One of the chief joys of doing historical research is the people I meet. No, I don’t mean the lovely ladies in Churston Library who do all they can to help me or the curator in the museum hovering protectively over his glass case of artefacts. I’m talking about the men and women who leap off research pages and beguile me.
Two such extraordinary men are Flinders Petrie – what a gorgeous name that is – and Howard Carter, both giants in the world of archaeology. The thing about writing a book set in Egypt, which is what I’m deep into at the moment, is that it’s impossible to do so without stumbling daily on to three huge subjects:
1. The names of Osiris and Anubis and the many other gods and goddesses of Ancient Egypt.
2. The names of the great pharaohs like Rameses II and Hatshepsut who built vast monuments to their own immortality.
3. The names of the visionary men and women who discovered so much about the gods and the pharaohs.
Flinders Petrie was one of these men. He was an irresistible force of nature and the founding father of modern methods of excavation. He used to stride out across the sands with his big bushy beard, trowel in hand, and his remarkable young wife, Hilda, at his side with her notebook. But he also found time to set up the first degree course in archaeology at University College London and established it as a recognised professional science for the first time. I would give my little finger to have been a fly at one of his digs.
Howard Carter is another such man. We all know him as the one who discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb, but there is far more to him than that. He is a fascinating character who started life as an artist and fell into archaeology only when asked to ink some tracings of Egyptian tomb scenes. Trained by Petrie, he rose to become Inspector-in-Chief of Monuments in Egypt, but when he fell into a fracas with a group of Frenchmen at Saqqara and stubbornly refused to apologise when his boss ordered him to, he was dismissed from his job. Did that slow him down? Not one bit. Lord Carnarvon and King Tutankhamun beckoned.
Both these flamboyant personalities possessed a single-mindedness and a determination that I envy with a passion. It kept them out there in the burning sun year after year, surmounting immense problems, addicted to what they were doing – digging history out of the rocks and sand. The trouble is that I am just as addicted to digging around in the lives of people like these – but I have a book to write. It’s time to get on with a little beguiling of my own.