American-born pharmaceutical baron Henry Wellcome (1853-1936) had a magnificent moustache. But his vigorous facial follicles weren't the only talent up his metaphorical sleeve. His philanthropic legacy looms large in London today, particularly in Bloomsbury. The Wellcome Collection on Euston Road has exhibited his acquisitions since it opened in 1932. Its precursor, the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum on Wigmore Street, takes Wellcome’s history of formal display to 1913.
Read any of the biographies of Wellcome and histories of the Wellcome Trust and you will find that the web of his interests and connections stretches across the globe. In this post I’ll be exploring one aspect of this interest – archaeology. More specifically, Henry Wellcome’s involvement in archaeology in Sudan.
Jebel Moya (or Gebel Moya) was the archaeological site Wellcome eventually excavated – he was convinced that it had potential to shed light on the origins of human civilisation. Located over a hundred miles south of Khartoum, Moya lies in the hills and valleys of the Gezira region, between the Blue Nile and the White Nile. In the Condominium period, Sudan’s Government Railway network was expanding rapidly. The railway line south from Khartoum followed the Blue Nile to Sennar then crossed the Gezira to link to the White Nile at Kosti. The journey to Jebel Moya railway station from Khartoum took less than a day, and Wellcome’s excavations were just under two miles from the station’s platform.
The formal publication of the Wellcome’s excavations suggests that a Sudanese man, Mek Omar, indicated the fruitfulness of Jebel Moya as an archaeological site. The work was conducted for the first season (1911) at Wellcome’s own personal risk and without a formal permit (although the Governor General of Sudan, Sir Francis Reginald Wingate, had granted Wellcome permission to start digging). As studies of Wellcome’s work have noted, the excavations were partly conceived as a philanthropic exercise to boost employment opportunities for locals and introduce them to the Western way of life.
This offer apparently proved popular – Wellcome employed thousands of labourers to dig over the four seasons he spent at Jebel Moya and other sites. In addition to this large workforce, he had a staff of between 17 and 22 “European” men, including archaeologists, anthropologists, engineers, physicians, photographers, surveyors and geologists as well as a cook and a valet. In charge of operations was a “Camp Commandant” (military tone intended). Wellcome employed not only locals from the surrounding villages, but also Egyptians and men from other African ethnic groups who worked in a specially designated “Africa Trench”.
Europeans and Africans were housed separately – in tents and grass huts respectively. Despite this segregation, in his memoir, British archaeologist O. G. S. Crawford, who worked for Wellcome during the final Jebel Moya season in 1914, gave an interesting insight into the social life of the dig. He recalled attending the Friday night parties (called fantasias) held by the Egyptian labourers and regretted not joining other colleagues to sneak down to the village near the site for the even more exotic Sudanese fantasias.
During the seasons’ work, much of what was being excavated were graves – nearly 3,000 of them in total. The final distribution of materials resulting from the excavations at Moya shows that they ended up in a variety of locations, including museums in Khartoum; Oxford; Cambridge; Boston, Mass.;, Toronto, Canada; and Nairobi, Kenya.
Meroe has been in the news of late – the magnificent “Head of Augustus” excavated during Garstang’s 1910/1911 season is now the subject of a free exhibition at the British Museum, where it has resided since 1911. Sudan has changed dramatically in the decades following its independence in 1955 – in the last ten years ravaged by brutal conflict in Darfur and, since 2011, divided into two nations. The Jebel Moya excavations live on, however, in archive film footage that brings Henry Wellcome and the people of pre-war Sudan back from the dead in fascinating, flickering black and white.
Addison, F. 1949. Preface and Introduction. The Wellcome Excavations in the Sudan: Volume One Jebel Moya (Text). London: Oxford University Press.
Baedeker, K. 1914. Egypt and the Sudan: Handbook for Travellers. Leipzig: Karl Baedeker, Publisher.
Crawford, O. G. S. 1955. Said and Done: The Autobiography of an Archaeologist. London: Phoenix Press.
Daly, M. 2003. Empire on the Nile: the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, 1898-1934. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Evans-Pritchard, B. and Polese, V. 2012. The Trail Guide to North and South Sudan (2nd ed.). City Trail Publishing Ltd.
Hall, A. R. and Bembridge, B. A. 1986. Physic and Philanthropy: A history of the Wellcome Trust 1936-1986. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
A Handbook to the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum (London, 1920)
Larson, F. 2009. An Infinity of Things: How Sir Henry Wellcome Collected the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.