Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) was a groundbreaking archaeologist. He was the first to precisely measure the Egyptian pyramids.
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
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.
Sometimes genius and eccentricity go hand in hand.
¹ 1.1. Introduction to Anthropology, University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), 2007.
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