One of the gems within the Wellcome Library’s Moving Image & Sound Collection is the footage taken on Wellcome's second expedition to the Sudan at Gebel Moya. The expedition was well documented at the time and many related papers are held within the Wellcome Library's Archives and Manuscripts department. In fact revisiting these documents turned out to be a forensic exercise in detection.
Wellcome and his archive
Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853-1936), American by birth, entrepreneur, wealthy philanthropist and archaeologist, resourced his expeditions with care, engaging the best men for the job. The craft of cinematic production was very much in its infancy but all three Sudanese expeditions (1911-12, 1912-13 and 1913-14), engaged a stills photographer. On the first expedition this was R. C. Ryan, the second and third were attended by two: A. G. Barrett and C. H. Horton. No mention of the cinematic material was made in the published findings of the expedition, Frank Addison's The Wellcome excavations in the Sudan, which post-deceased HSW by 15 years.
The archives reveal the extent of the completed cinematic films to be:
- Set A 14 tins of original film labelled A-H Barrett, 1-6 Ryan
- Set B 14 tins of duplicate positive film labelled as above
- Set C 15 tins labelled original positive film
Care was taken in the preservation and storage of this material; in total there were 9823 feet shot by Barrett and an unspecified amount by Ryan. A document dated 8th March 1921 notes that:
On reaching Dartford the matter upon each label should be written by hand in permanent paint upon the tins themselves, so that there may be no doubt as to the contents or likelihood of the labels becoming detached.
The sets above marked A. and C. which are respectively, the original negative film and the original set of selected positives made under Mr. Barrett’s direction, may be stored together in one fire-proof and dry chamber … It has cost over £100 to produce, and it is obvious from this expenditure would not be justified unless it was stored separately from the other film and at such a distance that there could be no possibility if the same accident by fire, water or other cause, happening to both at the same time.
When there was work available, he worked for Wellcome from 1912-1916 after which he joined the Royal Naval Air Service. He was then re-engaged in 1925. In the archive there are numerous letters sent by Barrett to the organisation whilst he was an employee, one of which was a request to HSW to personally recommend him in his application to be a member of the Royal Photographic Society for his photographic work at Gebel Moya – this was duly carried out.
Barrett achieved recognition for his invention of the kite camera to capture aerial photography over the excavations – as can be seen, it looks to be both ingenious and a somewhat Heath Robinson affair.
A private screening which appears to have been solely for Wellcome and a few colleagues was organised at the Royal Society of Medicine which had a licence to screen nitrate film. Although the footage captured at Gebel Moya is shot-listed in detail, there’s no information about the creation of intertitles or a narrative structure so it seems possible that the sequences were an edited compilation of material with no narrative or chronology. The lack of an ‘official’ film which could be recognised as a creative piece of work with a unifying artistic integrity led directly to the demise of much of the material later on.
As part of their work to secure the legacy of Wellcome, the Trustees of Sir Henry Wellcome commissioned an inspection of the Jebel Moya films 17 years after they were last viewed and some 26 years after they were created. In a letter dated 8th July 1938 it was observed:
Tin No. 31, a positive of some 500 feet seems to be totally ruined while a few rolls in other tins show signs of starting disintegration. The store room seems to lack ventilation while I understand that it gets over hot when the boilers are in use. Moreover the life of film is estimated to be about 25 years. ...
In 1955, a short sequence from the Gebel Moya footage which was transferred with a sepia tone was inserted into the Wellcome Foundation Film The Story of the Wellcome Foundation (1955) between 00:21:12:13 and 00:25:14:17. In the late 1960s, the Wellcome Trust’s stores were searched for nitrate material - no doubt largely as a result of insurance premiums. The remaining nitrate material was transferred to 35mm safety film and the originals were destroyed. These days even shrunk and damaged material can be scanned frame-by-frame. In the 1970s/80s, the remaining scenes were made into a ¾” Umatic and library access was via this material which was also on VHS. In the 1990s the material also features on a library compilation on Laser Disk which was screened on a television monitor outside the library.
By 2006, four cans of 35mm negative survived (some material is duplicated) and one 10 minute 35mm negative compilation master was discovered to be acetic (effected by vinegar syndrome). All the material is now digitised to tape and file based media. The acetic material is duped to polyester film. The film material should last 100+ years in the correct environmental conditions. The digital files are held within the Wellcome Library’s digital asset management system – they will be digitally migrated when required. All the digital material is backed up and mirrored on two sites.
It’s been an illuminating experience exploring the archive material about the excavations in the Sudan. One of my starting points in the research was the Wellcome Library catalogue which I used to unearth all the various official and unofficial documentation about the excavations (the latter proving the most interesting). The library has an institutional membership of the online resource Ancestry, which proved invaluable in finding out more about Barrett, the photographer.
One of the legacies of the expedition is the quality of the remaining footage shot by Barrett which I believe has a great appeal to a contemporary audience. It captures so wonderfully the scale of the works and the interaction between the workers. Barrett had a good eye - the depth of field in the material is excellent and the material was shot in very challenging conditions in the heat and the dust. Henry Wellcome would have been very cross indeed to discover that only a small part of this cinematic record remains.