Petrie's Pots: What one pot can tell us about Egypt, Flinders Petrie and archaeology

By Sarah Jackson | 05 January 2015

Pots tends to get overlooked by visitors to the Petrie Museum but they tell us much about Ancient Egypt and archaeology

Image showing a ceramic pot, mostly terracotta red with a black top.
UC5699 Black top pot, type B 58c. From Naqada Tomb 1817CC-BY-SA Petrie Museum
The Petrie Museum holds one of the world’s greatest Egyptology collections but despite this, it’s not often mentioned in tourist trails or lists of top museums in London.

Named after William Flinders Petrie, a 19th century archaeologist who sold his extraordinary collection of Egyptian artefacts to UCL in the early 20th century, the museum is tucked away in the heart of UCL’s Bloomsbury campus in London. Barely half a mile away, the British Museum draws in millions of visitors every year; only a tiny percentage of those will also go on to explore the Petrie.

But there are compelling stories to be told at the fascinating museum, stories that go beyond the Ancient Egypt of pyramids, sphinxes and pharaohs. Even the most humble looking object can reveal hidden narratives, not just about the people who made it but also the people who re-discovered it.

a photo of a terracotta pot with black top detail
UC5699: Black top pot, from Naqada Tomb 1817© Sarah Jackson
UC5699 is a small black-topped pot found in a tomb in Naqada, a town nearly 400 miles south of Cairo on the west bank of the Nile. It’s also the name given to the prehistoric archaeological culture that existed in Egypt circa 4400-3000 BC.

To modern eyes it looks a deceptively simple design, but the pot actually represents a relatively sophisticated technology. Experimental archaeology has revealed how the black-top effect was created (by placing the vessel upside down in the kiln, so the ashes of the fuel prevented oxygen from reaching the slip glaze), a process that curator Alice Stevenson calls “a real achievement for prehistory”.

Already, this vessel can tell us a great deal about the technology of the time. But let’s face it, pottery is never going to be the most glamorous of archaeological finds, particularly when it has to compete with hieroglyphs and gold. It’s also one of the most common artefacts found by archaeologists so it’s hard for anyone but specialists to get truly excited about.

Yet without it, our knowledge of the past would be all the poorer. Pottery is essential in archaeological data analysis and in determining typologies and chronologies using sequence dating – a technique pioneered by Petrie himself.

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
During Petrie’s Egyptian excavations, he painstakingly recorded the various types of pottery he discovered and where they were found.

This information was recorded on to a slim strip of cardboard. Each strip represented a grave, and the pottery types found in it were recorded in columns. Petrie then 'shuffled' these strips to form a relative dating sequence.

“This was one of the pots that was used by Petrie as a particular type,” says Alice, cradling a pot carefully in her gloved hands. “This helped him define prehistory”.

But this is just the start of what this particular pot can tell us.

On its base you can just make out a four digit number: this is known as the tomb number and represents another of Petrie’s innovations.

It wasn’t enough to know that the pot was found in a grave at Naqada, Petrie wanted to be able to pinpoint exactly where each object was found, and this was done by the simple procedure of giving each tomb a number and writing that number on each object found within the tomb.

a photo of a pot with a crack in it cradled by gloved hands
UC5699: the number on the bottom of black top pot© Sarah Jackson
In this case, the pot was found in Tomb 1817. Using this number, it’s possible to go to the Petrie Museum’s archive and see what else was found in the tomb by checking records made on site.

“These are called Petrie’s Notebooks,” explains Alice, opening up a drawer in the archive and pulling out a folder, “but when you open it you actually find someone else’s name.”

The name on notebook #138 is Hugh Price. Inside the fragile book we quickly find an entry for tomb 1817, but the name of the tomb’s excavator is neither Petrie nor Price. It is Ali Redwan, one of the many Egyptians that Petrie trained as archaeologists and excavation supervisors and some of the world’s first trained archaeologists.

Although Petrie apparently had a great deal of respect for his Egyptian colleagues he was also a strong follower of eugenics, believing that social changes were caused by biological change rather than cultural or social innovations. Such beliefs were prevalent in the 19th century and no doubt strengthened by theories of evolution put forward by Darwin and others.

As a white European man coming to Egypt and uncovering that country's ancient past Petrie may have regarded himself as one of the elite archaeologists in Egypt, but it is thanks to his own meticulous record keeping that we can instead find a different story; that of the Egyptian archaeologists themselves.

Already, their pictures are dotted around the museum next to their discoveries; and the museum hopes that in time more research will be done to highlight Egyptian archaeologist's contributions to Egyptology.

a photo of a notebook with scribbles in it
Close up of entry for Tomb 1817 from "Petrie's Notebooks"© Sarah Jackson
Revealing these almost-forgotten names is not the only item of interest in "Petrie's Notebooks" The entry for tomb 1817 includes measurements of the tomb as well as drawings of how the body was positioned, where grave goods and pottery were found and so on.

“These records are hugely important,” says Alice, “because as archaeologists you want to do statistical analysis; how many tombs, what were the biggest tombs, that sort of thing.”

By the early 20th century, notebooks evolved to become tomb cards which were printed with a standardised format to ensure that all the relevant data was captured. These are the world’s earliest examples of the context sheets that all archaeologists now use.

Petrie only published the most important of his discoveries, so these notebooks offer the only context for a great many objects in the Petrie Museum's collection.

Sadly, many of the notebooks were apparently thrown out long ago, making the ones that have survived all the more precious.

UC5699 can tell us much, not just about the prehistoric Egyptians, but also the people – British and Egyptian – who first excavated them. Even now, the pot has been requested to undergo scientific analysis to ascertain what its contents once were, linking it to a new discourse about modern archaeological science.

It seems, then, that museum objects are no longer viewed as static pieces of history; but rather objects that continue to add new threads to the already complex tapestries their histories have woven.

Beneath the surface of every object within the Petrie are stories about 19th century Europe and Egypt and about the history of archaeology and Egyptology itself.

It is these deeper layers of meaning that make the Petrie Museum more than just a place for display and conservation, but also a place for continuing exploration and discovery.

Want to see more from the Petrie? Click below to launch a gallery of images from Europeana.eu:



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.

More from Culture24's Archaeology section:

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