Review by Thomas Bowden : Methods and Aims in Archaeology

Review by Thomas Bowden (IAFS alumni/Flinders University)

Flinders Petrie, W. M. 1904. Methods and Aims in Archaeology. MacMillan & Co.

For an archaeologist in the 1880s, Flinders Petrie was a league above the others during his formative years, advancing the ‘scientific’ approach to archaeology where others only cared for glittering gold or fancy finds.

While being rather dated, Petrie’s 1904 book advances the latest in science when it came to archaeology, including the proper way to take photographs of artefacts, the importance of context, and more. In fact, for a modern reader, it is surprising just how much of our current methodology owes something to Petrie and his methods. Whether he was blasting the British Museum for splitting up finds found together, thus ruining the context, or taking aim at poorly-written and incomprehensible academic studies, there is something recognisable in his archaeology. Petrie struggled with things that even modern archaeologists struggle with – punishing legislation, destruction of archaeological sites by amateurs, people who did not understand the delicacy and complexity of archaeological work, bureaucrats, poor treatment of finds by authorities and more.

In this book, Petrie gathers all he has learned, often by his own experiment, to provide a study of the best ways to preserve finds, how to map a dig site (the 1890s way!), the importance of photography, and even his views on the ethics of archaeology. He advances the cause of archaeology as a science and makes the case for a systematic process of excavation, where even the broken finds and the small ones are just as important as the great treasures and glittering jewels.

Readers will, of course, find that some aspects of Methods and Aims have not aged well. His chapter on hiring local workers in Egypt speaks a lot to the Victorian views of Egyptians; although, it must be said that he does treat his workers as equals and with more courtesy than some of his contemporaries did. It must be acknowledged that this part might make modern readers uncomfortable. However, the book is an historical piece and when taken as such, it makes fascinating reading for those who want to gain an understanding of where archaeology has come from, the good and the bad. This book is a piece of history and will help the reader understand what drove some Victorian archaeologists, what they saw as important and why. For this purpose, it excels as a study aid, and is well worth reading.