UCL’s Petrie Museum began it’s story before the collections of Flinders Petrie.
In fact, both the Petrie Museum and Flinders Petrie himself owe their successful future to one determined and passionate woman, Amelia Blanford Edwards (b.1831-1892).
Born in London, Amelia started working in journalism to help earn money for her elderly parents. A prolific writer, she wrote a myriad of articles, as well as books on the history of England and France. As an independent woman, Amelia travelled a lot, for her work and because she enjoyed visiting other countries and seeing their cultures. It was during a visit to Egypt over the winter of 1873-1874 that she decided she would dedicate the rest of her life to protecting Egypt’s ancient sites.
Watercolour of tombs near to Asyut, Egypt, made by Amelia Edwards in 1877, after she had returned from her Egyptian travels. Image used courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society. On the back of the painting, in Amelia Edwards’ handwriting, is the caption: “Arab tombs near Siout (East Bank of the Nile) Middle Egypt. Amelia B Edwards 1877”
Amelia witnessed thefts and the physical destruction of ancient sites, a problem with us to this day, and with the assistance of curators at the British Museum, set up the Egypt Exploration Fund in 1882. The Fund aimed to study, conserve and protect ancient sites in Egypt, and is still going strong — though it is now known as the Egypt Exploration Society. Amelia Edwards was pivotal in securing hundreds of pounds for the fund through writing popular articles about the discoveries, thousands of letters, and talks around the world. Her enthusiasm and determination to preserve the past helped young archaeologists get out to Egypt to study the sites as they should have been. The careers of many were boosted by this opportunity, including that of Flinders Petrie who was meticulous, determined and passionate.
Seeing the promise in Petrie, Amelia wanted him to have a university Chair — ensuring both the employment of Petrie, and the continuing study of Egyptology in the UK. The Edwards Chair at UCL would be the first in England, but had to wait until Amelia passed away. Her collections, library and £5000* were left to UCL, and although dwarfed by the Petries’ enormous collections which fill the Petrie Museum today, these were the foundation stones for the museum edifice, and for Egyptology.
This amazing trowelblazer recognised the need to protect ancient sites, and ensured their study should be continued by founding both the Egypt Exploration Society and the Edwards Chai at UCL. And with that, the godmother of Egyptology is kept alive.
* Wikipedia says £2500, but we asked Alice Stevenson, Curator at the Petrie Museum to check their records, and she confirms the sum was £5000 (as stated by Barbara Lesko in her Breaking Ground biography)
**The Egypt Exploration Society is trying to raise funds to conserve Amelia Edwards watercolour paintings. Please donate to their funds and help preserve Edwards’ legacy for future generations**
Donate here: http://www.ees.ac.uk/support/
Written by Jan Freedman, who can be found on Twitter as @janfreedman