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UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


‘Racial Type’ Heads from Memphis, Egypt

Debbie J Challis21 September 2011

Last week the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology put about 50 of the ‘racial type’ heads that Flinders Petrie collected out on display for the first time as part of the exhibition Typecast: Flinders Petrie and Francis Galton. There are over 300 of these in the museum’s collection but this tray is actually labeled ‘racial heads’. They were part of Petrie’s ideas around race and identifying racial groups in archaeology. Petrie thought that these heads were expressly modeled by Greek artists of foreigners. He described them, in his publications as belonging to different ‘racial types’, such as this one UC48501 as being a ‘Kurd’:

UC48501 The Kurd (73) has the crossed turban which belongs to the Central Asian and Kurd race, but not to the Semitic peoples. Mr Hogarth informs me that the type of the face agrees to that of the modern Kurds, who were well known to the Greeks as the Karduchi. This is the finest piece of modelling among all the heads; the delicacy with which the features are worked, the detail of the ear being pressed forward by the turban, wrinkling it on the inner side, and the spirit of expression put this in the front rank.

Memphis II, 17

Petrie only collected the heads and paid for the workers for heads, which means that not only is there little evidence about the rest of the terracotta but that they may also have created fakes for Petrie. Sally-Ann Ashton, Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, argued at an event last Thursday that this head was a good example of a fake head.

A postgraduate student Katherine Aitchison attended Sally-Ann’ s talk last Thursday and has blogged about the event here. Do pop along to the Petrie Museum and take a look for yourselves!