Category Archives: Egyptology

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 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.

Sanity and sanitation

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

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.

IMG_6092Sanitation 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.

Climb every mountain

Looking south up the Nile, wondering if my legs will ever be the same

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.

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 assume this is camel meat, but who can say where the truth lies?

Deep-fried local burger. We optimistically believe this is camel meat, but who can say where the truth lies?

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.