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The Legend of Petrie’s Head: A Personal Response

By Debbie J Challis, on 9 October 2013

In a recent article for the journal Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Sara Perry and I explored the myths around the fact that the head of archaeologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) is a specimen in the collections of the Royal College of Surgeons. We tried to understand the context in which Petrie donated his head to science – his eugenic ideas, his focus on the face, his pedagogical collecting and curation practices – and along the way confronted many of the legends hatboxthat have grown up around Petrie’s head. One of the most famous, that Hilda Petrie brought back her husband’s head in a hat box from Jerusalem after World War Two, was repeated in the recent BBC4 television documentary The Man Who Discovered Egypt. In fact, letters in the Petrie Museum archive illustrate that that ‘romantic’ legend is just not true (romantic arguably as it has some parallels with wives such as Mary Shelley retaining their loved one’s body parts).

Second only to the legends about how it got to England are the stories about who has seen Petrie’s head, many of which are true, some of which we chronicled in the article. Petrie’s head became a talking point for archaeologists in ‘the know’ until the publication of Margaret Drower’s 1985 biography which explicitly states where Petrie’s head is. I have not seen Petrie’s head and have no desire to do so while it is locked away in its current state (fully fleshed) in a cupboard. Personally I feel that to gain access just for the sake of seeing the head and saying that I have seen it would be merely titillating and serve no real educational or research purpose for myself or anyone else.

Sara Perry has written on the anthropological blog Savage Minds about how a desire to use Petrie’s head in a documentary as ‘a decorative bit of tinsel’ put her off exploring the idea of exhibiting or including an image of it in Brains: the Mind as Matter exhibition in 2012 at the Wellcome Collection. Yet, Petrie wished his head to be retained in a scientific institution and to be on display. It is difficult to be 100% certain since Petrie did not leave written instructions but from letters between individuals involved, including his wife, it seems that Petrie wanted his head defleshed and his skull retained for posterity. Would he have minded being ‘a bit of decorative tinsel’?

Well, given the evidence I have seen, yes I think Petrie would mind; mainly because his skull is not on display to scientific peers or used for teaching purposes with the general public. Petrie did not have the issues that many contemporary professionals and visitors have with the ethics of displaying human remains in museums and seems to have consented for his remains to be on display. However, I believe that Petrie would have objected to his head being used for ghoulish or sensational purposes when it was not even being used in educational practice.

The legends about Petrie’s head illustrate how much ‘body parts’ generate interest and speculation, much of which is still rooted in feelings around the macabre and spectacle rather than scientific analysis or ethical attitudes to human remains. But then, perhaps, spectacle, analysis and ethics with regard to the display of human remains cannot be separated?

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