Reported in Scientific American, This Week in World War I: December 12, 1914
Here’s a short, cryptic note from our December 12, 1914, issue, about scientific work being carried out in the Middle East:
“Survey of Southern Palestine.—A considerable amount of surveying and exploration has recently been done along the southern frontier of Palestine under the auspices of the Palestine Exploration Fund by parties headed by Capt. S. F. Newcombe, R.E., and including two archaeologists from the British Museum. Five parties surveyed and mapped the whole border region except a small area around Akaba, where the Turkish authorities refused the necessary permission, and the trigonometrical survey of Palestine was connected up with that of Egypt.”
“Surveying” expedition? In truth, it was a spy mission. And a most unlikely one at that, impounding legitimate archaeologists for the war effort.
The “two archaeologists from the British Museum” included a young (and bona fide) archaeologist who had graduated from Oxford only four years earlier.
His name was Thomas Edward Lawrence, but by the end of World War I his work with the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918 against the Ottoman Empire would earn Colonel T. E. Lawrence the sobriquet of “Lawrence of Arabia.” Lawrence had spent several years before the outbreak of the war traveling and studying archaeological sites in the Ottoman Empire. After the outbreak of war, he was tasked with intelligence work for the British Army in Cairo, Egypt. He became a valued advisor to the British and to the Arabs because of his knowledge and skills, and because of his willingness to help the Arabs win freedom from Ottoman domination (only a small part of that sentiment was shared by his masters in the British government).
The mission in Palestine, commanded by Stewart F. Newcombe of the Royal Engineers, was to map the desert lands that lay between the southern borders of the crumbling Ottoman Empire and the Suez Canal that ran through British-occupied Egypt. The canal was a vital strategic link between Britain and the most important colony in the British Empire, India. In early 1914 it was unknown if the Ottoman Turks would stay neutral or, as it increasingly seemed likely, join the war on the side of the Germans and Austrians. It was therefore necessary to find out if it was possible for them to send an army across the desert to attack the Suez. The fear was not totally misplaced: In February 1915 an army of 15,000 Ottoman and German troops attacked but failed to capture the Suez Canal. After the war and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire Newcombe helped the British and French governments carve up territory that in later decades would become the countries of Syria, Israel and Lebanon.
The Ottoman rulers were understandably opposed to a military mapping mission, so a subterfuge was needed. The perfect cover for this mapping operation was the Palestine Exploration Fund, which had been performing perfectly legitimate biblical archaeology since 1865. (In fact it still does: their Web site is at www.pef.org.uk). The archaeologists used as a cover were also, at the time, perfectly legitimate as well. In fact, we published an article on their archaeological findings in our March 14, 1914, Scientific American Supplement: “The Civilization of the Hittites of Syria,” by David George Hogarth (who was also later involved in the Cairo bureau). The other archaeologist mentioned in our December 12, 1914, note was Leonard Woolley, who is later credited with establishing archaeology as a scientific discipline.
As for Akaba, the town where the Turkish authorities forbade survey work, it fell to a camel-mounted Arab army, with Lawrence as their advisor, in July 1917. (And it makes for a stirring scene in the 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia, starring the late Peter O’Toole.) Aqaba, on the shores of the Red Sea, is now a town in the country of Jordan.
A splendid book published in 2013 valiantly attempts to untangle the mythology of Lawrence of Arabia within the complex environment (then and now) of the Middle East: Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson (Knopf Doubleday, 2013).
Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles from 1914–1918 on interesting characters from the First World War. It is available for purchase at www.ScientificAmerican.com/wwi