Murder in Mesopotamia?

It is said that every object tells a story. Some are short stories, others novels; some are filled with romance, others with mystery and intrigue, meaning the archaeologist or historian has to rely on their “little grey cells” to figure it out.

It is easy to see objects as evidencing the lives of the people who made and used them. But objects histories go beyond their ancient lives – in their afterlives, they also become a part of the story of those people who found and collected them; just as the name of Howard Carter will be forever linked with the treasures of Tutankhamun.

Howard Carter
Howard Carter examines the coffin of Tutankhamun

Looking at a small group of ivory objects on the Ancient Worlds Gallery, the plot thickens to reveal Manchester Museum’s connection to a detective famous writer and her husband.

Carved ivory from Nimrud (Nos.: 1966.1-4, 43222)

These tiny, but intricately carved ivory objects were excavated in Nimrud and Ur, in modern day Iraq, by archaeologist Max Mallowan. Max Edgar Lucien Mallowan was born in 1904 in London. After graduating in Classics at Oxford he joined Leonard Woolley as General Field Assistant at the excavations at Ur, Iraq (1925-30). During his excavations in Iraq Mallowan recovered thousands of small ivory objects that that have become known as the ‘Nimrud Ivories’. But ancient objects were not all he found …

Author Agatha Christie, creator of the famous fictional detective Hercule Poirot, divorced from her first husband, Archie Christie in 1928. She met Max Mallowan when she travelled on the Orient Express to the archaeological site at Ur. They were married on September 11th 1930.

Max and Agatha
Max Mallowan and Agatha Christie at Tell-Halaf

The ‘Nimrud Ivories’, dating back as early as the 9th century BC, are made from elephant ivory. They originally formed the decorative elements of furniture, chariots and other high status objects, made in Syria and Phoenicia, and brought to Assyria as tribute. Their excavation in modern day Iraq tells an important story about trade, economics, society, and craft production in the Ancient Near East. These beautiful little objects are renowned worldwide and many of these finds were purchased from the British School of Archaeology in Iraq by museums in the United Kingdom and abroad.

Agatha accompanied Max on all of his excavations, where she would photograph, clean and record finds; she even explains in her autobiography how she would clean these miniature ivory carvings with a knitting needle and expensive face cream – she wrote, “There was such a run on my face cream that there was nothing left for my poor old face after a couple of weeks!”

In his married life, Max continued his archaeological work in the Near East, and Agatha’s intimate connection with archaeology can be seen in several of her mystery novels, but not least ‘Murder in Mesopotamia’, which alludes to both sites and characters she met along the way.

By Michelle Scott

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