Colonel Stewart Francis Newcombe was already a legend in the deserts of Arabia before he was joined in Cairo during the early months of the First World War by a group of extraordinary specialists in Middle Eastern affairs. One member of this group was T.E. Lawrence who went on to achieve worldwide fame. Colonel Newcombe's story, like those of other unsung figures in the Anglo-Arabian panoply, has been eclipsed by the legend of ´Lawrence of Arabia´, and has languished in the dusty recesses of regimental records, government files or in the elliptical words of Lawrence’s book Seven Pillars of Wisdom. However, S.F. Newcombe´s untold story is there to be told. IN THE SHADOW OF THE CRESCENT is a story of extraordinary exploits and courage, coupled with Newcombe's own legendary and inexhaustible supply of energy and of remarkable adventures under the very noses of the Ottoman authorities – full of danger, intrigue and perhaps more surprisingly, of romance during Newcombe's captivity in Turkey.

Monday, May 13, 2019

A ten shot discovery

Maynard Owen Williams paid a second and equally memorable visit to the ancient Hittite site at Carchemish (see my previous article dated 02 May 2019) on the day when the excavators struck a rich find.

As the excavations progressed and 3000-year-old Hittite remains began to reveal themselves the great game of rewarding the fellows by allowing them to announce new discoveries by firing off their pistol was abandoned and a more ritualised format was devised. The site headman, Hamoudi, his title in this role being the chawish, was given the prerogative to fire his revolver as a signal to the archaeologists and the far-flung teams to down picks and join in with the celebrations, but first he had to judge the quality of the find - one shot for a fair-sized fragment of basalt rising to seven or eight for a complete slab with figures and inscriptions, and so on. In time, the men were vying with each other for the most cartridges expended for their discoveries and would complain to Hamoudi: “Oh, but six shots, ya chawish, six shots: was it not five for the chariot yonder? And here there are three sons of Adam; by God, they deserve two rounds apiece.” This practice acted as baksheesh to the finder, valued just as much as any monetary reward that was added to their wages, and encouraged the men to aspire to the honour of being able to say, “That is the stone of Yasin Hussein for which he had eight shots.” In this way, the find not only benefited the finder, but also his immediate team which typically comprised four men – a pick-man, a shoveller and two basket-men. They were each paid a proportionate bonus. To many believers it also paid homage to the stone and to the good fortune that put it in their path.

One day in October 1913 the excavators struck a rich find. Working beyond the King’s Gate the men found a return buttress that was only 6 inches away from the limit of their excavations the previous season. This new direction led them to discover enormous decorative slabs of basalt and white limestone depicting drums and trumpets heralding a seated goddess followed by 15 servants carrying percussion instruments and mirrors. Then more slabs showing men carrying gazelles on their shoulders until a break which revealed a door flanked by huge panels of Hittite inscriptions. Lawrence called it a great find, “the greatest we have ever made.”

If patience was the archaeologist’s most important virtue then theirs had paid off. Campbell Thompson recalled how week after week of digging would reveal nothing; “a weary and indefinite time of waiting” he called it. And then... “on a sudden the most glorious treasures will be revealed, tasking your time from dawn to sunset.” Having been drawn into the seductive world of the archaeologist, Maynard Williams had returned in time to bear witness to this momentous occasion. “I was at Carchemish on the day the greatest Hittite find ever unearthed was revealed to the eye of man for the first time in three thousand years. I have never had a more exciting time in my life.”

It was hoped that their patience and efforts might reveal something of real significance – perhaps a find as rewarding as a Hittite version of the Rosetta Stone from which they could decipher the lost language of the Hittites. Williams describes the moment the find was revealed to the team: 

"When the enthusiastic labourers had carefully uncovered the precious dolerite slab, and the overseer, bending over it like some near-sighted Silas Marner caressing his gold, had discovered that it bore the longest Hittite inscription ever found, ten shots from a big Colt revolver, fired as a baksheesh to the stone, echoed and re-echoed across the Euphrates, and workmen and directors knew that a big find had been made. Pandemonium was let loose. Labourers came running from all directions to share the joy of discovery. I also shared in that joy. I shouted congratulations to Khalil, the giant pickman. “Praise be to God!” I cried. He grinned so I could see all his teeth, and answered, “God’s blessing return to you!”   

The find was important but it was not the key to the language they were hoping for. The answer to this particular mystery would come just two years later in 1915 when a Czech Orientalist and cryptographer named Bedřich (Frederich) Hrozný was conscripted into the Austrian Army as a clerk and in the midst of war found he had plenty of time to study a set of tablets he had the foresight to copy in Istanbul before war commenced. Recognising the single Babylonian sign for bread set him on the path of unlocking the ancient riddle. With knowledge, perseverance and a few lucky assumptions he was able to decipher just one sentence, but it was enough. It read: “Now you will eat bread and drink water.”

It was not until 1919 that Woolley was able to return to their old site on the banks of the Euphrates which was now in an area of post-Ottoman Syria controlled by French forces. Despite enquiries to Frederic Kenyon, the Director of the British Museum, Lawrence found it impossible to return to his old life. In fact, his immense fame would prohibit him from ever being able to continue with his archaeological career in a post-Versailles world riddled with a suspicion of king-makers. “Woe’s me,” he once wrote, “I suppose I’ll never dig anything again.”