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Image © Petrie Museum Unofficial Page via Facebook

London’s Best Kept Secrets: The Petrie Museum

Natasha Sutton-Williams

Dr Alice Stevenson gives London Calling a tour of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, discussing its history, founding and her fascination with Egyptology.

The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at University College London is one of the world's leading collections of Egyptian and Sudanese artefacts and contains over 80,000 ancient relics. London Calling was given a personal tour by curator Dr Alice Stevenson.

London Calling: The Petrie Museum is over a hundred years old. Who was the founder, Flinders Petrie?

Dr Alice Stevenson: Petrie had strong opinions, an infinite memory, a mathematical mind, and was rather eccentric. In the early days he comes across as an Indiana Jones type. One story is that as a young man in the 1880s he was called out to see a tomb, but it was flooded. He strips off his shirt, climbs into the tomb in the dark, burning torch in hand, up to his chest in stale gunky water. He describes in his journal how skulls bob on the waves around him. He fishes artefacts out of the tomb with his feet, which include funerary statuettes called Shabtis. Some of these are displayed in the museum.

LC: And how did this Indiana Jones figure come to found a museum?

DAS: He was a well-regarded excavator and unusual in that he was interested in the small, the everyday, and insisted records should be made to clarify where artefacts were found. He initiated the scientific approach to excavation and taught many students. The great grandchildren of Egyptian people who were trained by Petrie still work on excavations in Egypt today.

Unlike the British Museum, which has huge monuments, Petrie was interested in small objects because they could also tell you about history. It means the character of our collection is very different. It’s the second largest collection of Egyptian archaeology in the world, outside of Egypt. We’ve got more Egyptian relics than the Met and the Louvre. Every cupboard is crammed full of artefacts.

LC: What are the most important artefacts in the Petrie museum?

DAS: The museum has a whole collection of ‘firsts’. We have the oldest garment known anywhere in the world. We have the world’s earliest worked iron which are beads made from meteorite, 2,000 years older than the Iron Age. We have the earliest representation of a loom, material from the earliest Egyptian royal burials, the world’s oldest wills and the world’s first veterinary papyrus, which discusses how to look after cattle.

LC: You also have the earliest medical text. What does it describe?

DAS: Flinders Petrie directed excavations at a pyramid town in the 1880’s and found lots of papyrus dated around 2000 BC. Included amongst these is what has been called ‘the gynaecological papyrus’. It’s the oldest medical text in the world. It describes ‘woman’s problems’ which has been interpreted as endometriosis, menstruation, and how a woman is feeling.

LC: The Petrie Museum has a large collection of artefacts from the largely forgotten ancient Sudanese kingdoms. How does ancient Sudanese history relate to ancient Egyptian history? 

DAS: We have a very strong Sudanese collection at the museum. Sudan and Egypt had different relationships with each other at different times: sometimes as trading partners, sometimes as enemies. Like Egypt, Sudan developed a complex society and civilisation. There are more pyramids in Sudan than there are in Egypt.

Around the time of Tutankhamun, what we call the New Kingdom, Egypt expands its territory all the way down to Sudan, then it retracts. Centuries later we get the Kushite Dynasty 25, where pharaohs from Sudan rule Egypt. There is a shifting balance of power through the ages. Sudan borrowed elements of Egyptian culture but very much made it their own.

LC: What fascinates you about Egyptology?

DAS: We are as far apart in time from the Vikings (1,000 years ago) as the length of time between Tutankhamun and the people that built the pyramids. The ancient Egyptian timeline is huge. I’m interested in ancient people encountering even more ancient people and what that says about culture and society. There are big questions like how did we get to a society that is so hierarchical? How did social inequality become permanent?

Egypt is the world’s first nation state. It’s the first time you’ve got a political entity of this sort: a King with a divinely mandated right to rule territory. How do you go from agriculturalists living in small groups to a society that can build pyramids? I’m interested in trying to negotiate these big questions through investigating small objects.

LC: The museum has a busy calendar of events. What kinds of things do you do?

We do everything from poetry readings to film nights showing Horror, Sci-Fi, Xena: Warrior Princess, Indiana Jones. You name it, we’ve done it. There’s usually a talk about the background of the movie and how it links to Egypt and the collection. We do events for Black History Month and events with LGBTQ communities. Alternative sexuality is something we can explore through the collection as ancient Egypt had various representations and views on the subject. There are also lots of opportunities for students and volunteers to get involved.

For more information and tickets to events at the Petrie Museum, please see their website.

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