It was a scene to quicken the pulse of those Victorian ‘gentlemen’ who haunted hand-cranked kinetoscopes on the seaside promenade. Determined to climb the roughly 140m-tall Great Pyramid of Giza, Hilda Petrie left her impractical dress in the luggage and ascended in her bloomers.
The episode captured much about her: disregard for convention, insistence that women are the equal of men, insouciant acceptance of a physical challenge, and overwhelming – even reckless – love for Egypt.
Hilda Urlin was born in Dublin, the youngest of five daughters. Solitary and adventurous, she swam, cycled, and took brass rubbings in local churches, perhaps suggesting the great skill in drawing she would discover during her later geological studies.
Attractive, with modish red hair, Hilda sat for the Pre-Raphaelite artist Henry Holiday, who brought the quality of her draughts-manship to the attention of Flinders Petrie, Britain’s first Professor of Egyptology. On meeting her, Flinders was surprised to discover a mutual fascination with Egypt and judged Hilda uniquely equipped to share his harsh life of fieldwork. He bombarded her with letters, then proposed in 1896. They were wed on 29 November 1897 – and set off for Egypt later that same day.
The Petries would spend four decades in the field, digging collapsing ruins, shot at in Palestine, crossing a shattered railway bridge over a gorge, heading into the wilds to discover new tombs. At Saqqara, Abydos, and Amarna, Hilda shinned down long rope ladders to copy inscriptions, meticulously, for hours at a stretch – one particularly large sarcophagus bore some 20,000 hieroglyphs. ‘Copying was always at a difficult angle,’ she wrote, ‘and work was hampered by constant falls of loose blocks from a rotten roof’.
Having learnt Arabic, Hilda would hire and pay their workers. She slept in a hut at Tarkhan with 80 skulls by her bed, living off canned pilchards and bully beef. In 1904, Hilda took a week-long camel-ride – armed with revolver and a whip – to join Flinders at Serabit el-Khadim. In her 60s, Hilda was driving the site truck to fetch supplies – with a stop just outside town to slip a modest skirt over her breeches.
Unlike Flinders, Hilda had – according to her obituary in The Times – the ‘charm of words’ and used them to raise desperately needed funds for their work. She wrote thousands of letters by hand (she owned no typewriter), delivered lectures and gave talks on the new-fangled radio, and transformed their experiences into features for the popular magazines: ‘The Bible as a Guide to Buried Treasure’, for instance, or ‘On Camel Back to Sinai’.
In an era that was more hospitable to brilliant women, Hilda’s achievements might have shone all the brighter, but Flinders knew. He dedicated his 1930 biography to Hilda, ‘on whose toil most of the work has depended.’
The Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology is open 1-5pm Tue-Fri, 11am-5pm Sat (www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/petrie-museum).
Text: Simon Coppock