Desert digs of a crime queen

Agatha Christie and Archaeology - The Life of Max Mallowan - Nimrud
March 8, 2002

On September 11 1930, four days before her 40th birthday, Agatha Christie married her second husband, a 26-year-old Near Eastern archaeologist called Max Mallowan, and for the remaining 45 years of her life she was closely involved with his archaeological activities. Her role in Near Eastern archaeology and archaeology's role in her life and writings are commemorated in an exhibition, "Agatha Christie and Archaeology: Mystery in Mesopotamia", at the British Museum until March 24. The three books under review were published directly or indirectly in association with this exhibition.

Conceived by Charlotte Trumpler, exhibition curator at the Ruhrlandmuseum in Essen, Germany, the exhibition opened in Essen in October 1999 and has been shown in Vienna, Basel and Berlin. After London, it will go on to Copenhagen. The original title of the exhibition and the accompanying book was Agatha Christie und der Orient : Kriminalistik und Archäologie , a more accurate description than that of the English version. But generally the English edition follows the German original so closely that the rare mistakes have not been corrected: occasionally the 6th millennium BC is called the 6th century BC, and attention is still drawn to the coincidence that Mallowan's grandfather lived in Syria, where Mallowan and Christie worked in the 1930s, but in fact Mallowan's father and grandfather came not from Syria but from Styria in Austria.

Short biographical sketches of Christie and Mallowan are followed by summaries of the results of the excavations with which they were involved in Iraq and Syria and descriptions of life on the excavations. The book's second half deals with the Near East and archaeology in Christie's writings: story settings, Christie's attitude towards natives, her use of ancient sources, and parallels between archaeologists and detectives.

The 20 contributions from experts are interesting and informative. They are illustrated with 250 colour and 150 black-and-white illustrations - some from the archives in the British Museum, some provided by Christie's family, including many taken by Christie, who acted as photographer on Mallowan's excavations.

The Life of Max Mallowan : Archaeology and Agatha Christie , also commissioned and published to coincide with the exhibition, is a readable account of Mallowan's life as an archaeologist and as Christie's husband. Although she did not in fact say that one of the pleasures of being married to an archaeologist was that the older she became, the more interesting she was to him, theirs was a happy marriage and they were devoted to each other. Her support was vital for Mallowan's successful career in archaeology. Not only did she participate in his excavations in Iraq and Syria, she also provided financial security, contributing substantial sums to the costs of the excavations and providing the funds needed to endow the new professorship in Near Eastern archaeology at the University of London's Institute of Archaeology, which Mallowan held from 1947 to 1960. If he had not married Christie, he would not have become the dominating personality in British Near Eastern archaeology that he was in the 1960s and 1970s.

The book is content to record the events of Mallowan's life without trying to describe or analyse his character and motivations. The effect on his character of his close relationship with his over-emotional mother, whose jealousy might have destroyed his marriage had Christie not been very tolerant and understanding, is not discussed. Nor is the enigmatic absence of his father, who is hardly mentioned in this biography or in Mallowan's autobiography, which records that his father had violent quarrels with his mother and "sought peace outside the home where he was both irregular and unpunctual". Mallowan attributed his determination to make a success of his marriage and his inclination towards peaceful companionship to the stormy relationship between his parents. Such a gentle assessment of his character, however, does not match the domineering personality remembered by British Near Eastern archaeologists, which is hinted at but not stated in this memoir.

Also omitted is an evaluation of Mallowan's contribution to Near Eastern archaeology. His excavation methods and interpretations were antiquated even by the standards of the times, and his principal interest was to acquire objects for museums. In his excavations in Iraq and Syria before the second world war, he paid baksheesh to workmen for objects found in the excavations and for unauthorised excavations carried on out of hours. This led to one of the most dramatic events in Christie's life, which she detailed in Come Tell Me How You Live , an amusing account of her experiences of excavations in Syria. During the 1938 season of excavations at Tell Brak in Syria, when Mallowan was away from the site, the two excavation foremen ran into the Tell Brak dig-house, where Christie and the site surveyor had just finished lunch. Their knowledge of Arabic was limited, but they gathered that four workmen had died on the site. Noticing a large, angry mob of workmen threatening to attack, they fled the dig-house and returned only with the support of the French army officer responsible for security in the region. It turns out that a tunnel dug by workmen seeking carved stone "eye idols" had collapsed and four of them had lost their lives. In The Life of Max Mallowan , it is said that just two workmen died, but as the book contains no references, it is impossible to decide whether this is an error or is based on new information. Afterwards, Mallowan is reported to have said: "Death is not really important out here". (Significantly, all mention of this incident was suppressed in Christie's and Mallowan's autobiographies.) A few days later, the excavations at Tell Brak were cut short and were resumed only under the leadership of David and Joan Oates in 1976.

The high point of Mallowan's professional life was the excavation of Nimrud, which he directed on behalf of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq from 1949 until he retired from field work in 1957, aged just 52, probably because Christie's health was not good. His successor was Oates, who, with his wife has written the third of the books under review.

The site of Nimrud, ancient Kalhu, was chosen as the royal residence by the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II early in the 9th century BC.It remained the principal residence of the Assyrian kings for 250 years. This book, which describes the key discoveries made at the site in the past 150 years, was written for a conference on Nimrud planned for November 2001, for the opening of the "Agatha Christie and archaeology" exhibition. Because of problems in obtaining visas for the Iraqi archaeologists invited to participate, the conference was postponed until this month.

The first excavations at Nimrud were undertaken by Austen Henry Layard in the mid-19th century. Then came the excavations of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, led by Mallowan and Oates, which reinvestigated many of the buildings found by Layard and examined the extensive arsenal and palace built by Ashurnasirpal's son Shalmaneser III in the lower town. Among the most impressive finds were beautiful carved ivories, many of which had been taken to Assyria as booty from Syrian and Phoenician city states when these states were incorporated into the Assyrian empire.

Since the end of the BSAI excavations in 1963, the Iraqi directorate-general of antiquities, Polish and Italian teams and a team from the British Museum have continued working on the site. The most spectacular discoveries were those made by the Iraqis in 1988 and 1989, when they excavated three rich tombs belonging to the queens of Assyria (including the wives of both Ashurnasirpal and Shalmaneser). Although the tombs had been disturbed, they still contained incredible quantities of grave goods, such as spectacular gold jewellery and vessels, some of which are illustrated in colour in this volume.

The book concentrates on the results of the Mallowan and Oates excavations, since these have given the most detailed information about the site as a whole, but it gives credit to the other excavations, especially Layard's pioneering work. It is also the most up-to-date account in English of the recent work by Iraqi archaeologists, who have not only discovered the tombs of the queens but also excavated some of the wells, finding spectacular carved ivories: in one well recently investigated, the remains of 180 skeletons, some in iron manacles, were found - perhaps the corpses of Assyrians executed by the Babylonian and Median destroyers of Nimrud. Clearly Nimrud has not yet yielded up all its secrets.

Michael Roaf is professor of Near Eastern archaeology, University of Munich, Germany.

Agatha Christie and Archaeology

Editor - Charlotte Trumpler
ISBN - 0 7141 1148 1
Publisher - British Museum Press
Price - £19.99
Pages - 472

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