The British Museum
Published 11/03/2011 | 08:00
It's hard to believe that some of these delicate ivory carvings, excavated from the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, are almost 3,000-years-old.
Yet perhaps more remarkable is the fact their lustre was first restored, at a dusty archaeological site in Iraq, by novelist Agatha Christie through the patient application of face cream.
The British Museum has paid £1.2m for the Nimrud Ivories, the finest collection of decorative ivories ever excavated in the Middle East.
They were discovered by the British School of Archaeology between 1949 and 1963, on a dig led by Sir Max Mallowan, Christie's second husband.
Christie and Mallowan were digging at the site of Nimrud in northern Iraq, just south of Mosul. It was built by Assyrian king Shalmaneser I in the 13th century BC - 500 years later, it was made the capital of the Assyrian Empire.
The collection comprises almost 1,000 numbered items, as well 5,000 fragments or unnumbered pieces. The most significant pieces were found buried in sludge at the bottom of wells in Nimrud's north-west palace.
Their story became entwined with Christie's when, in 1928, after the collapse of her first marriage, she boarded the Orient Express for the first time.
In Istanbul, the railway's southern terminus, she wrote one of her most celebrated works, Murder on the Orient Express, from her room at the Hotel Pera Palace.
Christie also met and married Mallowan, the apprentice archaeologist 15 years her junior. She accompanied him on his digs throughout the Middle East, as his star rose almost to match that of her own.
Her experiences in Iraq soon began to influence her novels. In They Came to Baghdad, published in 1951, she wrote of the experiences of an enthusiastic young tourist: "Unexpectedly, she found the life quite enchanting ... Helping with camera work. Piecing together and sticking up pottery.
"Watching the men at work, appreciating the skill and delicacy of the pick men - enjoying the songs and laughter of the little boys who ran to empty their baskets of earth on the dump."
Christie died in 1976 - an event most memorably described in the postscript of Sir Max Mallowan's autobiography: peacefully and gently, and leaving him with a feeling of emptiness after 45 years. He died two years later.
The best of the near 6,000 pieces go on display in the British Museum's Middle East section from next week.