Thursday, August 2, 2012

Losing One's Head Over Archaeology

In 1997-1998 I had the privilege of spending a year in Jerusalem. The institute where I was studying is located on Mount Zion in what used to be the Bishop Gobat school. It also contains one of the few protestant cemeteries in Jerusalem. The cemetery was a fun place to walk through if you are interested in history. Among its famous residents is the Spafford family best known for Horatio Spafford's hymn "It is well with my soul."

Another famous resident is Sir Flanders Petrie.  Petrie is a famous archaeologist from the late 19th early 20th centuries. He was a bit of a British Indiana Jones In many ways he is one of the fathers of modern archaeology. The shift from digging trenches to squares and looking at the different layers was first proposed by Petrie. And, if I am not mistaken, he may have been among the first to realize that pottery could be used for dating a layer.

Petrie, was also very eccentric and he had some ideas about eugenics that wouldn't wash today.But that is what makes his story have such a fascinating ending. Petrie donated his head to science and when he died it was cutoff and sent to London.  I remember my archaeology professor telling me the story when I was in class in Jerusalem. I think he noted that because of WW II Petrie's head was stored in a jar under a bed until it could be shipped. Once it go there though,  it was mostly forgotten until another archaeologist went looking for it.

In 1989, archaeologist Shimon Gibson went to the college armed with photos that he hoped would help him identify Petrie’s head, Gibson told the crowd at this week’s memorial. An assistant took a bearded head out of a jar, Gibson said. A telltale scar on the right temple confirmed that it was the archaeologist.
The assistant opened Petrie’s eyes, Gibson recalled. They were blue.“Though I was born only 16 years after his death, I like to say that I met Flinders Petrie,” Gibson said.

You can see a picture of Petrie's head here at the Tabor Blog.

You can read the whole article here. It provides an interesting look at one of archaeology's more unusual characters.

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