Category Archives: antiquities

Meeting the meat

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Ur city signage

As a thank you at the end of the season, our Iraqi colleagues generously treated us to dinner tonight. Last night they brought dinner round to the dig house so we could be introduced first. Alerted by the sound of strident bleating, we came outside to find the house keeper holding a pretty black and white lamb by its fluffy newly washed fleece. It was a somewhat strained social atmosphere; the lamb was clearly unhappy about the turn events had taken, and we were all very hungry as it was just before dinner. We tried to say the right manner of things, about what a nice sort of lamb he was, but it doesn’t do to get overly familiar in this kind of short term relationship. We all resisted any impulses towards patting it or naming it. The poor little chap rather embarrassed himself in the end by shitting all over the garden path, but under the circumstances we agreed that he could be forgiven.

It should be noted that his pitiful crying and big sad eyes in no way prevented him from being delicious.

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We meet again

Things in southern Iraq are progressing in their usual manner. After six weeks of freezing our extremities off, the weather was very nice for about fifteen minutes on Monday before going stinking hot and horribly windy instead. Last week I finally managed to evict all the dead people from my excavation area; a glum, chain-smoking man from the mosque came and took away the unwelcome late intrusive adult cut into my floors and hastily reburied him/her in a shallow grave behind the spoil heap. Almost immediately afterwards I disturbed an inconvenient baby in a mudbrick debris deposit, which I cleaned, photographed, planned and removed in less than half an hour – a new personal best. My courtyard also yielded a large stone basin, which was removed back to the dig house at Ur where it has proved to be ideal for stopping our football from blowing away in these windier times. The smokers among us lament that it would have made the perfect statement ashtray for the garden if only we didn’t have to send it to the museum so they can lose it.

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Nothing makes Iraqi workmen happier than late bronze age stone work

Last weekend we had a team outing to a site called Shmet, which it turned out no one really knew how to get to. We and our police detail spent an hour and a half driving around the same square kilometer of beige asking shepherds for directions and trying to circumvent a freshly excavated gas pipeline ditch. The site was pretty impressive when we finally got there, having been badly excavated by Iraqi archaeologists and badly looted by Iraqi villagers. After re-enacting several key scenes from the film Labyrinth, me and F went off to find some privacy. Fortunately, a colleague overheard one of our Iraqi police escort say he was going to climb higher up the mound as he couldn’t see two of the foreign women. She curbed his diligence by explaining that after four hours in the minibus we had in fact gone to find a looting pit deep enough to piss in.

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Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the goblin city

 

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Back from the beyond

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site envy at Nippur

You might be forgiven for thinking that something terrible had happened to me. I left my blog at a point of sinister crisis as I was digging at a mysteriously nameless site for a morally ambiguous corporate entity*. The reader may have been left with the impression that I’d been disappeared for extensive mental reconditioning having seen something for which the human mind is not ready. I can tell you that to my knowledge this is not the case, although when I try to think back to November all I remember is the colour yellow. In truth, I hit an unforeseen snag with this blog, and after quite a lot of worrying about things I’ve decided to just fuck it and carry on more or less as before – minimal archaeology and being slightly mean – and see what happens.

2017 has so far been kind to me; I finally got my PhD published in the form of an already out of date book which no one can buy because a pitifully small number have been printed and it’s mind buggeringly expensive. I got some good news on a job, which had to happen at some point simply by the laws of probability, and I won a four day painting holiday in Bournemouth with an elderly woman I barely know. I’m not inclined to enter into gift horse mouth examinations however.

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Someone finally shows some initiative and murders Waleed; Iraq’s laziest wheelbarrower

I’m four weeks into my usual Jan/Feb/March excavation in southern Iraq, enduring a day-off consisting mainly of power cuts and primitive laundry. I’m excavating the main courtyard of our 2nd Millennium BC building, which is unremarkable except for a large depression (physical rather than metaphorical) in the centre, into which everything rolls; tools, spoil, used tissues, careless workmen. The most exciting on-site development is that our Iraqi antiquities representatives have started bringing hot soup for breakfast, which is an innovation of staggering brilliance.

At the Ur dig house we’re well into the usual desperate attempts to manufacture functional entertainment out of insufficient and defective parts. Earlier in the week a new knife for the kitchen arrived which was curiously marketed as a high quality ‘Kitchen Slaughter Knife’. This has led to lively speculation about who will be slaughtered first and by whom, and a general avoidance of the kitchen due to knife-related jests.

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Attempted infiltration of air rifles onto the shopping list

We’ve been engaged in a campaign to have the excavation provided with air rifles so that we can found the Ur Rifles Shooting Club, which we all agree would look great on a t-shirt. So far the project directors are holding firm to their no firearms poilcy. We have, however, managed to kit ourselves out with Iraqi national team football shirts, which has long been held as a project goal. Of course, it’s not possible to buy new and current Iraqi shirts, instead we visited a cavernous shop in Nasiriyah where football replica kit goes to die. It was piled to the ceiling with shirts from all clubs and countries dating as far back as the early 1990s, and after much labour on the part of the many shop staff we managed to find ten acceptable Iraqi shirts; a mixture of home and away strips in different sizes and designs, four of which cannot be worn locally due to having Ba’arthist-era flags on.

 

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the Iraqi football shirt subs bench

*The British Museum

The oldest sins in the newest ways

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The new Institute of Digital Archaeology erection

It seems appropriate I should title this with a Shakespeare misquote as it’s the 400th anniversary of his death on Saturday and everyone is doing it. What I’m actually alluding to is the ‘digitally produced’ copy of the Palmyra arch which was erected in Trafalgar Square yesterday by the Institute of Digital Archaeology (involuntary snigger). They’ve made an exact scaled-down replica of an arch destroyed by Daesh, using a digital 3D model created from photos. How new! how sophisticated, how 21st century! cooed the papers. But of course it isn’t a new concept at all, in fact it’s very old school, only the tools have changed (now they work at the Institute of Digital Archaeology, nghh).

They loved their perfect architectural replicas back in the mid-19th century and there was a huge industry turning them out for museums. Moulds were made from the originals and used to produce as many plaster casts as necessary, brilliant. The only downside being that eventually everyone came to the conclusion that casts of ancient monuments were a bit pointless and unsatisfying. They lacked authenticity and, rather critically, age. To everyone’s surprise it turned out that old things were interesting and valued because they were old. New facsimiles just didn’t really interest people no matter how close to the original they were. The cast craze died away by the early 20th century and museums had their cast collections destroyed, sold off or put into permanent storage. One of the few museums to retain some of their casts on display is the Victoria and Albert in London, which I suspect found it hard to back down after they’d invested in a Cast Court specially built to house a life-size cast of the façade of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

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Michaelangelo’s original David which attracts 1.3 million visitors per year, and the V&A’s Victorian cast which mysteriously doesn’t

It’s fascinating to learn from the IDA that reproductions are back on the cutting edge of cultural heritage, so long as they’re produced from a digital model and carved by robots at £100,000 a pop rather than boring old Victorian casts (and I’m so glad we’re spending the money on something that really helps to protect and conserve endangered archaeology in the Middle East and not on some token publicity stunt). Alas, like most digital archaeology, it’s an old and pointless concept in a new and shiny package.

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Bunking off Quiddich at Alnwick Castle

In personal news, I survived my 8 hour wait in Istanbul airport by paying to spend it in a lounge with an infinite supply of beer. I also survived a brief National-Trust-athon in Northumberland with my sister, during which we managed to take in four castles, three churches, one priory, Hadrian’s wall, the Lindisfarne mead shop and an unrecorded number of pubs. My sister talked incessantly about her wedding but amply compensated by sending me a whole Spanish ham in the post. Twins are great, they’re the only people really get gifts right.

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One week in, the gift of ham just keeps on giving

 

Blood and Bogies

I’ve been back living at Ur for a week now with four days on site, during which I’ve renewed my mutually-abusive relationship with unbaked cuneiform tablets. I’ve re-nested in my tin box, hung my flags, flushed a lot of water down the dusty toilet and hidden all my food supplies where they can be out of harm’s way in the short term. I augmented my UK stores with a litre of Stoli and eight Kinder Eggs at Istanbul airport.

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The timeless beauty of Nasiriyah power station in the light of a cold January morning

It’s bastard cold in Iraq at the moment and the only way I’ve found of sleeping in the insulation-free innards of my steel shipping container is by wearing most of my clothes and piling up heaps of thick, luridly patterned Iraqi blankets on top. I’m effectively pinned to the mattress by the weight of them and I’ve been having a lot of dreams about being caught in avalanches or drowning. I think I’m treading a fine line between developing hypothermia and being murdered by my own bedding. The state of my unconscious psyche has also been coloured by reading the Osprey book of the Iran-Iraq war before bed so that I’ve spent a couple of nights fighting off human wave attacks by massed Pasdaran infantry.

Our four days on site were interrupted by the traditional heavily armed trip to the clinic in Nasiriyah to check, for residency visa purposes, that we are all human people who bleed real human blood. The blood samples are taken in one room and then registered separately in another with the owner taking care of the sample in between so at least we all had something to keep our hands warm. We passed the waiting periods by playing Bogies – for those who are unfamiliar, this is a game played in public spaces, in which each player has to say the word ‘Bogies’ slightly louder than the previous player until someone chickens out. We were surprisingly uninhibited at the hospital.

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M wonders how he can possibly beat the last Bogie without being shot in the back of the head by the cops

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Nice doggy

On the way back from the blood-letting we stopped off at the Nasiriyah Museum of Civili Zation (sic). This was not my sort of museum really, as it was lacking in the most vital areas (gift shop, café) but did provide some interest by all the dates in the prehistory gallery being out by a factor of ten, someone having added an extra zero on the end of each, and by having a statue which looked exactly like the evil stone Zool dogs from Ghostbusters.

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