Friday, 26 June 2015

The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archeology

Thursday 25 June 2015

Malet Place
The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archeology, which Linda and I visited today, has a rather unprepossessing entrance, in amongst various bits of University College.  You go up some concrete stairs to reach the galleries, and are confronted by rows of glass cabinets containing -well - bits of Egyptian archeology.  It feels somewhat Pitt-Rivers-y; the cases are crammed and the labels typed with all sorts of catalogue details, but not much explanation.  Linda felt I was being picky when I complained about misspellings, reminding me how annoying it was to correct things in the typewriter ribbon days of old.

Some cases were displayed by digging site, so that the different periods of occupation were together; we would have found a map of the whole Nile Valley with all the sites marked rather useful. There were maps, but they seemed to assume more knowledge that we have. In some of the cases, the story began with paleolithic flint axe heads.Then again, some cases were chronological.  And some were by topic ('tools and weapons' for example).

Flinders Petrie was the grandson of Matthew Flinders, explorer of Australia, hence his unusual forename. He was mostly self taught and, when his work in Egypt began in 1880, set new standards of accuracy and detailed recording.  

His wife Hilda was also an archeologist and worked with him, wearing very appropriate clothing, as you can see. (We were not clear why the picture had been cut in two:  a designer's idea, probably).

We did see lots of interesting things: a large array of bangles made of (don't read on, Sophie!) hippopotamus ivory; a toy hippopotamus; other items made of the same ivory, including shapes thought to be for inlay work

Then there was a 'serpent' game (shake-and-move, we supposed) made out of limestone, and some stone heads, some rather amusing. some in a more familiar "Egyptian' idiom.

We saw many necklaces, made of carnelian, or faience beads.  Some of these were a beautiful colour, looking like jade or soapstone.  We admired several beautiful small glass items, including some remarkable millefiori work.  We think this came from the Roman period, but it was rather hard to be sure.  Similarly there was an astrolabe from the Ottoman period, though no date was supplied

And, of course, we saw lots and lots of pottery, some with designs painted on and some with incised patterns.

Copper items included tiny graduated pots for measuring opium, or gold dust.

The Museum has been in existence for 100 years. After a bomb and the work of the firefighters during the Second World War, it was the 1950s before the collection was resorted. A bead dress, excavated in the 1920s, by successors of Petrie in the field, had to wait till the 1990s to be put together. 

 And finally, I suppose what surprised us most was that some items had been purchased at Cairo Museum:  this is not how we imagine archeologists working!

So, what did we think?  The collection is enormous:  each case had four drawers under it, all full of more shards, shells, beads etc.  Clearly, for an avid Egyptologist, this is a place of pilgrimage (and we did share the space with a very intense French guide and her attentive group).

But for the passing trade, we felt a few more interventions might be helpful:  a map of all the sites referred to; a timeline for those of us who do not instinctively know when the 18th Dynasty began and ended; perhaps fewer items actually displayed, so that they can be seen more clearly; an explanation when a modern 'interpretation' in the form of a clay figure has been added to the already crowded case.  Maybe the problem was our lack of scholarship and knowledge: a quick nip round the Egyptian rooms at the British Museum gives an impression of the grandeur that was Egypt, while Petrie shows the hard work and OCD detail which underlies modern understanding of that world.

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