Some recognition, after 137 years, for the skeletal material excavated in 1883/4 on the Cycladic island of Antiparos by Theodore Bent.
“The skull from the Greek tombs at Antiparos placed in my hands for examination by Mr. Bent is that of an adult male of middle age.” [J.G. Garson, M.D., Royal College of Surgeons, in J.T. Bent ‘Notes on Prehistoric Remains in Antiparos’. The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. XIV (2) (Nov 1884), 134-41] (NHMUK PA HR 12070, RCS 5.3162, FC 531B. Photo courtesy of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London, 2022)
Theodore Bent’s first rung on the archaeologist’s ladder, as it were, is represented by his few weeks in late 1883 and early 1884 excavating some prehistoric graves on Antiparos in the Greek Cyclades (see map below). Bent writes “I was induced to dig at Antiparos, because I was shown extensive graveyards there. Of these, I visited no less than four on the island itself, and heard from natives of the existence of others in parts of the island I did not visit…” (Researches Among the Cyclades, 1884, p.47)
As to how this all came about is revealed in his wife’s ‘Chronicle’:
“Tuesday [1883, December 18th?]. 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 [from Paros]. Found the population all enjoying the feast of St. Nikoloas who replaces Neptune. At one house I was obliged to join in the syrtos holding 2 handkerchiefs. We sent a messenger to Mr. Swan and knowing he would take 3 hours to return, rode to meet him. 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.” [The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, vol 1, Oxford 2006, pp 21-2]
The Scottish engineer Robert Swan (1858-1904), and his brother John, were at that time working for a French mining company and were settled on the western coast of Antiparos around the site known today as Krassades – his house, where the Bents spent the night, having excavated some of the famous Cycladic figurines (which he sold to the British Museum) and the skeletal material, can still be seen. The next day (19th December 1883?) the Bents went back to Paros for Christmas and the New Year, not returning to Antiparos to undertake more excavations until 4 February 1884 (for three weeks). Mabel does not provide much information on this second campaign:
“… As I have been very lazy about my Chronicle, I will only say that there I stayed 3 weeks [February 1884], during which time we did lots of fishing, sometimes with dynamite, which is against the law and very dangerous, but the fishermen here did it… A good deal of grave digging was also done and a good many pots of earth and marble found, also knives of volcanic glass, little marble figures and a little silver one also, very rough, and some personal ornaments of brass and silver…” [The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, vol 1, Oxford 2006, pp 45-6]
Altogether, Theodore Bent records having opened around 40 graves at two of the sites they explored, referring to Krassades as the ‘poorer’ (i.e. earlier):
“And now a few words about the graves themselves. In the first place those on the western slope are very irregular in shape: some oblong, some triangular, some square ; they generally had three slabs to form the sides, the fourth being built up with stones and rubbish. There was always a slab on the top, and sometimes at the bottom of the grave. They were on an average 3 feet long, 2 feet wide, and seldom more than 2 feet deep. In every grave here we found bones, chiefly heaped together in confusion, and most of the graves contained the bones of more bodies than one. In one very small grave we found two skulls, so tightly wedged together between the side slabs that they could not be removed whole.” [Notes on Prehistoric Remains in Antiparos, pp. 137-8]
“May 7, 1884. Skull from an ancient [cemetery?] found in the Island of Antiparos one of the Cyclades. An account of the excavations in which it was found is published by the donor in the Athenaeum for May 3rd 1884. Thought to belong to a period previous to the 16th cent. BC. Presented by Theodore Bent Esq, 43 Great Cumberland Place, W.” (RCS : Register of Accessions or Donations, 1862-1886, Ref: RCS-MUS/3/1/6. © Royal College of Surgeons, reproduced with permission). In his famous book covering the two seasons (1883-4) he and his wife Mabel spent touring the region (The Cyclades, or Life Among the Insular Greeks, 1885), the young archaeologist makes a reference to having returned to London with the skeletal material uncovered on Antiparos and that a skull was donated to the Royal College of Surgeons, who briefly published it, according to the science of the time:
“The skull from the Greek tombs at Antiparos placed in my hands for examination by Mr. Bent is that of an adult male of middle age.” [‘Notes On An Ancient Grecian Skull Obtained By Mr. Theodore Bent From Antiparos, One Of The Cyclades’, by J.G. Garson, M.D., Royal College of Surgeons, in J.T. Bent ‘Notes on Prehistoric Remains in Antiparos’. The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. XIV (2) (Nov 1884), 134-41; Biographical note: ‘J.G. Garson, M.D., F.Z.S., Memb. Anthrop. Inst., Anat. Assist. Royal College of Surgeons, and Lecturer on Comparative Anatomy at Charing Cross Medical School’]
And that might have been that for this Early Cycladic individual, but the Bent Archive felt that he deserved more attention, and the Royal College of Surgeons was approached to see if they had any information on the subject. There was good and bad news – Yes, the skull appears in their registers [Register of Accessions or Donations, 1862-1886, Ref: RCS-MUS/3/1/6], but, No, it was probably destroyed in the Blitz, when about a third of their collection was lost. But, their archivist continued, try the Natural History Museum, where some items had been transferred before the war.
Our approach to the Museum revealed that, indeed, the skull was there in South Kensington, and not just a skull, but another skull fragment, a pelvis, and also a considerable assemblage of ribs and assorted long-bones. This was a new discovery. Bent makes no mention of returning with such a large collection – and nor have the bones been catalogued or studied; indeed, without such study there is no way of knowing how many individuals are involved, nor from which site they came. We know that Bent made at least two investigations of burials sites on Antiparos, and Mabel Bent in her diaries also refers to finding bones on Paros and perhaps elsewhere. Without further research it is not possible to say whether all the material is from the significant and early Krassades site.
In the early summer of 2022, the Natural History Museum took the first ever photographs of the skulls and fragments of a pelvis, and have very kindly given their permission for us to reproduce the cranium mentioned by the excavator in his laconic footnote on page 409 of his 1885 monograph – “The skull I presented to the Royal College of Surgeons.” It has not been seen by anyone outside a museum drawer for almost 140 years, and very far from the sunny Cyclades.
Mabel Bent was to become the expedition photographer on the couple’s subsequent annual journeys to the Levant, Africa and Arabia, but not for the trip to the Cyclades, alas, or we might have been able to see the skull before in some way (it is also rather strange, perhaps, that it seems never to have been drawn for any of Bent’s articles).
In any event, the artefact is respectfully presented here, and it is gratifying to bring this individual from an early Mediterranean culture to a wider audience for the first time (August 2022). Hopefully a project to sort, classify, and catalogue all the Natural History Museum Bent Collection material can be undertaken to see whether further scientific analyses might be appropriate: the last decade or so has seen considerable interest in the prehistoric past of the region (e.g. the work of Colin Renfrew et al. not far away at Keros and Daskalio, off Naxos).
We are delighted to add (January 2024) that the skeletal material recovered by the Bents from Antiparos in the winter of 1883/4 and now in the Natural History Museum, London, has recently been assessed by Laura Ortiz Guerrero in “Osteological analysis of the Early Bronze Age human remains excavated from Antiparos in the 19th century” (Unpublished Master’s Dissertation, University of Sheffield, Department of Archaeology, 2023).
Present whereabouts unknown, but presumably in the former Musée Archéologique De Charleroi, a most interesting group of four vases (two stone, two clay) was removed from Antiparos after 1850 and entered the collection of the industrialist Valère Mabille (1840-1909), who later presented them to the ‘Société paléontologique et archéologique de l’arrondissement judiciaire de Charleroi’. One of the vessels is nearly identical to a jar removed by Bent from the sprawling site at Krassades and sold later to the British Museum (1884,1213.42). It is very possible that the four Charleroi pots are from the site Bent was to explore in 1883/4, and were looted during the French mining operations that were ongoing there before the Bents arrived. One of the pots, it seems, contained some skeletal material, possibly not yet analysed; the bones Bent brought back from the Krassades site are currently being studied. Such examples from Antiparos are very rare. The echo of Mabel in Mabille does not go unheard. (Ch. Delvoye, Quatre vases préhelléniques du musée archéologique de Charleroi, L’Antiquité Classique, 1947, 47-58)
For those interested in a select bibliography on the subject, we can list for you, inter alia:
Map of the scene
In early 1885, Theodore and Mabel Bent were travelling in the islands we now refer to as the Dodecanese (in the Eastern Mediterranean), but were then in Turkish hands. Their main interest was Karpathos, but before sailing there the couple spent time on Rhodes, Nisyros, and Tilos, looking for items of interest to them – antiquities, textiles, ceramics – as well as making notes of traditions, folklore, and customs, and taking photographs and sketching.
Avid collectors (and dealers) of textiles, the Bents acquired a number of articles of clothing and domestic embroideries on their journey around the Dodecanese in the first quarter of 1885. It was a competitive field, as illustrated by an (unpleasant) note by Theodore regarding a fellow passenger, the following year, to the nearby island of Asytpalaia: “Another passenger, too, turned up, whom we soon learnt to be a little red-haired Jew from a bazaar in Constantinople, who took this opportunity to make a descent on Astypalaea for embroideries and plates; he was our bête noire in the island: whenever we tried to effect a bargain he was always to be seen hovering around, ready to offer more if our price was low, and to chuckle if we gave too much.” (‘Astypalæa’. The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 262 (Mar), 253-65) (NB Mabel never refers to this merchant in her diary and Theodore may well have made it up to pander to the prejudices of the day.)
The Bents explored Nisyros from 21–24 February 1885, and seem to have bought there eight or nine garments/textiles, as Mabel notes in her diary for 23 February: “The women here wear a very pretty dress, and now we know why ‘Turkey red’ is called Turkey red, i.e. because all the women in this Turkish island wear an open sleeveless gown of it with a very full skirt a good deal shorter than the thick cotton shirt with handsome silk embroidery round the tail, 1½ yards round. The sleeves are splendidly embroidered. We have bought 5 of these underdresses, 1 pair of sleeves, a pillow cover, and a bed valance for £3.15.0.” (The Travel Chronicles of Mrs. J. Theodore Bent, Vol. 1, 2006, Oxford, p.73.)
The sterling sum Mabel mentions (taking £1 in 1885 for £150 today) equates to nearly £600. In 1886 Theodore offered three dresses acquired from Karpathos (visited in the same season as Nisyros) to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London for £15 (£2250).
Two of the Nisyros items are today in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London – a red overdress (T.166-1931) and a cushion cover/pillowcase (T.149-1930). These were sold to the famous London retailers Liberty & Co. after Mabel’s death (1929), or shortly before, by her nieces (who were her beneficiaries). Liberty’s then donated them to the V&A in the early 1930s.
As for the other items Mabel refers to (‘underdresses’, the ‘sleeves’, ‘bed valence’), we can only guess as to which collections they might now be in. A search of the V&A’s online collections reveals several unprovenanced items, including bed valences, and it is possible that some of the Bent textiles were bought and then donated to museums around the world. For instance, the ‘sleeves’ (bodice?) Mabel Bent refers to could easily resemble those illustrated by V&A item CIRC.628-1928, said to have come from Tilos, the next island south from Nisyros, and donated by Professor and Mrs Percy Newberry, whom we know were in contact with Mabel Bent. Did she sell to them perhaps? All pure conjecture of course.
At the end of 1885, the Bents gave a lecture to the Anthropological Institute, London, entitled ‘On Insular Greek Customs’, and Mabel Bent curated a small exhibition of her embroideries for it, including the Nisyros valence she referred to above: “A sindhoni of Niseros worked in brown, light yellow, and blue”. Another exhibit featured the red overdress also mentioned and illustrated above: “A figure dressed as a woman of Niseros, in a short narrow dress of white cotton, embroidered round the tail and round the square neck, and with wide sleeves, embroidered in stripes of various coloured silks, and with silver embroidery on the shoulders; over this a very wide dress of turkey-red, half a yard shorter, and sleeveless. A black kerchief across the forehead, and a yellow one over that, hiding the mouth.” (J.T. Bent, ‘Insular Greek Customs’. The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 15 (1886), pp. 391-403. [With an Appendix by ‘Mrs. Bent’, p. 401-3])
Mabel exhibited three of her Nisyros ‘underdresses’ (as well as several other possessions) at an event hosted in 1914 by the Burlington Fine Arts Club (BFAC Catalogue Nos. 44, 66, 83), Exhibit No. 44 included her Nisyros red overdress, the catalogue entry of which begins: “Overskirt of red Turkey twill and Frock embroidered in cross-stitch in coloured silks, of which black is dominant, on linen.” (Catalogue of a collection of old embroideries of the Greek islands and Turkey by Burlington Fine Arts Club (eds A.J.B. Wace et al.), London, 1914, p. 12)
As remote as you like, for her 37th birthday in 1884, Mabel Bent finds herself on the Greek Cycladic island of Sikinos, a dot squashed between Folegandros and Ios, a leap northwest of Santorini. She and her husband, Theodore Bent, no less inquisitive than acquisitive, were hopping around the islands looking for material for a book which was to appear the following year – his celebrated guide The Cyclades, or Life Among the Insular Greeks. [See below for a summary of Bent birthdays in foreign lands.]
The couple arrived on Sikinos from Ios, a little to the east, on 27 January 1884 and were put up in the house of the demarch, presumably within the medieval, walled chora. They were well looked after, as Mabel notes in her diary:
“[The Sikinos demarch] received us very hospitably. We have a real bedroom and washing table and all. We were soon at dinner and many people came in to see us. When we came out of our bedrooms yesterday morning, 28th, my birthday, we had a tray with a coffee pot and sheep milk and some very hard bread with sesame, all at different times, and very soon after eggs and wine, and then set off with a good many men on mules and foot to the Church of Episkopi, once the temple of Apollo Pythios, about 1½ hour off; of course a steep and rocky way. One could quite well see what it had been in spite of the Christian alterations.” (The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J.T. Bent, Vol. 1, Oxford, 2006, p.41)
Theodore gives this small but imposing (and important) monument ten out of ten. Its designation as a temple to Apollo comes from an inscription identified by Ludwig Ross in the 1840s, but it is more securely considered a mausoleum from Roman times, subsequently rebuilt in the 3rd century AD as a Byzantine Church. Read about it all in a remarkable article, fully illustrated, at Diocese of Sikinos: A unique monument is dedicated to the public today (accessed 19/01/2023).
Very fortunately, the monument escaped the spades of the Bents. Over the last few years it has been re-excavated and restored by the Ephorate of Antiquities (EFA) of the Cyclades, who were awarded the Europa Nostra Award for their work in 2022. The great find was the high-status tomb of a woman apparently named Neiko; Theodore stood just a few metres above her, and she eluded his attentions (unlike the less lucky Karpathos Lady).
Here are his words: “Few remains in Greece are more perfect than this temple of Apollo at Sikinos. Somehow it has escaped observation, and it has been too high above the sea to make it of any use for building material; hence it escaped during the earlier years of Vandalism; and then when it was turned into a place of Christian worship a certain amount of respect was secured for it, which other ruins did not obtain until later years…” (The Cyclades, or Life Among the Insular Greeks, 1885, London, p.176)
Bent also mentions that they met up with the former mayor, Iakovos Kortesis (Theodore names him Kortes) : “An old man, the former demarch, came in shortly after we were up, and begged for the privilege of taking us about the town. In many respects he seemed a man more respected and looked up to than our jocular host; for we were told that if his age and infirmities had not interfered with the fulfilment of his duties he would still have been in office. Wrapped in a shawl, and stick in hand, he seemed to despise the cold, and trudged on at a good pace to show us his garden. Kortes was the name of the old man, and after showing us his garden he conducted us to his house, a large cold place, without any glass in the windows, just over the town gateway…” (The Cyclades, p.178) There is a splendid Sikinos website with contemporary photographs and references to Bent, and see these other (slightly later) photos of the exterior of the house the Bents visited, and a ‘Sikinos gate‘.
A review of Bent birthdays based on Mabel Bent’s Chronicles, 1884-1897
The accompanying interactive map below plots these birthdays: Mabel in green, Theodore in blue. (NB: London [13 Great Cumberland Place] stands in for unknown locations in Great Britain; the couple could have been away visiting family and friends in Ireland or England, including at their property ‘Sutton Hall’, outside of Macclesfield.)
There were 28 Bent birthday events (2 x 14) between 1884–1897 (the years covered by Mabel Bent’s diaries). Of these 28, only 5 (18%) were not spent in the field, and only 7 times (25%) does Mabel refer to a birthday in her notebooks directly. In the above Table, column 1 gives the year and ages of the Bents on their birthdays; columns 2 and 3 give their birthday locations. Events in red are when Mabel refers directly to their birthdays. ‘London’ is standing in for unknown locations in Great Britain. If not at their main residence (13 Great Cumberland Place), the couple could have been visiting family and friends in Ireland and England, including at their property Sutton Hall, outside of Macclesfield.
“A sort of bib is worn in front, 5 or 6 inches wide, and down to the waist, embroidered and spangled and sometimes covered with gilt coins and a bit of white calico sewn to the end, which looks as if meant to tuck in but is not.” (Extract from Mabel Bent’s Greek Chronicles, 2006, Archaeopress, Oxford, pp.155-6)
For ten years at the end of the 19th century British explorers Theodore and Mabel Bent travelled around Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean, always on the lookout for fabrics and costumes to bring back to London (either for their own collection or to sell on).
The couple were on Astypalaia (the Greek Dodecanese) in March 1886 and bought one of these stomachers (also plastron) that Mabel Bent is describing; it remained in her private collection until the end of her life, when her nieces sold it to the famous retailer Liberty & Co., who gave it to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, in 1930 (inv. no. T.150-1930). It is not on display.
“The women here wear a beautiful dress. Their heads have a long yellow scarf wound round and hanging in loops below the waist, behind and in front, over a little cap covered with beads and spangles and very large earrings of silver; a shirt with embroidery round the tail and very large sleeves like those of Nisiros. These they tie up to their shoulders when at work. Their dress is made of a fine cherry-coloured cloth; a full skirt, echoing the embroidery of the skirt, down the front is let in about half a yard of blue cotton. Round the tail of the skirt is turned up about 8 inches of course white flannel and above that about 8 inches of the blue, so really there is not so very much red. The jacket is of the same red, square backed to the waist, where it branches out to 2 points which are left open and above the slit 3 big silver buttons all tight together. A sort of bib is worn in front, 5 or 6 inches wide, and down to the waist, embroidered and spangled and sometimes covered with gilt coins and a bit of white calico sewn to the end, which looks as if meant to tuck in but is not.
“I photographed a bride. Her head was covered with a sort of mitre of gold and seed pearls and gauze scarf; dress velvet, silk shirt, jacket fringed with immense silver buttons and big blobs of glass which looked crystal, and on the back there was a quantity of silver. 3 pairs of silver gilt and pearl earrings larger than bracelets. She had 2 holes in her ears. I took 6 photographs.” (Extract from Mabel Bent’s Greek Chronicles, 2006, Archaeopress, Oxford, pp.155-6)
Incidentally, we have here a good example above of how Theodore relied on Mabel’s notebooks (her ‘Chronicles’) for his own writings. Here is an extract from his 1887 article on Astypalaia: “In front a sort of bib is worn down to the waist, embroidered and bespangled, and sometimes covered with gold coins. At the end of this is sewn a bit of white calico, which looks as if it was intended to tuck in, but it never is.” (Theodore Bent, 1887, ‘Astypalæa’. The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 262 (Mar), 253-65)
The photographs Mabel mentions have not been traced, but her stomacher/plastron was to feature in the Burlington exhibition of Greek/Turkish embroideries in London in 1914 (item 81, pp.19-20 in the catalogue), where it is described thus: “There is no embroidery round the neck or down the V [of the dress], but the opening is covered by a separate garment. This is an oblong plastron embroidered in silk and wool on linen with a pattern of pairs of leaves. At the top is a border of beads and gold thread, and the whole surface is covered with sequins of coloured tin.”
The plastron is well described on the V&A’s own site, from where the top illustration is taken (© Victoria and Albert Museum, London).
Mabel’s collection is now dispersed, but perhaps the star exhibits are back in Athens – some iconic dresses from Karpathos – in the Benaki Museum. The V&A in London has a representative selection of the embroideries and there are also a few other items in the Harris Museum, Preston, UK.
Mabel’s family, the Hall-Dares of Newtownbarry, were in the first wave of Co. Wexford gentry to adopt the horseless carriage – although in all probability not a Merc, the first of which rolled off the production lines as late as 1926 apparently.
This vehicle, illustrated above, is now resignedly, like an old grey, seeing out its retirement in a public carpark in Plakias, south-western Crete, a hundred metres or so from the shores of the Libyan Sea. As a marque of respect, the researchers of the Bent Archive, recently in the area (May 2022), resorted to Mabel Bent’s Chronicle of April 1885 to confirm that the nearest the Bents got to Plakias (a huddle of fishermen’s huts at the time) was from some way out to sea, heading west for Kythera on the steamer Roumeli from Karpathos.
In fact, in their twenty years of inseparable travelling, Theodore and Mabel only landed together once on Crete, then in the hands of the Turks, storm-sheltering at Kaloi Limenes/Kali Limenes, further to the east of Plakias, after their protracted investigations in the Dodecanese (early months, 1885). The haven, of course, has always aided those in peril on the sea, as it did Saint Paul, as the legend has it. Once the weather cleared, the Roumeli steamed on west, rounding Crete and Antikythera, before reaching Kythera town.
It is unclear why Crete, this major island, never attracted Theodore’s spade, but it probably had something to do with his notoriety; the era of freelancing excavators was coming to an end in Greece and Turkey, and Bent was soon to make an enemy of the implacable Turkish administrator of antiquities, Osman Hamdi Bey. The site of Knossos had been discovered in 1878 (the year after the Bents’ wedding) by Minos Kalokairinos, although it was not until 1900 that Arthur Evans began to extensively clear it. (For a glimpse of Cretan archaeological machinations in 1885, see, e.g., Frothingham 1888. Theodore did very well to steer clear, and, from 1886 eastwards to the Turkish coast. Within a few years, even here became too difficult for the Bents to explore at will, and they were soon off to Africa and Arabia, where they could more freely investigate.)
But, for the moment, back to Crete. Here, then, are the relevant extracts from Mabel’s notebook of their stay of a few hours on the island, at Kaloi Limenes, some fifty years before the great John Pendlebury ran across the hills above the site, as oblivious of his fate as Theodore was of his:
“Tuesday April 22nd [actually 21st, 1885]. After this we turned S.W. and sailed under Crete. We had a fearful night of storm, pitching, rolling, catching ‘B flats’ [fleas/bedbugs] and fears of falling on the floor. Added to which I am so spoiled by my hammock that I found the bed dreadfully hard. Much splashing took place and water flew over the ship, so about 10 o’clock, when we got close to ‘a certain island called Clauda’ [Acts 27:16. The Saint shelters here while travelling, as a prisoner, by ship to Rome. The ancient town of Lasea was nearby], we had to turn S. then E. again and take refuge here – a very sheltered place. We went ashore with the water barrels. There is a beach and some bushes and a pretty stream in which many clothes were washed by those who subsequently landed, and all the hands and faces washed, so no doubt we came back a cleaner party than we went…
“The annoyance at being turned back was quite overborne by the interest of coming to Kalé Liminas, and it was a great satisfaction to think that St. Paul must have drunk and washed in that very stream, and being stormstayed too was rather nice. The city of Lasea, which was nigh unto the Fair Havens, has disappeared but the place is the same…
“Wednesday, April [22nd, 1885]. We started at 8 in the evening and after a good deal of tossing got into calmer regions, but still were ‘under Crete’ in the morning [passing the huts of Plakias to starboard]. We had a lovely day. About 10 we passed Cerigotto, or as they call it Ante Kythera, and about 12 reached Kythera, or Cerigo, and found ourselves in a very pretty little double bay with a rocky promontory in the middle and a sandy shore.”
A postscript is that the widowed Mabel did return to Crete over the winter of 1901/02, but we don’t know what she did or where she stayed there. “Mrs. Theodore Bent, who spent the winter in Crete, is now at her house in Great Cumberland Place, London.” (Lady of the House, Thursday, 15 May 1902)[The extracts are from The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Vol 1, pages 120-122 (Oxford, Archaeopress)].
The recent scans by London’s Hellenic Society (2021/2) of Mabel Bent’s ‘Chronihttps://www.archaeopress.com/Archaeopress/Collection/The-Travel-Chronicles-of-Mrs-J.-Theodore-Bentcles’ (written between 1883-1897) have provided a wonderful opportunity for researchers to see the diaries of this remarkable traveller first-hand and explore their contexts. Her husband, Theodore Bent (1852-1897), relied on them extensively when writing up the results of the couple’s expeditions for his talks, articles, and monographs.
The work that helped launch Theodore’s reputation, and see him starting to think of himself as an ‘archaeologist’, was, of course, his The Cyclades, or Life Among the Insular Greeks, completed in November 1884 – Bent was an incredibly quick writer – and first published in London in 1885, subsequently running to several editions. It is the first such travel account in English and still today features in any credible bibliography on this much-loved region – some might add, come high summer, too much-loved.
Mabel’s first ‘Chronicle’ covers the Bents’ tour of the Cyclades over the winter of 1883/4 and there is a litany of evidence of her diary entries appearing almost verbatim in Theodore’s text.
It should just be added that the couple had made an earlier trip to some of the Cycladic islands in the spring of 1883, and Theodore would have used his own (now lost) notebooks to add certain passages to his book, e.g. his chapter on Amorgos, an island not visited by the pair together in 1884, when Theodore made a second visit sans spouse. It will immediately be seen that Theodore has not assembled The Cyclades chronologically, for that you will need to follow Mabel’s diary. The couple hopped around rather, depending on the weather, steamer sailings, and other factors, which explains why some islands get more than one mention in her notes.
Because of the popularity and importance of it, for example the couple’s excavations on Antiparos helped define what is identified today as the prehistoric ‘Cycladic Culture’, Mabel’s diary covering these islands (that encircle Delos, and hence the name), in its freely available, digital format, will from now on be referenced and footnoted copiously. The Hellenic Society’s version is in pdf format and provided below is an index to the main islands and a concordance with the chapters in the first edition of Bent’s The Cyclades, as appearing in the online version of that godsend, the Internet Archive. The relevant page numbers are shown, i.e. for the Bents’ account of Anafi, see page 49ff in the Hellenic Society’s scan of Mabel’s notebook, and page 86ff in Theodore’s The Cyclades.
Please note: the Hellenic Society pdf is large and may well take several minutes to load, once open you can enter the page number to take you to the island you want. In Theodore’s column, clicking on the page number will take you to the island in his book! Happy travels! Καλό ταξίδι!
|Mabel’s Notebook (PDF)
|Theodore’s The Cyclades
|(not visited by Mabel?)
|49, 51, 57
In the late 1920s, Mabel Bent’s niece, Violet Ethel ffolliott (1882-1932) transferred the care of her elderly aunt’s travel diaries, as well as some notebooks of her husband’s, Theodore Bent (1852-1897), archaeologist-explorer, to the Hellenic Society in London.
Both Theodore and Mabel had been associated with the Society since the 1880s. The institution had started in 1879, and by 1883 Theodore was a member, indicating his growing interest in archaeology (he read history at Oxford). In 1885 he joined its Council and remained on it until the year of his death (1897). Women members were welcomed and contributed greatly; Mabel became a member in 1885. The Society held three or four meetings a seasons, including a General Meeting in London in the summer (at 22 Albemarle Street). The Bents were rarely in the country in time for the winter and spring meetings but, apart from 1891, when they were in Africa, they would have attended the AGMs. The Society’s journal, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, is available online (with the early years as open access), and from 1883 to 1918 one will find references to either Mr or Mrs Theodore Bent within its pages.
However, this institution, having to do, broadly, with things Greek, might at first glance appear an odd choice as a long-term home for these memoirs of travel and exploration associated with remote corners far away from the Eastern Mediterranean; only about half the couple’s twenty years of adventures were primarily dedicated to Greece and Turkey, the other portion, more often than not, found them dusty and deep in parts of Africa and the Middle East.
And after all, Theodore was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, whose orbit was the whole world, and the latter often funded and supported Bent’s expeditions; in return, he wrote and lectured for them constantly until his early death. So why not leave the Bent notebook collection to the RGS Mabel? A possible answer might be linked to the infamous scandal involving women RGS Fellows in the early 1890s. Mabel was on the list for the second allocation of Fellowships to noteworthy women travellers just at the time the RGS Committee voted against the idea, and women were not readmitted until some twenty years later. Proud Mrs Theodore Bent might well have remembered this obvious slight and opted to lodge her travelogues in the archives of the sociable and patrician Hellenic Society instead.
Whatever the reason, the Bent Collection has remained in three stout boxes in a secure library room in Senate House, London, ever since, available for private research on request (although Mabel’s ‘Chronicles’, as she called them, have since been transcribed and published by Archaeopress, Oxford, in three volumes).
However, advances in scanning techniques, and associated software, not to mention generous support, very appropriately, from the AG Leventis Foundation in this case, now mean that the Bent notebooks can be reproduced digitally, facsimile, ink blots, doodles and all, without risk to the original delicate material.
To quote the specialist involved: “For the vast majority of the time I am using a Bookeye 4 Kiosk book scanner to capture the image data and BCS-2 imaging software to process and format the images once they have been transferred from the scanner… When digitising a volume each page is saved and formatted as a single 600DPI TIFF file, all these files are then collated and converted into a single, readable book format PDF.”
And, most importantly of all, they are available, open-access free, to anyone, anywhere in the world, with an interest in 19th-century travel into those regions that attracted Theodore and Mabel Bent – from Aksum to Zimbabwe.
Accordingly, these notebooks have now been scanned and a digital catalogue produced. All Theodore’s notebooks in the archive have been finished, and all Mabel’s too – n.b. her 1896/7 volume covering Sokotra and Aden, the setting for the couple’s final journey together, was scanned last and is available here. (It should be noted here too that the diaries covering the Bents’ expedition to Ethiopia in 1893 were apparently never given to the Hellenic Society for some reason, and, for now, assumed lost – always the hardest word for a traveller to utter.)
So, what follows will take you to some very faraway places indeed – you only have to click to be transported (our pages and maps on the Bents’ explorations provide useful background information):
Greece and the Levantine Littoral
[Mabel used the term ‘Sporades’ for this diary, but the archipelago the couple travelled through in early 1885 is better known today as the Dodecanese. Their great acquisition on this trip was the unique and controversial ‘Karpathos Lady‘, held in the British Museum. The Bents never explored in any depth the group the guidebooks call the Sporades now.]
Bahrain and Iran
Africa and Egypt
Mabel Bent (1896/7): Sokotra and Aden (this volume has not yet been scanned [Feb 2022])
Mabel Bent died at her London townhouse, 13 Great Cumberland Place, on 5 July 1929 at the age of 82. Her Times obituary (6 July 1929) includes that, “as an experienced photographer and accurate observer, she was of enormous assistance to her husband and famous for the explorations in distant lands which she undertook with [him]. This was at a time when it was much more rare than it is now for a woman to venture forth on such journeys […] During her long widowhood [Theodore died a few weeks after scribbling in his final notebook above, in May 1897] of more than 30 years, Mrs. Bent was well known in literary and scientific London. She was a good talker, with an occasional sharpness of phrase which was much relished by her many friends.”
And would there be any ‘sharpness of phrase’ about seeing her ‘Chronicles’ now scanned and widely available? Did Mabel intend them for publication? Apart from the fact that Theodore relied on his wife’s notebooks for the provision of background details in his monographs, articles and lectures, the chronicler has left one or two clues within her pages.
From ‘Room 2’ of the Hôtel de Byzance, Constantinople, in February 1886, Mabel confides, in one of her happiest diaries it seems: “I must begin my Chronicle somewhere if I am to write one at all and as in this matter I am selfish enough to consider myself of the first consideration because I write to remind myself in my old age of pleasant things (or the contrary) I will begin now.” Thus we know, at least, that they were for her to read later in life, and that she intended her aunts, sisters, and nieces to share her adventures. (There are several asides such as, “We have constant patients coming to us and I am sure you would all laugh to hear T’s medical lectures.” And “You must excuse these smudges as I am sitting cross-legged on T’s bed.”).
There is also certainly nothing in her millions of words that could be considered as indiscreet, let alone anything close to libel – or nuptial intimacy for that matter – although there is a little false modesty and coquetry here and there. (Only two or three pages have been removed from the entire series of notebooks.) What is omitted, invisible, becomes visible and striking, however. In all her diaries there is not one reference to the losses of her childhood – her poor mother, her difficult father, and her two dead brothers.
But the most obvious hint that Mabel, at the very least, might be aware of a potential wider interest in her ‘Chronicles’ is the letter still preserved (in the 1885 volume) from her friend, Harry Graham, who shared in some of their travel that year, complimenting her thus: “I carried off your Chronicle… and… I never enjoyed these hours more than when reading it in the train coming down here yesterday – as soon as I have finished it I will send it you back – but why oh why don’t you publish it? It simply bristles with epigrams and I am certain would be a great success! You ought to blend the 2 Chronicles into one and I am sure everyone would buy it.”
Well. Perhaps not everyone. Mabel’s Chronicles are not great travel literature. They are her on-the-spot recollections of long days spent trekking, exploring, digging, dealing with villagers, arguing with minor officials; they are snatches of gossip, snobbishness, likes and dislikes, barking dogs, vicissitudes, poverty and pain; they are delightful souvenirs of music, dancing, colourful costumes and wonderful meals.
And how few are the references to limb and life. Just hours from complete malarial collapse, east of Aden, in the alarmingly named heights of ‘Goddam’, Theodore scribbles, in his final notebook, only weeks from his death at 45, “… but feverstricken we were delighted to get away. Apparently this corner of Yemen is particularly feverish. All those who go in from Aden appear to be ill. Perhaps it is [the] water…”
There are certainly passages that reflect her times, too, and which are inappropriate today. Great travel literature? Clearly not. But great travel writing – accounts of wonderful endurance and reflections of courage, attitude, apogee of empire, and spirit – most certainly.
It’s also nice to know the couple apparently liked their fruit syrup from J. Sainsbury!
There is no denying that Theodore Bent worked incredibly hard: if not travelling he would be planning the next expedition, fund-raising, researching, writing up, or lecturing. For the approximately twenty years of his travels (coming to style himself more and more as an ‘archaeologist’) he would return to London in the spring of each year (with the odd exception) and immediately begin to think of publishing and publicising his finds – he had always depended much on self-promotion and PR for the funding and support of his subsequent researches; he had good contacts with the press and would submit progress updates to them assiduously from far-flung outposts, via Reuters and other agencies.
An unscientific trawl through the press cuttings of the time shows how Theodore reached the peak of his ‘fame’ in 1893-4, after a trio of consecutive hits – Great Zimbabwe, Aksum, and Wadi Hadramaut. He and his wife were soon London celebrities and news and details of their adventures was syndicated widely at home and abroad.
Mabel was tasked with sorting out her photographs and ensuring that they were ready for transferal to lantern-slide or printer’s plate. There was also the constant process of unpacking and caring for case after case of acquisitions: archaeological, ethnographical, botanical, and zoological. The couple would quickly make decisions on what they wanted to keep for themselves, and exhibit in their London townhouse, and what they would offer to museums (for a remuneration if possible).
What is particularly striking is how quickly Theodore would settle to study and write up his monographs (frequently asking other specialists for contributions). His hard-pressed publishers (mostly Kegan Paul and Longmans) usually had them announced and on bookshop shelves within six to nine months of Bent’s return from the field.
And within short weeks of reaching home again – from the Levant, Africa, or Arabia – Theodore was ready to give talks and lectures, all over the UK, to the relevant grand institutions of the day, and before the great and the good (in the spring of 1892 even William Gladstone came along to hear). Mabel’s job was to have the lantern-slides ready, and any artifacts neatly labelled for display.
Other display aids might be needed – perhaps a 3D model (e.g. of his famous ‘Elliptical Temple’ at Great Zimbabwe), and then there was the commissioning of maps from the famous London cartographers Edward Stanford to be seen to.
What follows here, taken from newspapers and journals, is a chronological list (with no claims to completeness) of Theodore’s talks and presentations, giving a very good sense of the explorer’s Yorkshire-bred proclivity for hard graft. An interesting additional discovery seems to suggest that there was even an attendance charge for his talks in the provinces! The Newcastle Daily Chronicle for 2 March 1892 records that to hear Theodore lecture in Tyneside would cost you the equivalent of c. £3 today for a seat in the main hall, or c. £1.50 in galleries – money well spent! At another event we hear that Theodore’s ‘remarks throughout were admirably illustrated with a large series of photographic and other views of the places which were visited on the tour. The photographs were the production of Mrs. Bent, and incidentally Mr. Bent mentioned, in apology for some of the views which were somewhat wanting in sharpness, that the technical difficulties of photography, on account of the intense heat and other causes in Arabia, were almost inconceivable.’ (Wharfedale & Airedale Observer, 19 October 1894). Complete sets of Mabel’s lantern-slides survived until the early 1950s, when they were discarded by the Royal Geographical Society, deemed too faded and damaged to merit keeping. A huge loss.
It takes very little imagination today to see Theodore in front of the camera presenting a sequence of his own mini-series – The Eastern Mediterranean and the Levant, The Persian Gulf, Africa North & South, and Southern Arabia. Let’s hope one day they will appear – on National Geographic perhaps!
Theodore Bent’s Talks, Presentations, and Lectures (some dates are approx) note 1
1883 [The Bents make their first visit to Greece and Turkey in the spring]
1884 [The Bents in the Greek Cyclades]
- 8th May: ‘A general meeting of the Hellenic Society will be held at 22, Albermarle Street on Thursday next [8 May], at 5 p.m., when Mr. Theodore Bent will read a paper on a recent journey among the Cyclades.’ [The Athenaeum, No. 2949, May 3, 1884, p. 569]
1885 [The Bents in the Greek Dodecanese]
- 14th September: ‘At the meeting of the British Association in Aberdeen… in the Anthropological Section, Mr J. Theodore Bent read a paper to show that the study of tombs in the Greek Islands was conducive to a knowledge of ancient and forgotten lines of commerce.’ [South Wales Daily Telegram, Friday, 18 September 1885]
1886 [The Bents in the Eastern Aegean and Turkey]
- 24th June: At the annual meeting of the Hellenic Society in London the Hon. Sec. read a short paper by Mr. Bent on ‘A recent visit to Samos’.
1887 [The Bents in the Eastern Aegean and Turkey]
- 23rd June: At the annual meeting of the Hellenic Society in London, Mr. Bent gave a short account of his work on Thasos.
1888 [The Bents in the Eastern Aegean and Turkey]
- 11th September: ‘At the meeting of the British Association at Bath… in the Anthropology Section, Mr. J. Theodore Bent contributed a paper on sun-myths in modern Hellas.’ [St. James’s Gazette, 12 September 1888]
1889 [The Bents in Bahrain and Iran]
- 17th September: At the meeting of the British Association at Newcastle, ‘in the Geography Section Mr Theodore Bent read a paper on the Bahrien Islands, in the Persian Gulf, in which he dealt with the position and general features the two islands, character of the seas, and the pearl fisheries and other features.’ [Dundee Advertiser, 20 September 1889]
- 2nd December: ‘The meeting of the Geographical Society on Monday at Burlington House [London] was one of exceptional brilliancy, and was fully attended. Mr J. Theodore Bent… read an interesting and exhaustive paper on the Bahrein Islands in the Persian Gulf. This was rendered the more interesting by some realistic photographs, thrown on a white screen as dissolving views, and taken by Mrs Bent on the spot.’ [The Queen, 7 December 1889]
1890 [The Bents in the Eastern Aegean and Turkey]
- 30th June: ‘Royal Geographical Society. Mr. J. Theodore Bent read a paper at the fortnightly meeting of of this society, held last night in the theatre of the London University, on explorations he had made in Cilicia Trachea.’ [Daily News (London), 1 July 1890]
- 22nd July: Theodore Bent reads his paper ‘Notes on the Armenians in Asia Minor’ to the Manchester Geographical Society [MGS, Vol. 6, 220-222]
- 5th September: At the meeting of the British Association at Leeds, in the Anthropology Section, Mr Theodore Bent read a paper on the Yourouks of Asia Minor, who, he said, were the least religious people he had ever heard of; but the religion honesty was deeply implanted their breasts. No more polygamous people existed anywhere, a Yourouk regarding himself as a disgrace unless he had six or seven wives. As a consequence womanhood bad sunk very low among them.’ [Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 6 September 1890]
1891 [The Bents are away all year exploring the remains at Great Zimbabwe for Cecil Rhodes]
- February (uncertain date): Theodore Bent lectures on the Castle Line Garth Castle on his way to Cape Town. [As recorded in Mabel Bent’s diary, 10 March 1891. Mabel does not give the title of the lecture]
- 22nd February: ‘At a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society, held in the theatre of the University of London last night, Mr. J. Theodore Bent read a paper entitled “Journeys in Mashonaland, and Explorations among the Zimbabwe and other ruins”’. [London Evening Standard, 23 February 1892]
- 2nd March: ‘Although Lord Randolph Churchill declined the [Tyneside Geographical] society’s invitation to lecture on Mashonaland, Mr. Smithson was fortunate enough to secure the services of Mr. J. Theodore Bent, one of the Council of the Royal Geographical Society and of the British Association. Mr. Bent and his wife embarked on an adventurous journey into Mashonaland, and conducted excavations and explorations among the Zimbaybe [sic] ruins —the supposed “Land of Ophir”. Mr. Bent will deliver his lecture on the subject next week – on Wednesday, March 2nd.’ [Lovaine Hall; admission charged is to be 1 shilling (c. £3) in main hall, and sixpence (c. £1.50) in the galleries!] [Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 26 February 1892]
- 23rd March 1892: ‘At the meeting of the Anthropological Institute to be held to-morrow evening, Mr. Theodore Bent will read a paper on the archaeology of the Zimbabwe Ruins, illustrated by the optical lantern [i.e. Mabel’s photographs]. I hear that Mr. Gladstone has expressed his intention to be present, and that Mr. Bent will on this occasion make special reference to the manners and customs of the early inhabitants of these remote regions of South Africa.’ [Birmingham Daily Post, 22 March 1892] [Bent was elected member of the Anthropological Institute at its meeting on 21 June 1892 (but not Mabel), see, Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, v.22, 1893, p. 174]
- Before 13 April: ‘Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Bent’s party was successful and interesting [at their London home]. Her sister, Mrs. Hobson, and few intimate friends assisted Mr. Bent and his fellow-traveller, Mr. Swan, in explaining the relics [of Great Zimbabwe] to the learned and unlearned, to the latter of whom the trophies… might otherwise have seemed just so many rudely carved old stones, instead of being silent witnesses of the ancient civilisation and worship traced out by Mr. Bent in the wonderful walled fortresses of Central Africa.’ [Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser, 13 April 1892]
- 5th August: At the meeting of the British Association at Edinburgh, in the Anthropology Section, Mr Theodore Bent read a paper on ‘The Present Inhabitants of Mashonaland and Their Origin’. [St. James’s Gazette, 6 August 1892]
- 7th September: At the 9th International Congress of Orientalists (opened in the theatre of the London University, Burlington-gardens), ‘Mr. J. Theodore Bent [in the Council Room of the Royal Geographical Society] gave an account of the more recent discoveries among the ruins of Zimbabwe and its neighbourhood.’ [London and China Express, 9 September 1892]
- 19th October: At a gathering of the Manchester Geographical Society in the Cheetham Town Hall, Mr. J Theodore Bent gave a talk on the Zimbabwe Ruins in Mashonaland. [Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 20 October 1892]
- 13th November: ‘Mr. Theodore Bent will deliver a lecture on “Mashonaland and the Ruins of Zimbabwe”, at the South Place Institute [Finsbury, London].’ [Colonies and India, 12 November 1892]
- 1st December: Mr. Bent lectured in Gloucester Guildhall, for the Literary and Scientific Association, on Mashonaland. [Gloucester Citizen, 7 December 1892]
- 7th December: ‘… at the Royal Spa Rooms, Harrogate. Mr. Theodore Bent, F.R.G.S., lectured on “The ruined cities of Mashonaland”, his interesting remarks being illustrated with excellent limelight views.” [Knaresborough Post, 10 December 1892]
- 19th June: At the annual meeting of the Hellenic Society, ‘Mr. Theodore Bent spoke of his researches in Abyssinia.’ [The Globe, 20 June 1893]
- 18th September: At the British Association meeting in Nottingham, Mr. J. Theodore Bent reported ‘to the Committee on the Exploration of Ancient Remains at Aksum.’ [Nottingham Journal, 19 September 1893]
- 20th October: ‘Mr. J. Theodore Bent, the African traveller, delivered an address before the members of the Balloon Society, at St. James’s Hall [London].’ [London Standard, 21 October 1893]
- 21st May: ‘There was an overflowing meeting last night… at the Royal Geographical Society [London] to welcome back Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Bent from their journeys in Southern Arabia.’ [St. James’s Gazette, 22 May 1894]
- 10th July: ‘At the London Chamber of Commerce, in the Council-room, Botolph-house, Eastcheap… Mr. J. Theodore Bent delivered an address on the expedition which he and his wife made last winter to the Hadramut Valley, South Arabia.’ [Home News for India, China and the Colonies, 13 July 1894]
- 14th August: At the meeting of the British Association in Oxford, ‘Mr. Theodore Bent read a paper on the natives of the Hadramaut in South Arabia.’ [St. James’s Gazette, 15 August 1894]
- 2nd October: ‘Mr. J. Theodore Bent lectured at a meeting of the Balloon Society on the subject of the explorations which he and Mrs. Bent made a few months ago in South Arabia, and the occasion was taken advantage of to present Mr. Bent with the Society’s gold medal.’ [Civil & Military Gazette (Lahore), 25 October 1894]
- 11th October: ‘Mr. Theodore Bent, F.R.G.S., who formerly resided at The Rookery, Low Baildon (now the residence of Alderman Smith Feather), delivered a lecture… at the Bradford Mechanics’ Institute, before the members of the Bradford Philosophical Society, upon his recent travels in Arabia.’ [Wharfedale & Airedale Observer, 19 October 1894]
- 25th October: ‘There was a numerous attendance at a meeting [of the Liverpool Geographical Society] held in connection with this society, at the Royal Institution, in Colquitt-street, last evening, when Mr. J. Theodore Bent, F.S.A., F.R.G.S., gave an interesting lecture on “The Hadramaut: a journey in Southern Arabia,” which was illustrated by a series of photographic slides.’ [Liverpool Mercury, 26 October 1894]
- 6th June: ‘Mr. J. Theodore Bent read last night a paper on “Journeys in Southern Arabia” in the Lecture Hall the University of London.’ [St. James’s Gazette, 7 June 1895]
- 12th June: ‘Lord and Lady Kelvin received a brilliant and distinguished company last night in the rooms of the Royal Society in Burlington House’, when the Bents presented photographs and finds from Southern Arabia. [St James’s Gazette, 13 June 1895]
- 1st July: ‘Mr. J. Theodore Bent delivered a lecture at the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, at Hanover-square… The lecturer dealt with the Hadramaut, and Dhofar, the frankincense and myrrh countries.’ [Globe, 2 July 1895]
- 18th September: ‘At the close of the British Association meeting at Ipswich, Mr. Theodore Bent gave a paper on “The Peoples of Southern Arabia”.’ [St. James’s Gazette, 19 September 1895]
- 7th November: The Royal Scottish Geographical Society – Glasgow Branch. The Anniversary Address will be delivered in the Hall, 207 Bath St… at 8 o’clock , ‘by Mr. J. Theodore Bent, on “Southern Arabia”. Sir Renny Watson Chairman of the Branch will preside. Admission only by Ticket, two of which have been forwarded to each Member of the Branch.’ [Glasgow Herald, 6 November 1895]
- 8th November: ‘In connection with the Royal Geographical Society, a lecture was delivered… by Mr. Theodore Bent, in the National Portrait Gallery, Queen Street [Edinburgh]. The subject of the lecture was Arabia, and it was illustrated by lime-light views. There was a good attendance.’ [Edinburgh Evening News, 9 November 1895]
- 1st June: Mr. Bent read a paper on the Sudan to the Royal Geographical Society, London.
- 13th October: Mr. Bent lectures on Arabia at the Royal Victoria Hall, London. [South London Press, 17 October 1896]
The above, it seems, was Theodore Bent’s final lecture. The lantern flame flickers and disappears.
“Like most travellers, this lady has found that the less she and her nomad husband see of spirits and wine the better, and so with the exception of a little brandy for medicinal purposes, the whole party travel on tea, beef essence, and condensed milk…”
To mark Mabel Bent’s birthday (28 January 1847) this year (2022), let’s read more from a rare article on her from an arcane newspaper – The Newry Telegraph, 3rd January 1895, published by an unknown publisher in Newry, Co. Down, Northern Ireland. It seems that it is an original editorial by an unknown author and not a piece syndicated from any other contemporary English source. There is every chance that it was written, or co-written, by Mabel’s sister Frances Maria Hobson, wife of the Rector of Portadown (a corner of that devout triangle, Newry, Portadown, Armagh. The wagging finger to the intemperate above is a clue perhaps, ironic rather as Theodore’s fortunes derived in part from brewing!).
The featured photo, probably from Cape Town in 1891, shows Mabel in her prime and on her way to explore the ruins of Great Zimbabwe for Cecil Rhodes. Mabel’s confident air presages the Bents’ imminent fame as they join the cadre of the nation’s most popular and best-known adventurers. Their work in the Eastern Mediterranean is behind them, their celebrated Arabian expeditions ahead. Thus this article in The Newry Telegraph that follows reflects this prestige awaiting Mabel in 1895 perfectly, as well, of course, as the attitudes and jingoism of the day. And no excuse is ever needed for an oblique reference to another extraordinary traveller, Raymonde Bonnetain.
So, without further exposition, we join parlour-readers, heads and arms on their antimacassars, of The Newry Telegraph for Thursday, 3rd January 1895:
“Mrs Theodore Bent – The Queen of Explorers: Curious as it may seem, foreign exploration is one of the paths where the most feminine women have followed the example set them by their husbands and brothers. Of course, this has been especially the case in every kind of missionary enterprise, and one has only to recall the achievements of Lady Baker, Lady Burdon, Mme Dieu la Loy [sic], Mrs Peary, and more recently Mme Bonnetain note 1 , to prove that even great explorers have not hesitated to take with them on their perilous journeys those whom they had chosen for their life companions.
The subject of our sketch, Mrs. Theodore Bent, is a striking example of all a woman can do in the way of cheerful endurance and intelligent observation. Her name is less well-known than that of her husband, one of the most distinguished Fellows of the Royal Geographical Society, for, as she sometimes observes, ‘There is not ink enough in a family for two’, but the valuable additions to exploration literature published by Mr Bent owe not a little of their interest to his wife, for she keeps careful notes of everything that occurs during their journeys note 2 , and, when any excavations are to be done, generally takes charge of one party whilst her husband looks after another.
Mrs Bent, who is a light, graceful-looking woman, well-known in the cultured portion of London Society, belongs to an Irish family, famous in the annals of County Wexford, the Hall-Dares of Newton-Barry; she rode almost before she could walk, and early displayed remarkable pedestrian powers.
During the last ten years Mr and Mrs Bent have together achieved twelve exploration expeditions in some of the roughest and least known corners of Southern Asia, that vast and mysterious domain of which the world even now knows little. They began their travels by an expedition to the less well-known islands of Greece, and while there made some interesting archaeological discoveries; this first attempt taught them a great deal, and now Mr H M Stanley himself could not rival Mrs Bent as organiser and manger of an exploration party, for long experience has shown her what to avoid, and narrowed down her list of absolutely indispensable necessaries to a small compass.
It is interesting to note that Mr Bent’s book on Mashonaland was one of the first works published on that now much-debated portion of our Colonial Empire.
Of late years Arabia has become to both husband and wife the most interesting portion of the universe. There is probably no place in the world of which so little is known, and which is more full of practical dangers to exploring Europeans, for the native population, though civilised after a fashion, are extremely cunning and dishonest, and have a great hatred and contempt for anything they don’t understand.
Nowadays so much is talked about rational dress, cycling costumes, and the relative value of a divided skirt and knickerbockers, that it is interesting to know that Mrs Bent’s ideas on the subject are simple and the result of long experience. Her costume never varies, for she has found the same kind of dress equally useful in South Africa, Arabia, and the Isles of Greece. Her outfit, which is very pretty and even conventional, consists of a tweed coat and skirt coming down below the knees, breeches, gaiters, and stout shoes. The skirt is full, being pleated; and by a clever arrangement invented by the wearer herself it can be altered accordingly as to whether it is wanted for riding or walking. With this costume is worn a pith hat and gause veil.
Mrs Bent, whenever it is possible, rides on horseback, and she cannot speak too highly of the intelligence and faithfulness of the horse as compared to that of a camel or mule.
Every detail concerning the outfit and internal economy of their expeditions is left by Mr Theodore Bent to his wife, and so on her hangs the heavy responsibility of keeping in health and making comfortable a larger or smaller party, which often includes guides and servants belonging to the country which is to be explored.
Like most travellers, this lady has found that the less she and her nomad husband see of spirits and wine the better, and so with the exception of a little brandy for medicinal purposes, the whole party travel on tea, beef essence, and condensed milk, while quinine is the most important item of the medicine chest.
It should not, however, be thought that Mr and Mrs Bent spend their whole life in travelling through wild and inaccessible regions; they generally pass the season in their delightful London home, which is a veritable museum, full of curious and beautiful things gathered together during the course of their owners’ many expeditions. Mr Theodore Bent has generously presented many of his most precious archaeological finds to the British Museum, but his own store is extremely valuable and curious. Mrs Bent makes a point of collecting anything specially feminine in the way of ornaments or habilaments, and some of the shawls and face veils presented to her by Arabian magnates throw a strange light on the manners and customs of the East.
The subject of our sketch was at one time proposed for election to the Royal Geographical Society, but she little values official recognition of dignities, and the matter has remained in abeyance note 3 .”
Return from Note 1
Return from Note 2
Return from Note 3
“Christmas Day [Naxos in the Cyclades, 1893] was a downpour and as our rooms are not watertight [it] came in through doors and windows. The wind howled and our prospects of food were faint. A wild duck, that was found just before luncheon, cheered us however so much that we ate it all but a wing, which I prudently cut off to keep…”
Well, here indeed is a unique and long-awaited Christmas present for those who like to try and keep up with the breathless Bents over their twenty years (roughly 1880-1900) of exploring and excavating around the Levantine littoral (Greece and Turkey), Africa (North and South), Southern Arabia, and other lands.
As part of the new digitisation programme of the Roman and Hellenic Societies’ (London University) manuscript collection, Mabel Bent’s travel ‘Chronicles’ (as she calls them), and some of her husband’s (Theodore Bent) notebooks, are due to appear online in early 2022 (mostly using ‘a Bookeye 4 Kiosk book scanner to capture the image data and BCS-2 imaging software to process and format the images once they have been transferred from the scanner’).
This means you will soon be able to delve into all of Mabel Bent’s manuscript ‘Chronicles’ (except for the missing Ethiopian tour volumes of 1893 – anyone know where they are?), and one or two of Theodore’s notebooks as well (significantly some of his Hadramaut jottings).
Researchers who now cite Bent’s monographs and published papers on Great Zimbabwe, Aksum, Yemen, Greece and Turkey, etc., will soon also be able to refer to his wife’s on-the-spot accounts, adding new details, dimensions, dangers, and the odd fresh dinner duck as well!
More information on the Bent Collection digitisation project is available from the Roman and Hellenic Societies.
Edited editions of Mabel Bent’s travel Chronicles can be had from Archaeopress, Oxford.