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Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie – Eccentric, Genius, Innovator

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:


 Egypt archaeologists unearth 3,500-year-old tomb in Luxor(

 Well-Aged: Oldest Traces of Italian Wine Discovered(

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

 Henry VIII’s lost palace found (

 Egypt announces discovery of 3,500-years old tomb in Luxor (

 Turkey bones may help trace fate of ancient cliff dwellers (

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

 Italians Have Been Getting Blitzed on Wine for a Very Long Time (

 Egyptologists go high tech to unlock ancient mysteries (

 Stone Age Cannibals Decorated Human Bones While Butchering Them (


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The Rosetta Stone – An important key to understanding the ancient world

The Rosetta Stone

Image via Flickr

The Rosetta Stone is a large gray stele naturally tinted blue and pink measuring almost four feet high, over two feet wide and almost a foot thick.

It is a fragment of a larger, original stone, and was discovered in 1799 by a captain of Napoleon’s army, Pierre-François Bouchard, near Alexandria in the proximity of Rashid (Rosetta) in the Nile Delta.

The stone is inscribed with an order issued at Memphis, Egypt, in 196 BC by King Ptolemy V. The top and middle texts are in Ancient Egyptian using hieroglyphic and Demotic scripts; the bottom is in Ancient Greek.

Ptolemy’s decree is mostly the same in all three languages, so the Rosetta Stone was used to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphs. Before the discovery of the stone, the hieroglyphs had been undecipherable.¹

The English scientist, physician and Egyptologist Thomas Young – famous for his double slit experiment – helped to decipher the Rosetta Stone.

Report of the arrival of the Rosetta Stone in England in The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1802 – Wikipedia

The stone was probably first displayed in a temple.  One theory suggests it was moved sometime between early Christian and medieval times, and later used as building material for Fort Julien near Rashid (Rosetta).

Today it sits in the British Museum, along with a replica in the BM’s King’s Library.

Not surprisingly, a contemporary language education tool is called Rosetta Stone.

A crowd of visitors examining the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum – Wikipedia


 Alleged Louvre attacker’s father says son is not a terrorist (

 Hieroglyphs of Blood and Bone Paperback on Amazon (

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Aton (and Akhenaton)


The Aton Disc

Aton (also Aten) is an important but short-lived Egyptian sun god, established under the reign of king Amenhotep IV (1350-1334 B.C). Aton, originally the term for the sun’s disc, came to be the name for the new sun-god.

In a bold step, King Amenhotep IV re-named himself Akhenaton and introduced his new monotheistic religion based on the sun’s rising and setting. However, archaeological evidence suggests that most of the Egyptian populace continued to secretly worship the old gods, despite Akhenaton’s decree that all must accept his new religion.

The pioneering psychologist Sigmund Freud thought it noteworthy that Aton was the first monotheistic deity and compared him to the God of the Old Testament (Yahweh).

For all his smarts, Freud clearly was way off the mark here. The celebrated Religious Studies professor Houston Smith (and many other thinkers) realize that a mere sun god differs quite dramatically from a Jewish God who creates not only the sun but the entire universe.

After Akhenaton’s death, the puppet-King Tutankhamen (Tut) at age 12-years was quickly restored polytheism in Egypt. Most likely the boy was coached, to put it nicely, by temple priests and scribes of the old polytheistic system who wanted to restore their much coveted power, prestige and privilege.


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Amenhotep III

English: The eastern figure of the Colossi of ...

The eastern figure of the Colossi of Memnon, two massive stone statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, across the Nile from Luxor. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Amenhotep III (c. 1411–1375 BCE) was an Egyptian Pharaoh of the 18th dynasty.

Amenhotep III ruled peacefully at home, advancing culture and art, while securing Egyptian power in Babylonia and Assyria. During his reign he rebuilt the ancient capital of Thebes, with stunning architecture like the Colossi of Memnon, the temple at Luxor and the Karnak pylon.

He has over 250 surviving statues, a number greater than any other Egyptian ruler.

From his mummified remains archaeologists can see that he had worn teeth and many dental cavities. And he invoked the goddess Ishtar (who figures in the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh) to heal several illnesses, including his dental pain.

His son was Amenhotep IV, who renamed himself Akhenaten, fashioning after himself a solar-based monotheism.

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Amenhotep, Son of Hapu, Luxor Museum

Amenhotep, Son of Hapu, Luxor Museum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Amenhotep (14th-century BCE) was an Egyptian scribe and minister of Amenhotep III (1417-1379 BCE). Amenhotep was respected as a philosopher or, perhaps, deep thinker and worshipped in Thebes as a healer. He was also celebrated for the magnificent temples erected under his commission.

In Egyptian art he’s usually depicted as a scribe with a papyrus scroll on his lap. Amenhotep was revered to the extent of becoming deified.

Amenhotep was greatly revered by posterity, as indicated by the reinscription of the donation decree for his mortuary establishment in the 21st dynasty (1075–c. 950 BCE) and his divine association with Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, during the Ptolemaic period.¹

¹ See “Amenhotep, son of Hapu.Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2013. Web. 21 Oct. 2013. <>.

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Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great by Stavros Markopoulos via Flickr

Alexander The Great (356-323 BCE) was the third Macedonian king from 336-323 BCE. Born in Pella as the son of Philip II, he became the undefeated conqueror of one of the largest empires of the ancient world, including Egypt and Greece.

Tutored by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, in Egypt Alexander founded the port city of Alexandria, a bustling place with a university after that of Athens and a library containing 400,000 to 900,000 books and scrolls.

After consulting an oracle of Ammon, Alexander was convinced that his formidable abilities came from divine power—that is, he believed he was chosen. After seizing the capitals of Babylon, Susa, Persepolis and Ecbatana, in the following three years he took the eastern part of the empire and in 327 BCE set his sights on India. He took the Punjab but his overburdened troops mutinied, leaving him no choice but to retreat. Soon after he died in Babylon.

At the height of his fame, Alexander rose in popularity to the point of nearly being deified.

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Amenhotep IV – Akhenaten by kairoinfo4u via Flickr

Akhenaton was the first ruler in recorded history to advocate a type of monotheism. Originally Amenhotep IV, this 18th dynasty Egyptian King changed his title to Akhenaton (“it is well with Aton”) and reigned from 1350-1334 BCE.

Akhenaton replaced the many Egyptian deities, particularly Amun, with the sun god Aton. While this was a type of monotheism, worshipping a solar deity clearly differs from worshipping a wholly-other creator God. Along these lines, Sigmund Freud, in perhaps his weakest writings, compared Akhenaton to the Jewish prophet Moses.

The debate continues, however, as to what the ancient depictions of Aton actually depicted. Some scholars adhere to the limited solar cosmology while others, mostly New Age enthusiasts and so-called fringe theorists, suggest a more universal conception of the godhead. This debate calls to mind R. C. Zaehner’s distinction between theism and pantheism, a distinction he’s not alone in making, but one which still eludes many thinkers who lump all things and all paths into one gelatinous whole.

Akhenaton, himself, became self-aggrandized to the point of proclaiming himself as the only true mediator of Aton. This is surprising because a good number of artistic depictions of Akhenaton from this period learn toward realism, stressing human detail rather than godlike or saintly gloss. Prior to Akhenaton, Egyptian rulers were depicted in stylized, refined forms. Akhenaton, however, is sometimes visibly unattractive, marking a first for Egyptian art and influencing realism in general.

Musee national - alexandrie akhenaton

Musee national – alexandrie akhenaton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Akhenaton’s most well-known wife was Nefertiti. Together they rode in grand and imposing public processions, demanding servility and worship as their carriages passed by onlookers.

But for all his grandiose pretensions, Akhenaton had little interest in international politics. Eerdmans Bible Dictionary points out that “during his reign Egypt lost control of its provinces in Syria and Palestine.”¹ And the Amarna letters (inscribed tablets showing diplomatic records) tell us that he was preoccupied with domestic affairs and neglected the city-states of Palestine, leaving them in chaos, a chaos marked by conflict among local chieftains, turmoil and open rebellion.

¹ Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, ed. Allen C. Myers, 1987, p. 35, 46.