Mystery in the Stacks: A discovery is made in the Museum Archives

July 18, 2012

What do the world’s best mystery author and the Penn Museum have in common?

A lot more than you’d think.

Agatha Christie’s books are famous as being some of the most thrilling novels ever.  Readers through the generations have relished her whodunits. We sit on the edge of our seats as Poirot twiddles his mustache and considers the impossibilities. I myself am only a hundred pages from the end of one of her books and am fighting the urge to skip ahead. The woman knew how to write suspense.

And, as most do not know, she was quite closely connected to the world of archaeology. Dame Agatha married archaeologist Max Mallowan in 1930, when she was aged 40 and he only 26. The pair met on Sir Leonard Woolley’s famous excavation at Ur, a project funded by the British Museum and, drum roll please, the Penn Museum. Max Mallowan was a young assistant when on the Ur excavation but went on to become a famous archaeologist in his own right; he was named Director of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq in 1947. The British Museum  a few years ago presented an exhibit on Agatha Christie’s involvement in archaeology after her marriage to Mallowan.

But Agatha Christie was not an archaeologist. Nurse Leatheran, Christie’s narrator of Murder in Mesopotamia, seems to voice Christie’s sentiments. She is baffled when exploring the excavation. An excavated palace was described as nothing more than dirty walls at one point. But Agatha Christie loved an archaeologist and so she accompanied him on many expeditions, helping out around the excavation house when she could. Our Near Eastern collection may in fact contain artifacts cleaned and assembled by Agatha Christie herself.

I myself am an intern at the Museum archives. My project for the past few weeks has been sorting through the correspondence and photographs of the Joint Expedition to Nippur, an ancient Sumerian city in southern Iraq. The Joint Expedition was a project funded by the University of Chicago and the Penn Museum, lasting only from 1949 to 1953. Excavation at Nippur had originally been conducted by the University Museum, from 1889 to 1900. In 1948, Thorkild Jacobsen, the director of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, was eager to resume work on the site and form a partnership with the Museum. The excavation team began digging in 1949, but the project was never meant to last. Conflict between the two institutions and their liaisons on site resulted in the dig only lasting three seasons before the Penn Museum bowed out.

This friction has made for some pretty enthralling reading. Excavation members complained about power plays, budget constraints and even whose letterhead was being used. Whoever said archives would be boring hasn’t read Carleton Coon’s letters. Complaining of budget constraints, he wrote: “A live curator is worth two in the bush.” And apparently he had gotten word of recent election results: “Please remember that Truman’s victory was a horrid blow much felt in the entire area”(Letter from Carleton Coon to Froelich Rainey, Dec.4, 1949).

But even with this entertainment, sorting photos by number can get a bit tedious unless some novel discovery is made. And how lucky we are.

We know Agatha Christie was on the excavation at Ur twenty years prior to the Joint Expedition, but we have no photographs of the Dame, nor letters indicating her presence in our Archives. So imagine our surprise when a “Mrs. Mallowan” is pictured visiting the site at Nippur. We tracked down the photo and there is the queen of crime herself.

Christie is on the far left of the photo, watching a tablet get coated with wax, as her husband speaks with Don McCown in the middle of the action. She wears a rather silly hat, sunglasses and carries a leather attaché, just as Nurse Leatheran might when uncovering the murder in Mesopotamia. One can imagine her telling the Museum employees on site how she met her husband at another Penn Museum dig.

I am a little insulted on Dame Agatha’s behalf that she is identified only by her married name in the photo catalog, but I suppose it was the custom of the time. She was visiting the site as the wife of the Director of the British School, not conducting a publicity tour of her novels. We see the queen of crime through the lens of archaeology here in the Penn Museum archives. In the world of literature, she ruled the mystery genre but in the world of archaeology she stood off to the side, pictured in a photo that probably hasn’t been touched since arriving here in the Archives. Who knows whom we’ll find next in the stacks.

Left to Right: Agatha Christie Mallowan, Miss Parker, Irene Haines, Halaf,  Carl Haines, Max Mallowan, Don McCown, Mohammed Ali
Penn Museum Image #49024