The Equiano Centre


Ancient Egypt: Culture and 'Barbarism'

On 27 July 1929 the Manchester Guardian published a letter from the archaeologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie in response to the controversy over Jacob Epstein's Night and Day statues on St James' Park underground station. Denouncing the 'primitive barbarism' of the sculptures, Petrie argued that the 'mock simplicity' of the work was a 'fad' of fashion and not in keeping with 'the natural beauty of England'. Petrie's words echoed the racist and nationalist attacks Epstein received in his career, which opposed his work as alien to Britain and un-English.

Night and Day (1929)

Jacob Epstein's Night on St James' Park Station © Debbie Challis, 2014

Petrie's own personal artistic tastes lay in Pre-Raphaelite and Art Nouveau influences; Hilda, Petrie's wife, was painted by the nineteenth-century artist Henry Holiday and the couple knew painters such as G. F. Watts and Holman Hunt.

Defining Culture and Civilisation

Petrie response to Epstein's work was situated in his the way he defined culture; he considered the artistic medium of sculpture to be a 'definite test' of the ability of a civilisation to produce culture. In Revolutions of Civilisation (1911), Petrie argued that civilisation was a recurrent or cyclical phenomenon, with intermissions of barbarism.

Petrie defined different art periods and objects in value laden terms. For example, Petrie considered this early head of a king (UC 15989) as of the 'best period' but this Byzantine head (UC14771) as of the 'base period.'

Limestone head of man

Part of limestone stela or gravestone

Head of early King UC15989 and Byzantine stela UC14771 © Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL

This idea that civilisation was cyclical with ebbs and flows was one constituent of nineteenth century western imperialism, with assumptions on how cultures and societies were 'civilised.' Petrie believed that civilisation, culture and intelligence were dependent on race. He believed there were different races of people and that race could be defined by skull size and shape, among other factors. Petrie's deeply racist ideas can be seen in this graph that he compiled in 1902.

[Image] Petrie (1902), 'Diagram of Climate and Intelligence of Races, each race marked by skull triangles (male only) in race triangle oval of nasal and alveolar indices'.

Work such as Epstein's Night and Day reflected barbarism for Petrie as it did not suit his artistic taste nor fit his racialised and cyclical conception of civilisation. Yet, arguably, it is hard to look at the early head of the 'best period' and not see parallels with Epstein's art.

Study Activities 


  • What do you think Petrie meant by 'the natural beauty of England?' How would this apply to art? Do you hear or read comments like that about art or heritage today?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines 'culture' as 1. 'The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively, e.g. 20th century popular cultures; or 2. The ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society: e.g. African-Caribbean cultures.

  • How would you define 'culture'? What terminology is used around culture, civilisation and cultural productions? Does this terminology indicate bias or judgement?


  • Research how an iconic British site, object or landscape - e.g. Stonehenge, the post box or the Lake District - has been discussed in public forums in recent years. Consider what language is used to describe it and whether it is used to embody identity or culture.

Edexcel AS / A Level Geography. Unit 4: Geographical Research Option 4. The World of Cultural Diversity