Gertrude Bell – Archaeologist, Arabic Advocate, Queen of the Desert.

This week I wanted to still look way back to the earliest women in the field, back when our field was loosely defined as it was and those who participated had many, many other hats to wear. That’s why I feel Gertrude is an excellent addition to the series. She was an archaeologist focused on biblical archaeology, but she was also a diplomat, King-maker, advocate for the Arabic and Iraq people and specifically for the education of women in those countries.  She was fearless, stubborn, and spectacular. I hope you like her as much as I do.

Gertrude Bell in Iraq, 1909, age 41
Gertrude Bell in Iraq, 1909, age 41

Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell was born 14 July 1868, in Washington Hall, County Durham, England – now known as Dame Margaret Hall [1]. The wealth and influence of her family made her travel and lifestyle possible, but it also seemed to impress upon her a sense of duty. Her mother Mary Sheild Bell, passes away when Gertrude was 3, but at the age of 7 her father remarried a woman named Florence Bell, who seems to have been a great influence on Gertrude, being credited for her independent ideals and belief in the education of women [2]. 

Gertrude was educated at Queen’s College in London and then later at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University. She received  a first class honours degree in two years in modern history [2]. Not long after graduating she began her travels, starting with a trip to Persia with her Uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles, in 1892. She wrote about her travels in her first book, Persian Pictures [3].

Gertrude Bell is best known for her political work, her work in the middle east during World War I, and her love of the Arab people. There are literally volumes of work out there on these, very large, aspects of her life. I really don’t want to take away from how incredibility important her influence and work was, but I do want to focus on her work as an early female archaeologist. Which I found is much easier said than done.

In March of 1907, Bell journeyed to the Ottoman Empire to work with the archaeologist Sir William M. Ramsey [4].  Ramsey was a  a Scottish archaeologist and New Testament scholar who became the foremost scholar of Asia Minor in his day [4]. Although a book was written about their work together, The Thousand and One Churches, little is available to the lay person about their work.

Not long after this Gertrude traveled Mesopotamia in 1909 [4]. She studied the Hittite city of Carchemish and mapped the ruin of Ukhaidir. She consulted with the two archaeologists on site, C. L. Woolley and T. E. Lawrence [4]. Not long after, the war broke out and her attentions were drawn elsewhere.

I picked Gertrude to be the second woman in my series for two reasons, one being chorological order, and the other is that she seems like such a vibrant, willful, and adventurous woman. Like most independent women of her time, she never married in order to preserve her personal freedom. However, she was very much against women’s right to vote. She was fiercely intelligent and advocated for the education of Arab women. She is even credited with influence the selection of the first king of Iraq. She is such a powerful figure that once I started reading up on her, I couldn’t stop.

I know this article was a little light on actual archaeology, but I think Gertrude is an excellent addition to the series. I encourage you to continue to look into her and see just what a single woman can do.


[1] 1996 Wallach, Janet.

Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1996, p. 6

[2] 2000 O’Brien, Rosemary, ed.

Gertrude Bell: The Arabian Diaries, 1913-1914. USA: Syracuse University Press, 2000. Print.

[3] “Gertrude Bell and the Birth of Iraq”. 2011-11-15. Retrieved 2011-12-06. Accessed 1/11/12

[4] 2010 Wikipedia

Gertrude Bell. Accessed 1/11/12

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