Category Archives: Food

Disgracing myself in Erbil

The beautiful ancient citadel of Erbil, which we completely failed to visit. It uncomfortably reminded me of my doctoral thesis, in which it featured.

The beautiful ancient citadel of Erbil, which we completely failed to visit. It uncomfortably reminded me of my doctoral thesis, in which it featured.

I’m having a second day on the wagon having excelled myself at the weekend. A select few of us went to Erbil for a taste of the big city, and to get away from the smell of drains in the dig house. Erbil is thought to be the oldest continuously occupied city in the world, but fortunately all of the cultural sites were closed so we fell back on the old standby of eating our own body weight in kebab and drinking. First we drank in a German bar full of Americans where they mostly played Johnny Cash, and then in an American bar full of Germans where they mostly played Bob Marley. The American bar had the added novelty of being situated inside the US secure military zone, meaning that to enter I had to surrender my passport, phone and camera to a very clean man with a very large semi-automatic rifle. He called me “ma’am”, which, under the influence of two large German beers and a can of Bitburger I bought and drank in a dark alley behind an SUV on the way, I found utterly hilarious.

The barman's t-shirt I woke up for. I wonder for what percentage of the night I was wearing it.

The barman’s t-shirt I woke up with. I wonder for what percentage of the night I was wearing it.

Fully x-rayed, metal detected and tagged, I then proceeded to the bar where I drank heroic quantities of reasonably priced Turkish larger, won an animated game of darts and danced in new and surprising ways. After this events are less well established. I remember spending some short time in a kitchen with an Iraqi barman while he made me a bracelet out of American army boot laces. I was in a car at some point, and in a house where I ate cake with some new friends. I don’t remember going back through security but that must have been an interesting experience all round. I remember some walking around in deserted streets, then I woke up on a sofa in some physical distress, with the Iraqi barman’s t-shirt under my head and whipped cream in my ear. They know how to party in the Kurdish Autonomous Region.

Early morning meat; the thread that held me to life

Early morning meat; the thread that held me to life

Bacon is the only known anti venom for this sort of poisoning, but as it turns out, a couple of hefty lamb shish kebabs and a coke can have some palliative effect. So 10:30am found me in a meat-induced coma with two fellow sufferers. Revived, I did some unwise carpet shopping and then spent four hours in a car shaking and looking at the horizon.

My convalescence progresses well, I may be ready to try a modest shandy by lunchtime. I promise I’ll write something about the archaeology next time and less about my low-level alcoholism. 

Things in fog

The sun burning off the fog just in time to prevent my wet shirt becoming improper

The sun burning off the fog just in time to prevent my wet shirt becoming improper

When the weather forecast said it would be cloudy I’d imagined us being under the clouds rather than in them, but then life thrives on these little misunderstandings. It’s an incentive to the process of waking up when the first thing you have to do in the morning is to find a deep hole in long grass and dense fog. Having successfully located my trench without breaking my legs I got back down to the more weighty problem of finding any archaeology in it. I’ve spent that last three days digging through a metre and a half of melted tell slush, which has led to a certain amount of ill-temper and wistful thoughts about sandy Egyptian sites. On the positive, shovelling heavy clay from depth is one of the best abdominal workouts I know, next to a good long bout of sea sickness.

The view outside my bedroom door where the stuff sits and smells of wet cardboard

The view outside my bedroom door where the stuff sits and smells of wet cardboard

The fact that all we’re finding is pottery has led to an unhealthy obsession with the stuff on the part of many of the excavation team, resulting in long and extremely tedious conversations about rim profiles and fabric types during which I nod, say ‘hmm’ a lot, and dwell on how pottery fragments always give me a craving for McVities digestive biscuits. I think it’s all hateful and wish we had a proper ceramicist so I wouldn’t have to pretend to care.

As I was walking back from taking the backsite for the dumpy today, a lone donkey came trotting down the road with an unusual air of purpose. It seemed uncertain as to who’d get off the road for who, but a frank exchange of views and a large level scale decided the matter and he went round. But I do wonder what the hurry was. I returned for breakfast to find that there was no tea left and that all our Laughing Cow cheese triangles had been replaced with Iraqi Wonder Cow, which tastes mostly of petrol.

A terrible fraud has been committed

A terrible fraud has been committed

What? Donkey of unknown provenance and destination

What? Donkey of unknown provenance and destination

Friday: day of dreams, day of washing

Oooh, and that's a bad miss. Ronnie O'Sullivan is my role model (except in the manic depression department)

Oooh, and that’s a bad miss. Ronnie O’Sullivan is my role model (except in the manic depression department)

After only two days on site we’ve hit the weekend. We went to Sulaymaniyah on Thursday night and stayed over at the museum guest house, which on the upside meant I could get a kebab and smoke shisha, but on the downside meant I had to sleep on a mattress in a corridor getting bitten by fleas and having a door slammed next to my head all night. I’m still working out the cost/benefit analysis.

We spent the morning discussing (arguing about) the site recording system, or in my case, wondering if anyone would notice if I crawled under the table and went back to sleep. We generally decided that what we need is more money, more equipment and more people (in a parallel universe). We then turned our faces towards City Star; a shining beacon of civilisation, opposite the museum and all its barbarism, where one can drink a cappuccino, go ten pin bowling and buy Diet Coke in packs of twenty-four. Unusually, it is also possible to play snooker on two unbeerstained full-sized snooker tables, complete with an inspiring poster of John Parrot on the wall. Me and the dig director had an unusual game, which he won 65-23, helped by a spectacularly unlucky run of in-offs on my part. I would also mention that I have a large raw blister on my hand just where the cue has to slide through, produced by my heroic efforts with the big pick and shovel yesterday on site, so I was playing through the pain.

Home is where I hang my movie posters. Half way through the season I'll turn it over and have Wolverine

Home is where I hang my movie posters. Half way through the season I’ll turn it over and have Wolverine

I then paid a shameful visit to the supermarket where I bought English tea, packet noodles and a tube of salt and vinegar Pringles. I blame low blood sugar, having survived the day to that point on two boiled eggs and a large bowl of chocolate ice cream.

We escaped all these unwholesome stimulants back to the safety of our village, where I’ve never been gladder to see Johnny Depp and two pieces of foam on a concrete floor. We then performed the experiment ‘how many doctorates does it take to work a washing machine?’

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 

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?

All I want for christmas: pork and rain

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.

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

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

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.