Sir Flinders Petrie

Kage Baker idolized Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie.

As, indeed, who does not, who has any interest in archeology, postsherds, Egyptology or the infamous Pyramid Code? In an age when archeology was a past-time of legitimately looney private gentlemen, Flinders Petrie disguised a brilliantly analytical mind under a veneer of deliberate eccentricity. Notorious for conducting his digs in a pink tutu and boots, he convinced native Egyptians that he was insane and thus protected by God. Once he had the cloaking reputation, he eschewed the ballerina costume and often simply went naked at his digs; his staff and diggers either thought him insane or were devoted to him – often both – and he went unmolested in areas where other Europeans needed armed guards.

Kage discovered Sir Flinders while researching The Queen In Yellow, and fell in love with him. He was simultaneously so skilled in both scholarship and calculated insanity that she found him irresistible – in short order Petrie became the lynch-pin of the story, in the company of the fecklessly romantic Operative, Lewis. Many of you, Dear Readers, have expressed a fondness for this story. Believe me, the real details of Flinders Petrie were every bit as weird as the ones Kage manufactured.

As an archeologist, Flinders pretty much invented stratigraphy: the art of mapping the layers in an archeological dig, and so dating the finds by their relationship to geology and one another. It was arguably the first reliable dating system for Egyptian archeology. He advocated strict records, copious scholarship, delicate tools and careful methods – as opposed to his fellow diggers, who often resorted to dynamite to excavate the fragile tombs of kings dead 3,000 years.

His father was a devout member of the Plymouth Brethren sect. He was also quite convinced of the truth of the Pyramid Code, a religious conspiracy theory from the more oxygen-deprived edges of the Victorian lunatic fringe.  It postulated that in the measurements of the Great Pyramid at Ghiza were all the secrets of the past, present and future. The specific measurements of the Great Pyramid were referred to by their European devotees as  the Pyramid Foot, Yard, Rod, and Inch. They bore only small relationship to the actual dimensions of feet, rods, yard or inches, but the lengthy calculations required to translate the prophecies concealed in the sizes and positions of the stones didn’t work using actual, real measurements: hence the speciality items.

Petrie was brilliant in mathematics, and was initially sent to Egypt by his rather nutty father to work on these translations. He discerned very quickly that the entire thing was nonsense, kicked over the traces,and went single-mindedly for the wild free life of an archeologist. And over a rough half century of work, he managed to convert a dilettente’s hobby into a respectable and miracle-producing science.

By the time Kage had finished The Queen In Yellow, she had converted Petrie’s childhood head injury to a brain-altering bit of serendipity. She also left him firmly in the cross-hairs of the Company’s attention. However, she never got around to writing his ultimate fate, him and his wonderfully sparking, unique brain … and while she knew he was buried (mostly) in Jerusalem, she didn’t know all the peculiar details.

Some of you, Dear Readers, doubtless do. I only found out some of them literally two days ago, doing some reading on this year’s gathering at Sir Flinder’s grave in the Presbyterian Cemetery.  It was the 70th anniversary, you know, on July 28th.

Anyway. When Sir Flinders died, he was in Jerusalem. There he is buried, except for his head. He willed his head to the Royal College of Surgeons in London, in the hopes it would stand for “an average British skull”; which is pretty funny on its own, considering what he’d done with it in his time. The doctors in Jerusalem duly decapitated the great man at his death and stored his head in a jar. But then, a number of problems arose – two world wars, various types of troublesome Germans and Italians roaming Africa, poor postal systems, bad glue on the identifying label … the head went missing. It wasn’t located again – in London – until 1989.

Kage was delighted to learn of this. She was absolutely sure the Company had collected him, to investigate that fireworks display of a brain. The Company does a lot of odd things with heads. (CAVEAT: A photo of the head is shown below at the very end of this entry. Be warned!)

And, you see, there is some dissension about whether the head in the jar in London is actually Sir Flinders Petrie. It’s not on display, but is available for viewing if one makes an advance request. Identification was finally made  in 1989 by noting a scar over the right eye; however, various people familiar with him have stated that the features are not his. His eyes showed dark in all photographs from life, but the eyes of the head are reported as blue.

The hair and beard are the black of a young man.

I know what Kage thought, even before I learned the last few bits of this fascinating tale last week. I’m sure I know what she would think now, or at least speculate gleefully about. Whose head is in that jar? Where is Sir Flinders Petrie?

You may decide, Dear Readers. But me, I’m hoping for his immortality.

Petrie-at-Abydos-1922

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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10 Responses to Sir Flinders Petrie

  1. Jan Foley says:

    Thanks for a very informative blog. I’d heard of this man, but didn’t know anything about him other than the fact he was a Victorian-era archaelogist. I certainly didn’t know he was the inspiration for Lewis, or that he was such an interesting and offbeat fellow! When I re-read the Company novels again, I’ll have him in mind.

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    • Kate says:

      Dear Jan: Petrie was not the inspiration for Lewis (Lewis is his own self!) , but he was such an interesting person that Kage paired him with Lewis – one of her own favourite characters – for *The Queen In Yellow*. Petrie was not intended to be the focus of the story, but the research revealed such a peculiar and fascinating person that Kage couldn’t resist.

      I must admit to prostelyzing for Petrie considerably during the research. He’s long been someone I admired. Egyptology was a self-indulgent mess when he arrived there on an insane errand – he ditched his father’s obsessions and just sort of took over archeology in Egypt. The childhood head injury, the facility with mathematics, the talents with details and connections – all true, as true as the eccentricities that made him notorious. And then to discover that craziness with the lost head, which doesn’t even look like the head of an elderly man … just too much fun to ignore.

      Kathleen kbco.wordpress.com

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  2. Medrith says:

    What I would like to see is a photo of Sir Flinders in his tutu. (Question: isn’t Egypt awfully sunny and sandy to be running around naked?)

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  3. Elaine says:

    As someone whose education is as an anthropologist, and as someone who has been an archaology geek since the tender age of seven, thank you for this post. It has made me very happy. I’m sitting here smiling now. It might be strange that a blog post that ends up with a photo of a severed head makes me smile; I’m afraid what that might say about me. But, the information (some of which – the tutu and the nakedness – I knew) contained in the post is much appreciated. And also, I, too, wonder if there are any photos of him in his tutu.

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  4. Margaret says:

    And now for the bad jokes to which you have inspired me: So where was this head-in-an-unlabelled jar found in 1989? The Dead Letter Office?

    As to whether the dark hair makes it unlikely to be Sir Flnders Petrie’s skull, whose hair was clearly gray when he became deceased, well, to resurrect a bad old joke, the skull must be one from when he was younger.

    Flinch!Cringe!Flee! I’m off to see whether I can find a good biography of him. He sounds to me at least as good a candidate for immortality as Hearst.

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  5. Margaret says:

    If I have read the Amazon listing correctly, you can get a free Kindle download of the Papyrus Tales translated by Flinders Petrie.

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  6. I came back to this today , and remembered why I left it for later. Hair colour aside, a match could be made with the ears from a photo and those on the head. Too bad about him having that head rest in a too small jar, its played havoc with his nose. He looks a palooka.

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  7. Kate says:

    Steven – yeah, the ears occurred to me as a potential match point, too. While I couldn’t find a lot of photos where his ears were visible at the correct angles, it did seem to me that there was a distinct, decent match. And ears are hard to fake. It’s a pity about the nose, yes – but it’s still discernably similar to Petrie’s in life. As for the hair: might be any number of chemical combinations in that jar; his eyebrows are also dark, though they were as snowy as his beard in his last year of life. I think it is either really his head – or modeled on it before being put in the stacks at the British Museum – but after an unnaturally extended career and some assistance from the Company.

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  8. Kate says:

    Elaine & Medrith: Yeah, Egypt is awfully sandy, but the digging season was in the winter – when, if not actually cold, it is at least cooler. But down in tombs and pyramids, it’s sweltering. Petrie was not the only archeologist to work semi or completely nude: he was just the one least concerned about strolling around that way. It was actually a sensible choice, as Europeans were dreadfully subject to heat prostration due to too many clothes. And, as some Brits do, he tanned exceedingly dark – Brits, especially the darker Celts, tend to either tan like mahogany or burn bright pink.

    As for the tutu – alas, I have been unable to find any photos, which I too long to see! I am told that there are some of him in his alternate “scare the tourists” outfit – pink long johns. His fashiion choices were amazing. Frankly, I’ve always thought wandering around in his skin was probably enough …

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  9. Gabe Petrie says:

    Hah! That looks more like my Grandpa than Wm. Matthew Flinders Petrie.

    Oh, hey — that DOES look like my Grandpa! Wrong Petrie!

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