In the wake of Ida Laura Pfeiffer (1797-1858)

Ida Laura Pfeiffer (1797-1858) (wikipedia).

No list of indomitable women travellers would be complete without a reference to the incredible Ida Laura Pfeiffer, in whose footprints Mabel occasionally followed. Although the latter never refers directly to the Austrian globetrotter in her diaries, Mabel would certainly have known of her, and probably read Ida’s travel accounts, several of which were already translated into English in her time. Ida died when Mabel Hall-Dare was just a girl of ten or so in the south of Ireland.

One among many of the locations they both were to visit was the island of Rhodes (then a Turkish province for both Ida and Mabel). Here is Pfeiffer on Rhodes’ famous main harbour in late May 1842 (trans from the German by  H.W. Dulcken):

Cover to the English edition ot Ida Pfeiffer’s “A Visit to the Holy Land” (archive.org).

“This morning, shortly after five o’clock, we ran into the superb harbour of Rhodes. Here, for the first time, I obtained a correct notion of a harbour. That of Rhodes is shut in on all sides by walls and masses of rock, leaving only a gap of a hundred and fifty to two hundred paces in width for the ships to enter. Here every vessel can lie in perfect safety, be the sea outside the bar as stormy as it may; the only drawback is, that the entering of this harbour, a task of some difficulty in calm weather, becomes totally impracticable during a storm. A round tower stands as a protection on either side of the entrance to the harbour.” (Visit to the Holy Land, Egypt, and Italy, London, 1853, p.86)

And here is Mabel Bent (she married Theodore in 1877) putting up with some tricky February weather in the same harbour region some thirty years later, in 1885, endorsing Ida’s observation about bad weather:

A view of Rhodes’ great harbour from C.T. Newton’s “Travels & Discoveries in the Levant” (London, 1865). The folly that is ‘Naillac’s Tower’ (left) would have been enjoyed by Ida, but was toppled by the time Mabel was in the offing in 1885 (archive.org).

“The day seems quite over, it is half past six, and a most anxious day we have passed with the yellow flag waving us. We got to Rhodes about 3 but did not settle till 5 and the health officers did not come till 7. The Captain asked leave to go to a bay to shelter if storm came on, or the open sea, but they said no, if we wanted pratigue he must remain there. But the Captain told us that sooner than lose or damage the ship he would go off with us and the two guardians to Smyrna. Great therefore was our horror at 3.30 p.m. to hear all the noises of a start, after having observed that it was getting rougher, but we only went round the corner of the island to shelter on the eastern side and hope to be returned to the capital tomorrow morning. In the mean time no one has been able to communicate in any way with the shore. It has been pouring most of the day.” (The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J Theodore Bent, vol 1, Oxford, 2006, p.68)

For the Bents on Rhodes and in the Dodecanese, see The Dodecanese: Further Travels Among the Insular Greeks (Oxford, 2015).

A list of Theodore Bent’s ‘Turkey and Asia Minor’ articles/publications (based on today’s borders).

“Our ship” The Bents anchor their sloop, “Evangelistria”, off the Turkish coast in 1888, not far from modern Fethiye. Bent has drawn in their ship on an Admiralty chart of the time.

The Bents’ first significant field of studies was the Turkish littoral and Aegean, beginning with a ‘tourist’ visit in early 1883, taking in such sites as Delphi and Mycenae. This trip inspired a decade-long passion for these celebrity explorers (with a tour more or less every year), generating an extensive corpus of popular and more ‘academic’ articles (historical, ‘archaeological’ and ‘ethnographic’ in content). Along the way they acquired artefacts, ancient and modern, that they would seek to sell or retain for their private London collection. The British Museum, for example, has a large collection of their material.

Bent’s writings on Turkey and Asia Minor (today’s boundaries) by year of publication:

1883

1885

1887

1888

1889

1890

1891

1892

  • ‘The Two Capitals of Armenia (Sis and Etchmiadz՝m)’. Eastern and Western Review (not seen; page numbers n/a).

1896

 

For a consolidated Bent bibliography click here.

A list of Theodore Bent’s ‘Greece’ articles/publications (based on today’s borders).

Bent’s map from the first edition of his 1885 book, “The Cyclades, or Life Among the Insular Greeks”  (archive.org)

The Bents’ first significant field of studies was the Aegean, beginning with a ‘tourist’ visit in early 1883, taking in such sites as Delphi and Mycenae. This trip inspired a decade-long passion for these celebrity explorers (with a tour more or less every year), generating Bent’s classic guide to the Cyclades (perhaps he is partly to blame for the islands’ current over-tourism in the summer months today), and a substantial corpus of popular and more ‘academic’ articles (historical, ‘archaeological’ and ‘ethnographic’ in content). Along the way they acquired artefacts, ancient and modern, that they would seek to sell or retain for their private London collection. The British Museum, for example, has a large collection of their material.

Bent’s writings on Greece (today’s boundaries) by year of publication:

1883

1884

1885

1886

1887

1888

1889

1891

For Bent’s overall bibliography click here.

The Bents’ musical instruments in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

Interior of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (wikipedia).

The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford has over 50 artefacts acquired by Theodore and Mabel Bent on their 20 years of exploration, including 12 musical instruments (pipes [askomandoura] and flutes [floghera] in particular attracted them).

Some items from the Bent collection are regularly on display in the museum, including their musical instruments. In the early 1890s, the Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (Vol. 20, 1890-1891, 153 ff) included a paper by Henry Balfour on “The Old British ‘Pibcorn’ or ‘Hornpipe’ and its affinities”, which was part inspired by two ‘Greek’ instruments acquired at different times by the Pitt Rivers from the Bents, and “which seem to throw great light upon the true origin of the pibcorn” (see also A. Baines, Bagpipes, Oxford 1979, p.45).

Bent describes a musical episode on Tinos in 1884 (‘The Cyclades, or Life among the Insular Greeks’, 1885 – archive.org).

One instrument is a curious double-pipe (1903.130.21) from a small cluster of villages on Tinos (Tenos) in the Cyclades. Theodore Bent bought this pipe (on the couple’s second visit to the island in early March 1884), which he calls monosampilos, in the area of ‘Dio Choria’ (Δύο Χωριά), misread by Balfour or his editor as ‘Dio Maria’). The visit was a short one – just a few days (their first tour being in the spring of 1883). In her diary, Mabel recalls that the villagers “were dancing on the roofs and we went up to see them and bought a musical instrument” (The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Vol. 1, Oxford, 2006, p. 47); Theodore also describes the event – page 262 of his classic monograph on the Cyclades.

The sambouna and double-pipe from the Bent collection of musical instruments in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (detail from a line-drawing in Henry Balfour’s paper on “The Old British ‘Pibcorn’ or ‘Hornpipe’ and its affinities”,  in ‘The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland’, Vol. 20 (1890-1891, 153 ff; archive.org).

The second instrument that attracts Balfour’s interest is the famous bagpipe/sambouna (1903.130.23) that the Bents brought back from Karpathos (now in the Greek Dodecanese, then a Turkish possession) in 1885.

Both instruments appear in a rare line-drawing that accompanies Balfour’s paper.

 

The other instruments collected by the Bents and in the Pitt Rivers:

1903.130.7: Double flageolet, carved from single piece of wood. From Belgrade, Serbia (1887).

1891.4.1.1 and 1891.4.1 .2. End flute and case. From the Taurus Mountains (Turkey) (1890).

1888.37.5: End blown trumpet. From Karpathos, Dodecanese (1885). In his 1886 article,’ On a far-off island‘ for Blackwood’s Magazine (Vol. 139, Feb 1886, 240), Bent describes, perhaps, this very instrument, although his name for it is eccentric, perhaps dialect, a variant of the sourali (σουραύλι): “Amusements in Karpathos certainly are not numerous, and may be summed up as consisting of music and dancing in a variety of forms… sometimes… a man will come and play the lyre, — just one of those lyres which their ancestors played, a pretty little instrument about half a yard long, with silver beads which jangle attached to the bow. Besides this they have the syravlion, a sort of pan-pipe made of two reeds hollowed out, with blow-holes and straws up the middle, and placed side by side in a larger reed.”

1903.130.27: End blown trumpet of buffalo horn. From ‘Asia’ (date and findspot uncertain).

1903.130.18: End-flute made from a crane’s wing bone. The flute has been etched with various details, including the Anglicised word ‘syravlion’ (which the PR reads as ‘Syralion’, see above, perhaps dialect, a variant of the sourali (σουραύλι)). From Samos island (1886).

1903.130.16: End-flute of reed. Labelled by the PR as ‘pinavlion’ (dialect perhaps, today pinavli/πιναύλι). From Paros island, Cyclades (1883/4). Bent does not seem to have referred to this flute type in connection with Paros in his Cyclades (p. 379), but he does name again the ‘syravlion’ (see above): “Once, says a legend, a young man challenged the Lady of the Hundred Gates to a playing contest on the syravlion, and went accordingly to the church to play; but the Madonna took no notice of his challenge. Just as he was getting up to go he accidentally knocked over the candlestick, and broke his flute; in this way did the Madonna prove her superiority and humbled the man…”

1903.130.17: Flute made from eagle’s wing bone. From Samos island (1886)

1888.37.6: End flute. From Samos island (1886).

1903.131.18.2 and 1903.131.18.1: Lyra and bow. From Karpathos, Dodecanese (1885).

Bent’s map of the Cyclades from the first edition of his classic 1885 book (archive.org).

Bent’s classic book The Cyclades, or Life Among the Insular Greeks, has several references to the lyre and sambouna, examples of which he donated to the Pitt Rivers. Of interest too are the many mentions of the flute he calls ‘syravlion’, a word unexplained and not found elsewhere perhaps a local variant of the romantic sourali (σουραύλι) or syrinx (Σύριγξ). Bent writes from Naxos: “We came to a halt at a dirty house, where we had to sit for hours… They constantly plied us with coffee, raki, and sweets as we waited… they played persistently for our benefit on the syravlion, or panpipe, and the drum. When shepherds play the panpipe on the hillside it is romantic enough: the instrument is a simple one, just two reeds hollowed out and placed side by side…” (p. 347). There are also recollections of the instrument from the Bents’ time on the islands of Ios (p. 162) and Santorini (p. 134).

How do these instruments sound?

Museum of Popular Music, Athens (wikipedia).

The Museum of Greek Folk Musical Instruments in Athens curates over 1000 items, and many of the displays feature recordings of the instruments playing.

Click for an article on the great sambouna player of Anafi.

Click for eagle bone flute (YouTube).

Click for Karpathos lyra and sambouna (YouTube). Karpathos is where Bent’s instruments in the Pitt Rivers come from (and were presumably made).

Click for the pinavli flute (YouTube).

Other musical instruments collected by the Bents

The major repository for artefacts brought back to England by the Bents between c. 1880 and 1900 is the British Museum, London. The collection is huge, but includes only a small number of musical instruments, not often on display; we list them below for reference. Some of the artefacts entered the Museum in 1926, just a few years before Mabel Bent’s death, indicating her fondness for them; perhaps the rooms of her London home would occasionally echo with sad notes from far away…

From Ethiopia (1893) (click (YouTube) for some of these instruments playing):

Flute (left) and trumpet (right) (archive.org).

(1) Two trumpets (Af1926,0410.63 & Af1893,0715.27). The inventory number for the former indicates that this object remained in Mabel Bent’s personal collection until 1926 – when she was putting her affairs in order in her final years; she died in 1929. We may assume that the object was of sentimental value, giving her happy memories of the couple’s (perilous) journey to Ethiopia in 1893. We should note however that the findspot was not mentioned by Mabel and Bent only refers to one trumpet in his monograph of this trip: “As Digsa was one of the last Abyssinian villages of importance which we should visit, we took care here to annex an Abyssinian umbrella and a malakat [elsewhere malaket] or trumpet…” (J.T. Bent, The Sacred City of the Ethiopians, London, 1893, p. 212).

Ethiopian lyre (archive.org).

(2) Lyre (Af1893,0715.25). In his Sacred City of the Ethiopians (1896 edn, p. 25), Bent writes in Asmara: “Here for the first time we saw the Abyssinian lyre or harp, a specimen of which I coveted for six long weeks afterwards, until I was able to acquire one at Aksum…”.

Ethiopian ‘fiddle’ (archive.org).

(3) Fiddle (Af1893,0715.24). In Bent’s Sacred City of the Ethiopians (1896 edn, p. 26), he writes “… another favourite Abyssinian instrument [is] called the chera masanko. This I also got. It is a sort of violin with a square sounding board, tightly made of skin, and played with a little bow. The asmari or wandering minstrels, also play it, and it is heard at every feast, whether religious or secular.”

4) Flute (Af1893,0715.26), made of cane and leather. In Bent’s Sacred City of the Ethiopians (1896 edn, pp. 28-9), we read: “As the trumpet has only one note, so has the Abyssinian flute, the imbilta. To make an Abyssinian band suitable to escort a great man or perform at a religious festival, you require four trumpets and three flutes, each player sounding a note in turn. The imbilta is nearly a yard long, and is as great a mark of personal distinction as the umbrella.” We may assume that Bent acquired one in Aksum, however, he says they are nearly 90 cm in length and the BM item is 58 cm.

From Mashonaland (Zimbabwe) (1891):

The ‘sansa’ from Zimbabwe (J.T. Bent, The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland, 1892: 81-82; archive,org).

(1) A sansa/’Makalanga piano’ (Af1892A0714/Af1979,01.4538). Described by Bent as “… very interesting specimens of primitive musical art; they have thirty or more iron keys, arranged to scale, fixed on to a piece of wood about half a foot square, which is decorated with carving behind.

This instrument they generally put into a gourd, with pieces of bone round the edge to increase the sound, which is decidedly melodious and recalls a spinet.” (J.T. Bent, The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland, London, 1892, pp. 81-82).

[Also known as the mbira or ‘thumb-piano’, click (YouTube) to hear it play]

(2) A rattle (Af1892,0714.24). Such a rattle may be referred to in this extract from Bent’s Ruined Cities of Mashonaland (1892, p. 330): “Evidence of festivities was also present in the shape of drums and long chains of grass cases for beads, which they hang round their calves to rattle at the dances…”

(3) Musical bow (Af1892,0714.146). On page 20 of Bent’s Ruined Cities of Mashonaland (1892), such a bow is referenced: “A man stood near, playing on an instrument like a bow with one string, with a gourd attached to bring out the sound. He played it with a bit of wood, and the strains were plaintive, if not sweet…”

From the Middle East (1889-1897):

1) and 2) Two flutes (As1926,0410.56 and As1926,0410.55) from Bahrain (1889), when the Bents spent some time excavating at the so-called ‘Mounds of Ali’.

3) Flute (As1926,0410.61). Acquired on the Bents’ remarkable journey on horseback, south-north, through Persia in 1889 on their way home from Bahrain. “We saw a wedding at Savandi… The women in red, with gold ornaments and uncovered faces, looked highly picturesque, and each carried in her hand a red handkerchief, which she flourished as she went round to the music of the flute and drum.” (From J.T. Bent, ‘In the Mountains of Medea’, Littell’s Living Age, Vol. 189 (1891), p.51).

How does it sound? Click to hear the Persian ney (YouTube).

4) Flute (As1926,0410.48) from the Wadi Hadramaut (Yemen). Collected by the Bents on one of their trips into the Yemeni interior between 1894-1897. “The Bedouin are rather clever at impromptu verses, and when we were in Wadi Ser they made night hideous by dancing in our camp… Bedouin women also take part in these dances… it was very weird by the light of the moon and the camp-fire, but wearisome when we wanted to sleep, particularly as they kept it up till after we were all astir in the morning, yelling, bawling, singing, and screeching… The ground was shaken as if horses were galloping about. A Bedou was playing a flute made of two leg-bones of a crane bound together with iron.” (Mabel and Theodore Bent, Southern Arabia (1900), p.128-9)

How does it sound? Click to hear the mizmar, or Yemeni flute (YouTube).

From London to Oxford?

Flute players in the Wadi Koukout, Sudan (1896), heard by the Bents (‘Southern Arabia’, p.337).

It would make such sense for the Bents’ above-mentioned musical instruments, in store in the British Museum, to be loaned for display, on a long-term basis, to the Pitt Rivers in Oxford, Bent’s alma mater:  after all, he read history at Wadham College (in the early 1870s), just a few hundred metres from the Pitt Rivers today, and how pleasant to think of the great traveller’s legacy freely visible to all there, a great collection from only 20 years or so of exploration, and always with his tireless wife – in the Levant, Africa, and Arabia.

[All websites accessed 02/02/2024]

 

Spring 2024. Here is a recent article (Καθαρά Δευτέρα του 1884 στα Δυο Χωριά με Τσαμπούνες) by Theodoros  Chiou on the Bents’ visit to Cycladic Tinos in 1884, focusing on their fascination for traditional music and musical instruments. (The automatic English translation is of variable quality – αλλά δεν πειράζει !)

Mabel’s two interviews for ‘Lady of the House’ (September 1893 and July 1894)

“For what daughter of Eve could forego ‘the cup that cheers’. ‘And although we often suffered terribly from want of water’, said Mrs. Bent as we chatted about her last journey, ‘I usually managed to have a cup of tea every morning’.”

“Mrs. Theodore Bent might claim, was she not a very modest woman, to be the champion lady explorer of modern times. Together with her husband, the late Mr. Theodore Bent, she has undertaken successfully 13 voyages of exploration, and probably few women are as familiar with the little known islands of Greece as is Mrs. Bent; she was also one of the first to traverse Arabia.” (Southampton Observer and Hampshire News – Saturday, 3 July 1897)

For Mabel Bent’s birthday, 28 January (she was born in 1847), we reprint below two interview-based articles about her that appeared in Lady of  the House on 15 September 1893 and 14 July 1894. It is unlikely that they have seen the light of day since then. In their way, they are remarkable.

Lady of the House

Now viewed by some as Ireland’s first magazine for women, Lady of the House was launched in 1890 in Dublin. This refined Irish magazine regularly, and unsurprisingly, published news of the activities of Mabel Bent, associated, as the latter was, with two eminent Irish families – the Lambarts of Co. Meath, and the Hall-Dares of Co. Wexford.

Mrs J Theodore Bent, Society Portraits feature, “Lady of the House”, Friday, 15 September 1893 (The Bent Archive).

The magazine’s features team clearly recognised that news of Mabel was exactly the right fit for its modern readership. The relationship began, it seems, back in September 1893, when Mabel was the subject of a 500-word piece for the magazine’s ‘Society Portraits’ page: it may well have been based on an interview, and it’s great highlight is a photograph of Mabel in profile that has been much reproduced. As might be expected, the tone of the piece is more than a little hyperbolic, and there are some strange references, i.e. that the couple undertook ‘some successful “digging”’ in Egypt (this they did not, other than bury some picnic rubbish near the Sphinx!), and their work on the island of Thasos, northern Aegean, is relocated to ‘an Egyptian town near Thrace’. The concluding sentence is accurate however: ‘… and last winter [1892/93] they went to Abyssinia, where they made several valuable discoveries, and returned with a collection of curiosities for the British Museum’. The oblique reference to Mabel’s possible election to join the Fellows of the Royal Geographical Society is noteworthy – she was on the shortlist for the second tranche of women Fellows that year, but the RGS executive decided to stop the practice. Mabel is trying not to show disappointment (Theodore, of course, was a Fellow).

The same photograph of Mabel is used the following summer (14 July 1894) to trumpet the Bents’ epic foray into the remote and hazardous Wadi Hadramaut (Yemen) – Mabel is still thought to be the first ‘European’ woman to have (voluntarily) travelled there. The revelation of the piece is that they returned with “very valuable parchments, illuminated on almost every page, which are supposed to date from the time of Mahomed” [sic]. This is the first and only reference to such acquisitions, and where they might be now is anyone’s guess.

The journal continued to report on Mabel’s comings and goings after her widowhood (1897) and into the decades that followed – it may well be that it was supplied with ‘press releases’ direct from 13 Great Cumberland Place, Mrs. Bent’s London headquarters.

Lady of  the House, 15 September 1893, page 19, ‘Society Portraits’ (c. 500 words):

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

“In the present day travelling has been made so easy that under the auspices of Messrs. Cook & Son it is possible to make oneself acquainted with all parts of the civilised world at a cost which is – comparatively speaking – trifling, and one can go to India, for instance, in a shorter time than it took our ancestors at the beginning of this century to make ‘the grand tour of Europe’, without which no young man of position was supposed to be educated!

“But all travellers now-a-days are not content with the stereotyped tours ‘personally conducted’ (excellent and convenient as these undoubtedly are), and of late years we have heard of journeys which involved considerable risk and privation, and resulted in most important antiquarian discoveries. That an Irish lady should be the most distinguished member of her sex in this respect is distinctly gratifying to our patriotic feelings, and her countrymen and women may be justly proud of Mrs. Theodore Bent, who has shared with her husband all the dangers of exploring remote districts, and assisting in his geographical research.

“Mrs. Bent is a daughter of the late Mr. Hall-Dare, of Newtownbarry, Co. Wexford, and her mother was Miss Lambart, of Beau Park, Co. Meath.

“Although Mrs. Bent’s travels usually occupy a considerable portion of each year, and her home is now in England, she always manages time for an annual visit to Ireland; and the lace industry established by her family at Newtownbarry for the benefit of the tenancy and cottagers in the vicinity has still a staunch supporter in the subject of this sketch.

Mabel Bent’s birthplace, Beauparc, Co. Meath (copyright JP and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons).

“As to the journeys accomplished by Mr. and Mrs. Bent, it is, unfortunately, only possible to give a brief outline, but doubtless most readers are aware that the recent discussion at the Royal Geographical Society arose by the reason of the wish of several members to confer on Mrs. Bent the distinction of being a ‘Fellow’ of that body of notable travellers. Those who were against the admission of ladies have – temporarily at least – gained the day, but Mrs. Bent has not experienced the slightest disappointment about the matter, as she never sought a ‘Fellowship’, and is quite content with the privileges she already enjoys.

“It is about nine years since Mr. and Mrs. Bent started for Athens, and made themselves acquainted with the most interesting portions of Greece, returning next year to the Cyclades Isles, and bringing back to the British Museum many valuable relics dug out of the ruins at Antiparos. In Egypt, too, some successful ‘digging’ was accomplished, and also at an Egyptian town near Thrace, while at Celecia this adventurous couple discovered Olba and the famous ‘Korycian Cave’. A long tour through Persia and over the Caucasus preceded their celebrated expedition to Mashonaland, and last winter they went to Abyssinia, where they made several discoveries, and returned with a collection of curiosities for the British Museum.”

Lady of  the House, 14 July 1894, page 4, ‘In a Sultan’s Harem’ (c. 1000 words):

Bent’s iconic likeness from the studio of James Russell & Sons, around 1895 (The Bent Archive).

“Mrs. Theodore Bent’s name is so familiar to all who are versed in the events of the day, it is hardly necessary to remind our readers that this distinguished member of her sex is an Irishwoman, and therefore a brief account of her last journey cannot fail to have a special interest for her countrywomen. That Mrs. Bent is endowed with unusual courage and fortitude goes without saying, for perhaps no other woman has undertaken such arduous and dangerous journeys, nor assisted so indefatigably in the antiquarian research which is the raison d’être for Mr. Bent’s travels.

“After the unpleasant experiences in Abyssinia during the winter and spring of 1893, many of Mrs. Bent’s friends thought she would not be inclined to seek fresh dangers, but undeterred by what she had gone through, Mrs. Bent commenced preparations last autumn for the South Arabian expedition, as she invariably sees after the necessary camp furniture and provisions, the latter consisting principally of tinned meats, milk, etc., and, of course, tea. For what daughter of Eve could forego ‘the cup that cheers’. ‘And although we often suffered terribly from want of water’, said Mrs. Bent as we chatted about her last journey, ‘I usually managed to have a cup of tea every morning’.

Imam Sharif’s map of the Bents’ expedition to the Wadi Hadramaut, 1894. From Theodore Bent’s 1894 paper for the Royal Geographical Society. Image © The Bent Archive
Imam Sharif’s map of the Bents’ expedition to the Wadi Hadramaut, 1894. From Theodore Bent’s 1894 paper for the Royal Geographical Society. Image © The Bent Archive

“Mr. and Mrs. Bent left England on the 24th November, accompanied by an Arab zoologist, a botanist (sent from Kew), a surveyor from the Indian Government, an archaeologist, and last, but certainly not least, by the faithful Greek servant who had attended the travellers throughout their former journeys, and an interpreter joined them on landing. Starting from Aden, the little party wended their steps towards the interior of South Arabia, camping out at night and by day riding on camels, with the exception of Mrs. Bent, to whom a horse had been presented by a friendly Sultan. Being extremely fond of animals (and of horses in particular), a warm friendship soon sprung up between owner and steed.

Manthaios Simos, the Bents’ long-suffering assistant from Anafi in the Cyclades, thought to be in his nineties in Athens in the 1930s (© Andreas Michalopoulos).

“To give in detail the story of Mr. and Mrs. Bent’s wanderings would be impossible in a necessarily limited space. Suffice it to say that often their path was rough and difficult, and dangers beset them on every side as they got further and further into the country, at length reaching a district where no European had ever entered. The natives – a very strict set of Mahommedans – were determined ‘the unbelievers’ should not pass though, and attacked the little party with their primitive, but dangerous, firearms, and on one occasion the travellers seemed to have slight chance of saving their lives. Yet in the midst of an unknown country, surrounded by foes, Mrs. Bent never once showed fear, though all the members of the expedition, save Mr. Bent and the Indian surveyor, completely lost hope, and gave vent to their terror unreservedly. Mrs. Bent kindly endeavoured to cheer the Greek servant, but he refused to be comforted, ‘although’, she added with a smile, ‘I reminded him we were the first Europeans who had entered the district, hoping he would consider this some compensation. But he replied sadly, “Yes, and probably we shall never leave it!”’ Unfortunately, the poor fellow was so terrified he refuses to accompany his master and mistress on their next visit to Arabia, a resolution which they much regret.

“But there were many pleasant incidents too connected with the months passed in that remote country, and I was greatly amused and interested in Mrs. Bent’s graphic account of a visit to the Palace of Shibam, where she was allowed to enter the harem and spend some time with its inmates. The Sultan of Shibam is the husband of thirteen wives, whose principal occupation seems to consist in painting their faces yellow, and decorating themselves with innumerable gold chains and ear-rings. One of these ladies has considerable influence with his dusky Majesty, and at her instigation he is now building another palace. But the other wives are decidedly stupid and uninteresting. The harem is hung with looking glasses, and furnished with the usual large and rather hard cushions and rugs, while the thirteen ladies wore the long shapeless dress of the country, made of indigo-dyed fine cotton, richly embroidered, in pale grey thread, and further ornamented with pieces of bright-coloured cottons, ingeniously arranged and set off by beads of several hues.

Mabel’s doodle of a face-mask (December 1894, in Muscat/Oman; see ‘The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent’, Vol.3, 2010, p.249 ).

“Mrs. Bent showed me a facsimile of the Royal ladies’ apparel she was lucky enough to secure, and also the face mask worn by all the Southern Arabian women except in the privacy of the harem. It is indigo-dyed cotton, with two slits for the eyes, and an embroidered band which ties round the head. They also wear a heavy leather and brass girdle and brass anklets, which are well displayed in front, as the dress I have already described barely reaches to the knees, although hanging in a train at the back. The Sultan’s wives, Mrs. Bent told me, burn quantities of incense in the harem, and brought out boxes of gold chains for her edification. They glanced pityingly at her single pair of ear-rings, for with them this would be a mark of extreme poverty, and when they discovered she was Mr. Bent’s only wife, no doubt of his financial condition was entertained by them!

Mabel Bent’s own photograph of the Sultan of Makalla’s castle, Shibam, Wadi Hadramaut (Jan 1894). It appears in the Bents’ ‘Southern Arabia’ (1900), p.125 (archive.org).

“But the Sultan, who saw Mrs. Bent doing embroidery (work in which she excels) and busying herself about household matters in the camp, came to the conclusion that one wife like her was of more value than his thirteen put together; and when he found how delightfully she can converse, this opinion was strengthened, for, as he candidly acknowledged, his wives were stupid and lazy! As Mrs. Bent hopes to return to Shibam next winter, let us hope the fair inhabitants of the palace have not heard their lord and master’s sentiments. By the bye, Mrs. Bent took a number of photographs in Arabia, including one of the Sultan, who looks as though he was thoroughly pleased with the attention, while a view of the palace gives one a good idea of that genial monarch’s home. Mr. Bent also has souvenirs of the journey in the form of admirable water-colour sketches, and the travellers’ collection of Arabian things embrace specimens of native workmanship and clothing, in addition to wonderful and very valuable parchments, illuminated on almost every page, which are supposed to date from the time of Mahomed.

“If all goes well, Mr. and Mrs. Bent intend starting about November for South Arabia, and penetrating further into the country than they have already done, when it is likely the records of the Royal Geographical Society may be further enriched by Mr. Bent’s explorations, and our charming countrywoman will have again proved what Irish ‘pluck’ can accomplish.”

[You might also enjoy other interviews with the Bents, see the Irish weekly The Hearth and Home  (2 November, 1894) and  The Album (8 July, 1895), as well as the feature in The Gentlewoman, 11 November, 1893]

The skeletal material excavated on Antiparos in 1883/4 by Theodore Bent

Some recognition, after 137 years, for the skeletal material excavated in 1883/4 on the Cycladic island of Antiparos by Theodore Bent.

“The skull from the Greek tombs at Antiparos placed in my hands for examination by Mr. Bent is that of an adult male of middle age.” [J.G. Garson, M.D., Royal College of Surgeons, in J.T. Bent ‘Notes on Prehistoric Remains in Antiparos’. The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. XIV (2) (Nov 1884), 134-41] (NHMUK PA HR 12070, RCS 5.3162, FC 531B. Photo courtesy of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London, 2022)

Theodore Bent’s first rung on the archaeologist’s ladder, as it were, is represented by his few weeks in late 1883 and early 1884 excavating some prehistoric graves on Antiparos in the Greek Cyclades (see map below). Bent writes “I was induced to dig at Antiparos, because I was shown extensive graveyards there. Of these, I visited no less than four on the island itself, and heard from natives of the existence of others in parts of the island I did not visit…” (Researches Among the Cyclades, 1884, p.47)

As to how this all came about is revealed in his wife’s ‘Chronicle’:

“… we only found, besides bones, 2 very rough marble symbols of men and women, little flat things and some broken pottery.” Mabel Bent’s diary (18/12/1883 ?) recording their first ‘excavation’ at Krassades, Antiparos (Hellenic Society Archive, London)

“Tuesday [1883, December 18th?]. Rode 1½ hour to the nearest point to Antiparos carrying only our night things and a card of introduction from Mr. Binney for Mr. R. Swan who has a calamine mine on this island. Crossed in about 10 minutes [from Paros]. Found the population all enjoying the feast of St. Nikoloas who replaces Neptune. At one house I was obliged to join in the syrtos holding 2 handkerchiefs. We sent a messenger to Mr. Swan and knowing he would take 3 hours to return, rode to meet him. Met Mr. Swan who more than fulfilled our warmest hopes. He took us to his house, and after resting told us that in making a road he had come upon a lot of graves and found a marble cup, broken etc. So, we manifesting a great wish to dig too, he got men and we opened 4. They were lined and paved with slabs of stone and the people must have been doubled up in them, they were so small; we only found, besides bones, 2 very rough marble symbols of men and women, little flat things and some broken pottery.” [The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, vol 1, Oxford 2006, pp 21-2]

The Swans' house
What is thought to be the house of Robert Swan at Krassades, Antiparos. The Bents may well have been based there for their excavations in late 1883, early 1884 (photo = Alan King)

The Scottish engineer Robert Swan (1858-1904), and his brother John, were at that time working for a French mining company and were settled on the western coast of Antiparos around the site known today as Krassades – his house, where the Bents spent the night, having excavated some of the famous Cycladic figurines (which he sold to the British Museum) and the skeletal material, can still be seen. The next day (19th December 1883?) the Bents went back to Paros for Christmas and the New Year, not returning to Antiparos to undertake more excavations until 4 February 1884 (for three weeks). Mabel does not provide much information on this second campaign:

Some of the “little marble figures” recovered by the Bents from the area of Krassades, where the skeletal material was uncovered  (in Bent, J.T. 1884. Researches among the Cyclades. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 5, 42-59).

“… As I have been very lazy about my Chronicle, I will only say that there I stayed 3 weeks [February 1884], during which time we did lots of fishing, sometimes with dynamite, which is against the law and very dangerous, but the fishermen here did it… A good deal of grave digging was also done and a good many pots of earth and marble found, also knives of volcanic glass, little marble figures and a little silver one also, very rough, and some personal ornaments of brass and silver…” [The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, vol 1, Oxford 2006, pp 45-6]

Altogether, Theodore Bent records having opened around 40 graves at two of the sites they explored, referring to Krassades as the ‘poorer’ (i.e. earlier):

“And now a few words about the graves themselves. In the first place those on the western slope are very irregular in shape: some oblong, some triangular, some square ; they generally had three slabs to form the sides, the fourth being built up with stones and rubbish. There was always a slab on the top, and sometimes at the bottom of the grave. They were on an average 3 feet long, 2 feet wide, and seldom more than 2 feet deep. In every grave here we found bones, chiefly heaped together in confusion, and most of the graves contained the bones of more bodies than one. In one very small grave we found two skulls, so tightly wedged together between the side slabs that they could not be removed whole.” [Notes on Prehistoric Remains in Antiparos, pp. 137-8]

“May 7, 1884. Skull from an ancient [cemetery?] found in the Island of Antiparos one of the Cyclades. An account of the excavations in which it was found is published by the donor in the Athenaeum for May 3rd 1884. Thought to belong to a period previous to the 16th cent. BC. Presented by Theodore Bent Esq, 43 Great Cumberland Place, W.” (RCS : Register of Accessions or Donations, 1862-1886,  Ref: RCS-MUS/3/1/6. © Royal College of Surgeons, reproduced with permission). In his famous book covering the two seasons (1883-4) he and his wife Mabel spent touring the region (The Cyclades, or Life Among the Insular Greeks, 1885), the young archaeologist makes a reference to having returned to London with the skeletal material uncovered on Antiparos and that a skull was donated to the Royal College of Surgeons, who briefly published it, according to the science of the time:

“The skull from the Greek tombs at Antiparos placed in my hands for examination by Mr. Bent is that of an adult male of middle age.” [‘Notes On An Ancient Grecian Skull Obtained By Mr. Theodore Bent From Antiparos, One Of The Cyclades’, by J.G. Garson, M.D., Royal College of Surgeons, in J.T. Bent ‘Notes on Prehistoric Remains in Antiparos’. The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. XIV (2) (Nov 1884), 134-41; Biographical note:  ‘J.G. Garson, M.D., F.Z.S., Memb. Anthrop. Inst., Anat. Assist. Royal College of Surgeons, and Lecturer on Comparative Anatomy at Charing Cross Medical School’]

And that might have been that for this Early Cycladic individual, but the Bent Archive felt that he deserved more attention, and the Royal College of Surgeons was approached to see if they had any information on the subject. There was good and bad news – Yes, the skull appears in their registers [Register of Accessions or Donations, 1862-1886,  Ref: RCS-MUS/3/1/6], but, No, it was probably destroyed in the Blitz, when about a third of their collection was lost. But, their archivist continued, try the Natural History Museum, where some items had been transferred before the war.

Our approach to the Museum revealed that, indeed, the skull was there in South Kensington, and not just a skull, but another skull fragment, a pelvis, and also a considerable assemblage of ribs and assorted long-bones. This was a new discovery. Bent makes no mention of returning with such a large collection – and nor have the bones been catalogued or studied; indeed, without such study there is no way of knowing how many individuals are involved, nor from which site they came. We know that Bent made at least two investigations of burials sites on Antiparos, and Mabel Bent in her diaries also refers to finding bones on Paros and perhaps elsewhere. Without further research it is not possible to say whether all the material is from the significant and early Krassades site.

In the early summer of 2022, the Natural History Museum took the first ever photographs of the skulls and fragments of a pelvis, and have very kindly given their permission for us to reproduce the cranium mentioned by the excavator in his laconic footnote on page 409 of his 1885 monograph – “The  skull I  presented  to  the  Royal  College  of  Surgeons.” It has not been seen by anyone outside a museum drawer for almost 140 years, and very far from the sunny Cyclades.

Finds from Krassades in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens
Other finds from Krassades in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens, possibly dating to the era of the skeletal material recovered by the Bents. (photo= Alan King)

Mabel Bent was to become the expedition photographer on the couple’s subsequent annual journeys to the Levant, Africa and Arabia, but not for the trip to the Cyclades, alas, or we might have been able to see the skull before in some way  (it is also rather strange, perhaps, that it seems never to have been drawn for any of Bent’s articles).

In any event, the artefact is respectfully presented here, and it is gratifying to bring this individual from an early Mediterranean culture to a wider audience for the first time (August 2022). Hopefully a project to sort, classify, and catalogue all the Natural History Museum Bent Collection material can be undertaken to see whether further scientific analyses might be appropriate: the last decade or so has seen considerable interest in the prehistoric past of the region (e.g. the work of Colin Renfrew et al. not far away at Keros and Daskalio, off Naxos).

We are delighted to add (January 2024) that the skeletal material recovered by the Bents from Antiparos in the winter of 1883/4 and now in the Natural History Museum, London, has recently been assessed by Laura Ortiz Guerrero in “Osteological analysis of the Early Bronze Age human remains excavated from Antiparos in the 19th century” (Unpublished Master’s Dissertation, University of Sheffield, Department of Archaeology, 2023).

One of the pottery jars (this one with incised linear decoration) excavated by Theodore Bent on Antiparos in 1884 (1884,1213.42 3200 BC-2800BC, © The Trustees of the British Museum).

Present whereabouts unknown, but presumably in the former Musée Archéologique De Charleroi, a most interesting group of four vases (two stone, two clay) was removed from Antiparos after 1850 and entered the collection of the industrialist Valère Mabille (1840-1909), who later presented them to the ‘Société paléontologique et archéologique de l’arrondissement judiciaire de Charleroi’. One of the vessels is nearly identical to a jar removed by Bent from the sprawling site at Krassades and sold later to the British Museum (1884,1213.42). It is very possible that the four Charleroi pots are from the site Bent was to explore in 1883/4, and were looted during the French mining operations that were ongoing there before the Bents arrived. One of the pots, it seems, contained some skeletal material, possibly not yet analysed; the bones Bent brought back from the Krassades site are currently being studied. Such examples from Antiparos are very rare. The echo of Mabel in Mabille does not go unheard. (Ch. Delvoye, Quatre vases préhelléniques du musée archéologique de Charleroi, L’Antiquité Classique, 1947, 47-58)

For those interested in a select bibliography on the subject, we can list for you, inter alia:

Bent, J.T. 1884. Prehistoric Graves at Antiparos. Athenæum, Issue 2949 (May), 569-71.

Bent, J.T. 1884. Researches among the Cyclades. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 5, 42-59. [With J.G. Garson].

Bent, J.T. 1884. Notes on Prehistoric Remains in Antiparos. The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. XIV (2) (Nov), 134-41.

Bent, J.T. 1885, The Cyclades, or Life Among the Insular Greeks: 403 ff. London: Longmans, Green and Co.

Bent, M.V.A. 2006. Mabel Bent’s Travel Chronicles Vol 1, Greece: 21-22, Oxford: Archaeopress.

Evans, J.D. and C. Renfrew, Excavations At Saliagos: Near Antiparos. The British School at Athens. Supplementary Volumes, No. 5, (1968), pp. iii-xi, 1-226.

King, A. 2021. Of Crows and Swans and Calamine – the Archaeology Theatre of Antiparos, April 2021.

Papadopoulou, Z. 2017. Πρόσφατες αρχαιολογικές έρευνες στην Αντίπαρο (Recent Archaeological Researches in Antiparos), https://www.academia.edu/38788690/

 

Map of the scene

Read how to use the interactive map.

Textiles from Nisyros (Dodecanese) collected by the Bents in 1885

The Bents visited the Dodecanese in the E. Med in early 1885, calling at Rhodes, Nisyros, Tilos, and Karpathos (map: Glyn Griffiths).

In early 1885, Theodore and Mabel Bent were travelling in the islands we now refer to as the Dodecanese (in the Eastern Mediterranean), but were then in Turkish hands. Their main interest was Karpathos, but before sailing there the couple spent time on Rhodes, Nisyros, and Tilos, looking for items of interest to them – antiquities, textiles, ceramics – as well as making notes of traditions, folklore, and customs, and taking photographs and sketching.

 

The red overdress bought by the Bents on Nisyros in 1885 and now in the Victoria & Albert Museum (T.166-1931, (c)Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

Avid collectors (and dealers) of textiles, the Bents acquired a number of articles of clothing and domestic embroideries on their journey around the Dodecanese in the first quarter of 1885. It was a competitive field, as illustrated by an (unpleasant) note by Theodore regarding a fellow passenger, the following year, to the nearby island of Asytpalaia: “Another passenger, too, turned up, whom we soon learnt to be a little red-haired Jew from a bazaar in Constantinople, who took this opportunity to make a descent on Astypalaea for embroideries and plates; he was our bête noire in the island: whenever we tried to effect a bargain he was always to be seen hovering around, ready to offer more if our price was low, and to chuckle if we gave too much.” (‘Astypalæa’. The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 262 (Mar), 253-65) (NB Mabel never refers to this merchant in her diary and Theodore may well have made it up to pander to the prejudices of the day.)

“We have bought 5 of these underdresses, 1 pair of sleeves, a pillow cover, and a bed valance for £3.15.0.” An extract from Mabel Bent’s ‘Chronicle’ of February 1885 (The Hellenic Society, London).

The Bents explored Nisyros from 21–24 February 1885, and seem to have bought there eight or nine garments/textiles, as Mabel notes in her diary for 23 February: “The women here wear a very pretty dress, and now we know why ‘Turkey red’ is called Turkey red, i.e. because all the women in this Turkish island wear an open sleeveless gown of it with a very full skirt a good deal shorter than the thick cotton shirt with handsome silk embroidery round the tail, 1½ yards round. The sleeves are splendidly embroidered. We have bought 5 of these underdresses, 1 pair of sleeves, a pillow cover, and a bed valance for £3.15.0.” (The Travel Chronicles of Mrs. J. Theodore Bent, Vol. 1, 2006, Oxford, p.73.)

The sterling sum Mabel mentions (taking £1 in 1885 for £150 today) equates to nearly £600. In 1886 Theodore offered three dresses acquired from Karpathos (visited in the same season as Nisyros) to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London for £15 (£2250).

The cushion cover/pillowcase (detail) bought by the Bents on Nisyros in 1885 and now in the Victoria & Albert Museum (T.149-1930, (c)Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

Two of the Nisyros items are today in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London – a red overdress (T.166-1931) and a cushion cover/pillowcase (T.149-1930). These were sold to the famous London retailers Liberty & Co. after Mabel’s death (1929), or shortly before, by her nieces (who were her beneficiaries). Liberty’s then donated them to the V&A in the early 1930s.

‘Sleeves’/bodice from Tilos, perhaps similar to those bought by the Bents on Nisyros, no distance north of Tilos, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum (CIRC.628-1928, (c)Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

As for the other items Mabel refers to (‘underdresses’, the ‘sleeves’, ‘bed valence’), we can only guess as to which collections they might now be in. A search of the V&A’s online collections reveals several unprovenanced items, including bed valences, and it is possible that some of the Bent textiles were bought and then donated to museums around the world. For instance, the ‘sleeves’ (bodice?) Mabel Bent refers to could easily resemble those illustrated by V&A item CIRC.628-1928,  said to have come from Tilos, the next island south from Nisyros, and donated by Professor and Mrs Percy Newberry, whom we know were in contact with Mabel Bent. Did she sell to them perhaps? All pure conjecture of course.

A ‘sindhoni’/bed valence (detail) from Nisyros now in the Victoria & Albert Museum. Such items were treasured family possessions and executed in many sizes and designs. The one the Bents purchased has not been traced so far (T.732-1950, (c)Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

At the end of 1885, the Bents gave a lecture to the Anthropological Institute, London, entitled ‘On Insular Greek Customs’,  and Mabel Bent curated a small exhibition of her embroideries for it, including the Nisyros valence she referred to above: “A sindhoni of Niseros worked in brown, light yellow, and blue”. Another exhibit featured the red overdress also mentioned and illustrated above: “A figure dressed as a woman of Niseros, in a short narrow dress of white cotton, embroidered round the tail and round the square neck, and with wide sleeves, embroidered in stripes of various coloured silks, and with silver embroidery on the shoulders; over this a very wide dress of turkey-red, half a yard shorter, and sleeveless. A black kerchief across the forehead, and a yellow one over that, hiding the mouth.” (J.T. Bent, ‘Insular Greek Customs’. The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 15 (1886), pp. 391-403. [With an Appendix by ‘Mrs. Bent’, p. 401-3])

Mabel Bent appears (third) in the list of lenders to the Burlington 1914 exhibition (‘Catalogue of a collection of old embroideries of the Greek islands and Turkey by Burlington Fine Arts Club’, London, 1914).

Mabel exhibited three of her Nisyros ‘underdresses’ (as well as several other possessions) at an event hosted in 1914 by the Burlington Fine Arts Club (BFAC Catalogue Nos. 44, 66, 83),  Exhibit No. 44 included her Nisyros red overdress, the catalogue entry of which begins: “Overskirt of red Turkey twill and Frock embroidered in cross-stitch in coloured silks, of which black is dominant, on linen.” (Catalogue of a collection of old embroideries of the Greek islands and Turkey by Burlington Fine Arts Club (eds A.J.B. Wace et al.), London, 1914, p. 12)

Other items acquired by the Bents on their tours of the Dodecanese and now in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, include a ‘stomacher‘ from Astypalaia and dresses from Karpathos.

Mabel Bent – A Cycladic birthday, 28 January 1884

Sikinos, Greek Cyclades (Google maps).

As remote as you like, for her 37th birthday in 1884, Mabel Bent finds herself on the Greek Cycladic island of Sikinos, a dot squashed between Folegandros and Ios, a leap northwest of Santorini. She and her husband, Theodore Bent, no less inquisitive than acquisitive, were hopping around the islands looking for material for a book which was to appear the following year – his celebrated guide The Cyclades, or Life Among the Insular Greeks. [See below for a summary of Bent birthdays in foreign lands.]

The couple arrived on Sikinos from Ios, a little to the east, on 27 January 1884 and were put up in the house of the demarch, presumably within the medieval, walled chora. They were well looked after, as Mabel notes in her diary:

“Few  remains  in  Greece  are  more  perfect  than  this temple  of  Apollo …” Episkopi, Sikinos, before the recent restoration works (Wikipedia).

“[The Sikinos demarch] received us very hospitably. We have a real bedroom and washing table and all. We were soon at dinner and many people came in to see us. When we came out of our bedrooms yesterday morning, 28th, my birthday, we had a tray with a coffee pot and sheep milk and some very hard bread with sesame, all at different times, and very soon after eggs and wine, and then set off with a good many men on mules and foot to the Church of Episkopi, once the temple of Apollo Pythios, about 1½ hour off; of course a steep and rocky way. One could quite well see what it had been in spite of the Christian alterations.” (The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J.T. Bent, Vol. 1, Oxford, 2006, p.41)

Theodore gives this small but imposing (and important) monument ten out of ten. Its designation as a temple to Apollo comes from an inscription identified by Ludwig Ross in the 1840s,  but it is more securely considered a mausoleum from Roman times, subsequently rebuilt in the 3rd century AD as a Byzantine Church. Read about it all in a remarkable article, fully illustrated, at Diocese of Sikinos: A unique monument is dedicated to the public today (accessed 19/01/2023).

Very fortunately, the monument escaped the spades of the Bents. Over the last few years it has been re-excavated and restored by the Ephorate of Antiquities (EFA) of the Cyclades, who were awarded the Europa Nostra Award for their work in 2022. The great find was the high-status tomb of a woman apparently named Neiko; Theodore stood just a few metres above her, and she eluded his attentions (unlike the less lucky Karpathos Lady).

Map of the Cyclades from Bent’s 1885 travelogue, showing Sikinos (archive.org)

Here are his words: “Few  remains  in  Greece  are  more  perfect  than  this temple  of  Apollo  at  Sikinos.  Somehow  it  has  escaped observation,  and  it  has  been  too  high  above  the  sea to  make  it  of  any  use  for  building  material;  hence  it escaped  during  the  earlier  years  of  Vandalism;  and  then when  it  was  turned  into  a  place  of  Christian  worship  a certain  amount  of  respect  was  secured  for  it,  which  other ruins  did  not  obtain  until  later  years…” (The Cyclades, or Life Among the Insular Greeks, 1885, London, p.176)

Bent also mentions that they met up with the former mayor, Iakovos Kortesis (Theodore names him Kortes) : “An old man, the former demarch, came in shortly after we were up, and begged for the privilege of taking us about the town. In many respects he seemed a man more respected and looked up to than our jocular host; for we were told that if his age and infirmities had not interfered with the fulfilment of his duties he would still have been in office. Wrapped in a shawl, and stick in hand, he seemed to despise the cold, and trudged on at a good pace to show us his garden. Kortes was the name of the old man, and after showing us his garden he conducted us to his house, a large cold place, without any glass in the windows, just over the town gateway…” (The Cyclades, p.178) There is a splendid Sikinos website with contemporary photographs and references to Bent, and see these other (slightly later) photos of the exterior of the house the Bents visited, and a ‘Sikinos gate‘.

Later in 1885, Bent wrote a bizarre article linked to Sikinos entitled “A Romance of a Greek Statue” (possibly fictitious), on which there is a comment in a Revicto (06/01/2022).

2022

By the way, Mabel was born (see ‘My Baby Blue Eyes‘) in her grandfather’s stately home at Beauparc, Co. Meath, Ireland, a very long way from Sikinos!

A review of Bent birthdays based on Mabel Bent’s Chronicles, 1884-1897

The accompanying interactive map below plots these birthdays: Mabel in green, Theodore in blue. (NB: London [13 Great Cumberland Place] stands in for unknown locations in Great Britain; the couple could have been away visiting family and friends in Ireland or England, including at their property ‘Sutton Hall’, outside of Macclesfield.)


There were 28 Bent birthday events (2 x 14) between 1884–1897 (the years covered by Mabel Bent’s diaries). Of these 28, only 5 (18%) were not spent in the field, and only 7 times (25%) does Mabel refer to a birthday in her notebooks directly. In the above Table, column 1 gives the year and ages of the Bents on their birthdays; columns 2 and 3 give their birthday locations. Events in red are when Mabel refers directly to their birthdays. ‘London’ is standing in for unknown locations in Great Britain. If not at their main residence (13 Great Cumberland Place), the couple could have been visiting family and friends in Ireland and England, including at their property Sutton Hall, outside of Macclesfield.

A stomacher from Astypalaia, once in the Bent collection, now in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Stomacher from Astypalaia acquired by the Bents in 1886 (T.150-1930, (c)Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

“A sort of bib is worn in front, 5 or 6 inches wide, and down to the waist, embroidered and spangled and sometimes covered with gilt coins and a bit of white calico sewn to the end, which looks as if meant to tuck in but is not.” (Extract from Mabel Bent’s Greek Chronicles, 2006, Archaeopress, Oxford, pp.155-6)

For ten years at the end of the 19th century British explorers Theodore and Mabel Bent travelled around Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean, always on the lookout for fabrics and costumes to bring back to London (either for their own collection or to sell on).

The couple were on Astypalaia (the Greek Dodecanese) in March 1886 and bought one of these stomachers (also plastron) that Mabel Bent is describing; it  remained in her private collection until the end of her life, when her nieces sold it to the famous retailer Liberty & Co., who gave it to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, in 1930 (inv. no. T.150-1930). It is not on display.

Detail from Theodore Bent’s 1885 map of the Eastern Mediterranean, showing the northern Dodecanese, including Astypalaia.

“The women here wear a beautiful dress. Their heads have a long yellow scarf wound round and hanging in loops below the waist, behind and in front, over a little cap covered with beads and spangles and very large earrings of silver; a shirt with embroidery round the tail and very large sleeves like those of Nisiros. These they tie up to their shoulders when at work. Their dress is made of a fine cherry-coloured cloth; a full skirt, echoing the embroidery of the skirt, down the front is let in about half a yard of blue cotton. Round the tail of the skirt is turned up about 8 inches of course white flannel and above that about 8 inches of the blue, so really there is not so very much red. The jacket is of the same red, square backed to the waist, where it branches out to 2 points which are left open and above the slit 3 big silver buttons all tight together. A sort of bib is worn in front, 5 or 6 inches wide, and down to the waist, embroidered and spangled and sometimes covered with gilt coins and a bit of white calico sewn to the end, which looks as if meant to tuck in but is not.

“Her head was covered with a sort of mitre of gold and seed pearls…” Wedding ensemble, Astypalaia (Athens Folk Art Museum).

“I photographed a bride. Her head was covered with a sort of mitre of gold and seed pearls and gauze scarf; dress velvet, silk shirt, jacket fringed with immense silver buttons and big blobs of glass which looked crystal, and on the back there was a quantity of silver. 3 pairs of silver gilt and pearl earrings larger than bracelets. She had 2 holes in her ears. I took 6 photographs.” (Extract from Mabel Bent’s Greek Chronicles, 2006, Archaeopress, Oxford, pp.155-6)

 

Incidentally, we have here a good example above of how Theodore relied on Mabel’s notebooks (her ‘Chronicles’) for his own writings. Here is an extract from his 1887 article on Astypalaia:  “In front a sort of bib is worn down to the waist, embroidered and bespangled, and sometimes covered with gold coins. At the end of this is sewn a bit of white calico, which looks as if it was intended to tuck in, but it never is.” (Theodore Bent, 1887, ‘Astypalæa’. The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 262 (Mar), 253-65)

The photographs Mabel mentions have not been traced, but her stomacher/plastron was to feature in the Burlington exhibition of Greek/Turkish embroideries in London in 1914 (item 81, pp.19-20 in the catalogue), where it is described thus: “There is no embroidery round the neck or down the V [of the dress], but the opening is covered by a separate garment. This is an oblong plastron embroidered in silk and wool on linen with a pattern of pairs of leaves. At the top is a border of beads and gold thread, and the whole surface is covered with sequins of coloured tin.”

The plastron is well described on the V&A’s own site, from where the top illustration is taken (© Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

Another item from the Bent collection donated to the V & A by Liberty & Co in 1931. Turkish brocaded silk, the design featuring three-masted ships. (Inv. no. T.167-1931, © The Victoria & Albert Museum)

Mabel’s collection is now dispersed, but perhaps the star exhibits are back in Athens – some iconic dresses from Karpathos – in the Benaki Museum. The V&A in London has a representative selection of the embroideries and there are also a few other items in the Harris Museum, Preston, UK.

‘Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging…’ New Year, 2023

Title page to John Murray’s ‘Greece, etc.’ 1884 (archive.org)

At the end of the 19th century, between western ‘Christmas’ and the New Year, Mabel and Theodore Bent could be waved to embarking on their imminent winter/spring campaign, or putting last preparatory touches to its details; packing all their necessaries into dozens of bags and boxes, and trunks, mixed in with the travel books, and clothes; very important… the clothes, the books. One essential volume, for example and of course, would be a Murray: his Handbook for travellers in Greece…, the 1884 edition is referenced reverentially in Mabel’s travel diaries for 1885 (the Dodecanese).

 

And explorers (of all genders) into the Levant in 2023 should heed and endeavour to follow the dress code as stipulated by Murray; it was religiously adhered to by the Bents:

‘Let his dress at all times be obviously that of an Englishman…’ Travel poster boy Theodore Bent taken (pre 1895) in the studios of society-photographers, Russell & Sons. Three years later Mabel was to approve it for her husband’s obituary in the ‘Illustrated London News’ [May 15, 1897, page 669]
“Clothes. — These should be such as will stand hard and rough work. They must not be too light, even in summer; for a day of intense heat is often followed by a storm, or by a cold night. As some indication of the requirements of the case, we may observe that the traveller is not likely to err greatly if he selects for travel in Greece and Turkey much the same outfit that he would take for shooting in the Highlands. Let his dress at all times be obviously that of an Englishman, which he will find the most respectable and respected travelling attire throughout the Levant… Carelessness about dress in travelling, even in remote districts, cannot be too severely reprobated, especially in towns, however small.” [Handbook for travellers in Greece… 1884, John Murray, London, p.24]

 

An uncaptioned studio portrait of Mabel Bent. Possibly Cape Town, 1891 (The Bent Archive)

A decade later, July 1895, the Bents gave an interview to The Album, and Mabel opens the Bent wardrobe doors for us: “And have you any views on the best travelling costume?” [The interviewer enquires]. “Yes, inasmuch that we do not alter or modify our travelling costumes, wearing the same kind of clothes in both Africa and Asia. [Theodore] finds a Norfolk jacket and breeches the most practical and pleasant form of dress for either riding or actual exploring work. My travelling dress consists of a tweed coat and skirt, a pith hat, with breeches and gaiters. The skirt is made in pleats, and is so arranged as to act as riding habit when I am on horseback. When actually in camp, that is to say, during the heat of the day – for early morning and evening are the only safe hours to travel – I put on a linen shirt or blouse and ordinary skirt.”  [The Album: A Journal of Photographs of Men, Women, and Events of the Day (8th July, 1895, Vol. II, No. 23, pp.44-45)]

Best wishes for 2023 from the Bent Archive.

‘Not fare well / But fare forward, voyagers.’