Sir William Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) was a British archaeologist best known for his contributions to the study of ancient Egypt (known as Egyptology). He was the modern discoverer of the Merneptah Stele monument at Thebes and an important pioneer in the development of methods of dating dig sites and arranging artifacts for preservation. For this work Petrie has sometimes been referred to as the "father of Egyptian archaeology."
Petrie was born in Kent to an engineer and was the grandson of Matthew Flinders, an early 19th-century explorer of Australia. Petrie lacked any formal training or education in archaeology, but this was not a significant handicap when he embarked on his career because, at the time, most archaeological digs were conducted by wealthy gentleman hobbyists. In 1880, Petrie moved to Egypt because he had grown interested in the pyramids and hoped to test some theories about their origins and construction. Ultimately, he would go on to spend most of the rest of his career as an archaeologist in that country, occasionally making side trips into neighbouring Palestine to conduct digs there, as well.
It was during this period that Petrie made his two most important contributions - one to Egyptology, and the other to archaeology in general. In the late 19th century, archaeological excavation methods were still rudimentary, and the search for a few intact, impressive relics tended to take precedence over careful, systematic, layer-by-layer documenting of a site. Petrie was one of the driving forces in the move toward the more careful approach, which is now favoured by essentially all professional archaeologists. Every fragment and shard was to be marked and documented, and then compared with other artifacts for dating purposes.
This advocacy was what landed Petrie his most important start in Egyptology, when he was given a research grant in the early 1880s by Amelia Edwards' Egypt Exploration Fund to develop his techniques. Edwards, a major benefactress of Egyptian archaeology, later arranged through her estate to have Petrie nominated as the Edwards Professor of Egyptian Archaeology and Philology at University College London, making him the first dedicated Egyptologist at a British university. Petrie would go on to hold this position until he retired from archaeological research in the 1930s.
Backed by Edwards and others, Petrie conducted some of the most important digs in early Egyptian archaeology. Elaine Altman Evans, of the Frank H. McClung Museum at the University of Tennessee, says that "in his lifetime Petrie made more important discoveries than any other Egyptologist." His dig sites included dynastic and predynastic Naqada, the pyramid of Middle Kingdom pharaoh Amenemhat III at Hawara, the ruins of the New Kingdom city of Tell el Amarna and the pyramid of Sesotris II at Lahun. In 1896, he made one of his important discoveries during a dig at Thebes: an ancient monument constructed by King Merneptah in the early 1200s B.C., proclaiming his army's victory over the Libyans and making one of the first known references to Israel. This inscription has since become known as the Merneptah Stele.
Whereas many Egyptologists were already bringing back the most striking artifacts of Egyptian royalty, like mummies and sarcophagi, Petrie's careful approach provided a treasure-house of insights into Egyptian daily life in many periods of the ancient country's history. Petrie was knighted in recognition of his achievements in 1923. He retired from active research in the 1930s, and died in 1942.