Those of you who this evening will sink into a warm bath, or who will go to the toilet and flush (or at least have the option), spare a thought for we poor souls who have left such a life behind and are forced to wander in insanitary places.
The offending article, nesting in the northwest corner of grave 15156
As I was drawing a churned up triple adult burial today, a little bundle of tissue paper came dancing towards us on the wind. It tumbled through our dig equipment and work bags, bounced along the trench edge catching at the planning strings, before falling through the lines of my planning frame and coming to rest against skull 316. On peering down into the grave it became dreadfully apparent that this particular object had been used to wipe someone’s bottom (someone with less than healthy digestion, I might add). It was with great difficulty that this nomadic disease vector was persuaded to continue its journey downwind, having found such a perfect niche for itself.
Sanitation and the proper disposal of rubbish are always difficult on excavation. I’ve worked on projects where I’ve had to fetch freezing water from a well to wash, or to bathe in a fast-flowing river (in which I almost drowned), or out of a bucket of Nile water in a pitch black room full of spiders. I may now have seen it all in terms of toilets, although I will spare you the details in this department; it suffices to say that the use of a long stick has often been necessary. Our current toilets here are wooden seats with a good long drop underneath. They emit a surprising amount of heat, among other things. Life on excavation isn’t always biologically sound, but it does change your perspective on filth and encourages a robust immune system. When the next plague comes, the archaeologists will ride it out.
Looking south up the Nile, wondering if our legs will ever be the same
Leisure activities aren’t always easy to find on excavation, but following the long tradition of deranged European visitors to hot, rugged lands, it is always possible to entertain each other and the local villagers by dragging oneself up a mountain for no good reason. This we did yesterday. The climb up to the high desert isn’t exactly the north face of The Eiger, but it’s possible to make it more of a challenge by drinking beer all afternoon, wearing inappropriate shoes and being totally ignorant of the terrain. Luggage and impossibly tight jeans have also been tried to good effect. I played my part by taking an experimental route and eventually becoming submerged up to my knees in limestone gravel, resulting in much healthful exercise. Never the less, we made it to the top in good spirits, except perhaps for our Egyptian driver who promptly dropped to his knees and vomited.
Be prepared, is the motto of the drinking archaeologist. You don’t want to get confused when one of the bottles contains a litre and a half of gin and tonic.
After admiring the view and removing all the gravel from my trainers, pockets and underwear, we made a safe return to the valley floor. The driver’s ten-year-old nephew was not so lucky, becoming for some time lodged on a precarious gravel slope having lost both his flip-flops. His uncle watched with mild interest from the bottom of the cliff, presumably taking the view that this was an issue of natural selection rather than adult supervision.
We set up our picnic in the ruins of the 1930’s excavation dig house to watch the sun set over the Nile. Drinking in public is frowned upon in rural Egypt, but thankfully gin and tonic is clear and, being foreigners, we’re almost always carrying water bottles. Our policemen ate the deep-fried burgers and cola we gave them and let the strong smell of alcohol pass unmentioned. We eventually went home where we spent the evening burning holes in the carpet and each other while smoking an unwise quantity of cherry tobacco. I have finally learned to blow smoke rings and can now die happy, probably of lung cancer, knowing I have lived a life of note.
Deep-fried local burger. We optimistically believe this is camel meat, but who can say where the truth lies?
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
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.
Ancient Egyptian bling: 3,400 years old and good as new
Yesterday I found this faience ring. Isn’t it nice. The previous owner had been very badly messed about but his two femurs were thrown over each other and happily hid the ring between his thighs, still stuck on a finger bone.
I’ve been having a great deal of trouble with watches recently. They just keep stopping on me with no obvious reason that watch repairers can find. This has coincided with an increase in the number of static shocks I’ve been receiving from objects, persons and animals, and a new found ability to trigger the security alarms in shops. I wish I had better superpowers. Anyway, after only four weeks my most recent watch stopped on Monday so I put in an order for a replacement from the closest Egyptian town. This arrived yesterday.
My new watch: breaking new ground in the field of shit
The simultaneous acquisition of the ancient ring and my new watch started me thinking about the progress (or otherwise) of mankind and his arts. The ring is a beautiful object, made with care and skill, and has so far survived for three and a half thousand years in almost pristine condition. My new watch is one of the ugliest objects conceived by the minds of men, made from plastic and misery by a Chinese sweatshop worker in between suicide attempts. In terms of size, weight and functionality it’s a considerable step backwards from Fred’s stone sundial wristwatch in The Flintstones. The dig director, between fits of laughter, took it out of the packaging and tried to show me how nice it was by putting it on, prompting the strap to instantly fall off. Experimental pressing of the buttons failed to make it do anything as useful as telling the time, and after five minutes it ceased to do anything whatsoever. I think I will nail it to the office wall as a warning to the future about where we are heading.
I am left to marvel at the lost knowledge of the ancients, and learn to tell the time by counting in my head. We live in a base age. One elephant, two elephants, three elephants…
Still working: checking the ring for continued functionality
Double tweezers: hairy ladies were not cool in the New Kingdom
Today I removed my first customer from their immortal rest. It appears to be a very large woman, buried with two pairs of tweezers suggesting a great pre-occupation with hair removal. I personally enjoy the opportunities on excavation to let things go in this department and return to the planet of the apes. Within reason of course.
Much of my time in this first week of the dig has been devoted to the destruction of small green flying insects which live in my room and bite me in neat rows along my larger surface veins. By Monday I was looking very much like a vampire’s breakfast having been mostly attacked at the neck and wrists. My first move was to change the blanket under the assumption of flea infestation (the cats, alas, are still very much with us) but this had no effect. On spotting the little green flying bastards I changed my strategy to an aerial-delivery chemical offensive involving a can of Egyptian fly spray and miss placed optimism. True to form, the Egyptian fly spray mostly ran down my arm, made me slightly sick with similar effects to those of Mustard gas (with which I am now familiar) and failed to kill the offending wildlife.
Dirty bomb: Egyptian fly spray
No one takes an interest in killing wildlife quite like Americans so my next move was to consult an American colleague as to how she was destroying the ecosystem in her room. She kindly furnished me with a can of the finest American broad-spectrum poison and I set to work. After applying liberally to my room I retired for an hour and returned to find it nigh-crunchy under foot. I am this morning free from new bites and the only noticeable side effects so far have been a very disturbing dystopian dream about Oxfordshire County Council, which I definitely don’t think I’d have come up with without some chemical stimulus. There is a cost to all wars whether won or lost.
I lie incapable in my hotel bed, being rejected for jobs and eating a dinner of Fanta and cheese Doritos
Today finds me in a budget hotel in Cairo feeling very crappy. I flew in last night from Manchester via Frankfort. During the second leg I sat next to a German girl who had the amusing habit of tearing a sheet of her enormous German newspaper in half next to my ear every time I was in danger of falling asleep. When she wasn’t doing this she was talking loudly to herself and throwing her salad at me. Having not slept for two nights and having a fever, I didn’t wholly appreciate her efforts, but I comfort myself with the thought that she might now also be unwell.
My preparation for going back to Egypt, as you may have guessed hasn’t been ideal. I went down to Oxford for a week to stay with my sister as it was our mutual birthday. This coincided with the start of the strange sub-zero cold snap that’s happening in Britain, meaning that I spent most of the week cold and drunk.
how to save money on shoes
By Monday night I was feeling too ill to sleep but still had to get up at 6am to go and learn about conventional and unconventional weaponry in London. I can’t pretend this wasn’t interesting; the tutors were a former Met police officer who’d worked on the Alexander Litvinenko case and talked affectionately of the poisoned bodies he had known, and a former SAS explosives expert who told us all about how bombs work and what happens when they do. He showed us videos of people doing it wrong and went pink in the cheeks when he talked about fuses. I learned that landmines are Bad, and that if I am exposed to mustard gas I should drink milk and take my clothes off. Anyway, it would all have been better if I could have been tucked up in bed instead of sitting in a freezing cold classroom.
how I walk now
Feeling by now very unwell, I took an evening train back to my parents where I picked up my stuff for Egypt, failed to sleep and went to the airport. I don’t feel shivery anymore, which is a good sign (unless it’s hypothermia), but all the horribleness seems to have congregated in my throat so talking and swallowing are messy. Another serious cause of unhappiness is the horse riding me and my sister did as a birthday treat on Monday, which is leaving me increasingly crippled as the week goes on. I did a lot of the lesson at the canter without stirrups; today I think my hips surely must be broken. Basically I feel like I’ve had my throat cut, been hit on the head and then beaten up.
I realise none of this has anything to do with archaeology. I’m off to cry over my broken body and have another sleep.
Our conservator after trying to consolidate this coffin for six days. I shall never forget the howl of misery with which she blessed its collapse when we tried to remove it.
Like all dutiful (single) archaeologists I have returned home to my parents for Christmas. The end of the season was pretty busy and tiring, although largely because we kept staying up late to get to the end of the dvd of Our Mutual Friend (BBC, 1998). We managed, in the end, to watch three period dramas, dig up nearly a hundred dead people, send only two team members to the doctor, and give one of our conservators a real life nervous breakdown, so a good season all round.
I’m suffering the usual amount of culture shock. It hasn’t stopped raining since the plane broke through the clouds over Manchester airport, my mother took me straight to a carol service in the local medieval church where I felt odd and then fell asleep, and I’m only now starting to remember that toilets have a flush after two months of throwing the paper down a big hole and walking away.
Dreary rain at Manchester
I’ve been at home now for a whole day during which I’ve attempted to eat my body weight in pork. I bought a quantity of large German sausages and a jar of mustard on my way through Frankfurt airport, only to find 6kg of ham at home due to my parents making a happy error in their christmas meat order. I’ve also had to engage in some highly unsuccessful Christmas shopping – my parents made me promise some years ago that I would desist from buying them any more presents in Middle Eastern souqs. Apparently my mother considers there to be a limit to the number of scarves a person can usefully own. I hope she likes tea towels. I have already presented her with my traditional christmas gift of a large bag full of dirty clothes and sand.
My last find of the season; some mashed up painted coffin bits
This may be my last post for a little bit. I was supposed to be digging in Iraq after new year but there’s been a delay over the security arrangements (quelle surprise) leaving me stuck at home for most of January, digging up nothing but a new overdraft in a very very very wet place.
Doodoo and Oy (who are gay lovers), discovered in the clean washing
It’s now gone very cold here and I’m wearing more socks than I can comfortably fit in my shoes. Cold doesn’t last very long in Middle Egypt and the locals seems to act as if surprised and slightly betrayed. Galibiyas are horrible drafty things. This morning I was first into the kitchen for breakfast and found two of the dig house cats sleeping in the clean washing box. The little monsters will do anything to get inside; I keep finding them hiding in the shower, to our mutual surprise. I can hear them scratching at the door from the roof as I write this.
The workmen, in the spirit of Captain Scott, accept their fate and wait for the end.
The workmen are just as bad. In the morning they huddle together with a wild look in their eyes as if the world has gone mad and there’s nothing to do but wait for icy death. No one was laughing, however, when it was found that the thermos flasks hadn’t made it to site and we couldn’t make instant noodles. This was especially galling as we’d been down to only chicken flavour for the last week but had been re-supplied that morning with beef. I cried inwardly over my unopened beefy breakfast.
One of our many mysteries was solved today; the disappearance of all the sheets. My Australian colleague J- confessed at dinner that she has finally taken a blanket from the stores as it’s got so cold. We all gaped in astonishment (we all know D- has been under five blankets for the last week and would have taken more if the extra weight wasn’t a risk to life). It seems J- has been unwilling to take her turn in the flea-infestation-blanket-lottery and has instead been adding extra sheets to stave off hypothermia. We find, in fact, that she has fifteen sheets on her bed, not counting the one she sleeps on top of. As A- commented, “sometimes I think I’m a bit strange, and then I go and excavate with people.”
and a further mystery: how did I take this picture of my bony gloves? I now mostly use my laptop for warmth.
The mystery of dinner is also about to be solved with what appears to be potato pizza.
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 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.
Excavatus! My workmen making sand disappear very very slowly.
For the last two days I’ve had an additional team of workmen on top of my usual lot. This set me off wondering about questions of style. My workmen, who are of the older persuasion, are what you might call steady (as in still and unmoving) and they wear galibiyas. These are the long flowing robes that are seen everywhere in the Egyptian countryside in various shades of dirt. I have a personal preference for galibiyas as they appeal to my grubby orientalist fantasies of which I have to be ashamed. I also own several, made for me by the village tailor, which I use as nightshirts and to pretend I go to Hogwarts school of witchcraft and wizardry.
The other team of workmen do not wear galibiyas but the sort of polyester-based sports-casual look that fails to flatter the young and poor all over the world. I’ve noticed that, unlike the galibiya-wearing community, few of the sports casual crowd dare to smoke. I think the difference generally comes down to attitude and the problem that galibiyas are dreadful things to play football in.
shabby chic: the state of J’s socks
There are also questions of style where archaeologists are concerned. I hold it to be true that no good can come of anyone who shows up in a Bear Grills branded shirt or a cowboy hat. Walking sandals are the lowest form of shoe (bar Crocs (no offence L, I’m sure they’re very comfortable)). In general, I dig in my old clothes until the holes get to the point where I can no longer identify the correct one to get in.
Of course, sometimes the requirements of the service can lead to brave fashion choices. A site I work on in Sudan requires us all to button our shirts to the top and our sleeves to the bottom and tuck in everything which can be tucked to prevent the infiltration of tiny biting flies. This leads to all of us looking a bit like the prisoners in The Shawshank Redemption.
A very eminent egyptologist looking like a fool
Archaeologists, for the most part, look a terrible mess. I was once walking to the bus stop with a colleague while on a commercial job in the UK. I was waiting while my co-worker tied his shoelace in a shop doorway when a man gave him £5 because he thought we were homeless.