The riddle of the sands

The riddle of the sands

LESLIE JONES pays tribute to a pioneering Egyptologist

In The Archaeology of Race, Debbie Challis, Audience Development Officer at the Petrie Museum, deploys the usual hackneyed criticisms of eugenics and psychometrics. Race, accordingly, “is not a biological but a social construction” (page 3); Galton’s thinking has a “Nazi taint” (page xiii); his studies of Jewish anthropometrics helped lay the foundations for the Holocaust* (pages 147 and 148); and IQ testers “ignore[s] the way in which such tests are predicated around assumptions about peoples’ background and prior knowledge” (page 53). Dr Challis’s opening chapter, an excursus on the notorious anatomist Robert Knox, author of Races of Men, is of questionable relevance. For the gullible reader, however, it may serve to undermine the reputations of Galton and Petrie through guilt by association.

The Archaeology of Race brings to mind a recent debate on the putative influence of Egypt on the development of ancient Greek and thence of Western civilisation. In Black Athena, it may be recalled that Martin Bernal debunked what he termed the “Aryan Model” of ancient history as elaborated by allegedly racist classical scholars. Professor Bernal accused the latter of downplaying not just the influence of Egypt (an “African” civilisation) but also that of the Mesopotamian and Levantine civilisations. In Bernal’s estimation, for the proponents of this model the ancient Greeks had to be Aryans. And the idea that Egyptians (an African people) or Jews or Phoenicians or Arabs could have influenced the development of Western culture was simply unacceptable.

As Kathyrn A. Bard has observed in Black Athena Revisited, the title Black Athena was chosen to suggest that the roots of Greek and therefore of Western civilisation were in “a black African civilisation in Egypt”. Bernal, in other words, is an exponent of Afro-centrist ancient history, albeit a methodologically superior one. On this particular issue, Dr Challis deserves some credit. Although she too insists that Egypt was “an African civilisation” (whatever that means), she at least challenges recent claims that Tiye and Nefertiti were “powerful black queens” (page 165). But like Bernal, she considers such claims an understandable reaction to the prevalent “racism in scholarship and archaeology over the last 200 years” (page 164) and exemplified in her judgement by the racial preconceptions of both Galton and Petrie.

The distinguished Egyptologist and archaeologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942), as Dr Challis reminds us, was profoundly influenced by the racial typology elaborated by his friend and supporter Francis Galton. Race for both men had played a pivotal role in history. In “Migrations”, the Huxley Lecture of 1906, Petrie comments that “Races are exterminated and wholesale changes are going on now in a lifetime which might have occupied a thousand years in past ages”, an observation reminiscent of remarks made by Galton in Inquiries into Human Faculty.

According to Petrie, during the successive civilisations of Ancient Egypt art flourished but then declined. He inferred that as powerful races came in they reinvigorated civilisation but were then subject to race mixing and deterioration. In The Revolutions of Civilisation, he concluded that this is why civilisation is an intermittent phenomenon.

Petrie maintained that the Palaeolithic race that occupied Egypt was “a steatopygous and hairy Bushman”. The latter was then displaced in prehistoric times by a European (Caucasian) type race with long brown wavy hair, either Syrians or Libyans. But the dynastic, history-making race, probably from the Red Sea, was Semitic and distinguished by a quite different facial profile and a “massive” head. For Petrie, the emergence of this new race was marked by an outburst of art work of the highest quality. He claimed that another powerful race of invaders from Syria subsequently engendered the XII Dynasty civilisation.

Like Galton, Petrie clearly believed that certain populations, notably the ancient Greeks, were innately superior. Or as Dr Challis, summarising Petrie’s position puts it, “Different races are all human but so different from each other to be almost like separate species…” (page181). Yet she fails to substantiate her repeated assertion, as on page 52, that both men “judged social considerations and nurture in forming an individual as irrelevant”.

Petrie used anthropomorphic criteria to identify the successive racial types in Egypt. This involved carefully measuring the cephalic index of ancient crania. Indeed, as the author informs us, the craniometer that Petrie used in Egypt and in Palestine is currently held by the Department of Statistical Sciences at University College London. During his visit to Egypt in 1886/1887, Professor Petrie also took photographs of the main racial types as depicted on various ancient monuments (subsequently published under the rubric Racial Photographs from the Ancient Egyptian Pictures and Sculptures). Dr Challis, an assiduous postmodernist, characterises this procedure as “reading race in the face” (page 86). In addition, Petrie obtained squeezes, from which he subsequently made plaster casts of heads. But note in this context that he also used cultural criteria to differentiate the successive ethnic types, notably burial customs, styles of pottery, the use of pictorial hieroglyphs and of minute ethnographic distinctions etc.

What distinguishes a science from an ideology? Petrie at first thought that pottery etc that he excavated in cemeteries in Naqada in 1894-5 belonged to a “New Race” that had migrated into Egypt between 2180 and 2040 BC and vanquished the local population. But science is self-correcting. He eventually conceded that this material was much older (pre-dynastic). Racial prepossessions notwithstanding, Professor Petrie was prepared to “put the observation of archaeological evidence above his own theories”, as the author acknowledges. For this alone he deserves lasting credit.

*The Germans, however, had developed their own Rassenkunde or racial anthropology, as the author points out herself on pages 118-119

The Archaeology of Race: the Eugenic Ideas of Francis Galton and Flinders Petrie

Debbie Challis, Bloomsbury, London, 2013, pp 272

Leslie Jones is deputy editor of the Quarterly Review




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1 Response to The riddle of the sands

  1. wm. vrettos,Sc. D. says:

    –if bernal would have had a copy of s.p. petrides new work !!! T.Y.

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