Recreating the past: Agatha Christie, archaeology & fiction

‘Bismillahi ar rahman ar rahim [In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate]. That is the Arab phrase used before starting out on a journey. Eh bien, we too start on a journey. A journey into the past. A journey into the strange places of the human soul.’

Hercule Poirot, Angela Savage, Kerry Greenwood, Patrick Greene. Photo: Carmel Shute

‘I quote myself,’ said Hercule Poirot (aka Bernard Caleo), brandishing a copy of Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia as he opened the forum Murder in Mesopotamia: Agatha Christie and Archaeology at the Melbourne Museum on 9 Sept 2012.

The idea for the forum came from banter about what to read in preparation for Melbourne Museum’s Mesopotamia exhibition. A fellow crime writer suggested Murder in Mesopotamia, which I was intrigued to learn was Agatha Christie’s most autobiographical novel. The more I learned about Agatha’s links to archaeology, the more intrigued I became.

Hercule Poirot (aka Bernard Caleo) pays attentive attentions. Photo: Carmel Shute

I pitched the idea for a forum to Bernard, an old friend and Public Programs Officer at the Museum. I approached Kerry Greenwood, knowing her to be a lover of archaeology and ancient worlds, and Kerry was delighted to be given the chance to talk about something other than Phryne Fisher‘s clothes. We found a real archaeologist for the panel in Dr Patrick Greene, CEO of Museums Victoria.

Through links to the British Museum, we came across Henrietta McCall, whom it’s safe to say that as co-curator of the 2001-02 exhibition ‘Agatha Christie and Archeology: Mystery in Mesopotamia’ and author of The Life of Max Mallowan: Archaeology and Agatha Christie, is a world authority on the subject. I had the pleasure of meeting Henrietta last month in London, where we went through the British Museum’s wonderful collection of images to use during the forum.

The sold out event attracted over 200 people who heard Henrietta in a pre-recorded interview explain Agatha Christie’s involvement in archaeology through her marriage to Max Mallowan, describing how Christie’s experiences manifest in her writing, from the ‘travel genre’ novels of Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, to the archaeological musings in Murder in Mesopotamia and They Came to Bagdad.

In addition to being what Henrietta described as ‘a stalwart’, Agatha emerged as something of a role model. Unusually for her time, she was financially independent, an intrepid traveller, prolific writer, skilled photographer and handy with an orange stick and face cream should any 3,000-year-old ivories be unearthed in the near vicinity. She accompanied her husband on his digs in remote parts of the Middle East up until she was almost 70.

‘Agatha was what used to be called a jolly good sport,’ Henrietta said.

According to Henrietta, Agatha thought there was ‘a big connection’ between archaeology and crime fiction. ‘And if you think about it, they are not so very different,’ she said. ‘As Hercule Poirot himself would say, “I clear away the extraneous matter so that we can see the truth, the naked shining truth.”

‘And of course Agatha herself said of Poirot, “You would have made a good archaeologist, M Poirot. You have the gift of re-creating the past”.’

This line, from Murder in Mesopotamia, gave me the perfect segue to introduce the two live panellists for the forum, both people with the gift for recreating the past.

‘Governor General of Crime’ Kerry Greenwood. Photo: Carmel Shute

Kerry Greenwood and Patrick Greene discussed the Golden Rules of murder mysteries and archaeology respectively, both citing books by Leonard Woolley as early influences. The fascinating discussion took the audience from Cheshire in North West England where Patrick directed excavations of medieval ruins at Norton Priory, to the Valley of the Kings in Egypt where Kerry found the inspiration for her novel Out of the Black Land in the carvings on a judge’s tomb.

Like Kerry, Agatha wrote a novel set in ancient Egypt, Death Comes As the End. I asked Patrick why he thought ancient Egypt captures the popular imagination in a way that ancient Mesopotamia does not, especially when the inventions of ancient Mesopotamia – such writing, time measurement, cities, agriculture – are arguably more significant. He suggested it came down to geology, the stones of Egypt leaving far more impressive ruins than the mud-brick of Mesopotamia. And also accessibility: people can visit and marvel at the standing remains of ancient Egypt, but the Mesopotamian ruins in modern day Iraq remain off limits.

For Kerry, Egypt has an accessibility that Mesopotamia does not, providing insights into how ordinary people lived — she cites a household remedy for warding off mice as an example — which in turn inspires her writing. Patrick begged to differ, citing examples from the harp found at the Royal Complex at Ur to the epic poem of Gilgamesh as providing insight into Mesopotamian culture. My own theory is that it takes greater effort to imagine Mesopotamia.

Patrick said archaeology is about nothing if it’s not about people. He described his work as bringing ancient peoples ‘out of the shadow’, which strikes me as precisely the role of historical novelists, too.

As Hercule Poirot said in his closing remarks, ‘I propose to you that both fictions and museums address themselves to our imaginations, that we stock our imaginations from the bounty that they offer us and…Inshallah…we use that bounty to see as much order and meaning as possible in our beautiful and troubling world.’

About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. She won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, and the Scarlet Stiletto Award short story award. Her latest novel is, Mother of Pearl, published by Transit Lounge. Angela holds a PhD in Creative Writing, is former CEO of Writers Victoria, and currently works as CEO of Public Libraries Victoria.
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2 Responses to Recreating the past: Agatha Christie, archaeology & fiction

  1. kathy d. says:

    I have mixed feelings about the Belgian detective, with whom I parted company at the age of 19 when I realized that he and I differed on a lot of things. However, one character whom I adore is the investigating baker, Corinna Chapman, created by Kerry Greenwood.
    I have laughed frequently, while reading books featuring this intrepid amateur detective, and chucked at the political barbs thrown across the globe to the political scene over here. Not only do I like the protagonist, but I enjoy the whole group of tenants, bakers and assorted personalities in her establishment, including the Mouse Patrol. So creative, so much fun.


  2. Pingback: Running to stand still* | Angela Savage

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