Following in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia
PUBLISHED: 00:00 12 January 2017
From a Bedouin tent to a Bridlington bunk, a York archaeologist traces the story of an iconic figure
A boy falls in love with history, becomes an archaeologist, is recruited by military intelligence, plays a major role in the Arab uprising against the Turks, returns to the UK to live anonymously in Bridlington and, on his death, is eulogised as one of the greatest Englishmen by Winston Churchill.
The life of Lawrence of Arabia sounds like a fictional tale of derring-do, made all the more fantastic by David Lean’s classic bio-pic released in 1962 (minus the Bridlington years) and cited by the US Library of Congress as a landmark of culture and cinematography.
The movie, which scooped seven Oscars, made a major impact, not least on one seven-year-old girl from York, who set out on a life-long quest to separate fact from fiction.
Young Susan Daniels watched Peter O’Toole’s blue eyes blaze on the big screen as Omar Sharif made his unforgettable major film debut, emerging slowly through a heat mirage. She was transfixed, unable to tear her gaze away from the screen, until, that is, her dad leaned over and casually told her: ‘I served with Lawrence on the same RAF base.’
Leap forward four decades and Susan is an archaeologist, digging in a trench for 90-year-old tobacco tins discarded by Lawrence and his comrades in the Jordanian desert.
As a member of the Great Arab Revolt Project (GARP), bidding to uncover the truth about how the mighty Turkish Ottoman Empire was overthrown by a Bedouin army, she sifted through sand, armed with a shovel and a copy of Lawrence’s own account of the revolt, Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
‘I’d mainly dug Bronze Age and Anglo Saxon sites before, so thinking of things like glass bottles as historic took a mental reboot,’ says Susan.
But soon she was handling them as delicately as priceless pottery: ‘Lawrence was also an archaeologist, so that made me even more keen on him. That’s why he was in the Middle East and why the army put his local knowledge to good use.
‘Of course, what followed is a truly staggering story. A low ranking intelligence officer, who often disobeyed his superiors, became a pro-Arab nationalist and gifted military commander.’
Numerous excavations spanning ten years saw Susan become a finds assistant, then project manager, dealing with Jordan’s Department of Antiquities on behalf of the 28-strong GARP team. Initially, the Jordanians were baffled by the western archaeologists’ interest in such a modern site in this cradle of antiquity.
‘It was hard work,’ says Susan, who now works for Historic England in York helping to preserve Yorkshire’s heritage. ‘The days were long and, although we never dug during the height of summer, it was still hot. There was also the problem of where to dig. The desert is vast and often featureless. So we turned to Seven Pillars of Wisdom for clues.
‘We would stop digging and one of our excavation directors would read aloud a passage in the very place Lawrence was describing. It sent goosebumps down the spine.’
Lawrence first came to the world’s attention by accident. In 1916, an American reporter was tasked with whipping up enthusiasm for the First World War. While interviewing the British military commander in Jerusalem, he heard of Lawrence’s exploits and had pictures taken of him in his Arab robes. The story flashed around the globe and was consumed greedily in war-weary Britain.
After the war, Lawrence was feted by royalty and deemed a hero. But he was tormented by his brutal experience of guerrilla war and what he perceived as the betrayal of the Arab cause by the British and French.
He assumed a new name and escaped the spotlight, working with explorer and writer Gertrude Bell (often described as the female Lawrence of Arabia) to draw up a map of how the Arabic region should be reshaped.
Predictably, the British and French ignored it and carved up the area to suit their own interests, with little account of tribal boundaries.
‘The results of that can still be seen today,’ says Susan. ‘Perhaps they should have listened to Lawrence’s voice of experience.’
By 1934, he was stationed in Bridlington, the last posting of his RAF career, serving under the name of Aircraftman Shaw and working on patrol boats.
‘Bridlington in winter is a silent place,’ he wrote. ‘I prefer it to the bustle of summer because my February-looming discharge from the Air Force makes me low toned. It is like a hermit crab losing his twelve-year-old shell.’
Just months later, he was killed in a tragic motorbike accident in Devon.
Since then, Lawrence’s reputation has seesawed. Portrayed as a complex, sensitive man in David Lean’s film, a critical biography published in the 1950s cast a long shadow, denouncing him as a charlatan and fantasist.
But, for Susan, his story contains more fact than fiction: ‘We found field evidence to support his claims wherever we looked. After a long search, we found a desert camp he used before attacking the Hijaz railway line, littered with spent cartridges and rum bottles. We also dug the site of the deadly attack on a Turkish supply train featured in the film. It confirmed Lawrence’s account in every detail.’
A spent bullet thought to have been fired by Lawrence’s Colt revolver is one of scores of artefacts being displayed for the first time in a new exhibition on Lawrence and the Great Arab Revolt, based on the findings of Susan and her colleagues.
Staged at the National Civil War Centre in Newark until March 31st, it includes first-hand testimony, a recreation of a Bedouin camp, a saddle-bag used by Lawrence to carry gold to Arab chiefs and a section of blown-up railway line.
‘Lawrence may have been an unlikely war hero, but he was a brilliant military strategist and without his help it’s unlikely the Arab army would have defeated the Ottoman Empire, who were a tough enemy,’ says Susan.
‘Going into the desert was a life-changing experience. No one will ever fully understand Lawrence’s complex personality but, having walked in his footsteps, I feel a little closer to him.’
For details of the National Civil War Centre exhibition, visit nationalcivilwarcentre.com