Agatha Christie's adventurous 'second act' plays out in Mesopotamia

After a devastating divorce, the crime novelist took a trip to Baghdad in 1928 and lost her heart—to the ancient sites of Iraq and archaeologist Max Mallowan.

This ivory carving of a young man grasping a lotus flower, a symbol of eternity, was found at Nimrud during excavations in the 1950s led by Agatha Christie's second husband, Max Mallowan.
Photograph by BRIDGEMAN/ACI

When mystery writer Agatha Christie wrote, “We found the woman in the well! They brought her in on a piece of sacking, a great mass of mud,” she was not describing the murder victim in her latest bestseller. The detectives trying to identify the woman were not the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot nor the English dowager Jane Marple.

The woman in question was not a person at all, but an artifact retrieved as part of an archaeological dig. Christie was describing the ivory mask, now nicknamed the Mona Lisa of Nimrud, which was discovered in 1952 during the excavations that were being carried out in the ancient Assyrian capital of Calah in modern-day Iraq—known now by the name of Nimrud. (See also: An ancient city, from Agatha Christie to ISIS)

Christie’s second husband, Max Mallowan, was the lead investigator, and the “detectives” in this case were not police officers, but archaeologists. Christie was assisting Mallowan in the collection, cleaning, and storage of artifacts on the dig. More than 20 years earlier, Christie had fallen in love with both him and archaeology among the ruins of Mesopotamia.

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