Monthly Archives: April 2013

Pizza and prison

Iraqi park life: no camping gas, no alcohol, no ball games, no hand guns

Iraqi park life: no camping gas, no alcohol, no ball games, no hand guns

It’s my second day here in Sulaymaniyah, and quite a nice laid back sort of day it’s been. I had cold kebab meat pizza for breakfast and spent most of the day smoking, visiting a horrible prison and helping a nervous colleague buy local trousers. I learned that Kurdish for bad is ‘krap’, which is at least easy to remember, and that Italians get very irate if you steal their milk. The amount of meat available has exceeded expectations.

Yesterday we negotiated the renting of two village houses near the site. They have no interior furnishings and smell strongly of poultry, but there’s a nice view of the mountains. Today I was fortunately given immunity from shopping for household goods and instead went to an exciting museum (which are two words I don’t often use together) converted from the evil ba’athist prison where they used to torture people. We had a nice guide who only seemed slightly disappointed that we weren’t very interested in the delightful Kurdish handicrafts but spent an inordinate amount of time taking photos of broken tanks. The highlight was the prison building itself which had been left almost entirely as it was when liberated by peshmerga fighters in 1991, save the removal of considerable human filth and the addition of some lurid manikin dioramas. The experience was fairly harrowing and surreal in places, particularly when our guide asked us if we would like to pose with the dummies reconstructing a man having the soles of his feet beaten. He looked a bit confused when we declined as if this was the highlight of the tour for most visitors (we in fact later saw some young Kurdish women posing with a man being hung by his arms and electrocuted).

"would you like to stand next to this man? I can take nice photo."

“would you like to stand next to this man? I can take a photo.”

Me and two colleagues then retired to a dark, windowless shisha cafe where we smoked for two hours while watching Blade Trinity on the television and being relentlessly stared at by young men. I no longer consider myself to be a competent producer of smoke rings having been in the presence of masters. I am only at the start of a long and smoky path.

Death's disco: There are 4,500 little lights, each representing a village destroyed in the Anfal campaign, and 180,000 mirror shards, each representing a person killed

Death’s disco: There are 4,500 little lights, each representing a village destroyed in the Anfal campaign, and 180,000 mirror shards, each representing a person killed

Quick change act

"Where's episode 4 Mr Teijens?" "She's bloody well left us in Egypt Miss Wannop."

“Where’s episode 4 Mr Teijens?” “She’s bloody well left us in Egypt Miss Wannop.”

Everything is finally repacked in a bag I haven’t tried lifting yet and I’m off to Iraq. In my 48 hours in the UK I’ve washed almost every item of clothing I own, applied for a post-doctoral research fellowship, been to the dentist and eaten an extraordinary amount of meat. The packing process hasn’t gone totally smoothly as I appear to have left my case of DVDs in Egypt; how am I supposed to cope when I still have two episodes of Parade’s End left? And it contains all eight disks of Evangelion, and most of my superhero films. I’m left with the dregs of my DVD collection – Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, some old episodes of Hornblower and series 2 of Blake’s 7. It’s going to be a long old season. I’ve assembled an ambitiously intellectual range of books, mostly the ones I didn’t read in Egypt because I couldn’t be bothered with them and borrowed Harry Potter 6 and 7 from the dig house library.

The emptying of bags and shoes: if I save, one day I'll have enough for a desert of my own

The emptying of bags and shoes: if I save, one day I’ll have enough for a desert of my own

My parents have been very understanding about me arriving, throwing all my possessions over the floor, filling the washing machine with sand, filth and misplaced artefacts, eating everything in the fridge and demanding that we don’t watch The One Show. But then, they had a lot of practice all those years I was a student. My dad gave me £100 when he saw the state of my clothes; this is really quite embarrassing when one is over thirty (but not so embarrassing that I didn’t take it and buy some socks with only the hole that you put your foot in).

I also bought my sixth watch of the year and replaced another defeated sand-filled camera. The recently deceased camera made it over the 12 month mark which counts as a good innings in my tender care. I shouldn’t be given nice things. A fresh victim was delivered this morning thanks to Amazon’s one day delivery.

The glorious dream of bacon

The glorious dream of bacon

I don’t want to go back to the airport, I didn’t like it there.

The nail in the coffin

Bandits: not as much fun as I'd been led to believe.

Bandits: not as much fun as I’d been led to believe.

I’ve just arrived back in Crewe, where me and dad are watching the snooker while I work my way through all the pork products in the fridge. I left site yesterday morning, although that feels like quite an abstract statement as there hasn’t really been any sleeping since then. The dig director tells me that work at the site was disrupted today by banditry, which goes to show how quickly things fall apart once I’m gone. This particular bit of banditry was the work of Omar The Bandit, who is a famous local ‘character’ (violent armed criminal) who, as well as stealing things, killing people and building his own village, also blew up one of our ancient boundary stelae with dynamite a few years ago. I have no real thoughts on the crime, but I wish he’d leave the antiquities alone.

Taking a (not quite) solitary moment

Taking a (not quite) solitary moment

It was with a heavy heart I quitted the cemetery this time because, as things stand, this is our final season of excavation. It was a younger, less grizzled me, with higher ideals and better liver function, who started the cemetery site way back in 2006, and many human bodies and bottles of Bombay Sapphire have passed through my hands in the intervening years. On my last day I took a little walk up above the site, sat down in the sand and listened to some sad music on my ipod. Then I realised one of the workmen was going to the toilet in the next gully which slightly spoiled the moment.

I had a pretty good evening in Cairo, involving burger, pizza, smoking, shopping and watching Egyptians fighting. I bought a little tent. I had a frankly terrifying late night taxi ride to the airport, for which an hour is usually allowed; my driver Mohammed did it in under twenty minutes, hitting 125kph down the Heliopolis road and managing to scrape at least one bumper. I thought about saying something but realised my British fear of social confrontation is greater than my fear of a messy, pointless death. At the airport I found a human finger bone in my rucksack – there must have been a hole in one of the finds bags. Not wishing to illegally export ancient remains, I put it in the bin.

Quote of the season:

“I thought it meant ‘I’m fine’ in Arabic, then I realised it was a word from Avatar.”         –          J– the conservator 

The thieving BBC

Treasure: Scaraboid indicating

Treasure: Scaraboid commemorating an attack of lizards and giant mosquitoes on the people of Egypt. There’s a movie in there somewhere.

As the site is moderately famous is the world of archaeology, we have TV crews coming to film here on a fairly regular basis. Yesterday the BBC came to film on site for a new series about ancient Egyptian art. I had a terrible fear that the presenter might be Dan Cruikshank, who I would have struggled to not punch in the face, but it turned out to be that nice boy who did that Treasures of Ancient Rome series. I put the violence on hold, wiped the bits of dead person off my face and tried to check my hair was okay in the shiny side of the sieve. I happened to have a lovely triple burial just ready for them, and I even managed to find some treasure I could pretend to find again when they showed up. I watched them all striding around at the Middle Site for two hours, but the end of the day came without them making the two minute walk up to us.



Three's a crowd.

Three’s a crowd.

This isn’t the first time; the last film crew we had at the cemetery back in 2010 filmed for two days at the mouth of the wadi without ever bothering to come and see my end of the site. I can only assume media types are lazy (selfish bastards, not that I’m bitter). At least the 2010 crew had a ruggedly handsome German director who bought me flowers from Cairo on my birthday, which makes up for neglect in other matters. All Alastair Sooke from the BBC did was complain about our toilets and steal our best mugs after I graciously made him some coffee he didn’t deserve. I suppose I should expect that sort of sense of entitlement from someone who works for the Telegraph. Alastair Sooke; don’t trust him with your crockery.

So, I suppose I’ll have to wait again for my fifteen minutes of fame, which I still think is most likely to come by being found dead in a ditch outside a pub. Or by punching a television presenter.

Our best giraffe-shaped mug (artist's impression), stolen by a lying BBC presenter.

Our best giraffe-shaped mug (artist’s impression), stolen by a lying BBC presenter.

Sanity and sanitation

Those of you who this evening will sink into a warm bath, or who will go to the toilet and flush (or at least have the option), spare a thought for we poor souls who have left such a life behind and are forced to wander in insanitary places.

The offending article, nesting in the northwest corner of grave 15156

The offending article, nesting in the northwest corner of grave 15156

As I was drawing a churned up triple adult burial today, a little bundle of tissue paper came dancing towards us on the wind. It tumbled through our dig equipment and work bags, bounced along the trench edge catching at the planning strings, before falling through the lines of my planning frame and coming to rest against skull 316. On peering down into the grave it became dreadfully apparent that this particular object had been used to wipe someone’s bottom (someone with less than healthy digestion, I might add). It was with great difficulty that this nomadic disease vector was persuaded to continue its journey downwind, having found such a perfect niche for itself.

IMG_6092Sanitation and the proper disposal of rubbish are always difficult on excavation. I’ve worked on projects where I’ve had to fetch freezing water from a well to wash, or to bathe in a fast-flowing river (in which I almost drowned), or out of a bucket of Nile water in a pitch black room full of spiders. I may now have seen it all in terms of toilets, although I will spare you the details in this department; it suffices to say that the use of a long stick has often been necessary. Our current toilets here are wooden seats with a good long drop underneath. They emit a surprising amount of heat, among other things. Life on excavation isn’t always biologically sound, but it does change your perspective on filth and encourages a robust immune system. When the next plague comes, the archaeologists will ride it out.

Climb every mountain

Looking south up the Nile, wondering if my legs will ever be the same

Looking south up the Nile, wondering if our legs will ever be the same

Leisure activities aren’t always easy to find on excavation, but following the long tradition of deranged European visitors to hot, rugged lands, it is always possible to entertain each other and the local villagers by dragging oneself up a mountain for no good reason. This we did yesterday. The climb up to the high desert isn’t exactly the north face of The Eiger, but it’s possible to make it more of a challenge by drinking beer all afternoon, wearing inappropriate shoes and being totally ignorant of the terrain. Luggage and impossibly tight jeans have also been tried to good effect. I played my part by taking an experimental route and eventually becoming submerged up to my knees in limestone gravel, resulting in much healthful exercise. Never the less, we made it to the top in good spirits, except perhaps for our Egyptian driver who promptly dropped to his knees and vomited.


Be prepared, is the motto of the drinking archaeologist. You don't want to get confused when one of the bottles contains a litre and a half of gin and tonic.

Be prepared, is the motto of the drinking archaeologist. You don’t want to get confused when one of the bottles contains a litre and a half of gin and tonic.

After admiring the view and removing all the gravel from my trainers, pockets and underwear, we made a safe return to the valley floor. The driver’s ten-year-old nephew was not so lucky, becoming for some time lodged on a precarious gravel slope having lost both his flip-flops. His uncle watched with mild interest from the bottom of the cliff, presumably taking the view that this was an issue of natural selection rather than adult supervision.

We set up our picnic in the ruins of the 1930’s excavation dig house to watch the sun set over the Nile. Drinking in public is frowned upon in rural Egypt, but thankfully gin and tonic is clear and, being foreigners, we’re almost always carrying water bottles. Our policemen ate the deep-fried burgers and cola we gave them and let the strong smell of alcohol pass unmentioned. We eventually went home where we spent the evening burning holes in the carpet and each other while smoking an unwise quantity of cherry tobacco. I have finally learned to blow smoke rings and can now die happy, probably of lung cancer, knowing I have lived a life of note.

Deep-fried local burger. We optimistically assume this is camel meat, but who can say where the truth lies?

Deep-fried local burger. We optimistically believe this is camel meat, but who can say where the truth lies?

Death in the family

Our dead lady with a baby was buried with this necklace of happy little fish

The dead lady with a baby was buried with this necklace of happy little fish

Work in my area of the cemetery is acquiring a distinctly tragic aura as the season goes on. I’m currently excavating yet another multiple burial, this time containing two adolescents and a toddler; the last one had two young adults and a baby, and the one before was a woman and a new-born. “This is family?” asked our Egyptian inspector today, constituting her first ever insightful question (yesterday’s question was ‘what is a pottery?’, which was a bit too existential for my unorthodox grasp of Arabic to cover in the fullest sense). Indeed, is my pit-full-of-children the product of a single awful family tragedy? Well, personally I chose not to think about that sort of thing because it brings me down. I’ve instituted accent day at the Upper Site to keep things light; today we did Yorkshire (is tha’ a bairn in’t pit lass?), tomorrow we’re doing ridiculous French. Life goes on.

On the night of Margaret Thatchers death, the men of the village dance

On the night of Margaret Thatchers death, the men of the village dance

We have our own family ties at the excavation and last night we were invited to a party at the house of our driver; his father having been our driver before him. We took the precaution of strategic gin drinking before the event, so we were all properly disposed to entertain with our outrageous foreignness and willingness to hold people’s children and take photographs of strangers. There was a power cut during dinner, forcing us to eat our Nile fish in the dark, which, all Nilotic factors considered, is almost certainly the best way. I enjoyed the sufi dancing, even though the band’s sound system seemed to be vibrating the teeth out of my head. ‘Larger, brighter, louder’ is the cultural mantra of rural Egypt.

The works of man

Ancient Egyptian bling: 3,400 years old and good as new

Ancient Egyptian bling: 3,400 years old and good as new

Yesterday I found this faience ring. Isn’t it nice. The previous owner had been very badly messed about but his two femurs were thrown over each other and happily hid the ring between his thighs, still stuck on a finger bone.

I’ve been having a great deal of trouble with watches recently. They just keep stopping on me with no obvious reason that watch repairers can find. This has coincided with an increase in the number of static shocks I’ve been receiving from objects, persons and animals, and a new found ability to trigger the security alarms in shops. I wish I had better superpowers. Anyway, after only four weeks my most recent watch stopped on Monday so I put in an order for a replacement from the closest Egyptian town. This arrived yesterday.

My nice new watch: chocolate teapot

My new watch: breaking new ground in the field of shit

The simultaneous acquisition of the ancient ring and my new watch started me thinking about the progress (or otherwise) of mankind and his arts. The ring is a beautiful object, made with care and skill, and has so far survived for three and a half thousand years in almost pristine condition. My new watch is one of the ugliest objects conceived by the minds of men, made from plastic and misery by a Chinese sweatshop worker in between suicide attempts. In terms of size, weight and functionality it’s a considerable step backwards from Fred’s stone sundial wristwatch in The Flintstones. The dig director, between fits of laughter, took it out of the packaging and tried to show me how nice it was by putting it on, prompting the strap to instantly fall off. Experimental pressing of the buttons failed to make it do anything as useful as telling the time, and after five minutes it ceased to do anything whatsoever. I think I will nail it to the office wall as a warning to the future about where we are heading.

I am left to marvel at the lost knowledge of the ancients, and learn to tell the time by counting in my head. We live in a base age. One elephant, two elephants, three elephants…

Still working: checking the ring for continued functionality

Still working: checking the ring for continued functionality

Chemical warfare in practice

Double tweezers: hairy ladies were not cool in the New Kingdom

Double tweezers: hairy ladies were not cool in the New Kingdom

Today I removed my first customer from their immortal rest. It appears to be a very large woman, buried with two pairs of tweezers suggesting a great pre-occupation with hair removal. I personally enjoy the opportunities on excavation to let things go in this department and return to the planet of the apes. Within reason of course.

Much of my time in this first week of the dig has been devoted to the destruction of small green flying insects which live in my room and bite me in neat rows along my larger surface veins. By Monday I was looking very much like a vampire’s breakfast having been mostly attacked at the neck and wrists. My first move was to change the blanket under the assumption of flea infestation (the cats, alas, are still very much with us) but this had no effect. On spotting the little green flying bastards I changed my strategy to an aerial-delivery chemical offensive involving a can of Egyptian fly spray and miss placed optimism. True to form, the Egyptian fly spray mostly ran down my arm, made me slightly sick with similar effects to those of Mustard gas (with which I am now familiar) and failed to kill the offending wildlife.

Dirty bomb: Egyptian fly spray

Dirty bomb: Egyptian fly spray

No one takes an interest in killing wildlife quite like Americans so my next move was to consult an American colleague as to how she was destroying the ecosystem in her room. She kindly furnished me with a can of the finest American broad-spectrum poison and I set to work. After applying liberally to my room I retired for an hour and returned to find it nigh-crunchy under foot. I am this morning free from new bites and the only noticeable side effects so far have been a very disturbing dystopian dream about Oxfordshire County Council, which I definitely don’t think I’d have come up with without some chemical stimulus. There is a cost to all wars whether won or lost.

American precision weaponry

American precision weaponry