Flinders Petrie

Remains of the past for the future: politics of the present

It’s on rainy, soggy miserable English summer days like this that I am delighted to be a museum archaeologist. As a curator responsible for some 80,000 artefacts here in UCL’s Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, there’s plenty to keep me busy indoors (as I talked about last year). It does not, however, mean I’m insulated from the outside world, its problems and politics. And it is not all blue skies out there.

Sunshine. An Amarna royal around 1350 BC. Excavated by Flinders Petrie's teams (UC040)

Sunshine. Image of Nefertit around 1350 BC. Excavated by Flinders Petrie’s teams (UC040)

Today I’ve been thinking a lot about the legacies of what we, as archaeologists, do. For instance, one our fundamental principles is that it is essential to record what is found and from where, since once you dig something up, you’ve destroyed its context. Museums are then often the caretakers of such discoveries and their related archives, supposedly to be held in trust for future generations. But for how long and why? We look to the past a lot in our profession, but we rarely look more than a few decades into the future. Yet here I am, surrounded by the legacy of more than a century of archaeological fieldwork in Egypt. I hope it will remain safe and accessible for centuries (millennia?) to come.

Displays in UCL's Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

Displays in UCL’s Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

The why is because archaeology is not just the moment of discovery. Although we endeavour to publish fully, what we present is always to some degree subjective and affected by our own social, intellectual and political contexts. Archaeology is never-ending project of interpretation, questioning and re-interpretation. The objects we recover are therefore important resources for further research, teaching, outreach and engagement. They will mean different things, to different communities. We also need the archives not just as a historical footnote, for amusing anecdotes or to add a nostalgic flavour to exhibitions. They’re also archaeological objects, documents for further enquiry and resources for examining how we come to know what we know about the past.

Hilda Petrie directing her husband on excavations at Abydos, Egypt in 1922.

Hilda Petrie directing her husband on excavations at Abydos, Egypt in 1922.

For how long do we hold things? Well, that also depends on social, intellectual and political contexts. Most museums in the UK can de-accession objects, but there are clear ethical guidelines on doing so. I spent much of today reviewing these following a workshop last week where I met with curators, journalists, professional museum organisations, academics and campaigners to discuss two cases where those ethical guidelines were clearly contravened. This included the financially-motivated sale of an ancient Egyptian statue by Northampton Borough Council. It was sold at Christie’s auction house to a private, anonymous buyer for an exorbitant sum. Amongst the many reasons why we should be angry is the fact that such actions simply fuel powerful market forces that ultimately encourage looting of archaeological sites and the destruction of the past.
I made similar arguments last year when the St Louis Branch of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) put objects excavated by Flinders Petrie’s teams in 1914 on the Bonhams’ auction block. That an archaeological organisation would reduce archaeology to an economic value is, to me, shocking and they were rightly admonished by the central branch of the AIA. These were just a few of the hundreds of thousands of objects excavated in Egypt that were sent to institutions around the world. It is a huge legacy that we have an ongoing duty of care for, as I’m currently investigating through an AHRC-funded project. As stewards of the past, we archaeologists have a professional responsibility to act ethically, to be politically aware of our actions and to be cognizant of the wider social context in which we work. Otherwise I don’t believe you can consider yourself an archaeologist.

Archaeology Summer Schools

Spent the day running annual summer schools on Ancient Egypt and the Near East for Bloomsbury Summer School at University College London. My passion is public engagement and lifelong learning. We run six different 5-day summer courses every year, open to anyone with an interest in Ancient Egypt and the Ancient Near East, of all ages (16 up) and backgrounds. Friday was the last day of this year’s summer schools – the final day of ‘Lofty Places and Sacred Space: archaeology in the Ancient Near East’ and a course on Ancient Egyptian literature. At UCL we are privileged to house the extraordinary collection of archaeological material in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. Our summer courses often include object-based learning in this very special museum, and gallery talks in the grander galleries of the British Museum. Now it’s time to start thinking about which archaeologists/curators/academics to invite to teach next year’s summer schools. We also have our winter course taught in Egypt to look forward to – a week in Aswan with visits to archaeological sites in the mornings and lectures in the afternoons – can’t wait!


Well worth a visit ...

Facebook and Thesis Research: A Students Life


By Cassandra Morris
Flinders University,
Master of Maritime Archaeology Candidate,
2011 Flinders University Archaeological Society (ArchSoc) Vice President

A student’s life is full of research. This week classes at university began again, forcing me to an early wake up, hours spent looking for a carpark and then finally getting on to campus only to discover that the information you went to pick up and work on is not there.

This week I have been working on promoting a facebook page. “Take the Plunge – Protect Australia’s Heritage” is a page created to promote the UNESCO 2001 Convention for the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage and its ratification by the Australian Government. A group of students (including myself) developed this page as a way to promote this controversial topic to the public, as well as to students and professionals. On the site is a downloadable letter that can be sent to our Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The letter lists beneficial points of ratifying the Convention in addition to pointing out that nearly all of the WW2 wrecks off the coast and in other countries are not protected. So far this page has spread like wildfire, appearing on many museum, university, dive groups and interested parties pages that it can. It has also made its way via facebook overseas. On Friday 29th the page reached 100 ‘likes’ and the letter viewed over 350 times! During the week we decided that we should take this opportunity to send letters to other members of parliament which are now in the writing stages. This page and its process are also being considered by another member of the group and myself for a poster, to be presented at the 2011 AIMA Conference.

Furthermore, my thesis for my Masters in Maritime Archaeology is in its research phase, and therefore, never far from my mind. Time spent making lists and reading previous theses and publications is not interesting to the outside observer. However, for my studies this past week’s efforts have been fruitful, and, at the same time, rather mind boggling. Ahead of me I can look forward to shuffling my way through museum policies and exhibitions. On my to do list: many phone calls and many more emails.

One of the highlights of my week was stumbling across a rather amusing book in the University bookshop. “The Archaeologists Book of Quotations” by K. Kris Hirst gave me a good laugh just flicking through the pages. Pride of place at the beginning of the blurb is a quote from Kent V. Flannery, “Hell, I don’t break the soil periodically to ‘reaffirm my status’. I do it because archaeology is still the most fun you can have with your pants on”. I think this sums up the feelings of most archaeologists, most likely due to all the time spent researching in libraries and at desks!