27 July 2009

Greatest Hits: William Flinders Petrie

Bonnie VanakBy Bonnie Vanak

He had the personality of a curmudgeon, was known for being eccentric (showing curious tourists at the Great Pyramid his pink underwear to scare them off), read Euclid and conducted chemistry experiments when he was just a lad of 15, and authored over 1,000 books and articles on the digs he conducted.

Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, born in 1853 and died in 1942, is considered the "Father of Modern Archaeology." The British Egyptologist and archaeologist was the first to insist on careful, meticulous excavations and examining each handful of earth. He censured the crude methods of using dynamite to blast into ancient tombs. His scientific and mathematical method of measuring the Great Pyramid of Giza set the standard for pyramid measurement.

Before writing my first book, THE FALCON AND THE DOVE, I was researching ancient Egypt and the 18th dynasty pharaoh Akhenaten. In 1892, Petrie excavated Akhetaten, the city the pharaoh built to worship the god Aten. Petrie's work inspired me to include the dig in my book when the heroine, Elizabeth, becomes part of the historical excavation. In THE FALCON AND THE DOVE, Elizabeth, a rebel at heart, breaks Petrie's rules by riding a donkey to the dig site. History tells us Petrie ordered all his workers to walk there. He led a very spartan life while on site.

I'm so fascinated with Petrie that I decided to interview him.

Bonnie: Sir William, is it true your expeditions meant sacrificing luxury and comfortable accommodations while at the dig site?

Petrie: Pah! Who complained to you about that? Bunch of lily-livered saps. Need to buck up. Nothing wrong with sleeping in an old tomb, and eating canned meat. The work's all that matters.

Bonnie: I read that you stripped off your clothing when outside Khufu's pyramid and showed off your Calvin Kleins for the tourists to scare them off. Your PINK Calvin Kleins.

Petrie: Who is this Calvin Klein?

Bonnie: He makes men's underwear.

Petrie: Useless profession. Yes, I did and I detest tourists. Get in the way, the whole lot of them. Worse than the flea-bitten donkeys.

Bonnie: So you did measure the inside of the Great Pyramid nude?

Petrie: Damn hot inside, what else was I supposed to do? Wear a fur coat? Have you ever been inside one? Stuffy as a tomb. Considering it was a tomb.

Bonnie: You worked with Howard Carter on the dig at Akhetaten. He was working as an artist, but made some important discoveries. You're partly to thank for Carter's training that led him to discover the tomb of King Tutankhamen.

Petrie: Carter? Insignificant sap, told him he'd never be more than an artist. Never would make a good excavator. I trained many gifted archaeologists much better than Carter.

Bonnie: Amelia Edwards, who authored A Thousand Miles up the Nile, was a great admirer of yours. She funded the Edwards Professor of Egyptian Archaeology and Philology at University College, London. You had the distinct honor of being the first to take the chair.

Petrie: Yes, yes, Amelia, lovely woman, bequeathed her collection to the college. Intelligent and a very good author.

Bonnie: So where did you take it? The chair, I mean.

Petrie: (silence)

Bonnie: That was a joke.

Petrie: Pah! Are you quite done? I have work to do.

Bonnie: Almost. It's said you never did quite get the hang of Arabic. But you changed the way excavations were conducted, and as a result, archaeologists after you understood the importance of examining every bit of debris at a site, every single potsherd. You set the standard, and because of your sequence dating at Naqada, we now have the Predynastic Period of Egypt's history. You, sir, are to be commended for all your wonderful contributions to history.

Petrie: Thank you.

Bonnie: Afwan.

Petrie: What's that?

Bonnie: It's Arabic for "You're welcome."

Petrie, grumbling: Bloody show off!