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!

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