Friday, January 15, 2016

Adventure classics – No love for fleas among the ruins

Throw Me a Bone, by Eleanor Lothrop
Come, Tell Me How You Live, by Agatha Christie Mallowan
In near synchronicity with the publication of Agatha Christie Mallowan’s memoir of her archaeological adventures with husband Max Mallowan, Come, Tell Me How You Live, another archaeological wife on the other side of the world told her story. Eleanor Lothrop demonstrated a sense of humor to rival Agatha’s in her 1948 memoir, Throw Me a Bone, about her adventures of the 1920’s through 1930’s with American archaeologist husband, Samuel Lothrop.

The early 20th century was still a time when women often could only enter archaeology in partnership with their husbands, but both Christie (in a rare use of her married name Mallowan) and Lothrop don’t waste time or ink complaining. Instead, both books brim with zest for all things archaeological. All things, that is, except fleas. Admittedly, cockroaches, mice and snakes were not among their favorite companions while camping at desert sites in the Middle East or (in Lothrop’s case) South American jungles. But the worst of these were fleas.

“At the time I met my then future husband,” Lothrop writes, “I led right off with the Acropolis, the Forum and King Tut and was started when my companion, rudely interrupting, said, ‘I am an American archaeologist.’

She answers, “‘I know the Lothrops come from Boston. So what?’ But it seems I had missed the point. An American archaeologist, it was explained, in an archaeologist who specializes in the archaeology of the Americas—North, Central and South.”

Despite this inauspicious start, Sam soon proposes marriage and they are off on what she thinks is a honeymoon in Chile. It turns out to be the start of an expedition to a tiny port town which can only be reached by boat, in this case, a cattle boat which Eleanor realizes too late is infested with fleas. (And whose illustration, without fleas, illustrates today’s post.)

“‘What do you expect on a cattle boat?’” Sam asks, with maddening realism.

It’s a pity Eleanor and Agatha hadn’t been able to compare notes.

“We are to suffer a good deal from fleas,” Agatha writes in Come, Tell Me How You Live. “It is not…so much the bites of fleas. It is their tireless energy, their never-ending hopping races round and round one’s middle that wears one out. Impossible to drop off to sleep when fleas are holding nightly sports round and round the waist.”

Even stoic Max (who once informed her that she wouldn’t notice mice running over her face if she was asleep) suffers from fleas.

“One day I find and kill one hundred and seven in the band of his pyjamas!…It would appear that I only get the overflow of fleas—the ones, that is, which have not been able to take up their abode on Max. Mine are second-class, inferior fleas, ineligible for the high jumps!”

And yet, they keep coming back for more. “Each time we wind up an archaeological trip,” Lothrop writes, “I look forward to the same things. No scratching. Lying in bed late, soaking in a hot bath. Plumbing. Ice water and fresh milk. Raw celery and lettuce. Plumbing. Movies and theatres. Plumbing!

“And what happens? About a month of these delights and I get restless. It never fails. Sam comes home from work, sinks into a comfortable chair in his comfortable bugless apartment and tries to appear ecstatically happy.…I usually say it first. ‘This is the life! It’s wonderful; no doubt about it. But when oh when are we going where?’”

(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues a January of true adventures with the Mallowans and Lothrops. For more about early women in archaeology, I liked Amanda Adams’ Ladies of the Field, which I also reviewed at Goodreads and Amazon.)

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