S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Bent, Mr James Theodore (archaeology)

Born: 30 March 1852, Baildon, Yorkshire, United Kingdom.
Died: 5 May 1897, London, United Kingdom.

J. Theodore Bent, son of James Bent and his wife Margaret Eleanor Lambert, was a British traveller and antiquary of independent means. He studied at Wadham College, Oxford, and at the Modern History School, and was awarded the degree Bachelor of Arts (BA) in 1875. Two years later he married Mabel Virginia Anna Hall-Dare. From that time they travelled extensively, to the Republic of San Marino (1877-1878), Italy (1879-1880), and Greece (1885-1887). He did some excavations in Greece and published articles in archaeological and anthropological journals. After a visit to Asia Minor (Turkey) in 1888-1889 he published numerous ancient inscriptions. He was a fellow of both the Royal Geographical Society and the Society of Antiquaries.

In 1891 the British South Africa Company, which had occupied Mashonaland (now part of Zimbabwe) the year before, sponsored the first investigation of Great Zimbabwe (first described by Karl Mauch*), with the support of the Royal Geographical Society and the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Bent was chosen for the work and became the first person to examine Great Zimbabwe and other ruins in some detail. He was accompanied by R.M.W. Swan*, who made detailed measurements of the ruins, and by his wife, who was a skilled photographer. Bent excavated at Great Zimbabwe and made a considerable collection of soapstone carvings, pottery, and bronze and iron artifacts. This collection was donated to the South African Museum, Cape Town, by the British South Africa Company in 1893. Though Bent was criticised for damaging the site and removing the best soapstone bird carvings, his preservation and description of the artefacts proved of great value, as the site was later pillaged.

He described his expedition and findings in The ruined cities of Mashonaland (London, 1892) and in several articles. The book, which partly based on his wife's journals and included many of her illustrations, was enthusiastically received. For the time his work was systematic and considered to be of an acceptable standard, but both his methods and conclusions were criticised by professional archaeologists and other scholars. He was convinced, on the basis of selected evidence of doubtful value, that the ruins pre-dated the African occupation of the country and were built three or four thousand years ago by a civilisation related to the Phoenicians. This conclusion, which was widely expected and therefore readily accepted at the time, was eventually disproved and the indigenous African nature of the ruins recognized by the excavations of J.R. MacIver* in 1905. Bent also concluded that the builders of Great Zimbabwe had used a fixed unit of lenghth in laying out the site, namely a cubit of 523 mm. However, later measurements by F.P. Mennell* and others did not support this hypothesis either.

On his way back to the coast Bent visited rock paintings of animals and hunters at Mutoko, in north-eastern Zimbabwe, and made some sketches. His brief description of the paintings in his book is recognised as the first published description of Zimbabwean rock art (Garlake, 1993).

Bent's articles relating to his expedition to southern Africa included one on "The geography of the Zimbabwe Ruins in Mashonaland", in the Journal of the Manchester Geographical Society (1891), which dealt with possible early references to the ruins in the historical literature. Another on "The ruins of Mashonaland and explorations in the country", in the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society (1892), dealt with their ancient and recent exploration. He also published a review of descriptions of the Mashonaland ruins by recent visiters in The nineteenth century (1893) and an article on "The tribes of Mashonaland and their origin" in the Scottish Geographical Magazine (1892). "On the finds at the Great Zimbabwe Ruins" (Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 1893) represents his attempt to elucidate the origins of the builders. Mabel Bent recorded much ethnological information relating to the native inhabitants of Mashonaland, but although Theodore stressed her contributions in his writings she received little credit in the male-dominated society of the time. Her travel chronicles of their African journeys were eventually published in 2012 (Archaeopress and Gerald Brisch, 2012).

Bent and his wife continued their travels with a visit to Ethiopia in 1893 and seven journeys to the Arabian peninsula up to 1897. Some of these travels were described in "A visit to the northern Sudan" (Geographical Journal, 1896) and "Expedition to the Hadramut" [now Hadramawt, Yemen] (Ibid, 1894). He died in London from pneumonia or malaria in 1897.

List of sources:

Archaeopress and Gerald Brisch. The travel chronicles of Mrs J. Theodore Bent. Volume II: The African journeys. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2012.

Braddock, B.J. Theodore and Mabel Bent: A discussion on the work in Great Zimbabwe of this 19th century couple. Zimbabwean Prehistory, 1999, Vol. 23, pp. 38-44.

Cape of Good Hope. Report of the trustees of the South African Museum, 1893.

Garlake, P.S. Great Zimbabwe. New York: Stein & Day, 1973.

Garlake, P.S. The first eighty years of rock art studies, 1890-1970. Heritage of Zimbabwe, 1993, No. 12, pp. 1-23.

Hubbard, P. A bibliography of Zimbabwean archaeology to 2005, Version 1.0, January 2007. (Electronic document, received from the author).

Illustrated official handbook of the Cape and South Africa. Cape Town: Juta, 1893, pp. 437-438.

Marloth, R. The progress of natural science in relation to South Africa during the last ten years. Transactions of the South African Philosophical Society, 1895, Vol. 8, pp. civ-cxiii.

Mendelssohn, S. South African bibliography. London, 1910.

Oxford dictionary of national biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Standard encyclopaedia of southern Africa. Cape Town: Nasou, 1970.

White, F. The less well known ruins in Rhodesia. Report of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science, 1903, pp. 480-491.

Compiled by: C. Plug