Monthly Archives: March 2015

Islamic State vs The Archaeology

I got back from Iraq last weekend and immediately came down with a stinking cold. I’m going to have to face facts; that I’ve developed an allergy to Istanbul Ataturk Airport, possibly due to the price of beer there.

The delicate job of getting the site portaloo over our irrigation canal foot bridge

The delicate job of getting the site portaloo over our irrigation canal foot bridge

As people keep bothering me about all the nasty smashy things Islamic State (or Daash as we call them in Iraq) are doing to antiquities in the north, I thought it might be time for politics to poke its fat, wet nose into my blog (which sounds really horrible now I’ve written it down). As regular readers are aware, I do like to keep things light; partly because I think there’s probably enough earnest, hand-ringing misery being written about the Middle East already, and partly because I’m very stupid and incapable of forming reasoned arguments.

Of course I agree with all the statements of outrage expressed by my fellow archaeologists, and would like to add my own, albeit with a great deal more swearing and less good grammar. However, I’d like to take a quick look at things from a slightly less bleak perspective.

Nineveh

“That’s for the infidels, and that’s for that girl who laughed at my tiny penis, and that’s for the hipster who stole my beard, and, ..and… …(sob)”

Austin Henry Layard. There was a man who really knew how to destroy an archaeological site, and how to carry off facial hair. I think I'm in love

Austin Henry Layard, excavator of Nineveh. Now there was a man who really knew how to destroy an archaeological site, and how to carry off facial hair. I think I’m in love

Firstly, although the destruction in Mosul Museum and at Nineveh and Nimrud is certainly a cultural heritage disaster, it hardly affects the sites in terms of archaeology and is small potatoes compared to the damage done by the jolly old 19th century archaeologists like Layard. The loss of archaeological information is minimal. Most of the unexcavated deposits are safe and sound below the surface and all that gaudy statuary above ground is fully recorded, so in archaeological terms it was ready to go anyway. The problem with trying to destroy the archaeological past is that you always just find something older underneath, and on and on it goes like in my nightmares. Archaeologically they might have done us a favour. I’m writing a funding proposal in my head right now called ‘Discovering the pre-Assyrian origins of Nimrud’, which is all going to be much more financially feasible now that the Islamic State have removed the late period overburden for me. And after all, I’ve been destroying archaeological deposits professionally for over a decade, these pricks are just amateurs.

In archaeological terms, it is also pleasing to reflect that Daash will be virtually unrecoverable archaeologically. There may, in places, be a Daash horizon consisting of the rubble of nice things, but there will be no Daash layers or structures as they don’t make anything or build anything because they’re too busy being mad and masturbating over footage of themselves on Youtube. In general the archaeological record is bigger and uglier than most things, including Islamic State, and can look after itself. IS won’t be around for long in any case with their high staff turnover and crippling sexual insecurities; the archaeological record will barely notice them.

Well, so much for Daash, now back to the usual shite.

The strange performance art of the photography pole

The strange performance art of the photography pole

The last week of the project went off reasonably smoothly. When we dismantled the women’s toilet, the cess pool was found to have a drowned mole floating in it which had swelled to the point of being entirely spherical. On Monday I was coerced into giving a lecture on climate and architecture to a hundred sixteen-year-old boys at the Nasiriyah Institute of Fine Art, after which one of the boys took his shirt off and performed the epic of Gilgamesh via the medium of interpretive dance. Sat in the front row things were pretty grim; trying avoiding eye contact and keeping a neutral face. Those were thirty long minutes.

On Wednesday our finds assistant Nasralah shot a dog. It was an excellent single shot kill from about 150m with an old rifle. We’re still not sure exactly why the dog needed shooting, I hope it wasn’t just the barking. On Thursday, in a heroic effort of will, we finished the last half litre of vodka and on Friday me and F watched all six hours of the BBC’s 1995 series of Pride and Prejudice. We ate a lot of crisps and heckled Mr Darcy constantly about his trousers.

The last of my private stores

The last of my private stores

I now have one week in the warm bosom of my parent’s television before I have to go and dig up dead people in Egypt again. The war against the old stuff never ends

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In the nursery

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

End of another long day. It's a slice of Iraqi tea and then up the mudbrick hill to bedfordshire

End of another long day. It’s a slice of Iraqi tea and then up the mudbrick hill to bedfordshire for me

Once upon a time there was a dirty, tired, bitter old woman who desperately wanted to finish digging holes in an ancient palace so she could write it up and go home and live happily ever after (or at least watch tv in her pyjamas for a week). But this couldn’t happen because every time she got close to finishing excavating her last room some old crap would turn up and she would tear her hair and curse the gods and clean and photograph and plan it. Today it was a dead baby in a pot.

Kinder surprise

Kinder surprise

We’d excavated a couple of these external buttress chambers before and they just have a bit of dumping material inside and unsurfaced mud brick at the bottom; this one should have been quick. I’ve been digging room 304 out for nearly three weeks now and difficult things keep coming up to make me unhappy. Strangely childlike things. First there was the farmyard activity play set. This featured a range of animal figurines, vehicle parts and little farmers, all lovingly modeled in soggy unbaked clay and then mashed up. They presented themselves as a mass of sturdy bases from man figurines, the back ends of large-testicled bulls, and beaten up horse torsos with their heads knocked off (I also used to knock the heads off my toys if I didn’t like the way they were looking at me).

 

Fully functional pottery rattle; all the cool kids have got them this year

Fully functional pottery rattle; all the cool kids have got them this year

The next thing to turn up was a rattle. A real Old Babylonian, 3700 year old rattle, made of pottery and still rattling. I flipped it intact out of the deposit with my trowel with a merry little rattle and then I gave it a good rattle next to my head and danced a little rattle discovery dance. It’s now been rattled by everyone on the project, by all three Iraqi antiquities reps, by our driver, by the UK Chargé d’Affaires to Iraq and by half her security entourage. On Saturday it will be rattled by the Minister of Antiquities for Iraq. It’s just been x-rayed at Nasiriyah hospital to see what makes it quite so rattley.

 

The mud brick playpen. Perfect for all bronze age toddlers

The mud brick playpen. Perfect for all bronze age toddlers

The rattle turned out to be from a partitioned-off corner of the room which is now referred to in all my notes as the ‘playpen’. It’s enclosed by a thin mud brick wall at about waist height with a raised floor and no doorway (in fact the whole room has no doorway; I initially thought the playpen might be the lift shaft). I suppose all things considered I should have been expecting the kinder surprise this afternoon. At the dig house I found a potato which looks exactly like a 5-6 week old human embryo, and no good can come of that sort of omen.

Ill-omened potato foetus

Ill-omened potato foetus