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.

Pinning the tail on the donkey

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We receive a visit from the Basra Parthian Cavalry Reenactment Group, otherwise known as Yusef’s annoying brother Ibrahim with a pink blanket on his dad’s horse

Life is like an evaluation trench; you never know what you’re going to get, and then when you do get it you usually don’t understand it. So things go at the new site where the geophysicists have gone home leaving us with lovely magnetometry images of several hectares of apparently well preserved ancient city and three weeks to put some rather small holes in it. Obviously, we put the first ones (ten by twos, go big or go home) in the fanciest, most palatial things we could see. The magnetometry had nigh-on promised me a beautiful Parthian temple, and F a nice big baked brick boundary wall. I found some shallow moth-eaten architecture all chopped about by late intrusive graves and F found the torpedo magazine of a long-sunken pottery submarine.

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Sunk without firing a shot

It all goes to reinforce my long-held conviction that you really don’t know shit until you dig a site up, and sometimes not even then. Survey data is always wishful thinking. The site I was just working on before this one, up near Ur, was sold to the directors as a Jemdet Nasr site (3100-2900 BC) based on survey results, then we were promised it was an Old Babylonian (1830-1550 BC) temple by several knowledgeable people based on the satellite photos. On excavation, our convenient cuneiform archive reveals us to have an administrative building of the Sealand Dynasty (1730-1460 BC). Survey really can’t tell you anything more than where to start digging, all the rest is pure speculation (apologies (but not really) to all those archaeologists who have based their careers on survey data).

On Friday our friendly local antiquities official unlocked Saddam Hussein’s Basra riverside palace so that we could take a look around what’s going to be the Basra Museum. It was a bit disappointingly tasteful actually, and I had to grudgingly admit that Saddam might have been a passable interior designer if he hadn’t been a horrible genocidal maniac (he did manage to incorporate 1,200 renderings of his own name into the wall decorations). After, we took a boat up and down the river, passing Saddam’s small cruise ship Basra Breeze, which I am assured is a nauseating abomination in gold and ivory on the inside so perhaps that restores some balance to the force. In a properly ordered universe terrible people only make terrible things.

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Saddam Hussein: on the one hand, total fucknut, and on the other, rather nice ceilings

Speaking of terrible things, this week we gained possession of a number of cans of Iraqi made Mr Louis whiskey. Surely a typo, I hear you cry, but no, it comes in cans, like Sprite, except with a 40% alcohol content and a shittier ring-pull. We’re living on the roof of a police station and they were given to us by the cops, who said they’d confiscated the stuff while raiding houses for illegal antiquities. It smells of Watsits and tastes of Dettol and should never ever be consumed.

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Mr. Louis Original Whiskey, possible side effects include nausea, vomiting, combustion, demonic possession and cancer of the soulIMGP1403small

 

What is it good for?

 

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Remains of a military truck in the remains of its earthwork

War has been on my mind a fair bit over the last week. Firstly because we’ve spent it with German geophysicists and proximity to Germans causes most British people to be conscious that they mustn’t reference certain 20th century events, inevitably leading to the problem that it becomes all you can think about. It didn’t help yesterday on site when one of the policemen asked where our colleagues were from, we said Germany and he said “Ah! Adolf Hitler!” and gave us a big thumbs-up sign. I came across similar reactions when I worked with Palestinian workmen in Lebanon who not only thought Hitler was great but also thought he was English.

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The upright shell casing we’ve been using as a landmark in the vast emptiness within the walls

The second problem is the site itself, which formed part of the Iraqi defensive lines north of Basra during the extraordinarily bloody Iran-Iraq war. Most archaeological sites have looting pits but our looting pits are vastly outnumbered by tank emplacements, fox holes, fuel stores and defensive berms. The mighty Parthian ramparts which still ring the site have a tank-sized hole cut into them every hundred meters or so with a tank ramp up to them at the back of each. The mouldering remains of exploded military vehicles lurk about in the hollows and the surface is littered with thousands and thousands of spent (and a few unspent) munitions of various ilks. The geophysicists found an old squashed helmet in one of their grids.

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One of the less used artillery shells, found between the tyre-tracks left by our pickup

The Iran-Iraq war has even intruded into my new evaluation trench because someone at some point has driven a tank over it, which has compacted the clay below to a considerable depth leaving a big thick tank-shaped stripe. Of course, the human element of all this doesn’t bear thinking about. Today I came back to my trench after a few minutes with the total station to find my (very raw) workmen stuffing most of a human skull into a finds bag. My first thought was ‘oh crap, am I going to have to dig up some poor Iranian soldier with his boots on and his wrist watch still ticking?’ Fortunately the burial seems considerably older than the 1980s and I’m going to see if I can get away without digging it at all as we’re short of time and dead people are a pain in the arse. After I’d given my workmen a bit of a bollicking for not leaving the skull where they found it I explained that I didn’t want any more skulls because that’s not what we’re looking for. “Shame” said my youngest workman Fathdil, “Iraq is full of skulls”.

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One of our cops about to gift me the tail end of a mortar

Keep on running

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We took another visit to the Iraqi marshes, they looked a lot like this

I was running across the ancient ruins of Ur the other day, not in the joyful manner of someone who finds pleasure in such things but as one driven by the fear of prematurely losing physical competences through disuse. I was listening to Kids with Guns by the Gorillas and had started to think the bass beat was sounding a bit out, when I was hit by an unexpected wind from above and behind. On investigation, there were two large helicopter gunships hovering right over me, covered in those pointy bits that drop off and explode. I didn’t quite know what the best thing to do was in this social situation, so I gave the nearer one a friendly wave. There was a brief pause and then they thundered off towards the Ur airbase in the knowledge of a job well done. It’s this sort of thing that reminds me I work in a ridiculous place, but it did give me an excellent excuse to stop running for a few blissful minutes while I found something calming to listen to on my ipod.

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The bad pottery. It has been released back into the wild

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Steve’s gravy train is about to derail

The weeks have flown, we’ve taken a lot of earth out of the trenches and then put most of it back in again, we’ve dug up a lot of pottery, numbered it, loved it and then dumped most of it back on site in a big heap. We’ve found a lot of things, most of them horrible things, and we’ve given them all numbers. We have waved farewell to Steve, queen among slightly stand-offish Iraqi site dogs, to whom we gave a whole can of sardines and received little in return. I spent far longer on the pictures for my report than on the words because the pictures are always the best bit. Our final task was to burn the accumulated rubbish including all the empties. We piled them in the centre so they’d receive maximum fire and created a raging inferno fed by strong winds. One of them exploded with an ear-splitting bang, but when the flames had died down the nature of the bottles was still painfully clear. So it came about that F and I spent twenty minutes throwing lumps of ancient baked bricks at a fire in order to smash burning empty bottles of Famous Grouse. It was only five minutes after we finished that a policeman showed up to investigate the explosion and the sounds of breaking glass. We said we’d just been burning some rubbish, officer.

Our eight weeks at Ur are up but this is not the end, oh no. One site is just not enough when you’re as red-hot keen on archaeology as we are. We’re in the middle of moving operations to Basra to start a whole new site between the oil fields out by the Iranian border. We went for a first look today and found it charming – flat and bleak and covered in debris from the Iran-Iraq war – it’s all I ever dreamed of. Near the western end of the fortification walls we found the eroded remains of an anti-personnel mine.

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The rotting husk of a land mine at our lovely new site

By the way, thanks for all the concern about my mental health after the last post, though that’s not really how I meant it to read.