Category Archives: human burial

Engaging first gear

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Dots and dots and dots and dots and dots. In hell the really bad people do stippling forever

So I pretty much took the summer off the blog in the end, my main excuse being that I haven’t done any archaeology really, unless you count two weeks spent drawing thousands of little dots on Adobe Illustrator after accepting some work digitising object drawings. On the plus side, money; on the minus side; madness. I was also handicapped for some time by a crushing sense of guilt, having developed a moral certainty that I had caused Great Britain to exit the European Union using magic (see previous post). Now I’ve gained perspective on the situation I know this to be nonsense and I now only suffer from a vague sense of guilt that I didn’t vote, but I share complicity in that with 13 million other eligible non-voters. Had I actually discovered an ability to influence global events using the Dark Arts I feel things would work out badly for everyone.

The only new power I’ve really been developing over the summer is driving. Some of you may find it surprising that an educated woman in her middle years, who can tie a good bowline, ride a horse and is handy with a blade, can’t drive a car, but to me it seems surprising that so many people do drive considering how expensive, stressful and boring it is. Bring on the driverless cars I say; even if they occasionally drive you into the side of a truck at least you can read the papers and drink a coffee while they’re doing it. It’s actually surprisingly common for British archaeologists not to drive. This has something to do with many of them being feckless dreamers unconcerned with worldly matters, but more to do with over-long periods spent in higher education and being too poor to buy and run a car. Thus has the world been spared many a tiresome driver, easily distracted by passing long-barrows and Iron Age hill forts, constantly ignoring the satnav to investigate ‘interesting’ looking churches and insisting that every road which runs straight for more than 100m must be Roman. Anyway, I’ve got my test in a few weeks so you better watch out if you’re on the roads.

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My parents are not supportive of my artistic efforts, why can’t I paint something nice like kittens? I tell them that art has to reflect the soul

Naturally I’ve wasted the last two weeks staying up until 4am every night watching exciting Olympic sport, like Spain playing Hungary at water polo. Some of my other summer non-achievements have included a spate of archaeologically-inspired painting, preparing a tedious old bunch of rubbish (my doctoral research) for publication, and watching all nine series of The X-Files, which left me cripplingly paranoid for a good three weeks. “Trust no one”, says the first source that Mulder gets horribly killed, which is strange because that’s exactly what my mother’s always said…

My summer is nearly over and the digging season is about to begin so I’ll be heading back to Iraq in about three weeks to start a new project. This one presents a bit of a problem though because ‘they’ have made me sign a contract which forbids me from talking about the project, blogging about the project or posting images or text about the project on any platform (apologies to my para-archaeology conspiracy theorist stalkers who just wet themselves – sorry guys, but I’m just a pawn of the military-industrial elite). Anyway, it presents an issue for the blog but I hope I can work something out.

In some really excellent news I finally found my Blue Peter badge which has been lost for many years. The deep significance of this will only be apparent to my UK readers.

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This was the summit of my ambitions when I was ten years old. I think it still is.

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People packing

The dog helps by eating my shoes

The dog helps by eating my shoes

Blog writing time is getting seriously hard to come by at this end of the season. We’ve all become caught in a circle of paperwork hell; the one reserved for banking fraud and mildly hazardous school field trips. This is mostly due to the unusual number of multiple burials we’re finding, which multiplies the paperwork by a factor of however many dead people there are. A five-man stack is no longer considered unusual, triggering a formageddon of unit sheets, skeleton sheets, burial description sheets and textile and matting sheets. We’re sheeting ourselves to death right now (you see what I did there). Today I broke my toe jumping up the stairs going back to the office for yet another form; it’s a dangerous business.

We’re all finding different ways of coping with the pressure. C has started skipping site breakfast, M and A get up at 5am to fit in some early morning sheets. Gin. Personally I’ve started packing my dead people into the bread trays in elaborate and artistic ways as a gratuitous waste of time I don’t have. I like the way the ribs make sort of wings and the way shoulder blades look like pig’s ears. I think I might be getting a bit peculiar.

I call this one Boy in Box

I call this one Boy in Box

Teenager in Tray

Teenager in Tray

Asymmetric Adolescent

Asymmetric Adolescent

The others might be cracking too; the excavation team is troubled by fretful archaeological dreams. M had a very standard cemetery excavation dream in which the sides of her improbably deep grave collapsed on top of her, pressing her against the withered flesh at the bottom in a powdery embrace. S had another form of paranoia dream in which a tsunami of water poured off the high desert into the cemetery wadi, forcing us to all climb the cliffs to try and save ourselves. I put this one down to the fact that the workmen play the theme to Titanic by Celine Dion on their phones all the time. They love Titanic in Egypt, as there is no cultural concept of repulsive soppiness. G’s dream was probably the most telling – she dreamed that if only M could dig deep enough, she could pull the plug and all the sand would drain out through the enormous sieve which underlies the cemetery. All the bodies would be left in the bottom of the sieve and we’d just have to go along and collect them up. I dreamed that we were all replaced by cheaper, more efficient Chinese archaeologists.

The embarrassment of losing one's pants

The embarrassment of losing one’s underclothes

The other crisis in my archaeological life is my unsustainable loss of underwear in the communal wash. I came with ten pairs of pants, I’m now down to three; the pair I put in the wash today, the pair I hope to find in the clean wash tomorrow and the pair I’m wearing about my person. I’m one pair of pants away from commando archaeology and not in the good sense. I’m dogged by the question of who’s wearing my pants?

Digging deep in Egypt

Ancient city vs modern villages: a fight to the death

Ancient city vs modern villages: a fight to the death

They say six feet under is the optimum depth for burying bodies. I can positively state, however, that this is not the optimum depth from which to unbury them. Our first few graves at the new cemetery have been a bit more challenging than anticipated, due to them being deeper than we can climb out of and narrower than we can fit into.

An untidy landing means I may have to settle for the bronze

An untidy landing means I may have to settle for the bronze

My first catch of the season was a fine example, being 1.25m deep, 29cm wide and containing two well-mixed teenagers. There are interesting practical issues associated with excavating a 29cm wide grave when you have 31cm wide hips. Most solutions involve being firmly wedged and suffering a great deal of indignity and back pain. Then there’s the getting in and out. Having reasonable upper body strength I model my dismount on the parallel bars; with a hand each side of the grave cut and a good accurate jump I can get my arse over the top and then roll. Other colleagues have to have their workmen drag them out by the arms. Getting in is more like a pommel horse dismount; pushing off one side, you have to twist sideways in the air to avoid becoming wedged at the hips and land neatly in a gap between the bones. Marks are deducted for taking a step on landing, especially for stepping on a skull or get bone shards stuck through your feet.

Hairy grave horror

Hairy grave horror

The landing gap in the bones of my first burial was not in fact empty but instead full of a huge clump of plaited hair. This is not my favourite element of the graves here. I don’t know if you’ve ever pulled handfuls of three-and-a-half thousand year old dead human hair out of compacted sand and gravel, perhaps you have, but I can tell you that it’s not as lovely as you might think. On an emotional level, it’s very similar to unblocking the plug hole in someone else’s shower. At the central part of the cemetery all the bodies have mummified feet, which is about the only thing I’d like less than all the hair. I find living human feet somewhat stomach churning so papery dead feet with blackened toenails are about where I draw the line and call for a paper bag. Give me dried eyeballs and dead man’s pubes any day.

Dead Egyptian feet; enough to put me off my breakfast

Dead Egyptian feet; enough to put me off my breakfast

To add to the physical and psychological discomfort, and the corpse dust, it gets revoltingly hot and sticky down in the deep graves. This is possibly because the breeze can’t reach us, but more probably because we’re getting close to hell.