By Hannah Sentenac
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When 27-year-old British adventurer and archaeologist Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie first entered the Nile Valley in 1880, he probably believed the people of Atlantis had built the Great Pyramid of Giza — and perhaps the Bible's mysteries were encoded in the ancient structure.
"Back then everyone still thought it contained occult knowledge," observes Dr. Steve Harvey, an archaeologist who was in town last week to lecture on the man many consider to be the real-life inspiration for Indiana Jones. "The British, the French, the Americans — the early archaeologists were more intent on searching for where Jesus was born or excavating sites like Tanis, which was mentioned in the Bible."
Not your garden-variety tomb raider or occultist crackpot, Petrie became known as the father of Egyptian archaeology. He made great breakthroughs in field excavation and invented a sequence-dating method that enabled reconstruction of history from ancient remains. After half a century unraveling the mysteries of Egypt, he was knighted in 1923 for his discoveries.
A new exhibit at the Lowe Art Museum captures Petrie's life and times. "Excavating Egypt: Great Discoveries from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College, London" features 221 of the scholar's finds. Many of these have never been publicly displayed.
The show includes a treasure trove of sculptures, jewelry, pottery, painted vessels, and mummy portraits, as well as objects used in everyday life. They offer a tantalizing window into the ancient Egyptians' level of sophistication.
More pith helmet and white linen waistcoats than fedora, leather jacket, and bullwhip, Petrie wasn't interested in "cherry-picking raisins from the rice pudding," Dr. Harvey explains. "He recorded everything: bones, pottery shards — [things] found together and how they related to each other — rather than running out of a temple with a gold statue like Indiana Jones."
Harvey says Petrie figured out a way to decipher pottery shards that contributed not only to Egyptology but also to world archaeology. Through a process called seriation, he was able to place objects in a particular series, which helped make sense of the materials he found. "Imagine placing all the Coke bottles and Coke cans made between the 1800s and 2008 side by side," Harvey explains. "By examining them together, one notices the subtle changes and stylistic differences. Through his genius, Petrie was able to understand how these objects related to each other — effectively altering his entire field."
The exhibition sprawls across the development of Egyptian archaeology from its infancy in the 1880s to the present day. It covers dozens of the sites on which Petrie worked. His discoveries can be found in more than 120 museums across the globe.
Visitors enter the Lowe exhibit through a gauzy field tent canopy that houses enlarged portraits of Petrie and several of his publications, as well as rare archival materials. These include a copy of Amelia Edwards's A Thousand Miles up the Nile, which became a best seller when it was published in 1876. The British novelist was a lifelong Petrie advocate and cofounded in 1882 the Egypt Exploration Fund, which supported many of the archaeologist's early expeditions.
Inside the main gallery, the walls have been painted the muddy green hue of a Nile crocodile.
The artifacts are arranged in elegant groupings and complemented with blown-up photographs of dig sites and informative wall text that conveys the visual richness of the culture and the period of discovery. "I'll be honest with you," Harvey says. "These objects look better here than they do in London."
The original building that housed the Petrie Museum was destroyed during World War II. Since then, many of the priceless artifacts have remained in storage or have been exhibited in the student library of London's University College, Harvey explains.
This is the Petrie Museum's first traveling exhibit. It was organized bythe Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University in conjunction with a campaign to construct a new museum building for the collection. "It's fascinating how when taken out of an old school museum setting and allowed to breathe, they become a piece of art instead of just data," Harvey observes.
Among the more unusual artifacts is a rattrap Petrie discovered in Kahun dating to the Middle Kingdom, 2005-1650 B.C. Petrie remarked that "nearly every room has its corners tunneled by the rats, and the holes stuffed with stones and rubbish to keep them back."
Fragments of decorative art from the Great Palace at Tell el-Amarna date from 1352 to 1344 B.C., during the reign of the "heretic" pharaoh, Akhenaten. There are also Egyptian alabaster and limestone pieces of the balustrades or columns that embellished the palace of the pharaoh and his wife, Nefertiti.
One of the show's knockouts is the priest Duaneteref's coffin from the Bolton Museum in Lancashire, United Kingdom. The wood, plaster, and paint piece dates to the 22nd Dynasty, 945 to 715 B.C. Petrie excavated it in 1888. The remarkably preserved casket was made in the shape of the priest's mummified body and inscribed with magical spells to aid its owner in his journey through the underworld, where he would be transfigured and united with Osiris, god of the dead.
Artifacts on display range from tools and weapons to hand-held mirrors, game boards, a razor, and a pair of gazelle-shaped eyebrow tweezers.