Archaeology Odyssey 3:5, September/October 2000

Past Perfect: A Day in the Life

Who has a better eye for detail—at a murder scene or on a Mesopotamian dig—than mystery novelist Agatha Christie?

Archaeology Odyssey

Open the 1936 mystery novel Murder in Mesopotamia to almost any page, and you will encounter Agatha Christie’s exacting eye for local color and detail. Dame Agatha’s intimate knowledge of Middle Eastern life could only have come firsthand; indeed, she often accompanied her second husband, British archaeologist Max Mallowan, on excavations in Mesopotamia. Completed in 1944, Christie’s nonfiction book Come, Tell Me How You Live details, among other things, Mallowan’s 1935–36 excavations at Chagar Bazar, in northern Syria. The excavation team included some 140 laborers, including Arabs, Kurds, Turks and—in Mallowan’s words—“a sprinkling of Yezidis, the mild devil-worshipers from the Jebel Sinjar, and a few odd Christians.” When not plotting intricate murders at her typewriter, Christie helped out in the field, patiently cleaning potsherds with, of all things, face cream. In her foreword to Come, Tell Me How You Live, Christie states: “This is not a profound book—it will give you no interesting sidelights on archaeology, there will be no beautiful descriptions of scenery, no treating of economic problems, no racial reflections, no history.” Modest, indeed, and unjustifiably so. What Christie manages in this “very little book” is a thoroughly engaging account of daily life on a dig, rendered with humility, charm and humor. In the hands of such a consummate storyteller, it is hard to imagine a better way to spend one’s days than toiling in the hot Middle Eastern sun.—Ed.

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