Flinders Petrie’s sequence dating chart

A major step forward in understanding and dating ancient Egyptian ceramics.

William Matthew Flinders Petrie’s passion for small artefacts and items of daily use, evidenced by collections dispersed around the world, makes him a controversial character today in the long legacy of Egyptology. However, Petrie’s intimate knowledge of ancient Egyptian material culture meant that he was able to pioneer new ways of stratigraphically mapping and understanding archaeological sites and finds, earning him the title ‘Father of Archaeology’. His training of students (often called ‘Petrie’s Pups’) means that his teaching techniques and attitudes have cast a long shadow over British Egyptology and the practice of archaeology in Egypt.

In 1901, Petrie published this sequence dating chart for ceramics uncovered at Abadiyeh and Hu (ancient Diospolis Parva). The result of carefully observing the appearance of different vessel types across hundreds of Predynastic burials, this is now known to archaeologists as ‘seriation’. In this published plate, Petrie demonstrated the morphological development of ceramic types over time, such as ‘wavy handled’, ‘fancy’, and ‘black-topped’ forms. Today, much of this has been revised, but the general principle remains. If a specific form of vessel is found in a particular layer of the site, it helps archaeologists to date associated materials and events.

Petrie’s ‘seriation’ of the ceramics found at Diospolis Parva: a major development in the classification of ancient Egyptian pottery. Image: W M F Petrie (1901) Diospolis Parva, the cemeteries of Abadiyeh and Hu, 1898-9, frontispiece. Courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society

Naturally, things are more complicated than that. The discovery of a particular form in a particular layer only relates to its date of deposition, and forms may have developed divergently at different places, or at different times. This dating method is therefore considered relative and not absolute. It is not possible, based on one form, to know exactly what date it was deposited, but only to know that it was earlier or later than other forms in the sequence.

This seriation chart forms the model by which ceramics have been understood in Egyptology, and how typologies for sites have been envisaged. The ceramics gallery at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology at University College London (UCL) offers an interpretation of this seriation chart in physical form. The museum also holds in its archive Petrie’s original sequence dating slips.

Despite Petrie’s innovative methodology for understanding ceramics, his documentation leaves much to be desired. His publications relied more on his personal interpretation than on presenting the bare facts for future reinvestigation. Archives offer an insight into the events unfolding at the time of the excavations, and occasional opportunities to ‘revisit’ sites in their historical context. It was not until the 1960s that ceramic typologies and catalogues began to be published consistently, a practice that continues today – see, for example, The Tomb of Maya and Meryt III: The New Kingdom Pottery, recently published by the Egypt Exploration Society.

Carl Graves, Director, Egypt Exploration Society