In 1928, Agatha Christie took a momentous decision that was to shape the rest of her life. Her divorce from her first husband had recently been finalised, and after a holiday abroad with her best friend and her daughter, she had plans to travel by herself for a while.
Partly, she wanted to indulge her passion for seeing new places, but partly this solo trip was a test of her own confidence. As she says in her autobiography, she wanted to find out what kind of person she was now that she was newly single and unattached. She feared becoming too dependent on others for her happiness.
She already had tickets booked for the West Indies when she happened to read about the amazing archaeological finds being made at a place called Ur in modern day Iraq. She had also always wanted to travel on the Orient Express, and suddenly decided that she would combine both of these interests and go east instead of west. She dashed out to the travel agents to change her tickets and arrange her visas, and five days later she set out by train for Baghdad.
Little did she know that a brand new chapter of her life was awaiting her there.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
In her autobiography, Agatha Christie writes that she had always been “faintly attracted” to archaeology although she knew nothing about it. Even before she set off for Baghdad in 1928, she had had the chance to travel to places where some of the greatest finds of the century so far had been made — in particular Egypt, where she had spent the winter of 1907 with her mother.
Her journey to Iraq took her across Europe to Istanbul, and then on to Damascus, and thence to Baghdad. There, she wrote that although everyone she met was incredibly nice to her, she hadn’t quite managed to leave her troubles behind her as she had hoped. Physically, she was in a city that was new to her, having all kinds of exciting tourist experiences, but spiritually, she was still in England, dwelling on the emotional trauma of the past few years. Her journey wasn’t over yet.
She still wanted to visit the excavations at Ur that she had read about in the newspaper at home. Her hosts in Baghdad helped her make the arrangements, and soon she was on a train south for this ancient Mesopotamian city. The expedition leader at Ur, Leonard Woolley, and his wife Katharine, were sent a telegraph to expect her, and she was given the full tour of the site and everything that had been found so far.
Katharine Woolley, who we will be hearing more about later, had just read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and was pleased to make the acquaintance of its author. Agatha didn’t realise it at the time, but she got the VIP treatment at Ur, with Leonard Woolley himself showing her around. She fell in love with the beauty of the place, with its ancient ruins and present day bustle of the people working on them, and seems to have found a little peace at last.
The connection with the Woolleys prospered; they spent time together in London that summer, and Agatha even lent them her mews house at Cresswell Place for their visit — the house that was to become the inspiration for her 1937 novella Murder in the Mews. The Woolleys reciprocated by inviting her back to Ur for a longer stay in the spring of 1930 and then to travel home with them across Europe, sightseeing on the way.
It was on this second trip to Ur that Agatha met Max Mallowan. He had been working since 1925 as an assistant on the dig there, but had been absent during her previous visit owning to appendicitis. This time, Katharine Woolley instructed Max to look after the visitor and take her on some excursions to local attractions, as well as showing her the progress on the dig itself.
It seems that Katharine was not a woman who could be disobeyed, and so Max became Agatha’s tour guide for her stay. What might have initially seemed like a bit of a chore and a distraction from his work soon became something else, especially after he and Agatha had an adventure in the desert together.
They had been to visit a nearby fortress at Ukhaidir and walked all the way around its impressive battlements. Too hot to get straight back in the car for the return journey to Ur, they then went for an impromptu swim in a nearby salt lake, Agatha using her pink silk vest and knickers as a swimming costume. On their return to their vehicle, though, they found that it had sunk into the sand and could not be moved.
After a late rescue the only place nearby they could find to stay was the cells at the local police station. As a test of a new friendship, it was a fairly extreme one, and they came out of it closer than the length of their acquaintanceship would have ordinarily indicated. In his memoirs, Max said that it was Agatha’s calm attitude to being stranded in the desert with a man she barely knew, and the fact that she didn’t reproach him for getting the car stuck as Katharine Woolley would have done, that initially made him think that she was a remarkable woman.
Max joined Agatha and the Woolleys on their journey home from Iraq at the end of the season, and by the time he reached England he was sure that he wanted to marry her. He came to visit her in Devon and proposed. She hesitated, taking a month to give him her answer. Max was 14 years younger than Agatha, and a Roman Catholic, a faith that would not look kindly upon his marrying a divorced person.
Then there was the question of his work, and the fact that it took him to the Middle East for at least half of every year, when previously her whole life had been centred on England. Hesitant about this aspect of their potential partnership, Max apparently asked her if she minded that his job was “digging up the dead?” As you might expect, Agatha responded that “I adore corpses and stiffs.”
After her month of consideration, Agatha accepted his proposal. They were married in Edinburgh on 11th September 1930 in a small ceremony that Agatha triumphantly noted in her autobiography was kept entirely secret from the press. Agatha Christie, bestselling detective novelist, was now the wife of an archaeologist. A whole new world was at her feet.
According to Agatha’s grandson, Matthew Prichard, her marriage to Max was an exceptionally “productive” one, with each of them excelling in their separate fields. Unusually for the time, neither had to make any career sacrifices for their partnership to thrive. After their wedding in 1930, Agatha wrote many of her best novels, the ones that have cemented her reputation as the “queen of crime” — 1934’s Murder on the Orient Express, 1936’s The ABC Murders, 1937’s Death on the Nile and 1939’s And Then There Were None to name just a few. Max, too, moved up rapidly in his field. He soon ceased to be an assistant on other archaeologists’ digs, and was soon leading his own excavations.
Immediately after their marriage, though, there was some awkwardness about how their lives would be arranged. Agatha was perfectly willing to accompany Max to Ur, where he was contracted for another season, and write there, but Katharine Woolley seemingly was not at all keen on other members of the expedition bringing their wives for long stays. After a honeymoon travelling in Europe, Max therefore left Agatha in Athens and returned to work, determined to find himself a new dig for the following season where Agatha would be welcome.
He found this at a place called Nineveh in northern Iraq, near Mosul, and from then onwards the pattern of their lives for the rest of the 1930s was set. After a month or so in Baghdad, buying provisions and meeting with local contacts, Max and Agatha would head out to the expedition house wherever he happened to be working that year — first it was R. Campbell Thompson’s dig at Nineveh, later his own excavations at Chagar Bazar and Tell Brak.
Agatha loved this shopping, and would buy rugs and lamps at local markets to make the house a little more homely. She would bring some of her finds home, too, meaning that Greenway, her house in Devon, was filled with surprising objects like Persian bedspreads and antique copper finger bowls. She was also an enthusiastic supporter and patron of contemporary Iraqi art, and used her time in Baghdad to attend exhibitions and purchase paintings she liked. She was, apparently, incredibly content during these trips. The life of an archaeologist’s wife, for all that it came with plenty of inconvenience and dusty travelling, suited her very well. Given how closely identified she is now with a kind of nostalgic pre world war two Englishness, it’s worth remembering that she was herself at her happiest poking around the bazaars of Baghdad or befriending dogs in rural Iraqi villages.
British archaeology was in an in between phase at this time. It was no longer the preserve of gentleman amateurs with rich backers, as it had been a few decades before. Max was a field director for both the British Museum and the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, two instutitions that regulated and oversaw expeditions. But neither was it a fully-funded, professionalised operation, meaning that expedition leaders did need to have private wealth or some other way of providing for their teams. Agatha Christie therefore did assist financially with some of Max’s excavations. She used the proceeds of her writing to pay for her own keep while at the expedition house, and she provided food and furnishings for everyone else out of her own pocket. Sometimes, she donated a portion of the rights of a detective story to an archaeological project to give financial security that way.
She made friends, too, among Max’s colleagues and contacts. Murder in Mesopotamia is dedicated to “my many archaeological friends in Iraq and Syria” and together with Max she helped to create a fun yet rigorous atmosphere on their digs that is remembered fondly in the memoirs of the younger people who came to work with them. One of these, the architect Robin Macartney, actually designed the covers for four of the Crime Club editions of her books, including Murder in Mesopotamia and Appointment with Death.
But what did she actually do while in Iraq? Well, for some of the time she wrote. She proudly recalled later that she had no fancy requirements for producing a new book, just a steady table upon which to put her typewriter and some quiet time to get on with it. Several of the books she produced in the 1930s were hammered out in this way in moments snatched between her other responsibilities on the dig.
Because Agatha Christie was no mere guest at Max’s excavations. She threw herself into the whole project, and in addition to managing the household she assisted with the archaeological work herself. She started out by taking on the development of photographs, which were the principal way that Max’s team recorded their finds for future study and publication.
The hot, dusty conditions made this quite challenging, and it was a somewhat gruelling task. Getting a completely dark space to work in was tricky, and she had to start work at 6 in the morning before it became too hot to use the chemicals. She needed clean water, too, which meant instituting a multi-stage filtering process, and using it before the sun got too high and made it too hot to use. Especially towards the end of a digging season, when there were a lot of negatives piling up, she had a constant flow of pictures to work on. And of course, it was a responsible job, given that photography was one of the only tools the team had for capturing their research.
In 1937, at her daughter’s suggestion, Agatha took a photography course at the Reinhardt School of Commercial Photography in London. It was aimed at teaching students to produce the most realistic and accurate representations of objects — obviously ideal for her work at the excavations. However, she became interested in the artistic possibilities of photography to the point where Max began to worry that she would take blurry or incomplete pictures of his finds rather than accurate, scientifically useful ones. Thus, she asked her teacher at the Reinhardt School to give her extra lessons on taking pictures with the correct perspective and learned to always take several pictures of each object, just in case.
With this training in hand, she began to take the photographs at the digs as well as developing them. She did find time for some creative snaps too, though, documenting the people working there and all of the local dogs that she befriended. She even dabbled in film, and was an early adopter of colour in amateur film making. She made two films of excavations, which sadly aren’t widely available but have been shown in exhibitions in the past. She became quite a photography buff, I think, and in 1951, asked her American agent to buy and ship her a special camera with a flash that wasn’t available in Europe so she could stay at the cutting edge of technology.
In addition to her photography, Agatha also helped with labelling finds and cleaning them. Her methods might not have been what today’s professionals would have approved of, because she mostly used orange sticks and her own Innoxa face cleansing milk, but nobody at the time seems to have raised any issues. She seems to have found the process of conserving and reassembling the shards of pottery that came out of the dig very absorbing, and gave some of that fascination to her heroine Victoria Jones in her 1951 novel They Came to Baghdad. Victoria, who has spent time at a dig in southern Mesopotamia before the action of the novel begins, finds herself completely absorbed in the process of reconstructing in her own mind what these ancient vessels, now in pieces, might have been used for and by whom. I don’t think it’s much of a leap to say that Agatha had spent time in these day dreams herself.
Perhaps it was her status as merely an interested amateur, or perhaps it was because outsiders saw her as “just” the wife of the expedition leader, but Agatha Christie seems to have been unaware of how indispensible she was to Max’s excavations. When she was writing her autobiography many years later in the 1960s, she recalls saying to Max how she regretted that she hadn’t been able to study archaeology as a girl so as to be more knowledgable and useful, only for him to reply “don’t you realise that you know more about prehistoric pottery than almost any woman in England?”.
The Second World War put an end to the way that Max and Agatha lived in the 1930s — no longer could they spend the summer months in England and the winter in Iraq, digging. Max went into the military and Agatha to a hospital in London to work in the dispensary, and they were separated for several years. But as soon as they could, they returned to archaeology, resuming work in ancient Mesopotamia in 1947. This divided life felt normal to Agatha Christie — always impatient and shy of a purely “literary” existence, she had found another sphere that she suited very well indeed among the archaeologists.
After the break: Agatha Christie’s two worlds collide on the page.
Agatha Christie always maintained that while her characters were entirely fictional, the settings were real — drawn from her own experiences and the places she had encountered on her travels. As such, it is no surprise that once she married Max Mallowan and began routinely spending months of the year out of England and travelling regularly to the MIddle East, those experiences became the backdrop for some of her novels.
In December 1931, for instance, she was on her way back to England from Nineveh where Max was working at the time, and the Orient Express that she was on broke down in a snow drift and was stranded for a while. She wrote an account of this in a letter to her husband, and then it became the basis for a murder mystery, Murder on the Orient Express.
Death on the Nile is based on a trip to Egypt she took with her daughter Rosalind in 1933, and Appointment with Death is set in Petra in Jordan, where she went with Max on a sightseeing trip after a season in the Middle East.
Similarly, her Middle Eastern travels crop up in various ways in quite a few books from the 1930s, 40s and 50s, including Murder in Mesopotamia and They Came to Baghdad. The latter coalesced when they returned to Iraq in the late 1940s, and lived first in a hotel in Baghdad and then a house by the river while Max reestablished his Iraqi contacts and sorted out permissions to dig. Both locations would later end up in the novel.
The dig at Ur, being her first proper first hand experience of archaelogy, was the first element of her Middle Eastern travels to appear in fiction, as the basis for 1936’s Murder in Mesopotamia. This is a detective novel set in the expedition house of a dig, told from the perspective of a British nurse who has been hired to come out and attend to the wife of the expedition leader, who has been having episodes of ill health and delusions. Later, Hercule Poirot, who happens to be travelling in Iraq at the time, is called in to solve the case. The layout of the expedition house is crucial to the plot, as is the interplay of personalities that inhabit it, and Christie had observed just such a place up close. It was an excellent choice for a closed circle plot, with the limited pool of suspects walled up together in a house in the middle of the desert with nobody else for miles around.
Although she may have maintained that she didn’t base her characters on real people, this book seems to have been an exception. Louise Leidner, the paranoid wife of the head archaeologist, is clearly modelled on Katharine Woolley, the wife of Max’s boss at Ur, something which is confirmed by Max directly in his memoirs. It isn’t exactly a flattering portrait, either, although Agatha does describe Katharine in her autobiography as “one of my great friends”.
Louise is manipulative, demanding and overly emotional, and takes pleasure in setting other members of the expedition at each other’s throats. Judging by the details recalled by Max and others who were in the vicinity of Ur in the 1930s, such as the writer and archaeologist Gertrude Bell, Katharine seemed to have some of these traits, too. Bell called her a “dangerous woman” because of her capacity to cause disruption on a dig, and of course, it was owing to her dislike of having other wives about that Agatha couldn’t join Max at Ur after they were married.
Certainly the details were too close to be coincidental: as well as being the hypochondriac wife of a high profile archaeologist, like Louise Katharine had also lost her first husband in tragic circumstances very soon into the marriage. Louise also something of a hypochondriac, a trait that Katharine was also said to share — although she did also have a lot of documented and serious health problems too. One of Max’s duties when he worked at Ur was to help her with her illnesses — providing massages when she had a headache and applying leeches to her forehead as required.
In his memoirs, Max wrote that “Katharine did not recognize certain traits which might have been taken as applicable to herself, and took no umbrage.” However, it has also been suggested that Katharine did realise Louise was based on her, and “enjoyed the notoriety”. Since relations between the Mallowans and the Woolleys seem to have remained cordial, this seems more likely, perhaps.
Max, by the way, also makes an appearance in Murder in Mesopotamia. According to his own account, Agatha put him in the book as Emmott, who he describes as “a minor but decent character”.
I think because she wasn’t a full time archaeologist or a formal member of the team on any of the digs that she attended, Agatha Christie was always something of an outsider. She was an observer, documenting what went on with her camera, absorbing the places and the people. With her prodigious output — she was publishing at least a novel a year throughout the time that she and Max were travelling to the Middle East for excavaions — it’s not surprising that some of the details that she took in ended up in her fiction. She was inside the expedition house, but she was not a full member of the expedition, nor was she there for the same reasons as everybody else. In a way, she occupied the same role that a detective does in a classic country house murder mystery — resident, but separate.
The archaeologists who appear in Agatha Christie’s fiction are outsiders too — often abstracted, unfashionable people who nonetheless receive a degree of social status because of their scholarship. Their absorption in their work makes them absentminded about day to day matters, as Hercule Poirot points out in 1935’s Death in the Clouds. Inspector Japp has been sharing his suspicions of two archaeologists who happened to witness a murder in the aeroplane cabin in which they were travelling yet seem not to have noticed anything amiss. Poirot corrects him, saying that this is completely normal for archaeologists, who were probably deep in conversation and mentally in the year 5000 BC, and therefore had no idea what was happening around them. One can’t help wondering if she had first hand experience of this mental abstraction, having been married to an archaeologist herself for several years at the point she wrote this dialogue.
Yet in spite of their vagueness, Agatha’s archaeologists are industrious. She knew from experience how much work was involved in making those exciting discoveries that people enjoyed reading about in the newspapers. Indeed, in a 1980 book about Agatha Christie the crime writer Robert Barnard made the suggestion that “about the only work every done in a Christie novel is archaeology,” and this does ring true. Most of the characters in Agatha Christie’s novels either have no need to work or are caught at the point of the plot in a time of leisure — with the exception of domestic servants whose labour tends to go on in the background. The inclusion of an active dig in Murder in Mesopotamia is one of the few times that the people directly involved in the murder investigation are actually working while the action of the book is taking place.
Beyond her direct portrayals of archaeologists themselves, Agatha Christie explores the connections between their discipline and detective work. Both require a close and impartial study of context and the reconstruction of motive and action based on limited clues. Both detective and archaeologist are concerned with the when, how and why of the case they are engaged upon, and both require the careful gathering and interpretatino of evidence.
In Murder in Mesopotamia, she makes this connection explicit by setting a detective novel at an excavation. Hercule Poirot is using all of his methods to reconstruct the events of the recent part on the same site that the archaeologists are doing this for events much, much longer ago. Indeed, the expedition leader on the dig at the centre of that book tells Poirot that he would have made a good archaeologist because he “has the gift of recreating the past”.
This alignment of detection with archaeology was obviously something that Christie devoted some thought to, because it crops up again in Death on the Nile, when Hercule Poirot refers back to the events of Murder in Mesopotamia. While at the archaeological site, he explains to a baffled Colonel Race, he learned that care and patience is required to separate the object from the “extraneous matter” around it that might confuse or obscure the truth of the matter. Discovering a murderer is a lot like that, he continues. It might seem like he is spending too much time on irrelevant details, but really what he is doing is clearing away everything that is not relevant until only “the naked shining truth” remains.
Agatha Christie was far from the only writer to make this connection, by the way. In the 1949 Ellery Queen novel Cat of Many Tails, the detective refers to “the archaeology of murder”, meaning the material collated by the investigators of a crime — photographs, fingerprints, reports, that he must go through to solve the mystery. And the Amelia Peabody series, written by the Egyptologist Barbara Mertz under the pseudonym Elizabeth Peters, explores these two kinds of investigation in parallel as well.
Perhaps my favourite archaelogical detective novel, though, was written by one Stanley Casson, an academic at Oxford University who specialised in Byzantine archaeology. He only published one detective novel as far as I’ve been able to discover, Murder by Burial in 1938. It concerns a dig in a small English village that ends in tragedy, and touches on a lot of themes to do with totalitarianism and patriotism that were clearly very topical at the time it was written. Best of all, it has a connection to Christie, because Casson was one of Max Mallowan’s tutors when he was at university, and wrote him the letter of recommendation that enabled him to get his first job in archaeology, with Leonard Woolley at Ur.
Without Stanley Casson, Agatha and Max might never have met, and we would never have met all of Agatha’s archaeologists.
This episode was hosted by me, Caroline Crampton. Find links to all the books mentioned and other information about this episode at shedunnitshow.com/agathasarchaeologists. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. The show’s production assistant is Angela Sullivan. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.
Thanks for listening. I’ll be back in two weeks with a new episode.