Hilary Waddington: Lights, camera, action

by Susan Biddle

The Waddington collection in the Lucy Gura archive comprises 3 boxes/files of documents and photographs from the 1930s, which together provide a vivid insight into the experience and practicalities of excavation at Tell el-Amarna (ancient Akhetaten) in Egypt between the wars.

Sir Hilary Waddington (1903-1989) was primarily an architect but, despite no formal archaeological training, worked in the 1930s with John Pendlebury (1904-1941) at Tell el-Amarna and subsequently with Cedric Norman Johns (1904-1992) in Palestine, with the Archaeological Service of India in Delhi and Calcutta (1937–1955), and then with Max Mallowan (1904-1978), second husband of Agatha Christie, in Iraq in 1956 (Nimrud and Balawat).  As well as surveying parts of Tell el-Amarna, Hilary acted as John Pendlebury’s camera-man for many of the films shot to give an idea of life on site with a view to raising funds for subsequent seasons.


Hilary Waddington taking photographs at Tell el-Amarna (TA.WAD.01.PICT.10)

Hilary Waddington taking photographs at Tell el-Amarna (TA.WAD.01.PICT.10)

The Waddington archive provides a new angle on the well-known story of Tell el-Amarna excavations and on the team of which Hilary formed part, which was distinguished by a rich cast of characters, including:

  • The dig director, John Pendlebury: we learn about the birth of his son David, his horse-riding, and his (unflattering) views on Francis Llewellyn Griffith’s earlier work at Tell el-Amarna;
  • Ruth Waddington (1905-1978), Hilary’s wife and the discoverer of the sculptor’s workshop which included a beautiful stone bust of Nefertiti (a copy of which presides over the EES library);
  • Mary Chubb, assistant secretary of the EES who joined the dig team to sort out the team’s accounting practices, type up reports and generally deal with administration: her gossipy letters give a delightful personal touch – such as the one congratulating Hilary on his engagement and comparing Ruth favourably with a number of other women of her acquaintance – and provide interesting background to her published account of these years in her book Nefertiti lived here; and
  • Kassar Umbarak, a good-looking Egyptian who worked as Waddington’s “measuring boy”, and gave him fans and cowrie shells as a wedding present to encourage healthy progeny; Hilary thought so highly of Kassar that he considered taking him to Palestine to work with him on the crusader castle at Athlit but was concerned that he might end up spending his time “pacifying irate fathers of deflowered daughters”.


Kassar Umbarak on the left in a photograph that he sent to Hilary (TA.WAD.01.PICT.08)

Kassar Umbarak on the left in a photograph that he sent to Hilary (TA.WAD.01.PICT.08)

The many other characters with walk-on roles or brief speaking parts include:

  • Herbert Hastings McWilliams (1907-1995), a South African architect and artist, who wanted to visit Hilary at Athlit and to join his team there;
  • Mary Jonas (1874-1950), secretary of the EES back in London, who dealt with much of the ongoing administration;
  • Ralph Lavers (1907-1969), another member of the Amarna dig team who reported to Hilary on the division of finds with the Cairo museum at the end of the 1932-33 season and whose changed travel plans disrupted McWilliams’ planned visit to Athlit;
  • Charles Brasch, a New Zealand poet who as a young man was an unpaid volunteer on the Amarna dig team; and
  • a Canon Crawley and his wife, and a “decorative” daughter, who also wanted to visit Hilary at Athlit.

The first file, which has been catalogued and digitized, consists primarily of correspondence between Hilary Waddington, the EES and John Pendlebury, and related documents such as Hilary’s contracts for work in the 1931-32 and 1932-33 seasons, visa applications, a passenger list for the trip out to Egypt, a membership card for the Cairo Turf Club, and an exhibition catalogue, as well as details of the food consumed by the dig team, the drawing materials used on site, the logistics of travel to Egypt, a description of a local “fantasia” attended by the dig team, and the threat from local quarrying operations.  This first file also includes photographs of pay-day (and details of pay for key workers), the discovery and moving of the Hatiay lintel, the site and excavations, the dig houses, workers on site, feluccas on the Nile, and the EES exhibitions back in London including photos of the model Amarna house created for the Oriental Institute of Chicago. 

Some of the Amarna film footage shot by John Pendlebury and Hilary Waddington

The second and third files, which are in the process of being catalogued and digitized, were kindly donated to the EES by two of Hilary Waddington’s grand-children, and include some of Hilary’s site plans of Amarna, the ‘clapper board’ for the films made by Hilary and John Pendlebury, and artwork for the EES exhibitions.


Hilary Waddington holding the ‘clapper board’ used in the filming of the Amarna footage, donated to the EES in summer 2015 by Edward and Samantha Waddington

Hilary Waddington holding the ‘clapper board’ used in the filming of the Amarna footage, donated to the EES in summer 2015 by Edward and Samantha Waddington

Further reading:

Brasch, C. 1980. Indirections: A Memoir 1909-1947. Oxford.

Bierbrier, M. L. 2012. Who was Who in Egyptology (4th edition). London.

Chubb, M. 1954. Nefertiti lived here. London.

Grundon, I. 2007. The Rash Adventurer: A life of John Pendlebury. London.

Pendlebury, J. 1935. Tell el-Amarna. London.

Other resources:

Palestine Exploration Fund

Royal Institute of British Architects

Middle East Centre, St Antony’s College, Oxford

Waddington family website