It is probably safe to assume most people will have either read or seen one of Agatha Christie‘s famous detective novels. However, few realise she also published a short archaeological autobiography about her life in the Middle East during the 1930s. Excavation-wise, not all that much has changed in the past century, and for the last four weeks I got to experience some surprising parallels in person.
A-Sitting On A Tell
By Agatha Christie, 1946; inspired by the White Knight’s poem
in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.
I’ll tell you everything I can
if you will listen well:
I met an erudite young man
a-sitting on a Tell.
“Who are you, sir?” to him I said,
“For what is it you look?”
His answer trickled through my head
like bloodstains in a book.
He said: “I look for aged pots
of prehistoric days
and then I measure them in lots
and lots of different ways.
And then (like you) I start to write,
my words are twice as long
as yours, and far more erudite.
They prove my colleagues wrong!”
But I was thinking of a plan
to kill a millionaire
and hide the body in a van
or some large Frigidaire.
So, having no reply to give,
and feeling rather shy,
I cried: “Come, tell me how you live!
And when, and where, and why?”
His accents mild were full of wit:
“Five thousand years ago
is really, when I think of it,
the choicest Age I know.
And once you learn to scorn A.D.
and you have got the knack,
then you could come and dig with me
and never wander back.”
But I was thinking how to thrust
some arsenic in tea,
and could not all at once adjust
my mind so far B.C.
I looked at him and softly sighed–
his face was pleasant too…
“Come, tell me how you live?” I cried,
“And what it is you do?”
He said: “I hunt for objects made
by men where’er they roam,
I photograph and catalogue
and pack and send them home.
These things we do not sell for gold
(nor yet, indeed, for copper!),
but place them on Museum shelves
as only right and proper.
“I sometimes dig up amulets
and figurines most lewd,
for in those prehistoric days
they were extremely rude!
And that’s the way we take our fun,
’tis not the way of wealth.
But archaeologists live long,
and have the finest health.”
I heard him then, for I had just
completed a design
to keep a body free from dust
by boiling it in brine.
I thanked him much for telling me
with so much erudition,
and said that I would go with him
upon an Expedition…
And now, if e’er by chance I dip
my fingers into acid,
or smash some pottery (with slip!)
because I am not placid,
or if I see a river flow,
and hear a far-off yell,
I sigh, for it reminds me so
of that young man I learned to know–
Whose look was mild, whose speech was slow,
whose thoughts were in the long ago,
whose pockets sagged with potsherds so,
who lectured learnedly and low,
who used long words I didn’t know,
whose eyes, with fervor all aglow,
upon the ground looked to and fro,
who sought conclusively to show
that there were things I ought to know
and that with him I ought to go
and dig upon a Tell!
So, please step into my office. Archaeology-wise I have been a nomad. Unable to stick to a single site (or make one stick to me) I try a new one each year. I now have enough experience to not have to pay for this, but I am not yet important enough to always get paid (and perhaps never will be). In this instance I was sponsored by the Lutfia Rabbani foundation, to promote Euro-Arab dialogue. Thanks to a fantastic teacher back while I was doing my undergraduate degree, I tend to make myself useful as an archaeological illustrator.
Courtesy of archaeologists of the past, my little all-female team got to live in a fantastic dig house in Jordan. It had electricity (most the time), flushing toilets (most the time), hot water (etc.), and clean mattresses! I am not writing with irony; it was really a very nice place to stay at. I could of course throw in some Dutch criticism and mention that there was no internet… but I fear I am already sounding too negative. It was really beautiful, and very comfortable, and I feel quite lucky!
It is not possible to write too much about the actual site I was excavating, as it is located in a pretty sensitive area around the Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian border. If it was up to me I would share all the information because I really do not mind, but there are a lot of people who would and I do not want anyone to get into trouble!
In any case, the little tell contained primarily Abbasid and Early Roman remains. Nothing very fancy; probably a succession of more and less successful farms. I came there to learn about mudbrick. Mudbricks are bricks made of a mixture of loam, mud (surprise), sand and water mixed with a binding material such as straw; they are very hard to distinguish from surrounding soil most the time. Maybe it is possible to see an outline. Maybe it is possible to feel the dirt is a bit harder in one place. Maybe it is simply not possible to explain the mysterious feature as being anything else. Mudbricks are very important for me, because I study the Bronze Age Middle East, and that is what they built stuff out of in the Bronze Age (and obviously, pretty much every age). In Europe, the sensible Romans and Medieval people tended to use stone to construct buildings, which is a lot easier to figure out…
We did not have any cool equipment like speaking total stations, or even a single site camera, so we had to be a little inventive at times. That is fine; this is why all archaeologists are still trained to draw and measure by hand. It is an expensive thing to do, and it is just not always a financial priority, when you have a Syrian refugee camp right down the road.
In the Middle East, excavations are still often conducted old-style, where you hire local workers to do the digging, and the people with degrees stand around and point. It is not a method I am very comfortable with (seeing how I am capable of pushing wheel-barrows also), but it does create a very valuable work opportunity for people who very much need it. While it results in feeling quite useless quite a lot of the time, I was determined that working with local people might at least provide some insight into local living, and also improve my Arabic. Sadly, pointing at things can be done with very few words, so all I managed to improve was my archaeological vocabulary. I am really going to have to take lessons again next year if I ever want to construct actual sentences. I would quite like to make Facebook Friends with some of the people back there, and find out what they thought about working in this way. They all seemed like they were really cool people to get to know better, and I am kicking myself a little for not pushing harder to do so.
The photo above is what really inspired the title of the blog-post. Being a Western and all-female team, they had taken the effort to commission toilet facilities for the site. It was not just a hole behind a bush, or a hole dug into the ground; no, it was an actual porcelain toilet bowl, surrounded by a little cubicle for privacy, and supplied with two buckets of water and wet wipes daily. I do not have my copy of Agatha Christie’s book with me here, but I remember vividly how she describes that an English lady could not possibly do without toilet facilities, and proceeds to instruct some rather confused and surprised men to build her one. Oh, and do not get me wrong: while I can manage a bush, I do appreciate a good porcelain toilet bowl.
Other parallels include dinner, where often everyone would shower and change their clothes first. Then, we were instructed to set the table, of course only with the good bowls (no cracks) and the right cutlery (did someone forget the spoons again?). Agatha Christie describes how everyone would change into formal attire before attending dinner; which is of course totally sensible at an excavation, where everyone is permanently covered in dust anyway. Cooking is something you cannot possibly do by yourself either, so the wonderful, amazing, I do not know what other adjectives to use, Fatma, would come and bring us food every day except Friday. She even brought me little vegetarian dishes separate from the rice with chicken or chicken with rice! I cannot wait to try and re-create some of the food at home, although I am sure it will never be near as delicious.
For the most part, I enjoyed being back in Jordan. I enjoyed the dust, and I enjoyed the little crowded bus that took us to work and back every day; I enjoyed looking at bits of beautiful Abbasid pottery in the quiet little courtyard. Agatha Christie got a fair bit of criticism for her book; it does not mention exact dates or sites, it mixes events together and leaves out a lot of archaeology. I do not see these as shortcomings; in whichever way she did it, she really brought something to life, and now I got to live it too.