The Petrie Museum’s Amelia Edwards – The Greatest Woman in Egyptology

Dr Stephen Quirke explains the strong influence of Amelia Edwards on the Petrie Museum.There have been many great women in the times and study of Ancient Egypt – Hatshepsut and Nefertiti are two great examples. Yet in the era of discovery; the time in which great explorers pioneered the excavation of Egypt’s greatest treasures, one woman sticks out louder than Liberace in a dole queue. Cue Amelia Edwards, a Victorian writer and adventurer who bucked the conservative traditions of her time to help found one of London‘s greatest museums.

We meet Petrie Museum curator Stephen Quirke at 10am on a bleak British morning, drizzling rain just about getting our umbrellas out in the heart of Bloomsbury, just yards from the British Museum. The public won’t be here for another three hours; we’ve got carte blanche to investigate the museum’s myriad cases, displays and exhibits with their current custodian.

It’s clear from the outset that Dr Quirke, a much-respected auteur on the language and culture of Ancient Egypt, holds a huge amount of respect for Amelia Edwards (1831 – 1892). Worried for the future of Egypt’s treasures in the face of growing tourism, she co-founded the Egypt Exploration Fund (now Society; see our EES archive adventures here) in 1882. Edwards contributed to the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Standard Dictionary on Egyptian entries, and toured US lecture theatres to enlighten crowds on the budding wonders of the ancient civilisation (bear in mind many of Egypt’s biggest discoveries, such as King Tut’s tomb, were still decades away).

Yet Britain was still a hard place for a female philanthropist, novelist and intellectual to make her mark. “The only university in 1892 for women in England was University College, London,” explains Dr Quirke. Unperturbed, Edwards set out creating a museum where all students could marvel and learn from the wonders coming to Britain from Africa. Dr Quirke continues: “She said, ‘I’m not an Egyptologist, I’m not an archaeologist – but I want my own bequest, my own money, to go somewhere I could have studied myself.'”

Thus was born the Petrie Museum, so named after its first professor William Flinders Petrie, the godfather of modern archaeology. Edwards was determined to get Petrie, the first surveyor of Giza and legendary excavator at Hawara, on board. “She left this clause in her will,” says Quirke, “that the first professor should not be older than 40 – and Petrie was 39 at the time.” Petrie would go on to be (arguably) archaeology’s biggest name, and Edwards’ beloved museum opened doors for thousands of people to admire and study the art and work of the ancient Egyptian people.

We’ve already been looking at loads of amazing artefacts when Dr Quirke pulls out a mysterious stone head from one of the cabinets. It’s one of Edwards’ original pieces. His enthusiasm is infectious – what is it? A head of Amenemhat III, one of Egypt’s greatest builders with pyramids in Dashur and Hawara. Yet there’s something strange about this particular sculpture: the king’s face is withered, his expressions caught in the throes of old age. This goes against the beatific traditions of the time, of the ‘limit’ or ‘nefer’, says Dr Quirke excitedly. “It’s youth that expresses what is beautiful best. Yet here you’ve got the same idea of the head carrying the religious concept but in a different way.”

“None of this would have been here without Amelia Edwards.”

It’s clear that Amelia Edwards was the woman pulling the strings behind the Petrie Museum – one of London’s hidden gems, with the third-largest Egyptian collection outside Egypt. “None of this would have been here without Amelia Edwards,” says Dr Quirke. It’s a fair reflection on a great woman – one of the greatest in the history of Egyptology.

Video: Amelia Edwards and The Petrie Museum(Featuring Dr Stephen Quirke)

(Transcription of this video.)

Are there any other women, ancient or modern, you feel have contributed to Ancient Egypt as much as Amelia Edwards? Maybe you’ve got something to say about the Petrie Museum itself, or anything else in London you think we should know about? Don’t hesitate to get in touch, either via the below, our contact page (visit here) or by emailing me direct. Watch out for another great archaeovideo with Stephen Quirke at the Petrie Museum, where he’ll be unearthing some of the museum’s treasures – and shedding light on Flinders Petrie – the luminary after whom it’s named. Heritage Key – Unlock the Wonders.