My Top 3 Archaeology Themed Agatha Christie Books

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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.

 

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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.

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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).
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A Wolf for Dinner

To celebrate the eagerly anticipated (by me at least) arrival of Wolf Hall to our screens tonight, I have snuffled out some Tudor recipes for you to try and munch on, whilst watching the BBC do what it does best.

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Cookery books were starting to emerge during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, however many people during this time would have been unable to read, and so recipes were passed down largely by word of mouth and hands-on teaching. Methods of heating food would have been temperamental and unique to each kitchen, so cooks needed to be skilled in managing the quirks of their own equipment – a tradition that was still evident in my Grandma’s methods of cooking even fairly recently. Measurements and scales were little used, and again cooks would have known the quantities of ingredients specific to their own recipes, judged using bowls, jugs and dishes.

What you ate depended largely on who you were. Certain ingredients, such as spices and sugar were very expensive, and so recipes making lavish use of these items were probably not for Mr and Mrs Joe Blogge, but rather the wealthier echelons of society.

All in all Tudor cooks were pretty clever cookies (excuse the pun), with an extensive set skills and a wealth of learned knowledge gleaned from untold hours of laborious preparation. Thankfully someone had the foresight to write some of these wonderful recipes down and the below are all taken from ‘A Proper New Booke of Cookery’, published in 1575 (technically making it Elizabethan, but we’re all friends here).

I just love the phrasing in some of these instructions, it’s so friendly. I’ve tried to not make too many amendments to the text, because interpeting and understanding the language is half the fun of historical documents. I have however added a few pointers in brackets and broken up the sentence structure slightly for ease.

So, here are some of my favourite recipes: Pigeon Pie, Chicken Pie, Apple Pie, A Dishful of Snow and finally Eggs in Moonshine (I know, too sweet isn’t it?)

To bake pigeons in short paste (pastry) as you make to your baken Apples.

Season your Pigeons with Pepper, Saffron, Cloves and Mace, with veriuyce (a sour, acidic fruit juice of unripe grapes or crab apples – I imagine lemon juice would work just as well) and salt. Then put them into your paste (pastry), and so close them up, and bake them. They will bake in halfe an houre, then take them foorth, and if ye thinke them dry, take a litle veriuyce and butter, and put to them, and so serve them.

To bake Chickins in like paste (pastry).

Take your chickens & season them with a litle ginger & salt, and so put them into your coffin (love this term for a pastry case), & so put in them barberries, grapes, or goseberies, & halfe a dish of buttter, so close them up, & set them in the oven, & when they are baken, take the yolkes of vi. egges, and a dishful of veriuyce, and drawe them through a strainer, and set them upon a chafingedyshe (I guess a double boiler would suffice). Then draw your baken chikens, and put therto this foresayd egges and veriuyce and thus serue them hotte.

To make pies of greene Apples.

Take your Apples and pare them cleane, and core them as ye wil a quince (love it).
Then make your coffin after this manner – take a litle fayre water (clean water), and halfe a fishe of butter, and a litle Saffron, and set all this upon a chafindyshe, tyll it bee hote. Then temper your flower with this sayd licour, and the white of two egges, & also make your coffin. Season your Apples with Cinamon, Ginger and Sugar inough. Then put them into your coffin, and bake them.

To make a dishefull of Snow.

Take a pottel of sweete thick creame and the white of 8 egges, and beate them altogether with a spone. Then put them in your creame, and a saucer full of rose water, and a dishe full of suger withal. Then take a stycke and make it cleane, and then cutte it in the ende foure square (whisk), and therewith beat all the aforesaide things together, and ever as ut riseth (beat until fluffy and risen), take it of, and put it into a Collander. This done, take an apple and set it in the middes of it, and a thicke bush of Rosemarye. Set it in the middes of the platter, then cast your snowe upon the Rosemarye, and fyll your platter therwith. And if you have wafers, cast some in withall, & thus serve them forth.

To make egges in mone shine.

Take a dishe of rose water, and a dishefull of suger, and set them upon a chafingdish, and let them boile. Then take the yolkes of 8. or 9. egges newlaid, and put them therto, every one from other, and so let them harden a little. And so after this maner serve them forth, and cast a little Cinnamon and suger.

Nom!

xx

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Archaeologists Assemble!

As some of you will be aware I am currently completing my MA in Archaeology. Adorning my department walls is an ever changing carnival of posters for multiple and varied conferences, lectures and projects covering a broad spectrum of historical and archaeological research interests. I’m not going to lie, most are pretty darn niche. However today I spotted one that I thought looked really interesting and was thoroughly deserving of a bit of a shout out.

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As we all know this year marks the centenary of the start of the First World War. I have already mentioned the great ‘Letter to an Unknown Solider’ project that I took part in recently (and you can too!). However this year The Council for British Archaeology are also commemorating the War by launching a four year project (2014-2018) exploring the effects of the First World War in Britain through previously unrecorded sites. The Home Front Legacy Project is asking you to get involved by letting them know about sites in your area which are historically valuable to the story of the First World War in Britain. This is your chance to flex your archaeologist elbow. But don’t worry, you don’t need to be experienced in the field or even get muddy. Much of archaeological work, which isn’t for some reason documented in Indiana Jones, is recording evidence (like a detective I like to think, which is equally as cool). Archaeology is a destructive process and so we replace what we remove with accurate records to preserve the site for future study. This model of recording is what the CBA are asking us all to do. They provide all of the tools needed on their website (along with a much more thorough brief than I have sketched out). The website will also serve as a repository for the information and will develop a UK wide map plotting newly discovered sites. The data will also be shared across multiple archaeological agencies and submitted to local councils to ensure that First World War sites are considered in any future planning decisions. Very cool indeed.

The sites could be anything, from requisitioned buildings, military sites or even documentary evidence such as photographs and letters.

I think this is a fabulous opportunity to preserve our relatively recent local history in a synthesised way and to ensure it doesn’t disappear over time.

Also I just really love doing detective work.

Follow the project on Twitter too @homefrontlegacy

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