Petrie Museum reveals the hidden secrets of Ancient Egyptian archaeology

Sarah Jackson | 27 October 2014

It’s easy to miss some of the Petrie Museum’s hidden treasures, so we asked curator Alice Stevenson to take us on a tour

Image of a piece of painted plaster depicting the face of a man in profile. The plaster sits in a box with a label.
Fragment of painted plaster on mud depicting the face of Akhenaten. Image from Europeana.euCC-BY-SA The Petrie Museum
Visiting a museum is often called a leisure activity, but anyone who has experienced museum fatigue will tell you it’s not always the most relaxing activity.

The condition - a kind of sensory and information overload where the thought of reading another text label or looking at another object makes you long for a sit down with a cup of tea - is usually caused by reading too many text labels and trying to absorb a great deal of information in a short space of time.

The Petrie Museum faces the opposite problem; about 6,000 Ancient Egyptian artifacts are on display but most have only the most basic text labels. There’s no room for detail; with another 74,000 objects locked away in cupboards, space is at a premium.

Fortunately, for those who cannot make the trip into London to view this unique collection, many of these objects are available to view on Europeana.eu, an online portal to hundreds of resources from Europe's galleries, museums and libraries, as well the Petrie Museum's own website.

But with 80,000 objects to look through, it can be hard to know where to start. We took a trip through the Petrie with curator Alice Stevenson to uncover items that are of huge importance to both Egyptology and archaeology as a whole.

Earliest worked iron

Image of photograph showing three rust coloured beads resting on white foam in a clear plastic box.
Three meteoric iron beads© Sarah Jackson
“They don’t look like much,” says curator Alice Stevenson, pointing to three small rust-coloured lumps of metal, snugly enclosed in a plastic box. "But this is the world’s earliest worked iron.”

The beads date some 2,000 years before the Iron Age, when humans first mastered the art of smelting iron. So how did the prehistoric Egyptians manage it?

For once, the answer to this Egyptian puzzle really does lie beyond the stars; the beads are made from a piece of meteorite.

Although now corroded almost beyond recognition, experimental archaeology has shown that when heated meteoric iron turns neon blue and pink. It's easy to imagine how stunning the beads must have looked when newly made.

It's likely that they were therefore very high status objects, an idea supported by the inclusion in the grave of other high status objects, including lapis lazuli from Afghanistan - a little pot made out of hippo ivory, a small mace head and a copper harpoon.

Thanks to Petrie’s insistence on meticulous record keeping, we also know that the burial itself was a little unusual.

“This was an intact tomb,” says Alice, “and the head [of the body] was found sitting on its base with the beads still underneath, so it hadn’t been moved because it was robbed.

"There must have been some ceremony: someone opened it up again. So one of the things we’ve got from this period is examples of dismemberment.”

The meaning behind this internment is still unclear, but it indicates that even in prehistoric Egypt, a complex belief system of some kind was in operation.

Copper Axe inscribed with the name King Waji

Image showing a copper axe with hieroglyphic inscription on the top edge.
Copper axe inscribed with name of King Waji. Image via Europeana.euCC-BY-SA Petrie Museum
That Egypt’s pharaohs had a touch of megalomania about them is no secret; but the Great Pyramids were not perhaps the grandest example of a king’s burial.

This copper axe, simply inscribed with the name of King Djet/Waji, was found in one of the graves surrounding the enclosure of the king's tomb at Abydos.

At least 318 people appear to have been buried in the king’s tomb and at least another 300 around its ritual enclosure. It suggests human sacrifice on a massive scale. Even more amazingly, each individual is given a name and title.

“It’s all planned out,” says Alice, pointing to this copper axe.

“They had red paint, and in each grave it said something like, ‘Bob’s going to go here.'"

The level of bureaucratic organisation is astonishing, let alone the immensity of the sacrifice made.

“If you’ve got 600 people all buried around the king, that’s 600 families,” says Alice.

"That’s going to leave a big impact. And if these are people crucial to the functioning of the inner elite and their bureaucracy, because they all have titles, you suddenly have to replace those people, so it’s going to be a huge upheaval.”

Perhaps it’s little wonder the practice seems to have died out with Djet’s reign.

Head of figurine (possibly Namar)

Image showing a photograph of a carved limestone head.
The head of a king - possibly Namar or Khufu© Sarah Jackson
Much of what Petrie left to the museum when he died had been excavated by him and his teams, but he also bought objects from dealers.

“He was at dinner, and all the antiquities dealers were crowded around him trying to sell him something, and then this head just rolled out of a bag," says Alice.

"Petrie lifted it off the ground, exclaiming ‘Oh my god, this is amazing!’”.

Petrie’s astonishment stemmed from the belief that the figure was a representation of Narmer, thought to be the first king of Egypt.

Egyptologists now believe it to be the head of Khufu, the pharaoh responsible for building the Great Pyramids of Giza. This does not lessen its value, according to Alice.

“If it’s Khufu, if it’s Narmer, either way it’s a rare face. It’s at least as old as the Great Pyramids."

The world’s first trained archaeologists

Image showing a photograph of a display cases containing pieces of pottery and a sepia coloured photograph of an Egyptian man.
Aly Suefi, an excavation superviser© Sarah Jackson
Throughout the museum, sepia-toned pictures of Egyptian men are dotted next to pottery sherds, scarabs, jewellery and dozens of other objects.

Their names include Hussein Osmar of Qift, Muhammad abu Daud of Katr al Haram and Ali Sueti of Lahun. These are some of Petrie’s excavation supervisors.

One in particular, Ali Sueti, was a trusted colleague. In a letter to his future wife Hilda, Petrie wrote: “It will be a great pleasure to have him about me again; for I feel as if all must go well with such a faithful, quiet, unselfish right hand to help.”

“We talk about how Petrie excavated this, Petrie excavated that,” says Alice. "But archaeology is teamwork.

"Petrie trained Egyptians – these are some of the first trained archaeologists in the world.

"He taught them how to excavate carefully, to take out every single bead and make sure you don’t disturb anything because we need to record just how it’s found”.

Egypt’s oldest garment

Image of a photograph of a discoloured linen tunic on a mannequin.
A Tarkhan dress© Petrie Museum
Despite being one of the highlights of the Petrie’s collection, drab and humble colours of this garment mean it can be easily missed.

Buried around 3000BC (about 400-500 years before the Pyramids were built), the Tarkhan dress was apparently found inside out as if it had just been taken off; some people have even claimed that they can see sweat patches.

Despite its delicate condition, conservators have been able to reconstruct and mount it as it would have been worn in life. They’ve even created a pattern for people to use if they wish to recreate one of the oldest garments ever found.

Dating Techniques


Archaeology enthusiasts, this one is for you. Tucked away in a corner next to the chronological displays of pottery types is an example of how Petrie developed the relative dating techniques that have become the standard in modern archaeology.

Image of a photograph showing strips of cardboard detailing pottery types in different columns on a blue background
The Petrie's Sequence Dating strips© Petrie Museum
These cardboard strips are “a 19th century spreadsheet”, according to Alice. Whilst excavating in Egypt, Petrie uncovered hundreds of prehistoric graves with few clues as to the date they were created.

He listed the contents of each grave on a strip of cardboard, putting each different type of pottery in a separate column, then shuffled the strips until he came to an order he was satisfied with; you can still see the discolouration on the edge of the strips that come from Petrie’s constant shuffling of the columns.

“He thinks that over time [the pottery] goes from globular to cylindrical,” says Alice.

"So he starts to put the globular types together, and then finds that you never find that type of pottery with another type.”

With this sequential ordering of pottery types, he was soon able to decide which graves were oldest based entirely on the pottery they were found with. 

Not only was this a huge achievement for Egyptology and archaeology, but these hard copy versions of spreadsheets were also of great importance to the study of statistics and maths.

Letters to the Dead

Image of a photograph of two pottery bowls decorated with hieroglyphics inside the bowl in a display case.
Letters to the Dead© Sarah Jackson
We all know that the Ancient Egyptians believed in the afterlife, but these poignant objects demonstrate how strong this belief was.

Known as Letters to the Dead, these bowls were placed outside of tombs and filled with food and water to give the dead sustenance.

When the dead came to take their meal, they would then read the letter. Because they were left outside of the tombs, very few have survived – there are only 20 in the world and the Petrie has two of them.

The dead were believed to be powerful, so these letters were often written with a specific purpose; asking for help.

In this example, a man called Shepsi wrote to his dead parents asking for help with a property dispute, noting that he has treated them well in the afterlife.

It’s a touching and personal expression of the complexity of everyday life in the late Old Kingdom (approximately 4,000 years ago).

Mummy Portraits

Image of a photograph of a wooden panel painted with a portrait of a woman wearing blue robes.
This wooden panel shows a portrait of a blue-robed woman, painted in coloured wax© Sarah Jackson
The Petrie’s collection of Roman period mummy portraits is the largest outside of Egypt.

These portraits, painted on wooden panels and placed in the mummy wrappings are a vivid glimpse into the world of Roman Egypt.

The practice indicates how Egyptian society must have changed during the Hellenistic period, gradually turning from the traditions of the past and embracing the Mediterranean world.

However, to begin with at least, most upper class Egyptians followed the practice of mummification. The dry desert conditions kept them remarkably preserved and brightly coloured; viewing one is like coming face to face with an Ancient Egyptian, as Alice attests.

“There are stories of medical doctors coming to this museum and diagnosing how they died just by the realism of the way they’re painted," she says.

"There are all sorts of people you can meet.”

The Art of Akhenaten

Image of photograph of an open drawer filled with small open boxes containing fragments of brightly coloured painted plaster.
This drawer is full of plasterworks from Amarna© Sarah Jackson
Today we may find the actions of many of the pharaohs to be extraordinary, but there is one who was more extraordinary than most.

Akhenaten is perhaps best known for his attempt to abandon to the polytheistic tradition of Egyptian religion and instead move to a monotheistic religion worshipping only the god Aten and moving his capital to Amarna.

These changes were gradually abandoned after his death. Later dynasties referred to him as “the enemy”, but his palace at Amarna reveals just how much he attempted to change.

Egypt’s stylised art is notable for its homogeneity over an enormous length of time, but during Akhenaten’s 17 year reign this changed dramatically.

Depictions of animals, plants and commoners became more naturalistic, while depictions of members of court and the royal family became extremely stylised, with thin arms and legs, heavy hips, large stomachs, elongated heads, and exaggerated facial features.

The Petrie has many examples of this art style taken by Petrie from the palace in Amarna.

“People think Egypt is just sandy, that it’s just cream and beige,” says Alice, revealing a drawer full of plasterworks.

"But actually they decorated their temples in garish ways. It’s very different to what you normally see”.

Arabic funerary inscription

Image of a photograph of a large grey slab of alabaster stone carved with Arabic letters.
This alabaster slab is incised with 12 lines of Arabic funerary inscription© Petrie Museum
Ancient Egypt as a concept exists in popular imagination in a specific time and place: for many people, it’s restricted to the Great Pyramids of Giza.

But the Petrie has examples of objects from the entirety of Egyptian culture from prehistoric flints and pottery to Roman and Arabic Egypt.

The presence of objects such as this alabaster slab, carved with an Arabic funerary inscription, is an important reminder to visitors that Egypt is more than just pyramids and mummies.

Egypt's Arabic past is no less important in history than the time of the ancient pharaohs.

Although lacking the kind of monumental artefacts that are the show-stoppers of the British Museum's Egyptian galleries, the Petrie Museum is a must-see for any Egyptology or archaeology enthusiast.

Its dense collection charts the story of Egypt from prehistory right up to the modern Arab conquests but also reveals the development of 19th century archaeology and exploration.

Want to see more of the Petrie? Thousands of the museum's objects can be viewed online at Europeana.eu. Click below to launch a gallery of images.


These images and many more are available to view on Europeana.eu, a digital portal that allows you to explore the digital resources of hundreds of Europe’s galleries, museums, libraries, archives and audio-visual collections.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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