Sunday’s talk at the Essex Egyptology Group meeting was given by Rosalind Janssen and she told us about the life and death of John Devitt Stringfellow Pendlebury. He was an archaeologist in the 1930s who worked in Crete and in Egypt (at Amarna, the site of Akhenaten’s new city). When WWII broke out he joined the British Intelligence Service, and was killed in Crete during the war at the age of 36.
There wasn’t much egyptology in this talk, it was all about Pendlebury the person and the legend. He was a larger than life character whose heroic death during the war added extra glamour to his persona. And you could say he’s the Marmite of egyptological personalities – Janssen mentioned a few times that he’s a hero of hers, but also pointed out that there are other people who regard him as overly flamboyant and romantic in his approach to archaeology.
The first half of the talk covered his biography in general, with a focus on his death in Crete. He was born in 1904 and educated at Winchester and then Cambridge. Despite losing an eye in an accident in early childhood he was also a keen sportsman, and Janssen told us he was an Olympic class athlete and high jumper. He studied classics at Cambridge, and was also interested in Egypt – initially he worked in Crete and never lost his love for the place. He was promoted very young, and during the 1930s (when he was still in his late 20s & early 30s) he was both Curator of Knossos and Director of the Egypt Exploration Society’s excavation at Amarna, at the same time.
When war broke out he signed up with the military and seems to’ve enjoyed being a soldier. Because of his knowledge of Crete from having worked and lived there pre-war he was stationed there as part of the Intelligence Service. Janssen told us that he had met the real life figures whose story was told in the Dirk Bogarde film “Ill Met by Moonlight”, and that perhaps the image of the hero in a Cretan cloak that is used on the film poster is a reference to Pendlebury.
He was wounded on the first day of the Battle of Crete, by a sniper, and looked after by two Cretan women. The legend surrounding his death says that when the Germans came to search the cottage he got up and went to talk to them – he refused to give them any information about the British forces, and so was shot in the head. Janssen has spent some time looking into this legend, and the accounts vary quite a lot. At first it was said he was shot inside the cottage, but later tellings of the story have him swearing at the Germans and being dragged outside and put up against a wall before a firing squad!
Janssen gave a version of this talk in Wigan in 2009, as Pendlebury had connections to Wigan. Some of his family were from the Wigan area and he himself went to Wigan in 1936 to give a talk about Amarna. After Janssen’s talk the organisers put her in touch with some members of his family and they sent to her a copy of a letter that Pendlebury’s wife (Hilda) had sent to her father-in-law after the war. She hadn’t been on Crete during the war, and it was only afterwards that she was able to travel there to see Pendlebury’s grave & meet the women who’d taken care of him. Hilda had written to her father-in-law, retelling the story the women had told her. But then in pencil she’d annotated the typewritten letter saying that this was in fact not the case – she had seen the British doctor’s report of the post-mortem on Pendlebury and there was no sign of a head wound or any wound except the one from the first day of the battle. Instead he had died of a haemorrhage probably brought on by over-exertion when getting out of bed to talk to the Germans that were harassing his protectors. So still a heroic death (in that he died to protect people), but not as much the stuff of legends as it turned into.
The second half of the talk was about Pendlebury’s life while he was at Amarna and what this shows us about his personality. There was quite a lot of overlap with a talk that Chris Naunton gave to us last year, where he showed us the recently digitised film documenting some of the excavation at Amarna. As well as using stills from these films Janssen supplemented it with eye-witness reports from people who’d worked with Pendlebury that she’d gathered during the 1990s when a lot of his colleagues were still alive.
She drew us a vivid picture of Pendlebury as a eccentric and flamboyant man, hardworking but with a sense of humour. This was where the Cretan cloak in the title came in – he almost always wore this item of Cretan peasant clothing while in Amarna. She showed us some photographs & stills from the films of Pendlebury greeting important visitors who were dressed up in suits – Pendlebury would be wearing shorts and a cricket jumper with his Cretan cloak over the top. This cloak was blue on the outside and decorated with black braid, the inside was a vivid red. The anecdotes she told us included things like the fact that Pendlebury refused to allow cars or other wheeled transport anywhere on the site – so the archaeologists had to walk the 2.5miles from the lodgings to their work place every day. He himself walked very fast (apparently regarded it as reasonable to cover 10 miles in an hour and a half, which is rather brisker than the standard average of 3 to 4 miles per hour for walking speed), and various of Janssen’s correspondents mentioned having to almost run to keep up. His romantic side lead him to have the dig house for the archaeologists built on the foundations of one of the ancient houses at Amarna.
Overall he came across as an interesting personality & Janssen’s admiration of him shone through her talk. However I can’t help but wonder if he’d’ve been remembered in quite the same way if he’d lived and moved on to more “boring” jobs once he was older.