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.

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