Gertrude Bell led some impressive expeditions across the desert landscapes of the Middle East, but rarely was she without her baggage animals or a cart to carry her dinner service, provisions and equipment, and a servant (or two) to prepare her meals. She also needed corn for the horses and camels and food for her ‘soldiers’ (bodyguards) and servants, so she commanded some fairly sizeable caravans at times. A British woman from a relatively elite social background, she reported back to her father and step-mother in regular letters about her travels, her archaeological surveys, her studies of Arab tribes, and her mealtimes. It wasn’t just that food per se was important to her - she was diligent about properly punctuating her day with breakfast, lunch and dinner. The online Gertrude Bell Archive of Newcastle University, thanks to its search function, shows 627 entries in her diaries and letters just for the word ‘dined’ alone. Desert travels also involved eating with Arab tribal leaders as part of the social obligation of reciprocal gift-giving. Bell also received culinary hospitality from many Middle Eastern peoples, including the Yazidis. The details that Bell gives us of these cultural transactions are a fascinating insight into the role that food and eating played in her desert travels, the creation of her persona, and how she saw the natural order of things.Read More
Gertrude Bell and T E Lawrence did their best, whilst disagreeing over fundamental issues such as the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine. Bell foresaw endless struggle and war – and what she saw in France, the fear and the grief and the pain and the suffering, especially of the young, made her wearily cynical of her generation getting it right. She died in 1926; but, like many, by 1915 she’d already seen and felt enough. It was far from ‘all over by Christmas’ - it was never over.Read More
Gertrude Bell’s experience of war work in the south of England and in France was brief, but formative. It began just a few months after the outbreak of the Great War in the summer of 1914. It’s an intriguing story, able to be told primarily because we have her surviving letters as a central part of the archive. Bored and frustrated at Clandon Park Hospital in the south of England - which has been, to date, a little-discussed episode in her life - with no role to speak of except taking round reading materials to wounded Belgian troops, she maneuvered her way over to France to fill a secretarial position. Bell, while there, awkwardly met with Lilian (‘Judith’) Doughty-Wylie, the experienced, respected field nurse who was the wife of the man she hoped to marry; had an epiphany about life being too short; set up a filing system to help distraught relatives better trace missing and wounded boys and young men; and came home just a few months later. Within a year Gertrude Bell was called to the Middle East to serve the British administration – where, in Baghdad, after a series of notable geo-political accomplishments, she died just a decade later by her own hand.Read More
My disappointment and frustration with Bell’s portrayal in Herzog’s ‘Queen of the Desert’ led me to start writing a blog piece about what is actually fascinating and significant about her life and her relationships - and yes, that includes her ‘love life’ (when this is not being mis-characterised and hatchet-edited as part of the movie process) - as well as thinking about what perspectives might best be brought to bear when analysing and studying the important aspects of Bell’s world and agency. The resulting study is something of a psychological narrative, punctuated by Bell’s encounters with real flesh-and-blood people. (I also have a lot more to write about the circumstances around her death, and how it was received and documented.)Read More
How do you present things to children like the ‘Boudiccan revolt’ and the massacres of colonists that took place at Colchester and London in AD 60 – and can it ever be got right? Given we have two written accounts (by Tacitus and, later, Cassius Dio), can we ignore them? Dio pulled no punches in recounting hideous atrocities being carried out on Roman citizen women – their breasts were cut off and sewn to their mouths, and their bodies skewered lengthways – but are these images ‘suitable’ for children?
And already - see? - the subject is fetishised. But remove those accounts, and knowledge and images of annihilation and casualties on all 'sides', and the subject becomes sanitised.Read More
The objections poured in thick and fast. Many objected to the poor quality of the planning application, which seems to be claiming that two huge buildings, associated traffic and commercial activities, and an enormous chimney, would have 'no adverse impact' on this ecologically beautiful, archaeologically-rich locale. Then there was the lack of an obvious map (at least whenever I looked), and the somewhat desultory list of consultees. It was, to my eyes, as an archaeologist and a former Planning Committee member, all pretty woeful. And, sadly, the archaeological desk-top survey included with the application was incomplete, based on inadequate data, and quite eyebrow-raising in its brevity.Read More
So, I’m currently reviewing Archaeologies of Gender and Violence (eds Uroš Matić and Bo Jensen 2017); and I came across a (happily favourable) mention of a paper I wrote a long time ago on the use – and, more importantly, the misuse – of rape narratives by evolutionary sociobiologists. The sociobiologists had theorised that rape was understandable as an adaptive mating strategy by males, and made clear that they saw this stretching back into evolutionary prehistory. I see sexual violence as, well, sexual VIOLENCE writ large - violence carried out against women of all ages, children of both sexes from infancy, and men; and as all about power. I was concerned that some of this mangled nonsense from evolutionary sociobiology might permeate some strands of prehistoric archaeology and anthropology.
Anyhow, it also reminded me that I hadn’t yet scanned and posted up this particular paper on my website, so here’s a link to it: ‘The use and misuse of rape in prehistory’, from Indecent Exposure: sexuality, society and the archaeological record (ed Lynne Bevan 2001).Read More
It's been a while since anyone took much notice of Julius Caesar's writings on ancient Britain as any kind of credible social commentary. There's not only the problem that he was writing for a particular audience and in a particular style - there's also the issue that so little of what he says about Britain matches the archaeological evidence.
But that's not to say that his words aren't worth looking at. His statements about (at least some) British marriages tantalise us with their allusions not just to polygamous unions but to a rare form of this known as 'polyandry' - the marriage of a woman to more than one man - as well as to how the children of these marriages were made legitimate.Read More
What was a ‘villa’ to the Roman eye and to the Roman understanding? What do modern archaeologists need to see on the ground in order to classify a site as a ‘villa’? In what ways - if at all - are they a meaningful category of evidence, and how might they give us information about the Roman economy and the colonisation of landscapes by idealised edifices? On some sites in early Roman Britain, within just a couple of decades of the occupation and in the vicinity of new Roman towns, the traditional late Iron Age settlement type of timber roundhouses were replaced by a Roman building type of rectangular houses with stone foundations and, seemingly, increased room divisions. What does this all mean - what class of habitus are we dealing with here?Read More
In the 1930s, three intriguing burials were found by Adrian Oswald and his workforce in the upper archaeological levels at Norton Disney Roman villa. Some might call these inhumations strange, lying as they did not in a burial ground but on top of or aligned with dismantled walls of once-imposing buildings from the Roman era. Why are they there? How rare are such burials? What can they tell us about life and death and the end of Roman villas in Britain - and indeed the end of Roman Britain itself?Read More
I’m deliberately keeping this piece as short as possible – a lot of people involved already have too many stacks of papers on their desks and in their inboxes. This is a ‘capsule argument’ about how and why this site at Norton Disney matters, and why it deserves protection. It’s one of many villas known, but it’s one of the most intriguing. It was partly excavated a couple of years prior to World War II, so is ‘known about’; but those excavations by Adrian Oswald have themselves thrown up a whole range of puzzles. These include the archaeological narratives currently emerging of connections that stretch from prehistoric tribal Ireland through to this corner of Lincolnshire, and the story of the rise of private property and the collapse of Roman Britain - as well as suspicions of an excavator 'dining out' on fabricated stories of Saxon raiders and collisions of races and nations in the late 1930s.Read More
It [Bethlehem] was politics etched into the stones of a built landscape; it was 'tribal'; it was staring Bell in the face. It was a unique and special Christmas at an extraordinary time in history - and it shaped Gertrude Bell.Read More
A particular photograph in Gertrude Bell's collection, taken in her very early years as a travel photographer, has drawn me back to it many times. It's an image of a European woman bathing in the Dead Sea in Palestine - then part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire - wearing full Victorian bathing gown and looking for all the world like she's in a state of rapture rather than in a harsh and unforgiving viscous lake of salt which burns like fire in your eyes and scorches even the slightest graze. It's not a typical formal Bell view of a building or a place - it's a thoughtful, intriguing composition.Read More
'How would you like to do a small job?' asked Martin Millett. 'It's paid,' he added helpfully. (Doesn't that say something about archaeology, when it's a bonus to be paid for one's labours.) I asked what it was, and he said it was a simple writing job for a new encyclopedia on British History. They wanted some stuff on Roman Britain and, if I had the time, it would be right up my street.
Oh that sounds great, I said. So Martin put me in touch with the editor, Professor John Cannon, and forward we went on our great word-restricted, tightly-written adventure. Fifty quid a thousand words and a free copy of the finished weighty tome, The Oxford Companion to British History. I was on my first maternity leave - what could possibly go wrong?Read More
'That same night, the screaming started, as giant cockroaches flew into the communal awning and landed on people's backs and heads'Read More
How someone died is not always relevant to how they lived; but in the case of Gertrude Bell, I believe that the circumstances of her death tell us a great deal about how she felt about her own life - which in turn casts light on a whole host of historical circumstances of that era, not least the impacts of class and sex, during a time when the Middle East was being carved up and re-plated for Western consumption.
I've studied Gertrude Bell's work for over 25 years. I never felt especially attracted or connected on any personal level to the woman who manifests herself in her writings, but was always fascinated by the richness of her archaeological and photographic output and how that legacy was handled. Yet, just lately, I find myself being drawn again and again to read about the circumstances of her death. I think I know why this is, and it certainly is personal - this year I'll be the age she was when she died. And I think I've finally found the connection that was missing.Read More
It's so good to see the cheerful images of the band of organisers of TRAC 2017 on social media, and the delegates gathering for the planned events and sessions in Durham and on Hadrian's Wall. I'm struck now for the first time what a comparatively solitary and nerve-wracking undertaking it was to set up and organise the original TRAC in 1991. It also still amazes me a bit just how much TRAC owes its origins to a whole load of random happenings - a set of unforeseen political circumstances in the Gulf, a chance meeting in Jerusalem, and a piss-up with Charles Daniels upon my return to Newcastle.Read More
It seems that there's little in Portsmouth - including military history that's recent enough still to be raw - that doesn't end up being political slash-and-burn. The Yomper Statue outside the Royal Marines Museum in Portsmouth, who gazes out to sea over Eastney Beach, is hot news. The Yomper memorialises the role of the marines during the Falklands Conflict in 1982 and was unveiled by Thatcher ten years later.
In their traditional campaigning style, the Portsmouth Lib Dems are trying to own it as a 'local issue', and to blame other political parties for the plan to move the iconic figure from the soon-to-close Royal Marines Museum location to the nearby Historical Dockyard where it will be a companion to the Mary Rose, Victory and Warrior - a site which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.
But it is absolutely clear and obvious that this is a decision that lies with the Royal Marines Museum and the MoD - not the local Tories. The thought that the Tories would want, or enable, the removal from Eastney of the Yomper and the commemorative plaque which inscribes Thatcher's name onto the seafront turf is laughable.
In 1982 I was 22 years old and I lived in Newcastle; and I watched the news broadcast live to the nation where Brian Hanrahan said of the planes, 'I counted them all out and I counted them all back'.Read More
Back in the 1990s the then Inspector of Ancient Monuments David Sherlock decided to take me to visit the site of Beadlam Roman Villa in North Yorkshire, and asked me to write about it. I'd published a couple of bits of my PhD thesis on RB villas, and English Heritage had an interest in David Neal's write-up of the 1966-1978 Beadlam excavations. David Sherlock thought I might have some 'new light' to cast on these old stones.
Standing there in the field on that grey day, staring at lines of consolidated wall footings poking through grass, I wasn't really feeling it. But back in the Department Library in Newcastle, as I studied once again the plans and the information available, a lot of ideas did come quickly, and the inspiration was a blocked doorway. That changed everything. I've always been fascinated by Roman villas, what they were, what they meant, and how British people lived in them.Read More
I look at my photographs of Greenham Common from the early 1980s and I see more then I saw then. I see the women again, certainly, defiant, rainbow-colourful and vibrant; and I see the sharp razor wire perimeter and the police presence; but I also see competing masculinities that I hadn't thought about before.Read More