Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Museums: In the Field with Agatha Christie Volume 55 Number 2, March/April 2002
by Amy Lubelski

Twenty-six years after her death, all of Agatha Christie's detective novels and short story collections remain in print; clearly, interest in her work has not abated. Christie's life, however, has never engendered the same kind of attention, and aspects of it that had direct impact on her novels often go unnoticed. One of the most important of these is archaeology and, by extension, her relationship with her second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan. The nature of these influences is fully explored in the exhibition Agatha Christie and Archaeology, at the British Museum until March 24.

In 1929, after the death of her mother and divorce from Archie Christie, Agatha Christie traveled on the Orient Express across Europe to Iraq and, from there, by local train to Leonard Woolley's excavations at Ur. She had read of Woolley's work in The Illustrated London News and was delighted to meet him and his wife, Katharine, who had read Christie's 1926 novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The visit was a success, and she was invited to return the following year, when she met Woolley's assistant, Max Mallowan; they were married in September 1930.

Shortly before her death at 86, Christie wrote that her 45-year marriage to Mallowan had been sheer joy. Although she was 14 years his senior, the union was deeply loving, supportive, respectful, and intellectually stimulating to both. Agatha Christie and Archaeology brilliantly captures these intertwined lives with artifacts, photographs (many taken by Christie herself), and videos.

The exhibition opens in the courtyard of the museum with a renovated car from that train de luxe, the Orient Express. Inside the museum, the exhibition continues with a certain hustle and bustle: a video with narration of Victoria Station, from which travelers to the Middle East left for France to board the Orient Express, plays continuously; mounted maps illustrate the train route to Baghdad; there is a display of 1930s fashion in suitcases--many designed by Louis Vuitton--with appropriate travel labels; and a panel describes Christie's desire to travel. Moving along, but more slowly, the viewer visits Ur with Christie, and we meet the Woolleys and Max.

On display throughout are first editions of Christie's books with archaeological themes: Murder on the Orient Express (1934), which celebrates that fabled train; Murder in Mesopotamia (1936), in which Christie elaborates on her impressions of the Woolleys' excavation at Ur; Death on the Nile (1937), with its archaeologist villain; Appointment with Death (1938), set in Petra; and They Came to Baghdad (1951), where much of the action takes place on an excavation. Some of the covers were designed by Mallowan's architect, Robin Macartney. Cases display artifacts from the digs, and wall panels illustrate life on Mallowan's excavations at sites like Chagar Bazar, Tel Brak, and Nimrud. Christie always accompanied Mallowan on his excavations, making herself useful by photographing, cleaning, and recording finds; and restoring ceramics, which she especially enjoyed. One particularly charming panel describes how her face cream was used to clean the crevices on the many ivories they dug up. "There was such a run on my face cream that there was nothing left for my poor old face after a couple of weeks!" Christie wrote.

As Christie and Mallowan worked less in the field, they wrote more. Photographs show them at work at the British School at Iraq, which Christie helped found, and their home in England. Mallowan was rewarded with a knighthood, which allowed Christie to be called Lady Mallowan. She was named a Dame of the British Empire; hence her title Dame Agatha. She preferred the former.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is a copy of Come, Tell Me How You Live, the 1946 memoir in which Agatha Christie Mallowan described how enchanting life on these excavations had been for her. She wrote, "I am thinking...that it was a very happy way to live."

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America