Biblical Archaeology Review 6:6, November/December 1980

Sir Flinders Petrie: Father of Palestinian Archaeology

By Joseph A. Callaway

Hundreds of years from now when a new generation of archaeologists uncovers a 20th century cemetery on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, they may come upon the bones of a man buried without his head.

Surely this unusual burial custom, though rarely attested, will be worth a doctor’s dissertation. What strange religious rites could account for the bizarre inhumation? What could a budding young archaeologist learn about the society which practices such a custom? Is it understandable in light of the origin of the deceased? No doubt the expedition’s paleo-osteologist would identify the bones as those of a very old man—perhaps the state of the art will have so advanced that he could say with certainty that the man lived to be almost 90. Would that fact be somehow related to the headless burial?

It is likely that our putative doctoral student will be able from inscriptions to identify the bones as those of Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, the father of scientific archaeology in Palestine; but it is improbable that he will discover the true reason for the headless burial: Sir Flinders bequeathed his head to the Royal College of Surgeons in London for research purposes.

Petrie died in Jerusalem, however, not London. He was ten months short of his 90th birthday. The year was 1942 and there was a war going on. It was no easy task in the middle of a war to arrange for the shipment of a human head from Jerusalem to London.

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