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Excavating Egypt review: The EES Amarna Film Footage, a viewing with Dr Chris Naunton

by Susan Biddle

In the 1930s, the EES looked for ways to interest the public in its work, not least to generate the money needed to fund its on-going excavations.  Just as today, they hosted exhibitions and lectures (the current exhibition "Excavating Egypt" includes posters and invitations to some of these events).  Some of the dig directors were a little drily academic, but others were more showman-like.  One of the "showmen" was John Pendlebury, dig director of the 1930-31 season at the age of 26, who arranged for films to be made showing what life was like working at Amarna. 

The film footage which Chris showed us was fascinating.  Although it shows work on the site (digging, chains of workers moving sand, brushing finds, removing objects to safekeeping, the distribution process, etc), much of it is also about life on the site outside work.  We saw footage of Pendlebury and his colleagues indulging in athletics (high jump and hurdles), fencing and stick fighting, and of the Christmas day festivities which involved the entire workforce in piggyback races, wheelbarrow races, an obstacle course and a manic "hockey dribbling" race.  Pendlebury could usually be identified from his clothes, which often included his hooded Cretan cloak, sometimes in combination with a cricket jumper.


Uncovering the inscribed lintel of Hatiay during the 1930-31 dig season at Tell el-Amarna


One of the key finds of the 1930-31 season was a decorated door lintel found in a large stone house in the Northern suburb, belonging to Akhenaten's chief overseer Hatiay. In her book "Nefertiti lived here", Mary Chubb tells us of its discovery.  She describes how it needed to be moved quickly for safe-keeping, and how it was the Egyptians, not the English dig team, who knew how to cope with something of this size and weight.  They created a wooden frame and then a great team of constantly changing workers carried it across the desert - and the film footage showed us exactly how they did this, keeping the lintel level despite the undulations in the ground (with Mary Chubb and her dig team colleagues visible in the film, just watching). 

The film footage complemented the Excavating Egypt exhibition by tracking the process from discovery to distribution, showing examination of the objects by the Cairo Museum (and the team's subsequent departure through Cairo traffic which appeared little different from 2015). The lintel attracted a lot of publicity at the time, being reported in newspapers such as the New York Times and the Illustrated London News, and the EES archive includes a letter from John Pendlebury reporting that sadly the Cairo Museum wanted to keep the original, but he was having a colour cast made for display in the UK – this is now on display in the Bolton Museum and Art Gallery.


Hilary Waddington holding the newly donated ‘clapper-board’ in the 1930-31 film footage



The EES archive includes not only the film footage itself but also records of the film making, which have made it possible to organise and edit the film, as well as the film canisters (also on display in the "Excavating Egypt" exhibition) and letters describing how the film was impounded when it was first brought into the UK – and, amazingly, more material continues to emerge.  Earlier this summer descendants of Sir Hilary Waddington, the cameraman for much of the filming, acquired a collection of his papers at auction following a family death.  These included the ‘clapper board’ from the film-making, a draft for an Underground poster advertising the 1931 exhibition, architectural drawings etc.  Very generously these items have been donated to the EES and some of them are on display in the Excavating Egypt exhibition.

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