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2017 has so far been kind to me; I finally got my PhD published in the form of an already out of date book which no one can buy because a pitifully small number have been printed and it’s mind buggeringly expensive.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.

The oldest sins in the newest ways

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The new Institute of Digital Archaeology erection

It seems appropriate I should title this with a Shakespeare misquote as it’s the 400th anniversary of his death on Saturday and everyone is doing it. What I’m actually alluding to is the ‘digitally produced’ copy of the Palmyra arch which was erected in Trafalgar Square yesterday by the Institute of Digital Archaeology (involuntary snigger). They’ve made an exact scaled-down replica of an arch destroyed by Daesh, using a digital 3D model created from photos. How new! how sophisticated, how 21st century! cooed the papers. But of course it isn’t a new concept at all, in fact it’s very old school, only the tools have changed (now they work at the Institute of Digital Archaeology, nghh).

They loved their perfect architectural replicas back in the mid-19th century and there was a huge industry turning them out for museums. Moulds were made from the originals and used to produce as many plaster casts as necessary, brilliant. The only downside being that eventually everyone came to the conclusion that casts of ancient monuments were a bit pointless and unsatisfying. They lacked authenticity and, rather critically, age. To everyone’s surprise it turned out that old things were interesting and valued because they were old. New facsimiles just didn’t really interest people no matter how close to the original they were. The cast craze died away by the early 20th century and museums had their cast collections destroyed, sold off or put into permanent storage. One of the few museums to retain some of their casts on display is the Victoria and Albert in London, which I suspect found it hard to back down after they’d invested in a Cast Court specially built to house a life-size cast of the façade of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

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Michaelangelo’s original David which attracts 1.3 million visitors per year, and the V&A’s Victorian cast which mysteriously doesn’t

It’s fascinating to learn from the IDA that reproductions are back on the cutting edge of cultural heritage, so long as they’re produced from a digital model and carved by robots at £100,000 a pop rather than boring old Victorian casts (and I’m so glad we’re spending the money on something that really helps to protect and conserve endangered archaeology in the Middle East and not on some token publicity stunt). Alas, like most digital archaeology, it’s an old and pointless concept in a new and shiny package.

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Bunking off Quiddich at Alnwick Castle

In personal news, I survived my 8 hour wait in Istanbul airport by paying to spend it in a lounge with an infinite supply of beer. I also survived a brief National-Trust-athon in Northumberland with my sister, during which we managed to take in four castles, three churches, one priory, Hadrian’s wall, the Lindisfarne mead shop and an unrecorded number of pubs. My sister talked incessantly about her wedding but amply compensated by sending me a whole Spanish ham in the post. Twins are great, they’re the only people really get gifts right.

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One week in, the gift of ham just keeps on giving

 

Grinding out the win

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F and I wonder if we might have been here too long

Three months in Iraq is probably as much as is good for a person of sound mind. There’s been a profound air of counting-the-days over the last two weeks, with strong undertones of seeing-it-through and hanging-on-in-there. We’ve invented a new dig game which involves hitting nabok (a small local fruit like a tiny apple but tasting vaguely of parmesan cheese) off the roof using a wooden survey steak wielded like a rounders bat. It’s good for working off the frustration of trying to explain detailed and barely reconcilable magnetometry, aerial photography and archaeology data, although it does leave a bit of a mess.

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mmm, Iraqi birthday cake. I’m pretty sure the pink rose in the middle was actually a bar of soap

We’re all finished on site, we’ve completed our reports into how we don’t really understand anything, and I’ve survived my 35th birthday without publically crying over my wasted youth. Luckily my birthday fell on a Friday so I didn’t have to get up at 5:45am and work all day, which was a bonus. I spent much of the day in the traditional modern manner – replying to birthday messages on social media – but also managed to treat myself to an extra long smoke, a tiny bottle of wine and season 3 of The Thick of It. The local antiquities inspector really pulled it out of the bag however by getting me a luridly coloured soap flavoured cake, a paper hat depicting a range of Disney princesses and a small selection of fireworks. I’m sure everyone remembers firework safety talks from school; the ones about burying the end firmly in damp ground, lighting the fuse and then retiring at least 15m? I don’t think they do those lessons in Iraq. The cook held the end of the rockets in his hand, lit the fuse and pointed it vaguely at the sky. Still, no one died eh?

There was a slightly sour end on site. F came back to her trench one morning to find that someone had come along and smashed up all her pottery torpedoes with a shovel. It was a great pity as I know how much F had been looking forward to doing that herself. At least it was all recorded so no real harm done and there are plenty more where those came from (hell). No one messed with my trenches as even looters can tell there’s nothing even remotely interesting in them.

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A direct hit to the torpedo bay, didn’t stand a chance

We also managed to fit in a bit of sightseeing in our last week by visiting Basra souk, where I bought a replacement laptop power cable which didn’t work and as much popcorn as I could carry, and an old Ottoman period serai at Shuayba out by the main gas plant. On entering the central courtyard of the building we discovered that it is now used as the village’s five-a-side football pitch.

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The away team’s here. Confusion all round

It’s back to the UK for me on Thursday for a summer of desk work, beer festivals and sponging off my parents. Hooray.