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Sir Petrie the Original Indiana Jones?

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The exhibit of “Excavating Egypt” will be presented at the Flint Institute in Flint, Michigan through January, 2007. The show will display over 200 of the most important finds of archaeologist Sir William Petrie. The significance of the show is in more than just the objects on display but is rather a testament to the man behind the findings and the new approaches he brought to his chosen field.

Ancient Egyptian art and antiquities has long since been the subject of many non-fiction books, novels, movies, and museum exhibits. When Sir William Petrie began his first excavation, would he have ever imagined that decades later, his findings would be known worldwide? Nor would he have ever imagined that his life would be the basis of the “Indiana Jones” adventure movies? Making an impact on the art world and the movie industry is no small feat. Yet, this serious and determined British archaeologist and Egyptologist accomplished more than even he might have thought possible.

William Matthew Flinders Petrie was born in Charlton, Kent in 1853. His father was a surveyor and civil engineer, and his mother was interested in fossils and other scientific topics. Both parents encouraged young William to pursue interests that would eventually flourish into a successful career. It is interesting that due to ill health he was educated at home and did not receive any formal schooling.

As a child, he was fascinated by and interested in measuring things. He measured buildings, churches, and even ruins such as Stonehenge. Because his father was a surveyor, William learned about the importance of accuracy in measurements. When he was thirteen years old, he declared that he would one day visit the pyramids. He was, at the time, inspired from reading, Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramids by Piazzi Smyth.

As a young adult William began a career as a surveyor and continued his study of Stonehenge. This resulted in his book, Stonehenge: Plans, Description, and Theories that was published in 1880.

At only 24 years of age Petrie began his forty-year career of exploration and excavation of Egypt and the Middle East. He became enamored with Egyptian culture, art, language and archaeology. Sir Petrie built up a reputation as an innovator in excavation because of the scientific methods that he used. He examined every bit of soil and developed a very meticulous method for sorting and labeling findings.

During his forty years in the Middle East he was involved in the study and excavation of over 30 sites. It was not uncommon to spend two or three years at one site. It was his thoroughness that led to the development of a dating method from studying pottery fragments found at the sites. The historical chronology was developed from studying the different styles of pottery through the ages. Petrie was quoted as saying, “I believe the true line of research lies in the noting and comparison of the smallest details.” This simple approach became the foundation of his methodology.

During his years of fieldwork he became a prolific writer. He authored more than 100 books and 900 articles. Sir Petrie became the first Professor of Egyptian Archaeology at London’s University College, but he continued to do fieldwork in Egypt and even in Palestine for a brief period. In 1904 he published “Methods and Aims of Archaeology” which became one of his most important endeavors. He came to be referred to as the “Father of Egyptian Archaeology,” and he was responsible for training some of the up and coming archaeologists of his day.

In 1913 Sir Petrie’s unique collection of Egyptian antiquities were sold to University College. It is one of the largest collections other than the ones in Egypt, and it is one of the most unusual because the contents were mostly ordinary daily life objects. In 1923 Petrie was knighted for his services in his chosen field. Later in life he moved to Palestine where he continued to excavate even in his senior years. He lived in Jerusalem until he died in 1942. As a part of his final request Petrie donated his head to the College of Surgeons of London. However, due to the war going on, his head was lost in transport to London. Eventually his body, sans head, was laid to rest in the Protestant Cemetery on Mt. Zion.

Sir Petrie’s life was an adventure to the end and beyond. It is no wonder that his accomplishments inspired the Hollywood writers to develop the Indian Jones hero. Of course, they romanticized the toil and labors that filled the life of Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, but they also captured the excitement that must have motivated him to follow his dreams with the ambition and dedication that was the essence of his being.

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Source by Barbara Snyder

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