Category Archives: animals

Wolves and walls


Meanwhile at Ur, the sun does that thing again

I’m currently enjoying my first hangover of the excavation season. We got through an alarming amount of our vodka stock last night, and a French sausage. We sang along to the whole of Paul Simon’s Graceland album and fashioned the plastic netting from the duty free bottles into a large sculpture of a penis. I knew this stuff would come round, I just didn’t expect it this early.


The brick storage room and its neatly stacked rows of bricks

News from the trenches is of hard fighting and slow progress. The room I’m excavating has proved to be full of structural brickwork, consisting of a series of unusual cross-walls, which caused some confusion for a while. The best explanation was provided by my head workman Haider who suggested it was a room for storing bricks in. It took me three weary days to define all the architecture and clean it up for a photo, the reward for which was a back-breaking day of planning it all. I love drawing hundreds of bricks, it’s the best thing ever. Now I’m digging out the first of what are clearly a series of sub-floor vaults in which I am finding more or less absolutely nothing. The director is hoping it’s a grave and stops by now and then to ask if I’m finding any bone – lots, is the answer, and all of it rat. At least there’s no paperwork to speak of, I haven’t registered a find in four days.

I’m hoping for a more fruitful time on site next week as the omens are good. On Tuesday an eagle was seen sitting atop my spoil heap, on Wednesday a wolf crossed our path on the way to site (I’m still mentally digesting the presence of non-fictional wolves in southern Iraq) and yesterday there was an enormous moth in my shower. They say ominous portents come in threes so I’m counting the moth, it really was very big.


The oracular eagle of the spoil heap, which foretells the death of kings and the discovery of occupation deposits in room 301

In other animal news, only one of last year’s site dogs has showed up. We don’t know what has become of John, Limpy Lassie and Arsehole but this year the density of sleepy dogs (roadside dog corpses) seems to be at an all-time high around Nasiriyah. Our one remaining dog Steve showed up quite quickly, looking rather thin and sad but we’re feeding her up on a diet of bread, biscuits and the oil at the bottom of tuna cans. Hussein, one of the local workmen, told us that Steve has four puppies at a nearby farm so F asked the director if we can please please have a puppy if we promise to look after it and feed it and clean up its shits but he remained unmoved despite the crying.


The old gang: Steve, John and Limpy Lassie in happier, less dead times. No pictures of Arsehole survive because we didn’t like him very much


Look out! There are Llamas

Luckily, I'd already made a naval captain's uniform during a previous bout of insanity. I think I shall use it on the boating lake

Luckily, I’d already made a naval captain’s uniform during a previous bout of insanity. I think I shall use it on the boating lake

The summer is cantering by and I’m finding ingenious new ways to waste my life. About five years ago it seemed like a really good idea to start organising an enormous Regency party for the 200th Anniversary of the battle of Waterloo. This is now happening tomorrow (for a whole week). I’ve spent the bulk of the last three weeks sewing ball dresses, making Napoleon’s hat, learning how to bake calves tongues and how to play Lillibulero on the recorder. My parents have reached new levels of despair as I’ve filled their home with bonnets and mined all the rugs with lost pins. I also almost shot the cat testing the paintball guns I bought for duelling. Thanks mum and dad for housing and feeding me.

My only concession towards productive (or at least profitable) activity is the two days of work I picked up from Museum of London Archaeology, for which I was forced to find my steel toe-capped boots in the garage and scoop the dead spiders out with a spoon. The job consisted of watching a digger make some holes in some hedges on the other side of Crewe.

Llama drama

Llama drama

A major inconvenience of this was that the hedges were keeping a wide range of animals in order, and a great deal of energy was expended in herding cows, ducks, donkeys, horses and angry llamas with the help of the farmer’s grandson and a Landrover. The actual archaeology was rubbish, or more accurately not there, as all I found was a lot of clay and rotten fence posts and a farmer with some moderately xenophobic views about Polish people. The rather idyllic corner of rural Cheshire was merrily signed over to the property developers so they could cover it in marginally habitable brick boxes to be bought by old rich people as buy-to-let investments. I wonder how long it’ll take the Museum of London to pay me.

The big yellow trowel

The big yellow trowel making a mess of south cheshire

Sorry this is a short one, I have to pack my Georgian naval uniform and go buy a lot of port.

If you don’t get the title here’s a link:

Babylon the Great

The lion of Babylon making nice with a man

The lion of Babylon making nice with a man

It’s been a week of wind and rain in southern Iraq. This morning the truck almost got stuck in the mud on the way to site again, which would have saved us all a great deal of windy, freezing misery, but it was not to be. It finally dragged itself out by its four-wheel-drive onto the express way where it carried us wailing to site. At night I have been kept awake by the drumming of rain on the roof of my shipping container and by my possessions knocking into the furniture as they wash across the floor.

Rani, about to find out if that other button does turn the truck into a hovercraft

Rani, about to find out if that other button does turn the truck into a hovercraft

Friendly neighbourhood policing

Friendly neighbourhood policing in Diwaniyah

We had a special treat this Friday, which was to go and be cold and wet in Babylon instead of being cold and wet at Ur. At least it gave the dig directors a break from our whining, which was probably the point of the exercise. We were passed northward through the heavily armoured hands of four provincial police forces, all of whom cultivate the amateur-enthusiast aura of American bible-belt militias, mixed with a bit of official pomp and a few scarves knitted by their mums. Luckily they took off their more interesting accessories and larger guns to escort us around the site.



In the sensory vacuum of Baathist Babylon reconstruction, F falls victim to existential doubt

In the sensory vacuum of Baathist Babylon reconstruction, F falls victim to existential doubt


Babylon in the rain. It does have atmosphere; specifically that of an abandoned soviet holiday complex built too close to the water table. The majority of it is taken up with Saddam’s enormous empty reconstructed buildings erected in the 1980s, which remind me of a dream I once had about living in a concrete grain silo after the nuclear apocalypse. They at least have the soothing effect of minimalist visual calm due to there being absolutely nothing that catches the eye.


There are some original parts remaining. The raised brick reliefs of the Ishtar gate still give you an idea of the grandeur of the place, and parts of the ancient processional way have been preserved; ornamented on this occasion by the addition of a dead fox artfully arranged on the bitumen lined pavement. Overlooking the whole enterprise is Saddam’s huge palace, which would have given him an excellent view of what he was spoiling. I was hoping to buy something monstrously tacky from the gift shop but in this I was also disappointed as it seems to have been closed for at least twenty years and now had only two elderly men sleeping in it. Instead I sampled the delights of Babylon’s only ladies’ toilet, which had no lock, paper, bin or running water. Cradle of civilization, my arse.

One of our policemen admires the charming dead foxes of the Great Processional Way

One of our policemen admires the charming dead foxes of the Great Processional Way

Foreign idiots in a car

The sickly pumpkins of Iraq

The sickly pumpkins of Iraq

It’s the morning after an unwisely alcoholic Halloween and things have just got to the point where I think I might live after all. I went to a barbeque, where I got savaged by an enormous orange cat (small tiger?), and then onto the Halloween party at the Palmyra Hotel, and then I woke up. Earlier in the day I managed to procure an Iraqi pumpkin and carve a passably evil face into it. It is of a slightly sickly hue in comparison to its garish western equivalents and is much wetter, causing a brown slime to accumulate in the bottom and an appearance of sweating. It is in all other respects charming.

Iraq's most annoying dog sitting on the aqueduct at Jerwan

Iraq’s most annoying dog sitting on the aqueduct at Jerwan

This weekend is very much a contrast to last weekend which I spent in blameless sobriety, give or take a few glasses of wine here and there. Instead I went together with a few friends to hire a car and get out of Erbil. We decided to go up north of Mosul to see some of the Neo-Assyrian stuff, taking with us an elderly and inaccurate antiquities map to make sure we didn’t take a wrong turn and end the weekend by being sold into sexual slavery in the new Caliphate. As things turned out, what we really should have been worried about our own breath-taking stupidity in the area of car husbandry.

Spoiling the Mazda's fun

Spoiling the Mazda’s fun

Our first stop was at Jerwan where the Assyrian king Sennacherib built a whopping great aqueduct in about 700BC to bring water to Nineveh and keep his slaves busy. The peacefulness of the place was somewhat spoiled by a large dog, which kept up a constant barking for the full forty minutes we were there, and by the rumble of Peshmerga artillery shelling IS positions to the south. We were joined by a local Peshmerga who was on leave, along with his sons and his tractor, which turned out to be fantastically lucky. After Jerwan we attempted to visit a small tell site but taking a wrong turn we drove right into a huge pool of mud and sheep excrement from which the Mazda was unwilling or unable to remove itself. Every attempt managed only to burrow it in deeper and throw huge sprays of brown slurry in all directions. In the end it settled contentedly in the deepest part like a fat black pig. Fortunately, we had just met a man with a tractor who we called and within half an hour we were watching sheepishly as he dragged the Mazda unwillingly out by its arse. I even forgave him for attempting to grope my breast back at Jerwan. The local children took us to their village to wash the car off and laugh at us. We went home via Khinis and Akre and several very narrowly avoided car accidents.

The king doing his king thing at Khinis

The king doing his king thing at Khinis

Out of gas: waiting to be rescued again

Out of gas: waiting to be rescued again

On the second day we headed for the ancient monastery at Mar Mattai northeast of Mosul. We were having a jolly old time until the Mazda mysteriously ceased to function. Having pushed the car out of the path of the death-dealing fuel tankers which were thundering around us, we consulted the Mazda’s manual and after a period of denial were forced to accept that we had in fact run out of petrol. Fortunately, Kurds like nothing better than rescuing mentally deficient foreigners from their own stupidity and soon enough a nice man had driven one of us off to buy fuel at the nearest petrol station and then helped us to funnel it into the car. We finally arrived at the monastery with just enough time to have a cup of tea with the head monk and sit through a church service with a lace doily on my head before it was time to get back in the car. So ended the many valuable lessons of last weekend.

Mar Mattai: Praying for a release from idiocy and a safe drive home

Mar Mattai: Praying for a release from idiocy and a safe drive home

Drowning in nonsense

A brief break in the weather leaves a happy rainbow over soggy erbil

A brief break in the weather leaves a happy rainbow over soggy Erbil

Over the last two days I’ve been having a passionate affair with a Nespresso machine. My housemate picked one up in yet another looting incident after some oil people had to leave the country. It came with about 300 little coffee capsules in about twenty flavours; I’ve tried most of them in the last forty-eight hours but have decided to leave the last six flavours until tomorrow after having a dream about my eyeballs popping out of my head and trying to squash them back in with my thumbs.

The voyage back to the office

Swimming back to the office

The sun has finally come out today after a week of dreary rain punctuated by thunder storms. The refugees living in the unfinished shopping mall around the corner (in a manner reminiscent of zombie apocalypse movies) have hung everything out to dry from the incomplete rooftop. The citadel turns out to drain surprisingly poorly for high ground, and what does drain drains into the site, cutting gullies into the ancient walls and pooling in the deep trenches. The alleyways between the office and site are now of a semi-aquatic nature, sometimes requiring careful sounding to avoid sinking up to the knees and occasional scrabbling over the ruins of fallen walls brought down by the weight of their water soaked bricks. My two female trainees have mysteriously stopped coming to site, which I’m sure is wholly unconnected with their choice of ballet flats as excavation footwear.

I hear it was an excellent year for brick crocuses

I hear it was an excellent year for brick crocuses

I’ve escaped by throwing myself into the paperwork, examining the ‘records’ of the first season of excavation when no international adviser was present. Scant enough already, they bear testament to the perils of the unsupervised use of English by under-qualified persons. Of greatest interest is the collection of enigmatic sentences entered into the ‘Detailed description’ section of the context sheets, attesting to such diabolical objects as an ‘Angle iron, cercal, coration on serf black color’ and mysterious allusions to ‘Days of mud brick, clay and chipson’. The horrors of season one are made plain by references to a ‘Will maid bar backed brick’ and a ‘Flow bottom 044- mad by nore’. If anyone can translate nonsense please get in touch, there’s a publication credit and a packet of bacon in it for you if you can tell me what a ‘tow loin’ is.


The archaeology office cat, who I refer to variously as ‘Bag of Bones’ or ‘Sack of Shit’ depending on what and how much it has eaten

As almost all of my posts from Erbil have so far featured a cat photo, here is a photo of the office cat. When it has turned over all the bins it sits in the office door and cries continuously in tones of great malevolence. It bites anyone approaching within two feet. At the start of the season it was deathly thin and appeared to have been hit in the face with a car, but has since grown fat and demanding on a diet of powdered milk and instant coffee fed to it by the girls in the office. I scowl daily upon the nourishing of this monster.

Semi-functional alcohologist

Erbil can seem quite tranquil from a distance and without shouting at you in Kurdish about pottery

Erbil can seem quite tranquil from a distance and without someone shouting at you in Kurdish about pottery

Archaeologically things are at a bit of a low ebb in Erbil. I’ve been back on site for three days since the end of the Eid holiday. We now have no workmen because there’s no money to pay them, meaning that digging has effectively stopped and there are only a few monstrously tall elevations to draw. My trainees have also not been paid and are, understandably, less and less interested in being around. Well, there’s the money but I think they might also be sick of leaning out over crumbly mud brick death canyons dangling a plumb bob. They’d all gone home by 1:30pm today, leaving me to work alone in the pit of despair. They also locking my bag in the office along with my money, ID and house keys before they left, which was thoughtful of them. At least it’s nice and quiet on site and I can listen to my ipod or take a little nap or throw rocks at the pigeons without anyone judging me. I might be going a bit ‘you-know’ (mad).

Oktoberfest - return of the ruinously expensive one litre steins of black beer

Oktoberfest – return of the ruinously expensive one litre steins of black beer

I enjoyed the traditional expat Eid holiday; drinking heroic quantities of alcohol every day until my brain started trying to crawl out of my ears for a breath of air. In the early stages this just involved the usual Erbil pursuits: Oktoberfest at the German bar, house parties, BBQs, crashing that Nepalese party and having drunken sprint races in Sami Abdulrahman Park with fuel men from the airport. Then I agreed to get out of town and go to the mountains around Choman with some friends for four days. I knew it was going to be a rough road when I found I’d drunk five cans of beer in the car on the way. One of my fellow holiday makers brought her cat along which made the journey even more entertaining due to his/her (complicated) unwavering interest in what the driver was doing with his feet. Having been raised by expats the cat was a needy alcoholic.

Henry finishes off his second Amstel, dribbling much of it into my lap

Henry finishes off his second Amstel, dribbling much of it into my lap

Mostly we played board games, smoked and watched documentaries about religion, which are far more entertaining when you’re drunk and willing to pick a side. One day we took a drive up through the mountains, keeping an anxious eye on the GPS to make sure we didn’t accidentally take a much longer holiday in Iranian prison. I learned a lot about what minefields look like and about all the places in a Lexus you can hide beer cans when you get to a checkpoint. I spent the last day of the Eid holiday back in Erbil feeling exceptionally sick while watching Downton Abbey and drinking fizzy water with my housemate.

Within 2km of the Iranian border we drink some schnapps and think about our options

Within 2km of the Iranian border we drink some schnapps and think about our options

Keeping calm in Erbil

More or less my first archaeological action this season was the satisfying destruction of a nice big wall

More or less my first archaeological action this season was the satisfying destruction of a nice big wall

My first week back in Erbil has been unexpectedly like most other weeks I’ve spent in this part of the world – I’ve had many uncomfortable conversations with taxi drivers, several unpleasant interactions with animals and I’ve eaten five times the amount of bread I’d want to eat in an ideal world. The main difference is that I’ve badly strained the muscles in my face which make the appropriate expression for when someone tells you something really terrible. I usually only get to use these a couple of times a year; when friends suffer a bereavement, and at Christmas and Weddings. Now these muscles are getting a full daily workout. Kurdistan has had quite a scare and a lot of people are suffering but most seem keen to make the best of it and keep looking forward. On Thursday night I went to the German bar where the live music was against a background of ‘Keep Calm’ messages including ‘Keep calm and stay in Erbil’ and ‘Keep calm and trust the Peshmerga’, which I’d like on a T-shirt if possible.

The pant-wetting chasm outside the city wall, into which one of us will surely fall to our deaths if we be not first buried alive

The pant-wetting chasm outside the city wall, into which one of us will surely fall to our deaths if we be not first buried alive

On the excavation things have got off to a bumpy start. In my absence the strategy appears to have been to locate the deepest part of the excavations head down with a sense of urgency. Even by my low standards of health and safety the site is now a massive screaming death trap and if we all make it out alive I’ll never write sarcastic comments on risk assessments again. I’ve been recapping some of last year’s work with the local archaeologists, such as why we sometimes write things down and which side of the tape is in metres. I’m sure it will all come back to them.

This time I’m staying with a lovely lady and her lovely dog. It’s all been lovely so far except my second evening in the house when the Bichon Frisé in question spent half an hour in a concerted effort to have violent sexual intercourse with my forearm. This was accompanied by a background refrain of ‘He’s not usually like this!’ Thankfully things have cooled off and we have since developed an attitude of mutual respect for each other’s bodily parts.

Should have left him there, the little...

Should have left him there, the little…

The other major animal related incident was my heroic rescuing of a kitten stuck on a drain pipe on the exterior of a tall building. I was handsomely rewarded by being scratched and pissed on. It could have been worse in the lottery of cat emissions, as my housemate sagely pointed out.