Agatha Christie – Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land

“Once I went professionally to an archaeological expedition — and I learnt something there.  In the course of an excavation, when something comes out of the ground, everything is cleared away very carefully all around it. You take away the loose earth, and you scrape here and there with a knife until finally the object is there, all alone, ready to be drawn and photographed with no extraneous matter confusing it.  That is what I have been seeking to do — clear away the extraneous matter so that we can see the truth — the naked shining truth.”

Agatha Christie, Death on the Nile [1]

Women at our fore are often lost on common knowledge, like dust in the wind as some wiseman once said — even if they’re the ones digging the dirt. When thinking about archaeology, to those unfamiliar it is a man’s world; it’s what the movies tell us with figures like Indiana Jones and tropes of rigor, gruff and dangerous adventures that only the fairer sex can handle. Unfortunately, they don’t capture what really happened in the history books – they never do. You can’t always sell Hollywood the truth. This is why this woman made more of a name for herself writing fiction than she ever did writing her own reality. Agatha Christie is a household name, yet no one ever knows she was an early archaeological pioneer; one of the original ladies of the field. Those that do, only ever hear she was the wife of an archaeologist, not one herself. While this is an explanation tactic to strip female autonomy and choice in an era where it was expected she had none, at the age of forty she made one of her boldest choices. Already a published detective novel author and a solo-travelling widow, Christie sought out a new path and came up with an archaeological career. [2, 3]

Christie’s archaeological beginnings would come from a train ride to the once ancient Assyrian city of Ur. Seeing the excavations in progress and the artifacts it unearthed was a transformative experience – within her memoirs she wrote that this was where her longing to become an archaeologist began. [4] In the 1930s, Agatha Christie would come to work on her first sites in the Middle East: Tell Brak and Chagar Bazar located in Northern Syria. She took part in all aspects of life in the field: living in pop-up housing next to excavation trenches, working alongside both her second husband and hired field workers; taking detailed field notes, photographs, and artifacts for cleaning, cataloguing and preservation. Tell Brak would become known for an incredible structure named the Eye Temple filled with hundreds of miniature humanoid figurines, while Chagar Bazar would produce an extensive amount preserved cuneiform tablets that would describe some of the earliest populations inhabiting the Syrian north. [5]

While WWII would put most of European and Middle Eastern archaeological projects of hold, none of these skills would be lost on Christie when she returned to the field with post-war eagerness. Here Christie would find herself on the most spectacular site of her lifetime: an Iraqi site by the name of Nimrud, which housed an ancient Assyrian palace known for mega-sculptures and stone carvings amongst more sensational finds. Most famously, Agatha Christie would come to preserve what are known to be the Nimrud Ivories – thousands of years old ivory carvings that some suggest would have been thrown out without her dedication to their restoration. From this comes a famous anecdote: “I had my own favourite tools just as any professional would: an orange stick […] and a jar of cosmetic face-cream which I found more useful than anything else for gently coaxing the dirt out of the crevices without harming the friable ivory. In fact there was such a run on my face-cream that there was nothing left for my poor old face after a couple of weeks!” . [6] Funnily enough, the face cream would come to re-polish the ivories to a pristine condition and the collagen would preserve them for their travels to museums worldwide.

Christie would continue her archaeological work on Nimrud, between novel writing, until she died at the age of 68. Posthumously it was revealed she acted as anonymous sponsorship to fund many archaeological projects and excavations. Many of the sites she contributed to, the most famous being Nimrud with its ivories, can now be seen in travelling exhibitions or on permanent display at the British Museum in London. Though this piece does not absolve the colonialism associated with early archaeology, I recognize that women who have taken risks to permeate male-dominated spaces have paved the way for me to do the same. Women like Agatha Christie not only evoked my imagination with her romanticised descriptions of the world within her novels, but also allowed me to be a female archaeologist with working experience in her field by abandoning common practice and doing it first. Perhaps the road less travelled, or simply making the road yourself, should not stop us, but entice us and excite us, similar to the way an orient express did Christie. If that’s not punk rock, I don’t know what is. 

Written by Tyla Anne Beke (she/they) from Toronto, Canada. Follow them on Instagram! This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.


  1. An excerpt taken from Agatha Christie’s “Death on the Nile” novel, 1972: 204
  2. Díaz-Andreu, M. and Sørensen, M.L.S. 1998. Excavating women. Towards an engendered history of archaeology. In Díaz-Andreu, M. and Sørensen, M.L.S. (eds.), Excavating Women. A History of Women in European Archaeology: 19.
  3. Adams A., Ladies of the Field 2010: 137-138.
  4. Adams, 148.
  5. Adams, 157.
  6. Adams, 153.

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