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SIR FLINDERS PETRIE

The Victorian era - as defined in the UK and America - follows the reign of Queen Victoria (1837 - 1901).  During this time there was increasing technological and social change. As has been said many times before, the reign of this queen marked the transformation of a rural to an industrial society. Also at this time there were great advances in science and history, not the least of which was the work of Charles Darwin (1809 - 1882).  Added into this heady mix was an evangelical revival.  Perhaps through a mixture of Darwin and the new interest in religion, there was a new confidence in science and observation.  Archaeology as a discipline arose during this period as well, and there was a great outpouring of public interest in the subject that leaves many archaeologists today with a sense that the field's best years, in terms of public interest, lay in the past.  A look through any newspaper from this period will attest to a very different focus, one where the latest archaeological discoveries are given front page coverage. Today there exists a distinct prejudice against the Victorian age.  Viewed as overly moralistic and obsessed with etiquette, there are many platitudes available to suggest how narrow the mind set of the age was.  Yet in this and so many other areas, popular perception is incorrect.

The Victorians prized knowledge more than any other society before them.  One need only to consider the term "Victorian clutter" to describe a style of interior decoration that put a jumble of materials together.  One can imagine a Victorian room with no space left for anything else to fit. Small souvenirs from travel could sit on a mantle.  The walls could be filled with portraits of historical figures, religious pictures, and perhaps not a few of great scenes of natural beauty. Breadth was the main criterion.  A visit to a Victorian era museum such as the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford also shows that there was something else.  Pitt Rivers (1827-1900) sought to place the technology of humans into order. This had a practical side.  For instance, by looking at firearms through the ages one would be able to stimulate new inventions.  

Into this age was born Flinders Petrie (1827 - 1942). He was the grandson of Captain Matthew Flinders, who mapped the Australian coastline.  Raised in a Christian household, he was taught surveying by his father.  He was to retain his interest in surveying throughout his career. Unlike so many scholars of earlier ages, who were familiar with textual sources alone, Petrie was a keen observer. He could obtain facts from the material evidence itself.  He is well known for his work on Stonehenge, but best known for his work in Egypt, surveying the Great Pyramid at Giza in 1880. He excavated other sites such as Abydos and Amarna, where he used a painstaking classification system for pottery styles to date a culture. After becoming a Professor at University College in London, he trained a new generation of archaeologists.  He left part of his collection to the University that is now housed in the Petrie Museum of Archaeology.  He was knighted in 1923 for his work in Egyptology.

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