As I very often tell my friends and colleagues, not all archaeologists are spies. I promise. I must recognise, however, that archaeology provides an almost perfect cover for a bit of spying on the sly. Archaeologists are experts on local culture, they know the terrain well, they speak the language of the region they excavate, and they’re good at codes – trust me, if you can decipher cursive hieroglyphs and cuneiform inscriptions, you can crack any code.
Archaeology in the Middle East had always been a question of prestige mixed with geopolitical issues. In 1906, Sir Nicholas O’Connor, the British Ambassador in Constantinople, saw the opening of a German Vice-Consulate in Mosul, for the assistance of German diggers nearby, as an ‘unmistakable symptom of the increasing interest of Germany in these regions’. Similarly, in 1912, the British Resident in Bagdad, John G. Lorimer, urged the India Office to send archaeologists to Mesopotamia.
Since archaeologists are, quite frankly, historical, cultural peeping Toms, is it that surprising that archaeology and intelligence had such close links during the First World War?
The most famous, popular British archaeologist-spies undoubtedly are Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, and Gertrude Bell.