Category Archives: health and safety

Keep on running

IMGP1199crop

We took another visit to the Iraqi marshes, they looked a lot like this

I was running across the ancient ruins of Ur the other day, not in the joyful manner of someone who finds pleasure in such things but as one driven by the fear of prematurely losing physical competences through disuse. I was listening to Kids with Guns by the Gorillas and had started to think the bass beat was sounding a bit out, when I was hit by an unexpected wind from above and behind. On investigation, there were two large helicopter gunships hovering right over me, covered in those pointy bits that drop off and explode. I didn’t quite know what the best thing to do was in this social situation, so I gave the nearer one a friendly wave. There was a brief pause and then they thundered off towards the Ur airbase in the knowledge of a job well done. It’s this sort of thing that reminds me I work in a ridiculous place, but it did give me an excellent excuse to stop running for a few blissful minutes while I found something calming to listen to on my ipod.

IMGP1272small

The bad pottery. It has been released back into the wild

IMGP1252small

Steve’s gravy train is about to derail

The weeks have flown, we’ve taken a lot of earth out of the trenches and then put most of it back in again, we’ve dug up a lot of pottery, numbered it, loved it and then dumped most of it back on site in a big heap. We’ve found a lot of things, most of them horrible things, and we’ve given them all numbers. We have waved farewell to Steve, queen among slightly stand-offish Iraqi site dogs, to whom we gave a whole can of sardines and received little in return. I spent far longer on the pictures for my report than on the words because the pictures are always the best bit. Our final task was to burn the accumulated rubbish including all the empties. We piled them in the centre so they’d receive maximum fire and created a raging inferno fed by strong winds. One of them exploded with an ear-splitting bang, but when the flames had died down the nature of the bottles was still painfully clear. So it came about that F and I spent twenty minutes throwing lumps of ancient baked bricks at a fire in order to smash burning empty bottles of Famous Grouse. It was only five minutes after we finished that a policeman showed up to investigate the explosion and the sounds of breaking glass. We said we’d just been burning some rubbish, officer.

Our eight weeks at Ur are up but this is not the end, oh no. One site is just not enough when you’re as red-hot keen on archaeology as we are. We’re in the middle of moving operations to Basra to start a whole new site between the oil fields out by the Iranian border. We went for a first look today and found it charming – flat and bleak and covered in debris from the Iran-Iraq war – it’s all I ever dreamed of. Near the western end of the fortification walls we found the eroded remains of an anti-personnel mine.

IMGP1288small

The rotting husk of a land mine at our lovely new site

By the way, thanks for all the concern about my mental health after the last post, though that’s not really how I meant it to read.

Pillaging

The pig freezer

The pig freezer

I had bacon for breakfast this morning. Bacon and freshly ground Starbucks coffee. This surprising bounty came as the harvest of my new found favourite hobby; looting. My housemate and I were invited to come looting by friends who work at the airport. A foreign contractor had evacuated its staff during the incident (like Voldemort, people here don’t refer to IS’s August advance on Erbil directly, mostly so they don’t have to classify it with words that might make people unhappy, such as crisis, near-invasion, when most of my friends left me or the time I realised I wasn’t one of the people with an automatic seat on the last plane). They’d left at very short notice and under some stress and although the company had promised to ship them some of their possessions there was a strict upper weight limit. This left eighteen flats full of expat stuff, much of which could be given to Erbil’s many refugees, but much of which could not; specifically larger electrical items, frozen foodstuffs and alcohol. My housemate’s house was pretty empty, now the two of us have three tvs and four fridges. Being only a temporary inmate, I concentrated my efforts on the consumables, by which I mean meat, the sauces that go with meat, and booze.

I think this is doable in the next five weeks, right?

I think this is doable in the next five weeks, right?

The abandoned freezers produced an astonishing range of world foods, much of it in the form of huge quantities of lovingly curated pork, including tenderloin, gammon steaks, all manner of bacon, ham, sausages, and some kind of so far unidentified Icelandic flat-pack orange-coloured pork chops. There was also Californian fish, Honduran prawns, American hamburgers and steaks and steaks and steaks. And chips and Branston pickle. I also snaffled around 200 abandoned dvds, including at least six copies of Badboys II. Surprisingly none of them have so far turned out to be porn. The alcohol situation is frightening in its possibilities; in the corner of my room, where Kurdish visitors can’t see it, there is a tower of booze. I have four cases of beer (plus assorted others), two litres of rum, three bottles of bourbon, gin, whiskey, wine, Bacardi breezers and a bottle of saki. We are the most infidel infidel’s house in Erbil. If IS come for us I reckon we could drink ourselves to death before they break through our barricade of pork-filled freezers. I also feel I have gained experience which will prove useful after the apocalypse when the survivors will have to live by scavenging from the ruins of our decadent consumer world.

stairway to the underworld, or at least a hefty insurance claim

stairway to the underworld, or at least a hefty insurance claim

On site, things continue to be both dangerous and depressing. Due to lack of funds we’ve gone down to just two workmen to shift the spoil. We haven’t sacked anyone, they’ve agreed to all go down to one day per week on a rota meaning every day I have to explain what needs doing all over again. In the deepest part of the excavation, which I now need to record, we’ve come to the limits of all our sensible ladders. The workmen have instead produced an abomination in ladder form, probably made by one of their children as a school woodwork project, which is long enough but so clearly potentially lethal I’m surprised the teacher let him take it home. It’s full of knots and cracks, creeks ominously while in use and has the fresh sappy smell of utterly unseasoned wood. I’ve banned the heaviest Kurdish trainee from using it, partially because I’m afraid he’ll break it but also because he is the very last person I want to fall on me.

Road kill

Final photography: L promises that she will catch me if I fall off the photography ladder from on top of the 2.5m section

Final photography: L promises that she will catch me if I fall off the photography ladder balanced on top of the 2.5m section

After two days of solid plan drawing, intersected by a rather drunken party, I’m now held together by only my dwindling supply of acceptable instant coffee. My trenches have turned out to be really pretty nice in the end, featuring architecture you can walk through and use as planning tables. It’s always good in archaeology when something looks like what it is. The best looking feature is a pebble paved roadway running most of the length of the trench. My initial enthusiasm for the road has waned somewhat over the last few days due to a number of factors. Firstly, in defiance of Health and Safety directives, L and I abandoned our shoes a few weeks ago after the archaeology became a precious flower not to be trampled, and a pavement of sharp little stones, as it turns out, is not a friend to those who dig in their socks. The second source of my resentment towards the road is its concealment of a dead baby until the second to last day of excavation. The last thing I need when I’m running out of time is an infant smeared over a cobbled surface; it took half a day to get it cleaned and recorded and shoveled into a bucket.

Baby digging in my christmas socks

Baby digging in my christmas socks

The final nail was naturally the back-breaking planning of hundreds of tiny stones. This was made more than usually challenging by the visual distortions produced by sleep deprivation causing the pebbles to sporadically dance about like excited puppies or engage in cellular mitosis. My ruler has also become suspiciously bendy and is occasionally numbered non-sequentially. All in all, I find great pleasure in the idea of taking a very large pick to the road next year. In the meantime L and I found some small satisfaction in smashing up a six thousand year old kiln, which I think might be the oldest standing structure I’ve so far destroyed.

During the week some excitement was caused by one of our drivers doing away with some more wildlife. He was sitting on the decrepit sofa outside the front door (much favoured by the goats) when he was bitten on the hand by a large black snake. He did what any sensible person would do and shot it with his revolver (which none of us knew he carried) and then proceeded to pummel it into the seat with the butt of the gun. He received minor first aid from N for the snake bite and a strong rebuke from Mohammed the cook for what he’d done to the sofa.

Shot snake

Shot snake

The many dangers of Erbil

The staff in their excavation issue cowboy hats. I think I look particularly good in mine

The staff in their excavation issue cowboy hats. I think I look particularly good in mine

I’ve been in Erbil for a week now and my general impressions are that it’s a cheery sort of hot squalid city with friendly people, appalling works of public art and a pervading smell of eggs (I suspect that most of the taxis run on some kind of sulphurous biogas). So far I’ve been to four dinner parties and one lecture, got lost twice and been in a car crash. I sustained no serious injury in the latter except getting diet coke in my eye, which was surprisingly unpleasant.

Walking the plank in the temple of doom

Walking the plank in the temple of doom

Work on site is slow but steadily improving in standard; yesterday we cracked the difference between centimetres and inches on the measuring tapes. The achievements of the last season, of which I was thankfully not a witness, hang over us like a health and safety officer’s darkest nightmare, consisting of unmarked precipices and vast chasms bridged with planks of wood. My aims for the season are to improve the standard of recording on site, to draw the elevation of the enormous Ottoman city wall and not to break my neck. I find I have been classified by the powers that be on site as a ‘consultant’, which I resent enormously as I feel it implies that I’m doing very little for a huge amount of money when in fact the opposite is true.

Liberated American pear

Liberated American pear

If the site doesn’t kill me I fear the social scene might. I’m renting a room in a house with other foreigners and so far we’ve had three large dinner parties with a further one planned for Saturday night. I’m developing excellent upper body strength through carrying boxes of Jacob’s Creek back from the wine shop every night. We also get invited out. Last night two of us went to the American security compound at the invitation of a member of the consular staff who has an interest in archaeology. He treated us to hamburgers and cheesecake at one of the compound restaurants and then took us back to his house where we drank a large amount of whiskey and admired his body armour. On the way back to the gates I sustained moderate injuries to my left arm by drunkenly climbing a wall to steal pears. In hindsight I was probably lucky not to get shot – as it happens, the wall concealed a large amount of satellite communications equipment and several armed guards. I’m sure there’ll be plenty more opportunities to get myself arrested.

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) http://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

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.

Chemical warfare in practice

Double tweezers: hairy ladies were not cool in the New Kingdom

Double tweezers: hairy ladies were not cool in the New Kingdom

Today I removed my first customer from their immortal rest. It appears to be a very large woman, buried with two pairs of tweezers suggesting a great pre-occupation with hair removal. I personally enjoy the opportunities on excavation to let things go in this department and return to the planet of the apes. Within reason of course.

Much of my time in this first week of the dig has been devoted to the destruction of small green flying insects which live in my room and bite me in neat rows along my larger surface veins. By Monday I was looking very much like a vampire’s breakfast having been mostly attacked at the neck and wrists. My first move was to change the blanket under the assumption of flea infestation (the cats, alas, are still very much with us) but this had no effect. On spotting the little green flying bastards I changed my strategy to an aerial-delivery chemical offensive involving a can of Egyptian fly spray and miss placed optimism. True to form, the Egyptian fly spray mostly ran down my arm, made me slightly sick with similar effects to those of Mustard gas (with which I am now familiar) and failed to kill the offending wildlife.

Dirty bomb: Egyptian fly spray

Dirty bomb: Egyptian fly spray

No one takes an interest in killing wildlife quite like Americans so my next move was to consult an American colleague as to how she was destroying the ecosystem in her room. She kindly furnished me with a can of the finest American broad-spectrum poison and I set to work. After applying liberally to my room I retired for an hour and returned to find it nigh-crunchy under foot. I am this morning free from new bites and the only noticeable side effects so far have been a very disturbing dystopian dream about Oxfordshire County Council, which I definitely don’t think I’d have come up with without some chemical stimulus. There is a cost to all wars whether won or lost.

American precision weaponry

American precision weaponry

Back in the saddle

I lie incapable in my hotel bed, being rejected for jobs and eating a dinner of Fanta and cheese Doritos

I lie incapable in my hotel bed, being rejected for jobs and eating a dinner of Fanta and cheese Doritos

Today finds me in a budget hotel in Cairo feeling very crappy. I flew in last night from Manchester via Frankfort. During the second leg I sat next to a German girl who had the amusing habit of tearing a sheet of her enormous German newspaper in half next to my ear every time I was in danger of falling asleep. When she wasn’t doing this she was talking loudly to herself and throwing her salad at me. Having not slept for two nights and having a fever, I didn’t wholly appreciate her efforts, but I comfort myself with the thought that she might now also be unwell.

My preparation for going back to Egypt, as you may have guessed hasn’t been ideal. I went down to Oxford for a week to stay with my sister as it was our mutual birthday. This coincided with the start of the strange sub-zero cold snap that’s happening in Britain, meaning that I spent most of the week cold and drunk.

 

how to save money on shoes

how to save money on shoes

By Monday night I was feeling too ill to sleep but still had to get up at 6am to go and learn about conventional and unconventional weaponry in London. I can’t pretend this wasn’t interesting; the tutors were a former Met police officer who’d worked on the Alexander Litvinenko case and talked affectionately of the poisoned bodies he had known, and a former SAS explosives expert who told us all about how bombs work and what happens when they do. He showed us videos of people doing it wrong and went pink in the cheeks when he talked about fuses. I learned that landmines are Bad, and that if I am exposed to mustard gas I should drink milk and take my clothes off. Anyway, it would all have been better if I could have been tucked up in bed instead of sitting in a freezing cold classroom.

how I walk now

how I walk now

Feeling by now very unwell, I took an evening train back to my parents where I picked up my stuff for Egypt, failed to sleep and went to the airport. I don’t feel shivery anymore, which is a good sign (unless it’s hypothermia), but all the horribleness seems to have congregated in my throat so talking and swallowing are messy. Another serious cause of unhappiness is the horse riding me and my sister did as a birthday treat on Monday, which is leaving me increasingly crippled as the week goes on. I did a lot of the lesson at the canter without stirrups; today I think my hips surely must be broken. Basically I feel like I’ve had my throat cut, been hit on the head and then beaten up.

I realise none of this has anything to do with archaeology. I’m off to cry over my broken body and have another sleep.

Disaster Plan

Image

Topsoil ordinance found in my test trench during the trial season

This week I was sent the disaster plan and risk assessment for the work I’ll be doing in northern Iraq in April and May. Normally archaeological risk assessments make for pretty dull reading – risk: falling into the trench; Action: look out for trenches. Risk: getting a pick through your head; Action: look out for picks, and so on. I had high hopes for this one, however, as it claimed to assess the risk of CBRN and UXO, terms which are not actually explained in the document but in context reveal themselves as Chemical, Biological and Radio/Nuclear materials and UneXploded Ordinance (which should of course be UEO to anyone with basic literacy. In fact this document is not strong on basic literacy because it has been produced (cut and pasted) by a Health and Safety drone who has so little pride left in his job that he couldn’t bear to read the thing). My hopes of an exciting read were crushed, alas, largely by the weight of it as it runs to a pithy forty-two pages.

I did learn about some of the delightful charms of the region, chief among which are:

Tabun – a lethal nerve agent, possibly present in the soil as a viscous oily residue.

Sarin – a lethal nerve agent, more potent than Tabun, possibly remaining in unexploded ordinance.

Mustard gas – a blister agent, lethal if inhaled, persistent in the soil.

Cyanide – a lethal blood agent, possibly remaining in unexploded ordinance.

Cutaneous Anthrax – endemic in the region, found in soil and animal carcases.

Explosives – there are an estimated 3500 known minefields in the region, mostly left over from the Iran-Iraq war.

As no actual nuclear/radiological risks are present in the area, the cheery possibility that we might be nuked by Iran is considered, just to cover the N and R of the acronym.

Image

My increasingly frantic Iraqi Arabic phrase book. It was all ‘Good morning’ and ‘Please may I have a cup of coffee’ at the start.

In fact, this risk assessment doesn’t mention anything about falling into trenches, or leaving one’s spade lying face down so it doesn’t smack you in the nose when you step on it like in a Laurel and Hardy film. This is because it was written by people who know a great deal about chemical and biological weaponry and nothing at all about archaeology. Usually risk assessments are written for free by the dig director on the back of an envelope in the back of a pub. Despite concluding that the risk of all the nasty things discussed was virtually zero, unless we should happen to put a trench through Saddam’s missing WMD bunker, the risk assessing company has of course had to come up with some actionable advice and suggests the wearing of stout boots, face masks, gloves, goggles, and hard hats, which all sound like a great deal of fun in 45°C.

Usually in the Middle East for shoes we dig in trainers or socks or nothing. When things get really bad I put my sun glasses on and wrap a scarf around my head. I can’t imagine how much of a twat I’m going to look in Iraq in my face mask and goggles when the local workmen show up in their flip-flops.

Image

The dirty feet common to Middle Eastern archaeology and Victorian street urchins

The thing is, in the Middle East where the archaeology is mostly made of fragile mud, and the temperature itself is a major risk to health, the safest clothing is soft light stuff. Of course, when I dig in the UK I wear steal toe-capped boots and a hard hat and a nice fluorescent jacket, but this is because I’m usually working in 4°C and six inches of mud, surrounded by heavy machinery and builders throwing bricks. And it’s not like that’s all too safe – I once dug out a cellar in Stoke-on-Trent that turned out to be entirely lined with asbestos. I also dug up an old lubricants factory once, which the risk assessment swore was fine, but every time we dug a hole it filled up with a different coloured puddle.

Of course, the biggest risks in field archaeology are actually early onset arthritis, repetitive strain injuries, skin cancer, irreversible psychological damage, sclerosis of the liver, crocodiles and poverty, but these are rarely mentioned. The biggest killer of archaeologists abroad is road traffic accidents.