Category Archives: beer

The dark heart of summer

Oh what a long time since my last blog, but I’m always a bit lost in the Middle Eastern archaeology off-season. As I’m not digging I only have tangentially archaeological things to ramble on about, but there’s not much change there. Here’s a round-up of events:

At the end of April I went to Vienna for a week for the big biennial Near Eastern archaeology conference, where in time-honoured fashion I spent twice as much time in Viennese bierkellers as I did listening to academic papers. There was also a dreadful quantity of coffee and cake which had to be seen to. I gave a slightly sweaty paper about the work I’ve been doing in Erbil and had to answer a lot of difficult questions about what the hell I think I’m up to. I took one day off to go to the military museum and look at the tanks.

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Stoopid rules at the Austrian Military Museum

 

I don’t know what happened to May, there’s nothing in my diary. I spent the first part of June being unwell after over-exerting myself at the Cambridge Beer festival, which traditionally represents three or four days of systematically dismantling my immune system. I did a guest speaker turn at a New Zealand Women’s Association lunch in London, which went down surprisingly well after I decided to just stick to funny stories about landmines. I had to help my sister try on wedding dresses which is a horror I never thought I’d see in my lifetime.

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The sort of half-pints they were serving at the Cambridge Beer Festival

A hugely disabling factor over the last couple of months has been my becoming unhinged over the EU referendum. I love politics, especially nowadays when there’s hardly any proper sport on the BBC, but this one has totally fried my political loyalties, philosophical principles and logical reasoning. After weeks of mental anguish, a genuine feeling that I was losing the plot and an angry drunken rant in the pub to several EU nationals who work at the British Museum, I finally found a way of resolving the issue. On the solstice, by the light of the full moon, I went down to the bottom of the garden at midnight. Over the grave of a jackdaw I buried there eleven years ago I cut out a square of turf with a big kitchen knife. I took a large terracotta bowl containing flour and oats, laid my postal voting forms and propaganda leaflets from both sides on top and set fire to them. I mixed the hot ash with the flour and oats and stirred in fresh milk anticlockwise with a silver spoon until I had a warm dark-grey paste. I moulded this into the shape of a human heart (anatomical, not Hallmark) and buried it in the jackdaws grave before carefully replacing the turf (I bet some of you think I’m joking). It was enormously satisfying on some Dark Age level and made me feel much better.

(A, you can’t tell mum about this, I told her I voted Remain).

(FILES) This file photo taken on August

I simply cannot choose which side I despise the most, it’s like being asked if I’d rather have vomit or shit for dinner.

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Summer progress

Farewell to the potted kittens of Egypt and a return to the fussy elderly cats of Cheshire

Farewell to the potted kittens of Egypt and a return to the fussy elderly cats of Cheshire

There’s been quite a lot of time since I came back from Egypt. I’m not completely sure how much time now that I’ve slithered back into my rudderless UK life where every day is the same (apparently there was a bank holiday?). I think some of my time went missing in the week I went to the Cambridge Beer festival, which has added to the confusion. I also seem to have lost quite a lot of money and some of my short term memory at about the same time. The beer festival was part of my annual Summer Progress in which I sofa-hop from friend to friend, dragging them to various pubs to bore them rigid about archaeology and my ill-considered views on Middle Eastern politics. In turn, they tell me about their homes, jobs and children. This year’s progress took in London, Windsor, Ely, Cambridge, Bounds Green and Have I Got News For You? which was disappointingly hosted by Frank Skinner.

Palmyra in 2008. I mostly seem to have used a horse back then, presumably because I was too drunk or lazy to walk

Palmyra in 2008. I mostly seem to have used a horse back then, presumably because I was too lazy to walk

But woman cannot live on scones and pork scratchings alone and I’m now solidly back at my parents’ house, camped in the living room telling my dad he can’t watch Homes Under the Hammer. Luckily he doesn’t get most of my jokes about Dignitas. Of course, this also means I’ve been keeping up to date with the summer progress of Daash (Islamic State) across Syria and Iraq. I was particularly angry about Palmyra in Syria which holds some happy memories for me, having spent a short time there serving soup to German tourists as an indentured waitress in a small restaurant during a bizarre incident in 2008. It is (was?) a more than averagely magical place. I remember the restaurant owner’s father telling me stories about when the Germans and Vichy French occupied Palmyra during the Second World War; they were apparently very rude customers but stopped short of executing unarmed prisoners in the ancient amphitheatre. It really does take Daash to make the Nazis look like an alright bunch of blokes.

Dying light over the city of Palmyra

Dying light over the city of Palmyra

The fall of Palmyra to Daash also underlined something that I’ve long suspected; that a site being designated as a UNESCO world heritage site counts for piss all. The citadel of Erbil, where I’ve been working for a couple of years now, was given World Heritage status last year. Most of the Kurds I talked to thought this was great as they assumed it would open up UN money to improve and protect the site. ‘Ha ha!’ I would reply, ‘You think UNESCO are going to give you money?’ Instead of money, UNESCO give new World Heritage Sites a big long list of things they expect done if you want to keep your World Heritage status. In theory, UNESCO should supply guidance and expertise, but in practice UNESCO tends to employ (in my limited experience) well-meaning, ineffectual incompetents (no offence), who at best achieve nothing and at worst totally bugger things up. Other than money, World Heritage status is often assumed to imply some degree of international protection from harm. As has been profoundly demonstrated over the last year, the world won’t lift a finger to save its heritage. All we get are statements of condemnation, which only encourage Daash by telling them how upset we’ll all be if they destroy heritage sites. If we could convince Daash we don’t give a shit (which in practical terms the international community doesn’t) Daash wouldn’t waste the explosives. The World is rubbish.

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

Pillaging

The pig freezer

The pig freezer

I had bacon for breakfast this morning. Bacon and freshly ground Starbucks coffee. This surprising bounty came as the harvest of my new found favourite hobby; looting. My housemate and I were invited to come looting by friends who work at the airport. A foreign contractor had evacuated its staff during the incident (like Voldemort, people here don’t refer to IS’s August advance on Erbil directly, mostly so they don’t have to classify it with words that might make people unhappy, such as crisis, near-invasion, when most of my friends left me or the time I realised I wasn’t one of the people with an automatic seat on the last plane). They’d left at very short notice and under some stress and although the company had promised to ship them some of their possessions there was a strict upper weight limit. This left eighteen flats full of expat stuff, much of which could be given to Erbil’s many refugees, but much of which could not; specifically larger electrical items, frozen foodstuffs and alcohol. My housemate’s house was pretty empty, now the two of us have three tvs and four fridges. Being only a temporary inmate, I concentrated my efforts on the consumables, by which I mean meat, the sauces that go with meat, and booze.

I think this is doable in the next five weeks, right?

I think this is doable in the next five weeks, right?

The abandoned freezers produced an astonishing range of world foods, much of it in the form of huge quantities of lovingly curated pork, including tenderloin, gammon steaks, all manner of bacon, ham, sausages, and some kind of so far unidentified Icelandic flat-pack orange-coloured pork chops. There was also Californian fish, Honduran prawns, American hamburgers and steaks and steaks and steaks. And chips and Branston pickle. I also snaffled around 200 abandoned dvds, including at least six copies of Badboys II. Surprisingly none of them have so far turned out to be porn. The alcohol situation is frightening in its possibilities; in the corner of my room, where Kurdish visitors can’t see it, there is a tower of booze. I have four cases of beer (plus assorted others), two litres of rum, three bottles of bourbon, gin, whiskey, wine, Bacardi breezers and a bottle of saki. We are the most infidel infidel’s house in Erbil. If IS come for us I reckon we could drink ourselves to death before they break through our barricade of pork-filled freezers. I also feel I have gained experience which will prove useful after the apocalypse when the survivors will have to live by scavenging from the ruins of our decadent consumer world.

stairway to the underworld, or at least a hefty insurance claim

stairway to the underworld, or at least a hefty insurance claim

On site, things continue to be both dangerous and depressing. Due to lack of funds we’ve gone down to just two workmen to shift the spoil. We haven’t sacked anyone, they’ve agreed to all go down to one day per week on a rota meaning every day I have to explain what needs doing all over again. In the deepest part of the excavation, which I now need to record, we’ve come to the limits of all our sensible ladders. The workmen have instead produced an abomination in ladder form, probably made by one of their children as a school woodwork project, which is long enough but so clearly potentially lethal I’m surprised the teacher let him take it home. It’s full of knots and cracks, creeks ominously while in use and has the fresh sappy smell of utterly unseasoned wood. I’ve banned the heaviest Kurdish trainee from using it, partially because I’m afraid he’ll break it but also because he is the very last person I want to fall on me.

Poison

The Halabjah genocide: a true thing of horror

The Halabjah genocide: a true object of horror

On Thursday night I stayed up late and drank quite a lot of gin – L’s brothers had resupplied us with tonic water from Erbil in return for being allowed to sleep on the roof. On Friday morning, wearing my darkest sunglasses, we went to Halabjah to see the genocide memorial museum. This is my third season at this site and up until now Halabjah has figured only as a distant twinkling of lights on the hillside and as the nearest place from which it is possible to purchase (slightly over-priced) beer. The world knows Halabjah for other reasons; the worst ever chemical weapons attack directed against civilians was conducted here in 1988 by Saddam Hussein’s government. Up to 5,000 people died from a combination of mustard gas and nerve agents. After the town was retaken, the Iraqi army razed Halabjah to the ground with bulldozers and explosives.

Dead sheep diorama

Dead sheep diorama

The genocide memorial is an exceptionally ugly monument to an exceptionally ugly crime. Due to the destruction of the town, very few physical objects remain for the museum which is instead filled with the highly graphic photos taken by Iranian and international journalists in the days after the attack. Some of these are reconstructed in manikin dioramas, which are harrowing on several levels. People just dropped dead where they were, the animals died in the fields and birds fell dead from the sky. Many of the photographs showed children. Those with large families found it hardest to get out; they died together in heaps. When they hanged Saddam Hussein they sent a piece of the rope to Halabjah.

Some of the chemical shells dropped by the Iraqi airforce with a truck which was found full of bodies

Some of the chemical shells dropped by the Iraqi airforce with a truck which was found full of bodies

 

Lentil soup at the bottom of my trench

Lentil soup at the bottom of my trench

The week on site has been characterised by lentils. I’ve been digging out the first decent room fill we’ve found here; a good burnt one which all the specialists are disgustingly interested in, and the deeper I go the more lentily it gets. I’ve now reached a seam of almost pure, unadulterated lentils about a foot below the tops of the walls. In some ways it’s odd because there’s a similar lentil plague going on back at the house where we’ve now had lentil soup for lunch for six of the last seven days. This is beginning to seriously upset several team members’ state of mind, not to mention the state of the toilets. I began to wonder today whether I might have fallen into some sort of lentil-induced delirium and was self-generating lentils with the power of thought. Whether these are true lentils or just lentils of the mind, only the floatation residue results can tell. My current running hypothesis for this building is that someone burned down a Late Chalcolithic lentil soup shop; an act with which I entirely sympathise.

The sinister beings living in the house drains have finally been identified as Mole Crickets: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwu3CDmFg00

Welcome and unwelcome mice

We drag ourselves up the tell for a sunset can of beer

We drag ourselves up the tell for a sunset can of beer

I was awoken at five o’clock this morning by the merry sound of a mouse attempting to eat my mattress. Finding ourselves in a moment of mutual surprise, he proved the more fully conscious and vaulted my enormous pile of general mess to escape under the door of The Dungeon (this has a clearance at the bottom of several inches, presumably for the delivery of plates of porridge to inmates as well as to facilitate the passage of vermin). The remaining twenty minutes before my alarm went off were wasted in the detection of imaginary scratching noises in all corners of the room.

Sleepy pocket mouse

Sleepy pocket mouse

Work on site has been held up by several delays, chief among which is our entanglement with a two and a half metre long oven just below the plough zone, probably dating to the Uruk (4th Millennium BC). It’s turning out to be horribly deep and difficult, and today it spat out a complete bovine mandible in a final act of defiance. I sincerely cannot wait to smash it up with a hammer when this is all over. A more welcome and less time-consuming delay occurred at the end of last week involving mice. In a reversal of this morning’s incident, I rudely awoke a family of dormouse-like objects asleep in their own home by having one of my workmen cut a section through it, liberally distributing sleepy baby mice over trench G. Suppressing the workmen’s natural instinct to beat wildlife with shovels, L and I scooped up as many as we could find and put them in our pockets and then stored them in my hat for the rest of the day. Unsure of their future, we speculated about taking a couple back to the dig house to keep as pets (perhaps they could be trained to sort floatation heavy residue with their little hands?) but in the end we put them back in the hole in the section and the next day they were gone (optimistically retrieved by their mother, or less optimistically by a crow/cat/dog). I found that one of them had pissed in my hat.

Last week's baby mice: much preferable to this week's baby snakes

Last week’s baby mice: much preferable to this week’s baby snakes

In other news we had a fairly brown-trouser-inducing thunderstorm, which we spent sitting on the patio drinking beer. Yesterday we went to Sulaimanyah for residency cards and essential shopping. We bought beer, tonic water for all the gin and a shisha pipe to smoke at the house. I bought ten cans of diet coke and a bar of soap. Everyone was very happy.

We anger the gods with our heathen ways and constant complaining about the state of the shower

We anger the gods with our idolatrous hording of pottery and constant complaining about the state of the shower

Taking the cure

Look! the end: a farewell to Ur

Look! the end: a farewell to Ur

It’s about a week and a half since I got back from Iraq and I’m quite bored. Getting home wasn’t too bad all things considered. We spent our last night in a secure compound next to Basra airport where we ate non-tomato flavoured food, played pool, ran around in the air raid shelters and generally enjoyed being somewhere other than the dig house. I had a long, loving reunion with television, on which I watched Kung Fu Panda and the Welsh Open snooker final. The accommodation was in cabins reassuringly similar to my steel dragon back at Ur, although less reassuringly full of detailed instructions about what to do should the compound come under fire.

The highlight of Basra airport is a truly excellent souvenir shop which sells an extraordinary range of ugly plastic things at very reasonable prices for a captive environment. I bought my mother the traditional gift of a fridge magnet. The rest of the trip home was dominated by my attempts to fit maximum alcohol consumption into small windows of opportunity.

The wonders of Blast Shelter 2

The wonders of Blast Shelter 2

 

Return to the civilized world of cake and cathedrals and gin

Return to the civilized world of cake and cathedrals and gin

At my parent’s house I had a few hours sleep, put some of my clothes in a smaller bag and the rest in the washing machine and got a very slow train to Bath via much of Wales. Back in the dark, sober days of February I rented a Georgian house by Bath abbey in the middle of town for the weekend after Iraq in the interests of getting really quite drunk with some friends. This plan generally worked out very well and followed the rough course of drinking, eating, drinking, adventure golf, drinking, shopping, drinking, the theatre, drinking, going to the spa, drinking, taking the waters, drinking, drinking, crying, and drinking. I managed to break my friend T’s clay pipe by shutting the window on it, and I have sketchy memories of offering a bottle of beer to a confused busker.

Things since Bath have gone noticeably downhill; I spent this weekend losing £15 on the Grand National and watching the wrong university win the boat race. I watched Cross of Iron last night which put some of this into perspective. Besides, I’m going to the races at Newbury next weekend and I’m due some luck (that’s how it works right?).