The story of Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) – archaeologist, explorer, spy, British political powerhouse, and the uncrowned ‘Queen of the Desert’ – requires no Hollywoodisation, and this film lends almost none. In a bold approach, directors Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum rely on the photographs and writings of Bell herself, alongside contemporary film footage and correspondence, to tell the remarkable tale of a pioneering woman who went from the Thames to the Euphrates and became, through her own determination, possibly the most influential woman in the British Empire in her era.
Bell’s writing is lyrical and informative, and the curated archival material – culled from more than 1,600 letters by Bell, thousands of photographs, and some 500 hours of film, much of it rescued from obscurity and digitised for the first time – is transformative. The documentary feels like an avalanche from the library, a tactile and immersive experience across the mythologised sandscapes of Mesopotamia.
Unfortunately for CWA readers, the strength of the film’s narrative – Bell’s growing political influence despite her constant fight against sexism – often comes at the expense of her archaeological scholastic achievements. The ancient Middle East was no fleeting fascination for Bell, part of the whirlwind of first loves in the region, nor simply a hobby to turn to following the dwindling of her political role. Bell threw herself at her archaeological work all through her life, and the weight of her publications and photographs is still felt across the discipline. For example, though Bell’s interest in the site of Ukhaidir (central Iraq) is mentioned once, as if part of a traveller’s scrapbook, she actually systematically recorded it and spent two years collecting comparative evidence in Rome and elsewhere in Mesopotamia
Nevertheless, the film is intriguing, left rough with contrasting accounts and unequal emphases, as history should be in some respects.
Touch Press Inc, $6.99
Requires iOS 8.4 or later
Compatible with iPad
This masterful iPad app will make you want to grab the sunscreen and immediately travel to Egypt. Stunning computer models of the monuments of the Giza Plateau and 40 of the country’s most precious artefacts – the outcome of thousands of high-resolution photographs mapped onto accurate 3D surfaces – allow the fast-fingered to hover over the sacred desert, flip King Tut’s shining mask, and enter tombs and the publicly inaccessible passageways of the world’s most famous pyramids. The entire interface is easy to navigate and smooth, even for those who aren’t tech savvy; and archaeologically accurate guides, both audio and text, complement the brilliant design with plenty of fascinating academic detail.
Senet Mobile UK, £1.99
Requires iOS 9.0 or later
Compatible with iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch
A unique guide to worldwide megalithic sites, this app draws from an ever-increasing database of some 50,000 sites and entries submitted by contributors to the Megalithic Portal web resource. Searchable by various criteria – including site type, location, and preservation – the app pairs site images with other features useful when exploring out in the field, such as a compass and live weather updates. Still in its formative stages, the app is bare bones and a bit clunky at times. It is also, owing to the crowd-sourced nature of its entries, not verifiable in terms of archaeological accuracy. But, at £1.99, it is reasonably priced and potentially useful.
REVIEWS: Nicholas Bartos