How alternative Egyptology and scientific archaeology were born on the Giza Plateau
The analog world still has plenty of wonders in this excerpt from The Analog Antiquarian.
In the nineteenth century, a rift opened in the study of Egyptology. Early on, men like Giovanni Caviglia and Howard Vyse, full of metaphysical notions about Egyptian civilization that were drawn from the Bible and various mystical texts, could still have their work taken seriously by the international community of scholars. Later in the century, though, as men like Samuel Birch, Karl Richard Lepsius, and Auguste Mariette moved toward a more empirical understanding of ancient Egypt, that became less and less the case.
Thus began a conflict that remains with us to this day, between the "mainstream" or "respectable" branches of Egyptology and what a steadfastly neutral observer might refer to as "alternative Egyptology"; respectable Egyptologists, for their part, tend to prefer terms like "the pyramidiots." Here's how the battle began.
The founding text of this alternative Egyptology was published the very same year as On the Origin of Species. It was called The Great Pyramid: Why Was It Built and Who Built It? by John Taylor. Even in 1859, most sober-minded Egyptologists thought they had already done a pretty good job of answering those questions. But Taylor, needless to say, begged to differ.
Whatever else one can say about him, Taylor was no idiot. Already 78 years old at the time he finished his book about the Pyramid of Khufu, he had been a prominent editor and publisher on the London literary scene for decades by that point. He's still remembered by historians of literature today for having advised, encouraged, and published the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, and John Clare. When not shepherding the works of these others to publication, Taylor also wrote prolifically in his own hand on a bewildering variety of topics. Late in his life, religion and politics began to fill the lion's share of his output, his fundamentalist views on the former fueling his ever more reactionary views on the latter.
He focused much of his attention on an oddly specific subject, one that may sound more innocuous than divisively political to modern ears: systems of measurement. Yet the subject was in fact inextricably bound up with the politics of the time, at least in the minds of reactionary thinkers like Taylor. He was violently opposed to the new metric system, which had been adopted as the standard in France at the end of the last century as a gift of the in-with-the-new sentiment of that country's revolution. It was then spread across Europe by Napoleon's armies. By the mid-1800s, a debate was raging in Britain as well over whether the country should join much of the European continent in embracing the new standard. A staunch traditionalist by education and inclination, Taylor knew exactly where he stood. He claimed that the old, so-called "imperial" standard was not only "more perfect" than the alternative—a highly dubious claim at best—but that it was actually favored by God. He found his justification in the Old Testament, mixed liberally with the doctrine of British Exceptionalism that has always haunted that nation's relations with mainland Europe.
Our Motto, from Deuteronomy, points to a very important consideration: vis.—That the people who maintain a perfect and just weight, and a perfect and just measure, may expect lengthened days in the land which God giveth them. If any people were entitled to so great a favour, it might be the Inhabitants of this Country. They have had the same measures of Length, Capacity, and Weight, from the earliest times; and they have been blessed with a long and unbroken series of peaceful Governments. Greater freedom from external foes, and from internal dissensions, has not fallen to the lot of any other nation.
Yet Taylor couldn't hope to make his argument by pointing to the peace and prosperity of Britain alone—especially not when such potent counter-examples as the English Civil War lurked in the country's past. He craved more concrete proofs for his assertion that the imperial system was literally divine. And he found them in the Pyramid of Khufu, then as now one of the most ancient substantially intact human-made structures in the world, vastly more magnificent in size and grandeur than any of the few structures that had come before it.
Taylor wasn't, of course, the first person to want to read deeper meanings into the measurements and proportions of the Pyramids of Giza. In 1838, an obscure British author named H. Agnew first proposed the other theory that would become the foundation of Taylor's work. He claimed that, although "the chief objects of these buildings [is] to serve for sepulchral monuments, the Egyptians sought, in the appropriate figure of the Pyramid, to perpetuate, at the same time, a portion of their geometrical science." The height of the Pyramid of Menkaure, he said, was equal to the radius of a circle whose circumference was equal to the perimeter of the pyramid's base—or, stated another way, to the square of one of the base's sides. To state things yet a third way, the area of the circle in question was equal to the area of the pyramid's base.
The correspondence Agnew claimed to have detected, if it proved to be absolute, would imply that the ancient Egyptians had in fact solved the most famous unsolved problem in geometry, that of squaring the circle—i.e., calculating the necessary dimensions of a square that has the exact same area as a given circle. What seems like it ought to be straightforward enough on the face of it is actually made impossible by the irrational number known as pi, a fact that was definitively proved only in 1882. Even in 1838, however, Agnew was willing to acknowledge that squaring the circle exactly was "probably" a mathematical impossibility. Nevertheless, he wrote, the Egyptians had managed "the greatest practical approximation to exactness" and used it in the construction of the Pyramid of Menkaure, which he regarded as having the greatest "perfection of form" of all the pyramids despite its relatively small size in comparison to the Pyramids of Khufu and Khafre.
Two decades later, John Taylor borrowed Agnew's innovation without attribution and moved it from the Pyramid of Menkaure to the Pyramid of Khufu, apparently on the assumption that the pyramid used to codify a divine system of measurement must necessarily be the biggest and grandest of them all. (As for "perfection of form," that has always been in the eye of the beholder on the Giza Plateau.)
Taylor then made a rather astonishing leap of logic: the architects of the pyramid, he claimed, knew that the earth is a sphere, and even that it orbits around the sun rather than vice versa—a theory that had come to be accepted in Europe only in the last few centuries. Further, the architects had deduced the circumference of the earth by "observing the motion of the heavenly bodies over the earth's surface."
"They assumed the earth to be a perfect sphere," Taylor wrote, "and as they knew that the radius of a circle must bear a certain proportion to its circumference, they then built a Pyramid of such a height in proportion to its base, that its perpendicular would be equal to the radius of a circle equal in circumference to the perimeter of the base."
The Pyramid of Khufu thus preserved for posterity, by an incredibly convoluted means, a record of the circumference of the earth, which figure could be determined by multiplying the length of one of its base's sides by 120 million. (How posterity was supposed to know what factor to use in making this calculation went unexplained.)
But there was more: the Pyramid of Khufu also encoded within its dimensions the value of pi, the sacred number its architects had needed to use to arrive at said dimensions in the first place. According at least to the measurements Taylor preferred to employ, the length of a side of the pyramid's base was evenly divisible by a "sacred cubit" handed down directly from God; this was an old alchemical concept Taylor had borrowed from Isaac Newton. In Newton and Taylor's world, a sacred cubit consisted of exactly 25 ancient inches, each of which was 1.001 imperial inches. (The modern world was, after all, an imperfect and fallen place even for a godly people like the Britons.) The fact that the pyramid could be measured in ancient inches or sacred cubits without recourse to fractions validated the measurement in Taylor's mind.
And there was still more. The circumference of the earth by Taylor's best reckoning was equal to precisely 1,570,896,000 ancient inches—again, no fractions required. His "logic" from here became so bizarre that I can't hope to explain it. I can only quote it:
If this last measure is doubled, the figures amount to 3,141,792,000. Now it is well known, that the proportion which the diameter of a circle bears to its circumference, is expressed by the figures 1 to 3.1415972 [i.e., pi]; but these figures differ from those last mentioned only by the substitution of 5 for 7 in the fifth place. What is the reason for this remarkable agreement? Is it accidental? Or does it imply design?
The thunderingly obvious answer is that of course it's accidental—or, rather, the product of a mind determined to come up with a desired correspondence by hook or by crook. Taylor was helped enormously in these endeavors by the sheer inexactness of all measurements of the pyramids to date. Complications such as the enormous quantities of sand and rubble obscuring the true base of each of the pyramids, along with doubts about the thickness of the smooth casings that had once covered them, had made all proposed measurements of the pyramids, especially in their original forms with casings intact, into mere approximations at best. Thus Taylor had a wide range of numbers to choose from; when any given number didn't fit his theories, it was easy enough to find another that worked better. If he did this often enough, and fed these ideal numbers through enough convoluted calculations like the ones just described, he could always arrive at his desired result of "incontrovertible" proof that the imperial system was divinely inspired. The very ease with which he was able to shift Agnew's original theory from the Pyramid of Menkaure to the Pyramid of Khufu, just by massaging the numbers a bit, demonstrates the process in action.
All that remained was to anchor the actual event of the Pyramid of Khufu's construction to the divine word of God. This didn't strike Taylor as such a leap. Even the most sober-minded Egyptologists agreed that the pyramids were aligned to the cardinal points of the compass with a precision that would be difficult to better even in modern times. How could a people as primitive as the ancient Egyptians have accomplished such a feat if they hadn't had divine help? Taylor reached back to a vague anecdote from Manetho, the ancient Egyptian scholar of the post-pharaonic period who had originated the standard system of numbered dynasties. He had told of a group of "strangers" who had once entered Egypt and somehow conquered it without a battle.
These people, Taylor now decided, must have been a tribe of God's chosen who had visited the country in the time between the eras of Noah and Abraham. The pharaoh Khufu had always had a terrible reputation in Egyptian history; witness the tales of cruelty and oppression which the Egyptians had told of him to Herodotus in circa 440 BC. This reputation must be down to the fact that the chosen strangers had convinced Khufu as well to worship the one true God, causing his "idolatrous" subjects to resent him forever. What people insisted on calling the Pyramid of Khufu wasn't conceived by the Egyptians themselves to honor their pharaoh in death, but by a since-forgotten Biblical patriarch as a means of preserving a "Divine Revelation" made to him during the time before "the Art of Writing was communicated to mankind" through Moses.
Amidst much else, this claim ignored a growing body of evidence that the people who had built the Pyramid of Khufu did in fact have a system of writing—evidence which included the graffiti found by Vyse inside the pyramid itself, in a space where no one else appeared ever to have ventured since the original builders had sealed it up. No matter; an illiterate Egyptian civilization at the time of the pyramid's construction suited Taylor's agenda and thus must be the case.
Most of the sober thinkers of Taylor's day were highly skeptical of his arguments for all of the reasons just given. He tried to present his ideas before the Royal Society of London, only to be roundly rejected. The Athenaeum, one of the preeminent magazines of the British intelligentsia, likewise remained unconvinced in its review of his book: "He wants basis for his superstructure." One critic pointed out cogently that "the broken surface of the Pyramid leaves us in doubt of what the angle really is, and what the measures of the base and height originally were—a doubt which makes it in vain to discuss any question which would be disturbed by a blunder of one in a hundred." Even those willing to consider the possibility that the proportions of the Pyramid of Khufu revealed a surprisingly deep understanding of geometry on the part of the builders blanched at Taylor's theories about it encoding a commandment from God handed down before the time of Moses.
Listing image by Visions of America / Getty Images
In light of all this, Taylor's ideas would almost certainly have been entirely forgotten following his death in 1864 were it not for one man: Charles Piazzi Smyth.
An interest in ancient civilizations ran in the Smyth family, an accomplished and successful lot on anyone's terms. Piazzi Smyth's father was a distinguished Royal Navy officer named William Henry Smyth, whose duties during and immediately after the Napoleonic Wars caused him to spend much time in the Mediterranean. He became a personal acquaintance of Muhammad Ali during this period and became fascinated with the heritage of Egypt. His enthusiasm was such that he named a daughter "Rosetta" and even endeavored, albeit unsuccessfully, to negotiate the removal of a magnificent ancient obelisk known as "Cleopatra's Needle" from Alexandria to London. (The removal would finally be effected under other auspices in 1877.)
Ironically, this elder Smyth had no truck whatsoever with the more metaphysical strains of Egyptology. Late in life, during his retirement in England, he was still mocking the "erroneous conclusions stamped with factitious erudition" of "the sages who perceived an indication of the mariner's compass in the mystic Tau, the symbol of eternal life, and a still more inducted set who believed that the Pyramids were erected for the squaring of the circle." Would that his son had inherited some of his skepticism.
Still, the younger Smyth was no more of an idiot in the abstract than his father—or, for that matter, than John Taylor. On the contrary, he was one of the leading astronomers of his time, whose reputation almost from adolescence was so prodigious that he was appointed in 1846, at the tender age of 27, to the prestigious posts of Astronomer Royal for Scotland and professor of astronomy at the University of Edinburgh. Over the course of the 42 years during which he would hold those posts, he would be responsible for many breakthroughs. He's remembered most of all today for his work in building observatories in the most remote of places, preferably at high altitudes, where light pollution and atmospheric disturbances are at their least. He stated that an astronomer must necessarily be "peripatetic": a wanderer, going where the stars are clearest. In keeping with that philosophy, he traveled widely in pursuit of, to use his favorite phrase from Isaac Newton, "serene air above the gossamer clouds." He can justly be regarded as the father of mountaintop astronomy.
Piazzi Smyth's initial reaction to John Taylor's book about the Pyramid of Khufu was in keeping with what we might expect from the learned son of the skeptical William Henry Smyth. He asked why Taylor failed to so much as mention the latest finding of respected Egyptologists like Karl Richard Lepsius, and he asked why we should presume that the Pyramid of Khufu was endowed with so many hidden meanings when the rest of the monuments of ancient Egypt were not. These were two very good, very sensible questions indeed. But sadly, no sentiment so sensible in regard to the Pyramid of Khufu would ever issue from Smyth again.
During the five years that followed the publication of Taylor's book, Smyth gradually revised his initial opinion of it, going from curt dismissal to uncritical acceptance of virtually everything it contained. He never met Taylor in person, but the two corresponded extensively by post; Taylor, it seems, was thrilled to have such a respectable man of science take up his ideas. Following the older man's death, Smyth took on the role of anointed mouthpiece of Taylor's vision as a veritable religious undertaking, all but deifying his predecessor as a prophet and making himself the chosen disciple. ("With almost his last breath emphatically he [Taylor] confided this, the most important labour of his long life-toil, to my most unworthy hands.")
In 1864, just a few months after Taylor's death, Smyth published Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid. Taylor's book on the same subject had been muddled and rambling, a rather poor prototype for the many future books of alternative Egyptology that would capture the public's imagination. Smyth's was the prototype perfected. It remains an oddly compelling—and oddly modern—read even today. It opens with as much straight-to-the-point forcefulness as a PowerPoint presentation, with a recitation of the "Three Keys required for the opening of the Great Pyramid"—those being pure mathematics, the astronomical and physical sciences, and Biblical history. It then takes its reader by the hand for a shared journey through its revisionist past. To read it is to embark on an adventure, during which one will learn secrets which "they"—"they" being the Egyptological establishment—are too timid to countenance. Small wonder it became a bestseller, going through countless printings and several major revisions over the remaining 36 years of Smyth's life.
Smyth took practical steps to remedy the more obviously dubious aspects of Taylor's work, as well as to elaborate on those places where its details were particularly sketchy. He felt compelled by the growing mass of archaeological evidence to back away from Taylor's claim that an illiterate culture had constructed the Pyramid of Khufu. No worries: he found another explanation for the lack of hieroglyphs on or in the pyramid that was sympathetic to his cause. Clearly, he reasoned, some divine "constraint" had "positively forbade [the Egyptians] from putting their unmistakable decorations and elsewhere accustomed inscriptions on the finished building; more especially too from identifying it in any manner, direct or indirect, with their impure and even bestial form of worship." He dismissed the graffiti discovered above the King's Chamber by Vyse, even with its direct references to Khufu, as having been mere "practical marks" used in the course of the construction, never intended to be seen. (This was admittedly true enough, even if one did have to wonder why the workers so repeatedly referenced the pharaoh for whom they were not building the pyramid. )
All of the other pyramids in Egypt, Smyth explained, had been built afterward by the Egyptians out of "involuntary bending to the sway of a really superior intelligence," albeit whilst betraying "the most profound ignorance of their noble model's chiefest internal features, as well as all of its niceties of angle and cosmic harmonies of linear measurement." (He didn't explain how the Egyptians were able to align their debased caricatures of the Pyramid of Khufu on the Giza Plateau almost as perfectly with the cardinal points of the compass without God's help.)
As such passages indicate, Smyth loathed the real ancient Egyptians with a passion which he otherwise reserved for Catholics and the French. For example, he called the Sphinx a "monster, an idol in itself, with symptoms typifying the lowest mental organization, [which] positively reeks with anti-Great Pyramid idolatry throughout its substance." When he could combine his three great hates, so much the better. "As a rule," he wrote, "it is Frenchmen and Roman Catholics who get up the most outrageous enthusiasm for the Sphinx."
These antipathies, one might even say, formed the very basis for his whole enterprise. Like Taylor, Smyth was tremendously invested in the imperial system of weights and measures. As he was writing and publishing his book, the debate over whether Britain should join so much of the rest of Europe in adopting the metric system—or, as Smyth derisively called it, the "French system"—was raging hotter than ever, with bills that would force said adoption having been introduced in Parliament. Smyth's frenzy to prove that what he called the "pyramidal inch" was a gift from God, to be rejected at Britain's peril, ultimately had more to do with these contemporary political concerns than anything that had ever taken place on the Giza Plateau. An everyday measuring system may strike us as a rather shabby sort of divine revelation, but to Smyth, desperate to hold back the winds of change, it was all-important.
Neither Taylor nor Smyth had actually visited the Giza Plateau prior to writing their books. After finishing his, however, Smyth finally remedied that. In November of 1864, he and his wife Jessica—an unusually adventurous woman, who shared in most of her husband's endeavors to a surprising degree—boarded a passenger steamer in Wales for the trip to Alexandria and from there onward to Cairo. They brought with them the finest measuring equipment of the day; Smyth's primary objective, as he had told his bemused friends and colleagues, was to measure the Pyramid of Khufu for himself, thereby to "affirm" or "refute" his "wonderful theory of the Great Pyramid." Many of his colleagues doubtless thought to themselves that it might have been a good idea to take this step before publishing a book on the subject—but then, most of them undoubtedly also knew perfectly well what his verdict must turn out to be.
Once the couple arrived in Cairo in December, they had to spend another month negotiating permission for their project from Director of Antiquities Auguste Mariette, who had virtually complete control of such matters. (And he was a Frenchman at that!) But at last they settled into a tomb on the Giza Plateau, where they were looked after by some of the same Egyptians who had served Vyse almost three decades before. They spent almost as much time as he had living at the site—some four months in all—and, although they had neither the permission nor the means to make new excavations, conducted the most meticulous survey of the Pyramid of Khufu to have been done since 1837.
Along with their cutting-edge measuring rods, telescopes, spirit levels, and clinometers, the couple had at least one piece of equipment that had been entirely unavailable to Vyse: a camera. The photographs they brought back with them were among the first ever taken on the Giza Plateau. People who couldn't travel all the way to Egypt would no longer have to imagine the scene from sketches and textual descriptions. Now, at last, they could see it all for themselves.
As anyone familiar with the man could have predicted, Smyth claimed that his measurements confirmed everything he had already written about the Pyramid of Khufu in the broad strokes; it would only require a little modest massaging of the numbers and formulas in the next edition of his bestseller to make it all right as rain. In addition, he came home armed with many new theories, based on new mathematical concordances he claimed to have discovered. Astronomical measurements taken from just inside the pyramid's entrance told him that it had been built in 2173 BC, an auspicious date when the Pleiades were at the equinox and the constellation of Draco was at the precise opposite pole; the perimeter of the pyramid's base, which measured 365.25 sacred cubits, encoded the precise length of a year in days; the interior geometry of the pyramid communicated the pattern of astronomical precession, the slight wobble of the earth as it rotates on its axis; the sarcophagus inside the King's Chamber, which Smyth, borrowing from Jomard, refused to acknowledge as such and insisted on calling a "coffer" instead, encoded the density of the earth; the same coffer was exactly .0001 percent as large as Noah's Ark; the ascending passage leading up to the King's Chamber was really a timeline of humanity's past and future history (the point where it opened up into the handsome Grand Gallery, for example, marked the beginning of the Christian era); etc., etc.
The Royal Society of Edinburgh gave him a medal for his measurements, but pointedly not for his conclusions based on them. "His measurements were most exact, but [his] logic was most wretched," said one of them. "It was a spurious archaeology and astronomy that fed such fancies and romances." The same wag noted that the width of the brim of his hat was exactly one 20-millionth of the earth's polar axis. Was the hat too therefore a message from God? Smyth responded to such raillery by comparing himself to Johannes Kepler, whose revolutionary ideas about planetary motion had had to wait until decades after his death to achieve wide acceptance: "The book is written to be read either now or by posterity. I care not which."
In reality, though, Smyth's book was being read in the here and now—being read and accepted by a large segment of the general public, if not by most of his peers in academia. For people of a more conservative religious bent, it became a source of great comfort, a needed bolster for a traditionalist worldview that had been badly shaken by Charles Darwin and others. Unsurprisingly, Smyth was himself as heated an opponent of the theory of evolution as he was of the metric system. The Pyramid of Khufu, which he believed to be the very first man-made monument, had also been the largest in existence for many thousands of years. How was this compatible with evolution's claim that humanity was the product of slow, gradual development? One American religious magazine put it thus:
Professor Smyth confronts [believers in the theory of evolution] with the Great Pyramid—no rude structure, like the mausolea on the banks of the Boyne, the mounds of our Western States, the heaps on the shores of the Euphrates and the Tigris—but a building combining accurate knowledge in its conception, with exquisite skill in its execution—and he says, "Up to a certain point in the historic scale, architectural monuments are not; and when this at length makes its appearance on the stage, it enters larger in its stature than its successors and as high in its intellectuality as any of them. This building, whence is it, of men or from God?" It matters not to which they attribute it; in either case the reply is fatal to their cherished theory.
The argument above didn't hold water even at the time it was first made. By then, men like Karl Richard Lepsius and Auguste Mariette had already excavated earlier pyramids at locations other than Giza. Although in widely varying states of preservation, these monuments demonstrated the exact process of pyramidal evolution which this author claimed to be lacking. But then, the magazine's argument wasn't really made with the expectation of a good-faith discussion of its merits. It was made to provide comfort to its like-minded readers, and this it doubtless did.
Smyth stands as one of the founding fathers of modern pseudo-archaeology—an odd place indeed for an otherwise respected scientist to find himself. And yet the strangest of all aspects of his story might just be its intersection with that of another founding father, one as beloved by historians of archaeology as Smyth is despised. For if we hadn't had a Charles Piazzi Smyth spouting his nonsense, we never would have had a Flinders Petrie inventing the field of archaeology as we know it today.
William Flinders Petrie wasn't the first Egyptologist to refer to himself as an "archaeologist" as well. By the 1870s, when he was just beginning to make his name, the newer word had been in the process of replacing the older "antiquary" or "antiquarian" for quite some time.
Nevertheless, one could argue that Petrie really was the first to embody all of the qualities we associate with the serious archaeologist of today. "He found archaeology in Egypt a treasure hunt," writes his biographer Margaret S. Drower. "He left it a science." Petrie was the first to recognize that the big, spectacular finds—the sort which captured worldwide newspaper headlines and made international heroes out of men like Giovanni Belzoni and Auguste Mariette—weren't always the most important to the cause of understanding the civilizations of the past. Fragments of pottery and plebeian household utensils—the sort of things the treasure hunters had impatiently tossed over their shoulders and heedlessly trodden upon—could tell as much or more about the real ancient Egyptians as their most magnificent ceremonial monuments. Consider the question in the context of the artifacts we too must someday leave behind us. What will tell the archaeologist of the future more about the way most of us live now, the Statue of Liberty or the contents of an average suburban home?
In light of all this, it's shocking and more than a little ironic to realize that Flinders Petrie, that foremost pioneer of scientific archaeology and Egyptology, owed his career to the mystical imaginings of Charles Piazzi Smyth.
Well before Flinders Petrie's birth, the Petrie and Smyth families inhabited the same London social circles, and were frequent guests in one another's drawing rooms. They were similar in many ways: proud, respectable, relatively prosperous but not so much so that they could count themselves full-time members of the leisured class. On the contrary, they were known for their professional and intellectual achievement, for combining Christian piety with a dedication to the practical principles of science and engineering.
Thus it was that the young William Petrie, an up-and-comer in the new field of electrical engineering, met his future wife at the Smyth's house circa 1845. Anne Flinders was a member of another prominent family within the same social circle. She was a somewhat older woman of considerable intellectual prowess in her own right, who had anonymously published novels, stories, and poems, usually with religious themes, and had authored a grand study which attempted to link all of the world's religions back to the Old Testament. William and Anne were married in 1851, after a courtship that had lasted more than five years. They had only one child, for Anne was already 40 years old at the time of the marriage. That child was William Flinders Petrie, born on June 3, 1853.
The youngster was brought up in the best Petrie tradition of piety and intellectualism. He would later reckon that he became an archaeologist in spirit if not in title at the age of 8, when he discovered coin collecting. He took to spending his weekly allowance on random piles of old coins down at the London wharf-side shops, then painstakingly sorting through them to determine their provenance. By his teenage years, he had taken to tramping around Kent, surveying the earthworks and other ancient remains to be found there. Unlike most of the male Petrie line, he appeared little troubled by the need to find a paying career, thanks to adoring parents who were more than happy to regard him as an intellectual prodigy. He thus spent much of his early and mid-twenties assembling a record of the ancient monuments of southern England, including Stonehenge. His work was distinguished by its meticulous commitment to accuracy, which gradually made a name for him despite his lack of formal university credentials; he gave his first lecture to the Royal Archaeological Institute in 1877.
Yet the budding archaeologist remained devoutly religious and still adhered to a Bible-centric view of history. He and his father became dedicated students of the pyramidal teachings of the old family friend Piazzi Smyth, stalwart allies with him in his battles against a skeptical archaeological establishment. They constantly searched for new mathematical correspondences to add to the Pyramid of Khufu's storehouse of mystical wisdom. It was, for example, William Petrie the senior who first pointed out to Smyth that the pyramid's height was by his reckoning exactly one-billionth of the mean distance from the earth to the sun, a "discovery" which promptly found its way into Smyth's latest writings and lectures. William Petrie soon began giving lectures of his own for church congregations, with titles like "The Great Pyramid; showing reasons for its sanctity in God's sight and why it is not mentioned expressly as well as implicitly in Scripture." He even made plans to visit the Giza Plateau with Smyth in 1872, as part of his preparations for a possible book of his own on the subject, but familial and professional commitments ultimately forced him to cancel.
Even as the elder Petrie was talking about writing a book on the religious implications of the Pyramid of Khufu, the younger Petrie, who was every bit as committed as his father was to the ideas of Smyth during this period, was actually doing so. No respectable archaeologist has ever written a less respectable first book than Flinders Petrie. His stated purpose in Researches on the Great Pyramid, published in 1874, was to "confirm those distinctive principles of its design and construction, first announced by the sagacity of John Taylor and Professor Piazzi Smyth." The hunt for new mystical meanings in the Pyramid of Khufu had long since become a free-for-all among the true believers, and Petrie now gleefully piled on to the accumulating store of wisdom. The "coffer"—i..e., sarcophagus—inside the King's Chamber was a scale model of the pyramid itself if you twisted its measurements around just so; the northeast diagonal of the pyramid pointed directly to Mount Ararat, believed by many to be the location of the fabled Lost Ark of the Covenant; etc., etc.
Perhaps luckily for Petrie's subsequent career, his book attracted little notice amidst the flood of such works unleashed by Smyth. After writing it, he remained committed to the theories it contained for at least some period of time, but also departed from Smyth, from his father, and from most of their fellow travelers by developing a passion for the real ancient Egypt as well. He studied closely the Egyptian artifacts in the British Museum's collection; learned to some extent to read hieroglyphs; talked for hours on end with his informal advisor Samuel Birch, who forty years after serving as Vyse's hieroglyph translator was still employed at the museum as its Egyptologist in residence.
It was all preparation for a journey he felt he simply had to take: a trip to the Giza Plateau, to see and to measure for himself. For a long time, the plan was for the elder and younger Petrie to visit Egypt together, but the former kept dragging his feet—perhaps out of fear of what a sober-minded look at the place would mean for Smyth's theories, or perhaps out of fear of Egypt's sheer exoticism. The younger Petrie, it seems likely, was already growing skeptical of Smyth's theories by this point.
Finally, the son grew tired of waiting for the father. On November 29, 1880, a 27-year-old Flinders Petrie boarded a passenger liner in Liverpool for the passage to Alexandria. He was accompanied by nineteen boxes of surveying equipment, most of it of his own design. The polite fiction had it that his father would follow shortly. In reality, he never would, offering up an almost comical litany of excuses: Flinders' mother had the flu, a storm had blown the garden fence down, etc.
The younger Petrie hadn't secured any advance permission to work on the Giza Plateau from Auguste Mariette, whose control over all of the ancient sites in Egypt remained as absolute as ever. But, upon his arrival in Cairo, he learned that the French Director of Antiquities was gravely ill, in fact on the verge of death. His countrymen in Cairo advised him to take advantage of the rare chance this represented: he shouldn't seek an audience with the Office of Antiquities to submit an application for a formal permit that would take months to obtain if it wasn't rejected outright, but merely set up his camp on the Giza Plateau and start measuring. As it happened, this attitude that it's better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission suited Petrie's personality perfectly.
Flinders Petrie truly was the first of a new breed of Egyptologist. In contrast to the veritable army of native workers with which a stiff character like Vyse had surrounded himself, he employed only a single manservant, a grizzled old Egyptian who had worked for Vyse back in 1837, then assisted Smyth as well in 1865. Then, too, Petrie greeted his new surroundings without a trace of the snobbish contempt shown by Vyse. The first thing he did was to make himself a hammock to sleep in. Then he considered where to put it.
The first consideration on reaching Egypt was where to be housed. In those days there was no luxurious hotel close to the pyramids; if any one needed to live there, they must either live in a tomb or in the Arab village. As an English engineer had left a tomb fitted with door and shutters I was glad to get such accommodation. When I say a tomb, it must be understood to be the upper chamber where the Egyptian fed his ancestors with offerings, not the actual sepulchre. And I had three rooms, which had belonged to separate tombs originally; the thin walls of rock which the economical Egyptian left between his cuttings, had been broken away, and so I had a doorway in the middle into my living-room, a window on one side for my bedroom, and another window opposite for a store-room. I resided here for a great part of two years; and often when in draughty houses, or chilly tents, I have wished myself back in my tomb. No place is so equable in heat and cold, as a room cut out in solid rock; it seems as good as a fire in cold weather, and deliciously cool in the heat.
This fearless young eccentric's earliest days in Egypt have passed into archaeological lore. "Life here is really comfortable," he wrote to friends back home, "without many of the encumbrances of regular hours: bells, collars and cuffs, blacking, tablecloths or many of the other unnecessaries of Civilization." He lived on rice, tomatoes, eggs, hardtack, and oranges, preparing his meals himself in his single frying pan.
His constant bane were the tourists, of whom ever-increasing numbers were visiting the Giza Plateau in this age of steam and economic prosperity. To keep them out of his way, he deliberately cultivated a reputation for himself as the lunatic vagrant who lived full-time in a tomb. He often worked naked or nearly so inside the pyramids—quite a horrifying sight indeed for prudish Victorian ladies! Outside, he had to dress himself to keep the sun off his delicate English skin, but he favored the color pink to "keep the tourist at bay, as the creature seemed too queer for his inspection."
Working all by himself for twelve hours or more at a stretch, six days per week, Petrie conducted the most exhaustive survey of the Giza Plateau yet attempted. Unlike Smyth a decade and a half before, he surveyed all three of the great pyramids with equal interest, along with the half-dozen smaller ones that surrounded them. And in addition to his survey work, which in some corners of the plateau has yet to be bettered, he did the sort of thankless, detail-oriented archaeological work that no one before him on the Giza Plateau had even dreamed of attempting.
For example, he picked up every pottery fragment he came across, filing it away with a note stating exactly where he had found it. The plateau being the historical palimpsest it was, the fragments were of many different styles. In time, Petrie came to be able to distinguish their differences and thereby to tie the various fragments to various epochs: Roman, Ptolemaic, New Kingdom, Middle Kingom, or—in the case of the rarest and most precious finds of all—the Old Kingdom of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure. He also collected, examined, and recorded beads, fragments of tools, and even bits of the smooth casings that had once covered the pyramids, all with the same meticulousness. No one had ever paid much attention to this stuff before, but it would in its way prove to be every bit as valuable as the pyramids themselves for understanding Egyptian culture and history.
After some five months' work on the Giza Plateau, Petrie was finally forced out of his tomb by the scorching Egyptian summer; he arrived back home in London on June 23, 1881. But he already knew that he would return as soon as the weather permitted. His greatest frustration the previous season had been his inability to accomplish the seemingly simple task of getting an exact measurement of the pyramids' dimensions. Like everyone who had attempted such a thing before him, he'd been stymied by the sand and debris piled up around the pyramids, into which he had no permit to dig. Yet he had hopes of changing that: the notoriously imperious Mariette had died the previous January. The latter's replacement, Gaston Maspero, was still French, but was showing signs of being more open and accommodating to independent—and non-French—archaeologists. Petrie planned to meet with him as soon as he arrived back in Cairo that October. In the meantime, he made sure to acquire the one kind of instrument which had been most conspicuously absent from his arsenal last time around: a camera. Characteristically, he designed and built one from scratch that would suit his purposes perfectly.
At their meeting upon Petrie's return to Cairo, Maspero did indeed grant him a permit "to uncover some of the points of original construction which are requisite for the completion of the subject" of his measurements. The French adviser/overseer who was appointed to him as one of the mixed blessings of his newly official status was astonished at his mode of living on the Giza Plateau, and tried to persuade him to rent proper accommodations nearby. Petrie was having none of it, saying he needed only "bread, dates, and water" to live on: "I am ibn el beled, a son of the country. All the Arabs are my friends and I know them all."
The sheer quantity of sand on the plateau remained the greatest obstacle to his endeavors. "I should like to have £100,000 to shoot all the sand and stuff off the pyramid hill into the plain below," he wrote in a letter home. Lacking the resources to even contemplate the enormous labor of entirely clearing the sand and rubble from around the base of each of the pyramids, much less from the entirety of the plateau, he instead had his hired workers dig a series of regular holes in it for surveying purposes: 85 of them around the Pyramid of Khufu, 108 of them around the Pyramid of Khafre, 91 of them around the Pyramid of Menkaure. He descended personally into each hole to record the exact state and position of the pyramid base and the pavement on which the structure rested at that point. It was a dangerous process, replete with close calls: "It was always a chance of minutes or hours before the pit collapses."
When he returned to London in May of 1882, Petrie felt satisfied that he had carried out his project to the best of his abilities. Posterity would validate his confidence: his measurements remain within a whisker of the accepted standard dimensions of the pyramids today. The Pyramid of Khufu measures 755.7 feet (230.34 meters) on a side at the base and is 480.94 feet (146.59 meters) tall; the Pyramid of Khafre measures 705.4 feet (215 meters) at the base and is 470.8 feet (143.5 meters) tall; the Pyramid of Menkaure is 339.3 feet (103.4 meters) at the base and 213.3 feet (65 meters) tall.
That Petrie, working alone in far from ideal conditions and with equipment far more primitive than that which would be available to future archaeologists, was able to measure the pyramids so accurately is nothing short of extraordinary. His work at the Pyramid of Khufu was especially important in that it served to eliminate the wiggle room on which the numerological theories of Smyth and his followers had depended. He discovered that sections of the pyramid's original casing of smooth white limestone still clung to it near its base; presumably these sections had been buried too far under the sand to be reached by those who had stripped the casing away. Thus he was finally able to resolve the question of the casing's thickness; the numbers could no longer be massaged there to suit a desired correspondence.
Petrie's results were, as he would later put it, "decidedly destructive for the theories" of Smyth and other pyramidal numerologists. The base of the Pyramid of Khufu proved to be a good 130 feet (40 meters) too short to have squared the circle represented by the pyramid's height, although Petrie was still willing to accept the possibility that this may have been the builders' intention. None of Smyth's other claimed correspondences held up any better; there was certainly nothing like a pyramidal inch to be derived from any of Petrie's measurements. He had now completely left the numerological camp and joined the archaeologists. One of the few vestiges of his old beliefs that remained was his ongoing insistence on calling the sarcophagi inside the pyramids "coffers."
The young Petrie's journey from Biblical fundamentalist to a thoroughgoing man of science is one of the most remarkable aspects of this remarkable man's life. Yet it's a story that's been under-told, both by Petrie himself in his various memoirs and by those who have written about him since.
Although it's understandable on one level why Petrie and his admirers wouldn't wish to dwell on the follies of his youth, his story has much to tell us about the relationship between respectable and alternative Egyptology—a relationship which is not always as distant as either camp might prefer to believe. In addition, it's fascinating as a human story. As is demonstrated by the many others over the centuries who have only clung all the tighter to mystical theories about the pyramids in the face of mountains of evidence contradicting them, surprisingly few of us are able to revise our worldview when confronted with inconvenient realities.
Petrie published all of his measurements, along with some of the commentaries and speculations they prompted, in 1883 in a volume called simply The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh. It was an immensely important book, one which finally gave Egyptologists an absolutely trustworthy collection of measurements to work from, whilst grounding even speculations that would later be disproved firmly in the facts on the ground, as it were. In fact, Petrie's determination to reason from verifiable facts alone would only increase in the years that followed. His book thus became one of the few in the history of publishing to grow slimmer rather than thicker as it went through subsequent editions. It made a marked contrast to Smyth's ever-expanding collection of anecdotes and theories.
By the time of the publication of the first edition of Petrie's book, Piazzi Smyth's promotion of the doctrine of British Exceptionalism, as mathematically "proven" by the Pyramid of Khufu, had been embraced by a movement known as the British Israelites, who claimed that the British people were the direct descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel. Smyth had gradually come to accept their theories too as gospel truth, and had incorporated them into his thesis. Thus his review of Petrie's book appeared in The Banner of Israel, the movement's most popular magazine. Referring to Petrie slightly condescendingly as a "smart young scientist," Smyth noted that the author hadn't made allowances for earthquakes, nor for the fact that the idolators who had built the Pyramid of Khufu had been forced to do so unwillingly, and thus probably hadn't done the best job of it. With those final graspings at straws, the blending of the names of Piazzi Smyth and Flinders Petrie ended forever. The former would die in 1900, after a long life that had been in some ways hugely productive and in others hugely misguided. He remained as convinced as ever of the essential truth of his pyramidal theories to his last breath.
Flinders Petrie, meanwhile, was just getting started. During a life that lasted even longer than that of Smyth—he died in 1942 at age 89—he did much more vitally important work, not only across the length of Egypt but in Palestine as well. He wrote late in life that "the science of observation, of registration, of recording, was as yet unthought of" when he first came to Egypt. "Nothing had a meaning unless it were an inscription or a sculpture." Petrie changed all that. History, he believed, must be written from "material evidence"—all available material evidence, from the monumental to the mundane. Although by no means bereft of ego in the abstract, he had an extraordinary ability to leave it behind when he traveled to a dig site. Tellingly, you won't find his scrawled signature defacing the ancient monuments he visited down the length of the Nile.
Petrie never made a single earthshaking discovery that captured newspaper headlines, like Belzoni or Vyse's openings of pyramids on the Giza Plateau or Howard Carter's entry into Tutankhamen's tomb, but what he did accomplish was even more important in the big picture. In addition to all of his invaluable if often thankless work in the field, he codified the set of values that has become the ethical foundation of the modern science of archaeology, even as his supremely analytic mind sculpted a set of best practices that have become its practical foundation.
Less positively, his status as one of the leading public intellectuals of his day led him to engage with subjects upon which he was less qualified to speak authoritatively than archaeology. Like H.G. Wells and a rather dismaying number of other leading lights of the early twentieth century, Petrie was seduced by the eugenics movement, the bastard stepchild of Darwin's theory of evolution. It came to fuel political views that were every bit as reactionary as those of Smyth, and in their way even more socially toxic. "The ideals of the present time," he wrote, "equality of wages, maintenance of the incapable by the capable, equal opportunities of life for children of bad stock as well as good stock, and exclusion of more economical labour, are the surest means of national extinction."
Some of these views even crept into his Egyptology in later years, most notably in the form of a belief that ancient Egyptian culture was the product of an invading Caucasian "dynastic race"; purely African stock, he believed, just wasn't capable of producing the wonders found on the Giza Plateau and elsewhere. All of this makes a sorry footnote to his treatment of his native helpers during his early years in Egypt, which was marked by an unusual degree of kindness and understanding, and even a certain measure of respect.
Still, this older, more bitter Petrie should never dim our view of the high-minded young eccentric out there roaming across the Giza Plateau in his pink outfit or crawling through a pyramid's innards in the altogether, refusing to so much as contemplate taking any of the treasures he finds for himself, raging at the powers in charge of the place for failing to protect it adequately from tourists and treasure hunters, and following the data he collects wherever it leads him, even if it means the death of his most cherished beliefs. Truly one of a kind, he nevertheless managed to create a science in his own image.
-- Sent from my Linux system.