Flinders Petrie, Father of Archaeology

Today’s post is by Michelle from the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum. We are not experts, but we are people with a passionate interest in the museum and its objects. We each bring our own insight into Manchester Museum and its collections.

For more about Egyptology, please visit the Curator’s blogEgypt at the Manchester Museum, and for archaeology visit Ancient Worlds.


There are many personalities from the modern era who could justify a claim of parenthood to modern archaeology, from Johann Winckelmann to Heinrich Schliemann, from Mortimer Wheeler to Kathleen Kenyon… but especially here at Manchester Museum, one of the favourites for the title of ‘Father of Archaeology’ must be Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie.

Flinders Petrie, Father of Archaeology

The idea of archaeology was born in antiquity with ancient kings who set out to prove their divine lineage, and with Herodotus (c.485-425 BC) came the first systematic study of archaeology. The early modern period was the age of the collector, with antiquities being amassed an behalf European royalty and elite, and even with the likes of Belzoni collecting for national institutions like the British Museum in the nineteenth century, collection and excavation was driven by aesthetics and the potential for display of artefacts and monuments, with very little emphasis being placed on findspot or context.

“Mode in which the young Memnon’s head, (now in the British Museum,) was removed by Belzoni.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1820. (Available from: digitalcollections.nypl.org)

William Matthew Flinders Petrie was one of a new guard of archaeologists who revolutionalised the discipline, not only taking a scientific and methodical approach to excavations, but meticulously recording the sites and objects. Although Petrie was not the only archaeologist of this time to take a professional approach, the title, “Father of Scientific Archaeology” was given to Petrie posthumously and appears in a great many of his obituaries and biographies (Sheppard, 2010).

William Matthew Flinders Petrie (Available from: ucl.ac.uk)

This title was earned through his systematic recording of sites and monuments, such as the architecture of Giza and his systematic and painstaking recording of objects. He revolutionised the chronological basis of archaeology

“I believe the true line of research lies in the careful noting and comparison of the smallest details” – Petrie

Flinders Petrie, Father of Pots

An idea of Petrie’s archaeological legacy in Manchester can be gathered by simply walking through the Ancient Worlds galleries, with a large number of the objects displayed being from Petrie’s excavations in Egypt. Many archaeologists brought back objects, now on display in museums around the world, that were arguably more visually spectacular, but what sets Petrie apart is his meticulous methods. Owing to this, one of the strengths of Manchester Museum’s Egyptian and Sudanese collection is the number of objects with a documented archaeological findspot.

Petrie’s eye for detail, and love for calculations allowed him to formulate a relative chronology, and create a timeline for prehistoric Egypt, using ceramics found at Naqada in the 1894-5 season, this passion for pottery had already been noted by his workmen who had given him the nickname Abu Bagousheh, ‘Father of Pots’.

Scan from E negative collection held by Media Services Photography department.
Petrie’s Series Dating. Available from: blogs.ucl.ac.uk)

Flinders Petrie, Father of Museology?

Manchester Museum’s archives provide a real-life glimpse into Petrie’s passion for archaeology and also for museums and the museum display of objects.

ID 315a

ID 315b

Manchester Museum, Egypt Archive Correspondence, ID 315. Letter dated 17 April 1897, from Flinders Petrie to William Hoyle (Keeper of Manchester Museum 1889-1909) 

University College
Gower St.
17 Ap 97

My dear Hoyle

    I want you and the Museum’s Association to terrorise Gloucester a bit. I went there the other day to lecture, + inquired for the museum, where a lot of Roman things are, to say nothing of miscellanea. I found the building, and heard that everything was packed up to clear the place for a technical school. I hope “packed up” is not an euphemism for some other way of getting rid of the civic collection at the bidding of some stingy county councillors or some one of the kind. At this rate no collection is safe unless there is permanent public interest on the part of some people in office in the place.

Here is a biting argument for the Museum’s Association becoming a trustee for such property. If this were in the museum trust the collection would be rescued by the trust and sent elsewhere, either as a whole or distributed. I never yet saw a city collection that had not some things of value and interest in it.

I hear of you the other day when supping with a learned editor; you had been met at a wedding at Wimbledon! Oh frivolous man! Who bears the weight of all the –ologies on your shoulders at Manchester.

    There is good stuff again from Egypt; two cemeteries of the pyramid age, weird mutilations, fine statues, and an untold wealth of Roman Papyri. Do come up in July to see them.

W.M. F Petrie.

Petrie was a man of his time – a time when correspondence was handwritten with personality flowing onto the page, and when, long before twitter, the post was the most immediate method to communicate ideas and information. Here we see Petrie as a passionate Egyptologist, with his tangible excitement over the statues and papyri, and perhaps demonstrating that he was not far removed from the ‘cabinet of curiosity’ mentality, looking forward to exhibiting ‘weird mutilations’.

But perhaps we also see a man who was out of his time – Petrie had an invested interest in museums and the museum display of objects. And in today’s heritage climate of destruction, along with museum closures and the sale unethical sale of antiquities, there is a blunt realisation that we find ourselves with the same issues that Petrie was faced with nearly 120 years ago.

Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie was a pioneer, he pushed the boundaries of archaeological method in an age that was rigidly theistic, he re-excavated spoil heaps discarded by previous treasure hunters and adventurers and in doing so found the some of the most important historical jigsaw pieces upon which our current picture of Egyptology relies, and he mentored a whole generation of Egyptologists, including Howard Carter. James Quibell, Gertrude Caton-Thompson and Guy Brunton, who were themselves also to change the landscape of Egyptology.

Happy Father’s Day Flinders!

Michelle Scott

References and further reading:
Alice Stevenson – Abu Bagousheh: Father of Pots
Kathleen L. Sheppard “Flinders Petrie and Eugenics at UCL” in the Bulletin of the History of Archaeology 2010, volume 20, pg. 16-29).
Alice Stevenson – Making time for Predynastic Egypt
Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, 1945, pg. 5
Manchester Museum – Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie
David, R. 2003. The Pyramid Builders of Ancient Egypt: Modern Investigation of Pharaoh’s Workforce. Routledge: London.

For more about Egyptology, please visit the Curator’s blogEgypt at the Manchester Museum, and for archaeology visit Ancient Worlds.

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5 thoughts on “Flinders Petrie, Father of Archaeology

  1. If you think Flinders Petrie’s handwriting is bad you should try reading Canon William Greenwell’s letters- it’s best compared to Arabic ruq’a script.

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