William Morrow Re-print: New York
This is a bit of a departure from previous reviews in that it is not a work of fiction but rather a memoir written by a master of the crime novel genre, Dame Agatha Christie. Most, if not all devotees of Ms. Christie’s eighty plus works of mystery novels, short stories and plays are aware that she was married to Sir Max Mallowan, an archaeologist of considerable reputation, who learned his craft under the tutelage of Leonard and Katherine Wooley, giants in the field of Mesopotamian archeology.
What they may not realize is that Dame Agatha shared in her husband’s exploits in Iraq and Syria and wrote a memoir of five field seasons under the title Come, Tell Me How You Live, which was begun in the 1930s and completed after World War II. The title was a clever play on words in that she writes in the Foreword that it refers to a continuous line of questioning from acquaintances that went something like, “So you dig in Syria, do you? Do tell me all about it. How do you live? In a tent?” etc., etc. But she goes on to say that the title sums up the question that “Archaeology asks of the Past — Come, tell me how you lived?” Whether digging in Mesopotamia, the Peruvian Highlands, the American desert Southwest, or along Highway 35 in Onalaska Wisconsin, I cannot imagine a more elegant or succinct statement of archaeology’s most fundamental inquiry.
She closes out her Foreword with a warning to the reader: “It (the memoir) is, in fact, small beer—a very little book, full of everyday doings and happenings.” A little book it may be (it runs to only 205 pages) but it is anything but “small beer.” It is a tale full of adventure, told with humor and love for a very special time in her life.
The book opens with a comic description of preparations leading up to their departure for Syria, including Max’s predisposition to pack nothing but books for the journey, forgetting such incidentals as socks, shirts and underwear. In fact, Max is lovingly portrayed throughout the book as a stereotypical absent-minded academic—“Max is eating tea in the present, but his mind is roughly about 4000 BC,” she writes of her husband—but he is also the canny diplomat who wisely works through cultural clashes among his multi-ethnic excavation crews, obdurate bureaucracies and even a work crew is at one point in open and bloodthirsty insurrection.
Their small entourage – there are six of them as they begin their survey—sets out into the wilderness of Syria, in the autumn searching for the perfect tell, or mound that betrays the ruins of an ancient city or village, which could then be excavated the following spring. They survey more than fifty such tells at such exotic-sounding places as Der-ez-Zor on the Euphrates, Busaira, and Meyadin, but most prove to be Roman or Moslem, and therefore much too contemporary to be of interest to Max. The mounds show more promise as they travel north to the area of Habur and Jaghjagha Rivers. It is here they come upon Tell Chagar Bazar, where they will dig for several seasons. Dame Agatha masterfully describes the methods and techniques of Middle Eastern archaeology in the 1930s, including the division of labor among indigenous work crews into pickmen, spademen, and basket boys, who are paid a daily wage plus “baksheesh”—a gratuity rather than a bribe—for significant finds. She does not romanticize either the living conditions—barely acceptable to most of the Europeans—nor the cultural clashes the seem almost a part of everyday existence. There is often enmity within the work crews that are comprised of Kurds, Arab Moslems, and Arab Christians. Throw into the mix a smattering of Yezidi (so-called “devil worshippers” who are despised by all the afore-mentioned, and Max was constantly called upon to act as peace-keeper and honest broker.
The seasons spent at Tell Chagar Bazar and subsequently at Tell Brak contributed much to the understanding of early Mesopotamian history, but Agatha Christie’s retrospective of those years is less about the research and discovery than it is about a time and a place and the remarkable characters that made those discoveries possible—often times against daunting odds.
Three Trowels for Come, Tell Me How you Live.