James Theodore Bent
Theodore Bent’s account of the Cyclades, island by island, is such a valuable source of information about their people, customs and beliefs, that no later writer or traveller can afford to ignore it. Bent was only 29 when he visited the islands for the first time in 1882; his wife and travelling companion, Mabel, was six years older. In the 1880s the Greek islands were only just beginning to emerge from the poverty and subjugation of the tourkokratia, and their often primitive quality of life was at its greatest antithesis to the prosperity of the bourgeois London which the Bents inhabited. But it is that fact which makes their visiting of these (then) remote places so courageous, and Bent’s writings about them so ground-breaking. Our debt is twofold: first for the meticulous attention he paid to the diversity of costume, song and dance and to the wayward customs and superstitions of the islanders, which many a lesser soul would not have thought worthy of note; second for his practical examination, through excavation, of a prehistoric Cycladic culture which thitherto was unknown. One of Bent’s best qualities is that he doesn’t see him self as a great ‘explorer’ or archaeologist or a pillar of the academic world: he is entirely free of the self obsession which mars the writings of Schliemann and spoils their greatness with ambiguities and, on occasion, falsehoods. Bent had no pretence greater than the unaffected pleasure he takes in the eccentricities of his island hosts and the genuine interest he has in the origins of their island culture. He enjoys the wide Cycladic landscapes, relishes the odour of antiquity he finds everywhere, and is able to be self ironic about the dreariness of his ‘sexton-like kind of life’ as he opens successions of prehistoric graves. At times impatience and irritation can get the better of him: such moments were inevitable—especially for someone sleeping on sodden mattresses under leaking roofs in a gelid December, as he and Mabel did in Naxos . Whereas another writer would not have expressed the impatience, the fact that Bent does is a measure of the un-selfregarding honesty of his ac count.
Commenting on his excavations on Antiparos— about whose importance he is remarkably unassuming—Bent said that he was ‘convinced that a further study of this subject under a more vigorous [?rigor ous] system of excavation than I was able to bestow on it would result in many interesting facts becoming known about this primitive race of mankind’. He was quite right; but he was too curious and too restless a soul to continue digging doggedly him self in the Cycladic Islands. Africa and Arabia beckoned. 1889 finds the Bents in the Persian Gulf; 1891 in South and East Africa; 1893 in Ethiopia. In 1897 Bent returned from Arabia with a malarial fever; he contracted pneumonia and died in May of that year at the age of 45.