It’s my birthday. I have mixed feelings about this. I’m celebrating with a Kinders Surprise, lying resplendent in my ‘abba. My colleagues have gifted me the sort of treasure that only the last days of a three month field project can make you truly appreciate – real chocolate from England, one of the very few remaining hidden cans of diet coke and a small pack of US military-issue toilet paper. There’s also a bottle of dubious Iraqi whiskey for this evening. It was brought to the dig house yesterday by one of our contacts in Nasiriyah, who delivered it in a black leather bag along with the cryptic announcement that he had found ‘the medicine for Mr John’. This utterance was for some time a little too cryptic as Mr John had left two days earlier and not informed everyone of his outstanding order.
Progress in Iraq: our last weekend outing to the ancient city of Uruk
It’s our last day in Ur before we drive down to Basra tomorrow and the project has drawn to a gentle close. Yesterday most of us had run out of work and we spent the afternoon playing cricket in the front garden and watching our pottery washer Nasrala chase his escaped horse very slowly round the compound. I think the horse had a lovely day. One of the directors took all the finds to the museum in Baghdad and got our permission letters to export samples out of the country. She had to sign a declaration promising to return the little bags of soil to Iraq or be liable for their value, leading to speculation as to the actual monetary worth of dirt.
One of my tamer Bananagrams wins
The final weeks of the project have been generally marked by a slow descent into wrongness. Our regular games of Bananagrams (a sort of free-form scrabble) has blossomed into a workshop on creative obscenities, most of which I cannot repeat here. Last night one of my winning racks incorporated the words foamy, dyke and slit, which I’m pretty sure wouldn’t have happened a couple of months ago. Queef has become the go-to word for getting rid of troublesome Qs and Fs – at the start of January I thought this was a type of medieval lady’s bonnet. Other signs of troubled mental health include D and N’s new game of throwing dishcloths, food and other items into the kitchen fan to see what happens, and the use by some team members of the silted-up floatation tanks as hot tubs. The proliferation of in-jokes and evolving misuse of vocabulary has now rendered our conversation almost incomprehensible to other English speakers. I think it’s very much for the best that we’re all going home while we can still be re-integrated into polite society.
The equinox sun setting in a satisfactory manner behind the ziggurat at Ur
The modest amount of pottery emerging from my room fill
With nearly three weeks left of the project here in Iraq we stopped digging today. It seems that the three of us digging on site are finding too much archaeology for the people back at the house to handle and we’ve been cut off. It all started with the tablets when a week ago I got my best day’s catch of four monsters, which I presented to the conservator, only to find that she didn’t want any more. Apparently four nice big cuneiform tablets is a week’s conservation work. So instead I had to move on to a juicy looking buttress room which seemed to have a decent quantity of pottery sticking out of this. After the removal of less than a third of the room fill, which produced a healthy eight or nine sacks full of pottery, I was again asked to stop; F and S in the other trenches had been producing similar quantities of the stuff and the poor young ceramicist was now washing our pottery with his human tears. He likes pots, you’d have thought he’d be happy. In any case, we are now sullenly back-filling and completing our records.
Fiery danger fish
As everyone seems to be getting a bit flaky after two and a half months (last week we invented potato rugby, which was all fun and games until J caught a hefty one right on the ear), we made this weekend a long one and accepted an invitation to the marshes. I made this as horrible as possible for myself by vigourously attacking my remaining whiskey the night before, drunkenly annoying people I like and then having to spend a very hung-over day in a moving boat. Things almost came to a head on an island in the middle of the marsh when our hosts cooked us some large fish for lunch. Luckily the salty, fatty fish had a curative effect rather than the reverse and a cross-cultural incident was averted. I came close to a relapse later when we encountered an especially buoyant cat.
After not sleeping at all in a very lovely reed-built house, we got up early to watch the sun rise and have breakfast in the marshes. After the sun had run through the usual old routine, we moored up on a section of Sadam’s marsh road and spread our breakfast mat on the tarmac. Sadam Hussein built the road to move his tanks through the area after he had had the marshes drained. Now they’re reflooded, the road is mostly submerged and is slowly dissolving away. I kicked a little chunk off into the water and watched it sink.
Sadam’s marsh road, now thoroughly shat on by water buffalo and gnawed at by dogs