Famed mystery writer Agatha Christie had many influences on her writing, including her time learning to mix ointments (and avoid poisons) while working at a Red Cross hospital during World War I. But just as important as her intimate knowledge of the apothecary’s wares was her connection to the archaeology world. The author’s archaeological background is now the topic of a new exhibit, Investigating Agatha Christie, on view at Pointe-à-Callière, Montreal’s archaeology museum, until April 17.
Christie’s second husband, Sir Max Mallowan (seen with her in the image above), was a prominent archaeologist, and Christie spent plenty of time traveling with with him and digging up ancient Mesopotamian artifacts. They crossed paths when Christie, fresh off a divorce from her husband of 14 years, decided to have a solo world adventure, starting with a trip to Baghdad on the Orient Express. At the ruins of Ur, she met Mallowan, and they married in 1930.
Agatha Christie enjoying tea on the balcony of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, Baghdad, 1950s. Image Credit: © The Christie Archive Trust
She would later accompany him on digs in Cairo, Damascus, and elsewhere (though some of Mallowan’s colleagues thought it inappropriate), and she did more than sit on the sidelines. For one, she financed several of his expeditions. She cleaned, classified, and photographed the artifacts they found, as well as documented the sites. She may have even cleaned 3000-year-old ivory artifacts with her face cream, a resourceful move that turned dirty, fragile antiquities into what are now some of the best-preserved ancient ivory carvings in the world.
One of the thousands of figurines found at the Palace of Naram-Sin and the Eye Temple in Syria, discovered on a dig Christie took part in. Image Credit: © The Trustees of the British Museum
In turn, being a part of her husband’s archeaology work influenced Christie’s writing. One of her most famous mysteries, Murder on the Orient Express, was in part inspired by a trip Christie took coming back from one of her husband’s archaeological digs in Iraq, when the train got stuck for 24 hours due to bad weather. She drew on her experiences in the Middle East for novels like Murder in Mesopotamia and They Came to Baghdad.
One of Christie's cameras, used to document artifacts and dig sites. Image Credit: Collection John Mallowan, Londres
The current exhibit in Montreal illuminates Christie’s passion for archaeology and history—which the author pointed out share much in common with detective work, both based on piecing together clues to illuminate past events—through her personal effects, notebooks, and ancient artifacts collected from sites Christie visited in Mesopotamia and Egypt.
A coat Christie wore on her first trip on the Orient Express. Image Credit: © Pointe-à-Callière, Caroline Bergeron
All images courtesy Pointe-à-Callière, Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History