The popular mystery-novelist Agatha Christie had a knack for weaving together colorful characters with serpentine plot lines, but she also extended her skills to the intricacies of processing ancient Assyrian artifacts. Christie assisted her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan at his excavation at Nimrud in Iraq by cleaning ivories they discovered—using her face cream and a very thin knitting needle on the delicate ivory carvings from elephant tusks.

Christie’s numerous trips to the Middle East provided the inspiration for several of her books that drew on the people and experiences she encountered on her travels. A delay on the Orient Express on her way back from Nineveh later became the setting for one of her most famous books, Murder on the Orient Express. Her firsthand knowledge of sites in the region provided the background for Death on the Nile (Egypt), Murder in Mesopotamia (Ur) and Appointment with Death (Petra).

On a visit to Ur, she met the excavation director, Leonard Woolley, and his wife, who had read some of Christie’s books. Christie returned to the site in subsequent years, and in 1930 she met Woolley’s assistant Max Mallowan, who had been asked to escort her on a tour of the excavation site. The two soon fell in love, and the 39-year-old novelist and the 25-year-old archaeologist got married. (It was a second marriage for Christie.)

For the next 30 years, Agatha Christie accompanied her husband on his digs, where he would erect a small writing hut for her. At Nimrud the mud-brick room was labeled in cuneiform, “Agatha’s House.” While there, she wrote They Came to Baghdad; the heroine describes working on an archaeological dig in southern Mesopotamia.

Christie herself was not afraid to get down into the trenches. She also worked developing photographs and later photographed the excavations. She helped restore broken pottery, label exhibits, and clean and conserve many of the great Nimrud ivories.

The Nimrud ivories were originally divided between Iraq and the British School of Archaeology in Iraq (now the British Institute for the Study of Iraq). Britain’s portion sat in storage for more than 47 years. One-third of the British Institute’s ivories was recently purchased by the British Museum. The museum raised more than £1.17 million from private donors and public grants to make the purchase. The British Institute has also donated another third of its collection to the museum. These will join other Nimrud artifacts in the Assyrian collection at the British Museum.

The Iraqi portion of the ivories is in the Baghdad museum. Unfortunately, many were damaged or destroyed during the U.S.-led invasion. The British Institute intends to return the final third of its ivories to Iraq when security conditions permit.