Ending at Ur

After four winters of excavation, the curtain has finally fallen on the project near Ur, where I have now lived for a total of over nine cold, beige months. This project has been great. highlights, many of which have featured in this blog, include excavating a cuneiform archive from 1500 BC, finding an intact rattling Babylonian rattle, seeing the sun rise over the Iraqi marshes, achieving an almost perfect score in Ur-Rules Bananagrams and having my own toilet.

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Only let down by WE to get rid of the final E. Otherwise full marks

Excavation on site went out with more of a fizzle than a bang. The large slump in the centre of the courtyard (known on site as M’s great depression), which I’d been chasing all season, turned out to be the last known whereabouts of a substantial ancient tree rather than the lost tombs of the Sealand kings, buried with the wealth of a nation. My final roll of the dice on site was to dig a chunky-size sondage with the aim of seeing if our sub-floor vaults went any further north. In predictable fashion, the sondage failed to answer the question it was dug to address, while adding several more questions to the long list of things we don’t understand. At this point I threw my trowel down in disgust, fed the site dogs a last can of awful tuna and declared my work here done.

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It’s all over; Steve and Runt mourn the end of the tuna and boiled egg gravy train 

Of course it wasn’t done. I had to spend three days writing my report, which I unwisely chose to do while listening to Radio 1 online, meaning I’m now uncomfortably burdened by extensive knowledge of the works of Ed Sheeran and Little Mix, and a renewed certainty that the universe is meaningless and life is suffering.

Two days before we left, the end of the project was nailed down by the newest American invasion of Ur, when a team of sixteen US archaeologists finally arrived to crash our party. We’d actually been expecting them since mid February, but after the Trump travel ban was imposed they had some mysterious problems getting their Iraqi visas. Then when they finally did fly to Basra at the start of March the Iraqis gleefully deported them for having the ‘wrong’ visas. It seems that even Iraqi border control can be worn down in the end however.

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It’s a good job this is the last season as we’ve run out of idiot poses for the ziggurat steps

We packed up our cabins for the last time, posed on the ziggurat looking like ass-hats for the last time, burnt our exit visas (unflushable used toilet paper) for the last time, and finished what was left in the drinks cabinate (except that Bavarian whiskey which no one will touch – sorry Bavaria but stick to what you know eh?). Our last Sunday at Ur was a full moon and as night fell a storm was starting to blow across southern Iraq. At around midnight me and F lay on our backs on top of the ziggurat and watched the clouds racing across the moon.

“This is weird” I said.

“Yes,” said F, “very fucking weird.”

What we meant, although both of us consider the verbal expression of finer sentiments to be vulgar, was that we were sad to be leaving Ur.

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Full moon at Ur, as if there aren’t enough triggers for mental instability here already

Meeting the meat

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Ur city signage

As a thank you at the end of the season, our Iraqi colleagues generously treated us to dinner tonight. Last night they brought dinner round to the dig house so we could be introduced first. Alerted by the sound of strident bleating, we came outside to find the house keeper holding a pretty black and white lamb by its fluffy newly washed fleece. It was a somewhat strained social atmosphere; the lamb was clearly unhappy about the turn events had taken, and we were all very hungry as it was just before dinner. We tried to say the right manner of things, about what a nice sort of lamb he was, but it doesn’t do to get overly familiar in this kind of short term relationship. We all resisted any impulses towards patting it or naming it. The poor little chap rather embarrassed himself in the end by shitting all over the garden path, but under the circumstances we agreed that he could be forgiven.

It should be noted that his pitiful crying and big sad eyes in no way prevented him from being delicious.

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We meet again

Things in southern Iraq are progressing in their usual manner. After six weeks of freezing our extremities off, the weather was very nice for about fifteen minutes on Monday before going stinking hot and horribly windy instead. Last week I finally managed to evict all the dead people from my excavation area; a glum, chain-smoking man from the mosque came and took away the unwelcome late intrusive adult cut into my floors and hastily reburied him/her in a shallow grave behind the spoil heap. Almost immediately afterwards I disturbed an inconvenient baby in a mudbrick debris deposit, which I cleaned, photographed, planned and removed in less than half an hour – a new personal best. My courtyard also yielded a large stone basin, which was removed back to the dig house at Ur where it has proved to be ideal for stopping our football from blowing away in these windier times. The smokers among us lament that it would have made the perfect statement ashtray for the garden if only we didn’t have to send it to the museum so they can lose it.

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Nothing makes Iraqi workmen happier than late bronze age stone work

Last weekend we had a team outing to a site called Shmet, which it turned out no one really knew how to get to. We and our police detail spent an hour and a half driving around the same square kilometer of beige asking shepherds for directions and trying to circumvent a freshly excavated gas pipeline ditch. The site was pretty impressive when we finally got there, having been badly excavated by Iraqi archaeologists and badly looted by Iraqi villagers. After re-enacting several key scenes from the film Labyrinth, me and F went off to find some privacy. Fortunately, a colleague overheard one of our Iraqi police escort say he was going to climb higher up the mound as he couldn’t see two of the foreign women. She curbed his diligence by explaining that after four hours in the minibus we had in fact gone to find a looting pit deep enough to piss in.

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Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the goblin city

 

Back from the beyond

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site envy at Nippur

You might be forgiven for thinking that something terrible had happened to me. I left my blog at a point of sinister crisis as I was digging at a mysteriously nameless site for a morally ambiguous corporate entity*. The reader may have been left with the impression that I’d been disappeared for extensive mental reconditioning having seen something for which the human mind is not ready. I can tell you that to my knowledge this is not the case, although when I try to think back to November all I remember is the colour yellow. In truth, I hit an unforeseen snag with this blog, and after quite a lot of worrying about things I’ve decided to just fuck it and carry on more or less as before – minimal archaeology and being slightly mean – and see what happens.

2017 has so far been kind to me; I finally got my PhD published in the form of an already out of date book which no one can buy because a pitifully small number have been printed and it’s mind buggeringly expensive. I got some good news on a job, which had to happen at some point simply by the laws of probability, and I won a four day painting holiday in Bournemouth with an elderly woman I barely know. I’m not inclined to enter into gift horse mouth examinations however.

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Someone finally shows some initiative and murders Waleed; Iraq’s laziest wheelbarrower

I’m four weeks into my usual Jan/Feb/March excavation in southern Iraq, enduring a day-off consisting mainly of power cuts and primitive laundry. I’m excavating the main courtyard of our 2nd Millennium BC building, which is unremarkable except for a large depression (physical rather than metaphorical) in the centre, into which everything rolls; tools, spoil, used tissues, careless workmen. The most exciting on-site development is that our Iraqi antiquities representatives have started bringing hot soup for breakfast, which is an innovation of staggering brilliance.

At the Ur dig house we’re well into the usual desperate attempts to manufacture functional entertainment out of insufficient and defective parts. Earlier in the week a new knife for the kitchen arrived which was curiously marketed as a high quality ‘Kitchen Slaughter Knife’. This has led to lively speculation about who will be slaughtered first and by whom, and a general avoidance of the kitchen due to knife-related jests.

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Attempted infiltration of air rifles onto the shopping list

We’ve been engaged in a campaign to have the excavation provided with air rifles so that we can found the Ur Rifles Shooting Club, which we all agree would look great on a t-shirt. So far the project directors are holding firm to their no firearms poilcy. We have, however, managed to kit ourselves out with Iraqi national team football shirts, which has long been held as a project goal. Of course, it’s not possible to buy new and current Iraqi shirts, instead we visited a cavernous shop in Nasiriyah where football replica kit goes to die. It was piled to the ceiling with shirts from all clubs and countries dating as far back as the early 1990s, and after much labour on the part of the many shop staff we managed to find ten acceptable Iraqi shirts; a mixture of home and away strips in different sizes and designs, four of which cannot be worn locally due to having Ba’arthist-era flags on.

 

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the Iraqi football shirt subs bench

*The British Museum

Volume 2: Dangerous pursuits

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A fictional sub-blog describing things that never were, people who are not real and events which did not happen

The events and people described here are completely fictional and any similarity with the real world is entirely accidental

C is gone, an SUV came on Thursday and took him to the airport (we hope). The driver wasn’t one of the usual ones; he wore a polo shirt and army boots. Our employers said C had to go back to his university for the start of term, but he hadn’t mentioned anything to us. And he had posted some photos of the project on Facebook… We joke that C is back in Germany enjoying a beer while we’re still slaving away on the excavation, it’s comforting to think that might be true.

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The local youth, fully equipped for the nuclear apocalypse

There’s an unusual amount of health and safety gear on this dig. The workmen are all given thick rubber gloves, face masks and goggles and, unusually, they all seem very keen to wear them. Normally Iraqi workmen quickly discard safety gear as too hot and annoying to be bothered with but the young men from the local town who move the spoil are careful to check they are fully protected before they handle the earth. The foreman saw me moving rocks today without gloves, he took me aside and told me I must always wear them here; “Doctora” he said, “it is very dangerous for you”.

The site remains confusing, my trenches are almost sterile in terms of cultural material. Today all we found between the bare stone walls in seven hours of work was one iron nail, an eviscerated mouse corpse (mummified) and a medium sized scorpion. The latter was carefully captured alive by the workmen, placed on a large, flat stone, and then solemnly put to death using the big pick.

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I write this blog post in darkest secrecy while the others are out. I don’t want to go ‘to the airport’.

Volume 1: Lost context

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A fictional sub-blog describing things that never were, people who are not real and events which did not happen

 

The events and people described here are completely fictional and any similarity with the real world is entirely accidental

I returned to Iraq ten days ago to begin excavation at a new site, this time in the pay of a shadowy and secretive organisation. A group of strangers, this team of archaeologists has been brought together from around the world for a purpose which remains unclear despite the detailed and exacting instructions we have been provided with for the work. I can only hope that the hidden forces behind our investigations are benign and aimed solely at the advancement of scientific knowledge and not towards some more sinister goal.

Conditions are tough. We live crowded together in a single house, working long hours, sleeping when we can on concrete floors huddled under the ceiling fans. Every morning we are driven to the site as the sun comes up and are set to work. The site remains mysterious so far, revealing little either at the surface or in our first trenches. The ghost of a structure here, signs of disturbance there, but nothing concrete, more questions than answers so far. And what of the bigger questions? What are we really looking for? Who is behind the project and why must it be so secret?

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The dogs come to look at us over the city wall

The dogs avoid the site; they prowl around the edges in small packs, never daring to come closer. The ancient walls which ring the site seem to repel them, although they are little more than low ridges in the dry landscape. We find dead dogs sometimes, not by the road where they’re most common, but in the cultivation at the edge of the site. Inside the walls only hurtful things seem to thrive: snakes, scorpions and camel thorn. But these are not our only company; sometimes we see figures in the distance, sometimes lone men and sometimes groups, sometimes working and sometimes appearing to watch us.

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Snake skins caught on the camel thorn flutter in the wind

Communication with the outside is forbidden, I can only hope that our employers will never find this journal; perhaps the only record of a project intended to be hidden from the world…

Engaging first gear

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Dots and dots and dots and dots and dots. In hell the really bad people do stippling forever

So I pretty much took the summer off the blog in the end, my main excuse being that I haven’t done any archaeology really, unless you count two weeks spent drawing thousands of little dots on Adobe Illustrator after accepting some work digitising object drawings. On the plus side, money; on the minus side; madness. I was also handicapped for some time by a crushing sense of guilt, having developed a moral certainty that I had caused Great Britain to exit the European Union using magic (see previous post). Now I’ve gained perspective on the situation I know this to be nonsense and I now only suffer from a vague sense of guilt that I didn’t vote, but I share complicity in that with 13 million other eligible non-voters. Had I actually discovered an ability to influence global events using the Dark Arts I feel things would work out badly for everyone.

The only new power I’ve really been developing over the summer is driving. Some of you may find it surprising that an educated woman in her middle years, who can tie a good bowline, ride a horse and is handy with a blade, can’t drive a car, but to me it seems surprising that so many people do drive considering how expensive, stressful and boring it is. Bring on the driverless cars I say; even if they occasionally drive you into the side of a truck at least you can read the papers and drink a coffee while they’re doing it. It’s actually surprisingly common for British archaeologists not to drive. This has something to do with many of them being feckless dreamers unconcerned with worldly matters, but more to do with over-long periods spent in higher education and being too poor to buy and run a car. Thus has the world been spared many a tiresome driver, easily distracted by passing long-barrows and Iron Age hill forts, constantly ignoring the satnav to investigate ‘interesting’ looking churches and insisting that every road which runs straight for more than 100m must be Roman. Anyway, I’ve got my test in a few weeks so you better watch out if you’re on the roads.

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My parents are not supportive of my artistic efforts, why can’t I paint something nice like kittens? I tell them that art has to reflect the soul

Naturally I’ve wasted the last two weeks staying up until 4am every night watching exciting Olympic sport, like Spain playing Hungary at water polo. Some of my other summer non-achievements have included a spate of archaeologically-inspired painting, preparing a tedious old bunch of rubbish (my doctoral research) for publication, and watching all nine series of The X-Files, which left me cripplingly paranoid for a good three weeks. “Trust no one”, says the first source that Mulder gets horribly killed, which is strange because that’s exactly what my mother’s always said…

My summer is nearly over and the digging season is about to begin so I’ll be heading back to Iraq in about three weeks to start a new project. This one presents a bit of a problem though because ‘they’ have made me sign a contract which forbids me from talking about the project, blogging about the project or posting images or text about the project on any platform (apologies to my para-archaeology conspiracy theorist stalkers who just wet themselves – sorry guys, but I’m just a pawn of the military-industrial elite). Anyway, it presents an issue for the blog but I hope I can work something out.

In some really excellent news I finally found my Blue Peter badge which has been lost for many years. The deep significance of this will only be apparent to my UK readers.

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This was the summit of my ambitions when I was ten years old. I think it still is.

The dark heart of summer

Oh what a long time since my last blog, but I’m always a bit lost in the Middle Eastern archaeology off-season. As I’m not digging I only have tangentially archaeological things to ramble on about, but there’s not much change there. Here’s a round-up of events:

At the end of April I went to Vienna for a week for the big biennial Near Eastern archaeology conference, where in time-honoured fashion I spent twice as much time in Viennese bierkellers as I did listening to academic papers. There was also a dreadful quantity of coffee and cake which had to be seen to. I gave a slightly sweaty paper about the work I’ve been doing in Erbil and had to answer a lot of difficult questions about what the hell I think I’m up to. I took one day off to go to the military museum and look at the tanks.

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Stoopid rules at the Austrian Military Museum

 

I don’t know what happened to May, there’s nothing in my diary. I spent the first part of June being unwell after over-exerting myself at the Cambridge Beer festival, which traditionally represents three or four days of systematically dismantling my immune system. I did a guest speaker turn at a New Zealand Women’s Association lunch in London, which went down surprisingly well after I decided to just stick to funny stories about landmines. I had to help my sister try on wedding dresses which is a horror I never thought I’d see in my lifetime.

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The sort of half-pints they were serving at the Cambridge Beer Festival

A hugely disabling factor over the last couple of months has been my becoming unhinged over the EU referendum. I love politics, especially nowadays when there’s hardly any proper sport on the BBC, but this one has totally fried my political loyalties, philosophical principles and logical reasoning. After weeks of mental anguish, a genuine feeling that I was losing the plot and an angry drunken rant in the pub to several EU nationals who work at the British Museum, I finally found a way of resolving the issue. On the solstice, by the light of the full moon, I went down to the bottom of the garden at midnight. Over the grave of a jackdaw I buried there eleven years ago I cut out a square of turf with a big kitchen knife. I took a large terracotta bowl containing flour and oats, laid my postal voting forms and propaganda leaflets from both sides on top and set fire to them. I mixed the hot ash with the flour and oats and stirred in fresh milk anticlockwise with a silver spoon until I had a warm dark-grey paste. I moulded this into the shape of a human heart (anatomical, not Hallmark) and buried it in the jackdaws grave before carefully replacing the turf (I bet some of you think I’m joking). It was enormously satisfying on some Dark Age level and made me feel much better.

(A, you can’t tell mum about this, I told her I voted Remain).

(FILES) This file photo taken on August

I simply cannot choose which side I despise the most, it’s like being asked if I’d rather have vomit or shit for dinner.