Crime and Potsherds

Agatha Christie and Archaeology at the British Museum

Agatha Christie has sold more novels than any other writer in English and has been translated into more languages than Shakespeare. But few remember that for 46 years she was married to archeologist Max Mallowan; or thatfor 30 years she acted as photographer, cook, conservator, earth mother, and mender of broken pots on his digs in Iraq and Syria. She also wrote a play about the pharaoh Akhenaton, and a whodunit set in ancient Egypt, both meticulously based on the latest archeological evidence. "Archeology," wrote a critic in the '70s, "is about the only work ever done in a Christie novel." Even Hercule Poirot, in Murder in Mesopotamia, visits an excavation, where he's told, by a figure based on Sir Leonard Woolley, that he'd have made a good archeologist: "You have the gift of re-creating the past."

Out of this association between the detective and the archeologist has come a little exhibition at the British Museum in London called Agatha Christie and Archaeology: Mystery in Mesopotamia (through March 24). For the occasion, a 1920s sleeping car straight out of Murder on the Orient Express has been installed in the museum's forecourt—and this sets the tone. The show is a re-creation of the adventures Christie and her husband had together, and of the way they spilled over into her fiction. There are leather suitcases and worn postcards; logbooks and drawings; and ceramics, ivories, and other artifacts that they turned up in Tell Arpachiya, Tell Brak, and Nimrud. Most evocative are the photographs, many of them by Christie, and two documentary films she made of life at the digs, with excerpts from her own and Mallowan's autobiographies. This is no blockbuster. It's a confection, as light and airy as the vanilla soufflés Christie used to rustle up in a tin-box oven. If you want heavier fare, though, all you have to do is step into the nearby galleries, which house gigantic stone figures and carved slabs that are the lasting memorials of the world she helped to unearth.