Ancient Middle Eastern Antiquities and the First World War

By Mr James Donaldson (Manager/Curator, R D Milns Antiquities Museum, The University of Queensland) and Dr Brit Asmussen (Senior Curator, Archaeology, Cultures and Histories, Queensland Museum).

The First World War Antiquities Project (Queensland)

This blog is one in a series developed from research conducted during “The First World War Antiquities Project (Queensland)”, a collaborative project between the R D Milns Antiquities Museum, The University of Queensland, Brisbane and the Queensland Museum. This is the first systematic survey of antiquities collecting by Australian service personnel during the war. Here, we seek to identify the antiquities collected, and tell the stories of the service men and women who collected them. These artefacts range from small curios such as scarabs and coins, through to mosaics and larger sculptures. Many artefacts are of Egyptian origin, acquired while personnel were either training or convalescing. Other artefacts were acquired during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign (1915-1918), or by the signalmen of the ANZAC wireless corps stationed in Mesopotamia between 1916 and 1919. In addition, we consider how collecting contributed to the development of Museum collections in Australia and considers issues relating to the ethics of collecting authentic antiquities and fakes and forgeries.  

Ancient Middle East Antiquities and the war

In this blog, we present the antiquities collected by service personnel who served during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign (1915-1918). Items originating from Israel/Palestine and Jordan, amount to the second largest collecting area with over 20 in the Queensland Museum collections, second to collections from Egypt (ca 34 items). The bulk of the collection objects comprise coins. Below we overview the personnel, the items they acquired and how they were acquired.

Corporal de Tournouër

Comte Corporal Gontran Louis Henri Marie Philippe de Tournouër was born in France in 1885. Gontran’s mother and his siblings immigrated to Australia arriving in 1904, and after their arrival, settled in the Wide Bay area. Gontran enlisted for service in the First World War in Brisbane on 21 August 1914 and he was placed in the 2nd Light Horse Regiment’s A Squadron and was promoted to Corporal before the unit left Brisbane. On 29 September the unit embarked on the Star of England for Egypt, arriving by late February 1915. The unit was stationed at Heliopolis outside Cairo before taking part in the defence of the Suez Canal following Ottoman and German attacks in 1915. De Tournouer donated his collection to Queensland Museum in 1917 after being invalided home. He survived the war, and passed away in Brisbane in 1929.

During his extended time in Egypt, de Tournouër acquired a series of authentic early Islamic antiquities from the excavations at Fustat, the Islamic capital of Egypt, founded in AD 641. A letter accompanying the donation notes that the artefacts came from a house excavated at Fustat, at a depth of 50 feet, and that de Tournouër acquired them via Ali Bey Baghat, then curator of the Museum of Arab Art, Cairo (now the Museum of Islamic Art). Baghat has been described as one of the fathers of Egyptian archaeology and was the first person to open excavations at Fustat in 1912. The oil lamps were a common find in the excavations at Fustat, with several thousand recovered. Their prevalence also explains the gift of these lamps to de Tournouer and presumably others. He also received a pottery water-filter, which once sat at the juncture of the neck and shoulder of a jug. Strainers vary in their design – many feature highly complex open work, featuring animals, filigree patterns, calligraphic inscriptions, zig-zag lines or zoomorphic motifs. He also received a small glass vessel, which once likely held perfume, and a small clay pot. He was also gifted two items called ‘oil jars’. The function of these objects, now called sphero-conical vessels, are the subject of much debate. Some experts think these are ancient incendiary devices, such as hand grenades or gunpowder flasks, containers for mercury, fire blowers, others perfume bottles, holy water bottles, lamps or decorative finials. They are made from a highly fired ceramic that looks like stone, and they are often called stoneware. They are either plain or decorated with incisions and covered with a grey brown slip.

Jug strainer/filter, Fatamid Dynasty, Green-glazed Islamic oil lamps, Fatamid Dynasty (ca 10 – 12th Century CE), scent bottle and pottery jar, and Incomplete sphero-conical vessels (aeolipiles) gifted to de Tournouër by Ali Bey Bahgat © Queensland Museum, Peter Waddington.

EER Sergeant L.W Page 

ER Sgt Leslie William Page was born in Newport, Wales in 1892 and emigrated to Australia in 1912. He was working as a stockman in Townsville when he enlisted with the 2nd Reinforcements, 2nd Light Horse Regiment in December 1914. He served at Gallipoli, including at both Quinn’s and Pope’s post, in 1915 before being evacuated sick to Malta and then England. In 1917 Page joined the Australian Provost Corps as a military police officer and was attached to various Light Horse units during the Sinai and Palestine campaign.

Page collected artefacts while he was on active service in the Middle East, including squares of mosaic tesserae, coins and nails. Page recounts that he dug these up ‘at or near Deir el-Belah, Sinai in 1917’ (modern day Dayr al-Bala, near Gaza). Iron nails of all sizes were easily and quickly made by hand in blacksmith workshops, and could be used for a multitude of purposes: in walls and gates, as well as buildings themselves. The floor mosaics (tesserae, small cubes of stone, pottery or glass) provided a personalised decorative element to buildings. They were pressed into soft cement to create patterns and images. This was a popular decorative feature in Roman buildings and houses, with depicted subjects including scenes from classical stories, gods in combat and geometric patterns. Mosaics could be made in frames in workshops and affixed in place at a later time, or created by artisans on the spot. Many ancient mosaics were discovered by Australian service personnel during their time in Sinai and Palestine, and many were the subject of quasi-archaeological investigations or even destruction by troops. With some exceptions, these excavations where not sanctioned by the military authorities, nor where they legal until Ottoman law.

Nails and mosaic tesserae, said to be collected from Sinai, Palestine, collected by L.W. Page. © Queensland Museum, Peter Waddington.

Colonel Croll  

Colonel Dr David Gifford Croll CBE VD MID MB was born on 14 November 1885 in Glasgow, Scotland and emigrated to Australia after about 1900. Here he studied Medicine at Sydney University before moving to Brisbane to take up a post at the Brisbane General Hospital. Here he met and married Marian Winifred Payne, a nurse, in 1912. Croll enlisted in the AIF in October 1914 and was commissioned as a Major, responsible for raising the 2nf Light Horse Field Ambulance which he would later command. Marian Croll also served in Egypt during the war as a nurse, and part of her uniform is held by the Queensland Museum and is on display in the ANZAC Legacy Gallery. The Crolls undertook sightseeing trips together in Egypt, before David was sent to Gallipoli where he was in charge of Dressing Stations and Hospitals on the peninsular and at Malta. After the Gallipoli campaign, Croll went on to be the founding officer in charge of the Australian Camel Field Ambulance, and then the Assistant Director of Medical Service for the entire ANZAC Mounted Division during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign.

In the “ruins of Ashdod”, Croll came across a pendant, a small green-glazed figure depicted in profile, possibly wearing clothing and a large headdress in late 1917. The thread-hole for suspension is at the very top of pendant. This image may represent a Philistine Warrior, or a cultural group known as the ‘Sea People’. Croll also collected many coins, fossils, and stone artefacts. A note with donation may suggest the stone artefacts were collected from the “Egypt, outside Cairo” or from the Amman Plateau, Palestine, east of Jordan”.

Items collected by Croll, while in Jordan. © Queensland Museum, Peter Waddington.

Major Bourne  

George Herbert Bourne was born in Brisbane in 1881 and educated at the Brisbane Grammar School. He was working as a Bank Manager when in 1914 he enlisted in the AIF as a Major with the 2nd Light Horse Regiment, the same unit as both LW Page, and G de Tournouer (above). Bourne served in Egypt and on the Gallipoli peninsular, before taking part in the Sinai and Palestine campaign.

Bourne collected a poster illustration of the Shellal mosaic, which was a decorated floor of a sixth century AD church, created under the reign of the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian. The mosaic was re-discovered by Australian troops in the First World War in April 1917, while establishing a helio (light signalling) station on the site. The mosaic was excavated and the majority removed to the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, but prior to this, an illustration was made in situ. It remains the subject of considerable controversy around its excavation, removal and display.

Illustration of the Shellal Mosaic, collected by Bourne, during service in the Middle East. © Queensland Museum, Peter Waddington.

This research is supported by a grant from the Federal Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

A in depth account of the personal stories and collecting being uncovered in The First World War Antiquities Project awaits you here and here.

Please contact the RD Milns Museum about antiquities of interest to the project: Mr James Donaldson, Manager/Curator, RD Milns Antiquities Museum, School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry or 07 3365 7490.