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A study day at the Petrie Museum

My father and I so enjoyed the study day at the Museum Of London that we went on a few months back, that we booked ourselves onto another study day. This was again organised through Andante Travels, my favourite holiday company, who specialise in archaeological trips. However, the weather up here in Malvern has been so atrocious that for most of this week I thought I’d have to cancel going, as I was so thoroughly snowed in. Fortunately though, there was a break in the weather in between the snow and the promised floods, so I was able to get down to London for the weekend after all.

This time, we spent a day at the Petrie Museum in central London. It’s only about 10 minutes walk from the British Museum, but is tucked away down a side street, behind some forbidding-looking railings, and you wouldn’t just stumble across it – you’d have to know it was there, and even then it takes some finding! It is part of University College London, and is a teaching museum with a superb collection of Ancient Egyptian artefacts. It was founded by a very formidable Victorian woman, Amelia Edwards, and its first curator was an extremely idiosyncratic Victorian, Sir William Flinders Petrie, who is known as the Father of modern Egyptology and after whom the museum is named. These days I suspect he’d probably be diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, but back then he just passed as a mad genius. He was absolutely brilliant at Egyptology, but had absolutely no social graces whatsoever. There is one story of another eminent egyptologist unexpectedly going to the museum and finding Petrie crawling behind one of the cabinets, with a piece of sacking over him, trying to hide to avoid the visitor!

There was a small group of eleven of us on the study day, plus an egyptologist leading the group. The museum opened specially for us in the morning, so we had exclusive access to it. We spent much of the morning sitting as a group around a table in the middle of the museum, wearing surgical gloves, and handling a selection of objects from the collection. Most of them were from the New Kingdom, specifically from the reign of Akhenaton in the 18th Dynasty, so dated from around 1340BC. It was a real privilege to be able to handle such ancient and precious objects. One was a blue-green faience ring with the cartouche of Queen Nefertiti, which actually fitted me! Amazing……

We had a rather good lunch included at a Turkish restaurant near the British Museum, where we were presented with plate after plate of mezze. I wasn’t sure what half of the things were that I was eating, but they were all very tasty!

After lunch, we returned to the Petrie Museum, which was now open to the public for the afternoon – though there really weren’t that many people there. Our Egyptologist then gave us a guided tour of some of the highlights of the collection. Since the museum is only two rooms in size, you might have thought that would be very quick, but you’d be wrong! She really had the knack of talking about any of the objects and making it fascinating. It was very helpful having her explain things since the museum is very much a “teaching collection” rather than designed to be accessible to the layman. Unlike, for example, the Ashmolean in Oxford, which is curated and interpreted to within an inch of its life, the Petrie is just a collection of glass cabinets, all stuffed full of objects, with yet more stuff in drawers below the cabinets, and with hardly any descriptive labels or interpretation. So it really helped to have an expert describe what we were looking at and why it was important. In fact, several members of the public also joined our group to listen to her lecturing us, some more blatantly than others!

Some objects that stuck in my mind include a 5000 year old linen shirt, found in a grave, still with perspiration stains visible under the armpits. And there was a beaded net dress probably worn by a dancing girl aged about 12 years old judging from the size. It is one of only two such dresses to survive. One item though was really quite close to home. It was a terracotta box, about 60cm x 15cm x15cm, with holes pierced along it and a trap-door arrangement at one end. It had originally been identified as a chicken-coop, until a member of the public, who happened to work as a pest controller, said that it was clearly a rat-trap. And indeed, apart from being made of terracotta rather than metal wire, it was absolutely identical to the squirrel trap that Tim my pest controller deployed outside my kitchen door before Christmas! Fascinating that people have been having the same problems with rodents for 4000 years, and solving them in essentially the same way!

{ 2 } Comments

  1. Ruth Golding | 31 January 2013 at 1:48 am | Permalink

    You do some very interesting things! You may be interested to know that some of Edwards’ and Petrie’s books are available online:

    A Thousand Miles up the Nile by Amelia Edwards
    (This one also has the original illustrations.)

    The Religion of Ancient Egypt by W. M. Flinders Petrie

  2. Gillian | 31 January 2013 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Ruth. The Edwards book was on the reading-list supplied in advance of the study day, but I didn’t have the time or energy to do the background reading. I’ll definitely follow that link though, and read it up in slower time, as she sounds a most interesting woman.