A recent photo sent in by Alan King as he steamed by Syrna (Σύρνα, anciently Syrnos) in the Dodecanese – minuscule and inaccessible, thus happily tucked away from Cycladic summer silliness just to the west – steered us to the Bents’ writings on an islet they were determined to see in early Spring 1888.
Theodore, after a cursory inspection of the terrain around the landing place on April 9th, wrote a note for The Classical Review (1888, Vol. II (10), p.329). If he did remove some of the obsidian blades he refers to, then they are not it seems recorded elsewhere:
“The small island rock, anciently known as Sirina, now as Agios Joannis, occupies a somewhat important position in the Aegean Sea, as one of the stepping-stones by which the earlier inhabitants of Karia must have travelled westwards; it has two good harbours, one to the north, and one to the south, and is placed midway in a long stretch of sea between Karpathos and Astypalaea, in both of which islands traces of this prehistoric race have been found. Having carefully examined Anaphi, an island lying to the west of this line of route, and having found there no traces whatsoever of this early population, and knowing that Astypalaea, Amorgos, Naxos and Paros are full of their tombs, I was considerably interested in discovering in the ruins of a square fortress on Sirina quantities of obsidian knives, which at once identified this rock with the race in question, and proved to us that they made use of it as a halting-place on their way to and from the marble quarries of Paros; in fact Parian marble, objects of which are so frequently found in their tombs, would seem to have been their chief quest in these westward migrations.”
Theodore makes no mention of the hassle getting to this tricky rock. They had hired a fine schooner from Syros a month or so before in early 1888 to cruise up and down the Turkish coast opposite Rhodes, and the skipper, Captain Nikolas, had no intention of breaking her up for insignificant Sirina. But the Bents, as often as not, get their way. Mabel tells the tale in her diary – first a skirmish from her and then a broadside from her husband:
“Sunday [April 8th, 1888]. Well, this morning we set sail, but not before dawn, for Sirina, as we thought, and with the scirocco we should have sailed south of Tilos, which lay directly in our way. We were busy in the cabin, but I peeped up and saw we were steering straight for Nisiros, north of Tilos. So I told Theodore and he proposed to go up and row with the captain, but I said I would make less formal enquiries. I said to [first mate] Grigoris, ‘We are going north of Tilos it seems?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘But very far north! We are going to Nisiros.’ ‘Well! I suppose we shall tack soon, for we shall no doubt pass Tilos as close as we did Rhodes.’ The wind was quite fair for Tilos. He shrugged his shoulders as if to say he could not help it, and I said, ‘How soon shall we tack for the south?’ ‘We are going inside Nisiros.’ ‘But why?’ ‘To go to Kos!’
“So Theodore went up and there was a frightful, awful row. Now Grigoris said he did not wish to go to Sirina at all, and would not go there, and there was no water or harbours and many rocks and no lighthouse and he was always considered a most noble man, and honourable, and so on. ‘Very well’, said Theodore, ‘Go straight to Syra and we will go to the judge and the consul,’ etc.
“Later, with [our dragoman Manthaios] as a go-between we said if we could not go south, we did not mind going to a small island called Levitha on the way to Syra. This was agreed upon and we did not care a bit. It rained. I looked out again and saw that now we were going south of Nisiros and close to Tilos, past Kavos Kryos and Kos, where we had agreed to anchor for the night far to the dim north. ‘Where are we going now, Andreas?’ ‘To that place,’ [the crewman replied] very sulkily. ‘What place?’ ‘To Sirina!’ Of course we have lost hours by going so far north and are now fearing a calm.
“Next morning [9th April ] about 10 we reached Sirina and landed after luncheon. We walked across the island to the sea at the other side, where there is a deep bay. Here was a sort of farm, a very irregular enclosure of loose piled stones and very thick walls. The only thing with mortar was the oven. An old woman came out of the dark hut where she was shut in and brought us out little square blocks of wood to sit on, and she directed Theodore to where there were some old stones and so I returned to the ship with one man and the rest went off, but finding the earth all gone and only foundations on rocks they returned, and we set off again in the afternoon.” (Travel Chronicles of Mrs J Theodore Bent, Vol.1, Oxford, 2006, p.252-3).
All rather a storm in a seacup, and the frivolous couple’s scamper contrasts unbelievably with the reality of an incident on the island many years later, 7 December 1946, when a medical team,* including Lawrence Durrell as it happens, was sent from Rhodes on a Greek warship to assist the sick and wounded of the vessel Athina Rafiah (originally the SS Athena), carrying Jewish immigrants to Israel, which was wrecked there, with around 800 survivors coming ashore. Sadly eight of the refugees, among them children, perished in the aftermath of the wreck and are buried on the island. There is a lonely monument there to them all.
* ‘With Durrell on Rhodes, 1945-47’, by Raymond Mills, in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 33, No. 3, Lawrence Durrell Issue, Part 1 (Autumn, 1987), pp. 312-316.
Travel writer Alan King falls for the ‘Karpathos Lady’, kindly allowing followers of the Bents to share his own fascination for her… It makes quite a story!
On the Turkish-controlled island of Karpathos, shortly before midday on Monday, April 20th, 1885, a 6000-year-old female figure, hidden under a carpet, carried on the back of a man from Anafi, was smuggled onto a ship in Pigadia harbour, never, to this date, to return to her island home.
This is the story of her kidnap and of how she later travelled the world under her new name of the ‘Karpathos Lady’.
During the winters between 1882 and 1890, the British travellers Theodore and Mabel Bent would leave their home in London’s fashionable West End to meander around the Greek islands and the Turkish coast in search of adventure in the exotic Levant. Theodore Bent’s main interest was archaeology and their itinerary would be designed to take them to locations where there were opportunities to excavate new sites.
In March and April, 1885, they visited the island of Karpathos and came upon a limestone statue of a naked female, baring all. When they left the island, six weeks later, the Karpathos Lady went with them.
A desert diversion
Three months before, in mid-January, the Bents had travelled from London to Dover where they boarded a ferry to Calais to connect with the train which would take them on the first stage of their latest adventure.
Travelling via Paris, they reached an uncharacteristically snowy Marseilles on January 14th and the next day were on board the M.M. Tage heading for the somewhat warmer climes of Egypt, where they arrived 7 days later.
It was a birthday jaunt for Mabel who, on January 28th, climbed a pyramid at sunset and later wrote: “It was splendid being up there and I think it very very unlikely that any other person has been up by moonlight on his birthday before … it felt odd to be alone with the Pyramid and the moon.” note 1
Mabel was clearly over the moon about her 38th birthday celebration, however, there was another motive for the Bents travelling to Egypt. With their ‘holiday’ over, they had work to do and February 4th saw them aboard the S.S. Saturn, bound for the island of Rhodes, although Bent’s sights were really set on excavating on neighbouring Karpathos.
He’d become aware of four potential dig sites on Karpathos. However, the Turks were cracking down on such unlicensed archaeological activities. In addition, after the publication of his article in 1883 about the islands of Chios and Samos note 2 , in which he criticised Turkish rule, he feared he would have difficulty obtaining the necessary travel permits for the islands he wished to visit. At that time, Egypt was still effectively Turkish territory and Bent figured that he would more easily slip into the Turkish-occupied Greek islands from Egypt rather than the usual point of entry of Istanbul.
In the event, when the couple reached Rhodes, it became evident that the Turkish governor, or Pasha, Khamel Bey, was going to make life difficult for Bent. Not surprising really; at the time of Bent’s critical article about Chios and Samos, Khamel Bey had been Pasha on the nearby island of Lesvos and had become embroiled in the fallout from the article.
Khamel Bey refused to allow them to travel to Karpathos on the Turkish government steamer and the couple were forced to take a circuitous, clandestine route using the Greek steamer Roúmeli and small local caiques. After stopovers on the islands of Nisyros and Tilos, they finally made landfall on Karpathos, at Tristomo Bay, in the north of the island, on March 6th, 1885.
The Karpathos Lady appears
The main town of Pigadia had been their intended destination, but after an horrendous 9-hour overnight voyage from Tilos, bad weather forced them to take shelter in the wide, protected bay of Tristomo before continuing on their way next morning. But bad luck dogged them again. Two sudden gusts of wind took the sail and mast overboard and they just managed to limp into the small harbour village of Diafani where they found another boat and crew to continue their journey south. After a further seven and a half hours, they reached Pigadia, not far short of two whole days after having left Tilos, just 100 kms distant.
Bent was to encounter yet more problems. It seems that word from Rhodes had preceded his arrival on Karpathos and the Turkish authorities were aware of his intentions. Under scrutiny from the Turks, he found it difficult to excavate on Karpathos as he’d planned; he wrote while in Pigadia: “Here there are evidences of pre-historic inhabitants, the graves of whom I was unfortunately unable to open owing to the presence of the Turkish authorities …”
At this point however, Bent seemed unaware that he already had in his possession the most important object of his entire mission on Karpathos. His somewhat downbeat sentence above continues: “… but I was able to obtain a large stone figure of a female idol.” note 3
The Karpathos Lady had appeared. Her fate was now sealed.
Evading the Turks
Bent left the statue in Pigadia with the man who’d sold her to him, planning to collect her when he finally left the island.
He’d been hoping to excavate the sites of the four ancient cities of Karpathos. With Posidonia and Arkessia in the south of the island effectively off the agenda, his only recourse was to travel to the isolated north, well away from the inquisitive eyes of the Turks, to investigate Vrykounda on the north-west coast and the presumed site of Nisyros on the islet of Saria.
Shortly before Easter, in preparation for their journey, they arranged to leave some of their baggage in store in the Custom House in Pigadia with the aim of collecting it as they departed the island some weeks later. Of course, one very important item, the Karpathos Lady, was already in Pigadia, awaiting collection at the house of the man who’d sold her to Bent.
They travelled north to Olymbos and on to Vrykounda where they started their excavations at the site of the ancient city, with a break to celebrate Easter in Olymbos and Diafani. Visiting Saria after Easter yielded nothing but disappointment and they returned to Vrykounda.
Their digs at Vrykounda yielded some interesting finds which later ended up in the British Museum.
Their excavations in the north of the island completed, they returned again to Diafani and set out from the village in a small boat for the journey south to Pigadia to retrieve their stored baggage, and, of course, the Karpathos Lady. They planned to take the Greek steamer, Roúmeli, from Pigadia, which would carry them out of Turkish jurisdiction to Greece, but, to their horror, shortly after leaving Diafani, they saw the steamer heading north toward Diafani. Incredibly, they managed to flag it down by waving their umbrellas so that the captain would know they were the British passengers he’d taken from Rhodes to the island of Nisyros some weeks before. The Roúmeli had already called at Pigadia and was en-route to Diafani before proceeding on to the island of Kassos. They persuaded the captain to return, after Diafani, to Pigadia, with the help of 13 British pounds (some £800 or €900 at today’s value), much to the annoyance of some the passengers already on board.
Mabel’s diary account takes up the story of what happened when they arrived in Pigadia and how their loyal Greek dragoman, Manthaios Simos from Anafi, was given the special task of retrieving the 40kg statue while Bent kept the Turks occupied with “much raki”:
“Manthaios set off to run to the house where was a very hideous statue, more than the size of a baby, half a mile off. Theodore and the Turks sat down at the café … At last I saw Manthaios tearing back with the burden [of 40kg] on his shoulders and very soon they reached the ship and all was on board . . . we were safely off . . . ‘Oh!’ I could not help exclaiming ‘How thankful I am to be under the Greek flag’. And indeed with 3 umbrellas in the cabin, though all in disrepair, what now had we Britons to fear from Turks?”
“We sat down to luncheon at 12 in gay frame of mind and then I heard how Manthaios had run to the house and found it locked and had broken the door open, found the statue, wrapped it up in what he carried for the purpose, and ran back. Theodore was in the meantime drinking much raki with the Harbourmaster and other Turks, having been to the custom house and told an old woman to take a long time carrying the things, one by one, very slowly to the boat and thinking Manthaios would never be back; as I could see Manthaios I was luckier. When Manthaios appeared, Theodore could see that the statue showed behind and told him so, but Manthaios said ‘No matter’ and rushed on to the boat and then went back to say goodbye to the Turks. Theodore saw them spot the statue and whisper together and shrug theirshoulders“.
The raki had done its job well!
Mabel continues: “… so now we are in possession of the most hideous thing ever made by human hands.”
So thought Mabel of the Karpathos Lady. If only she could have known that, 130 years later, the beauty of this “very hideous statue” would finally be recognised for all the world to see.
The Get-away Ship
The steamer Roúmeli was probably an unknowing accomplice in the kidnap of the Karpathos Lady. She’d been plying her way around the islands for just a short period before her two encounters with the Bents. On the first occasion she took them from Rhodes to Nisyros. Her second encounter saw her being flagged down to return to Pigadia where she picked up the Karpathos Lady. Read more about the Roúmeli
And so, shortly before midday on Monday 20th April, 1885, the Karpathos Lady left her island home and started out on the odyssey that would ultimately see her travelling the world. With her went the possibility that the most important archaeological artefact from the island’s past would ever assume its rightful place as an icon of the island. Even today, few islanders know of her existence and still fewer are aware of the story of her dramatic abduction.
The odyssey begins
Passing to the south of Karpathos and after a 3-hour stop in Kassos, the captain of the Roúmeli set a course for the next stop on the escape route from the Turks, the Greek island of Kythira, aiming to sail across the Libyan Sea, parallel to the southern coast of Crete, before steaming north and out of Turkish-controlled waters.
During the night, some hours after leaving Kassos, maybe in fury at the loss of a goddess he might have sought to seduce, the great god Zeus unleashed his winds upon the Roúmeli and her passengers. Mabel wrote: “We had a fearful night of storm, pitching, rolling … and fears of falling on the floor … Much splashing took place and water flew over the ship”. Roúmeli battled bravely on, but next morning, close to the island of Gavdos, the captain was forced to turn the ship around and head back for the shelter of Kali Limenes (Fair Havens), at the most southerly point in Crete, where the ship carrying St. Paul, on his journey from the Holy Land to Rome, is said to have rested before encountering its own winds near Gavdos: “a tempestuous wind, called the northeaster, struck down from the land … and no small tempest lay on us”. note 4
Arriving at the safe haven of Kali Limenes in the early afternoon of Tuesday, Roúmeli waited out the storm until 8 o’clock in the evening, when the winds abated sufficiently to allow the captain to continue on through the night. Wednesday morning saw them off Paleochora, the most westerly outpost of Crete, before Roúmeli turned north, finally entering the safety of Greek waters, close to the island of Antikythira, at 10 o’clock. A sigh of relief must have been breathed by Bent and Mabel.
At midday, the Roúmeli docked at the Kythira port of Kapsali. The Karpathos Lady had made it to Greece. Sadly, her stay was to be lamentably short.
During the few hours’ stopover in Kythira, the Bents arranged for papers to be drawn up to cover the true origin of the Karpathos Lady. Mabel tells us: “At Kythera a ‘manifesto’ was made and signed by the captain, saying he had picked us, and our cases, up in Turkey, and by the Kythera customs people to say we had not started from there.”
From Kythira, sailing overnight, Roúmeli arrived at her home island of Syros on Thursday, April 23rd, and the Bents checked into their usual haunt of the Grand Hôtel d’Angleterre from where Bent wrote to the Keeper of the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum:
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 … 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 … I have likewise got a good-sized statue of one of those quaint figures which I got at Antiparos last year; it is of stone and nearly a yard long.
That “good-sized statue” was, of course, the Karpathos Lady, who spent the final few days of her time in Greece locked up in the Custom House in the port town of Ermoupoli, where the Bents often stashed their “plunder”.
It was not until some 10 days later that the Bents found a ship that could take them at least part of the way on their journey home. And so – the Karpathos Lady finally left Greek soil from the island of Syros at 07:00 on Saturday May 2nd, 1885, never, to this day, to return.
The M.M. Erymanthe took them from Syros to Messina in Sicily where, with fortuitous timing, they boarded the Maréchal Canrobert for the overnight leap south to the British colonial island of Malta, a busy staging post on the route between Britain and its colonies in the Indian subcontinent and beyond.
In Malta, they found it “not so easy to find a ship for London as we had thought, most of them being crowded at this season, and lots of people waiting for passages.” It was 6 days before they could secure a passage, with less than an hour’s notice, on Friday May 8th, on the cargo ship Restormel, carrying grain from Odessa to London.
One final act of subterfuge was necessary: “[The Restormel] is not a passenger ship and we are to be smuggled into the chartroom and there concealed; when we reach London our baggage to be supposed to be travelling alone”.
Sometime around May 20th, 1885, the Karpathos Lady finally landed on British soil, a month, and almost 7,000 km, after her odyssey had begun on the back of the Bents’ man-servant in Pigadia.
Mabel’s final entry in her chronicle for the adventure they’d embarked upon four months earlier reads simply: “We reached home via Millwall Dock in safety with our 24 pieces of the most varied luggage, and I am more convinced than ever that there is no place like it.”.
Descent into the Underworld
Given Mabel’s opinion of the statue, it’s hard to think that the Karpathos Lady would ever have been a house guest or graced the entrance hall of the Bents’ home near London’s Oxford Street. Indeed, Mabel may even have been more forceful about the ‘other woman’ in her husband’s life, for we know that, a year later, the Karpathos Lady was sold by Bent to the British Museum.
Alas, there her odyssey faltered, and for the next 110 years or so, the Karpathos Lady was consigned to the dingy basement of the British Museum to confront her shades, hidden from public view, despite her then being, and still remaining, the oldest Greek statue in the Museum’s collection!
Rebirth – the odyssey continues
After over a century of confinement in the ‘Underworld’ of the British Museum, the Karpathos Lady finally emerged into the daylight of the modern world. Her ‘rebirth’ came when her beauty was recognised by Dr. Peter Higgs, the Curator of the Department of Greece and Rome at the Museum. Dr. Higgs told us “The Karpathos Lady – a grand name for a wonderful object (if not to everyone’s taste). I can hold my head up high and admit that I brought her out of obscurity where she was languishing unloved in the basement and persuaded my colleagues to put her on display. Now she has toured the world!”
Thanks to the keen, professional eye of Dr. Higgs, the Karpathos Lady remained on display for a number of years, bringing pleasure to the many millions of visitors to the Museum.
In January 2010, BBC Radio 4 broadcast the first of a 20-part weekly series, produced in conjunction with the British Museum, entitled ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’. The series met with great critical acclaim and the Museum embarked upon creating a touring exhibition based on the objects featured in the radio programme.
Inexplicably, the Karpathos Lady was not included in the BBC Radio series, nor did she become part of the initial touring exhibition. However, after the first exhibition venue in Abu Dhabi in 2014, her beauty and importance were once again acknowledged and she replaced another exhibit as a permanent member of the touring exhibition. Her debut, later that year, was in Taipei, Taiwan – her first journey outside Europe. Japan followed in 2015 with exhibitions in Tokyo, Kyushu and Kobe. She jumped continents in 2016 and visited Perth and Canberra in Australia before heading back to Asia in 2017, where she wowed them in Beijing and Shanghai; Beijing attracted 340,000 visitors and Shanghai 8,000 visitors on its first day alone. 2018 saw her back in Europe for the exhibition in Valenciennes in France. In May 2019, she returned to Asia for a 4-month gig at the Hong Kong Jockey Club where the organising Hong Kong Heritage Museum highlighted the Karpathos Lady as one of the top exhibits – an accolade indeed for an object that had been almost overlooked.
All a long, long way – and a long, long time – from her Karpathos home.
Return to her Ithaka
Since her return to London from Hong Kong, the coronavirus pandemic has clipped the wings of many a traveller, the Karpathos Lady included, but our hopes are high for her further, future travels.
The travels of the Karpathos Lady have not, to date, included Greece, where she would surely be welcomed as a home-coming heroine. However, maybe one day, she will finally find her way back to her very own Ithaka – her island home of Karpathos.
‘Bring Her Home’ – sign the petition
The Archaeological Museum of Karpathos in Pigadia dedicates a small part of a display cabinet to an artefact which should be the pride of the island and its people. How appropriate it would be if the REAL Karpathos Lady could be proudly displayed for all to see.
With this in mind, we’ve started a campaign aiming to persuade the British Museum and the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports to negotiate the loan of the Karpathos Lady to Greece. The idea is for a ‘summer season’ in Pigadia, hopefully in 2022, where tourists and locals alike could admire the beauty already seen by so many across the world, establishing her rightful role as an icon of the island of Karpathos.
Please visit the ‘Bring Her Home‘ web page to ‘sign’ the petition to be sent to the British Museum and the Greek Ministry – it takes less than a minute. Why not tell your friends about the campaign and get them to visit the web petition page? http://karpathoslady.click
1998-2014 On public display at the British Museum, London, England 2014-2015 December 13-March 15 National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan 2015 April 18–June 28 Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan 2015 July 14–September 6 Kyushu National Museum, Dazaifu, Japan 2015-2016 September 20-January 11 Kobe City Museum, Kobe, Japan 2016 February 13-June 18 Western Australian Museum, Perth, Australia 2016-2017 September 8-January 29 National Museum of Australia, Canberra, Australia 2017 March 1-May 31 National Museum of China, Beijing, China 2017 June 29-October 8 Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, China 2018 April 19-July 22 Musée des Beaux-Arts, Valenciennes, France 2019 May 18-September 9 Hong Kong Jockey Club, Hong Kong
The essential data
British Museum number: 1886,0310.1 Description: Limestone female figure.
A thick slab worked flat, with beak nose, pointed breasts and vulva triangle left in high relief on the front. The eyebrows are marked by incised lines. Above the slit in the vulva triangle are four incised lines to represent the pubic hair; below is a horizontal groove. Function: Her stylised form is very striking and raises many questions, as her original significance remains a mystery. One possibility is that she is a fertility goddess, testimony to the importance of female fertility at this time. Cultures/periods: Neolithic (late) Production date: 4500BC-3200BC Excavated/Findspot: Bourgounte (Vrykounda), Karpathos, Greece Materials: Limestone Height: 660 mm Width: 354 mm Depth: 200 mm Weight: 40 kg Condition: Broken off below the hips. Rejoined below breasts. Purchased from: James Theodore Bent Acquisition date: 1886 Conservation: January 8, 1998. Remove dowel and base, light clean. Reason: Permanent Exhibition. Removed object from base and dowel from object mechanically aided by hot water to dissolve the plaster. Slightly cleaned with Wishab sponge (vulcanized latex, filler).
Note 1: In her Chronicles, Mabel is not specific about which pyramid she climbed but we might suppose that it was the Pyramid of Menkaure. She writes: “After dinner we went out in the bright moonlight and Theodore and Mr. Head’s brother went to visit the Sphinx but I preferred to go up the Pyramid, as I had not done it on Monday.” The entry for the previous Monday talks of her visit to the Pyramid of Menkaure (Mycerinos): “We visited the Sphinx and when we got to the Pyramid of Mycerinos we found we had no candle …” Return from Note 1
Between December 1883 and March 1884, Theodore and Mabel Bent were travelling around the Cyclades in search of ancient sites that they could excavate.
In December 1883, they stayed for a single night on the island of Antiparos, as Mabel recounts, “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.”
In the short time they were there, on the basis of information provided by Robert Swan, they visited an ancient burial site and found, and opened, four graves. This initial dig prompted their return a few weeks later for a longer visit in the hope that it would yield further finds.
The British Museum Objects
On May 30 1884, just a few months after his Antiparos digs, Bent wrote to the Keeper of Antiquities at the British Museum: ‘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.’See some of the objects excavated by Bent in Antiparos.
In the event, the additional finds from the site, and from another they excavated on that second visit, surpassed their expectations and would lead to the establishment of Bent’s future reputation as a credible archaeologist, or, depending on your point of view, with some justification, an ‘illegal excavator’ note 1 . The objects he took from Antiparos he later sold to the British Museum, where they remain today.
Bent was the first player on stage and he wrote about his excavation work in 1884 note 2 but omitted to disclose the precise location of his two excavation sites.
Following Bent, some fourteen years later, in 1898, the Greek archaeologist Christos Tsountas took the stage when he located a site which he attributed to Bent’s initial site at a place he named as Krassades, but knowledge of exactly where Krassades lay was lost over the ensuing years.
For well over a century, the location of Bent’s site remained a mystery and the theatre stood silent. Only recently, thanks to the efforts of Dr. Zozi Papadopoulou, has the location of Krassades been pinpointed and the footlights have once again illuminated the scenery and the actors involved.
But the answer had always been there, hidden between the lines of Bent’s book and Mabel’s chronicles, ready to be revealed in conjunction with a little local research.
In 2017, Dr. Zozi published a paper note 3 , in Greek, in which she describes rediscovering the location of Krassades. Unfortunately, Dr. Zozi’s paper slipped under the radar of The Bent Archive.
On a visit to Antiparos in September 2019, unaware of Dr. Zozi’s discovery, I resolved to try to put together the pieces of the 130-year old jigsaw puzzle which would reveal: 1) the house of Robert and John Swan, in which Theodore and Mabel Bent stayed while on the island; 2) the site of the calamine mine managed by Robert Swan; and 3) the precise location of Bent’s initial dig. Together they form the three scenes for the set of the “Archaeology Theatre of Antiparos”.
Theodore's and Mabel's books
The Cyclades or Life Among the Insular Greeks – Theodore’s classic book of his and Mabel’s adventures in Antiparos and the other Cyclades islands can be found in this print version, which also contains additional information about the Bents and their travel itinerary.
William Binney seems to play a small but important part in the story. He was Her Brittanic Majesty’s Consul to Syra (Syros) during much of the time of the Bents’ travels around the islands. He facilitated their travels by way of letters of introduction to important figures on each island they visited, one of whom was Robert Swan on Antiparos. Many of the Bents’ finds were illegally exported out of Greece, usually via the port of Syros, and one wonders whether William Binney’s role should be extended to include his services to the Bents in this area. Read more about William Binney.
Robert McNair Wilson Swan was born in Scotland in 1858, making him 3 years younger than Bent. His biography tells us that he worked in Greece as a ‘mining expert’ from 1879 to 1886. He would have been around 25 years old when he and his brother, John, first met Theodore and Mabel Bent in Antiparos in December 1883. We deduce that he’d been working on the island for around four years at that stage.
Christos Tsountas was a highly-respected Greek archaeologist. He was born in 1857 and died in 1934. Aside from his other important areas of work, notably Tiryns, Mycenae and Syros, he investigated ancient burial sites on several islands in the Cyclades in 1898 and 1899, including Antiparos. It was he who coined the term “Cycladic civilization”.
Dr. Zozi Papadopoulou
Dr. Zozi Papadopoulou is Head of the Department of Classical and Prehistoric Antiquities of the Ephorate of Antiquities of the Cyclades. Among other projects, she has been the driving force in rediscovering, and continuing work at, the site of Bent’s first excavation, now known as Krassades.
In December 1883, Theodore and Mabel Bent visited the island of Paros, and, during their visit, they made the 10-minute hop across the narrow strait to the neighbouring island of Antiparos, armed with a letter of introduction from the British Consul in Syros, Richard Binney, to a Scottish engineer, Robert Swan, carrying out mining operations on Antiparos. They stayed for just one night with Swan and his brother John, but this brief encounter sowed the seeds of a friendship which would last for many years. Over the following few weeks, they saw more of Swan, who joined them on parts of their island-hopping odyssey.
This budding friendship was in stark contrast to that which Bent had feared he would encounter in Antiparos after advice from his muleteer in Paros. Bent writes:
The Pariotes look down on their neighbours with supreme contempt and call them kouroúnai (κουρούναι), or crows … and my interest was excited about the crows into whose nest we were about to deposit ourselves; but, as it turned out, we found our home for three weeks at Antiparos, not amongst the crows, but in the hospitable nest of the Swans — two English brothers, who work calamine mines on this island, and who not only assisted us in our digging operations, but gave us the rest that we much needed.
Mabel’s chronicle echoes Bent’s endorsement of their new-found friends and tells us of a conversation, on that first night, which would spark Bent’s interest and bring the travellers back to Antiparos for a longer stay just a few weeks later. Mabel writes of that first visit:
Rode 1 1/2 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. 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.
So, in early February 1884, the couple returned for a longer run with a script which saw Bent excavating 40 ancient graves, yielding a plethora of unique finds. Those finds, now in the British Museum, essentially wrote the text-book for our understanding of early Cycladic culture.
Although Bent’s work during his 2 weeks on Antiparos led to his being recognised as a serious archaeologist, we know little about his day-to-day activities. Unusually, Mabel’s chronicles do not give us as much information as on some of the less important islands they visited.
We do know he left for a visit to Amorgos for a week, leaving Mabel with the Swans to recover from a bout of ill health. We also know from Bent’s book, The Cyclades or Life Among the Insular Greeks, that he took a day off to go fishing on St. Simeon’s Day note 4 when his workers refused to work on the Saint’s day. Even on his day off, he used the time to gather material for a magazine article entitled ‘Fishing in Greek Waters‘, which he later incorporated into the book. You can read the gripping story in The Cyclades book or in the free online ebook, In Greek Waters, on our sister site.
Bent and Mabel both mention that they stayed at Robert Swan’s house but give us few clues as to exactly where that house was. We know his first excavation was at the suggestion of Robert Swan who ‘in making a road he had come upon a lot of graves and found a marble cup, broken etc.‘ But where was that road and hence the excavation site?
The following sections try to answer these questions. These ‘answers’ are not definitive and are hypothetical assertions based on researching the island’s recent industrial history, speaking with local people and visiting potential sites. We welcome discussion and further information from any source and will update this article as new information becomes available or any of the assertions are proved to be false.
We have one ‘hard’ piece of evidence. Bent tells us that his first excavation site was “on the slope of the mountain, about a mile above the spot where the houses were”. He saw the ‘houses’ submerged in the narrow stretch of sea between the island of Tsimintiri and the southern shore of Antiparos near present-day Aghios Georgios. Using this fact, I’ve tried to bring together discrete pieces of Bent’s and Mabel’s writings and local exploration and research to come up with the most probable positioning for all three of our sort-after locations.
The location of the Swans’ house is key to finding Bent’s initial exploratory dig site in December 1883 and his subsequent, more extensive digs a few weeks later.
Theodore and Mabel Bent had been staying in Paroikia in Paros, and Bent tells us that they left early for the journey to Antiparos: “On the next morning early we started for Antiparos, a desolate ride of two hours to the point where the ferry boat takes passengers across.” Mabel’s chronicle contradicts Bent’s timing: “Rode 1½ hour to the nearest point to Antiparos”.
Mabel writes that Swan’s house was a 90-minute ride (in one direction) from Antiparos town where the ferry landed the couple: “We sent a messenger to Mr. Swan and knowing he would take 3 hours to return, rode to meet him. … 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.”
These events all occured within the same day so, timing, and Bent’s subsequent description of the location of the dig site, pins down the approximate location of the house.
Mabel noted in her diary that they visited Antiparos on December 18, however, that date needs to be clarified. Bent says it was St. Nicholas’ Day (December 6). With the 12 days old-style/new-style calendar shift that Mabel always factored in, it would confirm Mabel’s date of December 18 note 5 . In 2018 on that day in Greece, there were 9 hours and 32 minutes of daylight with the sun rising at 08:35 and setting at 18:07. The actual times would vary slightly according to the longitude of a specific location, but the interval would be the same. Over the intervening 134 years, a few seconds of drift may have to be factored in. Also, without further research, it’s not certain that there was a universal Greek time or whether, more likely, it changed with longitude, and, the relationship between the ‘clock time’ and sunrise may not have been as now. However, this is all self-balancing and we still end up with around 9:30 hours of daylight.
We have to assume that Bent and Mabel would not be travelling by mule in the dark. Adding up Mabel’s chronicled day should give us the amount of time remaining for Bent’s exploratory dig:
Paroikia to Pounda 1:30 (Mabel’s lower reckoning)
Awaiting the boat to come from Antiparos 0:15
Festivities (Mabel tells us they joined in) 0:30
Ride to the Swans’ house 1:30 (although Bent tells us it was 2 hours)
Resting at the Swans’ house (say) 1:00
This totals, conservatively, 5:00 hours, leaving just 4:30 hours for Swan to organise the men for digging, to travel to the site from Swan’s house, excavate 4 graves and travel back. Therefore, the site must have been VERY close to the Swans’ house.
Bent tells us, almost exactly, where the dig site was:
A rock in the sea between Antiparos and the adjacent uninhabited island of Despotiko is covered with graves, and another islet is called Cemeteri, from the graves on it. The islands of Despotiko and Antiparos were once joined by a tongue of land, which was washed away by the encroachment of the sea on the northern side; and in the shallow water of the bay, between the islands, I was pointed out traces of ancient dwellings … I was able to discern a well filled up with sand, an oven, and a small square house. … A clever fisherman, who knows every inch of the bay, told me that pottery similar to that I found in the graves was very plentiful at the bottom of the sea near the houses. It is on the slope of the mountain, about a mile above the spot where the houses were, that an extensive graveyard exists. It is not unlikely that the submerged houses form the town of which this was the necropolis.
Taking our assertion of the proximity of Swan’s house to Bent’s initial dig site, would locate the house to be 1 to 2 kms north of the present-day village of Aghios Georgios.
While researching another, unconnected, story in Aghios Georgios, I mentioned my Bent search to a local man, Tassos G… . This conversation threw up a tantalising possible candidate for the Swans’ house. “If you follow that track up and over the hill, you’ll come to a building which was owned by a French mining company” he said. “It’s used as a farm building now but it’s not an average local house – look at the stonework”.
After leaving Tassos’ house, I immediately took the track he’d indicated. The house he’d described was indeed more high-status than the usual farm building. It’s now being used to store hay. There are some additional buildings around it with another largish building across the track.
Part of the house has been demolished and the existing walls represent approximately two thirds of the original length of the house.
The stones forming the walls are of a regular shape and have either been cut or carefully selected; by comparion, the other large building mentioned, on the opposite side of the track, is of a much rougher construction.
An element of decorative embellishment can be seen in the door and window lintels, being curved and formed from stones rather than a simple straight piece of timber. All the internal walls were at one time rendered.
While looking around the site, I noticed SOMETHING QUITE AMAZING – but more of that a little later.
The track continues on up the hillside and eventually reaches a large mining site to the north of Mount Profitis Ilias at Koutsoulies. Could this road have been the one which Mabel writes about: “He took us to his house, and after resting told us that in making a road he had come upon a lot of graves.”
Further investigation yielded more ‘evidence’ as set out in the following sections.
The Municipality of Antiparos’ official website states: “Mining activity on the island began in 1873, when the state ceded the exploitation rights to these deposits to the Elliniki Metalleftiki Etaireia [Greek Mining Company]” note 6
Another account of mining activity tells us: “Limonite ore, from which iron containing pockets of azurite and zinc are extracted, can be found on the western slopes of Profitis Ilias of Antiparos. The Greek Mining Company began mining operations in 1873 and started mining zinc from Kaki Skala. In 1900 the mines were taken over by the French Company of Lavrion” note 7
This second account mentioning the French Company of Lavrion would seem to tie in with Tassos’ statement about the house having been owned by a French mining company.
In searching for the calamine mine, I was initially drawn to the site of the mines at Koutsoulies, however, being on the north slope of Profitis Ilias somewhat casts doubt on this being the site of Swan’s mine. Additionally, the track from the house to those mines twists and turns around the folds of the mountain, probably a distance of 8-10 kms or so. Why would Swan live so far from the place of his work? The house indicated by Tassos is not in a ‘desirable’ location: it’s not in a village, or a town, it’s not by the sea. There had to be another reason why the mining company had built the house at that location. The calamine mine just had to be closer to the house, and, remember, in a very short space of time, Swan had gathered up a team of men to help Bent on his initial exploratory dig.
A kilometre further on from the house, the track passes above a ravine showing clear signs of quarrying with heaps of mining spoil to be seen, not yet fully overgrown. A kilometre further on, a track leads down to the ravine bed and closer examination of the quarry can be made. To the untrained eye, some of the loose spoil looks iron-based (ferric) with rust-red patches revealing its presence – a possible indication of calamine. The extent of the quarry can be clearly seen on the map in this article when switched to satellite view.
Bent writes of the local man named Zeppo:
On the opposite side of the island to the village of Antiparos, about two hours on muleback over the mountains, are a few scattered houses gathered round the calamine mines. Here we were staying, close to our graveyard, and here Zeppo has his store and dispenses his goods to the miners.
So, Bent’s writings would seem to support our assertion that the calamine mines were close to Swan’s house and hence his initial dig site. Were those “few scattered houses gathered round the calamine mine” the ‘farm’ buildings I’d seen?
Bent’s statement in relation to calamine extraction, “I could find no trace of any ancient works here [Antiparos]“, supports the premise that the quarry near to the Swan’s house was from the modern era.
Bent was relatively restrained in his excavations on Antiparos, given the number of sites he was told about, and one would like to think that he thought he’d leave some for future generations of archaeologists. He 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.
Of the four sites he visited, he excavated only two: “I opened some forty graves from two of the graveyards”. Just these two sites yielded a vast number of finds, all of which are now in the British Museum (view the objects in the British Museum).
Subsequent excavations by Tsountas and Dr. Zozi yielded a smaller number of finds, some of which can be seen in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens (see earlier image).
The first site
I’ve tried to establish earlier that Bent’s first excavation site was close to the Swans’ house and close to the calamine mine.
The fortuitous conversation with Tassos about the French mining company house led me to explore the track he’d pointed out to me.
I found the house and, on walking around the immediate area, I saw to my utter amazement, just across the track from the house, some fairly recent excavations of, what looked like, graves identical to those described by Bent. How could this possibly be? Bent’s original excavations would have eroded or been overgrown over the past 130 years, so somebody had been excavating here recently.
Back at the Bent Archive base, on receiving my report of finding these new excavations, the team started scouring the Internet for any recent references to Bent’s excavations on Antiparos. They came upon an advance notice of a lecture note 8 which was to have been given to The Archaeological Society at Athens in December 2018 – just 9 months previously. The presenter was to be Dr Zozi Papadopoulou. A précis of the lecture stated: “In recent investigations by the Ephoria of Antiquities for the Cyclades, the Krassades site was relocated [located once more] and a cluster of graves, some undisturbed, were explored.”
With no contact details for Dr. Zozi Papadopoulou, the Bent Archive sent an email to Demetris Athanasoulis, Director of The Ephorate of Antiquities of the Cyclades, who forwarded the message to Dr. Zozi, to which she replied:
The site of Krassades has been located in the last decade about 1km north of the modern settlement of Ag. Georgios in Antiparos. We actually excavate part of the cemetery with very interesting findings. I am sending a link directing you to one of my articles with informative photos included (pp 357-359). The “southeast site” you mentioned has not been identified yet…
Dr. Zozi’s reply arrived after I’d left Antiparos. The information in the article which she references note 9 in her email looks to be extremely interesting and, armed with this new information, a return visit beckons soon after travel is permitted following the current (2020/21) pandemic.
Her reply confirmed what I’d deduced from the lines of Bent’s book and Mabel’s chronicles, and from my researches on Antiparos – the exact location of Bent’s first excavation site, the location of the Swans’ house and the location of the calamine mine.
The second site
Neither Bent nor Mabel provide us with any precise information on where the second site was located, although Jörg Rambach in Early Cycladic Sculpture in Context(Marthari et al. (eds), Oxford, 2017, ch. 7) suggests in the area of Apantima or Ag. Sostis. Bent only gives us two vague geographic references.
One reference tells us that it was “to the south-east of the island”. This could lead us to believe that it was somewhere on the peninsula, south or west, of the present-day village of Soros.
The other reference provides the information: “In Antiparos the inhabitants had their obsidian close at hand, for a hill about a mile from the south-eastern graveyard is covered with it.”
SO – a project for a future (very long) visit to Antiparos – find an obsidian needle in an obsidian haystack in the south-east of the island!
Dr. Zozi’s reply seems to confirm that the location of Bent’s second site is still unknown:
The “southeast site” you mentioned has not been identified yet.
As with any complex plot, the individual players each add their part to the overall story and serendipity often plays a major role.
In 1884, Bent published his article, Researches Among the Cyclades in the Journal of Hellenic Studies note 10 , describing his excavations on Antiparos. Around the same time, he was also writing his book, The Cyclades or Life Among the Insular Greeks note 11 , in which he included much of the text of the previously published article, save for a short appendix, Notes on an Ancient Grecian Skull. Aside from this appendix, the text of the article and the book are largely identical with the notable exception of the first paragraph. In the article he writes:
It is first of all necessary to state why I chose Antiparos as a basis for investigation on this point: firstly, because during historic times…
The version in his book contradicts that of the article:
On ascertaining the existence of extensive prehistoric remains at Antiparos I felt that it would be a satisfactory spot for making investigations — first, because during historic times…
Both versions continue identically and both contain the second paragraph starting:
Secondly, I was induced to dig at Antiparos because I was shown extensive graveyards there.
In the article version, Bent is suggesting that he chose Antiparos in advance because, from the considerations he sets out, he foresaw that he might find remains there, whereas, in the book version, his considerations were only entered into following the meeting with Robert Swan and his excavations on that first brief visit.
Although Bent was always on the look-out for potential dig sites wherever he roamed, one might assume, given that he only intended to stay overnight, that his reason for visiting Antiparos was other than archaeology. It would seem that he came as a ‘tourist’ to visit “the celebrated grotto” for its medieval historical interest, about which visit he wrote extensively in his book. His archaeological interests lay much further back in history and, for Bent, Antiparos was “a place without a history.”
It can be said therefore that the discovery of the Krassades site was a result of two supreme examples of serendipity. Firstly, in Robert Swan’s stumbling upon the graveyard while making the road to the calamine mines and, secondly, in Swan’s mention of the graves on that first night, without which, Bent might never have proceeded to dig on Antiparos. Maybe it was always in Swan’s mind to mention his finding of the graves, and Mabel’s account makes it sound as though the subject might have been on his agenda: “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.”
Robert Binney, the British Consul in Syros, played his part well in bringing Swan and Bent together.
We don’t know for sure, but it would seem that Swan made no monetary gain from bringing the site of the graves to Bent’s attention, nor for assisting him during the Bents’ 3-week stay on the island (although Bent himself stayed only for 2 weeks, leaving Mabel with the Swan brothers on the third week, suffering from poor health). Robert Swan and the Bents became close friends from that point on and Swan later drew some element of fame from accompanying Bent on his expedition to Great Zimbabwe.
Bent, of course, gained the greatest applause and accolades. As an established author of books and journal articles, and as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, he had all the right contacts to finally make his name as an archaeologist, aided by his sale to the British Museum of the Antiparos finds, his article Researches Among the Cyclades, published in 1884 in the Journal of Hellenic Studies, note 12 and the publication of his best-selling book The Cyclades or Life Among the Insular Greeks note 13 in 1885.
Christos Tsountas played a key ‘linking’ role, some 15 years after Bent’s excavations. Probably working from Bent’s writings, and being able to find local people with personal recollections of his visit in 1884, he identified Bent’s excavation site and named it as Krassades. He was also the first to methodically excavate the site using sound archaeological practices.
That ‘link’ provided by Tsountas, was picked up over 100 years later by Dr. Zozi Papadopoulou who successfully located, once again, the Krassades site and has produced detailed and modern analysis of older parts of the site as well as new areas of interest. Her work on the site continues.
<!– The last words of the script should rightly be spoken by Dr. Zozi, to rapturous applause from the audience:
“May I take the opportunity to also express the wish that the skeletal remains come back to the island.”
Should Dr. Zozi’s wish be granted, expect to see a sequel to this story, possibly entitled ‘Of Crows and Swans and Calamine – A Wish Come True’.–>
We leave it to you, the audience, to make up your own mind, from the script we’ve compiled, as to who should share the applause in the “Archaeology Theatre of Antiparos”.
Note 4: In the Othodox Calendar, St. Simeon’s Day is April 27th. Simeon is also honored, together with 70 other apostles, on January 4th. Those who are named after Simeon, or Symeon, can celebrate their name day on either of these days. However, Theodore and Mabel Bent were in Antiparos on this second visit in February 1884 so Bent may be mistaken in his reference to this saint’s day – or he was being hoodwinked by his workers? Return from Note 4
“[One] of the most notable and charming women of the day…” and her “museum” – 13 Great Cumberland Place, London, W1
Both Theodore and Mabel Bent liked to style themselves ‘archaeologists’, and at times a case can be made that they were… and at others that they were anything but. But there can be no doubting they were truly exceptional travellers and explorers, regularly facing uncertainty and considerable hardships over a period of almost twenty years – ‘excavating’ where they could, usually in line with whatever Theodore’s current hobby-horse happened to be – early life in the Cyclades, the Phoenicians, the Queen of Sheba…
The Bents are an amazingly addictive couple and ‘the archaeology of the Bents’ is very much part of what the Bent Archive is all about. And now and then, once in twenty years of research, something truly remarkable, unique even, comes to light. The late summer of 2020 produced just such a discovery, beginning with an insignificant alert from the British Newspaper Archive saying that a quality women’s magazine, The Gentlewoman, had been added to its list of digital holdings, most of which originate from the British Library. Straightaway the search term ‘Theodore Bent’ (which will turn up either Mr or Mrs J. Theodore Bent) went in, and, just like an excavator in an opening trench, you wait to see if anything comes up. Bingo! There it was – The Gentlewoman – The Illustrated Weekly Journal for Gentlewomen, Vol. VII, Saturday, November 11, 1893, pages 621-622, Article title: Gentlewomen ‘At Home’, No. CLXXV, ‘Mrs. Theodore Bent… at 13, Great Cumberland Place’.
An astonishing discovery, and for us as intriguing as anything the Bents brought home to London from the Eastern Mediterranean, Africa, or Arabia. And what makes the article so appealing is that it is the only piece unearthed so far that goes into any detail about the Bents’ archaeological and ethnographic finds that they had out on show in their London townhouse (an invitation and victim to the Blitz), 13 Great Cumberland Place, just a few hundred metres from Marble Arch. A further discovery is that the article also contains a very rare portrait of Mabel (which our research shows is by Henry Van der Weyde); there are also three unique photographs, sadly very dark, of the interior of their house.
This revelatory article from The Gentlewoman is now transcribed below and we make no apologies for its length – you can return to it as often as you like, and it is probably the first time for a hundred years it will have been re-read. Its context (and once more we have archaeology), reinforces the aura of celebrity the Bents had acquired following their 1891 trip to ‘Great Zimbabwe’, with Cecil Rhodes scheming behind him – and in a sense the great ‘Colossus’ made a minor one of Theodore, and Mabel too.
The last few paragraphs of the piece make reference to the 1893 scandal involving the controversy of whether women should continue being elected Fellows of the Royal Geographical Society – Mabel was in the proposed second cohort (22 or so had been elected thus far), but the RGS hierarchy managed to ban them from applying. It was a sorry story, not put right until 1913.
It is also worth noting that some of the dates mentioned in the article are inaccurate for some reason – perhaps Mabel’s memory let her down during the interview with the editor.
Nor does the article always make for happy reading – there are inclusions and stray finds that are unwelcome today, but which were the matrix of the day – the discovery that two ikons from the Patmos’ ‘Cave of the Apocalypse’ were removed is a shock (although Mabel in her diary records that at least one was ‘purchased’). Mabel died in 1929 and a few years previously she donated some of the artefacts she held most dear, those that reminded her most of happier times before Theodore’s early death in 1897, to the British Museum. All her remaining assets were bequeathed to her nieces, and her collections divided up, dispersed, sold off, reverting to anonymous items, and now in the main contextless, provenances lost. And the Patmos ikons? Where they are today, we don’t know. Let’s hope some future archaeologist turns them up and sees these little treasures returned to the Dodecanese…
… but let’s make a start on the transcription, and hand you over to Theodore and Mabel, in one of their cluttered drawing rooms, carriages rattling along in the street below, being interviewed by the editor of TheGentlewoman, Joseph Snell Wood. It is Autumn in London in 1893, an empire’s heyday, and the leaves in Hyde Park are changing colour…
Gentlewomen ‘At Home’, ‘Mrs. Theodore Bent… at 13, Great Cumberland Place’
In September 2020, we were contacted by the philologist and historian Minas Chouvardas who is writing a book about past foreign travellers to the island of Karpathos. Minas is orginally from the village of Olympos, in the north of Karpathos, where the Bents spent Easter 1885. He was aware of the Bents’ important contribution to the documented social history of the island and has undertaken meticulous research into the events and the people described by both Theodore and Mabel in relation to Theodore’s article ‘On a far-off Island‘.
We were delighted when Minas offered us the chance to publish the results of his research on this website. His article precisely identifies individuals of whom Theodore only gave us vague details. Minas also investigates the murder which both Theodore and Mabel write about as having been instigated by one of their new friends while they were on the island. Overall, Minas’ article demonstrates his passion for the people, the places and the history of his native island.
Minas’ article is best enjoyed when you have ready access to Theodore’s original account and, with this in mind, our sister website has published an ebook version of Theodore’s story which can be freely viewed online or downloaded in a choice of formats. Clicking on the book cover will open a new window so that you can flip back and forth between Minas’ and Theodore’s articles.
So, without further ado, let’s hand over to Minas:
The “Karpathiote” Friends of Theodore Bent – by Minas Chouvardas
James Theodore Bent and Mabel V.A. Bent visited Karpathos in the spring of 1885 and remained on the island for about two months. Theodore Bent is the only foreign traveller to Karpathos in the 19th century who gives detailed information about the island’s ethnological composition, the archaeological findings, and the customs and traditions as he experienced them when he and his wife were there. He also gives detailed information about the Karpathian dialect, daily life, and the occupations of the inhabitants. Surprisingly, his important researches, which mainly concern the folklore of the island at the end of the 19th century, have passed unnoticed by modern scholars. Most Karpathian scholars know only of the contents of his extended article on Karpathos in the Journal of Hellenic Studies of 1885 note 1 . However, Theodore himself, when asked by his inner circle why he made the long journey to the remote island, and found so much of interest there, replied: “… it is one of the most lost islands of the Aegean Sea, lying between Crete and Rhodes, where no steamer touches, and … my wife and I spent some months on it last winter with a view to studying the customs of the 9000 Greeks who inhabit it, and who in their mountain villages have preserved through long ages many of the customs of the Greeks of old” note 2 .
At the same time, Mabel, during their two-month stay on Karpathos, was recording in her diary, in detail, their daily activities and the contacts they had with the locals and their Turkish rulers. Although she does not always provide descriptions of all the people and locations, Mabel presents us with the real situation of Karpathos a few years before the Italian conquest. She observes, records and judges the behaviours of the people, comments on the habits and beliefs of the inhabitants, and often compares the culture of the islanders with her own British one. But, mainly through the detailed recording of the events that she presents in her Chronicles (as she called them), she illuminates the aspects of the events and the information that Theodore may have overlooked in his own writings. But often the opposite happens: it is Theodore who mentions events and situations experienced on the island that Mabel either does not mention at all or skips over, and gives his own different view of things. In some places, in fact, information provided about an incident or person is contradictory. The reader, however, should not be surprised by this: although an inseparable couple, they have, of course, different characters and personalities, and thus we see things from different points of view – and therein lies the charm.
Mabel’s narration in her Chronicles fascinates her readers, now as then, transporting them to the small, and poor, societies of Karpathos at the end of the 19th century. Thanks to the testimonies of the Bents, we share in the toils of the Karpathian farmers and shepherds, the art of embroidery, the love of song, of fun and dance, of food and drink, of the prejudices and superstitions. In all this there is the simple figure of the Karpathian: the mayor, the priest, the prominent man, the interpreter, the worker, the rower, the old prophet, the teacher, the old ‘witch’ with a remedy for every ill.
During their stay on the island they meet with several residents of Karpathos and with some of them they clearly developed friendly ties. Accordingly, this present article aims to introduce the Bents’ native friends and reveal information about their lives and personalities. Let us begin then …
Coming to Karpathos, the Bents carry three letters of recommendation given to them by the Greek consular agent of Rhodes, Mr. Philemon, addressed to three prominent Karpathians of that time: Mr. Frangiskos Sakolarides, Mr. Koumpis and Mr. Manolakakis.
The first friend that Mabel mentions in her “Chronicles” is Mr. Manolakakis note 3 . She does not mention his first name at any point in her diary, while Theodore in his article “On a far-off Island” never mentions his name, but always addresses him as “our third friend“. This fact suggests that the phrase is used ironically, as we shall see, by Theodore. The question that occurs to a modern Karpathian reader of Mabel’s diary is ultimately “who is Manolakakis?” The surname is found until today in the southern villages of Karpathos. Of course, many Karpathians on the island know that a Manolakakis, named Emmanuel, was the first historian and folklorist of Karpathos note 4 . However, other intrinsic items in Mabel’s diary make it possible to verify the identity of that person. Mabel reports that Mr. Manolakakis had lunch with them at least twice, that they bought Rhodian plates from his mother note 5 and that his then 17-year-old daughter Ephrosini (Mrs Sophrosine Manolakakis) helped the couple carry their luggage from Aperi to Volada note 6 . Mabel, unlike Theodore, seems to have liked Mr. Manolakakis, after stating, on the occasion of the help offered by Ephrosini, that “she is the daughter of a very nice man“ note 7 . She never mentions in her diary what topics of discussion they had, nor does she describe his appearance or character. However, Mabel, concluding the narration of their stay in Karpathos, notes in the form of a postscript that Mr. Manolakakis was the instigator of a murder committed in Volada while they were in Karpathos note 8 .
Theodore is more descriptive and revealing when referring to Mr. Manolakakis. He immediately shows his dislike when he mentions that Mr. Manolakakis was the reason they left Mr. Sakellaridis’ house in Aperi and went to Volada, so that he could carry out the assassination plan against the Karpathian “dragoman” Frangiskos Sakellaridis a few weeks later note 9 . When Sevasti, the owner of the house in Volada, refused to allow the couple to dance and sing, it was Mr. Manolakakis who supported Theodore and Mabel note 10 . Elsewhere in his story, Theodore points out the poverty of Mr. Manolakakis, who in order to marry his eldest daughter, gave almost all his property as a dowry, while his second daughter (Ephrosini) lived in misery note 11 . Theodore also mentions that Mr. Manolakakis had invited him for dinner, but because Theodore left before the fun peaked, he considers it possible that Mr. Manolakakis was misunderstood note 12 . Theodore, in contrast to Mabel, emphasizes the murder that took place in Volada, giving more details and without hesitation names Mr. Manolakakis as the instigator of the murder. What is striking is that Theodore three times in his narrative speaks of the attempted murder against the interpreter note 13 .
The “Mr. Manolakakis” whom Bent met is none other than Emmanuel Manolakakis, the author of Karpathiaka (1896). Emmanuel Manolakakis note 14 (fig.1) was born in 1830 and died on March 17, 1900 of a heart attack. He married Kalliopi Nikola and they had 11 children. He came from Volada and at the end of the 19th century he settled in Pigadia, where he served as mayor. He held Greek citizenship and was appointed in 1877, according to the testimony of his second son Georgios, consular agent of Greece in Karpathos. Manolakakis in Karpathiaka mentions T. Bent twice, describing him as a “wise” and “antiquarian” man note 15 . Ephrosini Manolakaki (Mabel refers to her as Sophrosini Manolakakis) was the fourth child of Emmanuel Manolakakis and the third of his daughters. She was born in 1868 and died in 1936 note 16 . In the list of subscribers of her father’s book Karpathiaka, only she appears to live in village Aperi note 17 (fig. 2). His second son Georgios (fig.3) served as mayor of Pigadia during the Italian occupation (1923-1933) note 18 , verifying Mabel’s prediction for Manolakakis’ children note 19 .
Bent’s second friend in Karpathos was Mr. Koumpis. Neither Mabel nor Theodore mention his first name. Theodore informs us that he was old and very talkative, and that of their three friends, only he was slow and late receiving them, due to a family problem note 20 . Mabel reports that on March 21, 1885, they went down to Aperi, met Mr. Koumpis and he then accompanied them to their home in Volada note 21 . This is the maritime art teacher Meletios Koumbis note 22 , who came from Megara, was in Karpathos, fell in love with Fotini Foka, the eldest daughter of Ioannis Fokas, the schoolmaster and mayor of Aperi, and settled in Aperi in the middle of the 19th century. He had three children with her, Kalliopi, Giannakis and Panagiotis. Bent reports that the year they visited Karpathos, Koumpis was an old man. He probably died in 1908 or 1909, because since then his name does not appear in the tax records of the municipality of Aperi, but the name of his widow does. The son that Theodore mentions as having recently married note 23 is Giannakis. Panagiotis (1869-1928) never married, but history recorded him as one of the best captains of Karpathos note 24 . Grandson of Meletios Koumpis and son of his daughter Kalliopi was the Karpathian hero pilot Panagiotis Orfanidis, who was killed in the Greek-Italian war note 25 .
Bent’s third friend is named as Mr. Frangiskos Sakellaridis. Mabel pronounces and writes his last name as “Sakolarides”. Of the three persons mentioned, Mabel mentions the name (Frangisko) only in connection with Mr. Sakellaridis. On the contrary, Theodore always refers to him as “the interpreter“. Arriving for the first time in southern Karpathos, Bent spent two nights at his house in Aperi note 26 . He participated in the picnic at Kyra Panagia with his brother, while on his return to Volada, Frangiskos accompanied them to the village, offering them coffee at the café note 27 . On the first day the couple spent in the village of Elymbo, they found Mr. Sakellaridis chairing the village assembly note 28 . Theodore describes Sakellaridis’ very friendly relationship with his would-be assassin, while after the murder, where the wrong man was killed, Sakellaridis was always guarded by a Turkish soldier when he was outside note 29 . Frangiskos (Fragios) Sakellaridis (fig.4) note 30 (1847-1923) was the mayor of Volada and secretary of the Diocese of Aperi and was the youngest son of Georgios Sakellaridis from Aperi and Ernia Psaroudaki, daughter of the Cretan Georgios Psaroudakis who took refuge in Karpathos during the revolutionary period (1821-1830). The eldest son, Kostis (1844-1905), spoke and wrote the Turkish language fluently, serving in court positions (fig.5). Frangiskos married Rigopoula Kapetanaki and they had seven children. The eldest son, Georgios, was a doctor, while the second, Christoforos, was a teacher, secretary of the Holy Metropolis in Aperi and author of the proclamation of the Union of Karpathos with mother Greece (7/10/1944) note 31 . The son of Georgios and the eponymous grandson of Frangiskos was Frangios Sakellaridis (1897-1965), the doctor and brilliant scientist who dedicated his life to the health and well-being of his fellow citizens note 32 . In the year 1905, when the Turkish authorities tried to encroach on certain privileges granted to the islands ever since the time of Sultan Mahmud II (reigned 1808 – 1839), the Elders’ Council of Karpathos appointed Frangiskos Sakellaridis as a proxy to go to the Turkish governor of Rhodes and make the islanders’ case for the preservation of their privileges note 33 . Today, Volada’s football stadium is named after Frangiskos Sakellaridis (grandson of Bent’s friend).
In the village of Elymbos the Bents were entertained at the schoolmaster’s house for the Easter period note 34 . Neither of them mention his name. In fact, Theodore in his article “A Christening in Karpathos” confuses him with the schoolmaster of the village of Mesochori, referring to Mabel’s anecdote about Jules Verne note 35 . From Mabel we learn that he had two little girls, “Maroukla” (Maria) and “Eirenio” (Irene) and that the mayor of the village, “Diako-Nikolas”, was his father-in-law note 36 . The schoolmaster that Theodore encounters in the café (kafeneion) and finally stays with in Elymbos, was the first “Greek teacher” Nikias Ioannou-Spanos note 37 , who was the first to organize the archives of the community and contributed hugely to the standard of education of the children of Elymbos (fig.6). Nikias Ioannou-Spanos was born in Kalymnos around the year 1837. His real last name was Spanos, however he became known by his patronymic (Ioannou). He came to Karpathos in the early 1860s, when the mayor of Elymbos, Diako-Nikolaos Diakogeorgiou, was on the island of Kalymnos to find a suitable schoolmaster for his village. His good luck leads him to Nikias Ioannou-Spanos, whom he hires as a teacher of Elymbos. Nikias, around the year 1876, will marry one of the daughters of Diako-Nikolas, the youngest girl, Magafoula, and they will have six children, Ioannis, Nikolaos, Georgios, Maroukla, Rinio and Evangelia. The two older daughters are mentioned by Mabel. His fame spread throughout Karpathos and apart from Elymbos, he taught in Aperi (1870, 1885-1888), Menetes, Kasos, Rhodes and Kos. The last years of his life he lived in Diaphani, where he died and was buried in the spring of 1923 at the age of 85-86. His family tradition states that his last words were that he was dying without being able to see the Dodecanese free at last.
The Bents also met other residents of Karpathos with whom they had friendly (or non-friendly) relations. They, of course, met the Turkish governor of the island (the kaimakam) and his clever secretary Hassan Efendi (fig.1) note 38 . At the village of Spilies they met Mrs. Chrysanthi or Chrysanthemou note 39 . In Arkasa, Menetes and Mesochori they were put up by local residents. Finally, in Diaphani, they were hosted for five nights at the house of Protopapas note 40 . Unfortunately the Bents give few details about these personages, making it almost impossible to identify them today. Only for the latter, Protopapas, is it known that his family owned the church of “Panagia” in Diaphani. On February 9, 1948, a strong earthquake, measuring 7 on the Richter scale, shook Karpathos and the settlements of the island suffered severe damage – Diaphani’s old church collapsed and the modern church was built on the site in the 1960s (fig.7).
As for the murder in Volada, it has been long forgotten by the collective memory and no one in Karpathos knows or has heard of it. No contemporary Karpathian writer ever mentions anything about the event. Manolakakis, the instigator of the crime according to Bent, on the contrary states that murder on the island is almost unknown, and if it ever happens it is due to the greatest provocation or revenge note 41 . Τhe greatest historian of Karpathos, M. Michailidis-Nouaros (1879-1954), although he lived close to the event, makes no mention. Τhere is only the testimony of the Bent couple about this event that shook the local community of Karpathos in the spring of 1885. From an historical point of view, of course, the testimonies of Mabel and Theodore still need to be corroborated by other sources, but considering overall the Bents’ extensive writings on the events they experienced on their almost two months on the island, their accounts have proved to be highly reliable.
Note 22: M. Chiotis, “The local government during the period of Turkish and Italian occupation in the old capital of Karpathos ‘Aperion’ 1796-1943” (H τοπική αυτοδιοίκηση κατά την περίοδο της Τουρκοκρατίας και της Ιταλοκρατίας στην παλαιά πρωτεύουσα της Καρπάθου «Απέριον» 1796-1943), Athens 2013, 288, 830-832, 835-836. Return from Note 22
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)
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.
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)
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.]
[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.)
[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.)
[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)
[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 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.”
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.
Don’t overlook, too, the wonderful, though small, collection of dried plants in the Herbarium, Kew Gardens. Most of the specimens were collected by Kew’s William Lunt, who travelled to the Hadramaut with the Bents in 1894, but there is some additional material from their later expeditions. Kew’s super online catalogue (with some illustrations) makes a great start.
It should also be remembered that in the late 19th century London’s Natural History Museum legally remained a department of the British Museum with the formal name ‘British Museum (Natural History)’. Thus the select assemblage of molluscs, insects and reptiles the Bents collected was gradually transferred to their care, e.g. we know that Mabel presented her collection of 186 “land and freshwater shells from the island of Socotra, including several new species”. (For publications on the shells, see, e.g. J.C. Melvill, Journal of Molluscan Studies, Vol. 1, Issue 5, 224-5).
Very importantly, the skeletal material Bent removed from two sites on Cycladic Antiparos in 1884, believed lost but now rediscovered, is stored in the National History Museum, awaiting further study.
(In 1926, a few years before she died (1929), Mabel had a sort out of the things she still treasured in her London home. This explains why many of the inventory numbers in the above museums have a 1926 date.)
Just before (Western) Easter 1888, the tireless British explorers Theodore and Mabel Bent, on an extended cruise down the Turkish coast, had reached the small, thriving island of Kastellorizo – one more location to add to their twenty-year gazetteer; not a lot of people know that…
Wikipedia (03/09/2020) has plenty by way of introduction to this, perhaps the remotest of Greek islands one can step on via scheduled services:
“Kastellorizo or Castellorizo (Greek: Καστελλόριζο, romanized: Kastellórizo), officially Meyisti (Μεγίστη Megísti), a Greek island and municipality of the Dodecanese in the Eastern Mediterranean. It lies roughly 2 kilometres (1 mile) off the south coast of Turkey, about 570 km (354 mi) southeast of Athens and 125 km (78 mi) east of Rhodes, almost halfway between Rhodes and Antalya, and 280 km (170 mi) northwest of Cyprus.”
The previous year (1887), our explorers, Theodore and Mabel Bent, had been excavating way up north on Thasos, finding some important marbles (including a fine statue they were not allowed to take home), which are now in the archaeological museum in Istanbul. Denied their rightful gains (as they saw them), and never a couple to give up easily, the pair spent a good deal of the summer and autumn of 1887 trying to drum up enough support to have these marbles rescued from the Turkish authorities and cased up for London. Letters exist from Bent to the British Museum requesting their kind interventions (it all sounds very familiar): “We have indeed been unfortunate about our treasure trove but I have hopes still. I sent to Mr. Murray [of the BM] a copy of two letters which recognize the fact that I had permission in Thasos both to dig and to remove. These I fancy had not reached Sir W[illiam] White [our man in the City, see below] when you passed through Constantinople. Seriously, the great point to me is prospective. Thasos is wonderfully rich and I have some excellent points for future work and … I am confident we could produce some excellent results.”
In January 1888, Theodore did receive a further grant of £50 from the Hellenic Society to return to Thasos to excavate, and the couple duly left for Istanbul. Unsurprisingly, the implacable, very capable Director of Antiquities in the Turkish capital, Hamdi Bey, refused Bent a firman to carry out further investigations, not only on Thasos, but also implying that the Englishman was not welcome to use unauthorized picks and shovels on Turkish lands in general.
Despite various appeals to canny career diplomat, the Ambassador, Sir William White, he and Mabel were forced to change their plans. Theodore may well have been expecting this. In the Classical Review of May 1889, his friend E.L. Hicks reveals that when Bent was first digging on Thasos in 1887 he had employed a local man to “to make some excavations in the neighbourhood of Syme” (far down the Turkish coast, north of Rhodes) on his behalf. Obviously satisfied with the results, the couple, after an excursion to Bursa to see the fabled Green Mosque, decided to return to Cycladic Syros, where they chartered for about fifty days the pretty yacht Evangelistria (the Bents refer to her as “the ‘Blue Ship’ from the gaudy colour with which her sides were painted”), with “Kapitan Nikólaos Lambros” and her crew, under Greek papers; and they embark (Wednesday, 29 February 1888) on this fall-back plan that will take them with the winds and currents as far south as Levantine, if not Oriental, Kastellorizo, frozen just off the Turkish coast, as a map will show you, like a mouse under a cat’s paw.
Meanwhile Mabel, on Syros before embarking, can be candid for her diary – they are to don pirate gear, “Theodore at once took to visiting ships to put into practice our plan of chartering a ship and becoming pirates and taking workmen to ‘ravage the coasts of Asia Minor’. Everyone says it is better to dig first and let them say Kismet after, than to ask leave of the Turks and have them spying there.” All, of course, reprehensible behaviour today. The couple also meet up here with their long-term dragoman, Manthaios Símos, who has sailed up from his home on Anafi , close to Santorini, to lend a hand.
Thus, on a sort of early tourist ‘gulet’ cruise (“There is a dog called Zouroukos, who was at first terrified… and the little tortoise, Thraki”), the couple’s investigations along the Asia Minor littoral (in particular the coastline opposite Rhodes) turned out fairly fruitful, and some of Theodore’s ‘finds’ from this expedition are now in London (see below). He briefly wrote up his discoveries of ancient Loryma, Lydae, and Myra for the Journal of Hellenic Studies (Vol. 9, 1888 – but a lengthier account was provided by E.L. Hicks (Vol. 10, 1889)), including transcriptions of over forty inscriptions and passages of text from Theodore’s own notebooks.
No doubt his notebooks were to come in handy when, a few years later, Bent is editing his well-known version of Thomas Dallam’s diary for the Hakluyt Society (1893), recounting the latter’s adventures in these same waters: ‘The 23rd [June, 1599] we sayled by Castle Rosee, which is in litle Asia.’ (Incidentally, musical-instrument maker Dallam’s Gulliver-like exploits below the gigantic walls of Rhodes, not so very far away northish, are highly recommended.)
But back to the Bents, a popular account of the their 50-day cruise in 1888 – well worth a read for those who get off on the rugged coastline from Symi to Kastellorizo – was written by Theodore for The Cornhill Magazine, (Vol. 58 (11), 620-35), and entitled ‘A Piratical F.S.A.‘ (Bent had recently been made a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, and was indulging in shameful hubris.)
(For the rest of Bent’s articles on this coastal meander, see the year 1888 in his bibliography.)
After various adventures, the Bents reached the Kastellorizo offing on 30th March 1888. Theodore sets the scene: “Great preparations were made for the arrival of the ‘Blue Ship’ at the first civilised port she had visited since leaving Syra. One of the ‘boys’, it appeared, understood hair-cutting, and borrowed Mrs. F.S.A.’s scissors for that purpose; beards were shaved, and shaggy locks reduced with wonderful rapidity… Castellorizo was the port, and it is a unique specimen of modern Greek [sic] enterprise, being a flourishing maritime town, built on a barren islet off the south coast of Asia Minor, far from any other Greek centre – a sort of halfway halting place in the waves for vessels which trade between Alexandria and Levantine ports; it has a splendid harbour, and is a town of sailors and sponge divers.”
Half thinking of home, the Bents are in need of some fancy paperwork to ensure their acquisitions thus far are protected from the prying eyes of both Greek and Turkish customs officials. Mabel’s ‘Chronicle’ gives us a little more, beginning with a sketch of their plans:
“First to go to the island of Kasteloriso, where there is a Greek consul, and have a manifesto made that we came from Turkey so that the Greeks may not touch our things in Syra… Now all was preparation for this civilized place. Theodore assured himself that his collar and tie were at hand. I hung out my best Ulster coat and produced respectable gloves and shoes… We really made a very tidy party when we reached our goal… We had a calm voyage. An average time from Myra to Kasteloriso is 6 hours; we took about 26. We did not land in the regular harbour. The captain said questions would be asked as to why there were 18 people in such a boat. We landed about 8. It is a flourishing looking little town, divided by a point on which rise the ruins of a red castle. The name should be Castelrosso, but first the Greeks have made it ‘orso’ and then stuck in an ‘i’. The Genoese or Venetians made it. Kapitan Nikólaos was greeted wherever he went by friends. He did not seem anxious to be questioned much, and once when asked where he had come from gaily answered, ‘Apo to pelago!’ (from the open sea). I was delighted at this answer and so, when some women, sitting spinning on rocks, called out, ‘Welcome Kyria,’ to which I answered, ‘Well met!’ and then asked, ‘Whence have you troubled yourself?’ ‘Apo to pelago!’ I smilingly replied and swept on round a corner where we could laugh, and who more than Kapitan Nikólaos…”
There is nothing in Mabel’s diary to suggest the couple made any sort of tourist excursion around the island, not even to the famous blue caves, which is a shame. Surprisingly, too, Theodore makes no mention of perhaps the most iconic ‘snap’ on the island, the Lycian rock-cut tomb (4th century BC), unique on Greek soil.
Mission accomplished, the next we learn is that the Evangelistria has reached the ancient site of Patara on the mainland: “Yesterday morning, Good Friday [March 30th], we had a very quiet voyage hither…”
Within days, Theodore and Mabel will be casting off for Syros once more, but, after 50 days in their gulet, they have had enough of open waters and decide to return to London the long way, overland, via Smyrna – Istanbul – Scutari – Adrianople – Plovdiv – Istanbul – Nicea – Istanbul – Odessa – Berlin. All a far cry from ‘civilised’, Levantine Kastellorizo… and one wonders of their dreams.
“We stopped 2 nights in Berlin at the Central Hotel”, writes Mabel, “We had travelled from Saturday night to Monday night, the 14th, and nearly always through forests. We crossed from Flushing and on Thursday [17th May 1888] we safely reached home… All our marbles reached England soon after, and after spending some weeks here are housed in the British Museum.” (‘The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J. Theodore Bent’, Vol 1, Oxford, 2006, p. 260)
‘Here’ is the couple’s smart townhouse near Marble Arch, a vast magpies’ nest, with every tabletop, bookcase and cabinet showing off souvenirs from 20 years of travels in Arabia, Africa, and the Eastern Mediterranean, perhaps, too, some embroideries and large, distinctive chemise buttons (from the women Mabel chatted to on Kastellorizo), just arrived back in rough, pine crates, recently unloaded from the decks of the Evangelistria:
“The women here all wear the dress of Kasteloriso: long full coloured cotton trousers, then the shirt fastened down the front with… large round silver buckles, and then married women wear a gown slit up to the waist at the side. The 2 front bits are often tied back as they become mere strings. Then a jacket with sleeves ending above the elbow and very long-waisted, and very low is wound a scarf. The girls do not wear the gown. They have a fez on the head and a turban round it or not…” (‘The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J. Theodore Bent’, Vol 1, Oxford, 2006, p. 246)
Our recent post (May, 2020) of an article by Jennifer Barclay (Wild Abandon: A Journey to the Deserted Places of the Dodecanese, Bradt Travel Guides, 2020), in which Jen says how she finds the Bents, generated a fair bit of interest. A series of posts by other well-known travel writers (if this could be you, write to us), who were guided by Theodore and Mabel, will therefore follow, as and when…
Marc Dubin (Rough Guides and much else for decades) was kind enough to write a preface for Bent’s second Greek island book (The Dodecanese: Further Travels Among the Insular Greeks, 2015) and this can now appear online – at a time when hopping around the Cyclades and Dodecanese, for British tourists at least, is all but impossible this summer (2020).
Marc, a long-term resident of Samos, is a favourite of ours; actually more than that, because it was his inclusion of a reference to Bent’s The Cyclades, or Life Among the Insular Greeks (1885) in a Rough Guide bibliography that led circuitously, a kalderimi stumbled upon, right to the Bent Archive’s front door, some 30 years later. Here is what he has to say about the Bents; and thank you Marc.
“I have been writing about the Greek islands since 1981, and the Bents have accompanied me from the start. After graduating from UC Berkeley in 1977, I stayed around town for some years; I was fortunate in having a part-time job at the university library which was piecework based and allowed me to work full-time for three months and then take equal time off to travel. It also gave me complete, unchallenged run of the book stacks, where I furthered my education through omnivorous reading. There was no security whatsoever at the employees’ entrance, so books could be ‘borrowed’ indefinitely.
The pre-computerisation card catalogue listed no less than four copies of J. Theodore Bent’s Aegean Islands: The Cyclades, or Life Among the Insular Greeks, published as a 1966 reprint by Argonaut in Chicago. I had just signed my first contract to write a guidebook on Greece. Why should the library keep four copies of this title, when my research needs were greater? Home it went, to stay, in 1980.
James Theodore and Mabel spent nearly a year travelling around the Aegean on their first trip, back when it took a year to visit all the islands given the vagaries of the wind – as he writes in the volume you are holding, ‘those who go to Astypalæa must be people of a patient disposition’. They more (or less) cheerfully tolerated ferocious winter weather, leaking quarters, foul-smelling wooden boats, monotonous food (‘pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold, pease porridge in the pot nine days old’ was literally and repeatedly enacted), rapacious boatmen and voracious vermin. They took shelter in bare churches when necessary, something sadly unlikely now when so many rural chapels are locked against theft or desecration. It all puts today’s island-traveller whinges about cancelled sailings, greasy food and wonky water heaters in stark perspective. To their immense credit, the Bents were keenly interested in the contemporary Greek islanders, not just in antiquities, unlike 18th-century Grand Tourists who disparaged the supposedly degenerated medieval Greeks and modern tourists who are only after sun, sea and sex.
The Cyclades, or Life Among the Insular Greeks, also available through Archaeopress, has the dubious honour of being the most plagiarized book ever written on the Greek islands – almost every 1960s to 1980s writer on the Aegean helped themselves to entire pages worth of Bent, verbatim. It was legally if not ethically okay to do so, since the text (as the Argonaut publisher told me when I asked him) had long since been in the public domain; the Bents had died without issue or any other heirs to extend the copyright. Copyright aside, it’s easy to see why this happened: the intrepid Bents had been there, and done that, long before there were any t-shirts, and what they had observed and documented was far more compelling than anything actually visible on the islands from the 1960s onwards. Bent had also described their sojourns in brisk, to-the-point prose; it’s hard not to warm to someone who could write ‘on my remarking that I should prefer an inside place [on a raised communal family bed] for fear of a fall, they laughed and told stories of a sponge fisherman who dreamt that he was going to take a dive into the sea, and found himself on the floor instead; and of a priest, who rolled out of bed when drunk and broke his neck…in inferior establishments the space beneath the bed is used as a storeroom for all imaginable filth’.
On my extended 1981 trips to Greece, I had to quell lurking disappointment that the islanders were no longer as Bent described them. Or not quite anyway; on Sífnos my young hostess told me that there was still an old woman alive locally who could ‘draw out the sun’ from those afflicted with sunstroke-headache by sleight of handkerchief and incantations, exactly as described in Bent’s Kímolos account from 1883. Later a much older friend told me how, serving as a British delegate to the United Nations Special Commission on the Balkans (UNSCOB), monitoring border violations during the Greek civil war, he had – despite his total disbelief in the rite – the effects of the Evil Eye exorcised, again through spells and fabric manipulations, by an old Sifnian man, Nikos, in 1948, in Macedonia.
But one can hardly expect such customs and costumes to have survived decades of emigration, electrification, radio and gramophones, public schooling whether Italian or Greek, meddling foreigners and government policy. Bent himself took a dim view of his own countrymen abroad: ‘It is the Union Jack which scatters [quaint costumes and still quainter customs] to the winds: great though our love is for antiquity, we English have dealt more harshly than any other people with the fashions of the old world.’ During the mid-1960s, even before the culturally destructive colonels’ junta, Kevin Andrews observed how local police felt it necessary to ban the playing of bagpipes at Mykonos port lest ‘foreigners…think us Mau-Mau’. You wonder what the Bents would make of today’s mercenary anthropological zoo centred on the village of Ólymbos in northern Kárpathos, which I first decried in my own 1996 guide to the Dodecanese and North Aegean. Research for that first edition involved criss-crossing the archipelago for several consecutive seasons in just about every month of the year (barring February and March) and every conceivable seagoing conveyance. Perhaps my most Bent-ian experience was in that self-same Ólymbos, when a nistísima meal (compliant with the Lenten fast) turned out to be simply limpets and myrouátana, a delicious seaweed which I have never been served again despite asking repeatedly.
During the late 1980s, in Moe’s – that Berkeley shrine of used books on Telegraph Avenue – I found another copy of the Argonaut Press edition of Aegean Islands, in mint condition, for the paltry price of $7 US: a fair measure of the scant esteem then in the USA for the Bents and their writings. The same copy in Britain at that time fetched at least thirty quid. Even now, antiquarian bookselling websites do not much value this handsome original reprint.
Shortly afterwards – I had not yet left the US to settle in Britain and Greece – I retrieved the purloined copy from my own shelves and headed for my old haunt, the UC Berkeley library. Back then (and probably still now) you could return a book in perfect anonymity, which I did eight years after its initial ‘check-out’, using the large-mouthed chutes near the main doors. It is not a small book in any sense, especially the old cloth-cover edition which is by my desk as I write, and made a satisfying clunk as it hit the bottom. So there should be once again four copies of Aegean Islands in the library’s holdings.
Following on from Alan King’s well-researched, recent piece (September 2019) on the Bents’ friends William (1857-1921) and Irini (1869/70-1908) Paton, it was a pleasant surprise to have access to two unpublished letters from the Paton great estate, Grandhome, just outside Aberdeen – Bent to Paton. In their correspondence, the men refer to recent explorations and successes in Cilicia (notably Bent’s discovery of the site of Olba), and the second letter is of particular interest in terms of Bent’s almost immediate departure for Great Zimbabwe, perhaps his most notorious work. These two letters are published below for the first time and we are most grateful to the present William Paton, Bent’s friend’s great-grandson, for kindly allowing us this opportunity.
Laird William Paton was a fascinating man of complex nature – a great, perhaps maverick, classicist, traveller and philhellene – it’s not hard to see in him the early shades of later and similar great Brits, why not Leigh Fermor, Durrell, Pendelbury, Dunbabin….? One can make a fair list.
The only son, William becomes laird of Grandhome after the death of his father, John, in 1879, a JP in 1884, and Deputy-Lieutenant in 1893. But by the mid 1880s he has settled on Kalymnos, running his Scottish estates and managing his responsibilities from a great distance, obviously with a team at home to oversee things (his elderly widowed step-mother, Katherine, survived until 1919), and relying on regular trips back to north-east Scotland: and this trip home from the isles of Greece (then Turkish), by steamer, presumably via Marseilles (the same way the Bents travelled) and Dover and Edinburgh, to Aberdeenshire – a distance of some 4000 km each way; but the Scots are tough and he was young.
Of the two, Bent and Paton, the latter was five years older, and taller, but this didn’t prevent them apparently from being mistaken for bothers, as Mabel Bent was quick (even proud?) to note in her diary:
“We were very much amused on landing [on Kalymnos] to hear ‘William has returned’. ‘No, it is his brother.’ ‘He is exactly the same.’ ‘How very like he is.’ ‘No, it is not him.’ And these sentences never cease to be buzzed round wherever T[heodore] goes. At the British Museum they have been taken for one another and a gentleman came and shook hands with him and said ‘When did you come’ and then ‘Oh! Excuse me. I thought you were the son-in-law of Olympidis’.” (The Dodecanese; Further Life Among the Insular Greeks, Theodore and Mabel Bent, Oxford, 2015, page 159)
Both young men went to Oxford and were intended for the Bar, but both were side-tracked by the lure of ancient Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean. Bent had studied history at Wadham and his early studies took him in search of Genoese adventurers on Chios and elsewhere. Paton, the young classicist of rigourous intellect, and self-confessed ‘Orientalist’, soon found himself after University College, hunting for pots and publishing inscriptions in Lycia and Cilicia, inter alia.
Surprisingly, promptly marrying the obviously beguiling and young Irini Olympiti, he settled on Kalymnos, nowadays a municipality in the southeastern Aegean, belonging to the Dodecanese, between the islands of Kos and Leros, and 20 km from the Turkish coast opposite. Soon, along with the even more erudite E.L. Hicks, later Bishop of Lincoln, and also a Bent collaborator (but, another story), Paton became a go-to-man for British academics wanting advice on the region.
Thus, although a truer scholar than Theodore Bent, it is quite natural that they should have met and become acquainted, both lovers of ancient Greece, the new discipline of archaeology, and working on inscriptions in the Eastern Mediterranean in the 1880s; as Mabel noted above, they often bumped into each other at the British Museum, the offices of the Hellenic Society, and many academic events in London and elsewhere.
And we know that Bent at least once travelled up to Aberdeen to stay with Paton, the latter reminiscing in a letter, from Vathy on Samos, in the early 1920s: “I also had the privilege of meeting [E.L. Hicks] personally… at my own house in Scotland, where the late Mr. Theodore Bent and Professor W. M. Ramsay were present, and I had the full advantage of the conversation of these three distinguished people…”
Edward Lear on Greece
“It seems to me that I have to choose between two extremes of affection for nature – towards outward nature that is – English or southern – the former, oak, ash and beech, downs and cliffs, old associations, friends near at hand, and many comforts not to be got elsewhere. The latter olive – vine – flowers, the ancient life of Greece, warmth and light, better health, greater novelty, and less expense in life. On the other side are in England cold, damp and illness, constant hurry and bustle, cessation from all topographic interest, extreme expenses…” [Edward Lear, c. 1860, taken from a letter, in Edward Lear: A Biography by Peter Levi (1995, p. 192)]
Great travellers the pair, too, the Bents not limiting themselves to the Med (later famous in Africa and Arabia of course), and William living, for those days, an unorthodox double-life, divided between where his ‘head’ lay, i.e. serious responsibilities as a large landholder in northern Scotland (his descendants still run the estates), and his heart, the Kalymniotissa Irini – and soon several children. Perhaps he had Edward Lear’s lines in his head (substituting Scotland for England clearly).
By the mid 1880s, William’s reputation as an epigrapher (and archaeologist, in the terms of the day) was in the ascendancy; any of his published papers reveal a clarity, ingenuity and level of scholarship that soon marked him out. His first major work was at the site of Assarlik (Caria), on the Turkish mainland, on a steep mountain-top in the southern part of the Halicarnassus peninsula, the site offering a perfect view of the coast, both east and west.
He is to publish his findings (1887) as ‘Excavations in Caria’ (JHS 8, 64-82), with, coincidentally, Theodore Bent having an article on inscriptions from Thasos in the same issue (pages 409-438). William had a further piece on ‘Vases from Calymnus and Carpathos’ in the same volume (pages 446-460).
In 1900, the University of Halle awarded him an honorary degree.
I am writing to ask if you would have any objection to my using one of your admirable photos of Greek costume note 9 to illustrate a frivolous little paper I have written for the English Illustrated on a Greek marriage. note 10 Don’t hesitate to refuse if you have any other plans for your pictures.
I hope your Kos work is progressing favourably. note 11 I am still over head and ears in Olba and getting rather tired of it. note 12
We talk of starting again about the middle of January to explore the adjoining district. note 13 At present we are enjoying the comforts of home and are not too anxious to resume our nomad life.
I hope we may see you in London before we start.
With our kind regards, believe me
J Theodore Bent
As a PS, there are two addenda; one a granite obituary in the Aberdeen Daily Journal of 14 May 1921 that covers well the life-journey from Aberdeen to the Greek and Turkish isles:
“The late Mr W. R. Paton of Persley, Eminent Greek Scholar. Greek scholarship has sustained a severe loss in the death of Mr William Roger Paton of Grandhome and Persley, Aberdeenshire, which took place at Vathy, Samos, New Greece [sic], on April 21, in his 65th year. The son of the late Colonel John Paton of Grandhome, the deceased, who was regarded as one of the finest classical scholars in Europe, belonged to a very old and highly respected family which had been in possession of the estate of Grandhome and mansion-house, situated between Parkhill and Stoneywood, for at least 200 years. A number of Mr Paton’s ancestors are buried in Oldmachar Churchyard, and the records of the family go back to 1700. Educated at [Eton] and at University College, Oxford, Mr Paton very early acquired a strong interest in everything connected with Greece, and particularly with Greek literature. He had already done a good deal of Greek study before he left in 1893 to take up his residence in France. For a number of years he had lived in the island of Samos, in the Aegean Sea, travelled in Asia Minor and among the Isles of Greece, and made a number of important contributions to Greek literature. In particular, he edited the works of Plutarch, and was preparing a large edition at the time of his death. He also collected many inscriptions found in the Aegean Islands; and his archaeological discoveries in Lesbos, Tenedos, and other isles of the Greek Archipelago were communicated to the Berlin Academy and form part of the Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum. He published an edition with translations of the love-poems and epigrams in the Greek Anthology. Mr Paton was recognised as one of the greatest Greek authorities of his time. His scholarship was of a very finished character, and he had also a wide knowledge of modern Greek. No one really knew more about Greek life, thought, and literature in all periods, and he was man of remarkable accomplishments, who if he had not been a country laird would have adorned a University chair… In 1900 the University of Halle conferred the degree of Doctor of Laws on Mr Paton. Personally Mr Paton was a man of charming manners and a delightful companion of the most finished culture. A year or two ago he was expected to come home and spend the end of his days in Aberdeen, but he did not carry out his intention. Mr Paton was twice married to Greek ladies, and he leaves a widow and family. He died on 21 April 1921 in the town of Vathy, Samos.”
A final and quirky note goes to J.H. Fowler, who was in touch with Paton while compiling a memorial volume to E.L. Hicks (see above). He gives us this astonishing, perhaps envious, pen-portrait of Paton:
“At this time too [Hicks] became associated with another Greek scholar, Mr. W. R. Paton, who took up his abode in the Island of Cos and made a careful collection of the inscriptions to be found there. Hicks collaborated in the deciphering and interpretation of the inscriptions, and wrote the introduction for the Inscriptions of Cos (Clarendon Press, 1891). A friendship grew up between the two men, unlike as they were, the one equally at home in the practical and in the theoretical life, the other a dilettante scholar who became at last so completely ‘orientalized’ (to use his own expression) that he was reluctant to revisit England, and who never earned anything in his life till he was paid for his translations from the Greek Anthology in the Loeb Library.”
Notes to Letter 1
Note 1: Grandhome or Grandholme. “(Location stated as NJ 8980 1170). Grandhome House. Site of manor/mansion house. Mansion on E-plan; harled, crow-stepped gables; N wing 17th century incorporating earlier work; S wing 17th century. The two wings are linked by the 18th century W range; forestair to door in centre of second floor. The estate belonged successively to the Keiths, Ogilvies, Buchanans, Gordons and Jaffrays until the late 17th century when it passed to the Patons of Farrochie, Fettercairn, who changed the earlier name for the property, Dilspro, to that presently used.” Return from Note 1
Note 2: From the late 1870s until Mabel Bent’s death in 1929, the Bents lived in Great Cumberland Place, London, a Regency/Georgian sweep of properties, a stone’s throw from Marble Arch, and for nearly twenty years they would leave their comfortable London residence together every winter for the hardships and inconveniences of travel in the Eastern Mediterranean, Southern Arabia and Africa – greater contrasts it is difficult to imagine. Originally the couple leased Number 43 Great Cumberland Place, with its adjacent mews entrance passing underneath their drawing rooms, until the early 1880s, following which they moved closer to Marble Arch, again leasing, at Number 13: the latter was bombed, alas, but the latter still stands Return from Note 2
Note 3: Paton was referring to Bent’s archaeological successes along the coast of western Turkey over the winter of 1889/90, chief among which was his discovery of the ancient Greek site of Olba. Bent published the results in a number of articles, the reader should refer to the years 1890 and 1891 in the Bent bibliography. Return from Note 3
Note 4: Unlicenced in the main, Bent (and not for the first time) had always to be one step ahead of the authorities, at that time headed by polymath Osman Hamdi Bey, in charge of antiquities in Istanbul. By the end of April 1890, Bey, infuriated, complained to HM Ambassador in Istanbul. As well as digging where he shouldn’t, Bent was being accused of espionage. A consular official was tasked with writing to him: “Private – Adana, April 9, 1890. Dear Mr. Bent, The Governor General, having received information that you are revisiting the same places you had already visited some time ago on the road to Selefka, and that you are taking photos or plans of the various places, requests me to make you acquainted with the fact that the taking of photos or plans of the places is not allowed without the special permission of the government. His Excellency therefore requests me to invite you in a very polite manner to discontinue from taking photos, etc., as above mentioned. Complying with His Excellency’s request, I ask leave to add that it would be better if you came back to Mersina in order to avoid any possible troubles with subaltern ofﬁcials. The best way to continue your scientiﬁc investigations unmolested is, in my opinion, to request His Excellency, Sir William White, to obtain for you from the ministry at Constantinople the required permission. N. J. Christmann” (The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J Theodore Bent, vol 1, pages 320-1, Oxford, 2006) Return from Note 4
Note 5: For the brotherly reference, see Mabel’s diary entry above. Smyrna (Izmir) was the important hub for regional steamer traffic: and one’s call before Constantinople. In 1885 Paton had married Irene Olympiti (1869/70-1908), daughter of the prodromos of Kalymnos, Emmanuel Olympiti. Return from Note 5
Note 10: 1891 ‘A Protracted Wedding’. English Illustrated Magazine, Vol. 93 (Jun), 672-7; a reworking of Bent’s 1888 article ‘A Protracted Wedding’. The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 265 (Oct), 331-41. There are no illustrations. This bucolic Greek wedding, allegedly on Tilos (also in the Dodecanese, down the line en route for Rhodes), was unaccountably imagined by Bent – Mabel makes no reference to it in her diary. This explains why Theodore could not use Mabel’s photographs: there weren’t any. Return from Note 10
Note 11: Paton was then busy publishing some material from Kos with E.L. Hicks. The work was published in 1891. For a brief bibliography, see the panel above. Return from Note 11
Note 13: This is the most intriguing extract from either letter. It proves that in mid October 1890 the Bents were still planning to revisit the Turkish littoral the following year. However, it transpired that Cecil Rhodes’s agent, E.A. Maund gave a lecture on Mashonaland (Zimbabwe) at the Royal Geographical Society on 24 November (1890), at which Theodore was present. It changed his career. On 30 January 1891, husband and wife, and having miraculously organised everything in a couple of English winter months, were on the Castle Line Garth Castle for Cape Town. Ahead lay a year exploring the archaeological remains in and around Great Zimbabwe, leading to his controversial book, The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland (1892): it transformed him into a celebrity archaeologist and explorer, opening the way for his famous treks over the next few years into Southern Arabia and the Wadi Hadramawt. It can also be said to have led indirectly to his early death from malarial complications in May 1897, subsequent to his last adventure, east of Aden. Return from Note 13
‘In the long term, the following areas of the collection have been identified as under-researched areas, but these would only be tackled in the context of potential for use and visitor engagement … […] Theodore Bent’s Turkish embroidery bequest.’
This casual aside makes the Harris Museum one of only three public collections in the world, to our knowledge, to hold a collection of textiles originally acquired by Theodore and Mabel Bent over the 20 years of their travels, the other two being the Benaki Museum, Athens, and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. (We are not including here the few clothing and other items, some made of bark, that the Bents brought back from Great Zimbabwe that are now in the British Museum.)
‘Theodore Bent’s Turkish embroidery bequest’ at the Harris Museum consists of four items (we are assuming they represent the entire ‘bequest’), and, thanks to the kind assistance of curator Caroline Alexander, we believe that this is the first time they have been ‘published’.
The museum’s Accession Book refers to the pieces as ‘Turkish Embroideries’. In the 1880s, the decade the Bents spent mainly in the Eastern Mediterranean, the islands off the Turkish west coast belonged to Turkey, taken and held by the Ottomans from early medieval times until the early 20th century. The Dodecanese islands were only returned to Greece in the 1940s. Thus the Bents’ acquisitions (some with the intention of selling on to British collectors and institutions) reflect a wide blend of styles and influences – the distinctions between ‘Greek’ and ‘Turkish’ being generally moot points. Beautiful things, made painstakingly, to be given, worn, or displayed, remain beautiful things irrespective.
The four items (1970.1; 1970.2; 1970.3; 1970.4) in the Harris Museum were donated in May 1970, rather mysteriously, by someone who introduced herself as ‘the great-niece’ of Theodore Bent. There seems to be no mention of the gift in the museum’s Donation Book, an interesting fact, nor does any name appear in the museum’s accession records unfortunately. The museum’s Accession Book includes the following handwritten note stapled to the relevant entries: ‘Query re T. Bent’s niece [sic]. No details of this donation in the donation book. Contact V & A to whom T. Bent donated embroidery.’
Enquiries are under way (December 2019) to try and find out who the donor may have been, and why the Harris should have been chosen as the recipient.
Theodore Bent had no siblings, but several cousins, who in turn had issue. There is a chance that one of these might be our donor, and there is a local connection. Theodore Bent himself had property just outside Macclesfield , and his uncle John was Lord Mayor of Liverpool in 1850. The family were influential local brewers, and, indeed, Theodore was born in Liverpool (1852). Bent’s Brewery Co. Ltd remained in business until the 1970s, as part of Bass Charrington. The Bents can be traced back to the Liverpool region in the 1600/1700s, and were potters and brewers – one, a medical man, was the famous surgeon who amputated Josiah Wedgwood’s leg!
Thus perhaps it was a member of this energetic and successful family who donated the embroideries in 1970; but somehow we doubt it. The Bents were great collectors (and dealers) in embroideries, etc., on their travels in the Eastern Mediterranean and Turkey in the 1880s, the period, we assume, when the four pieces now in the Harris were acquired by the exploring couple. On Theodore’s death in 1897 all his estate went to his wife Mabel, and they had no children. Just over thirty years later, on Mabel’s death (1929) all her belongings, including her textiles, went to her surviving nieces – they, in turn, had daughters, who would thus have been the ‘great nieces of Mrs Theodore Bent’. Of these, it seems only Kathleen Prudence Eirene Bagenal (1886-1974) was alive in 1970. (For the Anglo-Irish Hall-Dare family click here.)
We may, therefore, tentatively, and for now, propose Kathleen Bagenal (or her agent) as the donor of the Bent textile bequest to the Harris. The mystery remains why the Harris? Kathleen’s family home was in Scotland (Arbigland, on the Solway Firth), and we know that she was actively selling off her great-aunt’s textiles from the 1930s. We will, of course, update this theory if more information comes our way.
In her lifetime Mabel exhibited some of her fabric collection – we know of two events, but neither seem to have included any of the four items donated to the Harris in 1970.
A lecture Bent gave to the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in 1886, during which his Mabel displayed a range of their textiles. These are published in ‘Insular Greek Customs’. The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 15 (1886), 391-403. [With an Appendix by ‘Mrs. Bent’].
At the 1914 embroidery exhibition at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in London, Mabel Bent showed a good part of her collection (see later in this contribution).
The Bent textiles in the Harris Museum, Preston
PRSMG: c1970.1 [Headed ‘Turkish Embroidery’ in the museum’s Accession Book]
Accession Book entry: ‘Embroidered with silk and gold plate thread, at both ends. Repeating pattern of formal plant motifs. Pink, blue, gold and brown on natural linen.’ Acquired from: ‘The great-niece of Theodore Bent’. Acquisition dated: ‘April May 1970′.
Digital catalogue entry: ‘Fine linen cloth [dimensions not provided] embroidered at both ends with intricate floral pattern of mainly peach and blue silk embellished with gold. Probably embroidered using a tambour. Possibly Turkish. Note: 2015, Asia from British Museum visited, said possibly Turkish with the use of flattened gold thread.’
PRSMG: 1970.2 [Headed ‘Turkish Embroidery’ in the museum’s Accession Book]
Accession Book entry: ‘Short strip embroidered at ends with formal design of cyprus tress and flowers in urns. Embroidered patch appliquéd on.’ Acquired from: ‘The great-niece of Theodore Bent’. Acquisition dated: ‘May 1970′.
Digital catalogue entry: ‘Embroidered panel [dimensions not provided] of fine linen. Embroidered both ends with motifs of pinecones and eight-petalled flowers in pots worked in blue, dark brown beige and cream threads. Probably machine worked as no evidence of starting or finishing. Machine worked down two edges. Also central panel later addition in pale blue, beige and cream floral motifs.’
PRSMG: 1970.3 [Headed ‘Turkish Embroidery’ in the museum’s Accession Book]
Accession Book entry: ‘Long strip embroidered with flower motif repeated seven times. Red, brown and blue silk embroidery with blue border on three sides.’ Acquired from: ‘The great-niece of Theodore Bent’. Acquisition dated: ‘May 1970′.
Digital catalogue entry: ‘Embroidered panel of fine linen [dimensions not provided]. Embroidered with floral motifs along length. Motif of red and blue flowers in repeated and alternating pattern. Appears to have been the edge of a larger panel. Believed Turkish c 19th century.’
PRSMG: 1970.4 [Headed ‘Turkish Embroidery’ in the museum’s Accession Book]
Accession Book entry: ‘Red silk cloth square extended at corners. Two embroidered panels joined to form centre piece, with blue silk strips on two sides. Floral design.’ Acquired from: ‘The great-niece of Theodore Bent’. Acquisition dated: ‘May 1970’. [This entry in a different hand]
Digital catalogue entry: ‘Embroidered panel [dimensions not provided] of floral motifs on fine linen comprising two pieces joined in the centre. Primarily terracotta red, blue, green and mustard thread working arabesque floral design. Panel has terracotta coloured narrow lace edging. Panel has been mounted on dark red silk backing panel with sleeves top and bottom for hanging. Possibly Turkish. c 19th century.’
The 1914 embroidery exhibition at the Burlington Fine Arts Club, London
As mentioned above, Mabel Bent showed a good part of her collection at the 1914 embroidery exhibition at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in London. There is an an online catalogue. The prize exhibits were a collection of fine dresses from the Dodecanese, now in the Benaki Museum, Athens, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. The exhibition cabinets displayed a wide range of Mabel’s other textiles, but none of the four items now held in the Harris Museum seem to have been shown to the public in 1914, but more research is needed to confirm this (i.e. future access to the exclusive photographs of the exhibits). Readers may be able to identify the Harris pieces in the catalogue (search ‘Bent’ in the online catalogue search box that appears on the page), and if so we would be delighted to hear from them. Similarly, if any Preston readers can provide information on the four Harris pieces before they entered the collection in 1970, we would also be most interested.
Mabel Bent’s diaries are, occasionally, a useful primary source for information on the thousands of artefacts the couple returned with to London during the twenty years of their travels in the Eastern Mediterranean, Africa, and Arabia. There are hundreds of references to dress, costume, embroideries, fabrics, etc. Unfortunately, Mabel does not always give precise details of gifts and acquisitions and it has not been possible to identify the four textiles in the Harris bequest in her notebooks.
“This afternoon we have been to the doctor Venier, of a Venetian family. Dr. Venier showed us the hangings of a bed, in which King Otho slept when he visited Pholégandros. All gold lace, silver lace and the most beautiful silk embroidery on linen. The curtains were striped silk gauze with gold lace insertion. The pillows gold edged real silk. We were also shown lace-edged sheets and gold embroidery. It was a really splendid sight and ﬁt for a museum.” (February 1884, Folégandhros in the Greek Cyclades; ‘The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J Theodore Bent’, vol 1, page 44, 2006, Oxford)
In conclusion, the four textile pieces discussed, once in the collection of Theodore and Mabel Bent and donated to the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston, represent an important revelation, and are published, it is thought, for the first time here. If you have any comments on any aspect of this content, including the origins, or technical/stylistic features of the four textiles, do please write in.