Category Archives: Egypt


Today's advent donkey

Today’s advent donkey

My Norwegian colleague had an exciting adventure today while endeavouring to go for a quiet piss in the desert. We work in a little valley (or wadi to the purists) and by common consent the men take their lonely walks on the east side while the women have a reed hut on the west side (or a convenient small New Kingdom quarry if one can’t be bothered to walk so far – future excavators here may have a surprise).

My colleague found he had a dog following him, but pressed on, attempting to ignore the dog’s invasive presence and unhelpful manner. Then there were two dogs, then three, and by the time he had reached his usual spot, a considerable number. It seems the local populous had taken exception to a well-groomed Norwegian man coming out every day for three weeks and marking their territory as his own. By the time the Norwegian had undone his flies, he was beginning to think better of his immediate plans and more toward the preservation of his person.

We were all disturbed in our morning work by a tremendous barking and a swiftly moving Norwegian pursued by ten angry dogs.

Some of the dig house pack still live on the roof

Some of the dig house pack still live on the roof

We used to have a friendly pack of dogs at the dig house, which were useful for keeping off the less friendly dogs, and for howling at you when you tried to visit the toilets at night. Alas, a doggy plague took them all off a year or so gone.

We are now beset with cats, who scream all night, have violent sex with each other despite all being closely related, and have taken to sleeping in the oven since the weather turned cold. The most revolting and malevolent of them, Oy, has managed to burn all the whiskers off one side of his head this week; I suspect he has taken up smoking which would account for the hacking cough.

Oy's burnt whiskers are clearly visible as he eats a chicken head, on which he is sick shortly after.

Oy’s burnt right whiskers are clearly visible as he eats this chicken head, on which he is sick shortly after.

Quote of the week: “You don’t often get to see a donkey being electrocuted.” (Dig director on seeing a donkey being electrocuted.)

Party pain

The hop-step-point familiar from Morris dancing

The hop-step-point familiar from Morris dancing

I had a dream last night that I was lying in my grave and someone was trying to bash my head in with the butt of a levelling rod. Then I woke up with the most appalling hangover. We had a bit of a party here at the dig house last night for a special anniversary and some of us got a little carried away. Or in fact, literally carried away.

We had a famous band down from Cairo for some traditional dance music. They used to play for President Mubarak when that was an acceptable thing to do, but now they’re reduced to playing in the middle of nowhere for drunk archaeologists. Vive la revolution. We also invited our workmen, and a fearsome number of antiquities inspectors invited themselves, forcing me to consume most of my alcohol covertly in the office.

And then there was the dancing; oh dear. I have a powerful memory of dancing the Egyptian stick dance using a ranging rod from the equipment store while wearing a cardboard Nefertiti hat. My grace and elegance, honed through careful practice on the floors of low-end clubs and my six month experiment with morris dancing, was of course captured for posterity on the mobile phones of numerous Egyptian men. I’m sure a productive day was spent in the village swapping files and laughing.

Pimp my dervish: dancing at the next level

Pimp my dervish: dancing at the next level

In consequence, I’ve spent today on a diet of water, ibuprofen and shame. I’ve watched a lot of DVDs and done a fair amount of shaking, punctuated by ignominiously vomiting out of the living room window half way through Howl’s Moving Castle.

I’ve learned several things in the last twenty-four hours: 1) all traditional Egyptian tunes sound exactly the same, 2) foreign women trying to dance is a class of saleable pornography here, 3) gin – there are attainable limits, 4) Egyptian sparkling wine is not fit for human consumption.

I am going back to bed, it seems I may live after all.

A hard rain

Wet Egypt

Wet Egypt

I’m writing this post at 7am as we are stuck in the dig house waiting for it to stop raining. If this was what I was after I would have stuck with British archaeology. I estimate we’re about an hour from someone suggesting we play charades.

Archaeology is best done either completely wet or completely dry, but it can go particularly horrible when moisture is introduced to something which has been very dry for the last three thousand years (I am painfully aware that the sheet I put over my new burial yesterday afternoon did not reach the feet). In many ways, the same principle is true at a larger scale in that the entire Middle East becomes unpleasant when it gets wet, as large quantities of rubbish which were relatively benign in their desiccated forms regain their vitality. Often you can smell rain coming in the desert as a faint odour of landfill and wet sheep.

All you need is a cardboard box, some sticky-backed plastic and a sufficient lack of sense. You too can have a Nerfertiti crown.

All you need is a cardboard box, some sticky-backed plastic and a sufficient lack of sense. You too can have a Nerfertiti crown.

In the meantime we are employing ourselves usefully in the construction of Nefertiti hats out of cardboard boxes.

An ill wind

A dear friend after a Turkish dust storm, and Sting in Dune

A dear friend after a Turkish dust storm, and Sting in Dune

In general, I like windy days, such as today. It keeps the flies down, keeps you cool, and everyone starts wearing natty scarves and hairdos like Sting in Dune. There’s also the endless fun of watching fellow archaeologists get smacked in the face when their planning board catches the wind as they turn around. Cemetery digging, however, is not so fun in 30 knots; hair and soft tissue go sailing off over the sand and whole babies have been known to simply blow away. Being constantly sat in the same place often leads to your windward ear filling slowly with sand.

A colleague receives the planning board slap

A colleague receives the planning board slap

Today did not go to plan in other ways, in that I managed to lose two of my six workmen in one day. First went Hussein. Being only three foot six, Hussein necessarily has the temperament of a Yorkshire terrier in a hot car, and most days can be found seething with rage over one thing or another while neglecting to move buckets of sand. The root source of most of his anger is his optimistic attempt to work a day job and a night job and not to sleep. He’s been largely getting round this by turning up (eventually) to site, announcing he is sick and then proceeding to sleep behind the spoil heap for an hour. Today Hussein, looking completely deranged, finally admitted defeat, announced he was leaving and shuffled off home to catch up on four weeks of sleep.

The second departure was more dramatic. Abdel Malek has been irritating me for weeks with his comedy voice, which to me sounds most like a man talking while straining very very hard to go to the toilet. I was just directing some particularly malevolent thoughts in his direction when he fainted just like they do in the movies. I have no formal first aid training, but calling on my fifteen years of rugby experience I directed that cold water be poured liberally over the affected area. Taking no notice, the remaining workmen proceeded with their own tried and tested method, which involves dragging the casualty out of the trench by one of his arms and both of his legs, then shaking him violently while kneading the back of his head and shouting at him to wake up. This eventually bore fruit and Abdul Malek was assisted from the field towards the doctor.

Meanwhile, I am left to face accusative stares from the dig director about how I treat my workmen, as I have to all appearances forced one of them to resign and worked another to death in the same day.

Life on the excavation pay role is brutal and short

Life on the excavation pay role is brutal and short

You are what you eat (and sometimes vice versa)

With dinner just a short hour away, I thought I’d describe some of the culinary delights of the this excavation. Breakfast here has descended into farce since the arrival of extra team members from another site, none of whom know where anything is or how to fine more if something has run out. If one takes an early seat, there is an entertaining procession of tired people arriving, trying to pour themselves coffee from the empty pot and then looking mournfully at everyone else in the hope that someone will make them more. This is good entertainment while I finish my coffee. I generally have bread covered in ‘feta’ cheese, which is in fact about 70% palm oil.



On site I mainly eat the dead people. This is especially true today when I was removing a pair of semi mummified legs and their coffin soaked in body fluids. The disturbance of the coffin sticks causes clouds of thick, dark brown dust to erupt into the air, which is impossible to avoid inhaling even with a scarf round nose and mouth. There then follows a process of intense coughing and swallowing over the next hour or so, today meaning that by the time second breakfast came around I was feeling pretty full.

Egg fantasies

Egg fantasies

Second breakfast is my favourite meal of the day; it is eaten on site in a small reed hut. The main reason I like it is that it tastes less like Egypt than the other meals, as it consists mostly of crisps and instant noodles, the monosodium glutamate in which makes me feel a bit funny. Of course, there is no escaping the ubiquitous cold, hard-boiled eggs, which tend to make up the bulk of calorie consumption in Middle Eastern archaeology. I used to dream of an end to the endless eggs, but now my imagination has been worn down to the point where I can only dream of hot hard boiled eggs, or hard boiled eggs made into entertaining food models. I can no longer conceive of a world where I don’t have to eat them.

Today's lunch: Dr Atkin's doom

Today’s lunch: Dr Atkin’s doom

Lunch is usually deep-fried or last night’s dinner with added tinned tomatoes. Today’s lunch is an excellent example of a general problem with Middle Eastern excavation cuisine, which is an unhealthy obsession with carbohydrates. This afternoon’s offering was pasta, spaghetti with rice, chips and bread. I spend the afternoon feeling very heavy. In general, however, the food here is pretty good and has vastly improved over the years I’ve been coming. Only 85% of dishes now involve tinned tomatoes and it is almost always possible to tell the dessert course from the soup. There are still some things which just can’t be replaced, and I have a large Sainsbury’s chorizo hidden in the fridge for the dark days ahead. And a great deal of alcohol.

Pork and gin: Egypt travel essentials

Pork and gin: Egypt travel essentials

I must leave this here as dinner is about to be called (or at least I profoundly hope it is as one of my new colleagues from the other site is playing Celine Dion on the flute and this seems the only (non-violent) way to stop her), I must go and see what delights await this evening…

Grave digging dirges

Who killed Cock Robin? Even a cheery new advent calendar can be turned to darkness by a sufficiently morbid mind set

Who killed Cock Robin? Even a cheery new advent calendar can be turned to darkness by a sufficiently morbid mind set.

It’s an occupational hazard of archaeology that songs can get awkwardly stuck in your slightly under-employed head. I struggled with this today as I shovelled away weary bucket loads of sand, trying to dig one end of my latest gentleman out of a metre-high baulk. The dead show tiresome little respect for the site grid.

In the normal run of things I don’t mind a jolly digging tune to make the day go faster (unless it is the endless nasal whining which passes for music on the workmen’s favourite radio station). However, when it comes to digging up the dead my subconscious can throw up some pretty morbid stuff, sending me into horrible reflections on mortality and my wasted life.

Today’s pre-second-breakfast pep-talk was provided by the looped last verse of an old Isla Cameron song I didn’t realise I knew:

“Dig me my grave long, wide and deep,

                Put a marble stone at my head and feet,

                And a turtle-white dove set over above,

                For to let the world know that I died for love.”

Thank you, dark little soul.

After second breakfast things perked up for a while when I found a fully articulated pelvis in the east end of the grave, complete with some well preserved pubic hair and a highly unpleasant smell. This was a happily accompanied by Foster the People’s Pumped up Kicks.

By the time the hairy skull appeared at around 12:30pm, the darkness within was reasserting itself and the rest of the working day dragged to its end backed with the chorus to a Bonny Prince Billy song, the name of which escapes me, going round and round and generally down:

“How long? Not so long,

                ‘til death knocks at your door.

                As the rain falls over everyone,

                So the reaper keeps his score.”

I left my half-excavated grave for tomorrow with a heavy, death-filled heart, in the sure and certain knowledge that the one metre baulk will collapse into it over night.

All of these songs were in fact more enjoyable than the one I had going on on Thursday, which was about incest (currently a sensitive issue among the dig house cat community, alas).

Today's noisome gentleman (artist's impression).

Today’s noisome gentleman (artist’s impression).