Gertrude Bell's Theodelite: The British Traveller, Archaeologist and Spy Used This Surveying Tool to Draw Up the Borders of Modern-Day Iraq

Geographical, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Gertrude Bell's Theodelite: The British Traveller, Archaeologist and Spy Used This Surveying Tool to Draw Up the Borders of Modern-Day Iraq


Born into a wealthy industrialist family in County Durham in 1868, Gertrude Lowthian Bell was educated at the University of Oxford at a time when women seldom attended university. She became the first woman to read history there, leaving in 1888 with a first-class honours degree, which set the precedent for her life as a pioneering female in a male-dominated society.

Bell acquired a taste for travel during a visit to her diplomat uncle in Persia (modem-day Iran). She shunned Victorian conventions and the privileges of polite society to spend her 20s on around-the-world trips and mountaineering expeditions in the Alps. Her love for the Arab world stemmed from a visit to Jerusalem at the turn of the century. She spent the years before the First World War criss-crossing the Arabian Desert, trekking to archaeological sites, making maps and gaining the trust of tribal leaders--at that time, a real adventure for a Western man, let alone a woman.

In 1913, Bell was awarded the Royal Geographical Society's Gill Memorial Award for 'her many years' work in exploring the geography and archaeology of Syria, Mesopotamia, and other parts of Asiatic Turkey'. (She would later be awarded the Founder's Medal for her work in the Middle East.) Earl Curzon of Keddleston, the then president of the RGS, paid tribute to Bell, saying: 'This is the first occasion on which we have made an award to a lady Fellow ... For many years we have been familiar with her travels and most admirable writings, and I feel we are honouring ourselves rather than her in asking her to accept this award.' It's believed that Bell specifically asked for this three-inch brass-and-glass theodolite, a vital tool for surveying and mapmaking, as her prize. …

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