International Women’s Day Excerpt: Women on excavation

By Alison Major, on 8 March 2017

Today’s excerpt, to celebrate International Women’s Day, is from The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology: Characters and Collections, edited by Alice Stevenson.

On 10 March 1923, the London Illustrated News ran a double-page spread with the headline ‘Men who perform the “spade work” of history: British names famous in the field of archaeology’. Many familiar faces from Egyptology were featured, including Flinders Petrie, Howard Carter, and F. L. Griffith. What this feature completely overlooked, as many histories of ‘Great Discoveries’ have, is the important contribution made by female archaeologists. Indeed, many excavations in Egypt and Sudan were dependent upon them.

During field seasons Hilda Petrie engaged in one of the most important activities on excavation: the recording of finds and the inking onto objects of the record of their findspot. Many objects in the Petrie Museum bear her handwriting and these form indispensable keys that allow us to associate those things with the records, plans and photographs that document the circumstances of their discovery. Throughout her career Hilda additionally undertook the surveying and planning of sites, inked drawings for publication and edited her husband’s text. Hilda was also instrumental in raising funds for expeditions. For these reasons, Petrie dedicated his final memoirs of a life in archaeology ‘to my wife, on whose toil most of my work has depended’.

Many other female pioneers in archaeology also acquired their first experiences of fieldwork on Petrie digs. This included Gertrude Caton-Thompson, who not only made ground-breaking discoveries in Egyptian prehistory, but additionally went on to demonstrate definitively the indigenous African origins of Great Zimbabwe in the face of hostile criticism from the largely male academy. Other regular field collaborators included artists such as Winifred Brunton and Annie Quibell, whose toil on site is often little recognized, but was crucial to the success of field seasons.

The Museum, The Centenary, The Book

By Alison Major, 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