Paying Homage to Pioneering Archaeologist Who Lost His Head

Scholars and curiosity seekers marked the 70th anniversary of the death of Flinders Petrie, the father of modern archaeology, whose headless body is buried in Jerusalem.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

On Monday of last week the Israeli Antiquities Authority conducted an unusual memorial service, to mark the 70th anniversary of the death of the British archaeologist and Egyptologist Flinders Petrie. Only one of the people who attended the ceremony at the Protestant Cemetery on Jerusalem's Mount Zion, Israeli archaeologist Shimon Gibson, had ever met the deceased - or at least his head. In 1989, while Gibson was working at the Palestine Exploration Fund in London, he was contacted by the Royal College of Surgeons. "They asked me," Gibson said at the ceremony, "to help identify a head preserved in a jar. They weren't sure it belonged to Petrie," Gibson related.

"I arrived armed with photographs of him," Gibson said. "A laboratory technician brought me the head, took it out of the jar and put it on a plate in front of me. I was a bit embarrassed. I think [the technician] was a little strange because he asked me if I wanted to see the cut. We archaeologists love to see [such things] but not this type exactly. He showed it to me and opened Petrie's eyes. They were bright blue."

Petrie was born in England in 1853 and died in Jerusalem in 1942. His headless body was buried in the Protestant Cemetery on Mount Zion. He is widely regarded as the progenitor of modern archaeology. He laid the foundations for Egyptology, the study of ancient Egypt, and was the first biblical archaeologist in Palestine.

Petrie made a number of thrilling discoveries, including Egyptian mummies and the Pharaonic-era Merneptah Stele, which contained the earliest mention of the name "Israel" in the archaeological record. But the real significance of Petrie's work was in his smaller discoveries; things that most of his colleagues would not have bothered to pick up from the ground. Petrie developed a method for dating the layers of a site according to the pottery and ceramics found in them that became the cornerstone of the archaeological dating process. He came to recognize that just as modern dish patterns change so did the pottery styles in the ancient world. Working intensively, he classified clay fragments to create a catalog that could be used to date archaeological sites.

Stories about Petrie's life and genius abound. Archaeologist Gabriel Barkai told a few at the ceremony. "People say that he knew the exact distance between his eye and the tip of his finger and therefore could measure distances with great precision. He built a camera out of biscuit tins, and in order to save time, he drew his findings with both hands at the same time, wielding a pencil in each." It is also said that Petrie dug pharaonic graves in the nude, but ate his lunch in proper Victorian fashion - in a tent, dressed in an elegant suit.

Petrie thought well of his own professional judgment. In 1917, after the British conquered Palestine, Petrie suggested demolishing all the structures in the Old City of Jerusalem so that its hidden parts could be excavation. Fortunately, his suggestion was rejected. Flinders stipulated that after his death his head should be studied, a condition that was presumably influenced by his belief in theories about race, evolution and skull shape and size.

But it was Petrie's bad luck to die at the height of World War II. By the time his head reached London's Royal College of Surgeons, after the war, these theories had fallen out of favor and were associated with racism and Nazism. Petrie's head was lost in the college basement. Apparently the label on the jar fell off and no one was sure the head belonged to Petrie. One problem was that the hair on the head was black, while Petrie's had been white at the time of his death. Another issue was the shape of the nose. But Gibson was able to identify the head by virtue of a scar on the forehead. He believes the preserving liquid may have changed the hair's color, while the misshapen nose may have resulted from its being pressed against the side of the jar for decades.

The memorial, organized by Shahar Poni of the Israeli Antiquities Authority, was attended by no less than 150 people, including archaeologists, historians, representatives from Jerusalem churches and curiosity seekers.

"Memorials for great people are an accepted thing," Poni said. "But they are usually for politicians; scientists are neglected. Petrie was a world class scientist who invented a whole new area of science. We thought it offered an opportunity to organize a cultural-anthropological event." Pony admits that he was surprised by the large number of people who attended the memorial. "I have no doubt that the story of his head exerted an influence."

The memorial ceremony in Jerusalem, last week.Credit: Shiran Granot
A portrait of Petrie.



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