Framing the Archaeologist Exhibition at the Petrie Museum, UCL

Framing Archaeologists - Ali Excavating, 1899Amidst the charming Victorian cases of jewellery along the walls of the larger room in the Petrie Museum is the Framing the Archaeologist exhibition (follow their blog here); a series of framed photographs from 1880 1900 categorised into excavation sites of Petrie; Giza 1800-1883, Delta sites 1883-86, and Al Arabar Al Madfunda (Abydos) 1899-1900. Each framed image is accompanied by a quote from a contemporary report or letter, giving some insight into the people depicted and their activities. One of the first pictures in the exhibition is the fabulous image of a young Petrie leaning casually against the wall of his tomb with a view where he stayed whilst excavating at Giza. This has always been one of my favourite images of Petrie, bearing little resemblance to the formal portraits of a bearded gentleman we are all familiar with. A young archaeologist with his life ahead of him.

Following the images around we are introduced to Sheikh Seidi of the Giza area, which emphasises the importance of village elders when hiring workers for work. Their cooperation was essential. A hand-drawn map is on display, by Hilda Petrie, showing the villages where the workers lived in relation to the excavation site, showing workers were drafted from a wide area. The process of hiring workers and their weekly pay schedule is described through the next few photographs and captions. In his Methods and Aims, Petrie comments;

The best age for diggers is about 15 to 20 years. After that many turn stupid, and only a small proportion are worth having between 20 and 40. After 40 very few are of any use, though some robust men will continue to about 50

Aly Swefy is here, one of our best old hands. Being a fisherman, he has a little rough boat below here, and rushes off sometimes to catch a fish.

However, many of the workers on his sites were younger than 15. As the wages were well received by all, the young girls did not want to miss out, and some disguised themselves as boys in order to work. Petrie comments in his journal (22.2.1884);

Among the boys one girl came and gave name as Muhammed Hassan. So I asked Ali how it was a girl had such a name. Oh they think you not take a girl for work, so that call her fathers name; Did they think I could not see it was a girl I asked. Oh time Mariette work here, so many girl, they dress in white, and send work for boys. (mem. girls and women wear dark blue, and boys and men white & brown).

The hard work and abilities of the local workers were recognised, and once loyal, good members of staff had been found they were employed year after year. Petrie comments that the local Egyptians were far more valuable on excavation than a man fresh from England who is not acclimatised to the heat or the conditions. Margaret Drower reminisces about one Egyptian, Ali Sueif (Aly Swefy);

Petrie's sister-in-law purchasing antiquities from local children, 1899It will be a great pleasure to have him about me again; for I feel as if all must go well with such a faithful, quiet, unselfish right-hand to help. As far as character goes he is really more to me than almost any of my own race. Few men, I believe, have worked harder for me or trusted me more. Perhaps none are sorrier at parting, or gladder when we meet again. A curious link in life but a very real one, as character is at the bottom of it. Kipling’s East and West is the only expression of such a link that I know in black & white.

It is not really surprising the Englishmen found it difficult working in the heat of the Egyptian desert, when one looks at the clothes they were wearing; three piece linen suits, with shirts, ties and waistcoats for the men, and tight bodices and flowing skirts for the ladies, whereas the Egyptians are wearing the traditional galabeyas and turbans. With such traditional costumes and images of their activities you would think time had stood still. The beautiful photograph of the Nabira market (1885) in the Delta could have been taken last week, with the hustle and bustle of people, livestock and merchants. The image of the fishermen show they still fish in the same manner today as depicted in 1898, and Hilda Petrie comments on the importance of fishing to the lives of their workers;

Aly Swefy is here, one of our best old hands. Being a fisherman, he has a little rough boat below here, and rushes off sometimes to catch a fish.

 Ali Swefy fishing, 1899This presents a fabulous image of Aly dropping his trowel and bucket in order to pop off to catch fish for his supper.

One of the most charming aspects of this exhibition is that through such anecdotes we are able to identify these stories with images enabling us to identify Aly Swefy (Ali Suief), and his wife Sarah, putting a face to a name. It brings life to this period of starched collars, colonialism and treasure hunting.

Although the attitudes towards the native Egyptians was very much of their age, and not considered PC today, as well as such practices as purchasing antiquities from local children, as Amy, Petries sister-in-law was photographed doing, we have to acknowledge these attitudes existed and these things happened, and through such exhibitions Egyptologys heritage and indeed the origins of western views of modern Egypt can be identified.

All images supplied by Framing the Archaeologist.

Support the Lucy Gura Archive Fund

Amazing archives across Britain are in desperate need of funding, as organisations seek to preserve the history of Egypt’s era of discovery. Heritage Key is urging Egypt fans everywhere to donate to the Egypt Exploration Society‘s Lucy Gura Fund.

It’s a worthy cause, and one vital to the study and celebration of Egyptology. If we lose the EES’ archives, along with other prominent archives in Oxford, Geneva and further afield, we risk turning the light off on the Era of Discovery.If you wish to make a much-needed donation to the Lucy Gura archive, just visit the EES’ support page,