UCL Museums & Collections Blog
  •  
  •  
  • Categories

  •  
  • Tags

  •  
  • Archives

  • The Legend of Petrie’s Head: A Personal Response

    By Debbie J Challis, on 9 October 2013

    In a recent article for the journal Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Sara Perry and I explored the myths around the fact that the head of archaeologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) is a specimen in the collections of the Royal College of Surgeons. We tried to understand the context in which Petrie donated his head to science – his eugenic ideas, his focus on the face, his pedagogical collecting and curation practices – and along the way confronted many of the legends hatboxthat have grown up around Petrie’s head. One of the most famous, that Hilda Petrie brought back her husband’s head in a hat box from Jerusalem after World War Two, was repeated in the recent BBC4 television documentary The Man Who Discovered Egypt. In fact, letters in the Petrie Museum archive illustrate that that ‘romantic’ legend is just not true (romantic arguably as it has some parallels with wives such as Mary Shelley retaining their loved one’s body parts).

    Second only to the legends about how it got to England are the stories about who has seen Petrie’s head, many of which are true, some of which we chronicled in the article. Petrie’s head became a talking point for archaeologists in ‘the know’ until the publication of Margaret Drower’s 1985 biography which explicitly states where Petrie’s head is. I have not seen Petrie’s head and have no desire to do so while it is locked away in its current state (fully fleshed) in a cupboard. Personally I feel that to gain access just for the sake of seeing the head and saying that I have seen it would be merely titillating and serve no real educational or research purpose for myself or anyone else. (more…)

    From the vollies: A humbling collection of hominin casts

    By Mark Carnall, on 20 September 2012

    Volunteers are very much the spine and vital organs of museums and we are eternally grateful for all the work and support they give to museums. Anthropologist Rebecca Davenport has been working on the Grant Museum collection of fossil human casts and models. Over to Rebecca…

    Most of us have no problem distinguishing between ourselves and other animals. Whilst the Grant Museum’s main attractions inspire reactions ranging from disgust to awe, I’d wager that gazing upon a jar of moles or the bones of an extinct quagga fails to arouse feelings of commonality or a sense of shared identity. After all, these specimens look completely alien and lack any element of we might consider “humanness”. (more…)

    Scribbles and skulls

    By Rachael Sparks, on 31 March 2011

    From a public perspective, objects are what a museum is all about. Yet behind every object is a story, built up from a range of sources and evidence, that enables us to contextualise that artefact and give it some form of meaning. This meaning may change as scholarship advances or audiences diversify. But without that level of research, we would have little more than a lot of nice ‘stuff’ on display.

    A crucial link in this chain of information comes from archival sources. The Institute of Archaeology is fortunate in having a range of original field records to support its collections, allowing us to learn more about the circumstances in which material was originally excavated. These also provide a window into the methods and practices of seminal figures in the development of archaeology as a discipline. The tomb cards written by Flinders Petrie and his staff are a classic example.
    (more…)