Sebastien Rey, Director of the British Museum’s Tello/Ancient Girsu Project and Lead Archaeologist for the Iraq Scheme, provides an introduction and overview for the Tello/Girsu excavations and their place within the Iraq Scheme.
The Iraq Scheme is a programme funded by the UK government, through the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, directed by Jonathan Tubb (keeper of the ME department), and delivered through the British Museum, with the aim of building capacity in the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage by training Iraqi archaeologists in cultural heritage management and practical fieldwork skills. The training is intended to provide participants with the expertise and skills they need to face the challenges of documenting and stabilising severely disrupted and damaged heritage sites in preparation for potential reconstruction. The training consists of two months based in London at the British Museum followed by two months hands-on training on site in Iraq. This practical training takes place at the two field projects of the Iraq Scheme, in the south of Iraq at the site of Tello, and in the north at the Darband-i Rania in the Kurdish Region of Iraq.
Tello, the modern Arabic name for the ancient Sumerian city of Girsu, is one of the earliest known cities of the world together with Uruk, Eridu and Ur. In the 3rd millennium BC Girsu was considered the sanctuary of the Sumerian heroic god. It was the sacred metropolis and centre of a city-state that lay in the south-easternmost part of the Mesopotamian alluvium. Pioneering explorations carried out between 1877 and 1933 and the decipherment of the cuneiform tablets discovered there revealed to the world the existence of the Sumerians who invented writing 5,000 years ago and may have developed a primitive form of democracy or polyarchy well before the ancient Greeks.
Like the recently liberated Assyrian capitals of northern Mesopotamia, Nimrud or Nineveh, Girsu is a mega-site extensively excavated in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with a similar topographical layout shaped by huge excavation pits and spoil heaps. It includes fragile remains of monumental architecture excavated before World War II such as the Bridge of Girsu – the oldest bridge as yet brought to light, which is the focus of site conservation. Tello is therefore a site of the first order, ideal for delivering the training for the Iraqi archaeologists in the context of a fully-fledged research programme.
The story of the renewed field-work at Tello-Girsu, after some eighty years of interruption, is a palimpsest of archaeological layers spanning five thousand years which reflects superimposed or overlapping destinies of gods, demons, and men.
The central protagonist is the mighty god Ningirsu, the tutelary deity of the city who battled fiercely with the demons of the primordial Mountain where both the Tigris and Euphrates originate, and, thus, made possible the introduction of irrigation and agriculture in Sumer. Ningirsu was the god of the thundershowers and floods, and was envisaged originally as the thundercloud. The demigod or demon Imdugud (Anzû), the thunderbird, perceived as a giant lion-headed eagle, was Ningirsu’s avatar or hypostasis, and the emblem of the city.
Other dominant figures of the excavations include the sovereign Gudea who ruled Girsu four-thousand years ago and who, throughout his reign, never ceased to pride himself in his abundant commemorative inscriptions for his zeal in religious behaviour and of having undertaken and completed the construction or renovation of magnificent temples to serve as abodes to the pantheon of Girsu. Adad-nadin-aḫḫe was an enigmatic Babylonian potentate, perhaps the lord of a fiefdom of the fading Seleucid Empire. He built a palace two thousand years after Gudea on the ruined sacred city of Girsu and, truly fascinated by the past, perpetuated the old Sumerian rituals of burying foundation deposits, stamping bricks with his name, in both Aramaic and Greek, and, also, collected Gudea’s statues as holy antiques and embodiments of ancestral kings. Ernest de Sarzec was the last archaeologist-consul of Mesopotamia. Two-thousand years after Adad-nadin-aḫḫe, he resurrected Girsu and its gods only thanks to his fierce desire and determination paying for it with his life.
That Tello/Girsu has a strong connection with the British Museum is proven by the abundant artefacts on display, including a truly unique statue of the ruler Gudea.
Although the god Ningirsu is not represented herein, at least in his anthropomorphic form, the Sumerian galleries are nevertheless charged with his overwhelming divine aura. Many votive artefacts, foundation tablets, and copper figurines of gods were indeed dedicated to the tutelary deity of Girsu. The god appears en majesté in his pre-human form of the tempestbird on the Ninḫursag temple relief from Ubaid, and a votive mace head from Tello, both depicting the lion-headed eagle grasping stags or lions, i.e., mastering the Mesopotamian wilderness. The British Museum also holds the very first rediscovered statue personifying the charismatic ruler Gudea found by William Loftus in 1850 at the site of Tell Hammam which also represents the first Sumerian sculpture to have reached Europe together with the reliefs of the genii accompanying the winged bulls from Khorsabad.
Excavations in the autumn of 2016 and spring of 2017 at Tello were carried out in the heart of the sacred district of Girsu, at Tell A, also-known as the Mound of the Palace. They led to the discovery of extensive mudbrick walls – some ornamented with pilasters and inscribed cones – belonging to the Ningirsu temple constructed and several times renovated by Sumerian rulers, including Ur-Bau and Gudea. This temple called Eninnu: The-White-Thunderbird dedicated to the heroic god was considered in antiquity as one of the most important sacred places of Mesopotamia, praised for its splendour in many contemporary literary compositions. The search for the Eninnu has mesmerized generations of Assyriologists. Known until now only by cuneiform texts and a plan carved on a statue of a worshipping Gudea, its discovery represents a significant milestone in the history of renewed archaeological research in Iraq.
Of this four-thousand-year-old religious complex, were exposed during the first two seasons what appeared to be the central part of the sanctuary: a decorated entrance featuring buttresses, a peripheral ambulatory with in situ cones, the cella composed of an offering altar facing the podium for the divine cult statue, and passageways marked by colossal inscribed stones.
The results of the last autumn 2017 season were extremely successful. In the Mound of the Palace, we continued to excavate the monumental sacred complex belonging to the god Ningirsu. The main highlights were the discovery of the South gate flanked by two towers and the temenos wall which included a foundation box.
The box was unusually big, 9 courses high, with a large Gudea brick as the cover with the inscription face down. Under the cover, a well-preserved impression of a reed mat in bitumen. The box unfortunately had been opened in antiquity and the copper foundation figurine removed. But, at the bottom of the box, we found the stone tablet still in situ. A white square tablet with the inscription in two columns. The tablet was oriented towards the cella and the podium for the divine cult statue. It was buried in a deposit of pure sand and was placed on a small reed mat. Samples of bitumen and soils from the ritual box have been brought back to the British Museum to be analysed.
More than fifteen inscribed cones were found in situ in the walls of the temple. The recording of the exact location of each cone reveals that they were laid in a complex pattern; we are currently analysing this pattern to establish whether it encodes information of magical/religious significance.
Excavations under the temple also led to the discovery of two superimposed monumental platforms, the oldest of which, made of red mudbricks and built in two steps, may be dated to the beginning of the third millennium BC. This is an important discovery since this proto-ziggurat, a precursor to the legendary Tower of Babel, would therefore predate the earliest-known Mesopotamian stepped-terrace by a few hundred years.
Four new soundings were opened in Tell L, situated at the edge of the ancient city in the vicinity of the city wall. They also yielded important results. We have uncovered mudbrick walls, and another foundation box made of fired bricks, unfortunately empty. We have reasons to believe, however, on the basis of inscribed cones in secondary context and others scattered on the surface, that this mound (Tell L) and the one adjacent to it (Tell M) formed a large complex, perhaps a temple gate dedicated to the goddesses Inanna and Nanshe. This new excavation was closely connected to the extensive survey that was carried out in the western residential area, between the Sacred city and Tell L, which yielded important new information on the domestic quarters of the city of Girsu.
New conservation work was initiated on the Bridge of Girsu, discovered and excavated at the end of the 1920s and early 1930s. The preliminary condition assessment of this unique monument of Sumerian architecture, left exposed for 80 years, stressed the urgency of carrying out a larger and more ambitious conservation programme, including preventive excavations.
Since excavation, the site has remained open and exposed, with no identifiable conservation work to address long-term stability or issues of erosion, and no plans to manage the site, or engage with a local or wider audiences.
The objectives of the 2017 autumn season at the bridge site were therefore to understand the structure, record its condition and to test conservation options, as the first steps towards developing a comprehensive conservation plan, with the Iraqi archaeologists involved at every stage.
Excavations to establish the condition and stability of this construction led to the discovery of exceptionally well-preserved deposits of the prehistoric Ubaid period, including painted pottery and uninscribed cones, which yield a wealth of information on the origins of Girsu and consequently the birth of urban centres in Mesopotamia.
All the important finds from these excavations have already been safely delivered to the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, while a column base from the Ningirsu temple will be displayed in the nearby museum of Nasiriya.
Tello-Girsu Autumn 2017 team & Iraqi participants: Sebastien Rey, Fatma Husain, Jon Taylor, Ashley Pooley, Angelo Di Michele, Joanna Skwiercz, Faith Vardy, Elisa Girotto, Ella Egberts, Dita Auzina, Dani Tagen, Andrew Ginns, Luke Jarvis, Thea Rogerson, John Darlington, Zahid Mohammad Oleiwi, Ali Kamil Khazaal, Toufeek Abd Mohammad, Qasim Rashid.
With Special Thanks to Vice Minister Dr Qais Hussein Rasheed, State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, Iraq
Contacts and website
Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme
For more information on the Iraq Scheme, contact the Director of the Scheme, Jonathan Tubb (Head of the Middle East Department of the British Museum). Email: email@example.com
Tello-Ancient Girsu Project
For more information on the work at Tello, contact Sebastien Rey (Director of the Tello-Ancient Girsu Project). Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Featured image: Aerial view of the main complex of archaeological mounds of Tello (Tello-Girsu Project, Iraq Scheme, The British Museum)
Sincerest thanks to Sebastien Rey for providing this blog post. Sebastien’s book For the Gods of Girsu: City-State Formation in Ancient Sumer (2016) is available now in paperback and eBook formats. English and Arabic editions available.
Stašo Forenbaher introduces his forthcoming Archaeopress publication, due Spring 2018
May you live in interesting times! While nobody knows the origin of this alleged old Chinese curse, its meaning is clear: in times of upheaval and radical change, most people’s lives are neither safe nor easy. Many archaeologists are drawn to such turbulent periods, marked by rupture and innovation which they can detect in the archaeological record, try to grasp their origin, and explain their consequences.
One might say that prehistory of the Adriatic was always in transition. Step-by-step changes continued in all ages, but their rhythm was not always the same. On several occasions, a series of changes over a relatively short time period resulted in dramatic transformations. Three crucial episodes of change marked the later Adriatic prehistory. The first one, which took place around year 6000 BC, was a transformation of subsistence strategy, transition from hunting and gathering to farming. The second one, which in the absence of a better term I prefer to call the raise of elites, was a social transformation that played out in the third millennium BC, when for the first time we can see the power of individuals clearly expressed by material culture. The third and the last episode, inclusion into the Mediterranean world system and the classic Mediterranean civilization, coincided with the end of prehistory in the Adriatic region.
During all of those episodes, travel and connectivity with distant lands played an exceptionally important role. Under the circumstances, some places gained particular importance due to their unique geographic location. Palagruža is among the most prominent such places, its importance being out of all proportion to its physical size. Adriatic prehistory cannot be told without mentioning Palagruža, and prehistory of Palagruža cannot be understood without knowing Adriatic prehistory. Due to its strategic position in the very center of the Adriatic Sea, due to the mystery born of distance and isolation, due to its wild and spectacular landscape, Palagruža indeed is a special place. A reflection of its specialty is an unexpected abundance of high-grade archaeological evidence, dating precisely from the three aforementioned periods marked by radical change.
I first came to Palagruža in May 1993 as a member of an international archaeological team, led by Branko Kirigin and Timothy Kaiser, that carried out test excavations on the island. But we were not the first archaeologists on the scene: Sir Richard Burton and Carlo Marchesetti have beaten us to it by more than a century. They paid a visit to Palagruža in 1876, only a year after the great lighthouse had been built on its rocky summit. The island’s remoteness fascinated them, and they described in some detail its geology, flora and fauna, as well as the surprisingly abundant evidence of prehistoric, Greek and Roman visitors. Thanks to Burton and Marchesetti, we knew that there were ancient remains on Palagruža waiting to be discovered.
Beginning in 1993, many excavation seasons followed over the next fifteen years, at first with multiannual breaks, later on a regular annual basis, and sometimes even twice within the same year. During four of those seasons, I was privileged to take part in those excavations and to experience the magic of Palagruža in the company of a small Robinsonian community of archaeologists. Thanks to that, Palagruža is a special place for me at a very personal level.
Many of the ideas that I elaborate in my book about prehistory of Palagruža were conceived during frequent periods spent together with Timothy Kaiser. Our friendship, which grew out of joint fieldwork at a series of Dalmatian prehistoric sites, goes back to my beginner’s days. The way I do archaeology owes very much to Tim. But my somewhat unusual orientation of an inlander who does Adriatic prehistory I owe mostly to Branko Kirigin, the main ‘culprit’ for my first fieldwork experiences in Dalmatia. When systematic excavation began on Palagruža, Branko entrusted me with the analysis of prehistoric finds. I admit that I kept him waiting for a long while: a quarter century has passed since his first, unforgettable and decisive visit to Palagruža (as he once vividly described it to me). I hope that my book justifies his expectations.
The first, introductory part of the book discusses geographic location, natural environment and resources of Palagruža, offers an attempted reconstruction of its appearance during Holocene, and describes archaeological investigations that preceded our own work, including the archaeological evidence recovered by the early investigators. The second part of the book provides detailed descriptions of prehistoric sites and finds accumulated during our investigations that lasted from year 1992 until 2007. Most of it is dedicated to Salamandrija, the central and most important prehistoric site on the island, which is dominated by pottery, flaked stone, and ground stone assemblages from the third millennium BC. Among other sites that follow, Jankotova njiva stands out due to its few, but very characteristic, finds from the first half of the sixth millennium BC.
The contributions written by Zlatko Perhoč and Robert H. Tykot on sources of the raw materials for the lithic artifacts from Palagruža are crucially important for our understanding of long-distance connections. Zlatko’s petrographic analyses of chert demonstrated the existence of intensive and persistent trans-Adriatic interaction, while Rob’s analyses of obsidian confirmed occasional contacts with much more distant Mediterranean islands: Lipari in the Tyrrhenian, and Melos in the Aegean Sea.
The third part of the book begins with an analysis of environmental characteristics of all small and remote Adriatic islands, and of peculiar circumstances that predetermined Palagruža’s special role. Discussions follow of its role in the crucial episodes of Adriatic prehistory, eight thousand years ago during the spread of farming into the Adriatic, and five thousand years ago during the rise of the first Adriatic elites. These are accompanied by an additional chapter on Adriatic pottery styles of the third millennium BC, without which it would not have been possible to write coherently about Palagruža, or about the Adriatic, during that period. The fourth part of the book, an appendix containing summary information about more than 150 sites that yielded characteristic finds, supplements the discussion of those styles.
Header image: The author excavating at Palagruža, September 2004.
Stašo Forenbaher is Senior Research Advisor at the Institute for Anthropological Research in Zagreb, Croatia. He studied archaeology at the University of Zagreb (Croatia), and received his PhD from the Southern Methodist University in Dallas (TX). His research interests cover Mediterranean Prehistory with a focus on the Adriatic, and include transition to farming, formation of early elites, archaeology of caves, and lithic analysis. He has excavated at many prehistoric stratified cave sites in the eastern Adriatic, including Pupićina Cave in Istria, Vaganačka Cave in Velebit Mountain, Grapčeva Cave on the island of Hvar, and Nakovana Cave on Pelješac Peninsula. His current fieldwork is focussed on the excavation of Vela Cave on the island of Korčula.
Forthcoming from Archaeopress, due Spring 2018:
Special Place, Interesting Times: The Island of Palagruža and Transitional Periods in Adriatic Prehistory by Stašo Forenbaher (with contributions written by Zlatko Perhoč and Robert H. Tykot). Archaeopress Archaeology, 2018. More details soon.
St John Simpson introduces the BP exhibition ‘Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia’, open at the British Museum from 14 September 2017-14 January 2018
On 14 September a major new exhibition opened at the British Museum and creates a unique opportunity to see the world of the Scythians, warriors and nomads, in an atmospheric setting and with hundreds of stunning objects. This was organised with the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, from which most of the objects have been very generously loaned, and includes other important loans from the National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Ashmolean Museum and a magnificent portrait of Peter the Great lent by Her Majesty the Queen.
This exhibition was devised four years ago to mark the British Museum’s contribution to the past year of exhibitions and events celebrating Russian art and culture in the UK. The British Museum team was led by St John Simpson, with Svetlana Pankova of the State Hermitage Museum co-ordinating her colleagues in the Departments of Archaeology, Ancient World and Russian Culture: together they have co-edited the sumptuous catalogue published by Thames & Hudson to go with it.
The exhibition is attracting 5* reviews and is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see these objects together. The exhibition begins with some of the first Scythian gold objects to be discovered in the early eighteenth century as explorers during the reign of Peter the Great set out to explore and map newly conquered territories in present-day southern Siberia. These were found in burial mounds and excited huge interest in Russia at the time: they are shown here alongside early eighteenth century watercolours commissioned in St Petersburg, and astonishingly this is the first time they have been exhibited together.
The exhibition continues with a stunning digital panorama based on late nineteenth century Russian watercolours showing parts of the route taken by the Trans-Siberian Railway as it passes through Siberia. They evoke the scenery and show that Siberia is not just the place of hardship, cold and forest that is mentally conjured up in most peoples’ minds but the southern portion was a grassy corridor which connected China with the edge of Europe.
Separate sections in the exhibition then set out to answer common questions with carefully selected objects set against massive landscape backdrops with succinct text panels printed on cloth banners and illustrated with contextual images and accurate reconstructions. Some of the earliest tattoos and a beheaded chieftain’s head illustrate personal appearance and body art. Trousers, a fur-lined coat, exquisite gold dress appliques, an embroidered shoe and a tall woman’s headdress bring home a sense of style. Mirrors, manicured fingernails, a false wig and pouches filled with black hair dye show that vanity is not a modern concept and these men and women were careful to show themselves to best effect. A portable lifestyle meant that possessions had to be easily transported, and people of status wore their wealth on their bodies. Oversized gold buckles demonstrate this in one way; massed rows of miniature gold dress ornaments show it in another and mark the beginning of a very long Eurasian nomad tradition.
A reconstructed miniature tent and a brazier with hemp seeds confirms a famous passage by Herodotus that Scythians appreciated the effect of consuming cannabis in a confined space and enjoyed “hot boxing” so much that they “howled with pleasure”. These nomads moved according to the seasons and the availability of water and pasture, but exhibiting ancient nomads is tough when they leave a light footprint in the landscape. Fortunately they buried their essentials as well as their status items in tombs for an anticipated afterlife. Exceptional preservation in the permanently frozen subsoil beneath these mounds in the Altai mountain region has meant the preservation of all the organic remains: a sable fur bag, leather, wood, felts, rugs, horse harness and even lumps of cheese, labelled with a “best before” date of 300 BC.
Life was tough though and evidence for weapons and trauma on excavated human remains shows that there must have been considerable competition over resources. Showcases contain deadly aerodynamic arrowheads, fired from the famous Scythian bow described by Greek authors, an efficient pointed battle-axe with its original honeysuckle wood handle, wooden shields, armour, a bronze helmet and a serried rank of daggers and short swords. And of course there is the horse-tack: not just bronze horse-bits but complete bridles with leather straps and carved wooden ornaments, and another Scythian invention: the soft saddle, stuffed with straw and deer hair and covered with an extraordinary decorated cover.
Fittingly, the largest object in the exhibition is a super-sized perfectly preserved log coffin from Pazyryk which weighs a third of a ton! Digital media show frozen tombs like this being excavated and how the interiors were encased in solid ice which had built up over centuries inside. Even so, the Pazyryk tombs were robbed in antiquity so although the organics are spectacular there is precious little of intrinsic value: that is where the exhibition has drawn on late eighteenth and nineteenth century tomb finds from the northern Black Sea region (all from the State Hermitage and the Ashmolean) and very recent discoveries in southern Siberia and neighbouring Kazakhstan.
The exhibition closes by looking at life in southern Siberia after the Scythians. Although even the names of the tribes are unknown, the excavated tomb finds show increasing complexity and long-distance connections: the remains of a composite bow, colourful beads imported from the Mediterranean, a scrap of Chinese silk reused along the hem of a toy quiver. The archaeology of the Scythians and other early nomads of Eurasia is a very active field and there are many surprises. New scientific research carried out at the British Museum answered some questions we had about gold objects from the Siberian Collection of Peter the Great, and in fact there is more scientific research on show in this exhibition than in any ever before at the British Museum! One of the last things a visitor sees is the CT-scan of a (post-Scythian) man’s head concealed beneath his painted death-mask and what this brand new piece of Russian research shows is that he has a carefully stitched up scar on his left cheek and the hole where his left temple had been trepanned as part of an embalming ritual.
The subject of continuing new discoveries is the topic of an exciting three-day archaeological conference to be held at the British Museum this coming 27-29 October. This will bring together scholars of all ages and nationalities to share the results of their research projects, latest archaeological discoveries and new scientific research. Many of these results are presented here for the first time and they evoke the world of the steppe: a natural open corridor without borders which connected Russia with Europe, the Middle East and China. There will be papers on Scythians, Hephthalites and other Eurasian nomad economies, tombs, burial rites, gold-working, human remains, the invention of trousers, early Scythian dyes, “Animal Style” art, rock art, connections with China, and some tantalising if not gruesome answers as to where the Scythians got their leather for their bow quivers! This conference is being generously supported by the ERC and the British Museum and is part of the public programme associated with the exhibition. Booking is via the British Museum box office.
A conference, Scythians and early nomads from Siberia to the Black Sea, will be held in the BP Lecture Theatre at the British Museum from 27-29 October 2017. This major three-day conference is open to all. It will include the latest research on early nomads of Eurasia with papers on horseriding, warfare, technology and many other topics. It will also include results of recent archaeological excavations and new scientific research, and poster displays. Click here to view the conference programme.
Header image: Landscape in Southern Siberia courtesy of V. Terebenin.
Sincerest thanks to St John Simpson for providing this latest post for the Archaeopress Blog. We are actively seeking new content for the blog; articles on all aspects of archaeology and related heritage topics will be considered. Perhaps you would like to highlight a small find on an excavation that won’t be fully reported until years from now; an opinion piece; summaries of local activity; introductions to new and ongoing exhibits; conference reports; the list goes on. Articles should be approximately 2,000 words in length with 4-8 accompanying illustrations, but please note this is just a guide and both shorter and longer articles would be considered. Please submit blog proposals to Patrick Harris at email@example.com
A casual reference to a remote Cheshire hamlet begins Mabel Bent’s 5th travel diary, or Chronicle, in January 1888; she (1847-1929) being the indefatigable wife of that great traveller and self-styled archaeologist, James Theodore Bent (1852-1897), who will be sitting close to her, looking at some map or travel permit. Mabel is writing from the Hôtel de Byzance in Istanbul (Constantinople to her, of course), about as far removed from the Norman-founded house of Sutton Hall as one can get. Mabel confides that the explorers were hoping to return to Thásos island to continue their semi-authorised excavations of the season before, but their nemesis, Istanbul Museum director, Hamdi Bey, has steimied them.
Instead, the couple shortly embarked on a sequence of (illicit) investigations along the Turkish littoral (in particular the coastline opposite Rhodes), which proved fruitful: some of Bent’s marbles from this expedition are now in London at the British Museum (and a search of its on-line catalogue will turn them up). Bent briefly wrote up his discoveries of ancient Loryma, Lydae, and Myra for the Journal of Hellenic Studies (1888, Vol. 9, 82-7), but a lengthier account was provided by E. L. Hicks (‘Inscriptions from Casarea, Lydae, Patara, Myra’, 1889, Vol. 10, 46-85), including transcriptions of over forty inscriptions and passages of text from Theodore’s own notebooks (which are rare, as many of his original notebooks are now missing).
But let’s cut back to Mabel in the Hôtel de Byzance, and that reference to Sutton Hall:
‘We left England on January 19th Thursday, travelling from Sutton Hall to Marseilles, which we reached at 12.10 pm on Saturday morning and went to bed at the Station Hotel. We varied our journey by going for our meals to the Waggon Lits dining car. We embarked in the afternoon on board the Messageries steamer La Bourdonnais, with only one passenger besides ourselves and a captain’s wife going to join her husband. We had dreadfully stormy weather after Cape Matapan and had to shelter 20 hours in the island of Seriphos, always eating with fiddles on the table. We only got to Syra on Thursday. We landed and found to our sorrow that our kind consul Mr. Binney was dreadfully ill. At Smyrna we visited Mr. Disinnis and he seemed nearly worn out from nursing his wife. We reached Constantinople on Saturday [January] 21st and after an odious landing in a downpour of rain, our goods being as usual opened in a passage roofed over only, we found ourselves again in the Hôtel de Byzance. There is not much to tell of our stay there. Our great object was to obtain a firman, permitting us to dig in Thasos and have a share of the finds. With this object we went to visit Hamdi Bey, the head of the museum, accompanied by Mr. Wrench, our Consul… Hamdi is a very agreeable foe. He is a painter and has been educated in Paris and has married 2 French wives in succession. We were at his house 2 years ago. He was extremely polite and most willing that we should dig “for the love of science” and the benefit of his museum. His wife is a pretty, bright little woman, who, though she receives everyone at home, has to go out in a yashmak… We went twice, our second visit was to say we had given up wishing for a firman, as we were not justified in digging for nothing. Hamdi seemed annoyed at this but was none the less civil. Mrs. Hamdi took me upstairs to see her 2 children, Leila aged 10 and Edhem 4, called after his grandfather, His Highness Edhem Pasha, who was himself, or was the son of a slave. I also saw her mother, an untidy old woman in a dressing gown, and I had coffee.‘
[The Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Vol. 1, 228-9, Archaeopress, 2006]
And all a long way from rural Cheshire. The modest grand house of Sutton Hall, a few miles from both Macclesfield and Chesterfield, has sturdy Norman roots: for a period of time in the late 19th century it just also happened to be leased to Theodore Bent – arguably one of the pioneers of Cycladic archaeology (1883/4); controversial surveyor of ‘Great Zimbabwe’ for Cecil Rhodes (1891/2); and searcher for traces of the Queen of Sheba along the daunting Hadramawt (1894/5). [A select bibliography follows]
Wikipedia informs us that:
‘The house is constructed partly in stone, and partly in timber framing, with a U-shaped plan. The arms of the “U” end in irregular gables. The left gable is in stone, and the right is timber-framed. The upper storey of the right gable is jettied, the jetty being supported on brackets carved with wooden figures, one a knight in chain mail. Between the two wings is the former great hall. A 16th century chapel at the rear of the house, which has served at different times as stables and as a convent, now serves as the restaurant kitchens. The house is recorded in the National Heritage List for England as a designated Grade II listed building.’
‘Once the property of the Sir Humphrey Davenport, Chief Baron of the Exchequer in 1631, the Manor of Sutton later passed by marriage to Sir Rowland Belasyse, an ancestor of the Earls of Fauconberg. In 1819 it was acquired by the Countess of Lucan and descended to her successors, the Lords Lucan, primarily used as a farmhouse. The countess had been born Elizabeth Belasyse, daughter of Henry Belasyse, 2nd Earl Fauconberg and in 1794 had married Richard Bingham, who became the 2nd Earl of Lucan in 1799. By 1804, after six children, they had separated.’ [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sutton_Hall,_Sutton_Lane_Ends]
In its present incarnation, the erstwhile Bent residence is a pleasant, out-of-the-way gastro-pub and very worthy of a detour and lunch. [GPS= 53.240306854248,-2.1160869598389. A potted history and photo gallery is available at http://www.brunningandprice.co.uk/suttonhall/homepage/%5D
Local historian Alan Dinnis adds:
‘The Bents had been in the Sutton area for some time. Back in 1838-39, when St James’ Church was planned, members of the family contributed a total of ten pounds to the building fund. In the 1860s, when it was customary for church pews to be rented, “The Misses Bent” held eight seats with another four seats for their “domestics”. Theodore owned The Elms in Byron’s Lane and had another house in London. He also held the lease (from the Earl of Lucan) of Sutton Hall, which was occupied by his Aunt Maria.’ [personal communication, Oct 2011]
Sutton Hall was initially leased by Bent’s parents, James Bent and Margaret Eleanor (née Lambert, daughter of wealthy Baildon (near Bradford) locals, John and Ann Lambert of Baildon Hall), who married in April 1848. The Bent family could be traced back some generations in the north of England, related to the splendidly-named Hamlet Bent (1642-1728). Another branch of the family included the distinguished surgeon Sir James Justin Bent, who amputated Josiah Wedgewood’s right leg in May 1768. Sir James resided in Basford Hall (near Leek, Staffordshire) and it was his family crest that was adopted and adapted by other members of the extended family – including Theodore: the ‘demi-lion azure’ featuring on his stationery. One family motto was ‘Nec Temere, Nec Timide’ – ‘neither reckless, nor timid’. Bent was never the latter. (Theodore (he dropped his first given name – James) was born in thriving Victorian Liverpool on 30 March 1852 – an uncle, Sir John Bent, was Lord Mayor of the city in 1850-51.)
The non-medical Bents made their wealth collectively in the pottery and brewing trades – making both beer and the means of supping it being rather canny. The business ‘Bent’s Brewery Co. Ltd.’ only disappeared as a trade name in the 1960s.
As well as their fine home in Baildon, and assorted properties in the area, Theodore’s father (presumably) also leased Sutton Hall, it seems as a home for his sister and those of his brothers, and which was to become the favourite English summer residence of his son Theodore and his wife Mabel.
Within a year of his father’s death, with Theodore 25 and Mabel 30, the couple announced their engagement (the couple having met in Norway) and a few months later, in August 1877, the local Cheshire and Yorkshire newspapers (York Herald, 6 August, and Cheshire Observer, 8 August 1877) printed a marriage notice:
‘On the 2nd inst. at Staplestown Church, county Carlow, Ireland, by the Rev. Charles Lambart, uncle of the bride, assisted by the Rev. H. A. Barker and the Rev. T. Hatchell, James Theodore Bent, of Sutton Hall, in this county, to Mabel Virginia Anna, second sister of the late Robert Westley Hall Dare, of Newtonbarry House, County Wexford.’
In the summer of 1885, Theodore (now comfortably off) put up for sale five freehold cottages and premises (totalling about four hectares) at Brook Hill, Baildon (and a freehold close of land in Slaughter Lane) at auction. The young explorer was left with Baildon House and his property interests in Sutton. (Anglo-Irish Mabel had access to lands of some grandeur in Co. Wexford and Theydon Bois, Essex, where the couple rest together today in the Hall-Dare plot in St Mary’s church.)
From 1880, at least, the Bents also leased property in London. In 1880 they were in 43 Great Cumberland Place (near Marble Arch) and a few years later they were in number 13, in which Mabel continued to reside in rather lonely isolation until her death in 1929. It is unclear what happened to the lease at Sutton Hall up until Mabel’s death in 1929, but at Theodore’s death in 1887 it was incorporated into his trust estate:
‘…I bequeath to my Aunt Maria Bent her executors administrators and assigns absolutely All that my leasehold messuage called Sutton Hall Macclesfield wherein she now resides for all my term and interest therein she paying the rent and observing and performing all the covenants and conditions contained in the lease thereof. I devise all my freehold or copyhold estate at Sutton near Macclesfield aforesaid called “The Gurnett” unto my trustees…Upon trust to permit my said Aunt Maria Bent during her life to receive the rents and profits thereof and from and after her decease I declare that the said freehold or copyhold estate shall sink into and become part of the trust estate hereinafter mentioned…’ [‘Clause in Will of J T Bent, signed 21 Jan 1891 (died May 1897, no other wills known by me but further codicils may have been added)’]
It seems that ‘The Gurnett’ was linked in some way with the property referred to (see above) as ‘The Elms’. This residence was perhaps in turn rented out, as in 1895 it was the residence of one ‘Alderman John Birchenough JP… a prominent local politician and silk manufacturer’, and described as ‘a pretty mansion in Byrons’ Lane, Sutton…’ [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Birchenough]
The Daily News of 21 August 1897 records that Theodore’s personal estate on his death was valued at £21,497, and refers to the deceased as ‘the well-known traveller and archæologist’.
Sutton Hall pub’s own website has an interesting archaeological snippet:
‘In the grounds of Sutton Hall there is a somewhat dilapidated Bronze Age barrow (now the resting-place of a water trough). In 1962 the barrow was again excavated, by James Forde-Johnston of Manchester University, who unearthed evidence of several further cremations. He discovered that the mound had originally been around 100 yards in diameter, but was substantially reduced, with many of the river cobbles having been removed to the nearby farmyard for use in paving, where they can still be seen.’ [http://www.brunningandprice.co.uk/suttonhall/history/]
Bent would most certainly have known of it (probably a cremation site, now much reduced in size), and in all likelihood taken a spade to it, although we have neither record nor proof: although the ‘somewhat dilapidated’ is perhaps one clue (!) and a search for Forde-Johnston’s notes (this current author has not attempted to) might reveal others.
Theodore did however make several notable archaeological discoveries, and very often refers to himself as an ‘archaeologist’, however he is not recognized quite as such by today’s practitioners. Although the discipline was already well advanced by the late 19th century, Theodore was much more artefact- than context-lead as an ‘excavator’, more interested in recovering material to return with to England (and perhaps to deal in) than interpreting and communicating a wider understanding of the site he was excavating. In a similar way, he was often handicapped by his own theories – for example his notorious work at ‘Great Zimbabwe’, the discrediting of which caused Mabel such distress after his death. So, perhaps then archaeologist, no; but explorer-traveller, adventurer, even antiquarian and ethnographer, emphatically yes. Great British travellers, travel-celebrities even, indeed. Bent would be a TV presenter today – Jago Cooper if not Michael Wood.
Sutton’s local church of St James’ contains a sweep of memorial windows to the Bents. Theodore installed one for his father († Dec 1876) and mother († Nov 1873). And their son, in his turn – and nicely depicted as St James – has one donated by his widow. In the church guide we read:
‘This window is dated 1897 and depicts a pilgrim ending life’s journey at the gate of Heaven and being welcomed by an angel. The pilgrim is dressed as St James. There is a scallop shell in his pilgrim’s hat… The window is in memory of J. Theodore Bent, of Baildon House, Yorks, and Sutton Hall, who died on 5th May 1897 aged 45. It was given by his widow Mabel, of 13, Great Cumberland Place, Middlesex.’ [Alan Dinnis, St James’ Church, Sutton: 1840–1990, Macclesfield 1990, 136]
The Cheshire Observer of 27 November 1897 provides more information:
‘Mrs. Mabel V. A. Bent, residing at 13, Great Cumberland Place, London, applied for a faculty to place a stained-glass window at the east end of the church, as a memorial to the late James Theodore Bent, a former parishioner. The cost (£72) would be defrayed by Mrs. Bent. – The faculty was granted.’
It is a fine, long window (dated 1896 curiously), depicting the pilgrim (a.k.a. Bent) being welcomed by an angel at heaven’s gate. The caption reads: ‘To God’s glory and in remembrance of J. Theodore Bent. FRGS, FSA. Son of James and Margaret Eleanor Bent of Baildon House, Yorks, and Sutton Hall. Died May 5 1897, aged 45.’
Mabel specified two quotations: ‘The highways were unoccupied and the travellers walked through byways’ (Judges 5:6) and ‘They were strangers and pilgrims on the earth’ (Hebrews 11:13). Mabel and Theodore are reunited in these lines. (There are other memorials to the Bents and Hall-Dares in Baildon (St John’s), Theydon Bois (St Mary’s), and Bunclody (Co. Wexford, also St Mary’s.)
But Sutton Hall was to remain one of the Bents’ happiest homes and they spent time there as often as they could – their routine from the early 1880s until Theodore’s death in 1897 was to travel in English winters and return to England and Ireland for summers and autumns. As well as visiting family and friends, Theodore would spend these periods writing, lecturing, and preparing for the next season and the beeswaxed and grandfather-clock-ticking rooms of Sutton Hall would have been furnished with the desks and tables on which Theodore worked on many of his books (a select bibliography concludes this essay) as well as the hundreds of letters (his correspondents including Rider Haggard: did he have Bent in mind as Allan Quatermain?), as well as the articles and lectures he generated over the twenty or so years of travel.
As one example, alluded to above, Theodore spent a good deal of the summer and autumn of 1887 trying (unsuccessfully) to drum up enough support to have some of the fine marbles he uncovered on Thásos saved for London; the Turks claimed them, the Greeks were dispossessed – today most are in Istanbul. Letters exist from Theodore at a series of addresses in Herefordshire (mostly vicarages), and Sutton Hall to senior staff at the British Museum:
‘… We have indeed been unfortunate about our treasure trove [sic] but I have hopes still. I sent to Mr. Murray [of the BM] a copy of two letters which recognize the fact that I had permission in Thasos both to dig and to remove… Seriously… Thasos is wonderfully rich and I have some excellent points for future work and if we could by not being over grasping get the Turkish govt. to recognize the [position] I am confident we could produce some excellent results.’ [Bent’s letter to Arthur Smith at the British Museum, 4 Sept 1887]
As for Sutton’s later role in the lives of the Bents, future research, we hope, will uncover the story of Mabel’s holidays, as a widow, at Sutton Hall, but we may assume that Theodore last saw the house in the summer and autumn of 1896 before leaving for Sokotra and Aden – his final journey.
At Aden, the Bents – with their long-serving assistant Matthew Símos (from Anáfi in the Greek Cyclades) – set out on 27 February 1897 for their last explorations together into the territories east of Aden. They were clearly weakened after their stay on Sokotra, and on March 16 Mabel records that: ‘Theodore was in a raging fever so that I had to tell him I was now much better and had got quite strong, so I could take care of him…’ (Mabel’s Chronicle for March 1897), and it was clear that the expedition would have to be aborted: the arduous trek back to the South Arabian coast, and onward boat-journey to Aden, would have to be made as soon as possible. With great difficulty, the stricken travellers were aided down to the coastal town of Shuqra for the 100km return sail to Aden, and by 26 March 1897 they were all in the hospital there.
Mabel’s letter (from London) to Scott Keltie at the Royal Geographical Society, London, just before Theodore’s death, sums up their acute distress at the time:
‘Dear Mr. Keltie… We got home on Saturday night [1 May 1897] in a most wretched state. We have had malarial fever and I have been ‘dangerous’ in Aden and now it is my poor husband’s turn. He got a fresh attack just getting home and pneumonia. He is a little better today but not out of danger – but I have good hopes though awfully anxious as the Drs. shake their heads. We have one sleeping in the house and 2 nurses as I am no good yet. I had to be carried to the steamer in an ambulance litter… We have had an awful time – bad enough without this. I have one of my sisters so have good help. He made little maps fitting on to each other but just yet I seem not to know where they are. When as I can’t help thinking he is better I will ask you to come and see the things. I was pretty lucky with my photos. We nearly got to the coast at Shugra before we got the fever, through part of the Beled Fadhli again – We were in the hospital at Aden… Yours truly, Mabel V. A. Bent’
Despite the attentions of Mabel, her sister Ethel, a resident doctor and two nurses, Theodore did not ‘get better’, succumbing just a few days later on 5 May 1897. (He is buried in his wife’s family plot at St Mary’s, Theydon Bois: there is a memorial stone to them both; you can visit.)
Sutton Hall witnesses this next sad letter written by Mabel, as, on top of everything else, with her uncle Francis also dying in May, she was faced with the melancholy task of unpacking all their botanical specimens for Kew. From Sutton Hall (on black-edged paper), she writes (24 May 1897) to Kew director, Sir William Thiselton-Dyer:
‘I don’t know how to thank you enough for your letter, it was so kind. People have been so good in writing to me and though of course one cannot be consoled it is a pleasure to feel my husband was appreciated and that my friends share my great sorrow. He was always occupied and so happy in his work. Of course he collected some flowers and I shall have to unpack them soon and I should like to take them to you on Friday or Saturday which ever day and time suits you. One of my sisters is with me and we go up to town on Thursday morning to be ready for the valuations and then I must unpack all our ‘long sea’ baggage and camp furniture which will be very sad and painful. [Mabel adds a postscript from London here] I wrote so far but now I find I am not strong enough. I have unpacked this morning and I am sure the things want attending to as the bulbs are growing and I am alarmed about some of the cactuses. Could you send someone to get explanations or come some afternoon. Please let me know when. Soon would be best as after the 1st I think the valuators will infest the house… With kind regards to Mrs Dyer, Yours very truly, Mabel V. A. Bent’ [Black-edged letter, 24 May 1897 from Mabel Bent at Sutton Hall, Macclesfield, to Thiselton-Dyer. On reverse: ‘Ansd 29.v.97. Mr. Watson to go on Monday afternoon. Parcel of dried plants, bulbs, seeds etc. from Arabia and Socotra brought to Kew. Ackd 4.6.97’ (Kew Archives: Directors’ Correspondence, Vol. 179, 8)]
This trip that cost Theodore his life produced the least return. There were no major archaeological finds: a very few artefacts are now in the British Museum and Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. There were some plant specimens for Kew, as usual, and a few land snails are in drawers in the Natural History Museum, London.
We must wait for a suitable Bent memorial at the gastro-pub that Sutton Hall now is (although at the upstairs windows one might glimpse drawn faces still), but just along the church lane, on the little hill that offers up St James’, Theodore, from his stained glass window, looks out south and south-east towards their remarkable routes and researches in the Mediterranean, Africa, and Arabia: thousands of land- and sea-miles, on hundreds of steamers, small boats, horses, mules, camels, and ox-carts to ‘Great Zimbabwe’. Today’s pub visitors have no idea – but, inside, the dark, Victorian rooms crackle with Empire and the small-talk of archaeologists.
(c) Gerald Brisch, August 2017
Acknowledgement: The author would very much like to thank Robin Barber for a communication that inspired the above article.
A select bibliography
Bent, J. T. 1877. A Freak of Freedom (London).
Bent, J. T. 1881. A Life of Garibaldi (London).
Bent, J. T. 1881. Genoa, how the Republic Rose and Fell (London).
Bent, J. T. 1885. The Cyclades; or, Life Among the Insular Greeks (London).
Bent, J. T. 1892. The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland (London).
Bent, J. T. (ed.) 1893. Early Voyages and Travels in the Levant (London).
Bent, J. T. 1893. The Sacred City of the Ethiopians (London).
Bent, J. T. and M. V. A. 1900. Southern Arabia (London).
Bent, J. T. , Bent, M. V. A. and Brisch, G. E. (ed.) 2015. The Dodecanese: Further Travels Among the Insular Greeks (Oxford, Archaeopress).
Bent, M. V. A . and Brisch, G. E. (ed.) 2006. The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J. Theodore Bent. Volume I, Greece and the Levantine Littoral (Oxford, Archaeopress).
Bent, M. V. A . and Brisch, G. E. (ed.) 2012. The Travel Chronicles of Mrs. J. Theodore Bent. Volume II: The African Journeys (Oxford, Archaeopress).
Bent, M. V. A . and Brisch, G. E. (ed.) 2010. The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J. Theodore Bent. Volume III: Southern Arabia and Persia (Oxford, Archaeopress).
A fuller Bent Bibliography and other information on the Bents is available at: www.tambent.com
[All above websites accessed August 2017]
Visit the Archaeopress website to view the 3rdGuides range of publications including Mabel Bent’s Travel Chronicles Vol 1-3, written during the couples’ excursions to Greece, Africa, Arabia and Turkey (1883-1898), a new edition of Theodore Bent’s The Cyclades (1885) accompanied by a newly commissioned biographical introduction and a series of notes including route-planner, and historical and archaeological summaries, and a volume of compiled papers, notes and travel-writings, The Dodecanese(2016).
The above books are available at special prices until 30/09/2017.
George A. Said-Zammit PhD (Leiden), FSA, introduces and contextualises his recent Archaeopress publication
This study, which forms part of an extensive body of research undertaken and presented for my doctoral thesis at the University of Leiden (The Netherlands) in 2016, traces and analyses the evolution of domestic space in Maltese vernacular and “polite” houses between the late Middle Ages and the second half of the twentieth century. The study was published as a monograph later in 2016 by Archaeopress. The houses under study range from humble buildings of modest size, materials and design, like farmhouses or those for the less affluent town-dwellers to buildings of grand design, like townhouses and private palaces. This work considers various aspects of Maltese lifestyle, culture and economic activities to assess the local houses both from an architectural point of view and from an economic and anthropological perspective. The specific aim is to examine Maltese houses not as a static relic of the past, but as a vibrant place of human activity and social interaction, in which people act and react in different ways, according to different circumstances. In this sense, houses are also studied in terms of their spatial properties and how these generate privacy, interaction and communication, accessibility and security, and, equally important, how domestic space relates to gender roles, status and class.
The main objective of the study is to reach a deep and nuanced understanding of domestic space and how it relates to the islands’ history and the development of its society. The complex nature of the Maltese houses can only be addressed through applying a multidisciplinary approach. Therefore, my research promotes a multifaceted enquiry into the houses of the Maltese islands, reaching from the physical buildings and their material culture, via the perception of houses in art and literature, to the socio-economic significance of buildings in terms of property relations and economic activities. More specifically, in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of domestic space in Malta, the study pursues the following lines of investigation:
systematic house surveys and rigorous data recording to establish categories of different types of dwellings;
detailed field surveys, cartographic analysis and geographic research to relate the evolution of settlements to the development of domestic space;
the study and appreciation of literary sources and oeuvres d’art to evaluate how Maltese houses have been perceived by travellers, visitors and artists;
the documentation and evaluation of house furniture and contents through comparative studies of permanent museum exhibitions and notarial records;
the analysis of a wide range of historical sources (including notarial records and travelogues) to explore Maltese houses as a place of human habitation and socio-economic activity;
a systematic analysis of a small but coherent sample set of house and settlement plans using formal techniques for spatial analysis (Space Syntax) to study the evolution of the Maltese houses and settlements through their intrinsic spatial properties;
the analysis of demographic data (for example, population records and the national censuses) to study the socio-anthropological dimension of the Maltese houses;
the analysis of recent local domestic architecture to evaluate the perceptions of Maltese contemporary society.
These individual strands of enquiry have their own merits; when combined, however, they complement and amplify each other and allow new and deeper insights into the evolution of the Maltese houses.
The resulting monograph is divided into twelve chapters. The first three provide the general framework for this research, including the geographical and chronological parameters as well as the methodology employed (Chapter 1), a historical background on Malta, with particular reference to society, class structure, economy and settlements (Chapter 2), and an analysis of local domestic architecture (Chapter 3). It is through the background provided in these chapters that the Maltese houses and settlements will be analysed in further detail in this work.
The next two chapters explore the local built environment through literature and art. Chapter 4 studies the houses and settlements from the observations or descriptions made by poets, writers and visitors. In this chapter the national censuses were instrumental to acquire data on local population and housing, for example occupancy and the person per room index. Chapter 5 examines local settlements and houses through a number of artistic works. These works-of-art were instrumental to study different types of urban and rural houses not only from an architectural point of view, but also from an anthropological perspective. The importance of these two chapters lies in the fact that the Maltese houses and settlements are considered from different perspectives, whilst providing an insight as to how through time locals and foreigners looked at dwellings, villages and their inhabitants.
The next four chapters deal with different aspects of local life and how the Maltese family used domestic space for various functions. Chapter 6 deals with the relationship between domestic space and the family’s religious beliefs and traditions. This chapter demonstrates that the house was a place which often brought together the members of the family to pray together and to conduct their private worship. Chapter 7 is concerned with aspects of diet, dining fashions, health and education, while Chapter 8 focuses on furniture and costumes, which varied according to the social status of the house owners. Chapter 9 deals with household, gender, class and property. Together, these chapters are important because through the study of various sources they demonstrate that houses are a building as much as they are a place of human habitation and activity. They also show that houses were often a symbol of social status, political or economic power, and identity.
Chapter 10 looks at the development of settlements and houses in Malta from a Space Syntax perspective. It shows that the development of local dwellings often reflects changes in local society and the way house dwellers interacted together through time. This chapter has also demonstrated that settlements evolved in a way to meet not only the political aspirations of the country, but also the economic and social needs of the local community. Chapter 11 deals with the development of domestic space in the Maltese islands during the last fifty years. The changes that occurred in Maltese society during this period also had an indelible effect on the Maltese house and the configuration of its domestic space. Apart from identifying the main phases of development of local urban and rural dwellings in the Maltese islands, Chapter 12 demonstrates that changes in local domestic space were often influenced by particular political, social and economic situations. It also shows that the evolution of domestic space in Malta and Gozo was generally associated with changes in local society, particularly in issues regarding privacy, class and gender. At the end of this study Appendix 1 provides a detailed description of each house that I studied as part of the Malta Historic House Survey. Appendix 2 includes a glossary of the key terms used in this research.
Sincerest thanks to George for providing this blog post. His book The Development of Domestic Space in the Maltese Islands from the Late Middle Ages to the Second Half of the Twentieth Century is available now in paperback (RRP £65), hardback (RRP £85) and eBook (from £16 + VAT) editions.
Gavin McGuire considers the first phase of a photographic study of an archaeological excavation in Crete, highlighted in his book ‘Minoan Extractions – A Photographic Journey 2009-2016’
With the Sissi Archaeological Project, my seven year photographic study of the Bronze Age Minoan excavations under the auspices of the Belgian School in Athens, Université Catholique de Louvain, I have been offered an extraordinary opportunity to capture moments of human interaction during excavations as they interconnected with an ancient Minoan culture that stretches back millennia (2600-1200 BC). And there is more to come with the new dig campaign under way at a three hectare site which has been described as one of the most important Bronze Age excavations in Crete during the past decade.
The Minoan Extractions has also been a personal journey with the chance to pay homage to the work of influential photographers – in and out of the archaeological sector, including my mentor, the outstanding photographer – Harry Burton. During the 1920’s his iconic monochrome images of the Tomb of Tutankhamun, as well his work at other sites in Egypt, have fascinated people throughout the world, and yet only in recent years has there been a growing reassessment of his contribution to photography.
Of course photography within archaeology is not new – with its origins arising during the early nineteenth century and especially in 1904 becoming ‘official’ with Egyptologist Flinders Petrie’s manual ‘Methods and Aims in Archaeology’. For nearly 200 years in the Mediterranean and Near East in particular, photographers in conjunction with archaeologists have played a crucial role in pushing back the barriers of the ancient world for both scholars and for a demanding global general audience.
With the Sissi photographic project, at a unique coastal landscape about four kilometres from Malia palace in Crete, I have continued a proud photographic tradition that is once again facing a new era of major technological change – from digital to virtual, from handheld cameras to drones and to live excavation access. It is also the age of the smartphone – easy for anyone to use, producing high quality images and ultimately engaging a wide general audience.
Needless to say these changes are highlighting the importance of imaging, especially at this time as we are seeing wanton destruction of major archaeological sites in the Middle East and of general neglect and a lack of financing. Discovery may be an over arching goal for archaeologists, but the truth is rescue and preservation dominate excavation campaigns. The past is present but the present is a very fragile one indeed.
The photography at Sissi is simply being at the right place and at the right fleeting moment, making images that highlight motion and emotion from the 80 or so ‘players’ on the archaeological stage for their six week or so excavation during July-August. It is what the renowned French photographer and humanist, Henry Cartier Bresson, referred to as ‘The Decisive Moment’.
There are images of scientists at work – archaeologists, anthropologists, technical specialists, such as surveyors, local workmen digging (many proudly following in the wake of their forefathers) and restorers and conservators dealing with the thousands of finds housed at the apothiki or workshop.
Yet the Sissi Project encompasses not only the excavation period but includes images of the site throughout the year, showing, in part, the impact of the environment. Indeed if there is a favourite ‘out-of-dig-season’ photographic period then it must be autumn and winter, where the dominating Selinari mountain range and often violent seas and dark storms combine to conjure up a dramatic contrast to the Bronze Age remains. This is surely what the Minoans must have witnessed for more than nearly 1300 years.
I photograph in both colour and black-and-white but in recent years have preferred the latter, mainly because of what I see as the aesthetic qualities of the genre. It is a realism ensured through the subtle variations of contrast and light without the distraction of colour. In other words it comes down to getting the viewer to look into the image not at it.
The Sissi site is an ideal laboratory to test any camera and its paraphernalia – the near stifling heat, the dust, sea grit and water and general bashing about. In this respect I have stayed faithful to my favoured Olympus E-510 SLR and lately with the mirrorless OM-D E-M5 Mark II. Of the Digital ED lenses I prefer to use the 9-18 ultra-wide and 50mm. The one filter that has become indispensable is the HD digital protector screw-in filter. They are a godsend to protecting lenses from the damaging environment and I have certainly got through a few of those over the years. Post production is kept at a minimum.
I have certainly produced many hundreds of photographs at the site during the last seven years. There is never a daily schedule and time to prepare once there. My photography is on the run or more importantly on the sly – as I prefer subjects not to be aware of my efforts.
Looking back at what I would consider my favourite images I would say they reflect the work of the anthropologists in the cemetery with the excavated skeletal remains, highlighting memory, time and mortality and of their attempts to seek closure for such finds through the processes of DNA and isotopic study.
But I would also confess that the photographs that have proved particularly successful have been nothing more that opportunistic, often arising from one rapid shot, almost from the hip. It happens. Nothing planned but if the brain connects with the eye then you can walk away highly satisfied. Job done – at least for the moment, for as archaeologists well know the excavation is never over until the sound of the last shovel dies away. It is generally accepted that the last 48 hours of a dig is the period in which new and sometimes site changing discoveries are made – and so it has happened at Sissi. It makes this Bronze Age settlement worth photographing. So watch this space.
Gavin’s book will be available in July/August in paperback (£25) and PDF eBook (from £16). A special pre-order price of £20 is available for the paperback edition until 31/07/2017. To pre-order at the special price please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Josef Mario Briffa SJ introduces his new volume: Catalogue of Artefacts from Malta in the British Museum (Archaeopress, 2017)
Some books are born of serendipity: being at the right place at the right time, finding something you weren’t looking for. This book is one of them.
It started quite simply and unexpectedly. Some ten years ago (2006/7), I was conducting research at the British Museum on letters written by Father Emmanuel Magri SJ to Dr E.A. Wallis Budge. Chatting – as you do – with the duty curator that day (Dr St John Simpson, now Assistant Keeper in the Department of the Middle East), who was responsible for taking care of visiting researchers, and in my case bringing over the volumes of correspondence that I needed to consult, the conversation fell, naturally on Malta and Maltese archaeology. St John asked whether I knew of the British Museum artefacts database (online here), which I didn’t … so I was introduced to Merlin, as the database is called, and merely out of curiosity, we searched for “Malta”. A quick scroll through the results, and I was quite positively surprised, and felt there was potential for this project. Somewhere, I must still have the first list that St John emailed me, with an Excel extract from Merlin.
I realised immediately that such a project would have been impossible for me to handle alone: firstly, I felt that I lacked the experience to start with, and, secondly, I was busy with my studies to the priesthood as a Jesuit (then in theology in London), such that I would never have managed to finish it at all. Very early on, I roped in Dr Claudia Sagona, who I had known through the archaeological excavation at Tas-Silġ, and whose experience with catalogues of material I knew could bring important expertise to the project. Looking back, it was the most important decision I could take, and without Claudia’s significant contribution, the book would probably still be very much in the realm of ideas.
The book has been slowly cooking away on the back burner. Ten years, with many trips to the British Museum, its departments and storage facilities, by both Claudia and myself. Thousands of photos taken both in preparation for publication, as well as to help in the study of the material. Not to mention the drawings of the various items, and the detailed descriptions, and introductions to each of the collections. And many emails, phone conversations, as well as numerous drafts. I must say that after ten long years, seeing the book in print has something surreal about it.
I cannot imagine the book to become a major best seller. Catalogues of material aren’t exactly designed to be. But I hope that in its own way, this catalogue may shed some light on the history of archaeology in Malta, and make some material from historical excavations more immediately accessible to researchers in Malta and worldwide.
The catalogue is published by Archaeopress.
viii+326 pages; illustrated throughout in colour and black & white.
Paperback | 9781784915889 | £50.00
eBook | 9781784915896 | from £16.00 (+VAT if applicable)
Josef Mario Briffa SJ is Lecturer at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, and a Roman Catholic priest. He has recently completed his PhD at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London on The Figural World of the Southern Levant during the Late Iron Age. He also holds a Licentiate in Sacred Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. His research has included the history of Maltese archaeology, with a focus on the work of Fr Emmanuel Magri SJ (1851-1907), pioneer in Maltese archaeology and folklore studies. He has excavated in Malta and Israel, and is currently a staff member of The Lautenschläger Azekah Expedition.
Claudia Sagona is Honorary Principal Fellow in the Centre for Classics and Archaeology at The University of Melbourne. Her research has taken her from the islands of the Maltese Archipelago, to the highlands of north-eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus. She has written a number of books concerning Malta’s ancient past, including a comprehensive volume for Cambridge University Press, The Archaeology of Malta: From the Neolithic through the Roman Period (2015), another on the Phoenician-Punic evidence, The Archaeology of Punic Malta (2002), and has delved into the Mithraic mystery cult, Looking for Mithra in Malta (2009). In 2007, she was made an honorary member of the National Order of Merit of Malta (M.O.M.).