Wed to their pens, their trowels and to each other

Letters from the Desert
March 4, 2005

Sir Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) was a pioneer of Egyptian archaeology, a controversialist and an inexhaustible writer. His bibliography lists more than a thousand titles. The museum named after him in University College London houses 132 of his notebooks. He would work all day during long seasons in Egypt and in the evening he would relax by writing up the previous season's final report. After 40 years in Egypt, he fell out with colleagues and started excavating in Palestine. He was knighted in 1923.

Hilda Petrie was also remarkable. She had been an artist's model and features as one of the companions in Henry Holiday's painting of Dante meeting Beatrice on the bridge. After her marriage in 1897, she accompanied her husband on many of his excavations, mastering Egyptology as well as the logistics of working in desert sites. She too published books.

The couple shunned social events, and the austerity of their life in Egypt is legendary.

Their entire correspondence and their journals were studied by Margaret Drower when she was working on her detailed biography, Flinders Petrie: A Life in Archaeology (1985). Now, highlights of these are presented in this volume. Some of the letters are family affairs, but others were intended to be circulated among patrons and potential supporters because almost all of Petrie's work had to be funded independently.

In his scholarly work, Petrie could be relentless and formidable, and much of his correspondence is about the minutiae of planning and organising an excavation. But he was also a shrewd observer of Egypt and the Egyptians.

He knew all the tricks that can be played on an excavator, but he remarks of one of his foremen that "he is really more to me than almost any of my own race... none are sorrier at parting, or gladder when we meet again". On the other hand, he loathes most of the French administrators of the Egyptian Antiquities Service and sees no harm in libelling them.

The letters also reveal a more reflective and sensuous side to the man. He revels in the scenery and fragrances of the Riviera, and he thinks it was a mistake that mankind ever strayed north of the Alps. The book is illustrated with some of the Petries' water-colours of Egyptian scenes.

This is a book for Egyptologists, but also for anybody who simply wishes to learn more about one of the giants of archaeology.

John Ray is reader in Egyptology, Cambridge University.

Letters from the Desert: The Correspondence of Flinders and Hilda Petrie

Editor - Margaret S. Drower
Publisher - Aris and Phillips
Pages - 261
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 85668 748 0

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