Remembering Sir Flinders Petrie
by James Tabor
One of the special perks of having Dr. Shimon Gibson as our director at our UNC Charlotte sponsored Mt. Zion excavations is having him guide us about the Old City of Jerusalem. Dr. Gibson, or “Shimon,” as we affectionately call him, is not only an expert on the archaeology of the ancient Levant but he is surely knows more about the history of the exploration of 19th century Jerusalem than anyone alive. He is full of tales of authors like Mark Twain or Herman Melville, or early explorers like Claude Conder, Charles Wilson, Conrad Schick, Frederick Bliss, and Archibald Dickie–not to mention the venerable T. H. Lawrence, about whom he is presently writing a book. He regularly entertains us with his abundant stories, both in the field and walking about the Old City. One of the essential pilgrimages for all of our students, volunteers, and other excavators is the short walk to the historic Mt Zion cemetery just a few hundreds yards from our dig on the old British “Gobat” property, named after Anglican Bishop Samuel Gobat. Today the buildings house Jerusalem University College, formerly the American Institute of Holy Land Studies.
Among the many fascinating graves that Gibson tours us through none surpasses that of the illustrious and brilliant Sir Flinders Petrie (1853-1942), Egyptologist and pioneer in the methods of scientific archaeology in the Holy Land. Among many distinctions Petrie was the discoverer of the Mernaptah Stele. Upon his death in Jerusalem in 1942, influenced by his interest in science and “race” Petrie donated his head to the Royal College of Surgeons of London, so that it could be studied for its high intellectual capacity. His body was interred separately in the Protestant Cemetery on Mt. Zion. However, due to the wartime conditions in the area his head was delayed in transit from Jerusalem to London. It was thought to have been lost but Dr. Gibson has been able to locate it in London, get it taken out of the preservation jar and photograph it–still intact and quite well preserved. He was able to make a positive identification by the scar over the right eye.
Petrie’s burial was 70 years ago this week and Matti Friedman has just published a fascinating story in the Times of Israel on the commemorations in Jerusalem. His report fills in more background with lots of fascinating pictures. It is not to be missed, you can read it here.