Monthly Archives: December 2012

All I want for christmas: pork and rain

Our conservator after trying to consolidate this coffin for six days. I shall never forget the howl of misery with which she blessed its collapse when we tried to remove it.

Our conservator after trying to consolidate this coffin for six days. I shall never forget the howl of misery with which she blessed its collapse when we tried to remove it.

Like all dutiful (single) archaeologists I have returned home to my parents for Christmas. The end of the season was pretty busy and tiring, although largely because we kept staying up late to get to the end of the dvd of Our Mutual Friend (BBC, 1998). We managed, in the end, to watch three period dramas, dig up nearly a hundred dead people, send only two team members to the doctor, and give one of our conservators a real life nervous breakdown, so a good season all round.

I’m suffering the usual amount of culture shock. It hasn’t stopped raining since the plane broke through the clouds over Manchester airport, my mother took me straight to a carol service in the local medieval church where I felt odd and then fell asleep, and I’m only now starting to remember that toilets have a flush after two months of throwing the paper down a big hole and walking away.

Dreary rain at Manchester

Dreary rain at Manchester

I’ve been at home now for a whole day during which I’ve attempted to eat my body weight in pork. I bought a quantity of large German sausages and a jar of mustard on my way through Frankfurt airport, only to find 6kg of ham at home due to my parents making a happy error in their christmas meat order. I’ve also had to engage in some highly unsuccessful Christmas shopping – my parents made me promise some years ago that I would desist from buying them any more presents in Middle Eastern souqs. Apparently my mother considers there to be a limit to the number of scarves a person can usefully own. I hope she likes tea towels. I have already presented her with my traditional christmas gift of a large bag full of dirty clothes and sand.

My last find of the season; some mashed up painted coffin bits

My last find of the season; some mashed up painted coffin bits

This may be my last post for a little bit. I was supposed to be digging in Iraq after new year but there’s been a delay over the security arrangements (quelle surprise) leaving me stuck at home for most of January, digging up nothing but a new overdraft in a very very very wet place.

Digging up old stuff in a cold place

Doodoo and Oy (who are gay lovers), discovered in the clean washing

Doodoo and Oy (who are gay lovers), discovered in the clean washing

It’s now gone very cold here and I’m wearing more socks than I can comfortably fit in my shoes. Cold doesn’t last very long in Middle Egypt and the locals seems to act as if surprised and slightly betrayed. Galibiyas are horrible drafty things. This morning I was first into the kitchen for breakfast and found two of the dig house cats sleeping in the clean washing box. The little monsters will do anything to get inside; I keep finding them hiding in the shower, to our mutual surprise. I can hear them scratching at the door from the roof as I write this.

The workmen, in the spirit of Captain Scott, accept their fate and wait for death

The workmen, in the spirit of Captain Scott, accept their fate and wait for the end.

The workmen are just as bad. In the morning they huddle together with a wild look in their eyes as if the world has gone mad and there’s nothing to do but wait for icy death. No one was laughing, however, when it was found that the thermos flasks hadn’t made it to site and we couldn’t make instant noodles. This was especially galling as we’d been down to only chicken flavour for the last week but had been re-supplied that morning with beef. I cried inwardly over my unopened beefy breakfast.

One of our many mysteries was solved today; the disappearance of all the sheets. My Australian colleague J- confessed at dinner that she has finally taken a blanket from the stores as it’s got so cold. We all gaped in astonishment (we all know D- has been under five blankets for the last week and would have taken more if the extra weight wasn’t a risk to life). It seems J- has been unwilling to take her turn in the flea-infestation-blanket-lottery and has instead been adding extra sheets to stave off hypothermia. We find, in fact, that she has fifteen sheets on her bed, not counting the one she sleeps on top of. As A- commented, “sometimes I think I’m a bit strange, and then I go and excavate with people.”

and a further mystery: how did I take this picture of my bony gloves? I now mostly use my laptop for warmth.

and a further mystery: how did I take this picture of my bony gloves? I now mostly use my laptop for warmth.

 

The mystery of dinner is also about to be solved with what appears to be potato pizza.

Wind and kids

On my 29th birthday I got this baby in a box

On my 29th birthday I got this baby in a box

We’ve had wind now for two days (in the metrological sense you understand) and everyone is very tired, and frustrated and thoroughly exfoliated. I’m digging next to my French colleague who punctuates the working day with “Uh, putain!” about once every twenty minutes as the wind sends another little avalanche of sand into the beautifully clean burial she’s trying to plan. I excavated a child today which is the most irritating sort of burial in these windy times, as there are more bones and they are extra small and easily blown away/misplaced/trodden on etc.

It’s somewhat disconcerting that I have more contact with dead children than live ones. They just aren’t the people I need to deal with on a day to day basis, and I find myself unwelcome around live children and their parents due to my foul mouth and inappropriate anecdotes. A dead-centric view of childhood is something which can be awkward around parents, for example, I pretend to remember how old my friend’s kids are by imagining how long they would be if they laid on the ground: “so Emma must be…” [about the same length as Individual 163 from last season, so] “…four now?”

My worryingly soft and hairy nephew

My worryingly un-solid (and hairy) nephew

I became an aunt very recently and all I can think of when I see my nephew is how very little of him is solid; babies are almost all flesh (and sick and compressed gasses). His pelvis is in six parts instead of two; how weird is that? Baby skeletons do nothing to dispel my association of pregnancy with the dinner table scene from Alien.

Quote of the day: “The wind blew my knee caps away.” – J on the woes of windy grave digging.

Dig chic

Excavatus! My workmen making sand disappear very very slowly.

Excavatus! My workmen making sand disappear very very slowly.

For the last two days I’ve had an additional team of workmen on top of my usual lot. This set me off wondering about questions of style. My workmen, who are of the older persuasion, are what you might call steady (as in still and unmoving) and they wear galibiyas. These are the long flowing robes that are seen everywhere in the Egyptian countryside in various shades of dirt. I have a personal preference for galibiyas as they appeal to my grubby orientalist fantasies of which I have to be ashamed. I also own several, made for me by the village tailor, which I use as nightshirts and to pretend I go to Hogwarts school of witchcraft and wizardry.

The other team of workmen do not wear galibiyas but the sort of polyester-based sports-casual look that fails to flatter the young and poor all over the world. I’ve noticed that, unlike the galibiya-wearing community, few of the sports casual crowd dare to smoke. I think the difference generally comes down to attitude and the problem that galibiyas are dreadful things to play football in.

shabby chic: the state of J's socks

shabby chic: the state of J’s socks

There are also questions of style where archaeologists are concerned. I hold it to be true that no good can come of anyone who shows up in a Bear Grills branded shirt or a cowboy hat. Walking sandals are the lowest form of shoe (bar Crocs (no offence L, I’m sure they’re very comfortable)). In general, I dig in my old clothes until the holes get to the point where I can no longer identify the correct one to get in.

Of course, sometimes the requirements of the service can lead to brave fashion choices. A site I work on in Sudan requires us all to button our shirts to the top and our sleeves to the bottom and tuck in everything which can be tucked to prevent the infiltration of tiny biting flies. This leads to all of us looking a bit like the prisoners in The Shawshank Redemption.

A very eminent egyptologist looking a fool

A very eminent egyptologist looking like a fool

 

Archaeologists, for the most part, look a terrible mess. I was once walking to the bus stop with a colleague while on a commercial job in the UK. I was waiting while my co-worker tied his shoelace in a shop doorway when a man gave him £5 because he thought we were homeless.

Beasts

Today's advent donkey

Today’s advent donkey

My Norwegian colleague had an exciting adventure today while endeavouring to go for a quiet piss in the desert. We work in a little valley (or wadi to the purists) and by common consent the men take their lonely walks on the east side while the women have a reed hut on the west side (or a convenient small New Kingdom quarry if one can’t be bothered to walk so far – future excavators here may have a surprise).

My colleague found he had a dog following him, but pressed on, attempting to ignore the dog’s invasive presence and unhelpful manner. Then there were two dogs, then three, and by the time he had reached his usual spot, a considerable number. It seems the local populous had taken exception to a well-groomed Norwegian man coming out every day for three weeks and marking their territory as his own. By the time the Norwegian had undone his flies, he was beginning to think better of his immediate plans and more toward the preservation of his person.

We were all disturbed in our morning work by a tremendous barking and a swiftly moving Norwegian pursued by ten angry dogs.

Some of the dig house pack still live on the roof

Some of the dig house pack still live on the roof

We used to have a friendly pack of dogs at the dig house, which were useful for keeping off the less friendly dogs, and for howling at you when you tried to visit the toilets at night. Alas, a doggy plague took them all off a year or so gone.

We are now beset with cats, who scream all night, have violent sex with each other despite all being closely related, and have taken to sleeping in the oven since the weather turned cold. The most revolting and malevolent of them, Oy, has managed to burn all the whiskers off one side of his head this week; I suspect he has taken up smoking which would account for the hacking cough.

Oy's burnt whiskers are clearly visible as he eats a chicken head, on which he is sick shortly after.

Oy’s burnt right whiskers are clearly visible as he eats this chicken head, on which he is sick shortly after.

Quote of the week: “You don’t often get to see a donkey being electrocuted.” (Dig director on seeing a donkey being electrocuted.)

Party pain

The hop-step-point familiar from Morris dancing

The hop-step-point familiar from Morris dancing

I had a dream last night that I was lying in my grave and someone was trying to bash my head in with the butt of a levelling rod. Then I woke up with the most appalling hangover. We had a bit of a party here at the dig house last night for a special anniversary and some of us got a little carried away. Or in fact, literally carried away.

We had a famous band down from Cairo for some traditional dance music. They used to play for President Mubarak when that was an acceptable thing to do, but now they’re reduced to playing in the middle of nowhere for drunk archaeologists. Vive la revolution. We also invited our workmen, and a fearsome number of antiquities inspectors invited themselves, forcing me to consume most of my alcohol covertly in the office.

And then there was the dancing; oh dear. I have a powerful memory of dancing the Egyptian stick dance using a ranging rod from the equipment store while wearing a cardboard Nefertiti hat. My grace and elegance, honed through careful practice on the floors of low-end clubs and my six month experiment with morris dancing, was of course captured for posterity on the mobile phones of numerous Egyptian men. I’m sure a productive day was spent in the village swapping files and laughing.

Pimp my dervish: dancing at the next level

Pimp my dervish: dancing at the next level

In consequence, I’ve spent today on a diet of water, ibuprofen and shame. I’ve watched a lot of DVDs and done a fair amount of shaking, punctuated by ignominiously vomiting out of the living room window half way through Howl’s Moving Castle.

I’ve learned several things in the last twenty-four hours: 1) all traditional Egyptian tunes sound exactly the same, 2) foreign women trying to dance is a class of saleable pornography here, 3) gin – there are attainable limits, 4) Egyptian sparkling wine is not fit for human consumption.

I am going back to bed, it seems I may live after all.

A hard rain

Wet Egypt

Wet Egypt

I’m writing this post at 7am as we are stuck in the dig house waiting for it to stop raining. If this was what I was after I would have stuck with British archaeology. I estimate we’re about an hour from someone suggesting we play charades.

Archaeology is best done either completely wet or completely dry, but it can go particularly horrible when moisture is introduced to something which has been very dry for the last three thousand years (I am painfully aware that the sheet I put over my new burial yesterday afternoon did not reach the feet). In many ways, the same principle is true at a larger scale in that the entire Middle East becomes unpleasant when it gets wet, as large quantities of rubbish which were relatively benign in their desiccated forms regain their vitality. Often you can smell rain coming in the desert as a faint odour of landfill and wet sheep.

All you need is a cardboard box, some sticky-backed plastic and a sufficient lack of sense. You too can have a Nerfertiti crown.

All you need is a cardboard box, some sticky-backed plastic and a sufficient lack of sense. You too can have a Nerfertiti crown.

In the meantime we are employing ourselves usefully in the construction of Nefertiti hats out of cardboard boxes.