Sir William M. Flinders Petrie, 1853–1942

Grandson of Captain Matthew Flinders, explorer of the coasts of Australia, he was judged too frail to attend school and was educated at home by his parents.

In his youth, he began studying coins and weights as a boy. With his father he took up surveying, modifying available instruments to make them more precise. His only formal education was a University Extension Course in mathematics.

Under the influence of the pyramidology theories of Prof. Piazzi Smyth, he went to Egypt in 1880 to survey the pyramids of Gizeh. Petrie’s measurements proved that Piazzi Smyth’s theories were based on a logical fallacy, but he had become ‘hooked’ on the archaeology of Egypt. With two brief exceptions, he spent the rest of his career studying it. These brief exceptions were the periods he spent excavating in Palestine.

Although these interludes were brief, they were highly significant for Levantine archaeology. The first interlude was a six-week season of excavations at Tell el-Hesy (now transcribed as Tell el-Hesi) in the spring of 1890. During this short period he introduced into Palestine the concept that a tell is a manmade mound of successive, superimposed ‘cities’. He established the dating of these ‘cities’ by means of their associated ceramic assemblage and of the cross-dating of these assemblages with reference to similar finds made in Egyptian contexts. Having thus laid the foundation for all future work in Levantine archaeology, he returned to Egypt, where he excavated for the next thirty years.

His second period in Palestine, 1927-1942, was at the end of his career. At this time he investigated ‘Egypt over the Border’, the frontier sites between Egypt and Canaan. He excavated a series of sites on the lower reaches of the Wadi Ghazzeh, Tell Jemmeh, Tell Far’a, Tell Ajjul, and Sheikh Zowayd. These sites revealed remains dating from the Chalcolithic to the Hellenistic periods.

Petrie’s most significant contribution to archaeology was in 1899 when he developed and applied a method of statistical analysis to the material from the prehistoric cemeteries at Naqada, Hu (Diospolis Parva), and Abadiya. Such methods were not applied again until the 1970s, at which time sophisticated computer programs were used, where Petrie had used slips of card.