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Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie – Eccentric, Genius, Innovator

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Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) was a groundbreaking archaeologist. He was the first to precisely measure the Egyptian pyramids.

Pink Tutu by Chris Millett via Flickr

Historians love telling the fact that he wore a pink ballerina’s tutu while surveying the Great Pyramid. Some say he donned the tutu to avoid being stoned by “local religious fanatics.”¹

Appearing insane might have put the hostiles off guard. Others think he might have been a little bit touched.

There is no record of Petrie being gay so it seems dubious that he was trying to come out.²

In the Holy Land Petrie recognized the significance of earthen mounds which, due to his work, are now known as tells.

Unlike his plodding contemporaries, Petrie saw the mounds as records of successive settlements because each layer contained a distinctive style of ceramics.

Other conventional archaeologists had assumed the tells were natural phenomena.

From his keen observations Petrie developed a method of historical dating called sequence dating. The method is to dig down into layers of earth, thus reconstructing ancient chronology not from fable and abstracted history but from hands-on evidence.

This new dating technique earned him the title ‘Father’ of Palestinian archaeology.

Petrie’s unusual story doesn’t end with his wearing a pink tutu at the job site. He clearly had a very positive self-image. He arranged to have his head removed at death, hoping that his brain and all that it contained would be inherited by posterity.

Apparently the head was preserved in a jar and stored in a basement at the Royal College of Surgeons of London. The jar’s label fell off during WW-II, making it anonymous for a while. Later the head was identified and is currently stored but not on display at the Royal College.³

English: Flinders Petrie and Hilda Petrie in 1...

Flinders Petrie and Hilda Petrie in 1903 via Wikipedia

While his preserved brain might not be his most important legacy, Petrie trained a whole generation of “new style” archaeologists, to include Howard Carter. And his son went on to become a remarkable mathematician, discovering the Petrie Polygon.

Bottom line?

Sometimes genius and eccentricity go hand in hand.

¹ 1.1. Introduction to Anthropology, University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), 2007.

² Also: https://www.google.ca/search?q=petrie+pink+tutu&oq=petrie+pink+tutu&aqs=chrome..69i57.2660j0j4&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

³ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flinders_Petrie

 Egypt archaeologists unearth 3,500-year-old tomb in Luxor(telegraph.co.uk)

 Well-Aged: Oldest Traces of Italian Wine Discovered(livescience.com)

 A student found an ancient Canadian village that’s 10,000 years older than the Pyramids(businessinsider.com)

 Henry VIII’s lost palace found (foxnews.com)

 Egypt announces discovery of 3,500-years old tomb in Luxor (stripes.com)

 Turkey bones may help trace fate of ancient cliff dwellers (bostonherald.com)

 Finally, a tantalising YA book (for adults too) that uses archaeology to recount Indian history (scroll.in)

 Italians Have Been Getting Blitzed on Wine for a Very Long Time (gizmodo.co.uk)

 Egyptologists go high tech to unlock ancient mysteries (rappler.com)

 Stone Age Cannibals Decorated Human Bones While Butchering Them (ibtimes.com)

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2 thoughts on “Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie – Eccentric, Genius, Innovator

  1. I would say this sets up a historical chronology, rather than a Biblical chronology. Unless, perhaps, one is excavating at a site that is clearly Biblical and has no other stuff mixed in.

    And I may be wrong, but I don’t think ‘sequential dating’ is a method of Biblical dating, specifically, but a method of archaeological dating.

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  2. Edit – September 10, 2017

    Thanks for your comment, again. Looking back I can see that my first (deleted) response to your comment was reactive. I had an extremely bad experience with a bible scholar. It colored my perceptions for a long time. Today I can see that your comments are spot on, and have made the appropriate edits. Thank you!

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