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!

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