They were taken for spies

Over the past few weeks, I have been creating and filling several spreadsheets and csv files containing the data of the John Pendlebury Family Papers catalogue. These files, which will be imported into the EMu collection management software, reflect the hierarchical structure of the catalogue according to the ISAD(G) standard and will form the basis of the online data displayed of the Pendlebury collection at the end of the year.

This task, frequently arduous and repetitive, has given me a broad perspective of all the elements which form the collection: their provenance and their chronology, as well as the different people who populate it. One very significant figure who appears frequently within these papers is, in fact, Mercy Money-Coutts. Mercy, whose collection is also held at the BSA archive, worked with John Pendlebury on excavations and accompanied him on many journeys around Greece. They shared photographs and negatives from their adventures together and so, naturally, there is a lot of cross-over and duplication of photographs between the two collections. I was curious about this very prominent figure in the Pendlebury adventures and so tried to find out a bit more about her life.

Photograph of Mercy Money-Coutts at Knossos, Crete (1937) [PEN 7/2/6/667]. Copyright: British School at Athens.

Penny Wilson-Zarganis, our wonderful Head Librarian at the British School at Athens, remembered Mercy as a very reserved and talented woman from a three-month period in 1977 when she was working for the School´s Library. But Mercy’s relationship with the BSA goes back even further in time. Born in 1910 into an aristocratic family in Devon (England), Mercy studied at the University of Oxford where she received her BA Honours in 1932. She developed an interest in eastern Mediterranean archaeology whilst she was an undergraduate student and contacted Sir Arthur Evans wanting to join the new excavations in Crete. Mercy was one of the five women admitted to the British School at Athens for the 1933-1934 session. She formed a lasting friendship with Edith Eccles, who was also admitted that session and shared Mercy’s interest in Minoan pottery.

Mercy studied prehistoric pottery during her first winter at Athens. In the spring, she and Edith Eccles travelled to Crete, where they assisted John in completing the catalogue of the Stratigraphical Museum at Knossos. This catalogue, of which I talked about in my previous post, was the result of a project in which they transferred sherds from the Palace into 2000 boxes and assigned numbers and dates to them.  So began the collaboration between Mercy and John which continued with her invaluable assistance in his excavations in the Lasithi Plain between the years 1936-1939, as well as with the publications of this work afterwards. Over four years, the team partially excavated ten sites ranging in date from Neolithic cave burials, Early and Middle Bronze Age settlements and burials, a Late Bronze Age refugee settlement and a number of Iron Age buildings. Mercy, who had excellent drawing skills, helped to illustrate most of the finds in these excavations, including metal objects and pottery. During this time she also organised the Knossos section of the exhibition held at Burlington House in London in 1936 in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the British School at Athens.

Photograph of Mercy Money-Coutts and [Emmanuel G. and Emmanuel I. Tsoukakis, guides] standing at summit on Spathi, Crete (1935) [PEN 7/2/6/391]. Copyright: British School at Athens.

Like the Pendleburys, Mercy loved to travel. In April 1934, together with John and Edith Eccles, she explored Central Crete in search of new sites as well as to visit known ones. Those trips are reflected in the article “Journeys in Crete, 1934” by John Pendlebury, Edith Eccles, and Mercy Money-Coutts, published in The Annual of the British School at Athens, volume 33 (1932-1933). In 1936, following up an interest in the relations between Minoan and Oriental Cultures, she travelled to Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, and in 1938 and 1939, Mercy explored the Cycladic islands, visiting Melos, Paros, Kimolos, Syros, Naxos and other islands looking for ancient sites. In a letter written by John to Hilda, he mentioned one of these trips in which he and Mercy “were taken for spies”.

Letter from “your loving Husband” to “My own darling” [John Pendlebury to Hilda Pendlebury] from Knossos (5 May 1939) [PEN 1/2/1/2/9]. Copyright: British School at Athens.
Fragment of the article “Journeys in Crete, 1934” by John Pendlebury, Edith Eccles, and Mercy Money-Coutts, published in The Annual of the British School at Athens, volume 33 (1932-1933).
Photograph of Mercy Money-Coutts and John Pendlebury at Engarais [Eggarés], Naxos [Náxos, Nísos] (2 April 1939). Copyright: British School at Athens.

Like John and many other British archaeologists, Mercy took an active part in WWII. She spent the first years working in a department of the Foreign Office at Bletchley Park, England; a secret intelligence department where the German cipher code was cracked in 1940. In 1944, perhaps wanting to get back to Crete, she joined the British Red Cross and was sent to Egypt. That same year, Mercy and Edith Eccles travelled from Libya to the south coast of Crete with a fisherman on a boat, and then walked on their own to the Taverna, in Knossos, where they decided to stay until the end of the war. Mercy joined the UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) which helped deliver relief supplies to war-stricken villages.  She later received the Bronze Medal of the Greek Red Cross for her work during the war. It was while working with UNRRA that she met her future husband, Michaeli Seiradakis. Mercy and Michaeli married in 1947 and settled in a house by the sea in Halepa, a suburb of Chania. They had two children: John and Sophia. During the following years, Mercy completed a publication on the collection of pottery from the refugee site of Karphi, for volume 55 of the Annual of the BSA (1960).

In 1962, the Seiradakis family moved from Halepa to Athens, and in 1965, Mercy started to work on a voluntary basis for three days a week in the BSA Library which she did for the next eight years. In 1991, the family moved to Thessaloniki, where their son, John, had settled with his family. Mercy died there in 1993.

I have only quickly summarised Mercy Money-Coutts’s really fascinating life here today in my blog post. Looking at her photographs and reading about her, gives one a sense she was a very strong and resourceful woman, who was, definitely, a key figure in the life and work of John Pendlebury.


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