I’m currently in Middle Egypt digging up dead people. This is no bad thing; there isn’t much heavy lifting with grave digging and the dead don’t tend to accumulate paperwork like other archaeological subjects. It’s Friday today, which is our day off. The house is lovely and quiet as almost everyone has gone to look at some tombs. So far I’ve spent the day sleeping, watching X-Men First Class on DVD and drinking an unhealthy amount of coffee.

I dug up an old man yesterday who had this peculiar egg-shaped bony object mixed up with his bits and pieces:

man egg

man egg

At second breakfast, while I was still mulling over this peculiar article as I ate my boiled egg, a co-worker asked us all if some burials ever gave us a bad feeling. It seems her current customer was causing unquiet thoughts. In general, I had to confess that ripping the dead from their eternal peace causes me no bad feelings at all, which on reflection makes me a little sad, as well as raising interesting questions over personal mental health. But then, what’s not to like?

Things don’t always go smoothly when working with the dead. I recall on my first cemetery excavation in Egypt I came down with a nasty fever and dreamed that all the walls of my room were made of dried corpses. It was the same digging season that we were unable to find air puffers for blowing sand off the burials and had to physically blow on them instead; I would spend every afternoon coughing up brown gritty stuff I knew to be people. Cemetery excavation can often entail an uncomfortable element of cannibalism.

As a matter of personal taste, I don’t really hold with colleagues who choose to name their customers. It implies a level of familiarity unwarranted by the social circumstances; desecrating a person’s grave should not put you on friendly terms. I once worked with an archaeologist who insisted on naming the skeletons after characters from Dickens. It did not fill me with joy to find that the badly disturbed infant burial on which I was working was referred to in our notes as ‘Little Nell’, nor on being asked to box up The Ghost of Christmas Past for storage.

I once found this pair of children’s legs standing up in a grave:

I don’t especially like excavating burials with nice hair, firstly because the sensation of stuffing handfuls of three thousand year old sand-filled hair into a plastic bag is slightly unpleasant (particularly around breakfast), but also because in any partnership with the ancient dead I like to feel like the better turned out party.

'nice hair'

‘nice hair’

The only thing that I really don’t like about digging up dead people is the terrible smell.

1 thought on “I love the smell of dessicated human remains in the morning

  1. dapperdolly

    I admire the gravity with which you treat excavating graves. I don’t like it when people take it so lightly either and the extends to the swathes of people who like to frolic in modern graveyards for fun, sex and/or photos draping themselves over grave stones and statues smiling happily with sad or serious epitaphs in the background.

    Have you tried some kind of mint/menthol rub over your top lip/under your nose? That might help mask the smell.


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