Monthly Archives: July 2013

The world according to Woolley

I’ve been giving the blog a bit of a rest, firstly because I haven’t been digging, but mostly because I’ve been trying to avoid going back to my parents’ because I don’t really like it there. I’ve spent the last week or so in a cabin in the woods in southern Sweden where I woke up shouting twice and ate a lot of fish. The week before that I spent drunk in a 13th Century priory on the Somerset coast, taking remarkably long baths and drinking tea with this horse:

The horse at the bottom of the garden, who had a lot of free time and an interesting perspective on the dissolution of the monestaries

The horse at the bottom of the garden, who had a lot of free time and an interesting perspective on the dissolution of the monasteries

Delightful though all this has been, this itinerary has adversely affected my access to reliable internet.

My one vaguely archaeological activity has been reading ‘Dead Towns and Living Men’; a book written in 1918 by the young Leonard Woolley while he was a prisoner of The Turk (he never specifies which one) having been caught spying (like all respectable archaeologists https://oldstuffinhotplaces.wordpress.com/2012/12/02/finding-a-good-man/) during the Great War. The book isn’t so much about the archaeology as the hilarious local shenanigans (deadly tribal warfare) that went on in the background. In this, it’s very much like Digging Up Old Stuff in Hot Places, except with better grammar and a huge amount of racism.

Woolley and his chum Lawrence of Arabia totally pulling off a bit of Edwardian sports casual

Woolley and his chum Lawrence of Arabia totally pulling off a bit of Edwardian sports casual

Things were certainly a bit different back when Britain had an empire and archaeologists wore pith helmets in a non-ironic way. Over the last month or so the project I’m about to go and work for in Turkey has been hanging on and on for our permit to be signed in Ankara. Woolley’s standard approach to any such bureaucratic difficulty was to take out his revolver and threaten to shoot the official in question (an approach which I understand is now frowned upon by the British Museum). The universal success of this tactic seems to have hinged partly on Woolley’s supreme confidence that no oriental would dare to shoot an English gentleman and partly on the supreme inefficiency of the Ottoman Empire at shooting people who deserved it. These barriers apparently did not extend to the German railway engineers across the valley, who could be shot with impunity.

‘Dead Towns and Living Men’ is also punctuated with Woolley’s insightful descriptions of the various peoples he worked with, which consist of a series of sweeping derogatory statements covering the Egyptians, Sudanese, Italians, Bulgarians, Arabs, Kurds, Turks and Germans. Woolley describes the Egyptians as being unable to understand the concept of truth. The Germans are basically evil. He tells several lengthy anecdotes about the ‘child-like simplicity’ of the Sudanese, including one in which he explains to a Sudanese workman how there was nothing disrespectful at all about a British officer addressing him as ‘Sambo’. The N-word occurs. Despite describing the Kurds as thieves, drunks, atheists, money-grabbers and undergraduates, he seems to like them best as they are also sportsmen.

I will leave you with this short extract showing Woolley’s diplomatic skills, in which he attempts to talk the local Kurdish sheikhs out of attacking the French garrison, and thereby disrupting his digging of unimaginably large holes in ancient Carchemish:

“Tell me, oh sheikhs, for whom do you do this thing?”

“For the Turks.”

“I serve the British Museum, and work for archaeology, which is knowledge. Which is greater, the British Museum or the empire of the Turks?”

“W’Allah, the British Museum!”  replied the sheikhs.

“And which is greater, liberty or knowledge?”

“Knowledge is greater.”

“Therefore my work must go on and yours must stop.”

I sometimes wonder if Leonard Woolley wasn’t just a massive liar.

In other news, I’ve managed to bruise both my shins on a helicopter, and hit my head on an aeroplane in unrelated incidents. It’s late July, there’s a heat-wave in England, I’m booking my flights to the 45°C oven of south-eastern Turkey, and grandma has made me mittens. Thanks gran.

Winter is coming (eventually I guess). Elderly Swedish women are unstoppable knitting machines.

Winter is coming (eventually I guess). Elderly Swedish women are unstoppable knitting machines.

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