…but a lot of them were! A wonderful recent post on the British National Archives blog by Dr. Juliette Desplat highlights two famous archaeologists who were, indeed, spies. Digging for King and Country discusses how Gertrude Bell and T. E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, became spies for the British Crown during World War I. Desplat opens with this question: “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?” And it wasn’t just British archaeologists who spied for the Crown. The American Egyptologist James Henry Breasted also spied for the Crown, almost accidentally. Breasted was recruited by the British–Lord Allenby, who had been Lawrence’s commanding officer–to provide advice to the British government on how best to work with, control, and govern the native Arab peoples to whom they had promised so much in return for Arab support during the War. From the earliest days of archaeology in the Middle East, archaeologists made exceptionally good intelligence agents and were expected to report “anything of military interest that they saw.” They had well-established relationships with indigenous peoples because of on-site work; they had insight into the history and cultures of the peoples they encountered; and, most importantly, archaeologists were able to travel discreetly as scientists while gathering sensitive information for the government. The intelligence work archaeologists did from 1914 to the mid-1920s was crucial for the development and stability of British power in the Middle East after the Great War. At the start of the Great War, both British and American intelligence communities were virtually non-existent. There had been certain amounts of spying going on from before Elizabethan times in Britain, and since the Revolutionary War in America, but by the turn of the 20th century, neither country had organized government agencies to perform information gathering for military purposes. Usually, each military branch did its own investigations with minimal funding. By 1914, both British and American military worries were about German forces and how to protect against an invasion or all-out war. Because of this, much of the literature about intelligence communities during the early 20th century center on the work done in Europe by the early British Intelligence Bureau, a precursor to MI5, and the American “Inquiry” project, a precursor to both the FBI and the CIA. Compared to the American efforts during the Great War, the British efforts were quite sophisticated. They had various groups that gathered basic intelligence, such as population demographics, geographical terrain, materiel information, and relations among foreign powers; they also had counterintelligence goals and spy-rings in place in Germany. The American “Inquiry” project, as Woodrow Wilson termed it, gathered and reported on basic intelligence information about European as well as Asian, African, and Middle Eastern areas. The goal of Inquiry was to learn as many details as they could, to document the desires of various treaties, and to “identify possible arrangements that might be proposed to settle conflicting claims.” A formidable task, to be sure, but Wilson’s distaste of secret spying meant that Inquiry’s information and therefore influence was limited. Furthermore, focusing on Europe meant that neither government had much reliable information about the peoples they would have to work with in the Middle East and North Africa. In order to quickly and accurately gather this information, the British Intelligence Bureau and the British War Office relied on the people who knew the most about these areas, culturally as well as historically, so they called on archaeologists.
When he arrived in Egypt to begin this work in August of 1919, Breasted was based in Cairo, where tourists had not yet been able to gain access due to the fact that, according to Breasted, Wilson’s “so-called peace had hardly penetrated the Near East.” By this time, Breasted was famous in intellectual circles for his main popular work, Ancient Times, as well as his many scholarly publications. When David Hogarth, (who was still an intelligence officer) introduced Breasted to the newly-appointed High Commissioner for Egypt and the Sudan, General Edmund Allenby, Allenby immediately took him into his confidences. Breasted was a constant guest at the British residency in Cairo during that season and after, and the two formed a close friendship. Breasted took the Allenbys on tours of the Giza plateau, Saqqara, and the Cairo Museum; and throughout, Allenby openly shared his diplomatic concerns for Britain in the Middle East. According to Breasted, Allenby showed him documents marked Top Secret, trusting Breasted to be discreet. As much of the evidence of these meetings comes from Breasted’s letters home to his family during this period, we do not know about the contents of these documents. We do know, however, that a considerable amount of Breasted’s work that year, funded on the whole by Rockefeller, focused on gathering intelligence for Allenby and Prime Minister David Lloyd George. From February to June of 1920, Breasted made a reconnaissance journey for his epigraphic survey project from Cairo to Bombay, and back to Cairo returning via a road journey through Mesopotamia, including Basra, Baghdad, Fallujah, Mosul, Aleppo, Damascus and Beirut.
Instead of relying on his letters to provide daily details to his family as he usually did, Breasted had kept a journal of this part of the trip, and tried to send it to his wife, but he feared that the journal was confiscated by the French censors. This may be true, as details of this journey are scanty. What is clear is that during this time, Breasted planned to visit various ancient sites, museums, and archaeological projects, but he also ended up doing certain diplomatic duties for many of the local leaders. Once Breasted arrived in Jerusalem, his final stop before returning to Cairo, he was swept into numerous meetings with the highest British Intelligence officials in the area, including the Major-General Sir Louis Bols. Breasted wrote to his wife on June 5th: “At luncheon I had to tell much of my experiences on the overland trip. They were all talking of King Feisal’s absence in Paris, and were quite incredulous when I told them I had dined with him in Damascus only three days before. I can’t begin to recount the conversation, but it was a very diverting game for me.” The English were anxious about Feisal’s allegiance to them, and that Breasted told Bols “…that the sheikhs [he] had talked with showed little enthusiasm for Feisal.” He continued, explaining to his wife that he thought “It was a very curious thing that Sheikh Ramadhan [one of Feisal’s powerful supporters] handed me, an American stranger, a confidential letter to be delivered in Aleppo, while only an hour or two before me…an official of Feisal’s government had passed by the Sheikh’s tents on his way to Aleppo.” Less than a week later on June 10th, he wrote, “The plot thickens!…Sheikh Ramadhan’s letter, which he cunningly set the stage for me to carry, was evidently for the French! …He is working against Feisal’s interests again, and made me his messenger to the French without my knowing it!” Breasted was an accidental British spy, caught up in aiding Feisal’s opposition and—much more to his dismay—the French! Upon his return to Cairo, he updated Allenby on his whole journey. Allenby immediately sent Breasted home, via London, extending his trip by two weeks. Allenby commissioned Breasted to meet with Lord Curzon, the Foreign Minister, and Lloyd George in order to update them on the latest situation in Mesopotamia. Breasted expressed his concern over this course of action to Allenby, saying “‘I devoutly hope something [can] be done, for the present policy [is] steering straight for trouble.’ ‘Yes,’ Allenby replied, ‘I think so too, and I have clearly told them so, but they won’t listen to me. Perhaps they’ll take it from you.’” We know that Breasted met with Curzon briefly and told him all he knew, to which Curzon exclaimed: “My God—to think that at such a time His Majesty’s Minister of Foreign Affairs should have been ignorant of the facts you have brought me! …you have given me facts and views of the most critical value. Even if—as I fear—they have reached my Government too late to forestall imminent catastrophe, they will nevertheless fortify us in an eventual modification of our Palestinian policy which circumstances may force upon us.” The British however, passed the Balfour Declaration, setting up the British Mandate in Palestine and supporting a new Jewish homeland, which went quite against what Breasted and others had suggested. Even though not all archaeologists are James Bond, nor are they all Indiana Jones, these stories do help to create that James Bond-Indiana Jones persona. But as both Bond and Jones know, Breasted experienced as well: just because you supply the intelligence doesn’t mean that the government will listen. Further Reading: Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (New York: Allen Lane, 2009) Charles Breasted, Pioneer to the Past: The Story of James Henry Breasted, Archaeologist, Told by his Son, Charles Breasted (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943) John Larson, ed. Letters from James Henry Breasted to His Family, August 1919-July 1920: Letters Home during The Oriental Institute’s First Expedition to the Middle East (Chicago: University of Chicago, Oriental Institute Digital Archives, 2010). G. J. A. O’Toole, Honorable Treachery: A History of US Intelligence, Espionage, and Covert Action from the American Revolution to the CIA (New York: Atlantic Monthly, 1991)