Sudan Dig, 1906

“I say, Petrie. Just in time.” Sir Francis sat in the spreading shade of the tent. He motioned to the servant who carried over a glittering salver on which a pair of cups stood, frost beading the cold pewter. “Gin and quinine, just like we drink in Calcutta.”

Petrie removed his pith helmet and swabbed the sweat from his ruddy forehead before taking a grateful sip. “I say, that’s prime,” he said. “Wherever did you get the ice?”

“Came ashore in Port Said. Lead-lined cases, don’t you know.” He took a long swallow. “The boys looked properly bemused when I told them to bury it. You’d think with all this,” he fanned his hand toward the dig, “they’d understand something about preserving things underground.”

“Ah, but you’re forgetting. These boys are merely African, not Egyptians. Not the same thing at all.” Petrie took another drink. “Common enough error. They do look quite a bit a alike.”

What Pegman Saw: Sudan

Historical note:

Most academic disciplines in the nineteenth century were embedded within the racist ideologies of the societies and academies where they developed. Egyptology especially was linked to the study of ‘race’.

Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie was appointed the first professor of Egyptology in the UK in 1892 at University College London A prolific excavator of sites in Egypt, Petrie wrote many publications on his work. At the college, Petrie worked with Sir Francis Galton and Karl Pearson, pioneers of the eugenics movement; Galton himself coined the term ‘eugenics’ by combining two ancient Greek words meaning ‘well/good’ and ‘group/kin.’ Galton wrote:

“Let us do what we can to encourage the multiplication of the races best fitted to invent, and conform to, a high and generous civilisation, and not, out of mistaken instinct of giving support to the weak, prevent the incoming of strong and hearty individuals.”

Perhaps because of exposure to these ideas, Petrie became obsessed with identifying racial types. Galton’s theories presume that the more “African” a race (e.g., the darker the skin), the more “primitive” the culture. Despite the obvious racism of these beliefs, they continue to influence the field of Egyptology even today.


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  1. Lynn Love

    Just watched a series on the BBC about the history of eugenics – as you can imagine, terrifying stuff, especially as these kinds of views linger on in society’s views on the poor and gene screening. As you say, the views of the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries echo into the twenty first.
    Great writing Josh

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