Category Archives: gin and tonic

Poison

The Halabjah genocide: a true thing of horror

The Halabjah genocide: a true object of horror

On Thursday night I stayed up late and drank quite a lot of gin – L’s brothers had resupplied us with tonic water from Erbil in return for being allowed to sleep on the roof. On Friday morning, wearing my darkest sunglasses, we went to Halabjah to see the genocide memorial museum. This is my third season at this site and up until now Halabjah has figured only as a distant twinkling of lights on the hillside and as the nearest place from which it is possible to purchase (slightly over-priced) beer. The world knows Halabjah for other reasons; the worst ever chemical weapons attack directed against civilians was conducted here in 1988 by Saddam Hussein’s government. Up to 5,000 people died from a combination of mustard gas and nerve agents. After the town was retaken, the Iraqi army razed Halabjah to the ground with bulldozers and explosives.

Dead sheep diorama

Dead sheep diorama

The genocide memorial is an exceptionally ugly monument to an exceptionally ugly crime. Due to the destruction of the town, very few physical objects remain for the museum which is instead filled with the highly graphic photos taken by Iranian and international journalists in the days after the attack. Some of these are reconstructed in manikin dioramas, which are harrowing on several levels. People just dropped dead where they were, the animals died in the fields and birds fell dead from the sky. Many of the photographs showed children. Those with large families found it hardest to get out; they died together in heaps. When they hanged Saddam Hussein they sent a piece of the rope to Halabjah.

Some of the chemical shells dropped by the Iraqi airforce with a truck which was found full of bodies

Some of the chemical shells dropped by the Iraqi airforce with a truck which was found full of bodies

 

Lentil soup at the bottom of my trench

Lentil soup at the bottom of my trench

The week on site has been characterised by lentils. I’ve been digging out the first decent room fill we’ve found here; a good burnt one which all the specialists are disgustingly interested in, and the deeper I go the more lentily it gets. I’ve now reached a seam of almost pure, unadulterated lentils about a foot below the tops of the walls. In some ways it’s odd because there’s a similar lentil plague going on back at the house where we’ve now had lentil soup for lunch for six of the last seven days. This is beginning to seriously upset several team members’ state of mind, not to mention the state of the toilets. I began to wonder today whether I might have fallen into some sort of lentil-induced delirium and was self-generating lentils with the power of thought. Whether these are true lentils or just lentils of the mind, only the floatation residue results can tell. My current running hypothesis for this building is that someone burned down a Late Chalcolithic lentil soup shop; an act with which I entirely sympathise.

The sinister beings living in the house drains have finally been identified as Mole Crickets: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwu3CDmFg00

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Taking the cure

Look! the end: a farewell to Ur

Look! the end: a farewell to Ur

It’s about a week and a half since I got back from Iraq and I’m quite bored. Getting home wasn’t too bad all things considered. We spent our last night in a secure compound next to Basra airport where we ate non-tomato flavoured food, played pool, ran around in the air raid shelters and generally enjoyed being somewhere other than the dig house. I had a long, loving reunion with television, on which I watched Kung Fu Panda and the Welsh Open snooker final. The accommodation was in cabins reassuringly similar to my steel dragon back at Ur, although less reassuringly full of detailed instructions about what to do should the compound come under fire.

The highlight of Basra airport is a truly excellent souvenir shop which sells an extraordinary range of ugly plastic things at very reasonable prices for a captive environment. I bought my mother the traditional gift of a fridge magnet. The rest of the trip home was dominated by my attempts to fit maximum alcohol consumption into small windows of opportunity.

The wonders of Blast Shelter 2

The wonders of Blast Shelter 2

 

Return to the civilized world of cake and cathedrals and gin

Return to the civilized world of cake and cathedrals and gin

At my parent’s house I had a few hours sleep, put some of my clothes in a smaller bag and the rest in the washing machine and got a very slow train to Bath via much of Wales. Back in the dark, sober days of February I rented a Georgian house by Bath abbey in the middle of town for the weekend after Iraq in the interests of getting really quite drunk with some friends. This plan generally worked out very well and followed the rough course of drinking, eating, drinking, adventure golf, drinking, shopping, drinking, the theatre, drinking, going to the spa, drinking, taking the waters, drinking, drinking, crying, and drinking. I managed to break my friend T’s clay pipe by shutting the window on it, and I have sketchy memories of offering a bottle of beer to a confused busker.

Things since Bath have gone noticeably downhill; I spent this weekend losing £15 on the Grand National and watching the wrong university win the boat race. I watched Cross of Iron last night which put some of this into perspective. Besides, I’m going to the races at Newbury next weekend and I’m due some luck (that’s how it works right?).

Gin boat diplomacy

His excellency, the British ambassador to Turkey, helps J to make industrial quantities of double strength gin and tonic

His excellency, the British ambassador, lends a hand making industrial quantities of double strength gin and tonic so we can all fall over by dinner time

I’m enjoying a wholesome breakfast here at the dig house of coffee, paracetamol and Buckingham Palace mint chocolates. I managed to sleep for almost ten hours, waking to find I’d only managed to put half my pyjamas on, and that half was inside out. The British ambassador to Turkey has come to stay and oh my, he can drink. He arrived on Thursday and brought one car (armoured landrover) full of body guards and another car full of alcohol. It took all of us to carry it in – fifty cans of export larger, twenty-four bottles of French wine, two bottles of Johnny Walker Red, twelve litres of Gordon’s London Dry Gin and thirty-six litres of tonic water. It’s good to know you can rely on Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service for this sort of thing. The dig director expressed his doubts that we could drink it all in the remaining week, but you never know what you can achieve until you try. I think I might have sorted out the gin surplus last night.

At stupid o'clock we brush the trench by moonlight

At stupid o’clock we brush the trench by moonlight

The ambassador had the site tour yesterday, prompting the entire local military police force to turn out with their M-16s, making the short walk to the loo highly intimidating and none too private. I brushed up my last remaining dead person and persuaded my workmen to stop playing Rihanna on their mobile phones. Sir David did a very good job of appearing to be interested in my mudbrick walls but I supposed that’s why the diplomatic service pays him the big bucks. He wished me luck in working out what’s going on (my trench is a bit complicated at the moment) and asked me why I have an enormous lump on my head.

I have an enormous lump on my head because a big wooden pole fell on my face on Wednesday. I was having a little power nap in the site tent during tea break when the wind got under the canvas and knocked the tent pole down, the end of which landed smack on my forehead. As ways of getting woken up go, it’s easily in the same league as when I fell asleep with my phone under my ear last week, or the time my mum told me to put my life jacket on because the ship was sinking. “Are you all right?” asked D in a shocked voice. “No” I said, trying to sort truth from fiction and sleepiness from mild concussion, “I’m not sure, but I think something just hit me on the head.” One more failure in my efforts to get through an excavation season without a major head injury.

The end is nigh: work starts on Operation Z. This will be our last trench at the site as we have run out of letters

The end is nigh: work starts on Operation Z. This will be our last trench at the site as we have run out of letters

Wild goat chasing

Relieved: we finally locate the wretched article.

Relieved: we finally locate the wretched beast.

I’ve always suspected that a vast quantity of suffering in the world can be put down to good intentions allied with dreadful forward planning. Yesterday was a fine illustration. We went to stay in Suliemaniya for the weekend, partly so we could stock up on gin and kitkats, and partially because we wanted to go to see a famous ancient rock relief in the mountains. Part one went fine (except of course, that I drank too much) then we got on a bus and drove round and round in the Zagros foothills for two hours while the driver asked a series of confused strangers where this thing the foreigners want to see is. Eventually he deposited us at the end of a dirt track and set about investigating why the bus had started to produce a high pitched wailing noise when it went round corners.

After ten minutes walking, it was discovered that no one in fact had the faintest idea where this thing was. We called the museum who advised us to follow the iron water pipe up the valley so this is what we did. Over an hour later I slumped to the ground in a small swamp crawling with ticks and mosquitoes and declared my ever-lasting disinterest in ancient rock reliefs. I watched the poor stragglers crawling the last few yards to the top of the mountain, drenched in sweat, weeping, scratched and bitten. As most of us thought we were getting out of the bus for ten minutes to look at a pretty picture, it hadn’t occurred to bring proper shoes, or water. As I began to drag my sleep-deprived, hung-over and desiccated remains back down the mountain, I faintly recalled saying that my main aim for the weekend was to be less tired after it than I was before.

The Iraqi army, marvelling at the ineptitude of foreign archaeologists

The Iraqi army, marvelling at the ineptitude of foreign archaeologists

I arrived back at the bus to find that our driver had informed the Iraqi army of our failure to return and a jeep full of soldiers were waiting to see if they’d have to start a search and rescue mission. We begged half a cup of water from their officer, who looked on us with great pity for our physical exhaustion and grave mental deficiencies. The rock relief was of course just ten minutes down the track but none of us had thought to look up.

Bearded goat (c. 3500 BC) bestriding my photographic register

Bearded goat (c. 3500 BC) bestriding my photographic register

Excavation is winding down now for the end of the season. I finished digging today by finding a nice goat figurine complete with a little beard. This is by far our most attractive find, the only other figurines being a remarkably ugly woman(?) and the rear end of a horse. My personal favourite find however is the set of nesting bevel-rimmed bowls I got out of Trench F. BRBs are noted for their regularity in size, about which many books and papers have been written in the past – were they for a standardised grain ration? Perhaps they were army issue bread moulds? – in the context of which I consider my collection to be the best joke I’ve heard in ages.

I found the porridge in the small bowl to be just right

I found the porridge in the small bowl to be just right

Tents for our circus

Roll up! Roll up! Some of our workmen were concerned the Iranians might see this as mobilisation and send air strikes

Roll up, roll up! Some of our workmen were concerned the Iranians might see this as mobilisation and send air strikes

It’s a fine thing to relax in the shade on a hot sunny day, and not such a fine thing when a rainy squall dumps forty kilos of wet canvas on your head. It should have been obvious to all that acquiring three hundred square metres of sun shades for the site would make the weather hate us, but some of us here are on a steep learning curve. Of course, such an acreage of canvas can pack a hefty punch; my time at sea has taught me that one of our trench shades would be sufficient to get a two-to-three hundred tonne ship underway against a moderate swell, but sadly, among other things, the director is no seaman.

Indeed, it was only yesterday I had a close call with the trench C shade. I wasn’t giving the situation my full attention, as I was on the phone to the co-director about how dangerous I thought the shades might be in wind, when out of the corner of my eye I saw the shade pole falling towards my head. I took a rapid step backwards as it fell in front of me, and then an even hastier one forwards to avoid the iron stake being propelled across the trench at the height of my vital organs by the corner of the sail. I would like to point out that such occurrences were not anticipated in the forty two page risk assessment (which included the possibility of nuclear war with Iran) https://oldstuffinhotplaces.wordpress.com/2013/03/13/disaster-plan/.

Oven [209] looking like a beetroot salad

Oven [209] looking like a beetroot salad

Murderous tendencies aside, the shades also fail on colour. I like bright things as much as the next five year old, but red and blue striped tents have their disadvantages; firstly in that they compound my constant suspicion that I’ve run away to join the circus, but secondly they cast a sickly light across proceedings that makes all the site photographs look purple.

It is Thursday night, the only night where we can sleep late in the morning so I must away to the fridge and our new stock of alcohol, obtained at great length from the only beer shop (locked garage) in Halabja (which, understandably, has perhaps had enough of poisons). It looked for a while that we’d have to get through the weekend sober. We were down to half a bottle of Iraqi made ‘Sir Henry’s London Dry Gin’ (cost: £2.50 per litre), which I have tested for nerve agents to be on the safe side.

Sir Henry's gin: unconventional warfare

Sir Henry’s gin: unconventional warfare

Mayday

May beast

May beast

Ah, the first of May. Ideally by now I’d be in a pub, extremely drunk surrounded by morris men, singing dirty folk songs until I fall over or they tell us to leave. Instead I just got back to the new dig house after three hours setting out the trenches on site. I’m hungry, tired, dirty and sober. We arrived at the dig house yesterday and unpacked our gear, after which I promptly fell asleep having only had a banana, a third of a packet of cheese flavoured corn puffs and a very strong gin and tonic all day. We watched the sun go down over the Iranian mountains and watched the dig director crying over the new internet dongle he couldn’t get to work. He finally managed to get the internet to work slowly and intermittently. This begs the question of how we’re going to pass the time if we can’t all spend the evenings staring into space refreshing facebook. We might end up talking to each other and no one wants that.

Science

Science

It did feel very springish out on site this morning with the new crops and all the pretty flowers and stuff. I set up my trench on the north side of the tell among the poppies and marigolds and marked the corner stakes with empty beer cans, which I think gives it a nice devil-may-care sort of look. I might have to find some proper stake markers before the men from the museum come; apparently it’s supposed to look like science.

I’ve started nesting in a corner of one of the two houses we’re renting. It’s a bare room with a light and a concrete floor, on which I’ve laid my foam mattress and spread my personal possessions to deter visitors. My room mate does not snore, although there seems to be a pack of chickens with very little to do except hang about under the window shouting at each other. The lack of curtains leads to situations of mutual surprise with our neighbours, both avian and human. The beginnings of all life is a struggle.

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