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How do current political views impact on the way we view ancient history?

By Katherine L Aitchison, on 17 September 2011

Heads collected by Flinders Petrie. Credit: Kathy Aitchison

We all like to think of history as an objective study of the way people long ago used to live don’t we? Well, at the UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology last night Sally-Ann Ashton, of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, suggested that that isn’t always the case.

Seated among some of the museum’s 8,000 artefacts she talked about the discovery of a collection of terracotta heads by Flinders Petrie in 1907-1912 and how his personal views coloured his interpretation of the findings.

Petrie assigned the heads to a number of “races” as diverse as Greek, Indian of the Orissa region, Semitic Syrian or more broadly as “foreigners”. Petrie’s own views are quite evident in his writings and the way in which he describes the heads. He is very flattering of the Greek heads (although a number of these have in fact proved not to be Greek in origin) while he makes very little reference to any “Nubian” or African sculptures.

This is very likely to be due to the common political attitudes at the time; Greek culture was very highly thought of whereas racism was extremely prevalent. Petrie was in fact dismissive of a large group of the heads which he termed as “foreigners” or “unknowns” and many of which were in fact representations of Egyptian priests and so would have been highly valued at the time they were created.

This indulgence in his own views and prejudices led Petrie to skew the data he collected as it made Egypt appear to have a very heavy Eurasian population and suggested the Black Africans in fact had very little part to play in Egyptian society.

This is a point which Sally-Ann was keen to make and she stresses that it is very important not to rely on written accounts of archaeological findings but to examine the objects and draw your own conclusions. She argued that someone reading Petrie’s accounts alone would get the wrong impression about the population of Memphis which was in fact very mixed and she points out that there is other, cultural, evidence which can prove this.

She also pointed out that identity (and especially racial identity) is very hard to define and that we are quick to impose an identity on people that is in line with our own view of the world. This is a particular problem when we are dealing with an ancient society because they are unable to answer back and tell us how they really viewed themselves.

For me this was the most important point of the evening – the need to keep in mind that the way we view race and identity today is naturally very different to the way it was thought of thousands of years ago. It is vital that when we think of historical people we try to put ourselves in their shoes and think the way they did so that we don’t allow our own thoughts to colour the way we interpret their lives.

Before the talk began, I took the opportunity to look at a drawer of the heads which had been laid out for viewing at the back of the room (pictured above) and my first thought was that they all looked fairly similar and that I would struggle to identify any racial groups.

However when I returned to look at the drawer at the end of the night I was able to identify several of the heads and see how Petrie came to his conclusions on their identity, which only goes to show how our opinions can be shaped by what we are told about an object. A warning message if ever I heard one!

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