Over 5,000 years and counting…

This month, you may have noticed, there’s much celebration and commemoration of the centenary of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. You can discover a lot more at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum or there’s a recreation of the tomb in Dorchester.

If you’d like a wider view of life in ancient Egypt, then London’s Petrie Museum is a great place to start. It’s a university museum, having been part of University College London* since 1892.

It’s named after the archaeologist Flinders Petrie (1853–1942), who held England’s first chair in Egyptology here and whose personal collection of antiquities forms part of the museum’s 80,000 artefacts.

Arguably, though, it should be the Edwards Museum: the bequest of the writer, traveller and Egyptologist Amelia Edwards (1831–92) enabled the founding of the department and the museum.

In an interactive age, the Petrie is a throwback. You don’t get buttons to press. The walls aren’t dominated by infographics (though there are a few) or video screens.

But it doesn’t matter. The Petrie has around 80,000 artefacts relating to life in the Nile Valley from prehistory through the time of the pharaohs, the Ptolemaic, Roman and Coptic periods to the Islamic period. And as you go round the museum’s two display rooms – yes, only two – you might be forgiven for thinking the curators have somehow managed to display them all.

There’s far too much for us even to attempt to summarise it all. Every visitor will have their own highlights. This bead net dress, for example, which may have been a dancing dress over 4,000 years ago.

Or consider the Museum’s collection of shabti – each of them a small human figure representing a person who, according to the beliefs of the time, would perform a given task for the deceased in the afterlife. Or the mummy cases, on the outside of which their wealthy owners would have formulae, and symbols such as scarab beetles, inscribed to secure eternal life.

It’s an extraordinary collection – and free to visit.

*full disclosure: we are both alumni of UCL (but we’d love the Petrie even if we weren’t)

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