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Wellcome Film of the Month: A day at Gebel Moya, 1912-13

25 Nov, 2011

This film is a compilation of the existing footage from the 82 cans of film that were originally shot at an archaeological site in the Sudan. Sir Henry Wellcome funded the digs by between 1911 and 1914 as part of his research into the origins of civilisation.

The footage comprises of scenes of everyday life, archaeological digging, communal sports and recreational activities at Gebel (or Jebel) Moya. The film demonstrates the scale of the archaeological excavations, amounting to a significant public works project to establish an infrastructure which would support the large indigenous workforce.

This film is the one of the few surviving titles from Sir Henry Wellcome’s time (the film collection has grown exponentially more recently, with films made in the 1920s and 1930s being particularly well represented). In 1933, three years before Sir Henry Wellcome died, a detailed shot list of the Gebel Moya material was created outlining some of footage including Lord Kitchener’s visit and the arrival of the first motor car in the country; this material no longer exists. Two years after Sir Henry’s death, his Trustees requested that the material was re-appraised. Unfortunately by this time the films were demonstrating signs of significant disintegration. In a letter to the board dated 8th July 1938, it is noted that both the typed labels and the titles painted onto the cans, had become illegible making the task of sorting out the footage that much harder. Also, the film cans had been stored in a poorly ventilated room which became overly hot when the boilers were in service. The film had visibly shrunk making it hard to view by projector – the only available means available.

The original film was black and white 35mm nitrate stock – notorious for its instability and combustibility when not kept in optimum conditions. Interestingly, there is evidence that a different collection of 35mm medical films on nitrate film purchased from Cross’s Pictures Ltd at auction in 1928, were stored with this in mind; they were also insured against fire and loss. The fate of the damaged Gebel Moya films and the Cross films were in fact similar: in 1969 the films were checked by a film laboratory and discovered to be very shrunken and un-transferable. There is a rather bland handwritten note on the film file which states “All found in a dangerously explosive condition and destroyed, 1970”.

The surviving roll of film taken at Gebel Moya is entitled “Part Three” – no other parts survive. These 10 minutes of footage offer tantalising glimpses of daily life at the digs, albeit of a highly staged variety. The camera equipment at the time would have been very heavy and cumbersome and the environment, with temperatures fluctuating between 16 to 42 degrees centigrade depending on the season, would have been tough. The establishing shots of the villagers and their livestock are photographic in nature, with simple camera pans. The film contains the only significant moving images of Sir Henry Wellcome, on a bicycle surrounded by Sudanese children, inspecting the excavations and consulting with archaeologists and officials. As there was provision for recreation activities for the workers, a sports event is shown. Sir Henry Wellcome cycles towards the camera, with local children running alongside him. He is seen wearing a pith helmet watching the races.

Angela Saward, Wellcome Film

You can learn about the Wellcome Film project here. If you would like to make use of this archive footage in your own projects, please visit the Wellcome Library catalogue to download the original files, which are distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 3.0 UK: England & Wales licence.

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