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Agatha Christie's secret life as an archaeologist

By Laura Allsop for CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ancient Ivories cleaned by Agatha Christie on view at British Museum
  • Christie's archaeological pedigree not well known
  • Crime-writer was married to archaeologist Max Mallowan and helped on digs
  • Contribution to archaeology, including many photographs of digs, increasingly appreciated

London, England (CNN) -- She is one of the best-known crime writers of all time but few know the extent of Agatha Christie's archaeological pedigree.

Married in 1930 to eminent archaeologist Max Mallowan, Christie spent two decades living on excavation sites in the Middle East, writing her crime novels and helping out with her husband's work.

Travel by boat and on the Orient Express to far-flung places such as Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad inspired some of Christie's best-known works of detective fiction, including "Murder on the Orient Express," "Death on the Nile," and "Murder in Mesopotamia."

Now, 3,000-year-old ivory artifacts recovered by Mallowan between 1949 and 1963 from the ancient city of Nimrud, in what is now Iraq, and likely cleaned by his famous wife using cotton wool buds and face cream, go on display Monday at the British Museum in London.

Nimrud was a city in the Assyrian kingdom, which flourished between 900-612 B.C.. The ivories found by Mallowan and his team were originally made in what is now Syria and Lebanon and brought to Assyria as looted treasures.

John Curtis, keeper of the Middle East collections at the British Museum says they make up "the finest collection of ancient carved ivories that have ever been found at an archaeological excavation" and are in good condition, possibly because of Christie's efforts.

"Face cream in fact is quite a good thing to clean (artifacts) with. Obviously conservators now wouldn't use that but I don't think it's done (the pieces) any harm," he continued, adding that in fact it was quite resourceful of Christie to think of applying her Innoxa face cream to the fragile, dirty pieces.

Christie was of course fascinated by puzzles ... and she had a gift for piecing them together very patiently
--Charlotte Trumpler, archaeologist

"Agatha, who was very conscious of being fifteen years older than her husband, traveled everywhere with her moisturizer and it was just the right consistency for cleaning artifacts," said Henrietta McCall, author of "The Life of Max Mallowan: Archaeology and Agatha Christie."

Christie's interest in archaeology, according to McCall, went deeper than support for her husband's work and even formed the backdrop to works such as "Murder in Mesopotamia," in which the culprit turns out to be an archaeologist..

Several of the characters in the book can be traced to the people Christie knew from a dig in Ur in what is now modern Iraq -- including the murder victim, which McCall believes is based on the wife of archaeologist Leonard Woolley.

"She made a wonderful quote on archaeology and crime detection, that they are very similar because you have to clear away the debris to reveal the shining truth," said McCall.

And Christie's elaborate plotting and clue building came in handy when piecing together broken artifacts.

Everyone thinks Agatha Christie was a bit like the character Miss Marple ... but she had such a fascinating life.
--Henrietta McCall, curator at British Museum
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According to archaeologist Charlotte Trumpler, "Christie was of course fascinated by puzzles, by the little archaeological fragments, and she had a gift for piecing them together very patiently." Trumpler co-curated a 2001-2 traveling exhibition "Agatha Christie and Archaeology: Mystery in Mesopotamia" alongside Henrietta McCall.

But though Christie played an important part in her husband's work, even financing many of his expeditions, she was, according to McCall, very modest about her contributions.

She was fiercely proud of Mallowan, whom Curtis at the British Museum describes as one of the best-known archaeologists of the post-WWII period. But Trumpler believes that Christie's contribution to archaeology was larger than she imagined.

Her black and white photographs of excavation sites are still used by archaeologists and researchers today, he said.

Christie's readiness to muck in and help her husband, says Trumpler, stemmed from her desire to be a devoted wife but also from a fascination with the Middle East that stayed with her for many years.

"Everyone thinks Agatha Christie was a bit like the character Miss Marple, that she lived in England and was into knitting and looking after the garden," said Trumpler. "But she had such a fascinating life apart from being an author."

 
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