Over the last weekend we visited the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archeology – it’s a part of London College University. The weather was fabulous, minus a strong wind, sunny streets busy with Londoners and tourists, so we took an enjoyable wander from St Pancras via back streets to Petrie Museum.
The Museum is tucked away in the campus itself and its entrance doors are the only modern addition to this Victorian era building. Once you start climbing up the stairs, you find yourself transported into the old times. It does not seems to change much since the exhibits were brought back from the vault after World War II. I really liked that very much, the scent and the dimmed light and the fact that so many exhibits still carry small hand written descriptions next to them.
The display cabinets were old fashioned too, doing their best to present the plentiful bounty of artefacts. Petrie Museum offers a very different experience of Ancient Egypt to the British Museum and do not think it is its poor cousin. While the British Museum offers you the glimpses of what is best known about Egypt’s past: the monumental architecture and sculptures and of course the Mummies and the exquisite burial goods, Petrie has an abundance of, maybe smaller and not so flashy but quite intimate items. It is one of the world’s top collection of Egyptian artefacts and you are able to view it in more intimate atmosphere as Petrie Museum is not crowded. It is very honest and probably more providing for those with keen interest in Egyptian history. Nevertheless, even those visitors who do not know much about Ancient Egypt will undoubtedly experience its fascinating, ever-changing and abundant story through the artefacts uncovered by archaeologists.
The museum was established in 1892 as a teaching facility to the Egyptian Archeology Department, opened the same year. The first items were donated by Amelia Edwards and its first professor William Flinders Petrie sold his collection, amassed during his excavations in Egypt, to the University college in1913. Then the collection became one of the most important ones in the world. Worth to remember is that only a small fraction of items is on display with the rest being kept in storage but available to view for a research purposes upon arrangement with museum.
Flinders Petrie, after whom the museum is named, was an interesting figure himself. He developed a method for dating excavated pots, but he also pioneered the procedures that became the basis of excavating archeological sites in a more thorough and scientific manner. It was not a hunt for treasures but a methodological and scientific approach that was not popular before. He studied and recorded finds in the smallest details and trained many egyptologists, among them was Howard Carter who discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb. He also had interest in Palestine and carried out excavations over there as well.
Petrie drew controversies as he held pro-eugenic views and believed that ancient Egypt Pharaonic culture was not a product of people of African origins but was introduced by invading Caucasoic Dynastic Race from Mesopotamia. The theory is now in decline and DNA evidence does not show significant ancestry from Mesopotamia and cultural studies of Predynastic Archeology does not show any significant replacement of native culture. However it is still very sensitive topic carrying heavy emotional and political weight. Despite the polemic, we cannot deny Petrie’s achievements and legacy which greatly improved our knowledge and understanding of Ancient Egypt and allowed the development of modern archeology to the way it is today.
Petrie Museum occupies only one floor with the exhibition displayed throughout three rooms and offers quite an intimate atmosphere. You enter via a small reception and go straight into a corridor with display cabinets on both sides showcasing Egyptian steles with inscribed texts. It was fascinating to notice how perfectly they were carved in stone, seemingly printed. There were also items used for teaching of the art like pieces of grid charts.
I very much enjoyed browsing the jewellery items like beautifully preserved rings or necklaces. There is a wealth of necklaces on display, all very delicate and intricately made of stones or shells. The finds became even more personal when I noticed a small rag doll adorned with a carved head and real hair with a few garment to dress her – little girls are little girls regardless when they lived, loving to play dressing their dolls.
There was quite a notable item: a pair of woollen socks with partition for toes and weaved from pieces to fit around an ankle comfortably – that item was looking quite modern and it is hard to believe it to be a couple thousands years old.
One reason I jumped at an opportunity to visit the museum was a five thousand years old clothing on display, the oldest from ancient Egypt. The Tarkhan Dress was excavated by Petrie himself in 1913, it was within linen cloth pile and was discovered by conservationists in V&A Museum in 1977 only. The dress was found inside out, probably pulled over the head and was worn as there are creasing at the elbows and around armpits. There is an interpretation that it was placed purposely in the tomb, but it is hard to make definite judgment. The artefact is very impressive, with delicate pleating around neck and on sleeves and it really caught my eye, because of my interest in old traditional clothing. The Tarkhan Dress is the earliest example of a tailored outfit – it was cut and fitted while other early examples of garment were wrapped or draped around. Here you find an article about dating the dress.
In the other cabinet, there were two small pieces of linen on display, small samples to admire the craftsmanship of ancient Egyptians and the quality of woven cloth. It was striking to notice that our traditional linen or ramie cloth is not too far removed from those examples of linen and those traditions are still being preserved.
There is one more famous object to view in Petrie Museum: Bead Dress. It was excavated in 1923-24 and reconstructed in 1994-95. Immediately it fired imagination of researchers who assumed it was worn by a dancer and beads producing a rattling sound with every movement of a wearer. It was assumed that it would fit a girl aged about 12 and was worn on naked body. However, when a clothing consultant made a replica, the theory was crushed: the dress was too heavy to be worn straight on the naked skin. Moreover, it turned out it actually could fit women of all shapes. However, we can still enjoy the tale about King Sneferu, who ordered twenty young women to row a boat, naked and dressed in nets only, the story that inspired the theory in the first place. Though the real Bead Dress appears to be funerary item.
The afternoon spent in Petrie Museum was enjoyable and drew my attention to the fact that through those smaller but not less important artefacts one could better comprehend that Ancient Egypt was not predominantly those monumental pyramids, temples or tombs. It was history weaved through thousand of years by people who hardly left its mark there and left behind small clues of what life there was like. The archeological finds could confuse us at times bringing more questions than answers. But it does not take away the emotional load from the very personal items I saw in the museum, imagining how precious and important they must have been once and now with its owner long gone, they still make me curious about that past world.