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 Agatha Christie and Archaeology
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Session 3
Session 2Session 4

The Excavations at Nineveh, Arpachiyah, Chagar Bazar and Tell Brak; 1931-1939

They examined small, obscure mounds all over the country, picked up fragments of painted pottery wherever they went, labelling them, tying them up in bags, and examining the patterns - it was endlessly interesting.

I enjoyed my first experience of living on a dig enormously.
--Agatha Christie
, An Autobiography

Nineveh

Nineveh was the capital of the late Assyrian or Neo-Assyrian empire, situated in the north of modern Iraq. Like Ur, Nineveh is known from the Bible. Sent by God to warn Nineveh of impending doom, the prophet Jonah set off to sea instead and was swallowed by a large fish. Only after being released did he submit to God's command. Nineveh is referred to in the Bible as 'an exceeding great city'. Until the destruction of their empire by the Medes and Babylonians in 612 BCE, the Assyrians were powerful enemies of the kingdom of Judah, and their capital was one of the greatest cities of the time. The city wall enclosed an area of 750 hectares, making it one and a half times as large as Babylon, and twice the size of Rome when that city was at its largest.


Before allowing the Mallowans to join the dig at Nineveh, British archaeologist Reginald Campbell Thompson (known as CT), a specialist in inscriptions and tablets, invited the Mallowans to spend a weekend in Oxford, to see if they would be suitable for his excavation team. The test included a cross-country scramble in bad weather (no complaints to be made and a special note taken of footwear) and meals at which they were expected to eat everything with enthusiasm. Luckily they passed, and at the end of September, Max travelled out to the mound of Nineveh near Mosul, to be followed by Agatha in October. Agatha loved Nineveh from the start. The expedition house was simple, but had a wonderful view of the mound. At dawn each day CT and Max climbed to the flat roof and checked the weather. If it was good, a signal was given to the foreman on the mound to summon the workforce.Agatha and CT's wife Barbara wandered up to the top of the mound at about 8 o'clock bearing breakfast of tea, hard-boiled eggs and flaps of Arab bread. Often they stayed on and watched the progress of the excavations.

Early archaeological discoveries

The stranger trod upon alabaster slabs, each bearing an inscription... doorways, formed by gigantic winged lions or bulls... led into other apartments, which again opened into more distant halls...
--Austen Henry Layard
, Nineveh and Its Remains, (1849)

The city of Nineveh, known from the Bible, had been occupied from as early as the seventh millennium BCE. Its years of greatest glory were during the eighth and seventh centuries when powerful Assyrian kings carried out massive building programmes.
[lion]
The British Museum
The Dying Lion, a stone panel from the North Palace of Ashurbanipal, Kuyunjik (ancient Nineveh), northern Iraq. Neo-Assyrian, around 645 BCE.
Sennacherib (704-681 BCE) moved his capital to Nineveh from Khorsabad and built a palace, an armoury and a city wall more than 12 kilometres in length. Another magnificent palace with beautiful decorative reliefs was built by Ashurbanipal (668-627 BCE). A collection of more than 30,000 clay tablets, including the myth of Gilgamesh, with the story of the flood, was found in these two palaces. Nineveh was sacked by the Babylonians and Medes in 612 BCE.Modern excavation began with the Frenchman Paul-Emile Botta, but from 1847 the site had been excavated by the British. Austen Henry Layard was the first and best known of the early archaeologists. Reginald Campbell Thompson began work in 1927. By 1931, when he was joined by Max Mallowan, he and his team had cleared the Nabu temple and found the remains of another colossal temple dedicated to the goddess Ishtar.

The deep pit

The point of coming to Nineveh, for Max, was to dig down a deep pit through the mound.
--Agatha Christie
, An Autobiography
Campbell Thompson's main interest in Nineveh was in inscriptions and the discovery of cuneiform tablets. But Max was more interested in pottery. He believed that if a pit could be dug all the way down to virgin soil, the type of fragments found at each level would help to establish a chronology for northern Mesopotamia.A spot was chosen at the highest point of the mound and the men began to dig an area some 25 metres by 17 metres. They soon reached a level that could be dated to about 3000 BCE. On they dug, 10 metres from the top, 15 metres, then 20 metres. Steps were cut into the sides so that baskets of earth could be handed up from workman to workman. After seven weeks, they reached virgin soil at 30 metres below the surface. The area of the pit was only 4 metres square.The virgin soil was the starting point for the classification of the prehistoric strata into five distinct periods, labelled Ninevite I to V. Analysis of the pottery fragments and comparisons with other sites gave parallels not only locally, but also with sites in southern Mesopotamia.

Absent in spring

Oh, well, desert travel is seldom according to schedule.
--Agatha Christie
, Absent in the Spring, (1944)
The novel Absent in the Spring was published under the pseudonym of Mary Westmacott in 1944. The idea for the story came to Agatha when she was stranded for three days on the way to Nineveh in October 1931. Heavy rain had made the roads impassable and there was nothing for her to do except wait for the weather to improve.The story is about a woman, Joan Scudamore, who finds herself alone with nothing to do at a rest house on the border between Syria and Turkey after rain has washed away part of the railway line. At first Joan is content to wander around and read her books, but after two days her isolation forces her to confront her own inadequacies as a wife and mother, and to think about the sort of person she has become. The story is told in a series of flashbacks to conversations she has heard, meetings she has witnessed and impressions she has made, all contributing to her growing sense of unease.

Holidays in Egypt

There are very wonderful things to be seen in Egypt, are there not?
--Agatha Christie
, Death on the Nile, (1937)
Agatha first visited Egypt when she was twenty and had fun attending balls and race meetings, and falling in love. She went again in 1931, after her marriage to Max, and again in 1933. Under Max's influence, and because of a growing interest in archaeology, she became interested in ancient Egyptian civilisation. She came to know a number of Egyptologists and found inspiration for her books in the history of Egypt. Egypt before the Second World War was one of the smart places to spend the winter. Cairo had its own social season and throughout the winter months, cruise ships sailed up and down the Nile from Aswan to Cairo and back, mooring at temples along the way. Visitors spent at least a week at Luxor from where they could spend days exploring the Valley of the Kings. The tomb of Tutankhamun had been discovered in November 1922 but even ten years later, work to remove the thousands of wonderful objects was still going on. It was supervised by the man responsible for the discovery, Howard Carter.

Stories from Egypt

In the course of an excavation, when something comes up out of the ground, everything is cleared away very carefully all around it... That is what I have been seeking to do-- clear away the extraneous matter so that we can see the truth-- the naked shining truth.
--Agatha Christie
, Death on the Nile
Agatha Christie first used Egypt and a cruise ship in a short story published in the 1920s, but Egypt merely provided a convenient background. In 1934, she wrote another short story based in Egypt and called it Death on the Nile. The setting was more authentic and by this time the author had clearly been to the temples she described. Then in 1937 Agatha produced a novel of the same name. Here the archaeological background was vividly brought to life, and the author showed her knowledge of obscure sites well off the tourist path.Death Comes as the End is based on a series of letters discovered in a tomb at Thebes in 1921, sent by a priest to his family. Agatha Christie wove a web of intrigue around the ancient characters and produced a book that appealed both to her usual public and to Egyptologists. She was helped by Stephen Glanville at The British Museum. Another friend and Egyptologist, Professor I. E. S. Edwards, advised Agatha on her play, Akhnaton. This was written in 1937, although not published until 1973. It has never been performed.

Appointment with Death

All around and below stretched the blood-red rocks--a strange and unbelievable country unparalleled anywhere.
--Agatha Christie
, Appointment with Death, (1938)
Max and Agatha visited the ruins of Petra in Jordan on their way home from a season of digging at Chagar Bazar in 1934, and it became the setting for Appointment with Death, published in 1938. Ideas for characters came from earlier trips. The murder victim--a tyrannical matriarch--is based on a fellow passenger on a Nile cruise taken by Max and Agatha in 1933. The characters of Lady Westholme and Miss Pierce were probably based on the formidable Miss Wilbraham and her devoted companion, both of whom Agatha had met in 1930 taking a party of Anglo-Catholic ladies round Iraq.The book explores the complicated relationship between mothers and children. Psychological observation is combined with a fine picture of early tours of Petra, where visitors had the option of sleeping in a cave or a tent. They were looked after by the famous Nazzal, acting as agent for the London based company, Thomas Cook & Son.
Here, where nowadays only the tribesmen move with their brown tents, was once a busy part of the world. Here, some five thousand years ago, was the busy part of the world.
--Agatha Christie
, Come, Tell Me How You Live

A dig of his own

All digging is a gamble - among seventy Tells ...who is to say which one holds ... a collection of objects of special interest.
--Agatha Christie
, Come, Tell Me How You Live
[bowls]
The British Museum
Painted pottery bowl and plate from the TT6 Burnt House at Tell Arpachiyah, northern Iraq, Halaf period, about 4500 BCE.

Level TT6--the sixth level down from the 'top of the Tepe' and the last level of Halaf occupation at the site--gives Arpachiyah its greatest claim to fame. The rectangular antechamber of one of the earlier massive TT7 'tholoi' remained in use or was rebuilt at the centre of a sprawling rectangular building. At some point in antiquity it burnt down, preserving a great wealth of objects that had been in the building in its final stages of use.

Mallowan suggested that the 'Burnt House' was a chief's residence, or even a potter's house, because of the great quantity of pottery plates decorated in up to three colours with densely packed geometric patterns of amazing complexity. They are certainly likely to have been prestige items and there remain few or no parallels at other sites.

After his season with Reginald Campbell Thompson at Nineveh, Max felt ready to direct a dig of his own. He received support from the British School of Archaeology in Iraq and from The British Museum. Agatha generously supplied the rest of the money and at the end of January they set off for Iraq once more.
Tell Arpachiyah

The site of Tell Arpachiyah takes its name from a village a few miles north-east of Nineveh, but the mound itself is called Tepe Reshwa. It is considered a very important site for archaeologists' understanding of the later prehistory of northern Mesopotamia. When Mallowan began his excavation in 1933, it was surrounded by farmland. Today it is enclosed by a housing scheme and the village is being taken over by the urban spread of Mosul.

The site was chosen largely on the basis of the ornate pottery that littered the surface of the tell. This pottery is known as Halaf, after Tell Halaf in north Syria, where Baron von Oppenheim first described it. Now it is well known that this pottery characterises a large area across north Mesopotamia, that flourished between 6000 and 5300 BCE.

Max had already decided to excavate the mound, or tell, at Arpachiyah. The spring rains that year were torrential and it took the Mallowans 54 hours to travel from Damascus to Baghdad. At one stage they were caught in a flooded wadi for several hours. None of the expedition material was harmed, but Agatha spent an entire afternoon wringing out her clothes at their hotel in Baghdad.When the party finally reached Arpachiyah, the tell seemed to be owned by at least 14 families, and the consent of each had to be acquired. No digging could begin because of the rain. Agatha consoled herself by finding a charming house with a large flat roof and a fierce guard dog. It surprised her by producing six puppies, which all became part of the household.

Tell Arpachiyah

There were glorious dishes, vases, cups and plates, polychrome pottery, all shining in the sun - scarlet and black and orange - a magnificent sight.
--Agatha Christie
, An Autobiography
While Max had been digging his pit at Nineveh, local villagers often brought him pottery samples from a nearby mound at Arpachiyah. The fragments were similar to some of those found in the prehistoric levels of the Nineveh pit and were called Halaf ware after a site in northern Mesopotamia. They dated to about 5000 BCE.Max was attracted to Arpachiyah because these easily identifiable fragments were lying near the surface of the mound. This meant that the prehistoric levels were not overlaid with too much accumulated debris from later periods. At first, the results were disappointing. The mud-brick remains looked unpromising. Then, under a cemetery of the Ubaid period (5500-4000 BCE), they found a series of domed buildings, probably with religious significance, that provided some interesting material. And then they had a stroke of luck. In the middle of the mound they uncovered a potter's workshop. It contained more than 150 decorated plates and bowls. According to Max they were unsurpassed in their beautiful finish, purity of clay and decorative quality. The pottery must have been made at Arpachiyah and from there exported north.

A part of the team

We were so frantically busy we didn't know how to cope. Vessel after vessel came up. They were smashed ... but they were there, and could nearly all be reconstructed.
--Agatha Christie
, An Autobiography
[workman]
The British Museum
A workman at Tell Arpachiyah next to a large storage jar.

It was at Arpachiyah that Agatha first became involved in excavation work, and began to acquire the skills that made her an invaluable member of the team. Max and Agatha lived in a house that had a flat roof, which was ideal for laying out fragments of pottery. Agatha, who loved jigsaw puzzles, excelled at matching fragments, and became skilled at sticking them together. She had been trained as a dispenser during the First World War, and soon mastered the technique of first cleaning the fragments with chemical solutions. Agatha was also the expedition photographer, taking photographs of objects both in the ground and after they had been restored. She developed the film in a small cubbyhole into which she had to crawl on all fours. Agatha took on the housekeeping and soon had the cook concocting dishes such as a vanilla souffl´┐Ż baked in an old tin. She was also asked by the local sheikh to dispense medicine. Her usual remedy for all complaints was a dose of bicarbonate of soda, which gained a special reputation when one woman produced twin sons on the strength of it.

Chagar Bazar

Life now settles down to its accustomed round. Max departs at dawn every morning to the mound. Most days I go with him...
--Agatha Christie
, Come, Tell Me How You Live
A second season at Arpachiyah was cancelled as it became clear that western excavators were less welcome in Iraq than before. Max turned his attention to the Habur Valley region in Syria, just across the border. Here sites would probably be similar to Arpachiyah. After a rapid six-week survey, Max decided on the site of Chagar Bazar.
Chagar Bazar

Chagar Bazar is located on the upper Khabur in north-east Syria. The mound is about 12 hectares at maximum, and its greatest height is 21 metres above the modern plain. It lies on the west bank of the Wadi Dara, which feeds the Wadi Khanzir, a tributary to the Khabur River; it is on the modern road between Hasseke and Amuda and was surely on a number of ancient routes that crossed this region.

Max Mallowan's excavations of the site from 1935-37 revealed that the site was first occupied some time during the prehistoric Halaf period, the later sixth millenium BCE, and was finally abandoned in the mid-second millenium BCE. Fifteen occupation levels were identified, of Halaf, Ninevite 5, Early Dynastic to Akkadian, and Old Babylonian.

In his first season, Max organised the digging of a 16-metre pit down to virgin soil. Pottery samples revealed that the site had been occupied during the Halaf period. During a second season, in spring 1936, workers uncovered more than seventy cuneiform tablets dating from the early second millennium BCE. These presented a picture of a thriving agricultural community engaged in sheep-rearing and the cultivation of barley, from which both bread and beer were made. Chagar Bazar appeared to have been on a route linking it to trading posts on the Tigris and Euphrates. The seasons at Chagar Bazar were made even more enjoyable because the expedition team lived in a specially designed and built domed house. Agatha was the chief photographer, responsible for recording the finds made on the excavation.

Tell Brak

The day has come when the first spade is to be put into Tell Brak. It is quite a solemn moment.
--Agatha Christie
, Come, Tell Me How You Live
Tell Brak had once been an important town on a major trading route linking Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean. The enormous mound that marks the spot was close to Chagar Bazar. In 1937 Max decided to dig both sites at the same time.



Tell Brak

Tell Brak is one of the most impressive archaeological sites in the Near East. It rises to a height of over 40 metres and occupies an area of some 60 hectares, dominating the landscape of the lower Wadi Jaghjagh in north-eastern Syria. The site lies on a major ancient road from the Tigris Valley in modern Iraq via Chagar Bazar to Mardin, and the metal resources of Anatolia, or westwards to the Euphrates and the distant Mediterranean. At the time Max Mallowan began his excavation in the spring of 1937, virtually no archaeological work had been carried out in that part of Syria, then under French mandate. It was here that Mallowan happened upon perhaps his most important discovery, the Naram-Sin Palace.

Tell Brak was a productive site for Max. In his first two seasons he traced and began to excavate, to the south-east of the mound, a large palace built by the ruler Naram-Sin (2254-2218 BCE). At the same time, he was uncovering a temple platform to the south-west. Inside the temple, known as the Eye Temple because of the many hundreds of eye idols that lay scattered inside, Max made one of his most important finds. This was an altar decorated with a frieze carved in fretted bands of blue limestone, white marble and green corrugated shale, each surmounted by gold foil casing.In 1938 Agatha's daughter Rosalind Christie came out to join the team. She was responsible for drawing some of the objects found on the dig.
[staff]
The British Museum
The 180-strong excavation team.



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