The 1880s was when things started getting serious in Egyptology. The days of looting and exporting antiquities based on their material value and trampling over everything else was coming to a close and men like Flinders Petrie heralded a new age of respect for Egypt’s heritage and a wish to preserve it.
Born in Kent, England in 1853, Petrie never let his lack of formal education stand in the way of his love of archaeology. Even at age eight he expressed horror at the rough shovelling of earth that was going on at the excavation of a Roman villa on the Isle of Wight and exclaimed that earth should be removed slowly and systematically to avoid damaging what might lie beneath. His career began with the study of British sites and at the age of nineteen he conducted the most accurate study of Stonehenge by that point. Egypt followed in 1880 and he produced the first real study of how the pyramids at Giza were constructed.
His studies were brought to the attention of Amelia Edwards (patron of the Egypt Exploration Fund) who was impressed by the young man and funded his further digs in Egypt. Commencing in 1884, Petrie embarked on a series of excavations of Egypt’s sites including Tanis and Tell Nebesheh. He developed a reputation for ‘cutting out the middle man’ by acting as foreman and for giving cash rewards for artifacts found, thus ensuring that they were not stolen or handled carelessly. In 1891 he worked at Tell el-Amana (known in antiquity as ‘Akhetaten’ – city of the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten) and discovered a very attractive painted pavement depicting many scenes of farming and hunting life.
His later career focused primarily on Palestine where he continued to implement his painstaking methods which set new standards in archaeology. His contribution to Egyptology was immense; a field in which he was the first to use seriation – a method of dating layers of earth based on pottery fragments. I found him such an interesting character that I used him as a supporting character in my novel Silver Tomb. In it I refer to his excavations at Tanis and Tell Nebesheh but as it is an alternate history novel, there are some changes. The novel opens in 1886. Petrie is finished at Tell el-Nebesheh and is currently working at Tell el-Amarna (which he didn’t excavate until 1891 in reality). I have also involved him in the discovery of the mummy cache at Deir el-Bahari which in reality was discovered in 1881 while Petrie was still in England.