University of Manchester and Manchester Museum
Thomas Eric Peet was born in 1882 in Liverpool to middle class parents, Thomas and Salome Peet. He was educated at Merchant Taylors’ School, at Crosby near Liverpool and at Queen’s College, Oxford. From 1909 onwards he conducted excavations in Egypt for the Egypt Exploration Fund (now known as the Egyptian Exploration Society). From 1909 to 1913 Peet was working on the dig at Abydos with Swiss Archaeologist Edouard Neville where he was instrumental in pushing for more scientific methodology to be used. From 1913 to 1928 he was a Lecturer and Curator in Egyptology at Manchester University and the Manchester Museum.
When the Great War broke out it initially seemed that it would be “…over by Christmas…” however by 1915 it became obvious that this was not the case and Peet against the advice of friends and colleagues made the decision to enlist as he saw it as his patriotic duty and one he would not shy from. He was commissioned in October 1915 into the 14th Battalion of the King`s Liverpool Regiment an infantry regiment from his home town. However, in an unprecedented move the Egyptian Exploration Fund considered him so important to their work that their controlling body agreed to pay him a retaining fee on top of his Army salary to ensure his return to Egyptology after the War!
By 1917 he was serving on the Salonica Front with the British Expeditionary Force with a unit of the Army Service Corps. This mountainous region overlapped the border between Greece and Bulgaria and lay within the boundaries of Alexander the Greats ancient kingdom of Macedonia. Here a combined British, Serbian, Greek and French force faced Bulgarian, German, Austrian and Turkish troops in a front that was made up of trenches and mountain top strongpoints. It was soon discovered by the troops digging in here that the area was rich in archaeology! Edmund Barrett a rifle bomber in the 12th Lancashire Fusiliers noted that “…you could hardly turn a shovel of earth without a piece of old pot coming out…..” At first the soldiers on the ground dumped them into sandbags with other rubble, though the more enterprising would pocket items they felt of value to sell to local traders or their officers later. It wasn`t long before a number of men and officers with pre-war archaeological experience realised the importance of what was being found and alerted the Force Head Quarters. Realising the importance of protecting these potentially valuable finds as much to placate a sometimes hostile Greek Government as for the furthering of historical knowledge both the British and the French forces decided to set up specialist archaeology units whose job it was to locate, catalogue and save these artefacts. The British unit was initially under Lieutenant Commander Ernest Gardner a leading archaeologist who established B.S.F H.Q Museum as the unit became known. Man power was provided by the Royal Engineers who also ran a Museum to hold finds, while field teams were formed to retrieve and record finds. These were commanded by officers with archaeological backgrounds recruited from units in theatre. Peet with his huge experience was originally recruited as a field section commander, however in 1917 Gardner was recalled to London and Peet took over command of the Unit. One of its major finds was a battlefield site found by the 7th Royal Berkshire Regiment while digging trenches in the “Birdcage Line” when Private Reg Bailey literally put his pick through an ancient oil lamp before turning over “…..bones with ancient armour and helmets…” amongst the finds field team involved discovered the finest example of a 5th Century B.C Greek helmet ever discovered. At the end of the War, General Milne the British Commander negotiated with the Greek government its transfer to the British Museum where the collection resides to this day, a lasting reminder of Peet and the work of this unique wartime unit.
Peet himself remained a highly patriotic soldier who believed the War must be won and he would do his duty in that cause, but this was not without pangs of sadness for friends lost on both sides. Archaeology before the War had been well populated with German academics and many were close colleagues at the University and on sites such as Abydos. Many like Peet had decided it was their patriotic duty to enlist and so had returned to join the German Army and Peet found himself on opposite sides possibly trying to kill men who had been friends before the War. A letter sent home to his family reveals his dilemma when the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology recorded the death of man named Erman, an Egyptologist killed while serving with the German Army, and the anger this raised amongst two officers sharing his trench who thought it wrong to show regret for the death of a German soldier. Peet while understanding this hate from men who had lost friends and brothers to the Germans could not at the same time bring himself to hate an old colleague “…both asked me how my paper could……print obituaries of slain Germans with …..expressions of regret for their deaths. I had no answer.”
Demobbed in 1919 he returned to the University declining a post with the Egyptian Exploration Fund and in 1920-1 was involved on the Amarna excavations in Egypt. This would be his last major excavation as he began to concentrate on academic research. He became a noted expert and author on Egyptian Military Campaigns’, and in 1933 he was appointed Reader in Egyptology at the University of Oxford. He died in February 1934 aged 52 leaving a wife and daughter only weeks after taking up his new post. The Queen’s College, Oxford houses the University’s Egyptology library, and it is named the Peet Library in his honour.
Researched by Mike Whitworth (Manchester Museum), with grateful acknowledgment to Clare Lewis at UCL and to the Peet family for excerpts from letters and images.
Clare Lewis (2014) Peet, “The JEA And The First World War”, Journal of Egyptian Exploration Society.
Alan Wakefield (2013), “Archaeology Behind The Lines”, “Mosquito” The Journal Of The Salonica Campaign Society.
Manchester Museum Annual Report 1915.