Ancient Bodies That Fascinated Agatha; the British Museum Exhibition Opening Tomorrow Reveals Christie's Passion for Archaeology and for One Archaeologist in Particular, Writes Zenga Longmore

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Byline: ZENGA LONGMORE

FANS of Agatha Christie may not be aware that the corpses which most excited her imagination were not the bodies discovered in country house libraries, but human remains thousands of years old. A new exhibition that opens at the British Museum tomorrow reveals the Queen of Crime's true passion, amateur archaeology.

It includes artefacts from the excavations Christie attended, photographs she took and two of her home movies, featuring Syria in 1938, and Fifties Iraq, as well as a complete carriage from the Orient Express on the front lawn of the museum.

Christie was already a famous detective novelist when first she ventured into the Middle East in 1929. As a way of recovering from the widely publicised divorce from Archibald Christie (the husband from whom she famously "disappeared" for 10 days), she booked a ticket on the Orient Express from London to Istanbul.

Her journey ended at Ur, Iraq, the Biblical birthplace of Abraham.

Christie was warmly received by Katherine Woolley, formidable wife of the eminent archaeologist Leonard Woolley and a devoted fan of the author.

Life began again at 40 the following year when Christie took up Katherine Woolley's invitation to return to Iraq. Woolley ordered a young archaeologist named Max Mallowan to escort their famous guest around the area. The 26-year-old Mallowan nervously drove Christie to Karbala, a local beauty spot.

To cool down from the 55-degree heat, they bathed in a nearby lake.

Christie looked fetching in a pink silk vest and a double pair of knickers.

Emerging from their swim they discovered the car had broken down, and the only accommodation was two adjoining police cells. Captivated by the writer's staunch attitude, Mallowan decided there was no one else in the world with whom he could share his life.

Did she mind, he asked, that his profession was "digging up the dead"?

"Not at all," responded Christie, "I adore corpses and stiffs." So did her public. Her subsequent travels to Iraq and Syria inspired some of her most ingenious novels, such as Murder in Mesopotamia, in which the victim bore an uncanny resemblance to Katherine Woolley, who had opposed the Mallowan marriage. …