Friday, January 22, 2016

Adventure classics – How do you know where to dig?

Come, Tell Me How You Live, by Agatha Christie Mallowan
Throw Me a Bone, by Eleanor Lothrop
There’s an element of melancholy even under the self-deprecating humor of memoirs by women who helped lost civilizations to light, Come, Tell Me How You Live, by Agatha Christie (using a rare instance of her second husband’s name, Mallowan), and Eleanor Lothrop’s Throw Me a Bone. From Christie Mallowan’s viewpoint in the Middle East, Lothrop’s in Central and South America, major civilizations have vanished almost without a trace beneath desert or jungle.

“People are always saying, ‘How did you happen to know just where to dig? Your husband must be psychic.’ As if it were magic that leads an archaeologist instinctively to the right spot,” Lothrop writes in her 1948 memoir of adventures with American archaeologist husband, Sam Lothrop.

“Unfortunately it’s not that easy; as a rule tedious and hard work is necessary…your best bet is to chase directly after the men who farm the land, for in ploughing or tilling they are apt to turn up remains of another era.” It’s still not an easy job, as Lothrop demonstrates with the following questionnaire sample:

Q. “Have you done any ploughing or digging around here?”
A. “Yes.”
Q. “By any chance have you come across any ancient skeletons or pottery or ornaments?”
A. “No.”
Q. “Do you know anyone who has?”
A. “No.”

Except that, after a similarly disappointing session at one farmstead, Sam notices a pig eating from a delicately painted prehistoric bowl. “‘What’s that?’ he asks, trying to control his excitement.” The answer, delivered with a pitying look: a pig. “‘I mean what is he eating out of?’” The answer, no doubt given even more pityingly: a pot. Soon, however, the farmer discloses that the pot came from a nearby field, and the Lothrops are on their way.

Christie Mallowan has a similar take of the sites chosen by her second husband, Max Mallowan, for his excavations in Syria and Iraq.

“Here, where nowadays only the tribesmen move with their brown tents…were the beginnings of civilization, and here, picked up by me, this broken fragment of a clay pot, hand-made, with a design of dots and cross-hatching in black paint, is the forerunner of the Woolworth cup out of which this very morning I have drunk my tea…I sort through the collection of sherds which are bulging the pockets of my coat (I have already had to mend the lining twice), throwing away duplicate types, and see what I can offer…”

Of course, the sherds must meet Max’s time table before a spot can even be considered for excavation. He disdains any artifacts from, oh, say, the last two thousand years, “intrusive Roman” stuff in his eyes. But he, like Sam Lothrop, his colleague of a hemisphere away, finds himself credited sometimes with psychic powers.

When a well dug at the Mallowans turns out to have been the exact site of a more ancient one, villagers in need of water flock to Max. “The secrets of antiquity are to you an open book,” they say. “Therefore, indicate to us the right places to dig…”

None of Max’s protestations of a chance finding are believed. Of course the original well would have to have been what he called “a beastly Roman well.” One more strike in his eyes against those all too modern imperialists.

(Next Friday, Adventure classics concludes a January of true adventures with the Mallowans and Lothrops.)

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