Category Archives: Food

The oldest sins in the newest ways

syrian-arch

The new Institute of Digital Archaeology erection

It seems appropriate I should title this with a Shakespeare misquote as it’s the 400th anniversary of his death on Saturday and everyone is doing it. What I’m actually alluding to is the ‘digitally produced’ copy of the Palmyra arch which was erected in Trafalgar Square yesterday by the Institute of Digital Archaeology (involuntary snigger). They’ve made an exact scaled-down replica of an arch destroyed by Daesh, using a digital 3D model created from photos. How new! how sophisticated, how 21st century! cooed the papers. But of course it isn’t a new concept at all, in fact it’s very old school, only the tools have changed (now they work at the Institute of Digital Archaeology, nghh).

They loved their perfect architectural replicas back in the mid-19th century and there was a huge industry turning them out for museums. Moulds were made from the originals and used to produce as many plaster casts as necessary, brilliant. The only downside being that eventually everyone came to the conclusion that casts of ancient monuments were a bit pointless and unsatisfying. They lacked authenticity and, rather critically, age. To everyone’s surprise it turned out that old things were interesting and valued because they were old. New facsimiles just didn’t really interest people no matter how close to the original they were. The cast craze died away by the early 20th century and museums had their cast collections destroyed, sold off or put into permanent storage. One of the few museums to retain some of their casts on display is the Victoria and Albert in London, which I suspect found it hard to back down after they’d invested in a Cast Court specially built to house a life-size cast of the façade of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

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Michaelangelo’s original David which attracts 1.3 million visitors per year, and the V&A’s Victorian cast which mysteriously doesn’t

It’s fascinating to learn from the IDA that reproductions are back on the cutting edge of cultural heritage, so long as they’re produced from a digital model and carved by robots at £100,000 a pop rather than boring old Victorian casts (and I’m so glad we’re spending the money on something that really helps to protect and conserve endangered archaeology in the Middle East and not on some token publicity stunt). Alas, like most digital archaeology, it’s an old and pointless concept in a new and shiny package.

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Bunking off Quiddich at Alnwick Castle

In personal news, I survived my 8 hour wait in Istanbul airport by paying to spend it in a lounge with an infinite supply of beer. I also survived a brief National-Trust-athon in Northumberland with my sister, during which we managed to take in four castles, three churches, one priory, Hadrian’s wall, the Lindisfarne mead shop and an unrecorded number of pubs. My sister talked incessantly about her wedding but amply compensated by sending me a whole Spanish ham in the post. Twins are great, they’re the only people really get gifts right.

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One week in, the gift of ham just keeps on giving

 

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Ur fry

The wind taking the top off our site tent. This made F happy as we no longer made her go outside to smoke

The wind taking the top off our site tent. This made F happy as we no longer made her go outside to smoke

Just one week into the excavation and we’ve invented a desperate new sport for the afternoons – Zembil Ball. This involves standing on the drive throwing a football into the top of a stack of zembils (rubber buckets made from used car tyres) from increasing distances. By the end of the season perhaps the game will have developed more complexity and become fully codified, or more likely, we’ll get bored of it in a few days and find another pointless way to occupy our teeny tiny minds.

I catch another tiddler. Not much eating on that

I catch another tiddler. Not much eating on that

On site it’s been a week of occasional high winds and disappointingly tiny cuneiform tablets. I’m beginning to feel that the archive room has been overfished and the only remaining stock is below breeding size and I should probably throw them back. We’ll see how things go next week, I still have hope of catching that huge white tablet that took my leg and haunts my dreams (actually, most of my dreams are still about trying to get to an interview on time).

Yesterday we had our blood tests for our residency papers, luckily they’ve dropped the stethoscope exam and the chest x-rays. However it still involved being inexpertly punctured with a needle, being tittered at by girls in lab coats and having to have my photo taken with the blood doctor who, unlike me, looked like he’d never had so much fun in all his life.

antediluvian carrots

antediluvian carrots

It’s Friday which is the cook’s day off. Me and F have been volunteered to cook dinner, which everyone else may or may not live to regret. We’ve decided to do stir fry as we managed to find soy sauce and packets of instant noodles in Nasiriyah yesterday (along with the pure and brilliant gold of three packets of real Lurpak lightly salted butter). We weren’t so lucky at the vegetable shop where we had our pick of a carefully curated historical collection of vegetables dating back to at least Christmas. We bought some sad-looking green peppers, some mysteriously slimy-looking mushrooms and some rubbery purple carrots, which I sincerely hope are the sort that are supposed to be that colour. We got back to the house to find that the cook’s last act of cruelty before going home for the weekend had been to cook the chicken we were going to use for the stir fry (or more accurately, he’d put it in a saucepan of water and lovingly boiled it for about four hours until he was sure it was completely flavourless). We will now be having tinned tuna stir-fry with a possible sprinkling of left-over spam. In deference to the Ur dig house kitchen misery generator we have resolved to call it Ur-fry.

Ur fry. Not nearly as bad as it could have been considering it mostly consists of elderly courgettes and three tins of Iranian tuna

Ur fry. Not nearly as bad as it could have been considering it mostly consists of elderly courgettes and three tins of Iranian tuna

In the end, we did not poison anyone.

Untidy endings in Erbil

The new citadel gateway: the big exit

The new citadel gateway: the big exit

In the way of all things, the end has come and I’ll be leaving Erbil tonight. I’m enjoying a last bit of crisp, sunny Kurdish autumn before I get a big wet smack in the face at Manchester, where heavy rain is forecast. On the excavation the last week was predictably annoying, as all things tend to be in Iraq when you find you have a deadline to plan for. I turned up on site on Sunday morning, bright and early, with a full five-day-week’s worth of work planned only to find that the site was crawling with soldiers and men in dark glasses peering down holes and looking under tarpaulins. The Kurdish prime minister was coming to visit, I was told, and there would be no work today as everyone was busy burying untidy cables and picking up rubbish in their best suits. Then I was told there would be no work the next day either, as it was the Shia holy day of Ashura and everyone would be busy fasting and beating themselves with chains. Oh, and Tuesday would probably be out too as everyone had to get through their Ashura come-down and make up for all the eating they’d missed. The last week of work had just shrunk from five days to two days so when I’d finished wailing and beating my little fists in the dust I sulked off home throwing foul looks at the men in dark glasses, who I think were sincerely glad I wasn’t hanging around to spoil the shiny suit aesthetic with my dirty trousers and grumpy face.

Middle east expat wet dream

Middle east expat wet dream

I spent my unexpected holiday digitising the site plan while listening to Radio One, both of which had negative effects on my mental health. On Ashura I made a pork feast for me and my housemate – I got two pork tenderloins, stuffed apple and cinnamon in between them and wrapped them together with apple smoked bacon. Then I cooked it in apple juice to create a porky masterpiece. I would like to call it pork Ashura if that wasn’t incredibly offensive. Other holiday activities included staring into space, watching my housemate’s dog crap in the corner (invariably as I eat breakfast) and making a late night ill-considered on-line purchase of expensive electrical goods.

Final day challenge - a bit more than I bargained for in the way of bricks

Final day challenge – a bit more than I bargained for in the way of bricks

Returning to site on Wednesday I abandoned my original five day plan and decided to make everything behind the city wall flat with a big pick and see what showed up. This in fact yielded rather too much and I ended my final day in an undignified frenzy of planning while the workmen sat around smoking and eating my goodbye biscuits. Then I went out and got drunk.

Today I’m faced with the weary prospect of packing my life up again, and cleaning the bathroom (the later being a trial that with my current situation I only have to endure once a year or so, thank christ).

ugh, packing. Just when I'd got everything just right

ugh, packing. Just when I’d got everything tidy

In the dungeon

The view from the dungeon

Captivity: the view from the dungeon

I’m back in Iraq after an all too brief reunion with pork pies and proper tea. In the last two weeks at home I had three very unpleasant trips to the gym, made some money selling paintings and lost considerably more money gambling at Newbury races. I threw away a lot of broken clothes.

Corpse carpet: what did your last site supervisor die of?

Corpse carpet: what did your last site supervisor die of?

Conditions on this project are grim. I’m sleeping on the concrete floor of a half built house in a Kurdish village near Halabjah. My room, which I share with two other women, has a steel door and a single tiny window just below ceiling height adorned with heavy iron bars. The concrete floor appears to suck up ground water and redeposit it to the interior, meaning that any item left on the floor (such as our clothes and mattresses) are rendered damp and clammy within an hour or so. The light does not work. I keep waking up thinking I’m being held hostage in someone’s basement. This impression is not helped by the feeble foam mattress making me feel like I’ve been the victim of a severe beating, and the rolled up carpet laid outside the door which looks uncannily like it contains a corpse. It’s almost exactly how I imagine a particularly brutal Iraqi women’s prison.

The post-apocalyptic living conditions are somewhat compensated for by Kurdistan in springtime which is truly lovely, with snow still on the mountain tops and all the foothills covered with wild flowers. Everything is bursting with life – the turkeys are engaged in aggressive sexual behaviour and the next building over is full of puppies and the animals they’ve killed. Yesterday there was a frog in the shower. Under the influence of moderate gin consumption, one colleague drew unsound parallels between the excavation and The Sound of Music, leading to speculation as to which of the co-directors was Christopher Plummer and which was Julie Andrews. I certainly hope there won’t be any nuns, Nazis or singing.

Springtime in the Kurdish mountains: these are a few of my favourite things

Springtime in the Kurdish mountains: these are a few of my favourite things

Brittain's best ice cream van, discovered unexpectedly near the Iranian border with a valid UK tax disc and all

Brittain’s best ice cream van, discovered unexpectedly near the Iranian border with a valid UK tax disc and all

Work on site has so far been limited to the removal of backfill from last year’s trenches and mine and L’s heroic mastering of the total station in the absence of a competent surveyor. So far all the food has been yellow, which I find to be a refreshing change.

Happy returns

Another year spend in folly

Another year spend in folly

It’s my birthday. I have mixed feelings about this. I’m celebrating with a Kinders Surprise, lying resplendent in my ‘abba. My colleagues have gifted me the sort of treasure that only the last days of a three month field project can make you truly appreciate – real chocolate from England, one of the very few remaining hidden cans of diet coke and a small pack of US military-issue toilet paper. There’s also a bottle of dubious Iraqi whiskey for this evening. It was brought to the dig house yesterday by one of our contacts in Nasiriyah, who delivered it in a black leather bag along with the cryptic announcement that he had found ‘the medicine for Mr John’. This utterance was for some time a little too cryptic as Mr John had left two days earlier and not informed everyone of his outstanding order.

Progress in Iraq: our last weekend outing to the ancient city of Uruk

Progress in Iraq: our last weekend outing to the ancient city of Uruk

It’s our last day in Ur before we drive down to Basra tomorrow and the project has drawn to a gentle close. Yesterday most of us had run out of work and we spent the afternoon playing cricket in the front garden and watching our pottery washer Nasrala chase his escaped horse very slowly round the compound. I think the horse had a lovely day. One of the directors took all the finds to the museum in Baghdad and got our permission letters to export samples out of the country. She had to sign a declaration promising to return the little bags of soil to Iraq or be liable for their value, leading to speculation as to the actual monetary worth of dirt.

One of my tamer Bananagrams wins

One of my tamer Bananagrams wins

The final weeks of the project have been generally marked by a slow descent into wrongness. Our regular games of Bananagrams (a sort of free-form scrabble) has blossomed into a workshop on creative obscenities, most of which I cannot repeat here. Last night one of my winning racks incorporated the words foamy, dyke and slit, which I’m pretty sure wouldn’t have happened a couple of months ago. Queef has become the go-to word for getting rid of troublesome Qs and Fs – at the start of January I thought this was a type of medieval lady’s bonnet. Other signs of troubled mental health include D and N’s new game of throwing dishcloths, food and other items into the kitchen fan to see what happens, and the use by some team members of the silted-up floatation tanks as hot tubs. The proliferation of in-jokes and evolving misuse of vocabulary has now rendered our conversation almost incomprehensible to other English speakers. I think it’s very much for the best that we’re all going home while we can still be re-integrated into polite society.

The equinox sun setting inn a satisfactory manner behind the ziggurat at Ur

The equinox sun setting in a satisfactory manner behind the ziggurat at Ur

Enough of a good thing

The modest amount of pottery emerging from my room fill

The modest amount of pottery emerging from my room fill

With nearly three weeks left of the project here in Iraq we stopped digging today. It seems that the three of us digging on site are finding too much archaeology for the people back at the house to handle and we’ve been cut off. It all started with the tablets when a week ago I got my best day’s catch of four monsters, which I presented to the conservator, only to find that she didn’t want any more. Apparently four nice big cuneiform tablets is a week’s conservation work. So instead I had to move on to a juicy looking buttress room which seemed to have a decent quantity of pottery sticking out of this. After the removal of less than a third of the room fill, which produced a healthy eight or nine sacks full of pottery, I was again asked to stop; F and S in the other trenches had been producing similar quantities of the stuff and the poor young ceramicist was now washing our pottery with his human tears. He likes pots, you’d have thought he’d be happy. In any case, we are now sullenly back-filling and completing our records.

Fiery danger fish

Fiery danger fish

As everyone seems to be getting a bit flaky after two and a half months (last week we invented potato rugby, which was all fun and games until J caught a hefty one right on the ear), we made this weekend a long one and accepted an invitation to the marshes. I made this as horrible as possible for myself by vigourously attacking my remaining whiskey the night before, drunkenly annoying people I like and then having to spend a very hung-over day in a moving boat. Things almost came to a head on an island in the middle of the marsh when our hosts cooked us some large fish for lunch. Luckily the salty, fatty fish had a curative effect rather than the reverse and a cross-cultural incident was averted. I came close to a relapse later when we encountered an especially buoyant cat.

Bloaty puss

Bloaty Puss

After not sleeping at all in a very lovely reed-built house, we got up early to watch the sun rise and have breakfast in the marshes. After the sun had run through the usual old routine, we moored up on a section of Sadam’s marsh road and spread our breakfast mat on the tarmac. Sadam Hussein built the road to move his tanks through the area after he had had the marshes drained. Now they’re reflooded, the road is mostly submerged and is slowly dissolving away. I kicked a little chunk off into the water and watched it sink.

Sadam's marsh road, now thoroughly shat on by water buffalo and gnawed at by dogs

Sadam’s marsh road, now thoroughly shat on by water buffalo and gnawed at by dogs

The watery world of the marsh arabs

The watery world of the marsh arabs

 

Double bagging

We attempt to survive morning tea break

We attempt to survive morning tea break

I woke up at 4:30am this morning freezing. I cast about for any extra clothing in reach but found only a microfiber travel towel, which I wrapped round my knees. The temperature at Ur has gone down ten degrees in the last two days which has made everyone very unhappy, especially those of us who are living in metal boxes in the garden. I made a critical decision ten minutes before leaving the house to put a pair of skinny jeans on under my site trousers. This may have saved my life. Two pairs of trousers was indeed the order of the day all round, though I still had a fair amount of trouble with the touchscreen on my Toughbook due to the unintentional double click effect of shivering. There was also the issue of dripping snot onto the keyboard. I thought at one point that my smallest workman Ali (who claims to be fifteen but can’t be more than eleven) might die.

S tends his flag garden; the harvest will be good this year

S tends his flag garden; the harvest will be good this year

On site the average mental age is about fourteen

On site the average mental age is about fourteen

The site is shaping up nicely, if you like sites to be Old Babylonian temple shaped, which I do. It’s still looking a bit two dimensional as we’ve done a lot of surface clearance to get the main walls, but we’ll be heading down as soon as we can all agree on a sampling strategy (or hell freezes over, which looks more likely). It’s all quite colourful as the surface erosion has cut holes through layers of plaster floors and burnt fills producing concentric bands of grey and white and red with lumps of pottery, making it look as if someone has been spectacularly sick in the trench. F has found a pair of bread ovens that look like breasts.

Iraqi orange flavour custard has a half life of 10,000 years

Iraqi orange flavour custard has a half life of 10,000 years

I returned to the house after work to find that my roommate, whom I live to vex, had finally cracked and tidied up my stuff. Instead of the mound of mixed clothes, electricals and snack foods I’d been carefully curating at the foot of my bed, I found my clothes folded and stacked on top of my bag, and my shirts, which have never known such things, on clothes hangers on the back of the door. My clean and dirty underwear bags had been hung on the bed post and all my cosmetics hidden behind the curtains. Everything had been swept. I kicked my dirty boots off into the corner and slouched off to think up more elaborate ways to be filthy. For dinner one of the dig directors made cake served with florescent yellow custard which tasted like Fanta.