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Notes from Limmud 2006

Archaeological Espionage—TE Lawrence and Leonard Woolley in Sinai 1913/14

Stephen Rosenberg

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

In 1912 Lord Kitchener, a former Royal Engineers archaeological surveyor, realised that the Turks of Palestine would join with the Germans in time of war. He had no maps of the Sinai, and, under the noses of the Turks and with the help of the British Museum, he organised an archaeological survey for a military mapping exercise.

The connection of Kitchener, a fluent Arabic speaker, with the Palestine Exploration Fund began in 1883 when he was commissioned to survey the Aravah [the part of the East African Rift Valley between the Dead Sea and Gulf of Aqaba] by the Palestine Exploration Fund (before he went on to do greater things in the Sudan). In 1912 he hit on the idea of getting the PEF to ask the government for permission to do an archaeological survey of the Wilderness of Zin, as none had been done before; as cover for a military survey as by the Royal Engineers. Kitchener knew a topographical survey was needed to build light railways across the Sinai—a successful campaign could not be fought with horses only.

The PEF expeditionary force agreed to the idea, though were not told about the military purpose. The churchmen thought the survey would throw light on the Biblical record; the military men were more [lost the end of this sentence]

The military men decided to appoint an Egyptologist, TF Pete, to carry out the survey. Permission to carry out the survey was granted; but Pete was unable to take the assignment. The expedition turned to the British Museum for support. The directory, Sir Frederick Kenyon (father of Dame Kathleen Kenyon) was a Bible scholar, and expressed interest in the project.

There were two young archaeologists available. The dig at Carchemish in Syria was closing down for the winter season, and Leonard Woolley and TE Lawrence were on a retainer of 10/- a day—i.e. they were paid half their full pay of £1 a day during the digging period, for doing no work, to make sure they would still be available when the digging period restarted.

Kenyon had the idea of asking them to assist in Sinai, and they agreed; this was in late 1913. Both young men were fluent Arabic speakers and used to roughing it under canvas, though they pointed out they were not Semitic scholars.

Since its inception in 1985 (when they commissioned Warren to carry out his excavation at Jerusalem), the PEF always had members of the clergy who wanted to investigate further Biblical matters. The expedition was given four aims:

  • To clarify the history of occupation of this area of the Southern Negev by examining and mapping the archaeological remains from all periods.
  • To trace the old inland route of caravans from central Palestine to Egypt, following the route of the Israelites in the Wilderness of Zin.
  • To collect placenames to see if they provided any evidence for the Biblical account.
  • To investigate the area of `Ain Kedeis to see if it could be the Biblical Kadesh Barnea.

The two archaeologists were given no inkling of the military nature of the expedition.

Having gained the agreeement of the Turks, the work could start. Capt. Stewart Newcombe was in place—a base camp 15 miles south of Beer Sheva—to start on Christmas Day 1913. Newcombe was expecting to meet two venerable old scholars, and was pleasantly surprised to find young men. They in turn were surprised to find they would be working under a military man. But the three got on very well together.

The task in front of them was daunting. They had to map an area from just south of Beer Sheva, the southern end of Conda's [?] survey, to Kitchener's survey of the Aravah in the east, and the Turkish/Egyptian border in the west, nearly 4500 square miles. [See map of the Exodus; this one has the modern borders marked on.] The chief reference point was Jebel Harun [Mt Aaron, identified with the Biblical Mt. Hor, the traditional deathplace of Aaron] near Petra, painted white and visible from fifty miles away—a landmark that was to be useful to Lawrence later when he escaped from Aqaba.

Newcombe, known as Skinface (because his skin peeled in the sun) spent many nights talking with the others about the Biblical accounts, and how unlikely they were to find any traces. Woolley claimed to have found evidence for Noah's Flood in the 8 foot deep later of mud at Ur.

They had assistants called [something and] Yussuf Canaan, who were paid 12 piastres (or 1/9).

Supplies came to base camp from Cairo, but were not high quality. Woolley and Lawrence had expected a fully-equipped base, but found almost nothing. Luckily, they had brought their own camera and squeeze material [for making papier-mâché casts of inscriptions].

What the archaeologists found was remarkable, but hardly what Moses recorded. They found Byzantine remains, and found water-management schemes, mainly shallow dams, devised by the Nabataeans. They found sites such as Khalasa, which has yet to be excavated, but found them all Byzantine-era. "Not a sign or smell of the Israelites. We are transforming a hill-fort of the Amorites into a Byzantine monastery. Sounds almost impious, doesn't it?" wrote Woolley.

By the 25th, they had reached Ain Qadeis. They had asked the camel corps to meet them, but they failed to find them. They found Ain Qadeis to be a very poor place, "impossible for the Israelites to live there for forty years"—but Lawrence later came to like it. Woolley said "It said wonders for the Israelites that they left Moses alive after forty years there!" "Qadeis" means "water-scoop"; nothing to do with "holy."

Near Qadeis they found an important early fortress, where there was abundant water, and four roadways converged. This was more likely to have been the Israelite Kadesh. It is dated to the Monarchic period, but could have been visited by nomads much earlier.

At the time they said the climate might have bene more wet at the time, and easier to support more people. But Woolley and Lawrence saw no evidence for this, by the frequency of the deep wells, with no evidence of the water table having been higher.

On 8 February they split up; Woolley and Canaan went north to survey Avdat and Kurnub (Mamshit). Woolley did a detailed survey, not knowing the French had done some of the work ten years earlier. He discovered the main church had been built out of and over a Roman-style temple of the Nabataeans to their king. He also discovered a [something]. On 21 February Woolley left for Gaza and Aleppo.

Lawrence, however, was still in the Arava. He had gone to Aqaba with Newcombe, where the local governor was suspicious, saying he had had received no order giving them permission. Kitchener had forbidden them to proceed. Lawrence, however, ignored the governor, who had refused to give them permission to sail to Jezirat Faroun. Lawrence borrowed two water drums, and paddled over himself! He surveyed the island archaeologically. On his return, he was arrested by one policeman (though he later claimed it was a whole trooop). He managed to escape, though, and fled to Jebel Musa [Mt Moses, identified by the Christians and the Muslims, though not the Jews, as Mt Sinai], using Jebel Harun as a landmark.

At Petra he was more interested in the geology than the tombs—but he was desperately short of money. He took to walking up and down the Siq [the defile leading to Petra] hoping to find someone. He eventually came upon two English women, Evelyn Cobbles and her companions—and asked them for a loan. She was appalled to see a dirty Arab beggar approach them, but was assuaged when she heard his perfect Oxford accent. With the money she gave them, they were able to get to the Ma'an to Damascus railway (which Lawrence later blew up) and back to Syria.

Woolley and Lawrence finally met up again in Aleppo on March 2nd 1914.

Newcombe, after completing his work, went up to see Woolley and Lawrence in Carchemish. Kitchener had not wanted him to do this; but he relented when he learned he could learn [something]. [The speaker presented this as the point where Lawrence and Woolley learned the true nature of the survey, and quoted something of which I only took down the last words; "...and we were the red herrings"; however, googling this, I came up with "We are obviously only meant as red herrings to give an archaeological colour to a political job," which implies they knew beforehand.]

Woolley and Lawrence had been unable to meet the expected deadline of April [something]th 1914 set by the PEF. But they returned to London and reported in July; it was decided to publish the work in the annuals of the PEF. Woolley started on this, and got academics to work on the inscriptions. [See some of Lawrence and Woolley's original drawings.] The maps, however, were classified as secret, and were not published until 1921.

At the end of October, Turkey had joined the German side of the War. Woolley was commissioned into the artillery. Lawrence, being short, was not initially accepted into the Army, but joined Intelligence and was immediately ordered to prepare a roadmap of the Sinai. He had to relinquish work on the [archaeological report], which he passed on to Hogarth at the Ashmolean Museum.

Hogarth finished the work, and the [lacuna, possibly "PEF"?] asked for 115 copies to be presented, but without the map. It was beautifully presented, and contained many photographs, which give us an impression of what the Negev was like a hundred years ago. [The report is now freely viewable online. You can also see a few of the more interesting photos (to save yourself wading through the many less interesting landscapes) here.]

Lawrence, of course, went on to greater things during the war; and Stuart Newcombe was with him in organising the Arab Militias. Woolley was captured in 1916 and remained a POW until 1918.

During the war, German troops set up their headquarters in Jerusalem and ordered Turkish troops based in Beer Sheva to strike against the Suez Canal—all as predicted by Kitchener and the War Office. Their attempt failed, but the German commander attacked again in the summer of 1916 with 50,000 Turkish troops, with German machine-gunners. The attack was repulsed, but the danger remained. Kitchener realised [lacuna, presumably that it was essential to dislodge the Turks from southern Palestine].

Gen. Sir Archibald Murray was ordered to attack Gaza and open the road to Jerusalem. Kitchener by this stage had drowned [after the ship he was on was mined by the Germans], but the plan went ahead. It was Kitchener's plan that a victory in the east might change things in Europe.

Murray used the the PEF survey's maps to cross the Sinai and attack El-Arish and Rafiaḥ. Gaza, however, was different: it was ringed with armaments and trenches, and the British attack was repulsed, as also was a second one.

Lloyd George dismissed Murray, and sent "the Bull", Gen. Allenby, to do it instead. He removed his HQ from Cairo into the Sinai. Word came that Lawrence had captured Aqaba. Allenby studied the PEF maps and Biblical documents. He proposed to pretend to capture Gaza, but actually take Beer Sheva. He dropped into enemy territory a plan to capture Gaza, and bombarded Gaza. The Turks moved their forces from Beer Sheva into Gaza. Allenby then ordered a night-time attack on Beer Sheva, and took it.

Allenby then turned on Gaza, and with the help of planes and tanks—never before used in this part of the world—took it in a week. He then cut up to Jaffa, and to Jerusalem, which he had promised to give as a Christmas present to Lloyd George.

After the defeat in the south, Turkish troops were ordered to retreat, taking anything of value with them. The mayor marched out of the city waving a white bedsheet, and surrendered it to the two British advance scouts he came across. Two days later Allenby arrived, dismounted, removed his helmet as a sign of peaceful intentions, and marched into the city, with the city bells ringing out.

[Which reminds me: I once heard that Hava Nagila was written to celebrate the entry of Allenby into Jerusalem. I wonder whether Wikipedia bears this out. <checks> Well blow me, so it does.]

After the War, Lawrence became an advisor to the Emir Faisal, and was a friend to the Jews as well. But he never returned to archaeology. After his death in 1935, the PEF decided to republish his The Wilderness of Zin, on Woolley's recommendation. (There is a new edition in 2003, with new information.)

After his release from POW camp, Woolley returned to Carchemish, and worked there for two more seasons, until 1920. Afterwards, he worked on excavating Ur of the Chaldees, where he discovered the treasures of the royal cemetery, most of the artefacts from which are now in the British Museum. Woolley was knighted for this.

[lacuna] Civil Affairs Directorate. [?lacuna] He influenced Eisenhower's staff, during the Second World War, in preventing looting in the liberated territories. He died in 1960, at the age of eighty.

Col. Newcombe had died in 1956. He was a remarkably modest man, who always hid his light under a bushel and let others take the credit. It was he who had made a success of the Zin survey.

The dedication in the Wilderness of Zin report reads (quoting Jethro giving advice to Moses in Exodus 18:20):

Who showed them "the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do."

Finally, a little anecdote from the last season of the dig at Carchemish, in 1919/20. Woolley was trying to recruit local labour for the dig, but many of the local sheikhs were unwilling to work with the British, because they had been ordered by the Germans not to work with the French or their allies.

Woolley brought them together and asked them, "You are under orders to fight for the Turks, but what are you fighting for?" "For the Turkish government and liberty!" they cried. "And what am I working for? For the British Museum and archaeology. Which is greater?" Politeness required them to answer, "The British Museum." "And which is greater, liberty or archaeology?" 'They did not have the slightest idea of the meaning of either word, but they did know their manners. "Archaeology, by God!" they cried, in unison.'

Date: 2008-01-20 04:42 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hatam-soferet.livejournal.com
Oo, I'm glad you posted this, I fell asleep halfway through the session. Thanks!

Date: 2008-01-20 04:51 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
I trust that was because you'd been getting too little sleep, not because of the speaker! :o)

I did overhear one person at one session, I forget whom, saying, "Oh, Michael's here. That means I don't need to take notes"!

Date: 2008-01-21 07:33 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
'Giggle'! That is what I sometimes think as well as I often loose concentration after a few minutes. I also can't afford things like Limmud. It is great having all your notes here.

Date: 2008-01-20 07:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] green-knight.livejournal.com
You're a star.

I've been wondering about my next-but-one project - not paying it too much attention, y'know, just the occasional stray thought. The central theme is that someone has developed a new kind of film that allows a much better mapping of fae ruins; and I had been wondering a) why the Fae might be so *vividly* opposed, and what harm an antagonist might do. This precedence (or rather, a slightly-shifted one, this is not the world as we know it) would provide the perfect argument for anyone who wants to oppose my protagonists...

So yes, someone *is* reading these notes, even if I don't always find something to comment on.


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