Category Archives: children

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

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Disney's Robin Hood: the first man I ever loved

Disney’s Robin Hood: the first man I ever loved

I’m drinking tea on my parent’s sofa reading my old John Constantine graphic novels, while receiving malevolent looks from my dad. I made him turn over from The One Show for the safety of both of us. I’ve been back in the UK for forty long hours now, though I made some of them go very fast by seeing Thor: The Dark World and drinking five pints of Cheshire Gap at the pub. The last week in Erbil was fairly packed. On site I completed The Megaplan (you can fit a lot of bricks in a 20m x 15m trench and now I know them all personally), my team won the Halloween quiz at the T Bar and were rewarded with lots of small, free, colourful drinks (which seemed like a good idea at the time), and I went to a refugee camp where we made life better for a bunch of Syrian children by making them watch Disney’s Robin Hood until they cried. I pretended to be amazing at Egyptian Arabic by translating the dubbed sound track back into English for my colleagues, while in fact simply recalling the script word for word having watched Robin Hood at least three hundred times between the ages of 7 and 28 (when the second DVD wore out).

Media mess: A late medieval wall proves to be the perfect buffet table

Media mess: A late medieval wall proves to be the perfect buffet table

We finished the season by holding a large press conference in the trench. I spent much of this hiding, and grinding my teeth as I watched members of the Kurdish press pulling bones out of the sections, scrambling over architecture in four inch heels, and using the ancient walls to put their drinks on. There was a thrilling minute during which a particularly fat cameraman stood on a section of wall supported only by optimism. I remained undecided as to whether the damage to the wall might be worth the sight of him breaking his legs in front of twenty TV cameras. I have since had to endure my colleagues sending endless YouTube clips of me looking shifty and irritable on various Kurdish satellite channels. I finally got paid (in cash). At first they wanted to pay me in Iraqi dinars but I had to point out that there wasn’t even nearly enough room in my luggage.

The Parthenon: still not finished

The Parthenon: still not finished

Because I haven’t suffered enough, instead of going home I went to a five day conference in Athens on Kurdish archaeology. When I say ‘went’, I mean I registered and then spent five days shopping and drinking wine in cafes. I dutifully went to the Parthenon, but was extremely careful to learn nothing whatsoever. Particularly memorable moments were the military museum (where I discovered that things haven’t gone so well for the Greek military since the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC) and seeing a dog run over by a taxi. I have changed plane in Istanbul airport nine times in the last twelve months and aim to never go there again.

Suffering in Belgium

What? What do you want from me?

What?? What do you want from me?

I’m currently in the thrilling metropolis of Brussels but instead of doing what comes naturally – eating chocolate and waffles and drinking beer out of silly little glasses – I’m doing my familial duty. My brother, in collaboration with his wife I believe, succeeded in producing a second baby in the autumn which I’ve so far managed to avoid meeting through constraints of time, poverty and enthusiasm about children. I find that identifying conversational topics of mutual interest is a challenge with the under-threes; I’m not really comfortable with kids until they’re about, say, twenty-eight or twenty-nine.

Things got off to an unpromising start. I spent a night in London on the way down, where I went drinking with the department of Egypt and Sudan from the British Museum which is always a recipe for messy endings. I then watched a woman in the uniform of the Household Cavalry sing the theme to Skyfall to her horse (later I was unsure if this really happened, but have since been assured that it did), saw the queen, ate a kebab and slept (for about forty minutes) on a friend’s floor before getting the 6:50am Eurostar. I tried to use the journey to catch up on some sleep but only succeeded in waking up miserable and hungover in three different countries in the same morning.

Retreat beating on Horseguard's Parade; so much better on four pints, I wonder if that's how the queen manages

Retreat beating on Horseguard’s Parade; so much better on four pints, I wonder if that’s how the queen copes?

Against expectations, my brother has generated two children who look and behave almost precisely like all other human children, although like almost all other human parents he can’t be convinced they don’t possess special traits and abilities worthy of constant comment. I’ve spent most of the weekend trying to change the subject and not to use too many swear words. I was unsuccessful in both these efforts, my only achievement being to give myself a headache by gritting my teeth for three days.

I brought a miniature tent from Cairo. If only it could be properly sound-proofed. And locked.

I brought a miniature tent from Cairo. If only it could be properly sound-proofed. And locked.

Back in the land of archaeology, my summer digging plans in Turkey are becoming increasingly jeopardised by all the protests. Demanding basic political rights is all very well but no one thinks of the foreign freelance archaeologists whose livelihoods are threatened as a result. The Egyptian revolution left me stuck for two weeks freezing my arse off in a one-star Cairo hotel ordering in from Subway, running out of DVDs and watching the tanks go round and round and who needs that again? Fortunately I’ve been offered eight weeks work digging a big hole in the middle of London instead if Turkey gets silly, which has the advantages of better access to sushi, pubs and West End theatre than is available in Turkish Kurdistan.

Death in the family

Our dead lady with a baby was buried with this necklace of happy little fish

The dead lady with a baby was buried with this necklace of happy little fish

Work in my area of the cemetery is acquiring a distinctly tragic aura as the season goes on. I’m currently excavating yet another multiple burial, this time containing two adolescents and a toddler; the last one had two young adults and a baby, and the one before was a woman and a new-born. “This is family?” asked our Egyptian inspector today, constituting her first ever insightful question (yesterday’s question was ‘what is a pottery?’, which was a bit too existential for my unorthodox grasp of Arabic to cover in the fullest sense). Indeed, is my pit-full-of-children the product of a single awful family tragedy? Well, personally I chose not to think about that sort of thing because it brings me down. I’ve instituted accent day at the Upper Site to keep things light; today we did Yorkshire (is tha’ a bairn in’t pit lass?), tomorrow we’re doing ridiculous French. Life goes on.

On the night of Margaret Thatchers death, the men of the village dance

On the night of Margaret Thatchers death, the men of the village dance

We have our own family ties at the excavation and last night we were invited to a party at the house of our driver; his father having been our driver before him. We took the precaution of strategic gin drinking before the event, so we were all properly disposed to entertain with our outrageous foreignness and willingness to hold people’s children and take photographs of strangers. There was a power cut during dinner, forcing us to eat our Nile fish in the dark, which, all Nilotic factors considered, is almost certainly the best way. I enjoyed the sufi dancing, even though the band’s sound system seemed to be vibrating the teeth out of my head. ‘Larger, brighter, louder’ is the cultural mantra of rural Egypt.

Wind and kids

On my 29th birthday I got this baby in a box

On my 29th birthday I got this baby in a box

We’ve had wind now for two days (in the metrological sense you understand) and everyone is very tired, and frustrated and thoroughly exfoliated. I’m digging next to my French colleague who punctuates the working day with “Uh, putain!” about once every twenty minutes as the wind sends another little avalanche of sand into the beautifully clean burial she’s trying to plan. I excavated a child today which is the most irritating sort of burial in these windy times, as there are more bones and they are extra small and easily blown away/misplaced/trodden on etc.

It’s somewhat disconcerting that I have more contact with dead children than live ones. They just aren’t the people I need to deal with on a day to day basis, and I find myself unwelcome around live children and their parents due to my foul mouth and inappropriate anecdotes. A dead-centric view of childhood is something which can be awkward around parents, for example, I pretend to remember how old my friend’s kids are by imagining how long they would be if they laid on the ground: “so Emma must be…” [about the same length as Individual 163 from last season, so] “…four now?”

My worryingly soft and hairy nephew

My worryingly un-solid (and hairy) nephew

I became an aunt very recently and all I can think of when I see my nephew is how very little of him is solid; babies are almost all flesh (and sick and compressed gasses). His pelvis is in six parts instead of two; how weird is that? Baby skeletons do nothing to dispel my association of pregnancy with the dinner table scene from Alien.

Quote of the day: “The wind blew my knee caps away.” – J on the woes of windy grave digging.