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.
Max Mallowan's work in Nimrud uncovered buried treasures from the Assyrian empire. This ivory panel discovered in the palace of Ashurnasirpal II in Nimrud depicts a young man being attacked by a lioness. It is believed to have formed part of a larger throne. British Museum, London
Endings and beginnings
Over the course of her life, Agatha Christie published 66 detective novels. Roughly two billion copies have been sold worldwide, making her the best-selling novelist of all time. Her path to greatness was not without heartache. She discovered her first husband, Archie Christie, was having an extramarital affair in 1926. Devastated by the betrayal, Christie suffered a nervous breakdown, during which she disappeared. A massive police search operation was launched and, over a week later, the runaway author was found in a hotel in northern England. Two years later, Christie’s marriage to Archie was over.
At age 39, Agatha decided that a solitary holiday in the West Indies might help her recover from the breakup. But two days before leaving, she had dinner at a friend’s house in London where she met a couple who had recently returned from Baghdad. Christie was utterly seduced by their tales of the Middle East: the bazaars of Mosul and Basra and the fascinating ruins of ancient Ur, which, thanks to the sensational discoveries unearthed by British archaeologist Leonard Woolley, were being widely reported in the newspapers.
The most obvious way to travel there was by steamboat—but there was another option: the Orient Express, the train that took travelers to Baghdad via Milan and Istanbul. The prospect of such a journey was a turning point in Christie’s life. The next day, she canceled her ticket to Jamaica and bought one for Baghdad.
Escape to Iraq
Already a well-known author by the late 1920s, Christie received a steady stream of invitations from the British colonial population when she arrived. But their games of bridge, tennis, and cricket bored her. She longed to escape from the things that reminded her of England and to explore the rich culture and illustrious history of Iraq. After a few days in Baghdad, she set off alone on a trip to the site of Ur, the great capital of the kings of Sumeria from the middle of the third millennium B.C. It was the perfect remedy, as she later recalled:
I fell in love with Ur, with its beauty in the evenings, the ziggurat standing up, faintly shadowed, and that wide sea of sand with its lovely pale colors of apricot, blue and mauve, changing every minute. I enjoyed the workmen, the foremen, the little basket boys, the pick men—the whole technique and life. The lure of the past came to grab me. To see a dagger slowly appearing with its gold glint, through the sand was romantic. The carefulness of lifting pots and objects from the soil filled me with a longing to be an archaeologist myself.
During this first trip to Ur, Christie met Leonard Woolley, the director of the excavation, and his wife, Katharine. A close friendship developed between the two women, which grew in part from Katharine’s fascination with the author’s work. She had been enthralled by Christie’s novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, published three years earlier. Later, after Christie returned from the Iraqi desert, she hosted the Woolleys at her home in Chelsea, London. In turn, they proposed that she join them when they returned to the dig in Ur. Christie needed no persuading and joined them in 1930.
Love among the ziggurats
On this second visit to the ancient Sumerian site, Agatha Christie first met Max Mallowan, Leonard Woolley’s assistant. Thirteen years her junior, the two got to know each other over the course of the season and fell in love. Six months later, the young archaeologist became the writer’s second husband.
1931 Newlyweds in Ur
From then on, leaving aside the interlude imposed by the Second World War, Agatha Christie would spend long seasons at various excavation sites in Syria and Iraq, accompanying her husband’s expeditions. She worked on restoring pieces of pottery, inventorying finds, and photographing artifacts.
The long, exhausting journeys and austerity of life on a dig proved to be no obstacle to her writing, and enriched her murderous plots. While Mallowan was working near Nineveh at Tall Arpachiyah, a Neolithic settlement dating from the sixth millennium B.C., Christie wrote her celebrated 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express. Dedicated to Mallowan, it was inspired by the many journeys she had taken on that remarkable train to Baghdad. (Is the Orient Express amoung the world's best train trips? Find out here.)
Throughout the 1930s and 40s, Mallowan continued his rise, emerging from Woolley’s shadow to become a director in his own right. Christie’s writing career exploded as she prolifically published novel after novel. Many of her new works, such as 1936’s Murder in Mesopotamia and 1937’s Death on the Nile, were colored by her new experiences with Mallowan and the world of archaeology.
After Tall Arpachiyah, Mallowan went on to direct expeditions at sites in modern-day Syria, including Chagar Bazar—an early Bronze Age settlement where numerous cuneiform tablets were discovered—and another at Tall Birak, once a thriving city of northern Mesopotamia.
In her memoir, Come, Tell Me How You Live, Agatha Christie recounted living conditions in Syria while on archaeological digs with her husband, Max Mallowan. The writer humorously described the discomforts that they endured, including fleas. Christie wrote: “Anointing beds with carbolic merely stimulates the fleas to even greater displays of athletics. It is not, I explain to [Mallowan], so much the bites of the fleas. It is their tireless energy, their never ending hopping races round and round one’s middle that wears one out. Impossible to drop off to sleep when fleas are holding the nightly sports round and round the waist.”
A dream of Nimrud
Christie recalls in her memoirs that as early as 1932, Mallowan had taken her to see Nimrud. It was, he confessed, the site he longed to excavate above any other in the world. He felt it was a place as important as Ur and potentially as rich as Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt. Following service in the British Royal Air Force in North Africa during World War II, that dream became a reality. Appointed the first director of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, Mallowan secured the necessary support for the excavation from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Part of the fascination with Nimrud, which is also known by its ancient name of Calah, lay in its biblical connection. In the ninth century B.C., it was the military capital of Assyria under the brilliant, if brutal, ruler Ashurnasirpal II, whom the Old Testament describes as “a mighty hunter before the LORD,” an empire builder who “went to Assyria, where he built Nineveh [and] Calah” (Genesis 10:8-12). (Read about Semiramis, the only woman to rule the Assyrian empire.)
Throughout the 1950s, Nimrud became a second home for Christie, who by this time had some 45 novels to her name. A small room for writing was put aside for her, where her literary output continued unabated. A sign on the door, written in cuneiform, read Beit Agatha (Agatha’s House). Mallowan was responsible for the in-depth excavation of the great palaces of Ashurnasirpal II and his heirs, one of the greatest projects in the history of Mesopotamian archaeology. (See also: ISIS bulldozes one-of-a-kind ancient palace in Iraq)
Nimrud proved a rich source of archaeological finds, comparable to those Leonard Woolley had found in Ur. Among the many spectacular discoveries was a fabulous collection of thousands of ivories. Of outstanding artistic quality, these exquisite carvings, dating from the ninth to the seventh centuries B.C., have been traced to workshops across northern Mesopotamia and to the coast of Phoenicia, in what is today Lebanon.
Some of these treasures would have been sent as tribute by princes of the kingdoms that had fallen under Assyrian subjugation. Others were probably appropriated and carried off as war booty to the Assyrian capital in the aftermath of Assyrian military campaigns. The ivories would originally have been encrusted with semiprecious stones and gold leaf, which accentuated the beauty of the figurative scenes, and the botanical or geometric designs. In their day they were used to adorn furniture, vessels, horses’ harnesses, and royal carriages. Today many can be admired in the British Museum in London and in other institutions around the world.
After the artifacts were recovered, Christie often helped by cleaning and documenting them, a process she describes in her memoirs:
I had my part in cleaning many of them . . . I had my own favorite tools just as any professional would: an orange stick, . . . a very fine knitting needle . . . and a jar of cosmetic face cream, which I found more useful than anything else for gently coaxing the dirt out of the crevices without harming the friable ivory. In fact there was such a run on my face cream that there was nothing left for my poor old face after a couple of weeks!
In all, the couple spent 10 years working at Nimrud before retiring in 1958. Looking back, Christie described Mallowan’s successes there as “his life work: what he has been moving steadily towards ever since 1921 . . . It seems a kind of miracle that both he and I should have succeeded in the work we wanted to do.”
Inspiration for Murder
Christie’s experiences in the field directly inspired the 1936 thriller Murder in Mesopotamia. Her friend Katharine, the wife of Ur archaeologist Leonard Woolley, served as the model for the murder victim. In a subsequent Christie novel, Death on the Nile (1937), Poirot explains how archaeology inspires his sleuthing: “In the course of an excavation, when something comes up out of the ground, everything is cleared away very carefully all around it. You take away the loose earth, and you scrape here and there with a knife until finally your object is there, all alone, ready to be drawn and photographed with no extraneous matter confusing it.”