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UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Who is ‘the Man from Mitanni’?

By Debbie J Challis, on 1 February 2011

Museum research can be like detective work – like Sherlock Holmes in a filing cabinet. (If there are any Benedict Cumberbatch fans reading this, don’t get distracted by that image). A vital part of clue finding is not to trust what you are told by museum databases.

At the moment I am working on an exhibition and events programme around a series of photographs that the archaeologist Flinders Petrie took for ‘The Committee appointed for the purposes of procuring, with the help of Mr Flinders Petrie, Racial Photographs from the ancient Egyptian Pictures and Sculptures’. In actual fact, Petrie only received £20 from them. The scientist Sir Francis Galton gave almost £300 from ‘his own pocket’ towards the expedition in 1886-87. (More on Galton in future posts. . .).

Petrie took 250 casts of heads from sculpted reliefs and 40 photographs of painted scenes and monuments. At this time, taking casts was considered cutting edge technology, as was photographing facial profiles to get information on the ‘type’ of person for ethnographic (and even social and medical) information.

The Petrie Museum has some of these casts and photographs on glass negatives, but none of the casts. Or so I thought. . .

While he was working at Amarna in 1894, Petrie took casts of the faces of Akhenaten and Nefertiti from relief sculpture and published them in his excavation report Tell el Amarna (1894) alongside a cast of ‘the man from Mitanni’. This cast, museum number UC24322, was labelled in our database as being from Amarna. However, our curator Stephen pointed out that Petrie says that ‘the man from Mitanni’ was  ‘from the town of Iannu conquered by Ramesses II’. Ramesses II reigned 1293-1212BC, over 30 years after Amarna was last occupied, so, without time-traveling, how could this cast come from a sculpture at Amarna?

A few years later Petrie reproduced an image of the cast in A History of Egypt Vol. II The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Dynasties (1896), a book he wrote for teaching at UCL, in which he records that this cast was of a head ‘among the captives on the north wall of the Great Hall at Karnak’. The Great Hall is one of the most famous monuments built by Ramesses II. I cross checked this reference with Petrie’s report on Racial Photographs, in which four casts of heads from ‘Iannu’ in the Great Hall at Karnak are recorded.

I then contacted Peter Brand, Director of the Karnak Great Hypostyle Hall Project, who helpfully pointed out that this cast is from reliefs by Sety I that commemorate his vistory over the town of Yenoam in Canaan. (See the website http://cassian.memphis.edu/history/hypostyle/index.htm).

It appears that the Petrie Museum does, after all, have one of Petrie’s ‘racial’ casts.

Elementary, but why is this important?

Apart from correcting misleading information on our database, Petrie’s use of a cast of facial and, in Petrie’s eyes, a racial profile shows that he was putting into practice ideas from racial science. Petrie was illustrating that Akhenaten, his mother Queen Tyi and possibly his wife Nefertiti were all similar facially to the ‘man from Mitanni’. Mitanni would today lie in the area of modern-day Syria. Petrie argues that the resemblance of physical features illustrates that the hereditary of Akhenaten and his family was Syrian, i.e. that  Akhenaten, one of the most famous pharaohs, was non-African.

Is this important?  We are keen to hear what you think.

If you want to find out more or see the cast, it will be on display in the entrance of the Petrie Museum on 16 February for a week.

Debbie Challis, Audience Development Officer, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

7 Responses to “Who is ‘the Man from Mitanni’?”

  • 1
    ucwedch wrote on 1 February 2011:

    Also, you can look at an image of the cast at talesofthings.com. Just sign up and down load the app.

  • 2
    ucweswa wrote on 1 February 2011:

    Or you can view it in the Petrie online catalogue (complete with yet-to-be-updated find location!):


  • 3
    Who is the man from Mitanni? will Digital Media find the answer? « Clairey Ross – Digital Nerdosaurus wrote on 1 February 2011:

    […] true identity and object biographies of artefacts. You can read her blog post about it over on the UCL Museums blog (yes it’s a new blog and they are actually blogging proper interesting stuff! like ambiguous […]

  • 4
    tcrnaat wrote on 1 February 2011:

    Most interesting! Was the cast on display originally or kept in a reference collection? How public was Petrie’s Racial Portraits project?

  • 5
    Debbie wrote on 1 February 2011:

    I’m not sure about this actual cast. The casts all went to the British Museum in 1887, but they and the photographs were put on display in South Kensington under the auspices of the Palestinian Exploration Fund for a month in the autumn. I don’t think it is a coincidence that that is where Galton was based at about the same time doing anthropometric measuring.
    I think Petrie may have kept his squeezes of ‘racial types’ and re-made the cast as and when. But I don’t know that for sure. . .

  • 6
    C_72 wrote on 2 February 2011:



  • 7
    Kathleen wrote on 10 February 2011:

    These are great finds, Debbie! The casts and his inclusion of them show that not only was Petrie writing explicit works about the merits of racial purity in the early 20th century (Janus in Modern Life and Revolutions of Civilisation), but he was also including the theoretical approach of racial typing in his earlier work.

    I agree with you about the lack of coincidence of Galton’s anthropometric work at South Kensington. Their work together is unquestionable.

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