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GENESIS 50:2-3       

Holy Land Headliners

The Headless Archeologist buried on Mount Zion

Shortly before his death in Jerusalem at the age of 89, archeologist Sir Flinders Petrie (knighted by King George V in 1923) willed his head (thus his brain) to the Royal College of Surgeons in London.  He believed that a study of the shape and size of his skull and an examination of his brain would be fruitful for the study of genius.


Mount Zion where archeologist Sir Flinders Petrie was buried in 1942

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Mount Zion where the headless body of archeologist Sir Flinders Petrie
was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in 1942

But he had the misfortune to die in 1942, at the height of World War II, and his head disappeared when the ship carrying it was sunk by a German submarine en route to London.  So I learned during my guide course in 1977 on a visit to the Protestant Cemetery on Mount Zion where his body is buried.  A bizarre fact like eminent archeologist Flinders Petrie’s head being lost at sea while his body was interred on Mount Zion is never forgotten!
But this was fake news which I only discovered in 2021 (yes, forty-four years had passed!) while preparing for a visit to Egypt.  Reading a biography of Petrie in Wikipedia, I came upon a footnote mentioning a 2012 memorial service held by the Israel Antiquities Authority marking the 70th anniversary of Flinders Petrie’s death.
In an even more bizarre twist, it turned out that Petrie’s head had indeed reached its destination in a crate marked “antiquities.”  But the label on the head preserved in a jar had fallen off.  Nearly five decades later, Shimon Gibson, an Israeli archeologist working in London at the Palestine Exploration Fund was contacted by the Royal College of Surgeons to help “identify a head preserved in a jar.  They weren’t sure it belonged to Petrie.”
Gibson who spoke at the memorial service said that he arrived at the laboratory armed with photographs of Petrie.  “A laboratory technician brought me the head, took it out of the jar and put it on a plate in front of me….. He opened Petrie’s eyes. They were bright blue,” stated Gibson.

Flinders Petrie, considered the first biblical archeologist in Palestine, came to Palestine in 1890 at the invitation of the Palestine Exploration Fund.  He already had a sterling reputation as an Egyptologist, working on various digs in Egypt for a decade.  He was asked to excavate a tel presumed to be biblical Lachish.  It wasn’t. He then moved to a nearby more promising site, Tel el Hesi, where he discovered ten layers of cities.

Petrie was the one to recognize stratigraphy for the first time, because he saw the tel had been cut by flash flooding, exposing its strata.  Although the idea that a tel consists of ruined cities piled on top of each other is today considered commonplace, it sounded like science fiction in the late nineteenth century.

Flinders Petrie the first biblical archeologist in Palestine

At Tel el Hesi Petrie developed a method

Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

for dating the layers of a site according to

Flinders Petrie in 1903

the pottery and ceramics found in each   
layer.  This became the cornerstone of the archeological dating process. He came to recognize that just as modern dish patterns change, so did the pottery styles in the ancient world.
After that one season in Palestine, Petrie returned to Egypt, his first love.  Six years later in 1896, while digging in southern Egypt, at Thebes, today known as Luxor, Petrie discovered the Merneptah Stele or Israel Stele.  In his own eyes, this was his greatest achievement: the discovery of a black granite slab, over ten feet (three meters) tall, incised with hieroglyphic characters with the first mention of “Israel” outside of the Bible.

The Merneptah Stele or Israel Stele was found by Flinders Petrie

Petrie's 1897 mirror image copy of Pharaoh Merneptah's inscription

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

The Merneptah Stele in the

Petrie's 1897 mirror image copy of the

Egyptian Museum in Cairo

main part of the inscription (all 28 lines)
The inscription says it was carved in the 5th year of Merneptah of the 19th dynasty. Most of the text glorifies Merneptah's victories over enemies from Libya and their Sea People allies, but the final three lines (out of twenty-eight) mention a campaign in Canaan, where Merneptah says he destroyed the cities of Ashkelon, Gezer, Yano’am and obliterated Israel (in line 27).
Here is a translation of lines 26 to 28 according to Wikipedia :
The Canaan has been plundered into every sort of woe:
Ashkelon has been overcome;
Gezer has been captured;
Yano'am is made non-existent.
Israel is laid waste and his seed is not;
Hieroglyphic characters interpreted as Israel

Photo:  Gila Yudkin November 2021

Hieroglyphic characters interpreted as "Israel" are darker on the
second to the last line, as the stone has been polished

By the time that the long-lived Ramesses II died, he had outlived no fewer than twelve of his sons, and it fell to his 13th son, Merneptah, to take the throne of Egypt.  In the fortieth year of Ramesses II’s reign, Merneptah became the overseer of the army.  In Ramesses II’s 55th regnal year, when celebrating his 80th birthday, Merneptah, at age 48, officially become the heir to the throne.  So Merneptah would have had wide experience and training by the time he ascended to the throne at age seventy (plus/minus).
Merneptah ruled Egypt for about ten years, from 1213 BC to his death in May 1203 BC.  Egypt had been the dominant power in the region during the long reign of Ramesses the Great.  Problems began in Merneptah's 5th year (1208 BC), when a Libyan king invaded Egypt from the west in alliance with various northern peoples. Merneptah achieved a great victory in the summer of that year, and the inscription is mainly about this.
The final lines deal with an apparently separate campaign in the East, where it seems that some of the Canaanite cities had revolted.  Traditionally the Egyptians had concerned themselves only with cities, so the problem presented by Israel must have been something new – possibly attacks on Egypt's vassals in Canaan.  Merneptah and his successor Ramesses III fought off their enemies, but it was the beginning of the end of Egypt's control over Canaan.
The Merneptah Stele discovered by Petrie in 1896 is considered to be the first extra-biblical reference to ancient Israel and is widely considered to be authentic and providing historical information.

Egyptologist guide pointing out Israel on the Merneptah Stele in Cairo

Photo:  Gila Yudkin November 2021

Egyptologist guide pointing out "Israel" on the Merneptah Stele in Cairo


The stele itself was a recycled stone, engraved on the rough back of the stele of an earlier pharaoh, Amenhotep III, which was removed from his temple, and placed with its back outward, against the wall, in the forecourt of the temple of Merneptah.
As described by Petrie’s student and biographer Margaret Drower, in early 1896, Petrie and his archeological team were conducting excavations on a temple in Petrie's area of concession at Luxor.  This temple complex was located just north of the original funerary temple of Amenhotep III, which had been built on a flood plain.
They were initially surprised that this building which they were excavating was also attributed to Amenhotep III since only his name appeared on blocks strewn over the site.  They wondered, could one king have had two mortuary temples?

Colossal statues of Amenhotep III

Photo:  Gila Yudkin November 2021

Colossal statues of Amenhotep III found by his mortuary temple plundered by Merneptah in the 13th century BC / This area is being excavated in 2021


Petrie dug and soon solved the puzzle.  The temple had been built by Merneptah (an alternate spelling used by the Egyptians is Merenptah), the son and successor of Ramesses II, almost entirely from stone which had been plundered from the temple of Amenhotep III nearby.  Statues of the latter had been smashed and the pieces thrown into the foundations; stone fragments of crouching jackals, which must have once formed an imposing avenue approaching the massive gateway, and broken drums gave some idea of the splendor of the original temple.
A statue of Merneptah himself was found -- the first known portrait of this king. When Petrie found the black granite slab, over ten feet high and larger than any stele previously known, lauding the building achievements of Amenhotep III and turned it over, he saw a very long inscription.  Petrie asked a noted German scholar working in the area to read it.  Near the end of the long text, the German scholar was puzzled by one name, that of a people or tribe whom Merneptah had victoriously smitten. Hesitatingly, he suggested, “I.si.ri.ar?”
According to biographer Drower, “It was Petrie whose quick imaginative mind leapt to the solution: "Israel!"  His German colleague agreed that it must be so.  "Won't the reverends be pleased?" was his comment.  At dinner that evening Petrie prophesied, "This stele will be better known in the world than anything else I have found."  He was right on the mark!

Line 27 with Israel portrayed in hieroglyphics

Courtesy of Wikipedia commons in the public domain

Closeup of "Israel" in hieroglyphics, line 27 on the Merneptah Stele

Flinders Petrie was famed for his stamina, stoicism and eccentricity.  At one point T.E. Lawrence, otherwise known as Lawrence of Arabia came to Petrie’s excavation camp to learn the rudiments of archeology.  Afterwards Lawrence tweeted, “A Petrie dig is a thing with a flavor of its own.  Tinned kidneys mingle with mummy corpses and amulets float in the soup.”
Petrie’s wife Hilda shared his outstanding traits and foibles.  According to Petrie’s biographer, Hilda described her bedroom to a childhood friend, “At the head of my bed are four great cartonnage heads of mummy cases with staring faces; at the side are collections of alabasters and many bones hard by; at the foot of the bed are 80 skulls.”
Petrie remained in Egypt for 36 years before returning to Palestine in 1926 at the age of 70.  He continued to work in the field for another 12 years!  In 1938, at Tel el Ajjul near Gaza he conducted his last dig.  To the astonishment of his team of young assistants, he insisted on walking to the top of the tel twice a day.
When “retired” from field archeology (but still busy editing his memoirs), Petrie decided to live out his remaining years in Jerusalem.  While in hospital he expressed the wish that his head be severed from his body and donated to the Royal College of Surgeons in London for examination.  His headless body is buried in the Protestant Cemetery on Mount Zion.
Egyptologist Toby Wilkerson sums up Flinders Petrie’s contribution to archeology, Under spartan conditions, “through his careful observation, meticulous excavation, detailed record-keeping and prompt publication, Petrie had transformed the practice of archeology from a mixture of dynamite, earth clearance and treasure-hunting into a precise science.  He had also changed the role of the archeologist, where once digging had been a part-time diversion for gentleman scholars, it was now a full-time profession for experts.” (From Toby’s Wilkerson’s highly recommended, A World Beneath the Sands)
Postscript:  Where are they now?
The grave of Flinders Petrie is located in the Protestant Cemetery adjacent to the Jerusalem College of Holy Land Studies on Mount Zion.

The Protestant Cemetery is located on Mount Zion

Photo:  Gila Yudkin November 2021

The Protestant Cemetery on Mount Zion is located on the right side of this photo


Tombstone of Flinders Petrie in the Protestant Cemetery on Mount Zion

Photo:  Gila Yudkin February 2022

Tombstone of Flinders Petrie in the Protestant Cemetery on Mount Zion

The head of Flinders Petrie is allegedly still at the London Royal College of Surgeons, but not available for view


The head of Flinders Petrie was sent to the Royal College of Surgeons in London

Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons in the public domain

Royal College of Surgeons of England in London

The Merneptah Stele, or Israel Stele can be seen in the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square Cairo.  In 2017 the Egyptian Department of Antiquities changed the name of the renowned stele from the Israel Stele to the Victory Stele, dropping the name Israel.  [If you are planning to visit the Egyptian Museum on your own, email gila (gila@itsgila.com) for exact directions to the stele.]

The Merneptah or Israel Stele is housed in the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square Cairo

Photo:  Gila Yudkin November 2021

The Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square Cairo


The Merneptah Stele has the earliest mention of Israel outside of the Bible

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

The Merneptah Stele has the first mention of "Israel" outside of the Bible

Merneptah who was probably in his eighties when he died in 1203 BC was originally buried in his mortuary temple near his tomb KV8 in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. 


Merneptah's Tomb is located in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, southern Egypt.


Pharaoh Merneptah's Tomb KV8 is located in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor

Photo:  Gila Yudkin November 2021

The couple is about to enter Merneptah's Tomb in the Valley of the Kings


Entrance to Pharaoh Merneptah's Tomb, KV8 in the Valley of the Kings

Photo:  Gila Yudkin November 2021

Entrance to Pharaoh Merneptah's Tomb, KV8 in the Valley of the Kings

Merneptah's Mummy was located in 1898 along with eighteen other mummies (including Queen Pharaoh Hatshepsut’s) in the mummy cache found in the tomb of Amenhotep II near the Valley of the Queens.  Pharaoh Merneptah's mummy was taken to Cairo and eventually unwrapped and examined.

Merneptah’s body was 5 feet 6 inches tall (1.71 meters) and he apparently suffered from arthritis.  He was almost completely bald.  In April 2021 during the event dubbed the Pharaoh’s Golden Parade presided over by the President of Egypt, Merneptah’s mummy was moved from the Egyptian Museum to the Royal Hall of Mummies in the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization due to open when the pandemic ends.


Copyright 2021 Gila Yudkin.  Permission needed for any reuse.


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Gila Yudkin, who celebrated four decades of guiding holy land pilgrims before the pandemic, tells her groups, “90% of what I learned about archeology in my guide course, 1977 to 1979, has been proven to be false.  Knowledge changes!”  Gila is constantly updating herself on the latest theories, conjectures and finds.  Even more so during the pandemic when she is “on the bench” waiting to reenter the stimulating arena of guiding the holy land.
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