Emory Report
April 18, 2005
Volume 58, Number 27


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April 18, 2005
Carlos exhibit excavates early era of Egyptology

BY Allison GeRmaneso dixon

This spring, the Carlos Museum captures for the first time for U.S. audiences the adventurous spirit of the early days of Egyptian archaeology with a comprehensive look at the discoveries of British pioneer and “the father of modern archaeology,” Sir William Flinders Petrie (1853–1942).

“Excavating Egypt: Great Discoveries from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College, London,” a touring exhibition organized by the Carlos, is on view through Nov. 27. More than 220 of the Petrie’s finest objects will be featured, including one of the world’s oldest surviving dresses (circa 2400 B.C.); decorative art from the palace-city of the “heretic pharaoh,” Akhenaten and his wife, Nefertiti; gold mummy masks and funerary trappings; jewelry, sculpture and objects of daily life. The exhibit traces the development of Egyptian archaeology from its beginnings in the 1880s to the present through spectacular artwork and rare archival materials.

“The Petrie Museum’s mission of scholarship is shared by the Michael C. Carlos Museum and is the reason we sought to organize this exhibition,” said Carlos Museum Director Bonnie Speed.

In truth, the Petrie Museum’s history begins not with its namesake but with Petrie’s patron: the traveler, popular author and journalist Amelia Edwards (1831–92). Her passion for Egypt led her to establish the Egypt Exploration Fund (still in operation today as the Egyptian Exploration Society), which supported Petrie’s early excavations. When she died in 1892, Edwards bequeathed her fortune to University College, London (UCL), funding a chair in Egyptology for Petrie. She also donated her library and personal collection, including jewelry, scarabs, statuary, funerary tablets, pottery and writings on linen and papyrus.

Edwards’ bequest was intended to promote the teaching of Egyptology; her collection was expanded through years of excavation in Egypt by Petrie and his students. With 80,000 objects, it became the largest teaching collection found in any university and one of the most important Egyptian collections in the world.

Anticipating the bombing of London in World War II, the collection was carefully hidden in several buildings on the UCL campus; indeed, the original building was destroyed during the war. While the collection has been on public view in temporary quarters for several decades, the Petrie Museum now is building a new facility, set to open in 2008. While that construction is under way, the Carlos Museum proposed the touring exhibition now known as “Excavating Egypt,” which includes many of the Petrie’s most famous objects, most of which have never been seen outside of London.

As for Petrie himself, he began his long archaeological career as a young man. His father was a surveyor who taught his son how to use modern surveying equipment, instilling in the young Petrie a respect for measurement and accuracy that would inform and influence his life’s work in archaeology.

Indeed, Petrie became known for his careful and scientific excavation techniques. His emphasis on recording the position and arrangement of every artifact found in a site—rather than simply digging for valuable objects—made him unique for his time. Petrie trained many of the best archaeologists of the day, including Howard Carter and A. C. Mace, who later discovered the tomb of Tutankamun.

“We can’t overstate his importance to the field,” said Carlos Curator Peter Lacovara. “He took what had been a glorified treasure hunt and lent the ethics, protocol and hard science that today define archaeology.”

In 1892, Petrie became UCL’s first Edwards Professor of Egyptian Archaeology and Philology. As a professor he taught students about the importance of studying archaeological data and developing a historical framework to create a better understanding of the past. He retired from UCL in 1933, then spent the final years of his life excavating near Gaza. Petrie died in Jerusalem in 1942, leaving behind a formidable legacy of scholarship and achievement in the fields of archaeology, philology and Egyptology.

The Carlos Museum is open Tuesday–Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. Suggested donation for nonmembers is $7. For more information, call 404-727-4282.