Sir Flin Ders Petrie, who died a few weeks ago in Jerusalem at the age of eighty-nine, well deserves the title of "Father of Modern Archaeology." Certainly no excavator has done more to confirm by his "finds" the trustworthiness of the Old Testament narrative. That this great excavator should have turned in early Years to discovery and exploration is understandable, seeing that his mother was the daughter of an Australian explorer ; while the precision of his labors and his scientific attention to detail he no doubt owed in large measure to his civil engineer father.
Before he was twenty years old, Petrie was busy on ancient British and Roman remains in England, and in his early twenties he had already published several books, including one on Stonehenge. At twenty-seven he set out for Egypt to begin a career of more than sixty years of excavation in Bible lands, his first task being a survey of the Pyramids of Giza, near Cairo, and the tombs of the Egyptian nobles associated with them.
His work on the Pyramids was strictly scientific, and he had no time for the fantastic prophetic speculations which have been built on their measurements. There is a story, though no doubt apocryphal, that on one occasion he found a man with a large file scraping away at one of the stones of the Great Pyramid. On Petrie's inquiry as to his intentions the man replied, "I am trying to make the pyramid fit my prediction !"
Professor Petrie's early associates in archaeological research, such as Edouard Naville, belonged to the old school which was interested only in the great monuments, and entirely neglected minor objects like pottery fragments. Petrie's first really great contribution to the developing science, therefore, was to draw the attention of excavators to the importance of this more insignificant material. While admittedly of less value as museum specimens, they threw much light on the everyday life of the ancient world, and were of immense value in the dating of ancient remains.
By emphasizing this latter tremendously important fact, he laid the foundation for the reconstruction of a continuous history of the ancient world for millenniums before the Christian Era. Previous to this, archaeology had merely amassed a huge collection of isolated specimens. Petrie, from an intensive study of the smaller objects associated with the larger monuments, revealed their chronological interrelations and showed how they could be pieced together to provide a continuous story of the ancient world.
His other great contribution to the science of archaeology was his discovery that the great mounds, or "tells," of Bible lands were the result of city after city's being built, destroyed, trampled down, and again built upon through many centuries. From this observation he concluded that if each stratum was "peeled" off by careful digging, and by avoiding intermixing, the history of the city, and from this of whole countries, could be reconstructed with precision.
This method, now universally adopted, has made archaeology an exact science and has provided innumerable confirmations of the Bible story. Professor Garstang's work at Jericho, Sir Leonard Woolley's at Ur of the Chaldees, and the late Professor Starkie's discoveries at ancient Lachish, were wonderfully fruitful because they followed the scientific methods laid clown by Professor Petrie.
During the course of his lifework in Bible lands, Petrie dug on sites as far apart as the extreme south of Egypt and the north of Syria, as well as almost everywhere between, and from the Biblical point of view his most fruitful work was on the period from Abraham to Joshua.
His researches on the origin of the Egyptians definitely established the fact that the successive waves of migrants to the Nile valley came originally from the Caucasus region via the Tigro-Euphrates valley and Arabia, thus confirming in a remarkable way the dissemination of the children of Ham as recorded in the tenth chapter of Genesis.
As a result of excavating many sites in southern Palestine and the Egyptian delta, he threw much light on the "Shepherd kings" who invaded Egypt from Syria, bringing about the fall of the Middle Kingdom. It was this invasion which aroused such hatred of the Asiatics in the hearts of the Egyptians, and occasioned the grievous bondage of the Israelites when the Egyptians eventually expelled the invaders and recovered control of the country.
In the Sinai peninsula, while tracing the journeyings of the Israelites on their way to Canaan, Petrie discovered the famous Serabit inscriptions in rudimentary Hebrew characters, dating from something like 1800 B. c. These gave the lie direct to the critics who had denied the possibility that Moses could have written the Pentateuch. He, with others, had already showed that the Egyptian hieroglyphics and Babylonian cuneiform writing went back long before Moses' day, and in Sinai he proved that the earliest form of Hebrew writing also long antedated the birth of Moses.
It was Professor Petrie, too, who discovered at Tell-el-Amarna in Central Egypt, the capital of Akhenaton, or Amenhotep IV, the pharaoh who was ruling Egypt when Joshua entered Canaan. His first "find" there was the Tell-elAmarna tablets, These are mostly letters from the garrison commanders in Palestine giving news of the invasion of Canaan by the Hebrews ; they provide contemporary light on the struggle, as well as confirmation of Joshua's account of the conquest in the Bible.
For his distinguished scientific work Flinders Petrie received many academic honors and was knighted in 1923. But perhaps the finest testimony to his indefatigable enthusiasm is that he died, not in comfortable retirement at home, but in activity almost to the last in the land which had been the scene of his immense labors for so many years.