Category Archives: Egypt

People packing

The dog helps by eating my shoes

The dog helps by eating my shoes

Blog writing time is getting seriously hard to come by at this end of the season. We’ve all become caught in a circle of paperwork hell; the one reserved for banking fraud and mildly hazardous school field trips. This is mostly due to the unusual number of multiple burials we’re finding, which multiplies the paperwork by a factor of however many dead people there are. A five-man stack is no longer considered unusual, triggering a formageddon of unit sheets, skeleton sheets, burial description sheets and textile and matting sheets. We’re sheeting ourselves to death right now (you see what I did there). Today I broke my toe jumping up the stairs going back to the office for yet another form; it’s a dangerous business.

We’re all finding different ways of coping with the pressure. C has started skipping site breakfast, M and A get up at 5am to fit in some early morning sheets. Gin. Personally I’ve started packing my dead people into the bread trays in elaborate and artistic ways as a gratuitous waste of time I don’t have. I like the way the ribs make sort of wings and the way shoulder blades look like pig’s ears. I think I might be getting a bit peculiar.

I call this one Boy in Box

I call this one Boy in Box

Teenager in Tray

Teenager in Tray

Asymmetric Adolescent

Asymmetric Adolescent

The others might be cracking too; the excavation team is troubled by fretful archaeological dreams. M had a very standard cemetery excavation dream in which the sides of her improbably deep grave collapsed on top of her, pressing her against the withered flesh at the bottom in a powdery embrace. S had another form of paranoia dream in which a tsunami of water poured off the high desert into the cemetery wadi, forcing us to all climb the cliffs to try and save ourselves. I put this one down to the fact that the workmen play the theme to Titanic by Celine Dion on their phones all the time. They love Titanic in Egypt, as there is no cultural concept of repulsive soppiness. G’s dream was probably the most telling – she dreamed that if only M could dig deep enough, she could pull the plug and all the sand would drain out through the enormous sieve which underlies the cemetery. All the bodies would be left in the bottom of the sieve and we’d just have to go along and collect them up. I dreamed that we were all replaced by cheaper, more efficient Chinese archaeologists.

The embarrassment of losing one's pants

The embarrassment of losing one’s underclothes

The other crisis in my archaeological life is my unsustainable loss of underwear in the communal wash. I came with ten pairs of pants, I’m now down to three; the pair I put in the wash today, the pair I hope to find in the clean wash tomorrow and the pair I’m wearing about my person. I’m one pair of pants away from commando archaeology and not in the good sense. I’m dogged by the question of who’s wearing my pants?

Up river, down river

The dead dog which reclines in the entrance to the Small Aten Temple, whose situation cannot be directly linked to the activities of the Hello Kids

The dead dog which reclines in the entrance to the Small Aten Temple, whose situation cannot be directly linked to the activities of the Hello Kids

The excavation season is flying by. The Hello Kids who chase us through the village every day have moved through their phases of ‘hallo, hallo’, on to ‘what’s your name?’ to ‘money, money’ and by this Thursday they were insulting the virtue of our mothers. I saw them testing out catapults by the small temple this morning so perhaps it’s a good thing the season isn’t longer. I’m also becoming an increasingly severe threat to the safety of myself and others; in the last week I’ve fallen down a grave, cut my foot, seriously bruised myself without noticing how and thrown a very large rock at the workmen. The latter happened at the end of a hard digging day and was the result of a very tired attempt to throw a rock out of my grave. I sort of hooked it high and it plopped down right between the sieve man and the wheel barrow guy who were playing with their phones. Work proceeded somewhat faster for the next two days.

Some local people who wanted to spend Friday on the other side of the river

Some local people who wanted to spend Friday on the other side of the river

Following up on last week’s resolution to stem the tide of ancient anatomical horror, this post will not be about the haggard human parts we’re stacking up at the back of the work room. Suffice it to say that the current theme is eyelids and arseholes (really, like a turkey at Christmas). Instead I will fall back on happier thoughts and pleasanter sights. On Friday we hired a boat to take us on a trip down the Nile to an island for lunch and back. In fact we hired the village ferry, much to the annoyance of quite a few people who wanted to cross the river. We left them disconsolate on the bank, all but one old man who hadn’t got the message and had to be returned to shore by the cops in their cop boat. We had a lovely riverine day of reeds and fishing boats and surprising people who had gone down to the river bank to go to the toilet. It was a good way of washing out the Thursday night hangover and the Thursday night movie (Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell, which is a timeless classic of the ‘movies that seem good after eight gin and tonics’ genre).

The dig house puppies getting over their Thursday night

The dig house puppies getting over their Thursday night

Today on site we said goodbye to our trainee inspectors. They surprised the project director A with a gift of an enormous portrait of herself produced by a local artist based on photos they’d found of her on Facebook. A couldn’t have looked happier if they’d baked her a cake made of shit. Excavation directorship is a heavy burden, which includes holding it together while your insides shrivel with excruciating misery. The inspector team has been good value this season, the finest moment coming when one of my colleagues, R, retired to the tent with a severely upset stomach to wait for a ride home. He found the head inspector already there and fully qualified in Egyptian medical nonsense. First the inspector fed R very sweet tea, then encouraged him to jump up and down (which R declined to do, fearing an unfortunate trouser event). The inspector finally placed his hands on R’s stomach and prayed for several minutes, at which point R was rescued by the arrival of our driver. Local wisdom here prescribes that if you are hot and thirsty you should never, ever, drink water.

River life, Middle Egypt

River life, Middle Egypt

Awkward social interactions

After last week’s slightly harrowing description of excavating dead Egyptians’ hair and feet, I had planned to do a less stomach-churning subject for this post; maybe something about the kittens or Saturday’s party or the lovely new beds at the dig house. But themes are dictated by events and this has been a week of unremitting anatomical horror so instead of being deflected onto parties and kittens I’m going to move on from hair and feet to faces and bums and hope that none of you are eating lunch.

Er, hello. And what do you do?

You looking at me?

It really doesn’t help with well-preserved people when they’ve been interfered with by (previous) grave robbers. Good tissue survival turns disarticulation into dismemberment, leaving burials that look like they died at the hands of an axe murderer or in an accident with farm machinary. On Sunday the burial I was digging had mummified forearms and hands which had been tossed across each other in an attitude of elegant supplication. The skull was face-down at the other end of the grave covered in a tangle of hair, which is fine and dandy at my current level of desensitisation, but when I turned it over it was all covered in face; like eyes and ears and noses, and I realised I’d put my thumb through the cheek. She had one eye open, I don’t like it when they can look at me back. I looked at her and she looked at me and she didn’t look very pleased. I put the head in a box and then went to find some hand sanitiser.

I lost my nerve on the ethical issues surrounding posting a picture of a dead child's mummified bum, so here's my artistic impression, which in the business we call a plan at 1:20

I lost my nerve on the ethical issues surrounding posting a picture of a dead child’s mummified bum, so here’s my artistic impression, which in the business we call a plan at 1:10

My mid-week burial was another disturbed juvenile. The first thing I found were curled, dry toes, which with my moderate foot phobia initiated a feeling of disquiet. The toes developed into feet, then legs and onwards like a grizzly slow motion strip show, climaxing in a sunken, leathery bottom. The horror ended abruptly at the second lumbar vertebra; the upper parts of the person were in fact lying disarticulated under the mummified lower half, which had been thrown on top of them. The skull had come to rest between the thighs of its owner, the face pressed eternally into its own crotch. When I removed it, the skull, although not generally mummified, had retained one rather surprised eyebrow.

After finding a long enough board, my colleague S helped me to lift the mummified section out of the grave, watched over by our Egyptian antiquities inspector. The first thing he asked was ‘This is man or woman?’ After spending several seconds wondering if there was another way, I had a half-hearted attempt at investigating this in the most direct fashion but gave it up when I noticed the workmen tittering at me from the next square.

‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘I’ll ask the anthropologist.’

As some kind of antidote, here’s a picture of this year’s crop of eye-wateringly lovely kittens:IMGP0072small

Digging deep in Egypt

Ancient city vs modern villages: a fight to the death

Ancient city vs modern villages: a fight to the death

They say six feet under is the optimum depth for burying bodies. I can positively state, however, that this is not the optimum depth from which to unbury them. Our first few graves at the new cemetery have been a bit more challenging than anticipated, due to them being deeper than we can climb out of and narrower than we can fit into.

An untidy landing means I may have to settle for the bronze

An untidy landing means I may have to settle for the bronze

My first catch of the season was a fine example, being 1.25m deep, 29cm wide and containing two well-mixed teenagers. There are interesting practical issues associated with excavating a 29cm wide grave when you have 31cm wide hips. Most solutions involve being firmly wedged and suffering a great deal of indignity and back pain. Then there’s the getting in and out. Having reasonable upper body strength I model my dismount on the parallel bars; with a hand each side of the grave cut and a good accurate jump I can get my arse over the top and then roll. Other colleagues have to have their workmen drag them out by the arms. Getting in is more like a pommel horse dismount; pushing off one side, you have to twist sideways in the air to avoid becoming wedged at the hips and land neatly in a gap between the bones. Marks are deducted for taking a step on landing, especially for stepping on a skull or get bone shards stuck through your feet.

Hairy grave horror

Hairy grave horror

The landing gap in the bones of my first burial was not in fact empty but instead full of a huge clump of plaited hair. This is not my favourite element of the graves here. I don’t know if you’ve ever pulled handfuls of three-and-a-half thousand year old dead human hair out of compacted sand and gravel, perhaps you have, but I can tell you that it’s not as lovely as you might think. On an emotional level, it’s very similar to unblocking the plug hole in someone else’s shower. At the central part of the cemetery all the bodies have mummified feet, which is about the only thing I’d like less than all the hair. I find living human feet somewhat stomach churning so papery dead feet with blackened toenails are about where I draw the line and call for a paper bag. Give me dried eyeballs and dead man’s pubes any day.

Dead Egyptian feet; enough to put me off my breakfast

Dead Egyptian feet; enough to put me off my breakfast

To add to the physical and psychological discomfort, and the corpse dust, it gets revoltingly hot and sticky down in the deep graves. This is possibly because the breeze can’t reach us, but more probably because we’re getting close to hell.

Places of burial

Another unnecessarily picturesque spot in which ancient Egyptians buried their dead people

Another unnecessarily picturesque spot in which ancient Egyptians buried their dead people

I’m out in Middle Egypt and back to looking for dead people to disturb. I had a weary time getting to Cairo via three delayed flights and an unplanned visit to Geneva, which looked very nice from what I could see as I ran through the airport. I also suffered the most invasive and thorough pat-down I’ve ever experienced (and I’ve had some crackers) from an expressionless German security woman in Frankfurt. They lost my bags, natürlich. Thanks Lufthansa, you’re on a roll.

We’ve started excavation at a brand spanking new cemetery, untouched by the hands of archaeologists, although thoroughly pawed by the hands of 3000 years’ worth of Egyptian looters. After three days of digging I’ve found absolutely nothing but gravel, but the view is lovely. I’ve been assigned my old crew of elderly workmen who have now been moving very small amounts of sand for me as inefficiently as possible for almost ten years, on and off. When I ask my head trowel man if we can go a little faster he smiles at me and lights another cigarette.


The extraordinary dynamism of the Near Site excavation team

In my ten days between coming back from Iraq and flying out here I sewed a regency period dress and had a rubbish birthday. As all my birthday plans fell through, and my twin sister was in Chile posting smug facebook status updates, I ended up going to Chester with my mother and then drinking six pints at the pub. I consoled myself a little two days later by going to Leicester to meet up with an old friend, drink, gossip and see Richard III’s new tomb in the cathedral.

Richard III's tomb. Just the right height for a nice little sit down

Richard III’s tomb. Just the right height for a nice little sit down

Poor old Richard III. I know that on the balance of evidence he probably wasn’t a very nice man, and he probably did kill those kids, but I don’t think he deserved to be buried in Britain’s most underwhelming cathedral in a tomb that looks like a bench. But Leicester council are clearly keen to make the most of what they see as a tourist attraction and have invested in a shiny visitor’s centre and covered the town with ‘Welcome home Richard III’ banners; by which I assume that Leicester council considers ‘home’ to be a place to which one is dragged by one’s enemies, horribly mutilated and buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. Richard might be fuming away in whatever afterlife is reserved for mediocre, slightly evil English kings, and looking longingly through brochures for York Minster and Westminster Abbey, but Leicester city council are doing a roaring trade in fridge magnets and commemorative mugs so at least someone’s happy. As we tell archaeology undergraduates in their introduction to burial practices, funerals are for the living not the dead.

I'm sure Richard III would be delighted that the high street shoe shops of Leicester welcome him to his new home

I’m sure Richard III would be delighted that the shoe shops of Leicester welcome him to his new home

The world according to Woolley

I’ve been giving the blog a bit of a rest, firstly because I haven’t been digging, but mostly because I’ve been trying to avoid going back to my parents’ because I don’t really like it there. I’ve spent the last week or so in a cabin in the woods in southern Sweden where I woke up shouting twice and ate a lot of fish. The week before that I spent drunk in a 13th Century priory on the Somerset coast, taking remarkably long baths and drinking tea with this horse:

The horse at the bottom of the garden, who had a lot of free time and an interesting perspective on the dissolution of the monestaries

The horse at the bottom of the garden, who had a lot of free time and an interesting perspective on the dissolution of the monasteries

Delightful though all this has been, this itinerary has adversely affected my access to reliable internet.

My one vaguely archaeological activity has been reading ‘Dead Towns and Living Men’; a book written in 1918 by the young Leonard Woolley while he was a prisoner of The Turk (he never specifies which one) having been caught spying (like all respectable archaeologists during the Great War. The book isn’t so much about the archaeology as the hilarious local shenanigans (deadly tribal warfare) that went on in the background. In this, it’s very much like Digging Up Old Stuff in Hot Places, except with better grammar and a huge amount of racism.

Woolley and his chum Lawrence of Arabia totally pulling off a bit of Edwardian sports casual

Woolley and his chum Lawrence of Arabia totally pulling off a bit of Edwardian sports casual

Things were certainly a bit different back when Britain had an empire and archaeologists wore pith helmets in a non-ironic way. Over the last month or so the project I’m about to go and work for in Turkey has been hanging on and on for our permit to be signed in Ankara. Woolley’s standard approach to any such bureaucratic difficulty was to take out his revolver and threaten to shoot the official in question (an approach which I understand is now frowned upon by the British Museum). The universal success of this tactic seems to have hinged partly on Woolley’s supreme confidence that no oriental would dare to shoot an English gentleman and partly on the supreme inefficiency of the Ottoman Empire at shooting people who deserved it. These barriers apparently did not extend to the German railway engineers across the valley, who could be shot with impunity.

‘Dead Towns and Living Men’ is also punctuated with Woolley’s insightful descriptions of the various peoples he worked with, which consist of a series of sweeping derogatory statements covering the Egyptians, Sudanese, Italians, Bulgarians, Arabs, Kurds, Turks and Germans. Woolley describes the Egyptians as being unable to understand the concept of truth. The Germans are basically evil. He tells several lengthy anecdotes about the ‘child-like simplicity’ of the Sudanese, including one in which he explains to a Sudanese workman how there was nothing disrespectful at all about a British officer addressing him as ‘Sambo’. The N-word occurs. Despite describing the Kurds as thieves, drunks, atheists, money-grabbers and undergraduates, he seems to like them best as they are also sportsmen.

I will leave you with this short extract showing Woolley’s diplomatic skills, in which he attempts to talk the local Kurdish sheikhs out of attacking the French garrison, and thereby disrupting his digging of unimaginably large holes in ancient Carchemish:

“Tell me, oh sheikhs, for whom do you do this thing?”

“For the Turks.”

“I serve the British Museum, and work for archaeology, which is knowledge. Which is greater, the British Museum or the empire of the Turks?”

“W’Allah, the British Museum!”  replied the sheikhs.

“And which is greater, liberty or knowledge?”

“Knowledge is greater.”

“Therefore my work must go on and yours must stop.”

I sometimes wonder if Leonard Woolley wasn’t just a massive liar.

In other news, I’ve managed to bruise both my shins on a helicopter, and hit my head on an aeroplane in unrelated incidents. It’s late July, there’s a heat-wave in England, I’m booking my flights to the 45°C oven of south-eastern Turkey, and grandma has made me mittens. Thanks gran.

Winter is coming (eventually I guess). Elderly Swedish women are unstoppable knitting machines.

Winter is coming (eventually I guess). Elderly Swedish women are unstoppable knitting machines.

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.

Quick change act

"Where's episode 4 Mr Teijens?" "She's bloody well left us in Egypt Miss Wannop."

“Where’s episode 4 Mr Teijens?” “She’s bloody well left us in Egypt Miss Wannop.”

Everything is finally repacked in a bag I haven’t tried lifting yet and I’m off to Iraq. In my 48 hours in the UK I’ve washed almost every item of clothing I own, applied for a post-doctoral research fellowship, been to the dentist and eaten an extraordinary amount of meat. The packing process hasn’t gone totally smoothly as I appear to have left my case of DVDs in Egypt; how am I supposed to cope when I still have two episodes of Parade’s End left? And it contains all eight disks of Evangelion, and most of my superhero films. I’m left with the dregs of my DVD collection – Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, some old episodes of Hornblower and series 2 of Blake’s 7. It’s going to be a long old season. I’ve assembled an ambitiously intellectual range of books, mostly the ones I didn’t read in Egypt because I couldn’t be bothered with them and borrowed Harry Potter 6 and 7 from the dig house library.

The emptying of bags and shoes: if I save, one day I'll have enough for a desert of my own

The emptying of bags and shoes: if I save, one day I’ll have enough for a desert of my own

My parents have been very understanding about me arriving, throwing all my possessions over the floor, filling the washing machine with sand, filth and misplaced artefacts, eating everything in the fridge and demanding that we don’t watch The One Show. But then, they had a lot of practice all those years I was a student. My dad gave me £100 when he saw the state of my clothes; this is really quite embarrassing when one is over thirty (but not so embarrassing that I didn’t take it and buy some socks with only the hole that you put your foot in).

I also bought my sixth watch of the year and replaced another defeated sand-filled camera. The recently deceased camera made it over the 12 month mark which counts as a good innings in my tender care. I shouldn’t be given nice things. A fresh victim was delivered this morning thanks to Amazon’s one day delivery.

The glorious dream of bacon

The glorious dream of bacon

I don’t want to go back to the airport, I didn’t like it there.

The nail in the coffin

Bandits: not as much fun as I'd been led to believe.

Bandits: not as much fun as I’d been led to believe.

I’ve just arrived back in Crewe, where me and dad are watching the snooker while I work my way through all the pork products in the fridge. I left site yesterday morning, although that feels like quite an abstract statement as there hasn’t really been any sleeping since then. The dig director tells me that work at the site was disrupted today by banditry, which goes to show how quickly things fall apart once I’m gone. This particular bit of banditry was the work of Omar The Bandit, who is a famous local ‘character’ (violent armed criminal) who, as well as stealing things, killing people and building his own village, also blew up one of our ancient boundary stelae with dynamite a few years ago. I have no real thoughts on the crime, but I wish he’d leave the antiquities alone.

Taking a (not quite) solitary moment

Taking a (not quite) solitary moment

It was with a heavy heart I quitted the cemetery this time because, as things stand, this is our final season of excavation. It was a younger, less grizzled me, with higher ideals and better liver function, who started the cemetery site way back in 2006, and many human bodies and bottles of Bombay Sapphire have passed through my hands in the intervening years. On my last day I took a little walk up above the site, sat down in the sand and listened to some sad music on my ipod. Then I realised one of the workmen was going to the toilet in the next gully which slightly spoiled the moment.

I had a pretty good evening in Cairo, involving burger, pizza, smoking, shopping and watching Egyptians fighting. I bought a little tent. I had a frankly terrifying late night taxi ride to the airport, for which an hour is usually allowed; my driver Mohammed did it in under twenty minutes, hitting 125kph down the Heliopolis road and managing to scrape at least one bumper. I thought about saying something but realised my British fear of social confrontation is greater than my fear of a messy, pointless death. At the airport I found a human finger bone in my rucksack – there must have been a hole in one of the finds bags. Not wishing to illegally export ancient remains, I put it in the bin.

Quote of the season:

“I thought it meant ‘I’m fine’ in Arabic, then I realised it was a word from Avatar.”         –          J– the conservator 

The thieving BBC

Treasure: Scaraboid indicating

Treasure: Scaraboid commemorating an attack of lizards and giant mosquitoes on the people of Egypt. There’s a movie in there somewhere.

As the site is moderately famous is the world of archaeology, we have TV crews coming to film here on a fairly regular basis. Yesterday the BBC came to film on site for a new series about ancient Egyptian art. I had a terrible fear that the presenter might be Dan Cruikshank, who I would have struggled to not punch in the face, but it turned out to be that nice boy who did that Treasures of Ancient Rome series. I put the violence on hold, wiped the bits of dead person off my face and tried to check my hair was okay in the shiny side of the sieve. I happened to have a lovely triple burial just ready for them, and I even managed to find some treasure I could pretend to find again when they showed up. I watched them all striding around at the Middle Site for two hours, but the end of the day came without them making the two minute walk up to us.



Three's a crowd.

Three’s a crowd.

This isn’t the first time; the last film crew we had at the cemetery back in 2010 filmed for two days at the mouth of the wadi without ever bothering to come and see my end of the site. I can only assume media types are lazy (selfish bastards, not that I’m bitter). At least the 2010 crew had a ruggedly handsome German director who bought me flowers from Cairo on my birthday, which makes up for neglect in other matters. All Alastair Sooke from the BBC did was complain about our toilets and steal our best mugs after I graciously made him some coffee he didn’t deserve. I suppose I should expect that sort of sense of entitlement from someone who works for the Telegraph. Alastair Sooke; don’t trust him with your crockery.

So, I suppose I’ll have to wait again for my fifteen minutes of fame, which I still think is most likely to come by being found dead in a ditch outside a pub. Or by punching a television presenter.

Our best giraffe-shaped mug (artist's impression), stolen by a lying BBC presenter.

Our best giraffe-shaped mug (artist’s impression), stolen by a lying BBC presenter.