Monthly Archives: January 2014

Le cuisine d’Ur

We are off site today due to gale-force winds. Having done all my paperwork and tried and failed to make a kite, I now have little to do this afternoon except think of all the things I’d like to eat but can’t. I am not enjoying the culinary side of life at Ur:

Lunch guns: no one's taking our hardboiled eggs

Lunch guns: no one’s taking our hardboiled eggs

Hors d’oeuvres – selection of disappointments

Breakfast consists of finding something edible in the fridge in the dark. The highlight is the Iranian yoghurts, one of the ingredients of which is ‘Thermophile starter’, suggesting that it originates in the enriched uranium-producing regions. Most of the team mix this with ‘dhibis’; a black date syrup closely resembling diesel oil, except for J who uses a table spoon of instant coffee. Lunch is the usual cold hardboiled egg love/hate experience, enlivened by carbtastic boiled potato sandwiches. It is served in the site tent against a backdrop of machine guns.

Entrée – Rice and Red

Foulness: transition from the christmas regime to a bean-based diet has not been smooth

Foulness: transition from the christmas regime to a bean-based diet has not been smooth

The diet here at the Ur dig house is a classic example of archaeological dining in the Middle East, as perpetuated by the least imaginative cooks to be found between the Bosporus and the Khyber Pass. Excavation cooks are by and large not selected for their culinary skills but for their ability to put up with the astonishingly bizarre demands of foreign archaeologists (fixed mealtimes, basic hygiene, refrigeration of dairy products, vegetarians(!?)) and their familial connections to other employees of the project. This generally leads to the hiring of the driver’s/site guard’s/land owner’s brother/cousin/uncle, who in fact only knows how to cook one dish; the one he cooks when his wife’s away. This dish is invariably ‘rice and red’, referring to beans and/or vegetables cooked for an average of four hours in a tomato sauce and served over boiled rice. In nearly three weeks at Ur we have now had rice and red every day except the first Friday when we got our own takeaway kebab. Even with our now formidable range of hot sauce bottles, it’s sometimes difficult to remember there are flavours other than tomato.

Rice and red: courgette variant

Rice and red: courgette variant

Plateau de fromages

The cheeses of Ur

The cheeses of Ur

The cheese board of Ur is a thing of wonder, featuring on occasion as many as twelve different types of locally sourced processed cheese, ranging from creamy yellow Happy Cow, through the harder canned cheeses such as Kraft Cheddar and Pinky to the rubbery delights of Kiri and Boy Cheese triangles. The mystery surrounding this apparent variety is that they all taste exactly the same, and not of cheese. Served with artisanal bread in a damp plastic bag.

 Carte de vin

The ration is five cans a day for every man and boy. Some of us are not sleeping well

The ration is five cans a day for every man and boy. Some of us are not sleeping well

There is of course no vin here or biére and we are limited to the one litre each of the strongest duty free spirits available which we were able to bring through customs (currently carefully curated against the harder times to come). Most commonly drunk is an execrable local brand of instant coffee called Coffee Prince (referred to here as The Prince or The Prince of Darkness) and the usual brown 100% sugar solution that masquerades as tea. The project is in fact almost entirely fueled by industrial quantities of Diet Pepsi.

Bon appetit!

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Fishing and droning

The boys compare torsos: I am reassured that none of us are in fact androids

The boys compare torsos: I am satisfied that none of us are in fact androids

We’ve finally had two consecutive full days on site after a lot of delays. These have been mostly due to rain but there was also the many joys of the goverment medical inspection, which involved a full day in Nasiriyah being tested for AIDS and having our chests X-rayed. As one of the healthier looking expedition members (I am one of the few with working knees) I was spared the x-ray, which was lucky as I didn’t want to have a conversation about underwired bras with an Iraqi doctor. They took my blood though, after which I had the sleeve of my jumper immediately, and rather aggressively, tugged back down by a burly old woman, least the men be aroused by the sight of my naked elbow.

Visit to Eridu: Bricks, bitumen, bullets

Visit to Eridu: Bricks, bitumen, bullets

[insert phallic reference]

[insert phallic quip]

On site it was time for some photography today. As we are a highly advanced technological project this was not the usual matter of shinning up a stepladder, putting the camera on auto and hoping for the best. Instead we got out the fifteen meter long telescopic ‘quickshot’ pole (which causes much consternation at airports due to its visual similarity to a rocket launcher coupled with the fact it has ‘Quickshot’ written on the side of it). After buckling staff member A into the harness, and enduring an extraordinarily large amount of faffing, we extended the pole to its full height, giving the impression that A was going fishing for enormous salmon. Various parts of the pole then proceeded to retract into each other, necessitating adjustments with allen keys, then the laptop into which the camera was plugged had to be turned off and on, before finally the camera ran out of battery just as we were ready to take some photos. Isn’t technology marvellous.

Test flight: the photo drone soars through the sky with the grace and directionality of an angry, drunk bee

Test flight: the photo drone soars through the sky with the grace and directionality of an angry, drunk bee

There had been hope last week that even the camera-laptop-pole arrangement had had its day after the arrival on site of our new photo drone – a small sinister black rotorcraft related to the ones Amazon wants to use to deliver box sets (and the ones America uses to blow up Afghan weddings). This was successfully trialed last week, successfully taking several hundred photos of mud from various heights up to thirty metres. Alas, this brave new archaeological world is now on hold due to minor damage sustained in a heavy landing and it being discovered that we need permission from the Iraqi army to fly it. Thus our dreams are made dust.

Soggy ziggurats

The curiously erotic art of Basra airport

The curiously erotic art of Basra airport

I’m in the Ur dig house wearing three jumpers and a woolly hat watching my breath fog. January in Iraq turns out to be quite cold and pretty wet (I weep inwardly over the big socks I couldn’t fit in my bag). I got here on Thursday night about ten hours later than scheduled. I made a strong start by getting quite drunk at Manchester Airport and finally getting round to watching Captain America on the plane, but then got delayed at Istanbul, where I sobered up, and then had to spend two hours circling Basra waiting for the fog to clear.

We’re living in the compound of the ancient city of Ur, which is full of dogs and rubbish. On Friday morning a few of us went to check out the ziggurat in the rain. The ziggurat of Ur is about four thousand years old and probably the greatest monument of the region I’ve been studying for the last twelve years. It featured heavily in my doctoral thesis. We trudged up to the top, decided it was horrible and went back to the dig house to make coffee and put on more clothes, which wasn’t exactly how I’d been imagining it all these years.

That wet ziggurat smell: S and D at the foot steps wanting to go home

That wet ziggurat smell: S and D at the foot steps wanting to go home

The samphire of ancient Ur: the perfect accompaniment to hard boiled eggs and processed cheese triangles

The samphire of ancient Ur: the perfect accompaniment to hard boiled eggs and processed cheese triangles

The next day the site guard gave us the full tour, together with a couple of Iraqi army officers from the local base, who spent most of the their time taking photos of each other on their smart phones. We slithered down the mud to the royal tombs of the Ur III dynasty, which remain a marvel in the world of brick vaulting fanciers despite being heavily befouled by pigeons. We admired the very large holes left by Leonard Woolley (https://oldstuffinhotplaces.com/2013/07/16/the-world-according-to-woolley/) in the 1920s, now filled with plastic bags, and I noted how well samphire grows on heavily salinated wet mudbricks.

Today we had our first full day on site; a modest Old Babylonian tell about forty minutes drive from Ur. Tomorrow we have the day off to go to the hospital and be tested for AIDS. Iraq is fun.

And repeat

In Norfolk I discover the exciting range of jam available in the village church of Burnham Thorpe (where Lord Nelson was born)

In Norfolk I discover the exciting range of jam available in the village church of Burnham Thorpe (where Lord Nelson was born)

With 2013 finally tied in a sack and left out for the bin men, I now have only one more episode of The One Show to endure before I can escape to Basra on Wednesday. I can reflect on a reasonably nice festive period, which included watching Cambridge lose to Oxford at rugby (and getting very drunk), spending a weekend in Norfolk visited English Heritage castles (and getting very drunk), smoking a pipe (and getting very drunk), organising a pub crawl through all the village pubs between Banbury and Oxford (…) and being very drunk in Chester Cathedral. In between the other usual Christmas pass times of eating, missing trains, and annoying people at parties I also managed to do a large amount of work for a small amount of money, most of which I lost on a series of poorly-motivated horses at the New Year’s day races at Cheltenham. For Christmas I got DVDs and a lecture about life trajectory and alcohol consumption (thanks mum and dad).

Ye Olde Reindeer; appropriately festive starting point for the intercalary Banbury to Oxford village pub crawl, during which I drank ten pints of beer  and was kind to a small dog. As I remember.

Ye Olde Reindeer; appropriately festive starting point for the intercalary Banbury to Oxford village pub crawl, during which I drank ten pints of beer and was kind to a small dog. As I remember.

The DVDs are aimed at keeping me reasonably sane over the next three months, which I’ll be spending in Iraq, down in Nasiriyah, excavating an Old Babylonian city while drinking very little and not getting out much except when accompanied by an unwieldy quantity of policemen. I feel a healthy supply of box sets may be the difference between a happy workplace environment and ugly social disintegration. So far I’ve selected Elementary series 1, Being Human 1-3 and Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa. This will definitely be the most dangerous place I’ve ever gone to dig; an issue which I’ve been furiously ignoring up til now. Today in Sainsburys mum asked me where Fallujah is, which constitutes her first expression of near-concern. Ignorance, as they say, is bliss, so I’m attempting to keep my parents as blissful as possible. My New Year’s resolution for 2014 is not to get dead.

Cheltenham: Lady Buttons returns from losing my last tenner by thirteen lengths.

Cheltenham: Lady Buttons returns from losing my last tenner by thirteen lengths.

In general, I’m not at all unhappy to see the back of 2013. Although I’ve dug a great many holes in a great many places, most of my longer term goals, such as getting a permanent job, moving out of my parents’, learning to drive, forming a romantic relationship with a (tall, mysterious, bearded) man, and paying tax, continue to elude me. On the positive, 2013 was the first year since 1996 in which I did not sustain a black eye. We’ll see if 2014 can see me escape the homeless, itinerant, poverty which only dedication and ten years at university can properly equip you for.