The archaeologist who lost his head

July 30th was the 70th anniversary of the death of Sir Flinders Petrie.

On [July 30, 2012] the Israeli Antiquities Authority conducted an unusual memorial service, to mark the 70th anniversary of the death of the British archaeologist and Egyptologist Flinders Petrie. Only one of the people who attended the ceremony at the Protestant Cemetery on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion, Israeli archaeologist Shimon Gibson, had ever met the deceased – or at least his head. In 1989, while Gibson was working at the Palestine Exploration Fund in London, he was contacted by the Royal College of Surgeons. “They asked me,” Gibson said at the ceremony, “to help identify a head preserved in a jar. They weren’t sure it belonged to Petrie,” Gibson related.

Gibson explains how he was able to identify Petrie’s head.

Petrie was born in England in 1853 and died in Jerusalem in 1942. His headless body was buried in the Protestant Cemetery on Mount Zion. He is widely regarded as the progenitor of modern archaeology. He laid the foundations for Egyptology, the study of ancient Egypt, and was the first biblical archaeologist in Palestine.

The story of how it came to be that Petrie’s body is in Jerusalem, and his head in London, is explained briefly in the Haaretz article here.

Petrie is sometimes described at the “father of archaeology.” He is noted for his discovery of the Merneptah Stele in Egypt. This is the stele that contains the name of Israel. For the importance of the stele to biblical studies, see here.

But Petrie’s most important contribution to archaeology is the knowledge that pottery can be used to date the layers of a tell (archaeological mound).

Today I visited the Jerusalem Protestant Cemetery to see the tomb of Petrie, as well as several other well-known persons of the past. Here is a photo of Petrie’s grave marker.

Grave marker for Flinders Petrie in Jerusalem Protestant Cemetery. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

Grave stone for Flinders Petrie, Jerusalem Protestant Cemetery. Photo: Ferrell Jenkins.

Besides the simplicity of the marker — only his name, there are two other things I find interesting. There is an ankh symbol (the life symbol) from ancient Egypt above the name. When Jews visit a tomb, small stones are left to show respect. Instead of stones, this marker has potsherds, pieces of broken pottery, on the top of it. I suspect that these were left by the visitors on the anniversary of his death.

Flinders Petrie Grave in Jerusalem. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

Close up of Petrie’s grave marker in Jerusalem. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

In another post, perhaps later, I plan to tell you about some of the other persons of interest who are buried in the same cemetery

4 responses to “The archaeologist who lost his head

  1. Pingback: James Leslie Starkey, excavator of Lachish | Ferrell's Travel Blog

  2. Pingback: Horatio G. Spafford: “It Is Well With My Soul” | Ferrell's Travel Blog

  3. Great account, and I am looking forward to finding out more about the others who are buried there. The geneaologist in me wants to know.

  4. Was wondering if by chance he was also the inventor of the Petrie Dish? :~)

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