Monthly Archives: March 2013

Back in the saddle

I lie incapable in my hotel bed, being rejected for jobs and eating a dinner of Fanta and cheese Doritos

I lie incapable in my hotel bed, being rejected for jobs and eating a dinner of Fanta and cheese Doritos

Today finds me in a budget hotel in Cairo feeling very crappy. I flew in last night from Manchester via Frankfort. During the second leg I sat next to a German girl who had the amusing habit of tearing a sheet of her enormous German newspaper in half next to my ear every time I was in danger of falling asleep. When she wasn’t doing this she was talking loudly to herself and throwing her salad at me. Having not slept for two nights and having a fever, I didn’t wholly appreciate her efforts, but I comfort myself with the thought that she might now also be unwell.

My preparation for going back to Egypt, as you may have guessed hasn’t been ideal. I went down to Oxford for a week to stay with my sister as it was our mutual birthday. This coincided with the start of the strange sub-zero cold snap that’s happening in Britain, meaning that I spent most of the week cold and drunk.


how to save money on shoes

how to save money on shoes

By Monday night I was feeling too ill to sleep but still had to get up at 6am to go and learn about conventional and unconventional weaponry in London. I can’t pretend this wasn’t interesting; the tutors were a former Met police officer who’d worked on the Alexander Litvinenko case and talked affectionately of the poisoned bodies he had known, and a former SAS explosives expert who told us all about how bombs work and what happens when they do. He showed us videos of people doing it wrong and went pink in the cheeks when he talked about fuses. I learned that landmines are Bad, and that if I am exposed to mustard gas I should drink milk and take my clothes off. Anyway, it would all have been better if I could have been tucked up in bed instead of sitting in a freezing cold classroom.

how I walk now

how I walk now

Feeling by now very unwell, I took an evening train back to my parents where I picked up my stuff for Egypt, failed to sleep and went to the airport. I don’t feel shivery anymore, which is a good sign (unless it’s hypothermia), but all the horribleness seems to have congregated in my throat so talking and swallowing are messy. Another serious cause of unhappiness is the horse riding me and my sister did as a birthday treat on Monday, which is leaving me increasingly crippled as the week goes on. I did a lot of the lesson at the canter without stirrups; today I think my hips surely must be broken. Basically I feel like I’ve had my throat cut, been hit on the head and then beaten up.

I realise none of this has anything to do with archaeology. I’m off to cry over my broken body and have another sleep.

Disaster Plan


Topsoil ordinance found in my test trench during the trial season

This week I was sent the disaster plan and risk assessment for the work I’ll be doing in northern Iraq in April and May. Normally archaeological risk assessments make for pretty dull reading – risk: falling into the trench; Action: look out for trenches. Risk: getting a pick through your head; Action: look out for picks, and so on. I had high hopes for this one, however, as it claimed to assess the risk of CBRN and UXO, terms which are not actually explained in the document but in context reveal themselves as Chemical, Biological and Radio/Nuclear materials and UneXploded Ordinance (which should of course be UEO to anyone with basic literacy. In fact this document is not strong on basic literacy because it has been produced (cut and pasted) by a Health and Safety drone who has so little pride left in his job that he couldn’t bear to read the thing). My hopes of an exciting read were crushed, alas, largely by the weight of it as it runs to a pithy forty-two pages.

I did learn about some of the delightful charms of the region, chief among which are:

Tabun – a lethal nerve agent, possibly present in the soil as a viscous oily residue.

Sarin – a lethal nerve agent, more potent than Tabun, possibly remaining in unexploded ordinance.

Mustard gas – a blister agent, lethal if inhaled, persistent in the soil.

Cyanide – a lethal blood agent, possibly remaining in unexploded ordinance.

Cutaneous Anthrax – endemic in the region, found in soil and animal carcases.

Explosives – there are an estimated 3500 known minefields in the region, mostly left over from the Iran-Iraq war.

As no actual nuclear/radiological risks are present in the area, the cheery possibility that we might be nuked by Iran is considered, just to cover the N and R of the acronym.


My increasingly frantic Iraqi Arabic phrase book. It was all ‘Good morning’ and ‘Please may I have a cup of coffee’ at the start.

In fact, this risk assessment doesn’t mention anything about falling into trenches, or leaving one’s spade lying face down so it doesn’t smack you in the nose when you step on it like in a Laurel and Hardy film. This is because it was written by people who know a great deal about chemical and biological weaponry and nothing at all about archaeology. Usually risk assessments are written for free by the dig director on the back of an envelope in the back of a pub. Despite concluding that the risk of all the nasty things discussed was virtually zero, unless we should happen to put a trench through Saddam’s missing WMD bunker, the risk assessing company has of course had to come up with some actionable advice and suggests the wearing of stout boots, face masks, gloves, goggles, and hard hats, which all sound like a great deal of fun in 45°C.

Usually in the Middle East for shoes we dig in trainers or socks or nothing. When things get really bad I put my sun glasses on and wrap a scarf around my head. I can’t imagine how much of a twat I’m going to look in Iraq in my face mask and goggles when the local workmen show up in their flip-flops.


The dirty feet common to Middle Eastern archaeology and Victorian street urchins

The thing is, in the Middle East where the archaeology is mostly made of fragile mud, and the temperature itself is a major risk to health, the safest clothing is soft light stuff. Of course, when I dig in the UK I wear steal toe-capped boots and a hard hat and a nice fluorescent jacket, but this is because I’m usually working in 4°C and six inches of mud, surrounded by heavy machinery and builders throwing bricks. And it’s not like that’s all too safe – I once dug out a cellar in Stoke-on-Trent that turned out to be entirely lined with asbestos. I also dug up an old lubricants factory once, which the risk assessment swore was fine, but every time we dug a hole it filled up with a different coloured puddle.

Of course, the biggest risks in field archaeology are actually early onset arthritis, repetitive strain injuries, skin cancer, irreversible psychological damage, sclerosis of the liver, crocodiles and poverty, but these are rarely mentioned. The biggest killer of archaeologists abroad is road traffic accidents.

Digging up sod all, freezing my arse off in Cheshire

I made a friend

I made a bat friend


As the work I was supposed to have been doing in southern Iraq since Christmas has unsurprisingly failed to happen (security issues, who’d have thought?), leaving me stuck in rural England living with my parents, I thought I’d share a little of this awful misery. It’s a hard life; keeping the cat company, trying to decide what to have for lunch day after day, helping my dad watch the darts. When it snowed I made Batman in the back garden. It’s frankly exhausting being bored out of my tiny mind (actually my head is unusually large and I can only wear men’s hats). I’ve been using some of my short precious life to catch up with books I’d bought but hadn’t thought were worth reading, and as my blog is at least superficially about archaeology, I thought I might review some of the more archaeologically relevant ones.



The three I’ve singled out for abuse are “The Tower of Babel” (1955) by André Parrot, “Walls of Jericho” (1958) by Margaret Wheeler, and “Ten Years’ Captivity in the Mahdi’s Camp” (1893) by Major-General Sir F. R. Wingate, R.A., K.C.B., K.C.M.G., D.S.O., A.D.C., &c., &c. based on the original manuscripts of Father Joseph Ohrwalder. All three concern regions I work in and involve history and archaeology, and more importantly have nicely complementary cover colours.

I judge mostly by covers

I mostly judge by covers

The Tower of Babel is about ziggurats and is written by the famous French archaeologist André Parrot, who I encountered (in print of course; I believe he’s good and dead) during my PhD. Never one to let the facts get in the way of his imagination, I came to appreciate Parrot as a bit of research light relief in the best traditions of French academia. This book is no exception and possibly represents his best work of fiction. In addition to his usual disregard for the limits of the data, he starts with the common mistake of assuming that Near Eastern archaeology is primarily for clearing up exactly what god was banging on about in the bible (a mistake which is by no means restricted to the past There’s nothing like biblical archaeology for making real archaeologists feel ill.

Parrot’s book is full of delicious phrases designed to make Anglo-Saxons smile, and for this alone was worth the time and effort:

“For it is my chief and constant aim to go beyond the appearances, the tangible forms, and seek out the very soul of these buried peoples. That Tower raised in the middle of the plain of Shinar is the focus of the anxious longing of all humanity to pierce the mystery of its destiny.” p.11

The most interesting question raised by the book is why did André Parrot spend such a lot of his life gathering a vast amount of excellent fieldwork data if he was just going to go home to Paris and make it all up anyway. The book was considerably improved by being very short.

I also spend much of my time being sniggered at by local women

I also spend much of my time being sniggered at by local women

Margaret Wheeler’s Walls of Jericho is a far more down to earth offering, although it remains sufficiently bible-heavy to be distressing to those of us who consider the Old Testament to be just one more unreliable textual source. Ignoring the frequent musings on what Joshua might have seen from here and why the walls might have fallen down, Wheeler has written an otherwise fairly engaging account of the excavations at Jericho. Almost uniquely for the 1950s, she even manages to talk at length about the local population without being too racist or unbearably patronising, although she does slightly overuse the word ‘marvellous’. Wheeler is sometimes deliberately funny, and has some good anecdotes about people getting electrocuted, as well as some strong opinions on the growing of facial hair which endear her to me. The undoubted highlights, however, are her illustrations which are technically dreadful and don’t feature enough noses for the number of people, but make the book go faster.




Father Ohrwalder, struggling not to shit himself to death

Ten Years’ Captivity in the Mahdi’s Camp is by far and away the best read, and despite being written in the nineteenth century by an Austrian missionary has almost nothing to say about the bible. During my work in the Sudan I became pretty interested in the Mahdist uprising (although with an unhealthily obsessive focus on General Gordon In 1881 the Mahdi led a religiously fanatical revolt in the Sudan against the Anglo-Egyptian government, which in the short term led to a lot of people being impaled on spears, starving to death in a famine or being made unhappy in a wide range of other ways. This book tells the instructive story of Father Ohrwalder who was captured by the Mahdists at the start of the uprising and then spent ten years trying not to get beheaded, while surviving on stoicism and by eating the lice in his clothes. There are some amusing anecdotes, most of which end with someone having their head cut off and stuck on a spear, or concern Father Ohrwalder’s vain attempts to prevent his nuns from being raped. There’s action, intrigue, danger and an awful lot of dysentery. I have the 1903 edition which also has excellent illustrations, plates and a pull out map of the centre of Omdurman. There’s even a happy ending in which the Father and his two remaining nuns escape across the desert on camels. They don’t write books like this any.more, I highly recommend it.