08 March 2007

Speaking of beards

Sir Flinders Petrie

A great archaeologist and a great beard.

The sites he dug include innumerable tombs and major towns and trading centres in Egypt, Israel, and the Gaza Strip. An exhibition at The Brunei Gallery in London highlights his excavations in Gaza where he worked in the 1920s and 1930's. He found immense amounts of pottery, jewellery, and a huge variety of tools. This is the first time that many of these artefacts have been on public display. But the exhibition is much more than a showcase for remarkable objects. It draws on the letters, notebooks and photographs kept by Petrie and his colleagues.

I haven't seen the show yet but this is already my favourite. The handwriting reads One of the Hyksos houses - Bedawy girl washing Hyksos potsherds. This must refer to the Hyksos levels at the site of Tell el-Ajjul in Gaza, where Petrie discovered several hoards of gold and silver jewellery dating to the mid 2nd-millennium BC. The Hyksos were the "despised Asiatics" who ruled much of Egypt between 1640-1550 BC and el-Ajjul was probably their Palestinian capital.

Washing of potsherds is a common sight on all archaeological digs, but I've never seen women or girls openly performing this task in the Middle East. Have I missed something? Or were Bedouin girls freer in the past than they are now? They are clearly mixing with men who are unrelated to them: note the pith-helmeted chap in the background together with another woman. Very odd.

The exhibition is on until 24th March. If you're in the London area, hurry to see it.

Update: An illustrated catalogue is available from the Brunei Gallery Bookshop priced, for the duration of the exhibition, £20; after that £25. You can also order the catalogue from The Museum Bookshop (where I buy most of my Egyptology books): it's in stock.

Next, as promised, the curious case of Elagabalus' beard.

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