In 1943, Lieutenant-Colonel Mortimer Wheeler was in Libya with the Eighth Army and wrote that it was ‘urgent’ to ‘put the War Office to work’. He was not complaining about the military campaign in North Africa. Wheeler was the Keeper of the London Museum and the Director of the Institute of Archaeology. The war was important to him, but the state of ancient monuments even more so (WO 32/10157).
On his advice, Second-Lieutenant Ward-Perkins, once his assistant at the London Museum, was seconded from regimental duty to take over the protection of the ancient monuments in Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, in the north of Libya. This area was occupied by the Allies, who had evicted the Italians in late 1942 (WO 208/2818).
The protection of archaeological sites and antiquities had always been on the mind of British military personnel, but in Libya their reputation was also at stake.
Frederick Kenyon, of the British Academy, thought it was necessary to publicise British interest in archaeology ‘to forestall enemy slander’. After General Wavell’s retreat from Cyrenaica in 1941, the Italians had made ‘great propaganda use of the damage done to their ancient monuments’ (WO 32/10157). In fact, they had even published a pamphlet ‘in which they purported to enumerate the acts of vandalism perpetrated by [British] troops during our three months’ occupation of the territory’. Under the very clear title ‘What the British have done in Cyrenaica, 1941’, the pamphlet listed all sorts of degradations, from graffiti on the walls to the destruction of statues, especially in Cyrene, an ancient Greek and Roman city (FO 141/963). Continue reading »