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.

Advertisements

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) 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

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