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How Archaeology Influenced Agatha Christie

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© 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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Courtesy of the Tunisian National Heritage Institute and the University of Sassari
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Discover Ancient Sunken City in the Mediterranean
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Courtesy of the Tunisian National Heritage Institute and the University of Sassari

Early on July 21, 365 CE, an 8.5 magnitude earthquake shook the eastern Mediterranean, triggering a powerful tsunami. The Egyptian city of Alexandria was damaged, towns crumbled on the island of Crete, and the Roman port city of Neapolis, located on the coast of North Africa, was largely swallowed by the wave, according to historical records. Now, after being hidden under water for more than 16 centuries, the remains of Neapolis have been discovered by archaeologists off the coast of northeast Tunisia. This, according to the AFP, confirms accounts that the city was a casualty of the ancient natural disaster.

Following several years of exploration, researchers from the Tunisian National Heritage Institute and the University of Sassari in Italy have discovered nearly 50 acres of watery ruins near the modern-day city of Nabeul. They include streets, monuments, homes, mosaics, and around 100 tanks used to make garum, a fish-based sauce that was so popular in ancient Rome and Greece that it's been likened to ketchup. 

These containers suggest that Neapolis was likely a major producer of garum, making the salty condiment an integral part of the city's economy. "Probably the notables of Neapolis owed their fortune to garum," expedition head Mounir Fantar told the AFP.

Neapolis ("new city" in Greek) was originally founded in the 5th century BCE. While it was an important Mediterranean hub, its name doesn't appear too often in ancient writings. According to The Independent, it may because the city sided with the ancient city-state of Carthage—founded in the 9th century BCE by a seafaring people known as the Phoenicians—in the last of a series of three wars, called the Punic Wars, against Rome.

The Third Punic War stretched from 149 to 146 BCE, and led to the burning of Carthage. (It was later rebuilt as a Roman city by Julius Caesar.) Neapolis may have been punished for its wayward allegiance, which may explain why it's rarely mentioned in historical accounts.

You can view a video of the city's ruins below.

[h/t AFP]

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Find Italy's Earliest Wine—And It's Thousands of Years Older Than We Thought
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Uncork a Barolo in honor of ancient traditions: Italians have been making wine for far longer than we thought. A new analysis of storage jars found in a cave in Sicily's Monte Kronio pushes back Italy’s wine-making history by thousands of years, as CNET alerts us.

Archaeologists from the University of South Florida and several Italian institutions report in Microchemical Journal that wine making in the region could date back as far as 3000 BCE. Previously, researchers studying ancient seeds hypothesized that Italy's wine production developed sometime between 1300 BCE and 1100 BCE.

Making grapes into wine has been a part of human history going back to the Stone Age. Georgians have been drinking wine for 8000 years. Grapevines spread through the Caucasus and the Middle East before making their way to Europe.

This new discovery was possible thanks to chemical analysis of unglazed clay pots found in a Monte Kronio cave. The Copper Age pottery still bore residue from the wine. The researchers were able to identify traces of tartaric acid and sodium salt left from the wine-making process. They're still working on figuring out whether it was red or white, though, as University of South Florida researchers explained in a press statement.

In 2013, archaeologists planted a vineyard and began making wine using ancient Roman techniques to see what wine actually tasted like in the Roman Empire. Foul as that wine may have been, it seems that Roman wine was the result of an even longer wine-making tradition than we knew.

[h/t CNET]

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