Monthly Archives: May 2013

Scrag end: whiplash and offal

Blood in the sherd yard

Blood in the sherd yard

So at last my time is up in Iraq and I’m just a few short hours away from a world of sleep and television and ham. The last week, as on most excavations, has had it’s little surprises, one of which was coming over to the boys house to find the cook and our driver beheading goats on the patio.

Our dig director, who appeared to be videoing the executions, had bought two goats and invited the workmen to an end of season kebabathon. This benevolent gesture was only slightly undermined in the event by the workmen having to butcher, clean and cook their goat themselves and by the director not realising that there is in fact more to parties than goats, and sometimes you also need things like bread, salad, drinks and somewhere to sit. By the time these fripperies had been prepared most of our guests had gone home, leaving us with around 30kg of goat meat and a strong smell of blood emanating from the garden drain.

Unable to fit into the fridge, a partial goat lingers morosely by the kitchen sink

Unable to fit into the fridge, a partial goat lingers morosely by the kitchen sink

The next morning found me on the floor of the sitting room trying to drag a site report from under the colossal weight of my goat-barbecue hangover, when Mohammed the cook entered bearing a vast tray of raw offal. With a sinking feeling I watched him start to cut the various parts into bite sized pieces before I was driven from the room by the distinctive aroma acting on my weakened constitution. Lunchtime came around with an air of foreboding and mutterings about not being very hungry. Once each of us had been presented with our plate of fried brown objects a tense silence descended as we all tried to work out exactly what we were dealing with. My lucky dip was almost entirely liver (my personal offal bête noire) with a smattering of heart and a large section of wind pipe. I ate the heart and the wind pipe and felt my duty done. Tongue turned out to be a surprising hit, but M. took a turn for the worse after eating half of what transpired to be an ear. If life gives you lemons make lemonade, if life gives you goat offal throw it away before anyone cooks it for you.

All the makings of a lunch of great anatomical interest

All the makings of a lunch of great anatomical interest

On our final day in Sulaimaniya we went to the funfair to drink and smoke. We found a beer garden full of rabbits at the Nawroz Tourism Park and sat down to enjoy the atmosphere of an escaped 1950s Butlins camp that’s been living rough for sixty years. After a suitable amount of chemical stimulants we bought our tickets for the Bumber Cars and asked for all the children to leave before we started. We then took our whiplash to the ghost train, the first exhibit of which was a strobe-lit mannequin of Saddam Hussein dancing on the end of a rope. On that note, I bid Iraq adieu for the moment.

The entrance to the Nowroz Tourism Park ghost train: indeed the portal to another world

The entrance to the Nawroz Tourism Park ghost train: indeed the portal to another reality

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Wild goat chasing

Relieved: we finally locate the wretched article.

Relieved: we finally locate the wretched beast.

I’ve always suspected that a vast quantity of suffering in the world can be put down to good intentions allied with dreadful forward planning. Yesterday was a fine illustration. We went to stay in Suliemaniya for the weekend, partly so we could stock up on gin and kitkats, and partially because we wanted to go to see a famous ancient rock relief in the mountains. Part one went fine (except of course, that I drank too much) then we got on a bus and drove round and round in the Zagros foothills for two hours while the driver asked a series of confused strangers where this thing the foreigners want to see is. Eventually he deposited us at the end of a dirt track and set about investigating why the bus had started to produce a high pitched wailing noise when it went round corners.

After ten minutes walking, it was discovered that no one in fact had the faintest idea where this thing was. We called the museum who advised us to follow the iron water pipe up the valley so this is what we did. Over an hour later I slumped to the ground in a small swamp crawling with ticks and mosquitoes and declared my ever-lasting disinterest in ancient rock reliefs. I watched the poor stragglers crawling the last few yards to the top of the mountain, drenched in sweat, weeping, scratched and bitten. As most of us thought we were getting out of the bus for ten minutes to look at a pretty picture, it hadn’t occurred to bring proper shoes, or water. As I began to drag my sleep-deprived, hung-over and desiccated remains back down the mountain, I faintly recalled saying that my main aim for the weekend was to be less tired after it than I was before.

The Iraqi army, marvelling at the ineptitude of foreign archaeologists

The Iraqi army, marvelling at the ineptitude of foreign archaeologists

I arrived back at the bus to find that our driver had informed the Iraqi army of our failure to return and a jeep full of soldiers were waiting to see if they’d have to start a search and rescue mission. We begged half a cup of water from their officer, who looked on us with great pity for our physical exhaustion and grave mental deficiencies. The rock relief was of course just ten minutes down the track but none of us had thought to look up.

Bearded goat (c. 3500 BC) bestriding my photographic register

Bearded goat (c. 3500 BC) bestriding my photographic register

Excavation is winding down now for the end of the season. I finished digging today by finding a nice goat figurine complete with a little beard. This is by far our most attractive find, the only other figurines being a remarkably ugly woman(?) and the rear end of a horse. My personal favourite find however is the set of nesting bevel-rimmed bowls I got out of Trench F. BRBs are noted for their regularity in size, about which many books and papers have been written in the past – were they for a standardised grain ration? Perhaps they were army issue bread moulds? – in the context of which I consider my collection to be the best joke I’ve heard in ages.

I found the porridge in the small bowl to be just right

I found the porridge in the small bowl to be just right

A pot to piss in

BRBs: ceramic fungi blooming in Trench F

BRBs: ceramic fungi blooming in Trench F

I just hauled four big sacks and five crates of pottery back to the dig house from one of my trenches. I dumped them in the office and left for lunch before the registrar could start crying properly. The vast majority of the stuff is made up of bevel-rimmed bowls (or BRBs, for those who are sick to death of them) – a type of pot found in Iraq from the Uruk period, which has nothing to do with those really mean orcs from Lord of the Rings (alas). Bevel-rimmed bowls are very ugly and badly made, unlike the preceding Halaf period pretty pretty girly painted pottery, which G. finds over at the other site and flashes about like bonbons.

The sort of gaudy prehistoric rubbish which makes people all giggly during pot washing

The sort of gaudy prehistoric rubbish which makes people all giggly during pot washing

I actually consider the crappiness of bevel-rimmed bowls as a flower of hope in the desert of the prehistoric; it represents the point when people found out that there were better things to do with their time than sit around painting their tableware. I know it floats some people’s boats but the prehistoric was clearly very dull; all people were doing was subsistence farming, bit of hunting, building very small, very boring houses and making up religions that never caught on. Conversation must have been turgid throughout the late Neolithic, and people probably turned to painting pottery because it was that or discussing the right way to knap flint for the eight-hundredth time.

 

Then the Uruk period comes along, people invent cities, writing, beer and discos, and suddenly everyone wants pots you can hand round at a party and leave out for the bin men with the other empties. Life becomes less about how fine you can make the cross hatching on your tea cup and more about shopping and going to the pub, which is my definition of civilisation.

Small figurine nestled in a bed of Egyptian sand, bag fluff and pencil shavings

Small figurine nestled in a bed of Egyptian sand, bag fluff and pencil shavings

Archaeological rants aside, by the end of the day I’ll be roundly hating bevel-rimmed bowls and all they stand for, and everyone else on the team is going to be hating me for digging them up. It’s going to take at least three hours and a lot of ill-feeling to get it washed. Thankfully, I curried favour with the registrar yesterday by shaking enough Egyptian sand out of my pencil case to nestle a find in for drawing, otherwise I’d be keeping my back to the wall and preparing my own meals.

In other news, the dig director has stolen the chair from my room, which means he’s also seen The Mess…

Tents for our circus

Roll up! Roll up! Some of our workmen were concerned the Iranians might see this as mobilisation and send air strikes

Roll up, roll up! Some of our workmen were concerned the Iranians might see this as mobilisation and send air strikes

It’s a fine thing to relax in the shade on a hot sunny day, and not such a fine thing when a rainy squall dumps forty kilos of wet canvas on your head. It should have been obvious to all that acquiring three hundred square metres of sun shades for the site would make the weather hate us, but some of us here are on a steep learning curve. Of course, such an acreage of canvas can pack a hefty punch; my time at sea has taught me that one of our trench shades would be sufficient to get a two-to-three hundred tonne ship underway against a moderate swell, but sadly, among other things, the director is no seaman.

Indeed, it was only yesterday I had a close call with the trench C shade. I wasn’t giving the situation my full attention, as I was on the phone to the co-director about how dangerous I thought the shades might be in wind, when out of the corner of my eye I saw the shade pole falling towards my head. I took a rapid step backwards as it fell in front of me, and then an even hastier one forwards to avoid the iron stake being propelled across the trench at the height of my vital organs by the corner of the sail. I would like to point out that such occurrences were not anticipated in the forty two page risk assessment (which included the possibility of nuclear war with Iran) https://oldstuffinhotplaces.wordpress.com/2013/03/13/disaster-plan/.

Oven [209] looking like a beetroot salad

Oven [209] looking like a beetroot salad

Murderous tendencies aside, the shades also fail on colour. I like bright things as much as the next five year old, but red and blue striped tents have their disadvantages; firstly in that they compound my constant suspicion that I’ve run away to join the circus, but secondly they cast a sickly light across proceedings that makes all the site photographs look purple.

It is Thursday night, the only night where we can sleep late in the morning so I must away to the fridge and our new stock of alcohol, obtained at great length from the only beer shop (locked garage) in Halabja (which, understandably, has perhaps had enough of poisons). It looked for a while that we’d have to get through the weekend sober. We were down to half a bottle of Iraqi made ‘Sir Henry’s London Dry Gin’ (cost: £2.50 per litre), which I have tested for nerve agents to be on the safe side.

Sir Henry's gin: unconventional warfare

Sir Henry’s gin: unconventional warfare

Disgracing myself in Erbil

The beautiful ancient citadel of Erbil, which we completely failed to visit. It uncomfortably reminded me of my doctoral thesis, in which it featured.

The beautiful ancient citadel of Erbil, which we completely failed to visit. It uncomfortably reminded me of my doctoral thesis, in which it featured.

I’m having a second day on the wagon having excelled myself at the weekend. A select few of us went to Erbil for a taste of the big city, and to get away from the smell of drains in the dig house. Erbil is thought to be the oldest continuously occupied city in the world, but fortunately all of the cultural sites were closed so we fell back on the old standby of eating our own body weight in kebab and drinking. First we drank in a German bar full of Americans where they mostly played Johnny Cash, and then in an American bar full of Germans where they mostly played Bob Marley. The American bar had the added novelty of being situated inside the US secure military zone, meaning that to enter I had to surrender my passport, phone and camera to a very clean man with a very large semi-automatic rifle. He called me “ma’am”, which, under the influence of two large German beers and a can of Bitburger I bought and drank in a dark alley behind an SUV on the way, I found utterly hilarious.

The barman's t-shirt I woke up for. I wonder for what percentage of the night I was wearing it.

The barman’s t-shirt I woke up with. I wonder for what percentage of the night I was wearing it.

Fully x-rayed, metal detected and tagged, I then proceeded to the bar where I drank heroic quantities of reasonably priced Turkish larger, won an animated game of darts and danced in new and surprising ways. After this events are less well established. I remember spending some short time in a kitchen with an Iraqi barman while he made me a bracelet out of American army boot laces. I was in a car at some point, and in a house where I ate cake with some new friends. I don’t remember going back through security but that must have been an interesting experience all round. I remember some walking around in deserted streets, then I woke up on a sofa in some physical distress, with the Iraqi barman’s t-shirt under my head and whipped cream in my ear. They know how to party in the Kurdish Autonomous Region.

Early morning meat; the thread that held me to life

Early morning meat; the thread that held me to life

Bacon is the only known anti venom for this sort of poisoning, but as it turns out, a couple of hefty lamb shish kebabs and a coke can have some palliative effect. So 10:30am found me in a meat-induced coma with two fellow sufferers. Revived, I did some unwise carpet shopping and then spent four hours in a car shaking and looking at the horizon.

My convalescence progresses well, I may be ready to try a modest shandy by lunchtime. I promise I’ll write something about the archaeology next time and less about my low-level alcoholism. 

Things in fog

The sun burning off the fog just in time to prevent my wet shirt becoming improper

The sun burning off the fog just in time to prevent my wet shirt becoming improper

When the weather forecast said it would be cloudy I’d imagined us being under the clouds rather than in them, but then life thrives on these little misunderstandings. It’s an incentive to the process of waking up when the first thing you have to do in the morning is to find a deep hole in long grass and dense fog. Having successfully located my trench without breaking my legs I got back down to the more weighty problem of finding any archaeology in it. I’ve spent that last three days digging through a metre and a half of melted tell slush, which has led to a certain amount of ill-temper and wistful thoughts about sandy Egyptian sites. On the positive, shovelling heavy clay from depth is one of the best abdominal workouts I know, next to a good long bout of sea sickness.

The view outside my bedroom door where the stuff sits and smells of wet cardboard

The view outside my bedroom door where the stuff sits and smells of wet cardboard

The fact that all we’re finding is pottery has led to an unhealthy obsession with the stuff on the part of many of the excavation team, resulting in long and extremely tedious conversations about rim profiles and fabric types during which I nod, say ‘hmm’ a lot, and dwell on how pottery fragments always give me a craving for McVities digestive biscuits. I think it’s all hateful and wish we had a proper ceramicist so I wouldn’t have to pretend to care.

As I was walking back from taking the backsite for the dumpy today, a lone donkey came trotting down the road with an unusual air of purpose. It seemed uncertain as to who’d get off the road for who, but a frank exchange of views and a large level scale decided the matter and he went round. But I do wonder what the hurry was. I returned for breakfast to find that there was no tea left and that all our Laughing Cow cheese triangles had been replaced with Iraqi Wonder Cow, which tastes mostly of petrol.

A terrible fraud has been committed

A terrible fraud has been committed

What? Donkey of unknown provenance and destination

What? Donkey of unknown provenance and destination

Friday: day of dreams, day of washing

Oooh, and that's a bad miss. Ronnie O'Sullivan is my role model (except in the manic depression department)

Oooh, and that’s a bad miss. Ronnie O’Sullivan is my role model (except in the manic depression department)

After only two days on site we’ve hit the weekend. We went to Sulaymaniyah on Thursday night and stayed over at the museum guest house, which on the upside meant I could get a kebab and smoke shisha, but on the downside meant I had to sleep on a mattress in a corridor getting bitten by fleas and having a door slammed next to my head all night. I’m still working out the cost/benefit analysis.

We spent the morning discussing (arguing about) the site recording system, or in my case, wondering if anyone would notice if I crawled under the table and went back to sleep. We generally decided that what we need is more money, more equipment and more people (in a parallel universe). We then turned our faces towards City Star; a shining beacon of civilisation, opposite the museum and all its barbarism, where one can drink a cappuccino, go ten pin bowling and buy Diet Coke in packs of twenty-four. Unusually, it is also possible to play snooker on two unbeerstained full-sized snooker tables, complete with an inspiring poster of John Parrot on the wall. Me and the dig director had an unusual game, which he won 65-23, helped by a spectacularly unlucky run of in-offs on my part. I would also mention that I have a large raw blister on my hand just where the cue has to slide through, produced by my heroic efforts with the big pick and shovel yesterday on site, so I was playing through the pain.

Home is where I hang my movie posters. Half way through the season I'll turn it over and have Wolverine

Home is where I hang my movie posters. Half way through the season I’ll turn it over and have Wolverine

I then paid a shameful visit to the supermarket where I bought English tea, packet noodles and a tube of salt and vinegar Pringles. I blame low blood sugar, having survived the day to that point on two boiled eggs and a large bowl of chocolate ice cream.

We escaped all these unwholesome stimulants back to the safety of our village, where I’ve never been gladder to see Johnny Depp and two pieces of foam on a concrete floor. We then performed the experiment ‘how many doctorates does it take to work a washing machine?’