even older text.)
In the rubble of Sinai’s Serabit el Khadeem he had found a head of Queen Tiye, great royal wife of Amenhotep III and a power in her own right (mentioned in fourteenth century BC foreign correspondence). It was a marvel of its kind, the queen’s strong, pouting features and world-weary expression subtly caught in green stone.
He had explored the hitherto sealed burial chambers of pyramids, discovered an unknown script (the Proto-Sinaitic), and dug up entire Roman cemeteries in Middle Egypt. All very well and good, but what was his greatest find? “The key to archaeology,” Petrie declared in his trembly, sibylline voice, “is pottery.”
Its importance cannot be overestimated, he insisted to anyone who would listen—and Carter listened, never dreaming that before the end of the year, he himself would be searching for clues among broken pots and millennia-old dung heaps under Petrie’s guidance.
Carter had come to Egypt to work as a mere copyist. There was no thought of anything more. But now, at the very beginning of his career, Petrie’s force and intellectual passion had begun to work on him. His conversation imparted a strange glamour to heaps of rotten cloth and beads and pots.
In this new milieu, these nightly encounters with the excavating crowd, the boy was becoming intoxicated with the intense excitement of archaeology—without realizing where it was leading him, however. “I found him [Petrie] puzzling for me to understand,” he noted in his journal. “But obviously a man with both the confidence and the power to solve problems—in archaeological matters, a Sherlock Holmes…. But what interested me most was his recognition and love for fine art.”
Fine art, though, was beside the point. Throughout his career, Carter sketched, drew, painted—when he was low on cash, he sold his watercolors; but art was not his calling. More important in his life were Petrie’s lessons in excavation, the accumulated practical experience of years of digging. He was, as Carter called him, a Sherlock Holmes, down to his magnifying glass and his “snooping”—his analytic method of considering the smallest clues.
Petrie did what nobody else would think of doing with cartonnage, for example (a kind of ancient papier-mâché made from “scrap” papyri; compressed and plastered over, the papyri were then molded into mummy’s masks, full-figure casts, and so on). He soaked the cartonnage, separating the layers one by one. The papyri emerged “none the worse for their pasting and plastering”—ancient moments frozen in time. Just one such “soaked” cast yielded a will disinheriting a drunken son; tax bills; scenes of a lostplay by Euripides; and a letter by a terrified royal gooseherd confiding that he didn’t have enough geese for Ptolemy’s upcoming feast.
Petrie would teach Carter the tricks of the trade—how to treat thousands of beads, complex designs sewn onto a cloth that had rotted away (hot beeswax, applied spoonful by spoonful, preserved the beads in place). Or how to reward workers for finds (pay too little and they might simply steal them; pay too much and they might bring in outside things and plant them on the dig).
He would lecture Carter on necessary “shortness of nail and toughness of skin” and on the archaeologist’s duty to conserve what he uncovered. He would show him how to move heavy stones; and how to dodge rock slides in unstable tunnels; and the best way of treating corroded silver and bronze. These were the lessons that would be crucial to Carter, not Petrie’s casual remarks about fine art, his after-dinner—or, rather, after-sardine—musings about Raphael or Botticelli.
But if Carter was in the dark about his future, Petrie also misjudged him. Even after the two had begun to work together, Petrie delivered the verdict (in his journal): “It is no use to me to work him up as an excavator,” adding that Carter’s real interests were natural history
Charlotte MacLeod, Alisa Craig