J. D. S. Pendlebury, excavator of Amarna, Curator at Knossos, he of the glass eye and the swordstick, who died defending Crete from German invasion in 1941, is archaeology’s first modern hero: brilliant, magnetic and self-aware. In The Rash Adventurer, Imogen Grundon gives us the substance behind his dazzling brief career. John Pendlebury evidently possessed an extraordinary determination to overcome obstacles, demonstrated after he had lost an eye as the result of a childhood accident. In spite of this handicap, his Cambridge years included a blue in athletics and a first class in the tripos. Grundon reveals his early interests in archaeology, and the enormous workload he undertook soon after leaving university. His career included excavation both at Akhenaten’s capital of Amarna and at Sir Arthur Evans’s site at Knossos, as Pendlebury moved from one to the other with the seasons of work. By the age of twenty-five he occupied a unique position in Mediterranean archaeology, holding simultaneously the posts of Curator at Knossos and Director of Excavations at Tell el-Amarna.
by Jane Jakeman
First published in the Times Literary Supplement, 17 October 2007.
The relationship between Egypt and Crete was of particular interest to him, and his Aegyptiaca: A catalogue of Egyptian objects in the Aegean area is still an important resource. At Amarna, the historical background was still very unclear when Pendlebury became Director in 1930, and he was able to extract a possible chronology and a history of that remarkable city. There was a wide gulf between Bronze Age archaeologists and Egyptologists, and Pendlebury had to endure much criticism in Egyptological circles, particularly over his theories concerning the invasion of Egypt by the “sea peoples”, whose leadership he ascribed to Agamemnon. It was not uncommon at the time to look for relationships between mythology and archaeology, but this approach evidently appealed to Pendlebury’s love of Homeric story. It was also a romantic perspective, and from it he viewed his beloved modern Cretans, sometimes presiding over dinner wearing a Cretan cloak and striding through the mountains to meet kapetanoi, the old brigand leaders.
He clearly relished his swashbuckling self-image, but Grundon shows him capable too of subtle and complex achievements. At Knossos, he skilfully negotiated a difficult relationship with Evans, whose colourful reconstructions Pendlebury sometimes disagreed with, in spite of his own imaginative streak. He was in fact working in a new archaeological era: the age of the great individual “dig” patrons was passing, in favour of a more modern system where the locals were no longer regarded as mere workmen, and foreign governments were recognized as significant entities. Pendlebury showed himself well able to manage this transition and he was realistic in matters of archaeological politics and finance, very aware of the importance of finding subscribers to the Egypt Exploration Society, and new sources of funding. Grundon is good on the complications of organizational funding and personalities, academic intrigues and quarrels.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Pendlebury returned to Britain, enlisted in Military Intelligence and was drafted into Military Intelligence (Research). He went back to Crete in 1940 as a British Army captain, in order to organize resistance to invasion in the mountain regions. He was “adopted”, to use Grundon’s appropriate word, by the highly secretive “D” section of MI6, whose task was to train agents, conceal supplies for sabotage, and handle anti-German propaganda. There is no doubt that he loved the atmosphere of mystery and intrigue, as also the adventure of rallying his kapetanoi.
Pendlebury’s part in the Battle for Crete was, however, tragically short-lived: in 1941, he was wounded, then captured, propped up against a wall and shot. Again, Grundon has followed these events very carefully, presenting as much evidence as can now be garnered – although her wider picture of the background to the invasion of Crete is too kind to General Bernard Freyberg, the New Zealander in command of Allied forces on Crete. Antony Beevor’s Crete: The Battle and the Resistance brings out clearly the later Lord Freyberg’s disastrous support for seaborne invasion, and the obstinate misinterpretation of “Ultra” intelligence, which contributed to the loss of the island to the Germans. The downfall of Crete was horribly unnecessary. So was Pendlebury’s death, a tragic waste, except perhaps that his premature decease itself took on an iconic quality. His image has remained unencumbered by the aura of his snobbish wife and untarnished by entanglement in post-war politics.
The Rash Adventurer is a thorough and authoritative biography, based on detailed research, which gives us at every point the facts underpinning the myth of the man. As well as reaching deep in archives and libraries, Imogen Grundon seems to have interviewed almost every survivor in the field. There is one story she omits, however, perhaps because none of her elderly interlocutors cared to repeat it – the story passed down among Egyptologists, that, as he faced the firing squad, John Pendlebury’s last words were “Fuck you!”.
Rare video of Pendlebury excavating in Egypt as well as showing off his athletic prowess.