The Archaeological Exploits of Agatha Christie

The Archaeological Exploits of Agatha Christie

On December 3, 1926, Agatha Christie (1890-1976), the famous mystery writer, disappeared.

She kissed her sleeping daughter goodbye, left her secretary a note, and drove into the night.

The next morning, her abandoned car was found down a hillside near the manor where her husband Archie was staying with his mistress.

The media went mad. Her husband immediately became suspect. Arthur Conan Doyle, creator Sherlock Holmes, took one of Agatha’s gloves to a psychic to learn if she’d “passed over.”

Eleven days later, Agatha was found in a spa hotel under an assumed name with no memory of how she got there. She might have suffered from a rare case of “fugue state,” out-of-body amnesia brought on by extreme stress.

As traumatic as it must have been, that  incident and its repercussions set her on the greatest adventure of her life.

In her 40s, after breakdown and divorce, Agatha found true love and became an archaeologist.

The Archaeological Exploits of Agatha Christie by Debra Eve on
Agatha as a young girl

“I had a very happy childhood.”

In the year before her disappearance, Agatha lost her beloved mother, Clarissa, while Archie was working in Spain.

Archie returned after the funeral and suggested Agatha immediately come away with him.

His cavalier attitude was “very hard to bear when you have lost a person who is one of three you love best in the world.” She declined.

Archie left on holiday and, unknown to Agatha then, started an affair. Agatha stayed behind to sort out her mother’s effects at Ashfield, the family home.

The task proved too much to tackle alone. She fell into a deep depression, crying for no reason, forgetting how to sign a check.

No doubt she went through clothing and photos, reminders of growing up in Torquay, a lovely English seaside town:

One of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life is to have a happy childhood. I had a very happy childhood.

When Agatha was eleven, her father died of a series of heart attacks initiated by financial problems. He was a moneyed American who didn’t have a head for money.

Clarissa managed as best she could after his death. Agatha was home-schooled by her mother and left to roam the grounds of Ashfield.

“And then suddenly one morning, it had happened, England was at war.”

With the advent of World War I, Agatha became a nurse.

She started writing while working at a hospital dispensary, in the long wait between filling prescriptions. She also certified as an apothecary—knowledge she put to ingenious use later.

It wasn’t long before Agatha was swept off her feet by Archibald Christie, a Royal Flying Corps pilot, one of those “daring in young men in their flying machines.”

(Remember, the Wright brothers made their first flight only ten years before the onset of WWI.)

Archie immediately posted to France. War and hardship separated them.

At Christmas, while Archie was home on leave, they eloped to City Hall, then saw each other only two weeks during the next three years.

In 1918, after the war ended, Archie took an office job. In 1919, after a pregnancy that felt like a “nine-month ocean voyage to which you never get acclimatized,” Agatha had a baby girl, Rosalind.

And in 1920, she gave birth to Hercule Poiret in The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

It was a carefree time for the Christies. Agatha spun one book after another, each more popular than the last.

Archie did well in business. In 1922, he managed The Empire Exhibition, a tour to showcase “products of the British Empire” through Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia. Rosalind stayed with Agatha’s mother while her parents finally enjoyed a honeymoon.

The Archaeological Exploits of Agatha Christie by Debra Eve on LaterBloomer.comAgatha’s star continued to rise—until her mother’s death.

Undone by grief, abandoned by her husband, on a tight publishing schedule, Agatha drove into the night and lost control, literally and figuratively.

Possibly suffering from amnesia and a concussion, she checked into Harrogate Spa Hotel. She didn’t recognize herself in newspaper outcry that followed, but the hotel staff did.

They called the police, who called Archie. Agatha didn’t know him when he arrived to collect her.

When her memory returned, Archie begged her for a divorce to marry his mistress.

“You certainly ought to go to Ur.”

In autumn 1928, after several months of therapy, Agatha decided to put her marriage behind her and seek out the sun.

She considered Jamaica, but a chance dinner conversation inspired her to book passage on the Orient Express to Baghdad.

“You must go to Mosul—Basra you must visit,” her friend advised. “And you certainly ought to go to Ur.”

She’d been following tales of the famous archaeological site, Ur of Chaldees, in the newspapers. “I became wildly excited,” Agatha wrote later.

As it turned out, Katherine, wife of Ur’s director Leonard Woolley, was a fan. The two become great friends. (Agatha would later cast the beguiling but slightly crazy Katherine as the victim of Murder in Mesopotamia whom everyone had motive to kill.) Ur entranced Agatha:

The lure of the past came up to grab me. To see a dagger slowly appearing, with its gold glint, through the sand was romantic. The carefulness of lifting pots and objects from the soil filled me with a longing to be an archaeologist myself.

The Wooleys invited her back the following year.

When it came time to leave, they assigned Leonard’s 26-year-old assistant, Max Mallowan, as Agatha’s escort to Baghdad. She and Max got on famously despite their age difference. (Agatha was 40.)

When she received word her daughter Rosalind was ill, Max accompanied her back to England. (Rosalind fully recovered.) By the end of the year, they married.

The Archaeological Exploits of Agatha Christie by Debra Eve on
Agatha on the far left and Max in the middle visiting Nippur in their later years (via Penn Museum)

“The most perfect days I have ever known.”

The Mallowans soon fell into their yearly rounds—autumn and spring digging in the Middle East, summers at Ashfield with Rosalind when school let out.

Agatha acted as photographic technician on every dig, developing the prints herself, and discovered she a talent for pottery restoration.

She also found time to write, and some of her best books draw from her life in the Middle East—Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, Appointment with Death and of course, Murder in Mesopotamia.

From 1949-1958, Max directed the spectacular site of Nimrud in Iraq, known for its ivories. Agatha pioneered the techniques used to preserve and clean them. Max noted:

For the preservation of the objects and their treatment in the field, Agatha’s controlled imagination came to our aid. She instantly realized that objects which had lived under water for over 2000 years had to be nursed back into a new and relatively arid climate…

The Archaeological Exploits of Agatha Christie by Debra Eve on
One of Agatha’s ivories via The British Museum

Agatha painstakingly cleaned each ivory piece with an orange stick and diluted cold cream, a brilliant method.

She complained “…there was such a run on my face cream that there was nothing left for my poor old face after a couple of weeks!”

Despite being the bestselling novelist of all time and a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, archaeology was the world Agatha loved best.

She considered her days on site “some of the most perfect I have ever known.”

The Mallowans extraordinary union lasted 45 years, until Agatha’s death at age 85. In his memoirs, Max wrote: “Few men know what it is to live in harmony beside an imaginative, creative mind which inspires life with zest.”

Despite their age difference, he passed just two years later.

Why do I consider this unbelievably successful woman a later bloomer?

Because she tackled immense emotional pain with great courage. She could easily have hidden behind her “bestselling novelist” accolades.

But at age 40, she faced her fears and took a chance. And that act led to a passion that transformed the rest of her life.

Do you have a favorite Agatha Christie mystery?

Let me know in the comments!


36 Responses

  1. Annette Gendler
    | Reply

    Thank you for this succinct post on Agatha Christie. I am a huge Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple fan, and I’ve always been intrigued by her life.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      Thanks, Annette. She certainly is as intriguing as any of her books!

  2. Jennette Marie Powell
    | Reply

    I never knew about Agatha Christie’s later-blooming career as an archaeologist. Very cool – and inspiring! – thanks for sharing!

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      You’re welcome, Jennette. It’s hard not to be jealous of everything she has done, but then there’s the hard parts.

  3. Bob Forward
    | Reply

    Always a treat. And of course you’d particularly identify with Agatha Christie’s interest in archeology!

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      And I still hope to write mysteries, so she’s a particular favorite. Always a pleasure to hear from you, Bob!

  4. Anne R. Allen
    | Reply

    Thanks for this lovely piece on one of my favorite writers. I knew about her mysterious disappearance–and I saw the movie with Vanessa Redgrave–but I don’t think I was aware that her mother’s death triggered her breakdown. Since I lost my own mother six months ago, I know exactly what you’re talking about. I’ve felt very disoriented and unable to work. If I had also been abandoned by a spouse, I can imagine how I could go totally off the deep end.

    Murder in Mesopotamia is one of my favorites. I even chose classical archaeology as my college major–partly inspired by the book. I changed to Art History after the first year, though. Tired of all those Greek verb forms!

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      In a piece this short, I had to condense time. But it took Agatha over three years to come to terms with her mother’s death, Anne. We’ll definitely have to talk one day — I abandoned classical archaeology for the same reason! Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Patricia Sands
    | Reply

    Thanks for another intriguing story! I did not know these details about Agatha and found them fascinating. I loved most of her stories and spent a great deal of time through the years with Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple!

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      Thanks, Patricia! She’s pretty amazing. I hope to live her life in reverse — having done archaeology, I’d love to write mysteries one day!

  6. Terry Demoline
    | Reply

    Very interesting article. I have never read an Agatha Christie book…and to think I consider myself a somewhat accomplished reader! Better remedy that sometime soon. Thanks Debra

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      Thank you, Terry! People are quite divided on her writing — they either adore it or find it pedestrian. Would love to know what you think when you finally do…

  7. Romy Maillard
    | Reply

    What an amazing life story! Thank you for sharing, Debra. I enjoyed many of her movies more than once. Archeology has always fascinated me immensely and as a teen I used to imagine myself going on great adventures to Egypt 🙂

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      So glad you enjoyed it, Romy. I studied archaeology in grad school, but the academic version takes all the fun out of it!

  8. Lindsay Edmunds
    | Reply

    Once again, a great blog. I didn’t know that Agatha Christie reinvented herself as an archaeologist AND made a brilliant marriage after her life fell apart at age 40.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      Thanks, Lindsay. I studied her husband’s work in graduate school, never knowing they were married. He devotes four chapters to her in his memoirs, and gives her a huge place in his work and life.

  9. Julia
    | Reply

    This is wonderful. Even though I am pressed for time this morning I read the entire piece. I’ve never been much of an Agatha Christie fan, but now I may have to go back and read some more of her books.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      Thank you, Julia. That’s one of the greatest compliments I’ve received!

  10. Karen McFarland
    | Reply

    Every time I visit you I learn so much Debra. I love history, so this was fascinating. I, like others, did not know about Agatha’s connection to the middle east and her later books. Or anything about her second marriage, which sounded like a successful union. Such an inspiration to not give up in our later years. There’s still so much to discover in life. Another awesome laterbloomer! 🙂

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      So glad you enjoyed it, Karen. I studied archaeology in school, including Leonard Woolley and Max Mallowan. My textbooks never mentioned that Mallowan was Agatha Christie’s husband. Academia has to keep everything so dry! Thanks for stopping by.

  11. Darlene Foster
    | Reply

    I love Miss Marple. Thanks for this very informative post about an amazing woman. Is her daughter still alive?

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      Her daughter is no longer alive, but her grandson is. My husband sent me an interesting article on him — apparently Agatha gifted The Mouse Trap to him when he was a boy. It went on to become the longest running West End play and made him a multi-millionaire! Thanks for stopping by.

  12. Kassandra Lamb
    | Reply

    Thank you, Debra! There are so many great tidbits in here about Agatha that I didn’t know before.

  13. nancy loh
    | Reply

    Thanks for a very interesting article. I read some of Agatha Christie’s mysteries when I was a teenager, decades ago, and found them un-put-downable. Reading her book was like slowly..unwrapping a present. I do want to read her again.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      Thanks, Nancy. I’d never read Murder in Mesopotamia until I wrote this. I stayed up until 4 am because I had to know whodunit!

  14. Patricia
    | Reply

    The stuff you learn over here at Late Bloomer. I never knew that about Ms. Christie. Who would have thunk it?

    Good stuff as always.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  15. Anne Flournoy
    | Reply

    So inspiring. Who KNEW the life she’d lead! As others above said, thank you for this wonderfully readable and succinct biography.

  16. florence fois
    | Reply

    Oh my, oh my, Debra … Agatha is and has always been my most beloved mystery writer. I have read all but a few of her shorts. I have seen every single BBC done of her most famous detective, Hercule Poiret, those with Miss Marple and others that have neither. My all time favorites are Nemesis with Miss Marple, and Orient Express and Murder on the Nile tie with Poiret.

    I have just returned from my summer vacation from the net and had to bounce on over to see what is happening in later bloomer. So glad I did.

    Agatha lived her life with such energy and passion, she is a beacon of inspiration to all. Thanks so much for featuring her 🙂

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      Thank you, Florence! I was sad to here PBS’s Poirot was ending this month. One thing I didn’t mention — Agatha actually killed him off in the ’40s, but her publisher didn’t release the book until the 1960s. They didn’t want to ruin their big seller! I really envy her life and hope to emulate one iota of it, archaeology degree and all.

  17. K.B. Owen
    | Reply

    Fab post! I love the works of Christie. I also heard that when she disappeared, the car was still running, and when she checked into the spa she used an alias that was the same last name of the woman Archie was having the affair with.

  18. What a great story! Love that she found a younger man too. I think when you’re older and you’ve got a lot of passion, creativity and energy it’s so good to spend time with younger people. Late bloomers rock but we have to watch out for the oldies that get set in their ways and be sure to spend time with people that rock our world too.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      Thanks so much, Annabel! I totally agree (and I’ve got the younger husband to prove it too, he he).

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    | Reply

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