WHAT’S THE STORY?

TODAY is the 75th anniversary of the death of Sir Flinders Petrie, the man credited with founding modern scientific archaeology and to whom all current archaeologists owe a great debt as he not only put their study of past human activity on a scientific basis, but also popularised archaeology and Egyptology.

Normally there would be great commemorations to mark the 75th anniversary of such a prominent British figure who died in Jerusalem on July 28, 1942, but unless there are some happening in secret, there is no major public ceremony or debate to acknowledge the anniversary.

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That’s because during his life – and even more so after his death – Petrie’s name became embroiled in a peculiarly 20th-century scandal.

WHAT WAS THE SCANDAL?

FLINDERS Petrie was one of a great many scientific people who embraced the study of eugenics, defined in the dictionary as "the science of improving a population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics."

It was what we now would term a pseudo-science, with the word originally being defined by Sir Francis Galton, the English polymath, explorer and anthropologist who was a cousin of Charles Darwin.

Galton himself defined eugenics in 1909 as the “study of agencies, under social control, which may improve or impair” future generations. Eugenicists suggested that marriages be arranged to breed diseases out of humanity and also advocated the sterilisation of those who, in their view, would weaken the species.

Petrie was one of the biggest proponents of eugenics, which gradually became discredited as diverse countries such as the USA and Nazi Germany both relied on eugenics theories to carry out mass sterilisations of people with disabilities.

He was also an overt racist, though the term was not widely used, believing that ancient Egyptian culture had to derive from white Caucasian sources rather than black Africa. His racism was also glossed over back then, but not now, hence the lack of an anniversary commemoration.

WHO WAS HE?

WILLIAM Matthew Flinders Petrie was born in London in 1853, and was greatly influenced by his maternal grandfather Mathew Flinders who not only carried out the official survey of the Australian coastline but became a leading expert on ancient Egypt.

His father William was a member of the Plymouth Brethren and strongly influenced his son’s beliefs as well as teaching the boy rudimentary surveying.

The story is told that while on a family visit to the excavation of the Brading Roman Villa on the Isle of Wight, eight-year-old Petrie was appalled at the haphazard digging and exclaimed that the land should be dug out inch by inch to reveal its contents – the foundation of his scientific approach to archaeology.

HOW GOOD AN ARCHEOLOGIST WAS HE?

INSPIRED and beyond genius. Petrie was the first archaeologist to visit Egypt and make a thoroughly scientific survey of the Pyramids. It made his name at a time when the Victorians were fascinated by ancient Egypt, and he became the first professor of Egyptology at University College, London.

The Egypt Exploration Fund paid for his archaeological digs – his methodology is still used today – and for his long-standing attempts to preserve as many artefacts, such as mummies, that he could find. He also made countless sketches and photos of inscriptions and materials he feared would be lost, such was the rate of decay and theft in the digging fields of places like Tanis.

In 1890 he extended this approach to what was then Palestine and he was the first archaeologist to excavate a site in what is now Israel, where he would spend most of his later life.

WHAT WAS HIS MOST FAMOUS FIND?

BACK at Merneptah in Egypt in 1896, Flinders Petrie found two stela – upright columns with inscriptions carved into them, which were common in ancient Egypt – on which he deciphered the word "Israel", the first mention of the kingdom in any Egyptian script. He correctly predicted that the Merneptah or Israel Stele would be his most famous find, but he also excavated large areas and eventually left the objects he found to University College, London. He also left his brain to science, but somehow it got lost in wartime London but was later found and is now the property of the Royal College of Surgeons.

WHY DID SUCH A GOOD SCIENTIST SWALLOW EUGENICS?

IT must have seemed sensible to him at the time, and back then there was no such thing as DNA testing, the forensic science which has disproved so many eugenicist theories. His book Racial Photographs would turn most modern stomachs with its crude assertions. However, a whole list of scientists, politicians and cultural figures either dabbled in eugenics or became wholehearted converts to the cause.

They included Hitler, Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt – who made eugenics hugely popular in the USA – HG Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and a very famous Scot, Alexander Graham Bell.