Monday, 7 March 2011

Agatha Christie, Assyrian treasure and face-cream conservation

The British Museum has decided to put on a small exhibition next week about some rather unusual objects, or at least objects with an unusual story to tell.  They have been in the museum since being purchased for £1.2million 25 years ago, but have never before been on display.

The objects are a series of ivories from the Assyrian city of Nimrud, excavated in the 1940’s by Max Mallowan, the second husband of Agatha Christie.  The tiny, gilded figures, originally made to decorate furniture, are miniature masterpieces of sculpture, and still bear some traces of the gilding and jeweled inlay that originally adorned them.  Some even still carry the signs of burning that signal the demise of the city 2,600 years ago.

Images from

Sadly (should that even be criminally?), the ivories that remained in Iraq appear to have been damaged during the Iraq war – either trampled in the looting of the museum or, with horrific irony, damaged by flooding of the bank vault they had been taken to for protection.

But no tale of (vaguely) antiquarian archaeological discovery would be complete without an element of weirdness.  In this instance, it’s the rather unusual conservation methods employed by Christie herself.  In her autobiography she writes,

“I had my own favourite tools ... an orange stick, possibly a very fine knitting needle - one season a dentist's tool which he lent, or rather gave me, and a jar of cosmetic face cream, which I found more useful than anything else for gently coaxing the dirt out of the crevices without harming the friable ivory. In fact there was such a run on my face cream that there was nothing left for my poor old face after a couple of weeks!”

Maybe I can persuade our museum conservators to try out the face cream technique – it doesn’t seem to have done the ivories any harm!  If only she’d left us the name of the brand she used, we could have got a great sponsorship deal…

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