The Bents and the British Museum: in Five Objects

The Bents and the British Museum: in Five Objects

The British Museum, London (wikipedia).

On 24 April 1885, British explorer Theodore Bent wrote from Syros in the Cyclades to Charles Thomas Newton, famous traveller himself and now Keeper of the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum (BM): “We returned from Karpathos yesterday and had hoped to catch a steamer which would have brought us and our things straight to England. Unfortunately we shall have to wait a week at least, and as we have so much plunder we cannot take the Marseilles route. I had hoped to have been in time for the Hellenic meeting, but of course now we shall not reach England till the middle of May. We were fairly successful in Karpathos, finding a large number of rock cut graves unopened which have produced pottery, etc., which, if not of the highest order, offer a good deal which I believe to be of a new character… Of quaint manners and customs I have got a fine collection, also of old Karpathiote dresses and jewelry… We had rather a rough time of it, Karpathos being very far behind the world in comforts, and decidedly we enjoyed ourselves best when living in our own tent. Mrs. Bent survives and is well and begs her kind regards. Yours very truly, J. Theodore Bent.” (Mabel Bent 2006: 123, fn. 74)

(The Bents’ trip to the Dodecanese in 1885 was probably contributed to by the BM, and significant finds from there are now in London.)

To draw attention to, and thank  the BM for their great and newly re-vamped online database, and make a nod to Neil MacGregor’s seminal TV/radio series, and subsequent exhibition, at the same time, the Bent Archive is selecting four significant objects to feature from the several hundreds of items (752, no less, the BM claim, though some are duplicated) either donated to or sold by Theodore and Mabel Bent to the Museum over a period of five decades or so from the 1880s, beginning with the artifacts Bent brought home from the Cycladic island of Antiparos, then an almost abandoned islet, today a hipster destination for some of Europe’s silliest teenagers; the Bents would be amused. The fifth item, as we shall see, is one that got away… but it should be there.

The expeditions
The expeditions of Theodore & Mabel Bent, 1883-1897 (© Glyn Griffiths and the Bent Archive)

For about twenty years, Theodore and Mabel Bent travelled to regions in the Eastern Mediterranean, Africa, and Arabia, on the look out for things of archaeological and ethnographical interest (usually linked to Theodore’s current bonnet-bees and theories). Occasionally the British Museum contributed to the Bents’ travel costs on the understanding that the institution would get first refusal. We know that the museum also paid Theodore for certain acquisitions, but there were also donations from the Bents – in particular the large assemblage given by Mabel in 1926, a few years before her death (Theodore, alas, died early, in 1897).

The Museum’s archives (and elsewhere) contain much correspondence between Bent and their various curators and associated scholars, such as William Paton, Edward Lee Hicks, David Hogarth, Sir William Mitchell Ramsay, Charles Newton, Arthur Smith, Alexander Stuart Murray, Cecil Smith, William Henry Flower …

Good examples of these interactions include a letter from Theodore  to the Keeper at the British Museum, dated 30 May 1884: “Dear Sir, Do you care to make me an offer for my figures, vases, ornaments, etc., from Antiparos? It occurs to me that a collection of this nature is rather lost in private hands. Yrs truly, J. Theodore Bent.” (Mabel Bent 2006: 46, fn. 49)

BM inventory record Af1892,0714.144, for a necklace made of plaited vegetable fibre, from Bent’s Mashonaland year (1891) (© The British Museum).

The BM archives also include the Museum’s day books and accession registers, fascinating records that bring you closer to collector and curator, in contexts of mutual scholarship, curiosity, and wonder.

This is not the place to comment on the history of the Museum, collectors’ activities, or the acquisition policies current in the late 19th century. You will have your own thoughts and opinions.

The objects collected by the Bents are featured below, in a sort of virtual ‘The Bents at the BM’ mini-exhibition, by the date they were acquired by the Museum, and representing the main regions of the Bents’ fields of studies, as already mentioned – the Eastern Mediterranean, Africa, and Arabia, over a period twenty years following their marriage in 1877. In most cases the BM item number consists in part of the year the piece was acquired from the Bents, i.e. Af1892,0714.144, denotes 1892 – in this instance when Theodore and Mabel returned out of Africa.

Thus, without further ado… “The Bents and the BM: in Five Objects”

Let’s make a start in the Greek Cyclades – the scene of Theodore’s first (1883/4) substantial ‘excavations’ (although his modus operandi bears little resemblance to the science of today and raises eyebrows, if not ire, still among archaeologists).

[Basic inventory details are provided, but there seems little point in repeating the detailed information on the artefacts given by the Museum, click through yourself to access it if you wish. We thought however that readers might like to get a little detail on the objects provided by the Bents themselves, either via Mabel’s diaries (her Chronicles), or Theodore’s publications.]

1884,1213.14. Marble figure from Antiparos,  2700 BC-2500 BC  (© The British Museum).

[Cultured female voice, slow, musical, dark, clear] “Object No. 1: Parian marble figure from Antiparos in the Greek Cyclades,  2700 BC-2500 BC“. The Cyclades provided Theodore Bent with his first theatre of operations and he ‘excavated’ at two sites on Antiparos, off Paros, in the winter of 1883/4. He brought home with him, and then sold to the BM, a largish assemblage of items, including a few of the iconic, now ubiquitous, and haunting, marble figurines. (There was skeletal material, too, now in the Natural History Museum.) Bent’s work on Antiparos paved the way for the realization that there was a distinct ‘Cycladic’ culture. Here is Mabel Bent’s diary entry at the time of their first dig: “Tuesday [18 December 1883]. Rode 1½ hour to the nearest point to Antiparos carrying only our night things and a card of introduction from Mr. Binney for Mr. R. Swan who has a calamine mine on this island. Crossed in about 10 minutes… Met Mr. Swan who more than fulfilled our warmest hopes. He took us to his house, and after resting told us that in making a road he had come upon a lot of graves and found a marble cup, broken etc. So, we manifesting a great wish to dig too, he got men and we opened 4. They were lined and paved with slabs of stone and the people must have been doubled up in them, they were so small; we only found, besides bones, 2 very rough marble symbols of men and women, little flat things and some broken pottery.” (Mabel Bent 2006: 21ff.)

1886,0310.1. Limestone female figure from the Greek island of Karpathos. Neolithic? (© The British Museum).

[Cultured female voice, slow, musical, dark, clear] “Object No. 2: Limestone female figure from the Greek island of Karpathos. Possibly Neolithic.” The Bents spent several of the early months of 1885 in the island group now known as the Dodecanese, then Turkish, in the Eastern Mediterranean. Mabel refers to them as the ‘Sporades’. On Karpathos the couple acquire an extraordinary stone figure without parallel in Greece to this day, and she found her way to the British Museum in 1886. She was intact when she left the island; she is now in two halves but has been restored. Recently (2019) she was an extra, a stand-in, for the BM’s travelling exhibition linked to Neil MacGregor’s TV/radio series. Alas she never made a starring role in the English series; she would thus have returned the favour to the Bents, making them minor celebrities once more. But she would also have raised questions as to her pedigree best left in her boudoir. Are those arms not highly problematic?  The BM may have assumed that she came from a tomb around Vrykounda in the north of the island, although elsewhere Theodore links it to Pigadia and Mabel’s diary seems to confirm this; what is for certain is that she is both fantastic and fantastical and deserves more study – if not a series of novels! “[Monday, 20 April 1885] The next excitement was getting the things at Pegadhia [Pigadia, Karpathos]… Manthaios [the Bents’ dragoman] set off to run to the house where was a very hideous statue, more than the size of a baby, half a mile off… At last I saw M tearing back with the burden on his shoulders and very soon they reached the ship and all was on board… When M appeared, Theodore could see that the statue showed behind and told him so, but he said ‘No matter’ and rushed on to the boat and then came back to say goodbye to the Turks. T saw them spot the statue and whisper together and shrug their shoulders, so now we are in possession of the most hideous thing ever made by human hands. We mean to deposit it in bond at the customhouse of Syra with all the cases and things we do not want…” (Mabel Bent 2006: 119ff.)

CRS.73. Cast; sculpture, made of plaster; in form of a bird sitting on top of a pedestal. Late 19th-early 20th-century copy of medieval? African original (© The British Museum).

[Cultured female voice, slow, musical, dark, clear] “Object No. 3: Cast; sculpture, made of plaster; in form of a bird sitting on top of a pedestal. Late 19th-early 20th century copy of medieval? African original.” When Greek and Turkish lands became too tricky for the Bents to wander and wonder over, they set off in other directions, south and southeast. In 1889 they were to be found digging in the ‘Mounds of Ali’ in Bahrain, before returning to London via a south-north ride the length of Persia. At the end of 1890, Bent came under the inescapable gravitational pull of Cecil Rhodes, and by the summer of 1891 he and Mabel were thousands of miles away south, exploring the fabled ruins of ‘Great Zimbabwe‘, from where they shipped hundreds of artifacts back to London, mounting an exhibition of the choicest things in their home near Marble Arch in early 1892. Included were a few of the iconic black soapstone birds which would grace any museum, anywhere. Rhodes had other plans for the best items, however, and he had maintained rights to them; after the exhibition they were repackaged and sent to him in Cape Town. Some of the things, especially the mesmerizing, totemic birds, he took immediately to his house at Groote Schuur, but they later flew to museums in South Africa and Zimbabwe.  It seems the Bents, or the BM, had casts made of one or more of the original soapstone ‘beams’ on which the elegant birds perched, and Mabel kept it before giving it to the BM again in 1926, in all likelihood. The original is now back in Africa, and although just a cast, the artifact is unique and significant enough to merit a place in this assemblage now.  The Bents’ Great-Zimbabwe-tour finds  (largely ethnographic) represent the largest element of the collections they sold or gave to the BM, literally hundreds of things now in store, as much bric-à-brac as anything else. Mabel waxes lyrical on first seeing one of these beams: “[Friday, 5 June 1891]. After breakfast we hurried to Zimbáboe as they pronounce it, also Zimbágowe. I rode Beauty [her horse] with a trooper’s saddle, as my saddle was packed. I was glad to get dry through the dewy grass, which came high above the top of my parasol. We left two wagons to follow. First we climbed up the hill, or rather the principal hill near, full in every cranny and on every detached rock, of huts and a large quantity of people. There are ruins all over the top; all the ends of the walls are rounded, both up on the hill and down in the round ruin. I mean to abstain from a description of the ruins, for they will be described elsewhere when we have worked at them a little. Our souls were gladdened by some long stones carved over and one with a strange bird at the end…” (Mabel Bent 2012: 85)

Af1893,1112.1. Painting of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ and scenes from the life of Bishop Selama. Ethiopia, Adwa: Church of the Saviour of the World. Late 19th. cent. copy ? (© The British Museum).

[Cultured female voice, slow, musical, dark, clear] “Object No. 4:  Painting depicting the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ and scenes from the life of Bishop Selama. Painted on cotton, hand-woven in two sections, stitched together centrally top to bottom. Ethiopia, Adwa: Church of the Saviour of the World. 19th. c. copy ?” In London once more, via Lisbon, from Mashonaland and South Africa, in early February 1892, Theodore was a minor celebrity. He had come home with crates of finds from ‘Great Zimbabwe’ and a theory that no one for the moment could gainsay about prehistoric Southern Arabian influence, trade and power. Research by Theodore in London and in the Lisbon archives, and correspondence on inscriptions and possible architectural similarities between features in Mashonaland and Marib (Yemen), introduced Theodore to the little-explored interior of Ethiopia, and its evocative ‘capital’ Aksum (Axum).

‘The Church of the Saviour of the World, Adowa’. Sketch by Theodore Bent. ‘The Illustrated London News’, 6 May 1893, p.556 (The Bent Archive).

The Bents’ 1883 tour of the region was ultimately unsuccessful due to local unrest, exacerbated by the colonial ambitions of the Italians. By far the most interesting of the artifacts Bent brought back was this large painting of the Crucifixion, he bought for ‘Ten pieces of silver’ from the Church of the Saviour of the World, Adwa. Bent describes the transaction in the book  that resulted from the journey:  “It was here… that I espied a picture cast on one side, for the colours were somewhat faded, which I faintly hoped to acquire. At first our offers were received with contempt, but again and again we sent our interpreter, and with him ten pieces of silver, the sight of which eventually overcame the priest’s dread of mutilation, and the evening before our final departure from Adoua the picture was ours. Our interpreter himself was terrified at what he had done, ‘We must not breathe a word of the transaction, even to the Italians,’ he said ; ‘we must bury the treasure at the bottom of our deepest bag ‘ ; and to all these regulations we gladly acquiesced, for we knew the great difficulty of acquiring these things in Abyssinia, and the danger to which we all should be exposed if our transaction should be discovered, and I am pretty nearly sure that this picture which is now in the British Museum is the first of its kind which has reached Europe…” (The Sacred City of the Ethiopians, 1893, pp. 129-33)

[Cultured female voice, slow, musical, dark, clear] “Object No. 5: A pottery stamp/clay seal from the Wadi Hadramaut, Yemen, aka ‘The Bethel Seal’? Used presumably by a merchant for designating ownership, or contents, of traded merchandise. Date uncertain.” It must be quickly said that this is a deceit; it is a mystery object that should have been given by Mabel with a few other artifacts from the Wadi Hadramaut (Yemen) in 1926, but was not, and thereby hangs a tale worth the telling.

The Bents are admired for their three attempts to traverse the dangerous Wadi Hadramaut in the Yemen, from west to east and down to the Gulf of Aden, from 1894-7. The final trip cost Theodore his life. The couple were travelling on horses and camels and were restricted in what they could bring away with them and the largest collection consisted of hundreds of botanical specimens, reasonably light, now in the Herbarium, Kew.

Mabel has left us in her diary some idea as to how acquisitions were made along the way: “On Saturday the 13th [January 1894], the day after our arrival, at 8 o’clock, the Sultan, Theodore, Saleh and a groom on the four horses, and I on [my horse] Basha, and a vizier on a camel with a soldier, and the soldiers on foot, rode about five miles to a good old ruin (Al Gran), but embedded in an inhabited house so that excavation would be impossible; from a very well cut scrap of ornament we thought it to be a temple, and it is perhaps from this temple that a kind of small stone trough has been brought, with a dedication, rather long, in Sabean, which Theodore has nearly deciphered – a trough with a spout coming to England. Two stones have been brought us by camels at the Sultan’s orders.” (Mabel Bent 2010: 167)

The Bents returned in 1894 from the Hadramaut with the modest lump of clay – the stamp/seal in question. It featured with a small collection of other items on page 436 of the Bents’ great book on Southern Arabia (1900), including the ‘trough’ Mabel mentions above. Then, rather like a great ring, the seal disappeared from view – until it reappeared in an archaeologist’s shovel in the late 1950s at a site at Beitin, Biblical Bethel, Palestine, and the scene of Mabel Bent’s accident in the early 1900s, when she broke a leg in the wilderness, riding, unaccountably, on her own.

But was it the same modest lump of clay, or another, identical artifact? Today it (or both?) is/are lost, and a debate has waxed and waned over the mystery ever since. A strong argument is made that Mabel, distressed, widowed, mourning her late husband and her lost life as an explorer, ceremoniously placed the stamp in a deposit at Bethel in the early 1900s as a tribute to Theodore – not caring if it were ever found again or not – the significance of the site being that it marked the end of a frankincense route (the resin being one of his passions) that began thousands of miles away in the Wadi Hadramaut – and thus Theodore could rest easily, his journey over; the love of a grieving widow.

As a coda, perhaps the Bents’ acquisitions no longer quite justify the hyperbole appearing in Mabel’s interview to The Hearth and Home (2 November 1893) before leaving for Arabia: “Gifted with great artistic taste, Mrs. Bent’s personal collection of curiosities include many beautiful things brought from abroad, and, as our readers are doubtless aware, ‘The Bent Collection’ in the British Museum is one of the most interesting in that venerable building.”

But you should go and decide for yourself…

References: Mabel Bent 2006, 2010, 2012 = The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J Theodore Bent, vols 1-3, Archaeopress, Oxford.

(Other finds: Very much smaller collections of the Bents’ acquisitions can be found in: the V&A, London; the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford; as well as in Cape Town, Harare, Istanbul, and elsewhere.)