Web Exclusive! The Man Behind the Tutu

August 1, 2004
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Remembering one of history's greatest--and most colorful---surveyors.



There are certain years in life that just seem to stand out. One such year for me was 1981, the year I graduated from high school. Disco was finally dead, there was a republican in the White House and the hit movie that year was "Raiders of the Lost Ark." I still remember sitting in a dark theater, clutching a large tub of buttered popcorn thinking Indiana Jones had one of the most rewarding careers I had ever seen. If I hadn't already been smitten by surveying I would have probably followed in his footsteps. One minute he was the consummate intellect, the next moment he was rescuing some dark-haired beauty using only his whip. Little did I know that surveying and archaeology had more in common than just the transit that is frequently visible in photos of archaeological sites.

Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie
One point of commonality between the professions is a British born surveyor and archaeologist named Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie. Petrie is often called the "father of modern archaeology." He was the first surveyor to make accurate measurements of the pyramids on the Giza Plateau. He didn't carry a whip or wear a fedora while working on the plateau; instead he surveyed while wearing a ballerina's tutu! But we'll cover that later.

A Budding Measuring Man

Petrie made his way into this world on June 3, 1853, in Charlton, England. As a child Petrie was plagued with ill health. Due to his frail constitution Petrie was educated at home. His intellect developed quickly, as did his love for the art and science of measurement. Petrie's lifelong passion for archaeology and surveying began at age 13. Charles Piazzi Smyth, a prominent astronomer and family friend, gave young Petrie a copy of "Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramids." The book, written by Smyth, contained theories on how the ancient pyramids had been measured and constructed. Petrie would later disprove most of these theories. As Petrie grew into a young man he soon became enamored with measuring and analyzing ancient ruins. Petrie, along with his father who was also a surveyor, measured several ancient monuments in England, including Stonehenge. His first book titled "Inductive Metrology: or the Recovery of Ancient Measures from the Monuments" was based upon his work at Stonehenge. The careful measurement and analysis of Stonehenge allowed Petrie to determine the basic unit of measure used while constructing the ancient monument.

Archaeology was in its infancy in the 19th century and lacked the application of scientific method. Petrie often complained that his peers left archaeological digs half completed and destroyed valuable evidence due to their lack of care. During the winter of 1883 Petrie began a detailed survey of the Giza Plateau. It was during the course of this survey, and of subsequent digs, that Petrie developed a method of sequence dating that assured his place in the annals of archaeology. It was within the dirt mounds early archaeologists rummaged through, referred to as "tells," that Petrie discovered a hidden record of Egyptian history. During a typical 19th century dig, a significant amount of broken pottery, that was layered within each tell, was often discarded. These shards went mostly unnoticed until Petrie's keen eye and active mind made a subtle connection to the worth of these items, once considered invaluable. These fragments were so important to Petrie that he often paid his workers a reward when a shard was found.

Petrie kept these fragments and categorized them into 50 different classes. The sorting was accomplished by the physical characteristics and location of each shard within a tell. He grouped the fragments by attributes such as decoration and handle design, among other criteria. Petrie also determined the depth of each fragment layered within a tell. When a shard was found that was from a known period, it could be used to date the remaining material in the tell. This data could then be correlated with data all across the Near East. The layers of shards acted as a sort of vertical timeline that could be used to sequentially date and relate tells across Egypt. This simple technique revolutionized archaeology forever and is now referred to as "cross-dating." Petrie did not limit himself to the obvious; he understood that truth is most often found in the subtleties. He instinctively understood that evidence, both qualitative and quantitative, should be fully utilized to uncover the true "footsteps" of the past.

More Than Just Measurements

Today our clients assume that our focus as surveyors should be on the measurements contained in the record documents. An experienced surveyor knows that the most reliable evidence often cannot be analyzed strictly with coordinate geometry software. Surveying students are often shocked to discover that replacing boundary lines using measurements is considered a method of last resort. Following years of mathematically based study, it's understandable why students are often confused by the legal precepts professional surveyors must apply to their work. Although Petrie was obviously an expert at measurement, as any surveyor should be, he also understood that all evidence is important, even if it can't be quantified. Young surveyors also need to realize the role history plays in boundary retracement surveys. "History is the foundation of all the surveyor's responsibilities"¦. A history of surveying and knowledge of the early customs and practices surrounding land use and ownership of land help to clarify complexities of land laws and to explain why surveyors must do as they do." [1] Petrie understood that obtaining a true picture of the past not only requires careful measurement and evidence evaluation skills, but a working knowledge of history as well. In order to re-create the past one must understand the past--and this is at the heart of all retracement surveys. Petrie's book "The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh," which is a detailed account of his survey, contains the following quote: "The probabilities of intention--like every other question--will be believed or disbelieved, not so much of physical as on metaphysical grounds and conditions of the mind."

A Passionate Remembrance

Petrie led a very colorful life. His uncompromising views and unique problem-solving abilities knew no limits. He wrote profusely on everything from the correct method of brushing one's teeth to the exact amount of water required to properly take a bath (five inches to be exact). While digging in Abydos, an Egyptian city located on the west bank of the Nile, Petrie would often bury uneaten cans of food one season and dig them up the next. The freshness of the food was often unpredictable, especially in the early days of canning. To determine if the food was edible Petrie would throw the cans against a wall and the tins that exploded were deemed spoiled. T.E. Lawrence (also known as Lawrence of Arabia) worked with Petrie in 1911 at Carchemish, a extensive set of ruins located in present-day Turkey. Lawrence wrote that the workers in camp would 'cheerfully eat out of week-opened tins after scraping off the green crust inside.' He went on to describe Petrie as "˜the great man of the camp--he's about 5'11" high, white-haired, grey bearded, broad and active, with a voice that splits when excited and a constant feverish speed of speech.' Petrie's colorful lifestyle followed him to the grave. In accordance with Petrie's wishes, his head was donated to The Royal College of Surgeons in London following his death in 1942.

Now... About That Tutu

Now, I'm sure you want to know the story behind the ballerina's tutu. Up until the 19th century there had been no accurate survey made of the Great Pyramids. The main reason for this was the danger involved. The pyramids had been ransacked so badly the locals would often beat or even kill anyone believed to be a grave robber. There was a peculiar caveat to this custom, though. Anyone violating local customs and laws that were deemed insane was to be left alone, as long as no one was being harmed. Therefore, Petrie actually wore a ballerina's tutu while surveying so he would appear insane! Some accounts say he openly wore pink frilly underwear while working. There are also several accounts of Petrie working naked inside the pyramids to prevent any annoyances from curious tourists. Petrie was at his best when he was challenged with unique problems that required innovative solutions. This, I have found, is the core quality of most surveyors who are true to their calling.

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