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TimeLine Auctions: Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942)



Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) first travelled to Egypt in 1880 to survey the Great Pyramid of Giza. In 1884 he was hired by Amelia Edwards, founder of the Egyptian Exploration Fund, to conduct excavations on behalf of the society. Little did Edwards know that the 30-year-old Flinders Petrie was to become the father of modern Egyptology.

Petrie’s mother and father, a scholar and surveyor, educated Petrie at home. His grandfather, Captain Matthew Flinders, was the first known circumnavigator of Australia. Inspired by his family’s achievements, Petrie started surveying British prehistoric monuments as a teenager, beginning with the late Romano-British camp close to his family home in Charlton, near Greenwich. At the age of 19, he produced the most systematic and accurate survey of Stonehenge to have been achieved at that time.

The sites discovered and explored by Petrie number amongst the most ancient and important in ancient Egypt: Hawara, Aswan, Amarna, Thebes and Ramesseum to name but a few. Petrie’s innovative thinking gave birth to the development and application of seriation in Egyptology, a method which links styles of pottery with particular time periods to establish the chronology of a site.When Petrie discovered the Merneptahstele, the earliest known historical reference to Israel, he said: “This stele will be better known in the world than anything else I have found.”

Although he received little formal education, Petrie penned copious numbers of works in his lifetime: ninety-seven books and around nine hundred articles. In 1904, Petrie published ‘Methods and Aims in Archaeology’, the definitive work of his time, in which he observed that research results were dependent on the personality of the archaeologist, who, in addition to a broad knowledge base, had to possess insatiable curiosity.

In 1892 Petrie was made Edwards Professor of Ancient Archaeology and Philology at University College London. In 1894 he founded the Egyptian Research Account, which became the British School of Archaeology in 1905. Petrie eventually sold his collection of Egyptian antiquities to University College in 1913 and it is now housed in the Museum of Egyptian Archaeology.

In 1923 Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie was knighted for services to British archaeology and Egyptology. In 1926 the focus of Petrie’s work shifted to Palestine, where he began excavating several important sites in the south-west region of the country, including Tell el-Jemmeh and Tell el-Ajjul. Upon his death in Jerusalem on 28 July 1942, Petrie’s body was interred in the Protestant cemetery on Mount Zion, whilst his head was donated by his wife to The Royal College of Surgeons of London.


Dr. Raffaele D’Amato
(Head of Antiquities
at TimeLine Auctions)