A memoir of several years spent with her husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, excavating in Syria entre deux guerres. It's not meant to be about archaeology, really, although they did some very important work; it's about trying to wrangle several hundred people and massive quantities of supplies into some semblance of a dig while dependent on sparse train lines, no roads, and communications by letter. (I particularly enjoy the way that whenever they go to the post office the postmaster, who is literate in Arabic but not other languages, has a bin for letters addressed in languages he does not speak and keeps trying to give the entire bin to anyone who comes in and asks for something that ought to be in it. They keep speculating about who all these people are whose mail they are declining, and hoping said people do the same for them.)
This is one of those books that is a fast, funny, intelligent read marred drastically by having been published in 1946 by a person who has not thought at all about the race and class issues built into the way she expects things in Syria to go for her as an English gentlewoman. Which is to say it has not, in some aspects, aged remotely pleasantly. If one uses the rubric of good for its time, normal for its time, bad for its time, I am afraid it is on the normal-trending-to-bad part of that spectrum.
Still, I think I now know where Elizabeth Peters got her model for the Amelia Peabody books. Agatha Christie was a person of great aplomb and a way of laughing at herself (and other people, when called for: there is the friend of hers who had pajamas specially designed to cover every inch of his body but his eyes, nose, and mouth, to keep off the mosquitoes, and kept saying he was going to be the only one not to get malaria, and of course the second he got them buckled and zipped on for the first time he realized there was a mouse inside his waistband; apparently no one could get anywhere near him to assist, since everyone had collapsed in fits of hysterical giggling). She appears to have been able to write mystery novels in a room actually containing people reconstructing pottery, a feat of concentration beyond my ability to comprehend.
So, the bits that do not have one gritting one's teeth are very pleasant, and as a record of a mindset and a way of doing things and of how archaeology used to work, it is continuously interesting. But there is a lot of teeth-gritting.
She did write a very nice poem for the front of the book, which I am going to include here in full as it is too enjoyable not to, and certainly is not the sort of thing that would be excerpted anywhere. Also, it's a fun example of the geek love poem, a genre that has a long history.
(Note: a Tell is a mound containing the remnants of earlier civilizations.)
A-Sitting On A Tell
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!
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