In Search of Petrie (part 4)

Flinders Petrie: ‘The Man Who Discovered Egypt’ will be broadcast in the UK on BBC4 at 9.00 pm on 28 March 2012 and available on BBC iPlayer for one week thereafter.


We were met at the border of Jordan and Israel by our facilitator for this part of the trip, Nitzan Almog, who was every bit as helpful and able to arrange anything we needed as Magdy had been in Egypt. One noticeable difference between the way the logistics were handled in each country was in the number of people involved: in Egypt we were accompanied at all times by Magdy, his assistant, two boys to carry our kit, a driver, press officer and policeman(!). In Israel Nitzan was the only person with us.


The old city of Jerusalem provided a spectacular backdrop for several sequences

Petrie spent the last decade and a half of his working life excavating sites in what was then Palestine, searching for evidence of ‘Egypt over the border’. He also spent his last few years living in Jerusalem where the climate suited him much better than that of the UK.

An enforced break

Our plan was to film in Jerusalem on the Thursday (12 January), and then to drive to Tell Hesy, the first site Petrie worked at in Palestine, on the Friday. Rob and Mark were to fly home on the Saturday while Deborah and I would stay on for another day to discuss plans and see a little of the city. Our plans were scuppered however. By Wednesday evening I had begun to feel unusually tired and a little queasy and by Thursday morning I really wasn’t feeling right. We managed to film an interview with archaeologist Shimon Gibson in the room at the Albright Institute in which Petrie lived with this wife Hilda in his last years, but after filming briefly at the next location it was clear I would have to withdraw for the day. Appropriately, I thought at the time given how I was feeling, this took place at in the hospital in which Petrie had died in 1942!

Petrie in the hospital in Jerusalem in which he spent his final days

With such a tight schedule to get through the crew decided to continue as the next sequence involved an interview at the Rockefeller Museum with curator Hagit Maoz-Lin (see this clip). However while the interview was in progress Rob was also taken ill leaving Nitzan to operate the camera. Filming was cancelled for the day and, having each been diagnosed with gastroenteritis and given a saline infusion in an emergency clinic, Rob and I were advised to spend at least one day recuperating. Fortunately we were able to revise the schedule to allow us to complete the necessary filming, but not without Rob and Mark flying home a day later than anticipated and Deborah and I losing our free day.


Jeffrey Blakely gestures towards Tell Hesy for the crew

Saturday was spent picking up where we left at the Rockefeller Museum before driving to Tell Hesy to meet Jeffrey Blakely, who has been excavating at the site for forty years. We had been warned beforehand that due to heavy rains the tell itself might be in accessible and indeed the road to the site was so muddy that we had no choice but to complete the last mile of the journey on foot, with all the kit. It was all worth it however: the lush green setting was quite beautiful especially as the sun start to set, and it was a pleasure to talk to someone as knowledgeable as Jeffrey. One of the reasons Petrie chose to dig at the site was that a wadi running alongside had cut into the side of the Tell providing a very visible profile of the successive layers of occupation that create the mound in the first place. It was the wadi which now prevented us from getting to the site itself. Jeffrey had never known there to be so much water in the wadi that you could hear it flowing; the noise very much contributed to the ambience and Mark was delighted to have the opportunity to record it.

Petrie’s headstone in the Protestant Cemetery in Jerusalem; note the scattering of potsherds on the top

This left one final morning for filming back in Jerusalem, principally in the Protestant cemetery in which Petrie is buried, and on the Mount of Olives with the old city as the backdrop. We were even more rushed than usual this time and managed six pieces to camera and a few general views and walking shots. It was exhilarating to have managed to get through so much so quickly but I had mixed feelings as we packed all the gear and headed for the airport: I would have loved to spend more time exploring the city (and less time in recovering from illness in bed!). I hope to be back before too long.

Mark and Deborah packing up the kit in the car park of our hotel in Jerusalem

Back to the UK

At this point we still had three further days’ filming in the UK, beginning with a visit to ‘Wilmington Man’ in Sussex with Petrie’s granddaughter, Lisette Petrie. Petrie had measured this hill figure while on holiday with his family including Lisette’s father, John. After more discussions of the Petrie family with Lisette and her own daughter, Susie, we headed back to London for an interview with EES Trustee, Margaret Mountford, at Doughty Mews. With no restrictions on the amount of time we could spend at the EES we filmed a series of pieces to camera well into the evening. We returned to the PEF to complete an interview with Felicity Cobbing and then sped off to the British Museum for a long day of interviews (Rupert Chapman and Neal Spencer), walking shots and then several pieces to camera after-hours in the Egyptian sculpture gallery.


Where’d all the punters go? Setting up a shot of the Rosetta Stone after hours at the British Museum

For our final day we filmed several sequences relating to Petrie’s appointment as Edwards Professor of Egyptology in the quad in front of the main building at UCL before heading to the EES for the final sequences. These included ‘establisher’ shots of me arriving at work and explaining what the EES does in 2012, and Petrie’s involvement with the Society and Amelia Edwards. As this was our very last day of filming any pieces to camera which we had had to leave out previously were also recorded here. I set a new personal best for the number of PTCs recorded in a single day and we finished (‘wrapped’, to use the lingo) almost on time at around 6pm.


Getting ready to film the shot of me balancing a candle on my head in the EES library

A steep learning curve but a great experience!

The very long days of travelling and filming had, in the end, flown by but they had been great fun. The crew were great to be around and to work with and I had settled into a routine for learning my lines that I was comfortable with. There were three main kinds of sequence in which I might appear. The simplest were the ‘walking shots’ in which I would shown, as you can probably guess, walking into or through a location to establish where the next sequence will take place and to allow the viewer to familiarise him/herself with it. From a personal point of view I’m really looking forward to having these as a reminder if some of the fabulous locations we visited. A little to my surprise I felt particularly proud to be filmed looking closely at Tutankhamun’s famous death mask. I do hope he makes an appearance in the final cut.

Interviewing our contributors was a little more challenging. My job in these situations was to tease out of them exactly the right information and views to keep the story moving along at the right pace, or to provide a smooth introduction to the next shot. This meant formulating exactly the right question as concisely as possible, something those of you who know me may imagine didn’t come altogether easily! The interviews were generally very good fun however. In many cases the contributors were friends with whom I felt immediately at ease. Others I met only a short while before filming started. In all cases it was a pleasure and a privilege to work with experts with such enthusiasm for our subject, each of whom brought something unique to the film. I was only sorry that we never had enough time to chat on or off camera.

Me in mid-piece to camera at Giza!

The most challenging parts for me were my ‘pieces to camera’ (PTCs): the scripted lines which I had to deliver while looking straight down the lens, often on the move – the walking and talking that, I discovered, is not as easy as it looks. I had optimistically thought that I would learn most of my lines at least the day before but quickly learned two things that meant this wasn’t  necessary: 1) as we had had no read-through the precise wording generally changed depending on what sounded right and what I was comfortable with and 2) I found I could learn the lines for a single PTC – usually no more than 2-3 sentences at most – in 5-10 minutes before filming.  As the budget hadn’t stretched to a recce before the shoot began the crew were new to just about every location which added to the time required to set up each shot. There was often little I could while this was help pending providing me with the opportunities I needed to familiarise myself with the lines for the next PTC.

Transmission nears…

As I write this the film is due to be broadcast tomorrow evening. We have had good reviews in the press over the weekend (with one notable exception…) which is very exciting in itself. I am a little nervous but really looking forward to seeing the finished product. 

Amelia Edwards, the founder of the EES, would surely have used television to promote the Society had it been around in the 1880s. Her portrait on the stairs at the EES offices was used as the backdrop for several sequences

This is a wonderful opportunity for the Egypt Exploration Society; we are of course hoping that the viewing figures will be good and that in any case the film will bring the Society to the attention of many who would otherwise have no idea of its existence. Very few people can have had a greater impact on archaeology or Egyptology than Petrie, and the Society’s role in his development – and vice versa – cannot be underestimated. One of his greatest contributions was his insistence on making the results of his work widely known through rapid and thorough publication. He also understood the crucial importance, for the continuation of his work, of engaging the support of the public, through the EES and subsequently through his own Egyptian Research Account and British School of Archaeology in Egypt. I’m sure for these reasons that he would approve of this film, and the Society’s participation in it, and would encourage everyone to tune in!

The great man, Flinders Petrie, leaving colleagues trailing in his wake even into old age!

Previous posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

8 Days in Egypt

I have just returned from an all-too-brief but fabulously useful and interesting eight days in Egypt. This was my first visit as EES Director and my goal was to see as many friends and colleagues, particularly in the Ministry of Antiquities, as possible and to visit the five EES teams that are working in Egypt this Spring. This was something I had wanted to make a priority when I started the job, and to my delight it has been every bit as enjoyable and productive as I had hoped it would be, and much more.

The Delta city of Tanta (

It is, of course an exciting, if unsettled and difficult period for Egypt: the country is still waiting to see who will be its next president and what changes this will bring, and times are hard, particularly in those areas which rely most heavily on tourism as visitor numbers remain very low. Some are concerned at the reduction in the number of police on the streets, and there is currently an apparently inexplicable shortage of petrol which is making for long queues at the petrol stations throughout the country. Still, there is relief and joy that the revolution has brought the possibility of the changes the people want, and great hope and optimism in general.

A mixture of ancient and modern motifs among the graffiti which has sprung up around Midan Al-Tahrir since the revolution (

It has also been a time of great excitement and optimism for the Egypt Exploration Society. We have, in the last few years, been through a lot of change brought about by a very challenging financial situation and the necessary modernisation that came with it. We have made great strides however: our financial position is much more stable and secure than it was a few years ago, and by looking very closely at all our activities and how everything is run we have been able to improve the financial situation at the same time as expanding our programme of activities in a series of key areas such as fundraising, the archives, events and online communications (I’ll be writing about these in more detail in the coming months). Having worked very closely myself on improving the Society’s work in The UK in the last few years in my role as Deputy Director, I am now relishing the opportunity to get to work on the Egyptian side of our operations. 

Meetings, meetings

During the week I met numerous colleagues from the MSA including the Minister, Dr Mohamed Ibrahim, not only at their headquarters on Zamalek, the island in the centre of Cairo, but at each of the centres in which our teams are working. I visited the site of the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) by the Giza pyramids and met the Director General, Dr Hussein Bassir, who showed me around the extremely impressive Conservation Centre which is already up and running.

Work is under way at the new conservation centre at the Grand Egyptian Museum site

I also met with the British Ambassador, James Watt and his colleague Sam Grout-Smith, who were extremely hospitable and keen to hear more about the Society’s current work in Egypt. I met friends from the American University in Cairo, American Research Center in Egypt and Ancient Egypt Research Associates and elsewhere, and gave a lecture for EES members in Cairo. And of course I spent a lot of time with the Society’s Cairo representative, Mrs Faten Saleh, who accompanied me almost throughout, not least on my visits to the EES field projects.

Faten Saleh (L) and Penny Wilson at Nashwein (

Visiting the archaeologists and other specialists who make up our teams and their sites was really my top priority and my visit was timed to ensure that I could see as many of them as possible. If you had asked me beforehand, I would have said, having visited numerous archaeological projects – EES and otherwise – that site reports, online dig diaries, lectures etc are all very well, but there is no substitute for being there in person with the people doing the work. Everything from the journey to the site to the atmosphere among the team members, foreign and Egyptian, helps put the work in context. Of course you also get the opportunity to ask questions, however daft they might seem, which might be the key to helping you to understand what’s going on (“oh, I see…”). I thought I knew all this already but nonetheless I have been bowled over by what I have seen in the last few days. I feel I understand what our teams are doing much better than I did before and my enthusiasm for them all, which was never lacking beforehand, has increased dramatically.


Joanne Rowland taking levels at Quesna (

Our adventure began last Tuesday (20 March) with a drive to Quesna in the central Delta (see this map) to see Jo Rowland and her team. The site is located atop a very large yellow sand gezira (mound) surrounded by fields, factories and a landfill site. At one end of the site lies a Ptolemaic and Roman mausoleum excavated by the SCA in the 1990s, a spectacular jumble of vaulted mudbrick chambers and the occasional stone sarcophagus, one with a very finely modelled human face. Jo’s excavations focus on the Ptolemaic and Roman cemetery nearby, in which a series of well-preserved and articulated human remains have been found, and in the 140m long sacred falcon gallery. Here, thousands of mummified birds were placed in ceramic jars and deposited in the galleries. This would of course have been similar in function to the catacombs devoted to a variety of sacred animals discovered by Emery at North Saqqara in the 1960s. It might not look like much at the moment but with Jo’s help it wasn’t too difficult to imagine a very impressive structure at the centre of local religious beliefs and one I thought might lend itself to some kind of virtual reconstruction. Jo also showed Faten and I the site of the Old Kingdom mastaba she discovered in 2011 but has not yet been able to excavate completely. We talked about the possibility of increasing the size of Jo’s team in the future in order to expose the entire monument; funds permitting this is something we would both like to do.

The atmosphere on-site in fantastic. Jo has the largest workforce of any of the teams I visited which, along with the constant banter, not least with Geoffrey Tassie (known universally as ‘Tass’ or ‘Mr Tass’) whose ‘shiq shaq shoq’ dance is extremely popular, makes for a very jolly working environment.

Left: Jo Rowland and her team; Right: Tass performs the ‘shiq shaq shoq’ for his colleagues! (

We left Jo and Tass and their team after a tour of the workroom and headed north to Kafr Es-Sheikh which Pat and Jeff Spencer and Penny Wilson were using as the base for their work at Kom El-Daba (not the Daba / Avaris of the famous frescoes but another site of the same name) and Nashwein respectively. We caught up over a delicious fish dinner then, after a good night’s sleep, set off in the morning, first to Daba in Pat and Jeff’s hire car.

Kom El-Daba

Jeffrey Spencer (with hat) supervises excavations at Kom El-Daba (

It may not look like much more than a muddy area of lumps and bumps, but the mud at Kom El-Daba is in fact the remains of what was a sizeable town in Ptolemaic and Roman times. The team here are excavating the substantial remains of a Ptolemaic ‘tower house’, a type of building which could reach several storeys high. Daba would in ancient times have been much more high-rise than you’d ever imagine just from looking at the site as it is today. The work, a part of the Society’s wider Delta Survey, has now reached the point at which Pat and Jeff believe they have gathered as much information as is necessary and it is likely that they will decide to concentrate resources on another, uninvestigated site next year.

Pat and Jeff decided to end the working day early so that we could all drive to Nashwein to visit Penny on what was the first day of her season of Delta Survey work. The drive itself was great fun. This part of the world is so relatively remote and developing so quickly that there are no maps which can be relied upon to show the best roads. Jeff therefore uses satellite images to identify what look like the best roads – asphalt and with cars on – to a given site, and then uses other landmarks such as built up areas, canals, bridges which appear on the images to navigate the route which, in the absence of any signage is the best method available. I was given the job of reading the satellite image / map – I have never felt more involved in Egypt Exploration!

Egypt exploration: navigating by satellite image (


Nashwein is a another very large site. Penny will be unable to do more than a basic topographical survey and inspection of archaeological material visible in the surface before heading to a more involved excavation at another Delta site, Tell Mutubis. This in itself will be of enormous value however. It is difficult to overstate just how little we know of Delta archaeology: just to establish the extent, condition and date of these sites, and in some cases that they exist at all has been an enormous achievement of the Delta Survey and every piece of information, however small, adds to our knowledge.

L-R: Jeff Spencer, Penny Wilson and Pat Spencer explore Nashwein (

Tell Basta

Our next stop was to be Tell Basta, a few hours to the south-east. We decided to break the journey by stopping overnight in the city of Tanta and arrived in good time the following morning (Thursday) to join Eva Lange and the rest of her team. The Tell Basta project is collaboration between the EES, the MSA and the University of Göttingen. The Society’s involvement is relatively recent – the project has been in existence since the 1990s but we have only been involved since 2008, but of course the Society has had a very strong connection with the site since Naville’s excavations in the temple in 1887-9.

Edouard Naville among his workmen at Tell Basta. See further here.

The elite Middle Kingdom cemetery at Tell Basta with the palace just beyond (

Though it is mainly famous for its temple, a jumble of massive, beautifully decorated and well-preserved stone blocks, the archaeological area is in fact much larger and encompasses domestic and cultic buildings, a palace and cemeteries, all of which dates from the Old Kingdom to Roman times and most of which has never been explored. The potential of the site is breathtaking. At present we have only a vague understanding of what is there and in the next few years Eva and her team plan to improve this situation by undertaking a comprehensive non-invasive survey (geophysics and augering) of the entire area, which will, we are hoping, lead to more focussed work on specific areas. One aspect of the work which the Project may be able to take on in the near future is the recording of the very fine decoration in the tombs of the Old Kingdom. We have been hoping to revive the Society’s epigraphic activities for some time and this would provide an ideal opportunity.


After heading back to Cairo, Faten and I flew to Luxor the following day (Friday) to visit Angus Graham and his team which had just begun the augering phase of the Theban Harbours and Waterscapes Project. We met with Angus and his colleagues, Ben Pennington and Morag Hunter, that evening as we had all been invited to dinner at Chicago House. We had a great evening with old friends including the Director Ray Johnson and a good few new acquaintances as well. Luxor has changed a great deal in the last few years not least due to the excavation of the avenue of sphinxes in the centre of the town which continues to generate much discussion, and it was fascinating to talk to Ray and Chicago House architect Jay Heidel about some of the issues, and the fascinating, more recent – medieval and modern – history of the area.

The excavations of the avenue of sphinxes connecting the Luxor and Karnak temples (

The vast excavation trench has had a dramatic effect on the centre of the city (

I joined Angus and co first thing the following morning and was immediately reacquainted with my good friend and member of several EES teams Reis Omar Farouk (who also appears in our Petrie film, see my earlier post). We drove from the east bank across the bridge to the village of Nagaa Raml Al Alqalta to begin augering in the fields close by. This is the area that was, three thousand years ago, in the 18th Dynasty, the southern end of the entranceway to the Birket Habu, the massive, artificial harbour created by Amenhotep III in front of his palace at Malqata.

L-R: Morag Hunter, Ben Pennington, Warda el-Nagar (MSA Inspector) and Angus Graham analysing samples in the Birket Habu area, with the Theban mountains in the background (

Having undertaken a short season of geophysical investigations earlier in the year the team are now analysing the soil down to a depth of 9m in an attempt to improve their understanding of conditions in the area in ancient times, and specifically whether or not there was water, and of what kind – standing, flowing, seasonal etc. – here at the time of Amenhotep III.

It was a great thrill for me to see this work in particular. First of all I am very fond of the area: the fields and villages, set against the backdrop of the Theban mountains, are very beautiful, and I spent several seasons a few years ago living and working in the area with the Italian Mission to Luxor (and specifically the Tomb of Harwa). Secondly, I hadn’t realised how entertaining it would be to watch the augering in progress. Reis Omar and his crew have to really heave to get the auger in and out of the ground, and their circular procession around the kit as it is driven downwards looks like some ritual dance. Best of all, Omar leads them in song almost throughout. It’s very entertaining!

A short video of the augering in progress – listen out for the singing!

YouTube link for iOS users and others without Flash Player:

Over the course of several hours what is, in effect, a column of soil samples of up to 9m is brought out of the ground in sections, each from slightly deeper down than the last. Each time, once the drill head has been brought back out of the ground, the sample is then scraped onto a tray by Omar and then passed to Angus, Ben and Morag for analysis. I find it utterly fascinating that what looks like any old mud to the untrained eye might potentially tell us so much about the building and other activities of one of the most interesting characters in ancient history, Pharaoh Amenhotep III. I can’t wait to hear the results of the season’s work set into context by a series of other experts on the period at our study day in London on 9 June: ‘Grand Designs’: Amenhotep III and the landscape of Thebes

After a few more visits and social calls, including Reis Omar’s house in Luxor for dinner, I flew back to Cairo and then home the following day (Sunday).

The next steps

As I write this I’m still bursting with enthusiasm about the work our teams are doing, and elated at the atmosphere of positivity, energy and good humour I encountered at every one of the sites. It is my job now, along with my colleagues on the Board of Trustees and staff, to try to build on this and take things further forward. There are several areas in which I can see we might be able to make some progress:

   First of all I’d like to engender more of a spirit of community / collegiality between our field teams, and my colleagues on the staff etc. One of the happiest aspects of the trip for me was getting to know our teams that bit better, and I’m really glad from this point of view that Faten was able to join me. We are planning to involve team members as well as directors more directly in our events and to get them all together more regularly with everyone involved in the organisation – staff, Trustees, members and sponsors as well as fellow field workers

   I want to make sure that out teams and their work are as ‘visible’ in the archaeological and Egyptological communities as possible, and that they benefit from discussions with colleagues outside the EES by hosting more workshops (like the recent Delta event), seminars and social events particularly in Egypt, during the field season.

   I also want to make sure that our teams are as well coordinated as possible in terms of sharing resources – expert personnel and equipment etc.

   Most of all I want to ensure that each one of our projects is able to realise its potential, by supporting our teams throughout the process from fieldwork, to study and research, and finally, publication. We have in that past focussed only on supporting the fieldwork and publications costs but there’s an awful lot more to the process than just that. We aren’t going, suddenly, to be able to pay for everything but I think, with a little more flexibility and awareness of what might be able to do, we might be better placed to achieve our ultimate goal of finding out X about ancient Egypt and then telling the world about it.

All the above will come at a cost of course and will be subject to funds being available. However, the Society’s financial situation is much improved as I mentioned above and we are now much better placed than we were only a few years ago to raise funds for targeted initiatives in particular. 


As you might imagine I have also been giving an awful lot of thought to the Society’s presence in Egypt, in terms not only of the work we are doing, but also of our profile among the Egyptological community and more widely, and the way the organisation is perceived. I was really pleased to hear colleagues talking so warmly about the Society and its work, and its long history and status as the pioneer organisation of its kind. We should all take great pride in that. I was a little concerned however that some felt a little ‘in the dark’ as regards our current projects, and activities in Cairo, but encouraged that everyone was hoping for a resurgence of sorts, and I think that without too much difficulty we ought to be able to bring this about with a few fairly straightforward initiatives. These might include:

   Improving the ‘education and outreach’ programme in Cairo as we have in London in recent years;

   Increasing ‘traffic’ between the UK and Egypt: we hope that Faten will be coming to London this summer and that Roo Mitcheson will visit Egypt later in the year;

   Using both these initiatives to improve educational opportunities for Egyptians and MSA employees in particular by:

1.     Providing more educational activities – lectures, but also seminars, colloquia, short courses and tours – and offering a number of free places for MSA employees;

2.     Bringing more Egyptians to the UK, to contribute to and/or benefit from our own education programme and from visits to other Egyptological institutions in the UK

Can’t wait to get back

All in all, this was a fantastic trip. It was a privilege to be able to see the fabulous work my EES colleagues are doing and I was really taken by the warmth and openness shown by everyone I met, and by their enthusiasm for what the EES is doing now and, perhaps more excitingly, what it could be doing in the coming years. I can’t wait to get going on all of this, and can’t wait to get back to Egypt.

More photos from my trip are here:

iPhone / Instagram

Proper camera / Facebook (no log-in required)

Graffiti near Tahrir / Facebook (no log-in required)

In Search of Petrie (part 3)

Flinders Petrie: ‘The Man Who Discovered Egypt’ will be broadcast in the UK on BBC4 at 9.00 pm on 28 March 2012.

To measure the Pyramids…

We spent the next day at Giza, the first site Petrie worked at in Egypt, and perhaps the most iconic anywhere in the country. Petrie visited the site in 1880 and again in 1881-2 in order to measure the pyramids, which still seems like an incredible, and audacious feat for a man at the very beginning of his career. The setting, of course, is magnificent, and although we were very aware of the problems it has caused to the Egyptian economy, we were otherwise grateful that there were fewer tourists than one would normally expect at the site, and we found a spectacular but very quiet location on the south side of the pyramid of Khafre, which helped add to the magic a little.

This was the day on which I was required to play the part of Petrie more than at any other time during the shoot. I rode a donkey, as he did when he arrived at the site; Magdy and I scampered around with a tape measure and a copy of Petries plan attempting to recreate what it must have been like for him trying to fix his survey points; there was even a little bit of dressing up involving a pink costume provided by the BBC. If you dont know the story, youll have to watch the film!


My steed arrives


and promptly steals the show


Magdy and I prepare to emulate Petrie by measuring the base of the pyramid of Khafra

During the afternoon came perhaps the most rewarding moment in the entire shoot. Deborah and I had wanted to visit the rock-cut tomb at the site in which Petrie lived while working there. The problem was that we didnt know exactly where it was and couldnt find anyone who did. Magdy, with much help from our colleagues at the Ministry of State for Antiquities, was able to locate the tomb in a very rarely visited part of the site on a cliff side, just to the south of the causeway of the pyramid of Khufu. The earliest known photo of Petrie in Egypt, something of an icon for students of the history of Egyptology like me, was taken outside the tomb. Hands behind his head, barefoot, Petrie seems very much to be in his element. Deborah was very keen that we should recreate the scene, with me in the role of Petrie and I didnt really feel I could refuse.


Petrie standing outside his tomb at Giza in 1880 and our recreation of the scene.

Much as it was fun to do this, the real joy for me was in finding the tomb and looking inside it. It proved to be on one of several cut into this short stretch of cliffside which provided Petrie with a glorious view of the agricultural land of the Nile Valley in 1880, a view now almost totally obscured by a concrete structure a matter of yards from the front of the tombs. In any case however, even if this new building hadnt been there, all we would have seen looking out from the tomb entrance was the sprawl of suburban Cairo and Giza.


Looking down the causeway of Khufu towards the sprawl

Petries tomb is in fact two tombs knocked together. To my surprise several of the tomb entrances were inscribed although it was extremely difficult to make out many of the signs, and there was little trace of any decoration inside. Petrie slept on a hammock and we were excited to find the remains of some cord strung around a rail which had been fashioned from the rock. It seemed very unlikely that this could have been from Petries own hammock but, not being sure, it was an intriguing possibility. The light at the end of the day was fantastic and Rob in particular was frustrated that filming was brought to a halt when the site closed before sundown. Still, it had been another excellent day.


The next morning we headed to another of the sites I had recommended we visit. Tanis has always been a favourite site of mine: the Society has a very strong connection with it thanks to Petries excavations, and it became an extremely important site during the Third Intermediate Period which was the subject of my postgraduate research.


Clear instructions for would-be archaeologists at Tanis

Its also a wonderful combination of poorly- and well-preserved remains: poor in that little of the architectural form of the main temple is still visible, but well, in that the decoration on many of the blocks seems as fresh as it must have been the day the sculptors finished carving the reliefs. Importantly as well, it doesnt look so very different now from the way it did when Petrie first visited a romantic jumble of beautiful ruins – as his own wonderful photographs, which are now kept in the EES archives, show. This is how I saw it anyway, and I was hoping the crew would agree.


Rob and Mark set up a shot amongst the ruins at Tanis


Petrie’s photograph of a fallen colossus of Ramesses II, taken shortly after the great storm of February 1884 

Fortunately, they crew did agree, and we spent yet another wonderful, but all too brief day at the site. In this case playing the role involved looking though a Victorian telescope from a prop store somewhere, and blowing into an old-fashioned whistle, as Petrie would have done at the end of the days work.

And that was the end of our filming in Egypt. The next day, Wednesday 11 January, we flew to Amman in Jordan for an overland journey to Jerusalem crossing over the border into Israel at the Allenby Bridge. 

Coming next: Part 4: Jerusalem, Tell El-Hesy and back to the UK!

In Search of Petrie (part 2)

Flinders Petrie: ‘The Man Who Discovered Egypt’ will be broadcast in the UK on BBC4 at 9.00 pm on 28 March 2012 (and NOT 26 March as previously advertised).

To Egypt!


On 4 January, Producer Deborah Perkin, Cameraman Rob McDougall and I set off with Sound Recordist Mark Nash for Egypt, initially to Luxor. There we were met by our genial and extremely efficient facilitator, Magdy Rashidy and his team. Magdy would be with us for the next six days as we travelled around Egypt, again on a very tight schedule.


Our first day, Thurs 5 January, took us to Abydos. We had particularly wanted to film at this site as it is so important both for Egyptology and for Petrie’s story. His pioneering work there, carried out on behalf of the EEF, is still indispensable. Deborah was also very keen that we should try to film an archaeological dig in action and so I called on an old friend, Josef Wegner, who has been excavating at the site since the 1990s. Joe had been generous enough to offer me my first experience of field archaeology in Egypt when I wrote to him as a Birmingham University postgraduate student looking for opportunities in 2000. I spent a month as part of Joe’s South Abydos team, drawing pottery he had excavated at the Middle Kingdom temple-town of Wah-Sut, South Abydos in May 2001, and gaining invaluable experience of the lifestyle on excavation in the Nile Valley. Joe has since moved the focus of his work from the town, which sprang up around the cult of the deceased Senusret III, to the rock cut tomb built for the king at the foot of the cliffs to the south west.


The entrance to the tomb of Senusret III. The cement pillars will support a shelter which will help keep the tomb clear of wind-blown sand which pours into the tomb continually, hindering the excavations and rendering the monument inaccessible in between seasons


Photo taken inside the tomb during the excavations in 1902-3. When walking through this part of the tomb – now completely cleared of debris – on camera, Joe explained that Petrie said this was one of the most beautiful architectural spaces he had ever seen

The tomb had first been excavated by Arthur Weigall and Charles Currelly working under Petrie’s supervision in 1902-3. I had never visited it before but had read Joe’s report on the re-excavation of the tomb in Egyptian Archaeology (EA 30 (2007), 38-41) and was very excited to see it. I knew also that Joe’s reis (foreman), Ibrahim, was a Qufti, a man of the village of Quft (see below), and therefore a spiritual (at least) descendant of the skilled workmen trained by Petrie. As it involved a large and spectacular royal monument and, I suspected, large numbers of workmen, I had a hunch that it might make for good television, and I was not wrong. Joe’s site proved to be thronging with workmen and the clatter of buckets full of sand being passed from one man to the next, up and out of the tomb.


Buckets are passed from one man to the next inside the tomb

We couldn’t have known it but the site also gave the crew something of an ‘Indiana Jones’ introduction to a working archaeological site in Egypt: entering the subterranean tomb proper required us all the half-climb, half-slide down a sandy slope of some 20 metres – camera equipment and all. Joe was very generous with his time, showing us around the tomb, and discussing the logistics of a modern excavation, comparing and contrasting it with a typical Petrie dig. After spending half a day with him on site – which flew by – he invited us to join him and his colleagues for lunch at the American house at the site, which was a pleasure for me as it was the first time I’d been back since spending a month living there over ten years before. We then filmed a little in the sherd yard outside the house and then headed for the Sety temple and desert beyond. 

Quft and the Quftis

A bumpy two-hour drive took us to Sohag where we stayed overnight before travelling the following morning to Quft to meet a regular member of EES field teams (see e.g. here) and a Qufti himself, Reis Omar Farouk.


With Reis Omar outside one of the houses belonging to his family

Omar showed us around the village where he and his family, many of whom are also employed as the reis for various archaeological projects. Petrie was acutely aware of the importance of employing reliable and highly skilled excavators if he was to recover the maximum possible amounts of archaeological material and information. At Quft he found the perfect collaborators:

“we found … as in every place, a small percentage of excellent men; some half-dozen were of the very best … faithful, friendly, and laborious, and from among these workmen we have drawn about forty to sixty for our work of two following years at Negadeh and at Thebes.” Petrie, Koptos (London, 1896), 2.

They and their successors would go on to work with Petrie for many years at sites throughout Egypt, and some even travelled with him to excavate in Palestine later in his career, as one of Omar’s relatives, Reis Nahas, explained to us with great gusto. The Quftis have played an enormously important role in Egyptian archaeology ever since.


Relatives of Reis Omar, including Reis Nahas at far left, outside the family house, each of them a skilled digger and reis

I was delighted that we were able to spend time with Omar and his family. I sometimes felt during the revolution, when Egypt received so much coverage in the international press, that villages like Quft and their inhabitants, who represent the majority of the population in the country, were underrepresented. I was pleased we were able to bring a little of Upper Egyptian village life into the film, albeit in the background. It also seemed very timely that we should feature the Egyptian workforce in the programme; they were fundamental to Petrie’s accomplishments of course, and have recently been the focus of several important studies, such as Stephen Quirke’s Hidden Hands.

We visited Quft on a Friday, the Sabbath day, which led to an unexpected opportunity for us: Angelo Sesana, director of excavations at the temple of Amenhotep II, on the west bank in Luxor, was also visiting Quft to see his own reis, Omar’s brother, Aly. Not only did this provide us with the opportunity to film a team visiting their Qufti colleagues, but it led Aneglo to invite us to film his excavation, to our great delight. Although the temple of Amenhotep II is not among the sites most famously associated with Petrie, he did work there and, importantly for us, it was at the temple that Petrie was working when he appeared in a painting we had wanted to show, and is also provided the crew with a second excavation to film in a very spectacular setting.

The temple of Amenhotep II

And so, after an afternoon filming on a felucca on the Nile, and an evening capturing the atmosphere of the souk, we began the next day filming with Angelo, Reis Aly and the rest of their team. The excavation takes place over a wide area with numerous activities underway simultaneously. In addition the setting was quite spectacular: the temple itself is badly ruined but the Ramesseum to the south provides a glorious backdrop. The crew fell in love with the scene, Rob likening it to one of those drawings made for children of a building site or the circus with so many different people and activities to look at all at once.


A shot of the crew taken in between takes at the temple of Amenhotep II. L-R: Deborah, Rob and Mark

After a wonderful morning at the temple we filmed some general views (‘GVs’) of the desert and one of the most enjoyable sequences on the shoot, recreating Petrie’s unique method for establishing whether or not the tinned food he had buried in the sand at the end of the season would still be edible when he returned the next year: he threw the tins against a wall, and any that didn’t explode were good to eat!

We then had to race against time to complete some sequences in the Ramesseum before the light fell. One of the great joys of filming somewhere like Egypt is that light is generally so good, but at the end of the day the sun falls from the sky very quickly, which is fantastic to watch, but very difficult if you are trying to film in consistent light, as for the last hour or so it changes minute by minute.


The following day, Sunday 8 January, we flew to Cairo first thing in the morning and drove straight to the Egyptian Museum, where many of the objects Petrie found are now kept. Here, we interviewed Yasmin El-Shazly, the head of documentation at the Museum, about the ‘Faiyum Portraits’ which Petrie discovered at Hawara, which are celebrated as the oldest portraits in the world.


The burnt out National Democratic Party building

After a brief lunch in the Museum, in full view of the now burnt out headquarters of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, we headed to the Egyptian Parliament building to film a series of pieces to camera about the changing political situation in Egypt during Petrie’s years working there. This felt like a great privilege at this momentous period in modern Egyptian history, and we were reminded of the sensitivity of the situation by a platoon commander who emerged from the barracks opposite to keep an eye on us. He was very friendly and polite but made it clear that he would be ‘listening to every word’. As if performing for the camera wasn’t nerve-wracking enough… 

Coming next in Part 3: Giza, a donkey, pink underwear, Tanis and Jerusalem!

Programmes on the Past: a recent EES seminar

The effective use of mass media has been centrally important to the work of the Society since its beginnings, when Amelia Edwards regularly re-cast the letters sent by Flinders Petrie from Egypt as dig reports for The Times.

A report on Flinders Petrie’s work at Tanis for the EEF published in The Times, 30 May 1884

Television in particular has been the subject of scrutiny by historians of archaeology in recent years (see e.g. the recent event featuring Sir David Attenborough organized by the Cambridge Division of Archaeology Personal Histories Project, and this article by Don Henson of the CBA), and series such as ‘Animal, Vegetable, Mineral’, now widely regarded as having been the first in a line of iconic, archaeology-related BBC series along with ‘Chronicle’ and ‘Timewatch’, are a valuable record of the way in which archaeology has been presented to the public, and an important source for the study of the history of our discipline. In the last half-century television has also played an important role in helping the EES to ‘spread the word’ about its work.

For several years during the 1970s the Society regularly arranged showings of the latest Egyptology-related films for members. As the Annual Reports of the time record, these included films on work at Saqqara, “Professor Harrison’s medical investigation of the Tutankhamun mummy”, “the Ray Smith El-Amarna project, “Nefertiti and the Computer””, and The Night of Counting the Years which was also shown at Doughty Mews in 2010. Having begun to make more use of multimedia including video in the last few years, we decided it was time to revive this practice by showing excerpts from a series of films featuring EES work, and on 25 February 2012 hosted a seminar entitled ‘Programmes on the Past: ancient Egypt on television’ at Doughty Mews.

From the opening titles of the Chronicle: Memphis: Capital of Egypt film

The films shown were as follows:

Discovery: The Fortress on the Nile (on work at Qasr Ibrim)
Chronicle: Memphis: Capital of Egypt,
Chronicle: For the Love of Egypt (a dramatization of Amelia Edwards’ work for the EEF)

We had also invited several people who appeared in the films on behalf of the EES to discuss their involvement, and share their thoughts on the way their work was portrayed: Dr Robert Anderson, the Society’s Honorary Secretary from 1971 to 1982 who appeared in Fortress, and Dr David Jeffreys, Field Director of the Survey of Memphis (SoM) and Professor Geoffrey Martin, former field Director of the joint EES-Leiden expedition to the New Kingdom Necropolis at Saqqara,* both of whom appeared in Memphis: Capital of Egypt. John J Johnston, the Society’s Vice-Chair and an expert on Egypt in popular culture, provided an introduction to For the Love of Egypt

Our special guests as they appeared on-screen. L-R: Robert Anderson in Fortress and David Jeffreys and Geoffrey Martin in Chronicle: Memphis

Robert was responsible for the Society’s events programme throughout the 1970s when the film showings were arranged. From his willingness both to show such films to EES members and to appear in them himself it is evident that he was aware of their value as a channel for communicating with the public. Although his main role on the day was to discuss his involvement in the Fortress documentary Robert had also appeared in a Chronicle film entitled The Key to the Land of Silence (available to view via the BBC Archives here) on Champollion’s decipherment of hieroglyphs. Robert is shown at the beginning of the film teaching an evening class on Egyptian language. The classes were hosted by the EES at Doughty Mews throughout the 1970s, another practice begun by Robert and revived only recently, and the footage was shot in the very room in which the seminar took place, providing a neat introduction to the day.

Robert Anderson and William Adams examine some recently discovered papyrus fragments at Qasr Ibrim during the Fortress documentary

The Fortress on the Nile documentary featured Robert and colleagues in action at Qasr Ibrim and discussing a series of historical issues, particularly the identity of the Nubian X-Group. Robert recalled that he had had considerable influence on the script and narrative thread of the film, which came as no surprise to those present: the film is very thorough, lasting approximately 90 minutes during which a series topics are dealt with in considerable detail.

By contrast, the second film on Memphis dealt with three major archaeological projects in only an hour. The first of these was the Society’s Survey of Memphis, and the second the joint EES-Leiden expedition to the New Kingdom Necropolis at Saqqara. The third project was unconnected to the EES work and was not shown at the seminar. Interestingly both David Jeffreys and Geoffrey Martin regretted not having greater control over the programme as edited for broadcast, in both cases partly due to the important work of colleagues – which had been filmed – having been cut.

It was particularly interesting to see the investment made by the BBC in presenting the work in an engaging way, and in particular that aerial footage had been shot and a 3-D reconstruction of the temple of Ptah at Memphis especially created for the programme, providing viewers with an excellent visualization of the site, of the kind that was beyond the Society’s own means at the time, as, sadly, is still the case today. From the Society’s point of view it is frustrating that we do not own any rights to, or even copies of, the aerial footage – which David explained had explicitly been promised to the Society – or 3-D reconstruction. These sequences in particular would potentially be of great use to us now in our efforts to articulate the work of the SoM.

Aerial shot of the ruins of the Ptah Temple at Memphis

A plan overlaid onto the same shot as that above

3-D reconstruction of the temple based on the same plan as that above

Showing the section on the New Kingdom necropolis at Saqqara from the same film seemed especially timely. This section concentrates on Professor Martin’s rediscovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun’s Treasurer, Maya and his wife Meryt, which turned out to be very finely decorated. After many years painstaking work uncovering, recording and studying this beautiful monument, the final publication of the relief decoration is currently in press and due to appear in the next few weeks. 

Images of Osiris and Nepthys from the tomb of Maya and Meryt

It is perhaps difficult to imagine, for those of us who have only been involved with the EES in recent years when the Society has received very little media attention, but the discovery of the tomb caused a sensation at the time and was widely reported in the national and international media, as this ITN news report from 10 February 1986 attests. Professor Martin spoke very engagingly however of the difficulty of balancing the demands of the media with those of the work. Although the Society must undoubtedly have benefitted from the exposure brought to the project, it seems the experience was not an entirely happy one for Professor Martin.

Finally, John Johnston provided an introduction to For the Love of Egypt, a dramatization of Amelia Edwards’ work in founding the EEF. Amelia’s mission was, first of all, to found an organization devoted to the investigation of ancient Egyptian sites and monuments, and having done that, to share the knowledge gained with the public both for the good that brought in itself and for the purposes of generating further interest and funds. Amelia made use of all available channels to popularize the Society and its work – excavation memoirs, a popular travelogue (1,000 Miles Up The Nile) and countless articles for newspapers and journals. She deliberately cultivated a relationship with the press, and it seems highly likely that her interests would have extended to other media, including television, had she been around today.

Amelia Edwards as played by Margaret Tyzack in For the Love of Egypt

Television companies and learned institutions like the EES have not always been easy bedfellows, however. Although the aims of both parties, i.e. the sharing of knowledge, are broadly the same, there is a certain incompatibility which can lead to certain frustrations of the kind alluded to during the seminar. Broadcast television is, by its nature, somewhat ephemeral: a film may be shown to millions on television but then swiftly disappears and becomes inaccessible even to contributors (notwithstanding home video recording, DVD releases and now iPlayer). The television company moves swiftly on to the next project, but films of this kind might potentially be used over and over again by an organization like the EES. From a televisual point of view, the material might date very quickly to the extent that it becomes unusable, but from the archaeological point of view an overview of work such as that of the Survey of Memphis retains its currency for decades. And yet the EES has little or no access to the material. I hope that in future we might be able to improve this situation, by cultivating better relationships with organizations such as the BBC, as Amelia might have done, and the forthcoming Petrie documentary, the first the Society has been involved in for a number of years, is perhaps a step in the right direction.

Three of the four contributors to the very enjoyable seminar: L-R Robert Anderson, David Jeffreys and John J Johnston

*Although formerly a joint EES-Leiden project the expedition is now solely a project of the National Museum of Antiquities at Leiden and Leiden University and is supported by the Friends of Saqqara.

In Search of Petrie (part 1)

Flinders Petrie: ‘The Man Who Discovered Egypt’ will be broadcast in the UK on BBC4 at 9.00 pm on <<UPDATED 16 03 12>> 28 March 2012 (and not 26 March as previously advertised)

Egyptology and television

As I mentioned in my first post I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the way the Society communicates, and in researching its history I’ve been very struck by our use in the past of mass media, including newspapers and television, to tell the world about what we’re doing. This was a perfect fit with the EES’ remit to educate the public – on a grander scale than we could achieve otherwise – and a perfect opportunity to promote its work. 


The EES Survey of Memphis team shown driving to the site at the beginning of the BBC Chronicle film ‘Memphis: Capital of Egypt’ (1991).

Having started to form a few ideas about how the Society changed its approach to communicating with a wide audience over the years (see my last post), and with a great deal of emphasis placed recently on the need to promote the EES and to reach new audiences, it seems very timely that we should now be involved in a major television documentary for the first time in years.

The EES returns to the small screen

Having made ‘Egypt’s Lost Cities’ a film featuring Sarah Parcak which was broadcast on BBC1 in May 2011, the factual department at BBC Wales were inspired to make a follow-up. This time they would focus on the history of archaeology in Egypt, and in particular on Flinders Petrie, the father of archaeology.


Flinders Petrie c.1886

My colleagues and I were involved in the development of the first programme, contributing thoughts and ideas as to what Sarahs methods might be used to test; we even hosted a meeting with the production team at Doughty Mews which was attended by Sarah and geologist Judith Bunbury, a regular member of EES field teams who appeared in the film as well. At that time, the team were also thinking of producing some short films for the web only, as a complement to the main production, and they asked if I would consider appearing in them. Thinking that this might provide the Society with some valuable exposure, I said I would, and did a short screen test for the job.  This must have been reasonably well-received as, although the short films were never made, to my surprise I was subsequently approached to present the new film about Petrie. A second, more thorough screen test was arranged so that a commissioning editor could decide whether or not to give this first-time presenter the job. Fortunately, in early September 2011, he agreed and production, under the leadership of Senior Producer (and, on this film, Director) Deborah Perkin, began.

In the following weeks, Deborah carried out the bulk of the research, and then began writing the treatment, and finally a script. I acted as a consultant throughout, helping to provide ideas, books and articles from the library, archival photos and other documents (of which there is a great deal relating to Petrie at Doughty Mews of course), and suggesting possible contributors and locations for filming. It was decided early on that the shoot would take place in the UK in two bursts either side of Christmas, and of course in Egypt and Israel.

Flinders Petrie: a giant of our subject 

Deborah and her colleagues at BBC Wales had been inspired to make the film by the constant references made to Petrie by the Egyptologists and archaeologists they encountered during the filming of What Lies Beneath. His influence on our subject is still enormous and yet few people outside the field have heard of him. Its the aim of our film to set the record straight.

Petrie is a legendary figure, a giant of our subject. His entry in the new edition of Who Was Who in Egyptology is one of the longest of all. He published over a thousand books and articles, and more often than not was the first person ever to do any serious archaeological work at the most important sites throughout Egypt and Palestine. His voracious appetite for new information never left him, he was never satisfied, and seems never to have been put off the task in hand, no matter how difficult. Time and again he found energy and funds where others would have given up, and where there were no established methods available for recording or interpreting what he had found, he simply invented them himself, and in the process laid the foundations of modern field archaeology.


Photograph taken by Petrie at Tanis shortly after a rainstorm in February 1884.

Of course, the EES has a very strong connection with Petrie. His first excavation in Egypt, at Tanis, was undertaken on behalf of the Society (then the Egypt Exploration Fund), which was in the very early stages of creating a reputation for itself. Petrie was invaluable to the Fund in helping establish its credentials in excavation but also publication, for which Petrie set very high standards in terms of the quantity and variety of material included, and the speed with which the volumes appeared in the hands of subscribers.

Filming begins


The blue plaque on the wall of the house in which Petrie lived in Hampstead

Filming began on a cold but sunny morning in December (13th) 2011 in Hampstead where Petrie lived for much of his life. From there our small team – Deborah, Rob McDougall (Lighting Cameraman), Ali Pares (Sound Recordist), Peter Shuff (Runner) and I – travelled to UCL, where Petrie became the first Professor of Egyptology in Britain; then to the Institute of Archaeology, where a collection of material he excavated in Palestine is kept, to record an interview with curator Rachel Sparks; to the Petrie Museum (Debbie Challis and Stephen Quirke), and finally the offices of the Palestine Exploration Fund which sponsored his first excavation in the Levant and where a great deal of Petrie-related archival material is kept (Rupert Chapman and Felicity Cobbing).


Preparing to film a ‘walking shot’ in the Petrie Museum

A great start

As I had been warned, the days were long – 10 to 12 hours – and quite unrelenting. There is so much to say about Petrie, and he covered so much ground, that the only way to do the subject justice was to try to cram in as many locations, contributors and stories as possible. This meant, however, that we were always battling against constraints of time, and in London against the traffic, and traffic wardens etc. I found those first two days of filming somewhat exhausting: there was a lot to do for all of us, and a lot for me to learn but it was very exciting at the same time, and a privilege to hear so many expert colleagues enthusing about our subject. I think we all found that very encouraging. We’d made a great start, but the adventure was only just beginning: the next sequences would be shot in Egypt. 

More on this in Part 2!