Whenever I tell someone I am involved in archaeology in any way the most common response I receive is, ‘Oh you must have loved Indiana Jones growing up!’ The truth is that I didn’t. I never watched it. What I did do was read a lot of Agatha Christie books. This may seem a little incongruous but there is actually a lot of archaeology in Agatha Christie’s work. The reasons are twofold. Number one, she was writing during a period commonly referred to as the ‘Golden Age’ of archaeology. When news broke of Howard Carter and friends discovering Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 archaeology became very fashionable indeed. The allure of the mysterious East led to a colonial interpretation of orientalised trends which permeated style, architecture and entertainment in London and other major cities. However, Agatha was not merely writing to the whims of fashion but from her own experience. After the breakdown of her first marriage Agatha travelled to the Middle East where she met the archaeologist Max Mallowman whom she later married. Over the subsequent years she spent time on his dig sites and worked alongside him recording finds and data on occasion. So it was that Agatha weaved considerable archaeological intrigue into her works. Not only did it give a frisson of the exotic to her stories, but it was also an area she knew about. She adopted a similar tactic with poisons, drawing upon her experience as a dispensing chemist to pepper her works with accurate detail, which I have written about here.
Reading Agatha Christie books in my childhood bedroom first opened my eyes to the exotic world of archaeology and ancient history and imbedded in me a fascination with the past that remains strong today. I was of course sorely disappointed to discover that most archaeologist don’t sport a light tweed and find jade scorpions in forgotten tombs anymore, but you can’t have it all.
In honour and gratitude to my favourite author and the impact she inadvertently had on my life, I have compiled a list of my favourite three Christie stories, featuring archaeology.
1. Murder in Mesopotamia. 1936
Perhaps not at all surprising to start us off being as it is set on an archaeological dig, where the lead archaeologist’s wife gets bumped ‘orf. In Murder in Mesopotamia Poirot visits a site near Hassanieh in modern day Iraq and the premise of the story is drawn pretty directly from Agatha’s own encounter with Mallowman at Ur (apart from the murder bit I suspect). It feels lesser known than Poirot’s other adventures in the East, such as Death on the Nile and I can’t imagine why because it’s a complete corker with some pretty exceptional deaths. It was bought into the Suchet cannon in 2002 and was rounded out by a very nice performance from Ron Berglas and some very period dig wear.
2. Murder at the Vicarage 1930
I know, I can hear you choking on you tea as I write. ‘Murder at the Vicarage has nothing at all to do with archaeology! It’s set in St. Mary Mead for one thing and follows the most parochial of cast members imaginable!’ Well yes and yes I know. But there is also an archaeologist in the story in the form of Dr. Stone and his assistant. Murder at the Vicarage was the first Christie I ever read and I didn’t even read it, I got it out of the library on BBC audio tape read by June Whitfield (who – side note – should have been cast as Miss Marple by now ITV gods that be!). Anyway, sitting on the navy carpet of my sister’s bedroom playing with marbles and listening to lovely June through the speaker of a bubble-gum pink radio cassette player in 1992, I was inspired that even in sleepy St Mary Mead, there was archaeology to be found and archaeologists could survive by pootling about the countryside and nosing about in people’s copses. To bring this quaint moment of nostalgia bang up to date – #lifegoals.
3. An Appointment with death. 1938
This one is set in Petra and it is perhaps my favourite of the bunch. Mrs Boyton is a vile woman whose children despise her and she might as well walk around with a huge target on her back and a neon sign flashing ‘kill me horribly’ from the moment we meet her. This of course happens and Poirot cracks the case all the while waging a heroic battle with the sand in his polished shoes. The TV adaptation mixed things up a bit by adding new characters and shifting the location to Syria, but it is none the worse for it and the spirit of the exotic archaeological heyday is palpable.
If you haven’t read any of the above I suggest you do, but you can stop short of actually going and becoming an archaeologist. Only an idiot would do that because they read a murder mystery (exits stage right).