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© The Christie Archive Trust
© The Christie Archive Trust

How Archaeology Influenced Agatha Christie

© The Christie Archive Trust
© The Christie Archive Trust

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

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History
9 Victims of King Tut's Curse (And One Who Should Have Been)
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

When King Tutankhamen's tomb was discovered on November 26, 1922—after more than 3000 years of uninterrupted repose—some believed the pharaoh unleashed a powerful curse of death and destruction upon all who dared disturb his eternal slumber.

Like any urban legend or media sensation, the alleged curse grew to epic proportions over the years. Here are nine people who might make you believe in such things, and one who should have been a direct recipient of Tut's wrath but got off with nary a scratch.

1. GEORGE HERBERT, 5TH EARL OF CARNARVON

The man who financed the excavation of King Tut's tomb was the first to succumb to the supposed curse. Lord Carnarvon accidentally tore open a mosquito bite while shaving and ended up dying of blood poisoning shortly thereafter. This occurred a few months after the tomb was opened and a mere six weeks after the press started reporting on the "mummy's curse," which was thought to afflict anyone associated with disturbing the mummy. Legend has it that when Lord Carnarvon died, all of the lights in his house mysteriously went out.

2. SIR BRUCE INGHAM

Howard Carter, the archaeologist who discovered the tomb, gave a paperweight to his friend Ingham as a gift. The paperweight appropriately (or perhaps quite inappropriately) consisted of a mummified hand wearing a bracelet that was supposedly inscribed with the phrase, "cursed be he who moves my body." Ingham's house burned to the ground not long after receiving the gift, and when he tried to rebuild, it was hit with a flood.

3. GEORGE JAY GOULD

Gould was a wealthy American financier and railroad executive who visited the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1923 and fell sick almost immediately afterward. He never really recovered and died of a pneumonia a few months later.

4. AUBREY HERBERT

It's said that Lord Carnarvon's half-brother suffered from King Tut's curse merely by being related to him. Aubrey Herbert was born with a degenerative eye condition and became totally blind late in life. A doctor suggested that his rotten, infected teeth were somehow interfering with his vision, and Herbert had every single tooth pulled from his head in an effort to regain his sight. It didn't work. He did, however, die of sepsis as a result of the surgery, just five months after the death of his supposedly cursed brother.

5. HUGH EVELYN-WHITE

Evelyn-White, a British archaeologist, visited Tut's tomb and may have helped excavate the site. After seeing death sweep over about two dozen of his fellow excavators by 1924, Evelyn-White hung himself—but not before writing, allegedly in his own blood, "I have succumbed to a curse which forces me to disappear."

6. AARON EMBER

American Egyptologist Aaron Ember was friends with many of the people who were present when the tomb was opened, including Lord Carnarvon. Ember died in 1926, when his house in Baltimore burned down less than an hour after he and his wife hosted a dinner party. He could have exited safely, but his wife encouraged him to save a manuscript he had been working on while she fetched their son. Sadly, they and the family's maid died in the catastrophe. The name of Ember's manuscript? The Egyptian Book of the Dead.

7. RICHARD BETHELL

Bethell was Lord Carnarvon's secretary and the first person behind Carter to enter the tomb. He died in 1929 under suspicious circumstances: He was found smothered in his room at an elite London gentlemen's club. Soon after, the Nottingham Post mused, "The suggestion that the Hon. Richard Bethell had come under the ‘curse’ was raised last year, when there was a series of mysterious fires at it home, where some of the priceless finds from Tutankhamen’s tomb were stored." No evidence of a connection between artifacts and Bethell's death was established, though.

8. SIR ARCHIBALD DOUGLAS REID

Proving that you didn't have to be one of the excavators or expedition backers to fall victim to the curse, Reid, a radiologist, merely x-rayed Tut before the mummy was given to museum authorities. He got sick the next day and was dead three days later.

9. JAMES HENRY BREASTED

Breasted, another famous Egyptologist of the day, was working with Carter when the tomb was opened. Shortly thereafter, he allegedly returned home to find that his pet canary had been eaten by a cobra—and the cobra was still occupying the cage. Since the cobra is a symbol of the Egyptian monarchy, and a motif that kings wore on their headdresses to represent protection, this was a rather ominous sign. Breasted himself didn't die until 1935, although his death did occur immediately after a trip to Egypt.

10. HOWARD CARTER

Carter never had a mysterious, inexplicable illness and his house never fell victim to any fiery disasters. He died of lymphoma at the age of 64. His tombstone even says, "May your spirit live, may you spend millions of years, you who love Thebes, sitting with your face to the north wind, your eyes beholding happiness." Perhaps the pharaohs saw fit to spare him from their curse.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Scientists Discover a Mysterious Void in the Great Pyramid of Giza
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iStock

The Great Pyramid of Giza, the largest in all of Egypt, was built more than 4500 years ago as the final resting place of the 4th Dynasty pharaoh Khufu (a.k.a. Cheops), who reigned from 2509 to 2483 BCE. Modern Egyptologists have been excavating and studying it for more than a century, but it's still full of mysteries that have yet to be fully solved. The latest discovery, detailed in a new paper in the journal Nature, reveals a hidden void located with the help of particle physics. This is the first time a new inner structure has been located in the pyramid since the 19th century.

The ScanPyramids project, an international endeavor launched in 2015, has been using noninvasive scanning technology like laser imaging to understand Egypt's Old Kingdom pyramids. This discovery was made using muon tomography, a technique that generates 3D images from muons, a by-product of cosmic rays that can pass through stone better than similar technology based on x-rays, like CT scans. (Muon tomography is currently used to scan shipping containers for smuggled goods and image nuclear reactor cores.)

The ScanPyramids team works inside Khufu's Pyramid
ScanPyramids

The newly discovered void is at least 100 feet long and bears a structural resemblance to the section directly below it: the pyramid's Grand Gallery, a long, 26-foot-high inner area of the pyramid that feels like a "very big cathedral at the center of the monument," as engineer and ScanPyramids co-founder Mehdi Tayoubi said in a press briefing. Its size and shape were confirmed by three different muon tomography techniques.

They aren't sure what it would have been used for yet or why it exists, or even if it's one structure or multiple structures together. It could be a horizontal structure, or it could have an incline. In short, there's a lot more to learn about it.

In the past few years, technology has allowed researchers to access parts of the Great Pyramid never seen before. Several robots sent into the tunnels since the '90s have brought back images of previously unseen areas. Almost immediately after starting to examine the Great Pyramid with thermal imaging in 2015, the researchers discovered that some of the limestone structure was hotter than other parts, indicating internal air currents moving through hidden chambers. In 2016, muon imaging indicated that there was at least one previously unknown void near the north face of Khufu's pyramid, though the researchers couldn't identify where exactly it was or what it looked like. Now, we know its basic structure.

A rendering shows internal chambers within the Great Pyramid and the approximate structure of the newly discovered void.
ScanPyramids

"These results constitute a breakthrough for the understanding of Khufu's Pyramid and its internal structure," the ScanPyramids team writes in Nature. "While there is currently no information about the role of this void, these findings show how modern particle physics can shed new light on the world's archaeological heritage."

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