Historians, curators and moviemakers are delving into the histories of Middle East archaeological sites, some now destroyed or inaccessible in war zones, and resurrecting the stories of swashbuckling characters who dug there.As much as I love archaeology and Aegyptology, I have always seen the Europeans as erstwhile plunderers of ancient civilisations, often ignoring the wishes of their modern-day descendants. But given the instability in the Middle East, I have to admit, perhaps it better for an artefact to be in some Western museum than dynamited by radicals. On the other hand, instability can hit just about anywhere. But still, I fear a good deal has been lost in some of these war-torn areas. I admire the people who are actively trying to save their culture, though, whether locals or others.
The early 1900s archaeologist and diplomat Gertrude Bell, a daughter of a British baronet, will soon be the subject of a Werner Herzog film, “Queen of the Desert,” starring Nicole Kidman; a book by the Canadian archaeologist Lisa Cooper; an exhibition at the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle Upon Tyne, near her hometown; and a documentary “Letters Fom Baghdad.” The documentary’s makers, Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl, are drawing upon Bell’s photos and writings from her global travels and negotiations with tribal leaders and shaky governments.
In 1926, two days before her 58th birthday, Bell was found dead in Baghdad after an overdose of sleeping pills. Her family preserved her papers, and Newcastle University owns the bulk of them. Other artifacts have recently emerged in the hands of descendants and collectors, including Bell’s Kurdish weavings and her silver cigarette case.
Friday, October 10, 2014
In the Shadows of Archaeological Swashbucklers