(a note on content)
Some of the stories in the exhibition feature racist, ableist, and/or homophobic medical terms which are offensive. As curators and writers of this exhibition, we have done our best to use these terms responsibly, with a view to appropriately contextualising and exploring these ideas and their history, and encouraging continuing critical thought in the interests of positive social change in the future.
While trying to address these issues squarely, we are also aware that we may ourselves use racist and ableist language naively or in error. As such, we welcome corrections and suggestions for improving the language used here, and encourage you to get in touch with us to help us learn and improve the language of the exhibition if you feel we have done so. The exhibition also features images of pathology specimens which include human organs.
Racial ‘type’ head from Memphis, Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology, date of manufacture unknown, purchased or excavated early 20th century. (Courtesy of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archeology, UCL)
The racial ‘type’ head from Memphis, is a terracotta statue head, possibly made from Nile Silt clay (Ashton, 2003, p.188) and painted with a fine plaster wash (Ashton, 2016, p.72). The head was found near the temple of Merenptah in Memphis, Egypt by Flinders Petrie on a dig dated between 1908-09. It is part of a collection of similar statue heads reflecting the “cosmopolitan population of Memphis” (Petrie Museum, 2021).
The separation of the racial ‘type’ head from its body is estimated by Ashton (2016, p.74) to have happened during excavation or antiquity. There are also several chips around the statue. Petrie took little interest in the bodies of these statues, focusing solely on the faces due to his belief in racial ‘typing’ through examining facial features. His disregard for the bodies of this collection of statue heads has contributed to the limited ability to date the collection, as the bodies would have depicted style of dress and manufacturing methods useful when dating statues (Ashton, 2016, p.74).
Petrie’s involvement in the study of eugenics and scientific racism at UCL in the 19th and early 20th century have caused gaps in the information surrounding the object's original context and provenance. The historical racist influences surrounding the object's discovery between 1908-09, have led to the object being displayed and labelled within the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in a way that is questionable for the modern audience.
As UCL investigates its historical relationship with the study of eugenics, this artefact is a good representative of how scientific racism was present in the university’s study of archaeology at the turn of the twentieth century.
Petrie was working at the university at the same time as Galton and Pearson’s research was being conducted, and his interest in anthropometrics and eugenics grew. As is illustrated in Petrie’s diagram in his ongoing correspondence with Galton about his work on eugenics, led to him giving Galton and Pearson artefacts from his excavations to benefit their research (Challis, 2016).
Petrie went on to use this approach of breaking down the face into measurable features, as demonstrated in his letter to Galton, when investigating the Royal College of Surgeon’s collection of skulls (Challis, 2016).
Petrie also published his own work on the study of eugenics, for example a diagram of triangles in 1902 that that indicated that skulls size, skull shape reflected ‘racial ability’ of groups from skulls that were part of the Royal College of Surgeons’ collection. He also spoke at the 1906 Huxley lecture, where he discussed the developments of races and their movements, with migrations being core to his analysis (Petrie, 1906).
Petrie’s shared interest in race hierarchy and the study of anthropometrics with Galton and Pearson, is reflective in Petrie’s treatment of the racial ‘type’ head from Memphis. The object was described in the museum’s collection as follows: “The type is that of the Semite as shown in the chair of Amu at Benihasan” (Petrie Museum, 2021). He believed in the ability to determine race through reading the face of an individual, which meant as a consequence this object was labelled with stereotypical Semite features (Appelbaum et al. 2021, p.11).
UC33278 was displayed by Petrie as part of the Racial Types display in the Petrie Museum in 1915 (Petrie Museum, 1915). This exhibition used different statues to display different racial types, with “the identification of these very varied types to depend entirely upon chance observation”’ (Petrie, 1909, pp.16-17). These statues were again reliant on racial stereotypes held by Petrie, influenced further by the study of eugenics within UCL by Galton and Pearson.
Petrie’s strong focus on the heads as racial ‘types’ has led to limitations in the use of these heads in research about Egyptian antiquity, and it is no longer possible to ascertain which dates these statues derive from (Appelbaum et al. 2021, pp.13). As a consequence of Petrie’s emphasis on racist ‘typing’, the original context of the object has been erased. Petrie believed that the collection of heads were created as documentation of foreigners living in Memphis at the time (Challis, 2013, p.211). However, due to little research carried out by Petrie at the time of excavation it is now difficult for modern scholars to dispute this argument.
There is further disagreement on the provenance of these heads, with Petrie arguing that the collection of Memphis terracotta sculptures were made in the same period as a homogenous group, between the first period of Persian occupation in Egypt (535-405 BCE) and the mid- Ptolemaic period (around 200 BCE) (Petrie, 1909, pp.15-16). Meanwhile, Ashton argues that the objects were made by more than one collective group, using varied manufacturing techniques and in different time periods (Ashton, 2003, pp.195-6). Debbie Challis theorised, in a 2021 interview, that the head would have been hand sculpted due to the detailed features of the face (Challis, 2021).
UC33278 is reflective of Petrie’s contributions towards race science and his belief in racial ‘typing’. His theories within ‘race archaeology’ and the ability to read the face to understand the race of an individual are representative in the narrow contextual research conducted on the object (Challis, 2013). There is a strong correlation between the influence of the study of eugenics at the time of this object’s excavation and its loss of context and provenance. This artefact is a good example of how scientific racism influenced biased and controversial reasoning within archaeology. Whilst the original context of the object is lost, the object can instead be used to narrate the influence that the study of eugenics had on Petrie’s work and his interpretation of museum collections.
By Elisabeth Few
Ashton, Sally-Ann. 2003. Foreigners at Memphis? Petrie’s Racial Types, in Tait, John. (ed.) ‘Never Had the Like Occurred’: Egypt’s view of its past. London: UCL Press. 187–196.
Ashton, Sally-Ann. 2016. Petrie’s Ptolemaic and Roman Memphis. New York: Routledge.
Appelbaum, Vix., Bird-Lima, Rebecca., Birden, Georgina., and Vardavoulia, Konstantina. 2021. Egyptology Final Report. UCL internal report [Unpublished].
Challis, Debbie. 2013. The Archaeology of Race. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Challis, Debbie. 2015. The Petrie Museum of 'Race' Archaeology? Think Pieces: A Journal of the Joint Faculty Institute of Graduate Studies 1 (0): 34-43. Available at:
Challis, Debbie. 2016. Skull Triangles: Flinders Petrie, Race Theory and Biometrics. Bulletin of the History of Archaeology 26(1): 1 –8. DOI: 10.5334/bha-556
Challis, Debbie. 2021. Research interview with Museum Studies Students. 18 February. [Unpublished].
Petrie Museum. 2021. Figurines: UC33278. Available at: https://petriecat.museums.ucl.ac.uk/detail.aspx#
Petrie, Flinders. 1906. Migrations: The Huxley Lecture of 1906. London: Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.
Petrie, Flinders. 1909. Memphis I. London: School of Archaeology in Egypt University College.
LDUEC-I.0035ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
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LDUGC-040ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
Hair Colour Gauge, UCL Science Collections (Galton Collection), 1905.
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LDUAC-UCL1623ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
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LDUCZ-Z490ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
Mounted Taxidermy Orangutan, Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy, 1917
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