archaeologist, born at Charlton, Kent, on 17 June 1853. His father, William Petrie, was a civil engineer and surveyor; his mother, Anne, was the daughter of Matthew Flinders, the navigator and explorer. Petrie was a delicate child, educated by his parents at home. His mother taught him music, history, and French, and encouraged him in her own hobbies, geology and coin-collecting, while his father schooled him in mathematics and science and taught him surveying. Together they measured Stonehenge, and Petrie surveyed ancient earthworks in the West Country. In 1880 he went to Egypt to test the theory that the Great Pyramid had been built by divine inspiration. He surveyed the whole pyramid field, and his careful measurements refuted the theories of the “British Israelites,” which brought him to the attention of scholars. Distressed at the destruction of the monuments by careless excavators and treasure-hunters, he eagerly accepted the suggestion of Amelia Edwards, secretary of the newly founded Egypt Exploration Society, that he should excavate at Tanis in the Nile Delta. In his first season (1883–1884), he laid down new principles of scientific excavation in Egypt: careful recording of all finds, even broken objects unfit for museum display, and personal supervision of his workmen, whom he rewarded for what they found. Pottery and potsherds, until then discarded as rubbish, became valuable for relative dating purposes. In the following year, Petrie discovered two Greek cities in the Delta, Naukcratis and Daphne; a wealth of Greek pottery confirmed their identities.
When he left the Egypt Exploration Society in 1886, Edwards helped him find private sponsorship. In the Faiyum Depression, to the west of the Nile, he opened two brick pyramids, found a number of mummies of the Roman period with painted portraits, and excavated a Middle Kingdom town. In 1890, he was persuaded to dig in Palestine; at Tell el-Hesy he cut a section through the mound, dating the levels there using recovered pottery from Egypt, with which he was familiar; for this he has been called “the father of Palestinian archaeology.” At Tell el-Amarna, one winter, he found the palace of Akhenaten, with its painted pavement, and Aegean pottery, which established a chronological link with the Mycenaean world. In 1892, Edwards died; she left money to found a chair of Egyptology at University College, London and wanted the new professor to excavate in Egypt and train students. She made it clear that Petrie was her choice. In 1905, he left the Egypt Exploration Society for good and founded the British School of Archaeology in Egypt; his wife Hilda (Urlin), whom he had married in 1896, acted as its secretary and main fundraiser for the rest of their lives, besides helping him in the field.
One of Petrie's most important contributions to archaeological science was his system called Sequence Dating. Another was his discovery of the royal tombs of the first dynasty at Abydos (1899–1903). Methods and Aims in Archaeology (London, 1904) was to become a textbook for his students, many of whom, having survived the spartan regime of a Petrie camp, became archaeologists of the next generation. Petrie set an example with the prompt publication of his excavation reports; a number of popular books; the journal Ancient Egypt (which he edited); and lectures that fostered public interest in Egyptology. Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1902 and a Fellow of the British Academy in 1904, he was knighted in 1923. In 1935, he moved to Palestine; his last fieldwork was on large tells near the Egyptian frontier. He died on 29 July 1942, and he is buried in Jerusalem, his last home.
Petrie's “Journals” and letters from the field (from 1880 to 1926) are in the Griffith Institute, Oxford; copies of these, and his notebooks and diaries, are in the Petrie Museum at University College, London.
- Drower, M. S. Flinders Petrie: A Life in Archaeology. London, 1985; reprinted, Madison, 1995.
- Petrie, W. M. F. Seventy Years in Archaeology. London, 1931.
- Uphill, E. P. “Bibliography: W. M. F. Petrie.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 31 (1942), 356–379.
Margaret S. Drower