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UCL Culture Blog


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Paying the piper

By Rachael Sparks, on 8 August 2012

The first objects in the Institute of Archaeology’s Collections came from British Mandate Palestine, donated by the famous Egyptologist, Flinders Petrie.

Petrie Exhibiting material from Tell Fara in London

What was an Egyptologist doing digging in Palestine? Pretending to his supporters that he was still working in Egypt, for one. Exhausted by his endless confrontations with the Egyptian authorities, Petrie took off for the region near modern-day Gaza at the sprightly age of 73. He told his supporters he was just going to work in ‘Egypt over the border’, and promptly spent the rest of his career doing just that.

The resulting 20,000 objects or so that he excavated are now stored at the Institute; as many again are scattered through about 30 different museums worldwide.  This collection has formed the meat for many a research sandwich ever since.

One of the things that fascinates me about Petrie was how famous he became during his own lifetime. Whether they agreed with his ideas or not (and he was opinionated), people knew he was a ‘Great Man’. Yet despite this reputation, it seems that he was always struggling to raise enough money to do his work: money to dig, money to publish, money to get on with what he did best.

A few months ago, I gave a conference paper looking at just where this money came from and what Petrie and his indomitable wife Hilda had to do to keep people interested in their discoveries. They wrote endless pieces to papers like The Times and the Illustrated London News comparing their sites to Troy and Pompeii and populating their tells with colourful figures from biblical history. They dashed around the country giving lectures to local museums and societies, and I don’t doubt that Hilda cornered possible benefactors at many a special function with a steely look in her eye. They even tried to sell bookmarks and pictures of Petrie digging, although you get the idea that spin-off merchandising wasn’t really their thing.

It sort of worked, in that Petrie was able to keep digging until only 3 years before his death in 1942. But it sort of didn’t, in that during the 1920s and 1930s Petrie was constantly draining the reserves of the British School of Archaeology in Egypt (BSAE), the organisation he’d set up to manage his projects.

Had he lived a few years longer, had troubles in Palestine not made fieldwork impractical, had the Second World War not come along, Petrie would most probably have found the cupboard completely bare.

I’ve enjoyed delving into the world of pre-war Britain, searching through contemporary newspapers and records for traces of Petrie’s fundraising drives, and struggling to find the significance in the dry balance sheets and subscriber lists of the BSAE. And for anyone out there who grew up having to manage pre-decimal currency, I salute you. Twisting my mind to believe in 12 pennies to the shilling and 20 shillings to the pound has required mental gymnastics of a truly Olympian kind. Hopefully, all this effort will be worth it, when my paper on Petrie’s Publicity is published in a future edition of the journal Present Pasts.

By the way, even after moving over to work in Palestine, Petrie’s confrontations with the authorities continued: a leopard cannot change its spots, nor an old man his convictions. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why he is so fondly remembered.

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