of the Pharaohs”: “If the name of any one man must be associated with modern excavation as that of the chief begetter of its principles and methods, it must be the name of Professor Sir W.M. Flinders Petrie. It was he who first called the attention of modern excavators to the importance of ‘unconsidered trifles’; as means for the construction of the past the broken earthenware of a people may be of far greater value than its most gigantic monuments.”
Encouraged by his father, an industrial engineer, Flinders Petrie was still in his teens when he devised more precise measuring instruments including survey tools. Tutored by his father in how to use a sextant and make maps (shades of Grandfather Flinders!), the younger man conducted his own expeditions around local sites. At age 22 he published his first book, “Ancient Measurements from Monuments,” based on his surveys of Stonehenge, according to the Parsons article.
Flinders Petrie’s first major success came after reading books on the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. Scottish Astronomer Royal Charles Piazzi-Smyth, a friend of the Petrie family, wrote that the Great Pyramid’s measurements demonstrated all of civilization’s past, present and future astronomical and mathematical knowledge. In response, young William wrote to the professor that he was certain the ancients had used the imaginary rational number, pi, to calculate the Great Pyramid. He then made several trips to Egypt between 1880 and 1882 to confirm his theory.
On his expeditions, Flinders Petrie measured both the Great Pyramid on several occasions and other monuments at Saqqara, Dahshur, Abu Rawash and tombs located behind a temple in Thebes. The adventurous archaeologist eventually determined that every measurement taken by Piazzi-Smyth was incorrect. He published his results in an 1883 book, “Pyramids and Temples of Giza,” that is still consulted today as an archaeological source.
Beyond his measuring precision, Flinders Petrie made two other major contributions to the science of archaeology: attention to the shards of earthenware that other archaeologists had considered trash, and the development of a method known as “sequence dating.” Unlike his predecessors in Egyptian excavation, he saw beyond broken pieces of pottery to their significance as evidence of ancient civilizations. In fact, he sent back so many specimens that his collection is housed today in its own museum in London as well as in The British Museum.
In addition to collecting what others found worthless, Flinders Petrie developed a system for cataloging finds that became known as sequence dating. Each time he found a shard or an intact pot, the archaeologist recorded exactly where it was found on the specimen itself, along with other artifacts found nearby. Then he recorded that information on a series of cards that he filed in order of discovery and location. Surprisingly, no other archaeologist before him had attempted anything like this in the study of Egyptian civilization, although Heinrich Schliemann had used a somewhat similar method in his excavation of Troy in 1861, according to an About.com article by K. Kris Hirst. Flinders Petrie’s sequence dating method proved so successful that he was eventually given an Arabic name, Abu Bagousheh, meaning “father of pots,” wrote Parsons on Tour Egypt.
Yet even his technical success didn’t shield Flinders Petrie from criticism or political battles over what he considered the shoddy work of other scientists in preserving relics. The eminent excavator sometimes found himself at odds with the directors of groups and museums that initially sought his services. His sequence dating method was considered too meticulous and cumbersome by some field workers, who sometimes sought to plunder ancient sites much like Indiana Jones’ arch-nemesis, Rene Belloq, in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” However, the advent of computers for use in archaeology caused a revival of Flinders Petrie’s sequence dating beginning in the 1970s, and it’s now a standard for field work, according to the Palestine Education Fund.
Many archaeologists consider Flinders Petrie’s crowning achievement to be the discovery of an Egyptian civilization that existed before the time of the First Dynasty of pharaohs. This era is now called the Predynastic Period, which Flinders Petrie found in and around the site of Naqada, located about 20 miles north of Luxor on the Nile’s west bank. Naqada also holds the distinction of being the first site where Flinders Petrie used his sequence dating method.
Together with his protégé James Quibell, Flinders Petrie unearthed some 200 shallow graves to find every occupant’s body lying in a fetal position surrounded by a wealth of grave goods. These artifacts included pots, jars, combs, and statues of ivory and slate. At first, Flinders Petrie thought these sites were the graves of foreigners, but eventually he became convinced that Quibell’s theory was correct: The graves were those of an Egyptian civilization predating the First Dynasty.
Flinders Petrie left Egypt in 1923 and spent the remainder of his life in what was then called Palestine, researching the Hyksos civilization and other sites with Egyptian connections. By the end of his career he had published more than 1,000 books, articles and reviews, according to The British Museum. The child once considered too frail to attend school died in Jerusalem at age 89 after spending nearly 40 years hiking around deserts, digging into ancient sites and making history of his own.