Past Perfect: A Day in the Life
Who has a better eye for detail—at a murder scene or on a Mesopotamian dig—than mystery novelist Agatha Christie?
Open the 1936 mystery novel Murder in Mesopotamia to almost any page, and you will encounter Agatha Christie’s exacting eye for local color and detail. Dame Agatha’s intimate knowledge of Middle Eastern life could only have come firsthand; indeed, she often accompanied her second husband, British archaeologist Max Mallowan, on excavations in Mesopotamia. Completed in 1944, Christie’s nonfiction book Come, Tell Me How You Live details, among other things, Mallowan’s 1935–36 excavations at Chagar Bazar, in northern Syria. The excavation team included some 140 laborers, including Arabs, Kurds, Turks and—in Mallowan’s words—“a sprinkling of Yezidis, the mild devil-worshipers from the Jebel Sinjar, and a few odd Christians.” When not plotting intricate murders at her typewriter, Christie helped out in the field, patiently cleaning potsherds with, of all things, face cream. In her foreword to Come, Tell Me How You Live, Christie states: “This is not a profound book—it will give you no interesting sidelights on archaeology, there will be no beautiful descriptions of scenery, no treating of economic problems, no racial reflections, no history.” Modest, indeed, and unjustifiably so. What Christie manages in this “very little book” is a thoroughly engaging account of daily life on a dig, rendered with humility, charm and humor. In the hands of such a consummate storyteller, it is hard to imagine a better way to spend one’s days than toiling in the hot Middle Eastern sun.—Ed.
These autumn days are some of the most perfect I have ever known. We get up early, soon after sunrise, drink hot tea, and eat eggs and start off. It is cold then, and I wear two jerseys and a big woolly coat. The light is lovely—a very faint soft rose softens the browns and greys. From the top of a mound one looks out over an apparently deserted world. Mounds rise everywhere—one can see perhaps sixty if one counts. Sixty ancient settlements, that is to say. Here, where nowadays only the tribesmen move with their brown tents, was once a busy part of the world. Here, some five thousand years ago, was the busy part of the world. Here were the beginnings of civilisation, and here, picked up by me, this broken fragment of a clay pot, hand-made, with a design of dots and cross-hatching in black paint, is the forerunner of the Woolworth cup out of which this very morning I have drunk my tea …
I sort through the collection of sherds which are bulging the pockets of my coat (I have already had to mend the lining twice) …
Now then, what have I got?
A thickish grey ware, part of the rim of a pot (valuable as showing shape), some coarse red stuff, two fragments of painted pots, hand-made and one with the dot design (the oldest Tell Halaf!), a flint knife, part of the base of a thin grey pot, several other nondescript bits of painted pottery, a little bit of obsidian.
Max [Mallowan] makes his selection, flinging most pieces ruthlessly away, uttering appreciative grunts at others. Hamoudi [the foreman of the excavations at Ur] has the clay wheel of a chariot, and Mac [the team’s architect] has a fragment of incised ware and a portion of a figurine.
Gathering the united collection together, Max sweeps them into a little linen bag, ties it carefully up, and labels it as usual with the name of the Tell on which it was found …
We visit two more small Tells, and at the third, which overlooks the Habur [River], we have lunch—hard-boiled eggs, a tin of bully beef, oranges and extremely stale bread. Aristide [the team’s Armenian driver] makes tea on the primus. It is very hot now, and the shadows and colours have gone. All is a uniform soft pale buff …
Life now becomes hurried and hectic. Examination of Tells is daily more zealous. For the final selection three things are essential. First, it must be sufficiently near a village or villages to get a supply of labour. Secondly, there must be a water supply—that is to say, it must be near the Jaghjagha or the Habur [rivers], or else there must be well-water that is not too brackish. Thirdly, it must give indications of having the right stuff in it. All digging is a gamble—among seventy Tells all occupied at the same period, who is to say which one holds a building, or a deposit of tablets, or a collection of objects of special interest? A small Tell offers as good prospects as a large Tell, since the more important towns are the more likely to have been looted and destroyed in the far-distant past. Luck is the predominant factor. How often has a site been painstakingly and correctly dug, season after season, with interesting but not spectacular results, and then a shift of a few feet, and suddenly a unique find comes to light. The one real consolation is that whichever Tell we select, we are bound to find something …
We arrive at a Tell named Chagar Bazar. Dogs and children rush out from the small cluster of houses. Presently a striking figure is seen in flowing white robes and a brilliant green turban. It is the local Sheik. He greets us with the utmost bonhomie. Max disappears with him into the largest mud house. After a pause of some moments the Sheik reappears and yells: “Engineer! Where is the engineer?” Hamoudi explains that this summons is intended for Mac. Mac goes forward.
“Ha,” cries the Sheikh, “here is the leben!” He produces a bowl of the local sour milk. “How do you like your leben, engineer, thick or thin?” Mac, who is very fond of leben, nods towards the water-jug the Sheik is holding. I see Max endeavouring to negative the suggestion. Too late; the water is added to the leben and Mac drinks it off with something like relish.
“I tried to warn you,” says Max later. “That water was practically thin black mud!”
The finds on Chagar Bazar are good … There is a village, wells, other villages adjacent, and a kindly disposed, though no doubt rapacious, Sheikh …
After doing some shopping in Kamichle, we take the road for Amuda. This is an important road—almost, one might say, a real road instead of a track. It runs parallel with the railway line, on the other side of which is Turkey.
Its surface is appalling—continual ruts and holes. We are all shaken to bits, but there is no doubt that one sees life on it. We pass several cars, and both Abdullah and Aristide have to be severely cursed for indulging in the native driver’s favourite sport of trying to run down, or at any rate, severely frighten, parties of donkeys and camels in charge of old women and boys.
“Is not this track wide enough for you to pass right at the other side?” demands Max.
Abdullah turns to him excitedly.
“Am I not driving a lorry? Am I not to choose the best surface? These miserable Bedouin must get out of my way, they and their wretched donkeys!”
Aristide glides softly up behind an overladen donkey, with a man and a woman trudging beside it, and lets out a terrific blast of his horn. The donkey stampedes, the woman screams and rushes after it, the man shakes his fist. Aristide roars with laughter.
He in turn is cursed, but remains, as usual, serenely unrepentant …
Life [at Chagar Bazar] now settles down on its accustomed round. Max departs at dawn every morning to the mound. Most days I go with him, though occasionally I stay at home to deal with other things—e.g. mending of the pottery and objects, labelling, and sometimes to ply my own trade on the typewriter. Mac also stays at home two days a week, busy in the drawing office …
A nucleus of workers have been brought by Max from Jerablus, Hamoudi’s home town. Hamoudi’s two sons, after finishing work at Ur for the season, have come to us. Yaha, the elder, is tall, with a wide, cheerful grin. He is like a friendly dog. Alawi, the younger, is good looking, and probably the more intelligent of the two. But he has a quick temper, and quarrels sometimes flare up. An elderly cousin, Abd es Salaam, is also a foreman. Hamoudi, after starting us off, is to return home.
Once the work has been started on by the strangers from Jerablus, workmen for the spot hasten to be enrolled. The men of the Sheikh’s village have already begun work. Now men from neighbouring villages begin to arrive by ones and twos. There are Kurds, men from over the Turkish border, some Armenians, and a few Yezidis (so-called devil-worshippers)—gentle, melancholy looking men, prone to be victimised by the others.
The system is a simple one. The men are organised into gangs. Men with any previous experience of digging, and men who seem intelligent and quick to learn, are chosen as pickmen. Men, boys, and children are paid the same wage. Over and above that there is (dear to the Eastern heart) bakshish. That is to say, a small cash payment on each object found.
The pickman of each gang has the best chance of finding objects. When his square of ground has been traced out to him, he starts upon it with a pick. After him comes 047the spademan. With his spade he shovels the earth into baskets, which three or four “basket-boys” then carry away to a spot appointed as a dump. As they turn the earth out, they sort through it for any likely object missed by the Qasmagi [pickman] and the spademan, and since they are often little boys with sharp eyes, not infrequently some small amulet or bead gives them a good reward. Their finds they tie up in a corner of their ragged draperies to be produced at the end of the day … When a group of pots in position, or the bones of a burial, or traces of mud-brick walls are found, then the foreman in charge calls for Max, and things proceed with due care. Max or Mac scrape carefully round the group of pots—or the dagger, or whatever the find is—with a knife, clearing the earth away, blowing away loose dust. Then the find is photographed before being removed, and roughly drawn in a notebook …
Our Armenian workmen are, on the whole, the most intelligent. Their disadvantage is their provocative attitude—they always manage to inflame the tempers of the Kurds and the Arabs. Quarelling is, in any case, almost continuous. All our workmen have hot tempers, and all carry with them the means of expressing themselves—large knives, bludgeons, and a kind of mace of knobkerry! Heads are cut open, and furious figures are entangled with each other in fierce struggles and torn asunder, whilst Max loudly proclaims the rules of the dig. For all who fight there will be a fine! …
Having arrived on the mound at half-past six, a halt is called for breakfast at eight-thirty. We eat hard-boiled eggs and flaps of Arab bread, and Michel (the chauffeur) produces hot tea, which we drink from enamel mugs, sitting on the top of the mound, 048the sun just pleasantly warm, and the morning shadows making the landscape incredibly lovely, with the blue Turkish hills to the north, and all around tiny springing flowers of scarlet and yellow. The air is wonderfully sweet. It is one of those moments when it is good to be alive. The foremen are grinning happily; small children driving cows come and gaze at us shyly. They are dressed in incredible rags, their teeth gleam white as they smile. I think to myself how happy they look, and what a pleasant life it is; like the fairy stories of old, wandering about over the hills herding cattle, sometimes sitting and singing …
The foremen blow their whistles. Back to work. I wander slowly round the mound, pausing from time to time at various parts of the work. One is always hoping to be on the spot just when an interesting find turns up. Of course, one never is! After leaning hopefully on my shooting-stick for twenty minutes watching Mohammed Hassan and his gang, I move on to Ìsa Daoud, to learn later that the find of the day—a lovely pot of incised ware—was found just after I had moved my pitch.
I retrace my steps to where Max and Mac are waiting. Michel is setting out the lunch that Dimitri [the team’s cook] has packed. We have slices of cold mutton, more hard-boiled egg, flaps of Arab bread and cheese—the local cheese of the country for Max and Mac; goat’s cheese, strong flavoured, a pale grey in colour, and slightly hairy. I have the sophisticated variety of gruyère, silver papered in its round cardboard box. Max looks at it contemptuously. After the food, there are oranges and enamel mugs of hot tea.
At about four o’clock Max starts going round the gangs and bakshishing the men. As he comes to each one, they stop, line up roughly, and produce the small finds of the day. One of the more enterprising of the basket-boys has cleaned his acquisitions with spit!
Opening his immense book, Max starts operations.
What has Hassan Mohammed got? Half a large broken pot, many fragments of pottery, a bone knife, a scrap or two of copper.
Max turns the collection over, flings away ruthlessly what is rubbish—usually those things which have inflamed the pickman’s highest hopes—puts bone implements in one of the small boxes that Michel carries, beads in another. Fragments of pottery go in one of the big baskets that a small boy carries.
Max announces the price: twopence ha’penny, or possibly fourpence, and writes it down in the book. Hassan Mohammed repeats the sum, storing it away in his capacious memory …
Ibrahim Daoud has an exciting-looking object, which is only, alas, a fragment of an incised Arab pipe-stem! But now comes little Abdul Jehar, proffering doubtfully some tiny beads, and another object that Max snatches at with approval. A cylinder seal, intact, and of a good period—a really good find. Little Abdul is commended, and five francs is written down to his name. A murmur of excitement breaks out …
The men who have been bakshished go back to work in desultory fashion. Max goes on till he comes to the last gang.
It is now half an hour before sunset. The whistle blows. Everybody yells “Fidos! Fidos!” They fling baskets in the air, catch them, and run headlong down the hill, yelling and laughing.
Another day’s work is over.
Open the 1936 mystery novel Murder in Mesopotamia to almost any page, and you will encounter Agatha Christie’s exacting eye for local color and detail. Dame Agatha’s intimate knowledge of Middle Eastern life could only have come firsthand; indeed, she often accompanied her second husband, British archaeologist Max Mallowan, on excavations in Mesopotamia. Completed in 1944, Christie’s nonfiction book Come, Tell Me How You Live details, among other things, Mallowan’s 1935–36 excavations at Chagar Bazar, in northern Syria. The excavation team included some 140 laborers, including Arabs, Kurds, Turks and—in Mallowan’s words—“a sprinkling of Yezidis, the mild devil-worshipers from […]