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Petrie's Uncommon Collection Volume 58 Number 5, September/October 2005
by Mike Toner

[image] Some of Petrie's finds: a horse-shaped bronze cosmetic tool from the 18th Dynasty (1550-1292 B.C.); an early Roman-period gilded mummy mask (A.D. 40-60); and a bead-net dress from the 5th Dynasty (2494-2345 B.C.), one of the world's oldest garments. (Courtesy Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology) [LARGER IMAGE]

Working in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Sir William Flinders Petrie was one of the first in the field of archaeology to recognize that humble everyday objects could reveal as much about a culture as its great monuments. In the half century that he excavated nearly 50 sites in the Nile Valley, Petrie amassed one of the largest collections of Egyptian material outside of Egypt. Currently housed in an aging teaching museum at University College London (UCL), few of the 80,000 objects have been seen outside England.

Now, more than 220 of the most interesting pieces have begun a three-year tour of American museums, starting with Emory University's Michael C. Carlos Museum in Atlanta, which proposed and prepared "Excavating Egypt: Great Discoveries from the Petrie Museum." The objects are touring while UCL builds a facility, slated to open in 2008, that will for the first time house the vast collection under one roof.

It's clear that the objects in the exhibition have been carefully chosen to reflect Petrie's conviction that "the ordinary can reveal more than the spectacular." There are, to be sure, a few showy pieces on display, such as a gilded mummy mask and a 4,500-year-old bead-net dress that is one of the oldest garments ever found. But it's the common stuff of Egyptian life that makes the exhibition memorable: a clay rat trap from the Middle Kingdom, tweezers in the shape of a gazelle, an ornate razor in the shape of a monkey, a copper scale with weights, and a couple of exquisitely crafted board games, complete in every way except, alas, for the rules of play.

Petrie, who once slept in an abandoned tomb to save money on his excavations, is credited with dispelling the notion that the Giza pyramids were built with divine assistance. No object in the exhibition more eloquently reflects the down-to-earth engineering genius that went into their construction than a set of mason's tools that would, despite the passage of 4,000 years, be readily recognizable to any twenty-first-century builder.

"Excavating Egypt" is at the Carlos Museum until November 27. It then travels to the Albany Institute of History and Art, the San Diego Museum of Man, Mount Holyoke College of Art Museum, the Museum of New Mexico, Museum of Fine Arts, and the Museum of Fine Art, Houston, before returning to London in 2008.

Mike Toner is a science writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America