The great Sir W. M. Flinders Petrie, the ‘Father of Egyptian Archaeology’, had strong views on a lot of things, as his one-time field assistant T. E. Lawrence (‘of Arabia’) knew only too well:
The Professor is the great man of the camp – he’s about 5′ 11″ high, white-haired, grey-bearded, broad and active, with a voice that split when excited and a constant feverish speed of speech; he is a man of ideas and systems, from the right way to dig a temple to the only way to clean one’s teeth. Also he only is right in all things: all his subs have to take his number of sugar lumps in their tea, his species of jam with potted tongue, or be dismissed as official-bound unprogressists. (Lawrence to a friend, January 1912.)
Petrie also had firm opinions on the responsibility of field archeologists in the Middle East to learn Arabic (as we discuss in our new book Archaeologists, Tourists, Interpreters):
The spoken language of the country should be fluently acquired for simple purposes, so as to be able to direct workmen, make bargains, and follow what is going on. To be dependent on a cook, a dragoman, or a donkey boy, is very unsafe, and prevents that close study of the workmen which is needed for making the best use of them. (Petrie, 1904, Methods and Aims in Archaeology, 6.)
But how was this to be achieved? Petrie’s own growing knowledge of Arabic can be traced in his diaries and notebooks, which also provide a wonderful insight into the lives of his local workforce (Quirke 2010). His advice to others is of an upbeat and practical nature:
Of course, the native language is as much needed as in any foreign country; but a sufficient amount of colloquial Arabic can be learned in a few weeks. Three friends of mine have come out with only what could be briefly learned in England, and each has been able in a week or two to make his way sufficiently. Learn first of all what you want in Baedecker’s vocabulary; refer to Murray, or better, to a dictionary, for any further words you want; and absorb the addenda of very common words which come at the end of this chapter; then a week or two in Cairo, talking to the natives as much as possible, would quite suffice to float the active tripper. (Petrie, 1892, Ten Years’ Digging in Egypt, 187-8.)
Petrie’s addenda to the vocabulary lists in Baedeker’s popular Handbook for Travellers in Egypt tell us a lot about life on his excavations: ‘Show me the snake’, ‘It was very cold in the morning before the sunrise’. A tourist phrasebook could only get a serious student of Arabic so far…
Drower, Margaret S. (1995) Flinders Petrie: A Life in Archaeology (2nd Edition). Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Quirke, Stephen (2010) Hidden Hands: Egyptian Workforces in Petrie Excavation Archives 1880-1924. London: Duckworth.
Mairs, Rachel and Maya Muratov (2015) Archaeologists, Tourists, Interpreters: Exploring Egypt and the Near East in the late 19th-early 20th Centuries. London: Bloomsbury.