The Museum, The Centenary, The Book

By Alison Fox, on 4 June 2015

Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology cover

 Today’s guest post is written by Alice Stevenson, Curator of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology.

About a year ago, it dawned on the staff of UCL’s Petrie Museum that the centenary of our opening was not far off. To mark the occasion the team decided that a souvenir publication would be fitting tribute for such an internationally renowned collection. Time to produce such a book, however, was short. Fortunately, UCL Press received the proposal positively and the scramble to pull together the volume began.

With upwards of 80,000 objects in the collection, more than a century of important discoveries and thousands of years of history to engage with, finding suitable content wasn’t hard. Deciding what could fit into 120 pages was. All that we could do was sketch out the contours of the museum’s holdings, from the Stone Age axes to the medieval and Islamic artefacts, and from the smallest trinkets to the largest monuments. We also wanted to challenge assumptions about the nature of the collection because it is far broader than the term ‘Egyptian archaeology’ might popularly suggest: there are objects from Sudan, Korea, China, Greece, Palestine, Syria, India and Iraq for instance. Additionally, we sought to showcase the unusual: artefacts made from extra-terrestrial materials, objects fished out from dark, flooded burial chambers and long-lost things rediscovered in unlikely places.

Image from Petrie book

What really drove the story-telling, however, were the characters whose lives became entangled with the museum’s history. They include the adventurous Flinders Petrie, a man who Lawrence of Arabia once described as ‘enormous fun’ and who Howard Carter credited as turning him into a true excavator; Margaret Murray, an Egyptology lecturer at UCL and a significant influence on the development of Wicca; Gertrude Caton-Thompson, a pioneering archaeologist who went on to prove that Great Zimbabwe was the work of indigenous Africans; and Ali Suefi, Flinders Petrie’s Egyptian right-hand man and discoverer of many of the most prized objects in the museum.

To even attempt to do justice to this eclectic assemblage and history requires many voices and a range of expertise. It is therefore thanks to all of our contributors for swiftly penning their sections, to UCL Press and Media Services for their professionalism and to the Friends of the Petrie Museum for financial support, that this publication has come together in such good shape and on such a tight deadline. And with over 1300 Open Access downloads in the first week, we’re off to a great start!

Alice Stevenson, Curator, The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology