Category Archives: history

Meeting the meat

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Ur city signage

As a thank you at the end of the season, our Iraqi colleagues generously treated us to dinner tonight. Last night they brought dinner round to the dig house so we could be introduced first. Alerted by the sound of strident bleating, we came outside to find the house keeper holding a pretty black and white lamb by its fluffy newly washed fleece. It was a somewhat strained social atmosphere; the lamb was clearly unhappy about the turn events had taken, and we were all very hungry as it was just before dinner. We tried to say the right manner of things, about what a nice sort of lamb he was, but it doesn’t do to get overly familiar in this kind of short term relationship. We all resisted any impulses towards patting it or naming it. The poor little chap rather embarrassed himself in the end by shitting all over the garden path, but under the circumstances we agreed that he could be forgiven.

It should be noted that his pitiful crying and big sad eyes in no way prevented him from being delicious.

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We meet again

Things in southern Iraq are progressing in their usual manner. After six weeks of freezing our extremities off, the weather was very nice for about fifteen minutes on Monday before going stinking hot and horribly windy instead. Last week I finally managed to evict all the dead people from my excavation area; a glum, chain-smoking man from the mosque came and took away the unwelcome late intrusive adult cut into my floors and hastily reburied him/her in a shallow grave behind the spoil heap. Almost immediately afterwards I disturbed an inconvenient baby in a mudbrick debris deposit, which I cleaned, photographed, planned and removed in less than half an hour – a new personal best. My courtyard also yielded a large stone basin, which was removed back to the dig house at Ur where it has proved to be ideal for stopping our football from blowing away in these windier times. The smokers among us lament that it would have made the perfect statement ashtray for the garden if only we didn’t have to send it to the museum so they can lose it.

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Nothing makes Iraqi workmen happier than late bronze age stone work

Last weekend we had a team outing to a site called Shmet, which it turned out no one really knew how to get to. We and our police detail spent an hour and a half driving around the same square kilometer of beige asking shepherds for directions and trying to circumvent a freshly excavated gas pipeline ditch. The site was pretty impressive when we finally got there, having been badly excavated by Iraqi archaeologists and badly looted by Iraqi villagers. After re-enacting several key scenes from the film Labyrinth, me and F went off to find some privacy. Fortunately, a colleague overheard one of our Iraqi police escort say he was going to climb higher up the mound as he couldn’t see two of the foreign women. She curbed his diligence by explaining that after four hours in the minibus we had in fact gone to find a looting pit deep enough to piss in.

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Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the goblin city

 

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The oldest sins in the newest ways

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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

 

What is it good for?

 

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Remains of a military truck in the remains of its earthwork

War has been on my mind a fair bit over the last week. Firstly because we’ve spent it with German geophysicists and proximity to Germans causes most British people to be conscious that they mustn’t reference certain 20th century events, inevitably leading to the problem that it becomes all you can think about. It didn’t help yesterday on site when one of the policemen asked where our colleagues were from, we said Germany and he said “Ah! Adolf Hitler!” and gave us a big thumbs-up sign. I came across similar reactions when I worked with Palestinian workmen in Lebanon who not only thought Hitler was great but also thought he was English.

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The upright shell casing we’ve been using as a landmark in the vast emptiness within the walls

The second problem is the site itself, which formed part of the Iraqi defensive lines north of Basra during the extraordinarily bloody Iran-Iraq war. Most archaeological sites have looting pits but our looting pits are vastly outnumbered by tank emplacements, fox holes, fuel stores and defensive berms. The mighty Parthian ramparts which still ring the site have a tank-sized hole cut into them every hundred meters or so with a tank ramp up to them at the back of each. The mouldering remains of exploded military vehicles lurk about in the hollows and the surface is littered with thousands and thousands of spent (and a few unspent) munitions of various ilks. The geophysicists found an old squashed helmet in one of their grids.

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One of the less used artillery shells, found between the tyre-tracks left by our pickup

The Iran-Iraq war has even intruded into my new evaluation trench because someone at some point has driven a tank over it, which has compacted the clay below to a considerable depth leaving a big thick tank-shaped stripe. Of course, the human element of all this doesn’t bear thinking about. Today I came back to my trench after a few minutes with the total station to find my (very raw) workmen stuffing most of a human skull into a finds bag. My first thought was ‘oh crap, am I going to have to dig up some poor Iranian soldier with his boots on and his wrist watch still ticking?’ Fortunately the burial seems considerably older than the 1980s and I’m going to see if I can get away without digging it at all as we’re short of time and dead people are a pain in the arse. After I’d given my workmen a bit of a bollicking for not leaving the skull where they found it I explained that I didn’t want any more skulls because that’s not what we’re looking for. “Shame” said my youngest workman Fathdil, “Iraq is full of skulls”.

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One of our cops about to gift me the tail end of a mortar

Over the hills and far away

The hat rack of delusions

The hat rack of delusions

Balling in the ballroom

Balling in the ballroom

It’s out of season for Middle Eastern excavation so I’m having to make my own fun. I’m about to buy Sharpe’s Trafalgar in the Kindle store which, I have high hopes, will bring together many of my life’s dirty little pleasures – heroic men in well-fitting uniforms, slightly shoddy literature and Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson. This will be the seventh Sharpe novel I’ve read this week in an attempt to stave off the ravages of the real world. I’ve decided that the tawdry and emasculated land of now is not for me and I’m going to form square and repel reality with as many volleys as it takes (aim for the horses lads).

The pre-ball frisbee

Traditional pre-ball frisbee

I solve the croquet/dress problem by tucking my petticoats into my stockings

I solve the croquet/dress problem by tucking my petticoats into my stockings

It’s been nearly two weeks since the end of the week-long house party my sister and me organised for the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, which isn’t even the stupidest thing we’ve ever done. The problem has been the existential hangover, in which I’m struggling to come to terms with hard truths, such as no longer being able to drink my claret on the croquet lawn or ask one of the officers to row me around the boating lake. Why don’t I have a ballroom to hold my balls in? I can’t fit a full sized snooker table into any of the rooms in my parents’ three bedroom semi, and the neighbours stare at me through the front windows when I wear Napoleon’s hat (they’re doing it right now). I think one of them was looking at me from behind their curtains when I was practicing my musket drill in the back garden last night (how else am I going to get up to three rounds a minute?)

The post-ball gambling

I triumph in the post-ball all-night poker

I’m also frustrated that I can no longer resolve simple disagreements by shooting the other person in the head at dawn. I’ve tried demanding satisfaction, but the man who poured me the wrong sort of beer in the pub last week entirely misunderstood me. In the meantime, I can feel my precarious grasp of time, place and appropriate clothing fading away like the paintball bruises on my thighs and abdomen. Why cannot life be always cake and dancing? At least I can still drink all day.

The undeniable pleasure of killing one's enemy with a shot to the heart on the first ball

The undeniable pleasure of killing one’s enemy with a shot to the heart on the first ball

Dawn duelling

Dawn duelling: death in pajamas

Really I should be working – I haven’t been paid since January and I’ve got a monstrous pile of desk work lined up for the summer, but it’s difficult to balance it with the demands of being mental and reading 1.5 Bernard Cornwell novels a day. I’m trying to resist the urge to buy another sword.

I effectively went on holiday to 1815 and refused to come home. Sorry, I am currently out of the office; I have gone to my happy place to fight the French.

Does anyone know how to get port out of a silk dress?

Waterloo dinner, drinking a health to the duke

Waterloo dinner, drinking a health to the duke and confusion to Bonaparte