Category Archives: middle east

Meeting the meat

imgp2664small

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.

imgp2829small

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.

imgp2752small

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.

imgp2777small

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

 

Back from the beyond

imgp2567small

site envy at Nippur

You might be forgiven for thinking that something terrible had happened to me. I left my blog at a point of sinister crisis as I was digging at a mysteriously nameless site for a morally ambiguous corporate entity*. The reader may have been left with the impression that I’d been disappeared for extensive mental reconditioning having seen something for which the human mind is not ready. I can tell you that to my knowledge this is not the case, although when I try to think back to November all I remember is the colour yellow. In truth, I hit an unforeseen snag with this blog, and after quite a lot of worrying about things I’ve decided to just fuck it and carry on more or less as before – minimal archaeology and being slightly mean – and see what happens.

2017 has so far been kind to me; I finally got my PhD published in the form of an already out of date book which no one can buy because a pitifully small number have been printed and it’s mind buggeringly expensive. I got some good news on a job, which had to happen at some point simply by the laws of probability, and I won a four day painting holiday in Bournemouth with an elderly woman I barely know. I’m not inclined to enter into gift horse mouth examinations however.

imgp2617small

Someone finally shows some initiative and murders Waleed; Iraq’s laziest wheelbarrower

I’m four weeks into my usual Jan/Feb/March excavation in southern Iraq, enduring a day-off consisting mainly of power cuts and primitive laundry. I’m excavating the main courtyard of our 2nd Millennium BC building, which is unremarkable except for a large depression (physical rather than metaphorical) in the centre, into which everything rolls; tools, spoil, used tissues, careless workmen. The most exciting on-site development is that our Iraqi antiquities representatives have started bringing hot soup for breakfast, which is an innovation of staggering brilliance.

At the Ur dig house we’re well into the usual desperate attempts to manufacture functional entertainment out of insufficient and defective parts. Earlier in the week a new knife for the kitchen arrived which was curiously marketed as a high quality ‘Kitchen Slaughter Knife’. This has led to lively speculation about who will be slaughtered first and by whom, and a general avoidance of the kitchen due to knife-related jests.

imgp2623small

Attempted infiltration of air rifles onto the shopping list

We’ve been engaged in a campaign to have the excavation provided with air rifles so that we can found the Ur Rifles Shooting Club, which we all agree would look great on a t-shirt. So far the project directors are holding firm to their no firearms poilcy. We have, however, managed to kit ourselves out with Iraqi national team football shirts, which has long been held as a project goal. Of course, it’s not possible to buy new and current Iraqi shirts, instead we visited a cavernous shop in Nasiriyah where football replica kit goes to die. It was piled to the ceiling with shirts from all clubs and countries dating as far back as the early 1990s, and after much labour on the part of the many shop staff we managed to find ten acceptable Iraqi shirts; a mixture of home and away strips in different sizes and designs, four of which cannot be worn locally due to having Ba’arthist-era flags on.

 

imgp2637crop

the Iraqi football shirt subs bench

*The British Museum

Pinning the tail on the donkey

IMGP1471small

We receive a visit from the Basra Parthian Cavalry Reenactment Group, otherwise known as Yusef’s annoying brother Ibrahim with a pink blanket on his dad’s horse

Life is like an evaluation trench; you never know what you’re going to get, and then when you do get it you usually don’t understand it. So things go at the new site where the geophysicists have gone home leaving us with lovely magnetometry images of several hectares of apparently well preserved ancient city and three weeks to put some rather small holes in it. Obviously, we put the first ones (ten by twos, go big or go home) in the fanciest, most palatial things we could see. The magnetometry had nigh-on promised me a beautiful Parthian temple, and F a nice big baked brick boundary wall. I found some shallow moth-eaten architecture all chopped about by late intrusive graves and F found the torpedo magazine of a long-sunken pottery submarine.

IMGP1481small

Sunk without firing a shot

It all goes to reinforce my long-held conviction that you really don’t know shit until you dig a site up, and sometimes not even then. Survey data is always wishful thinking. The site I was just working on before this one, up near Ur, was sold to the directors as a Jemdet Nasr site (3100-2900 BC) based on survey results, then we were promised it was an Old Babylonian (1830-1550 BC) temple by several knowledgeable people based on the satellite photos. On excavation, our convenient cuneiform archive reveals us to have an administrative building of the Sealand Dynasty (1730-1460 BC). Survey really can’t tell you anything more than where to start digging, all the rest is pure speculation (apologies (but not really) to all those archaeologists who have based their careers on survey data).

On Friday our friendly local antiquities official unlocked Saddam Hussein’s Basra riverside palace so that we could take a look around what’s going to be the Basra Museum. It was a bit disappointingly tasteful actually, and I had to grudgingly admit that Saddam might have been a passable interior designer if he hadn’t been a horrible genocidal maniac (he did manage to incorporate 1,200 renderings of his own name into the wall decorations). After, we took a boat up and down the river, passing Saddam’s small cruise ship Basra Breeze, which I am assured is a nauseating abomination in gold and ivory on the inside so perhaps that restores some balance to the force. In a properly ordered universe terrible people only make terrible things.

IMGP1409small

Saddam Hussein: on the one hand, total fucknut, and on the other, rather nice ceilings

Speaking of terrible things, this week we gained possession of a number of cans of Iraqi made Mr Louis whiskey. Surely a typo, I hear you cry, but no, it comes in cans, like Sprite, except with a 40% alcohol content and a shittier ring-pull. We’re living on the roof of a police station and they were given to us by the cops, who said they’d confiscated the stuff while raiding houses for illegal antiquities. It smells of Watsits and tastes of Dettol and should never ever be consumed.

IMGP1401small
Mr. Louis Original Whiskey, possible side effects include nausea, vomiting, combustion, demonic possession and cancer of the soulIMGP1403small

 

What is it good for?

 

IMGP1376small

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.

IMGP1342small

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.

IMGP1382small

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”.

IMGP1373small

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

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.

Happy happy hundredth post

DSC00078small

The charming environs of Nasiriyah as the day breaks

I’ve been kept from my blog these last two weeks by disrupted Fridays. This Friday I did something that doesn’t happen often; I Lost The Game, by which I mean I had a moment of dangerous mental clarity in which I realised I have no home, no job, no pension, no partner, no kids, no driving licence, no money and no realistic plan about how to get any of these things and I’m going to turn thirty-five in a few weeks. I had no option but to stay in my shipping container and watch nine episodes of Veep until I’d forgotten about all that vodka and paracetamol I have in my packing. I did start writing a blog post, which was entitled ‘What is the point?’, but no one needs to read that. Anyway, it’s a new week and I’m back to my usual astonishing levels of positivity, enjoying day after day of life-affirming archaeological fieldwork. Today I found some bricks and took a column sample.

IMGP1064crop

The extraordinary fun of Friday

The previous Friday also went wrong when we got kidnapped by a horrifyingly enthusiastic archaeologist who very kindly took us on a nine-hour tour of the province’s most looted and least attractive archaeological sites. We all thought we’d be back by lunch. By 4pm our police escort were looking longingly at their Kalashnikovs, wondering how much paperwork it would be if they just shot us all and went home. By the end, as the sun was going down and I was peering over the edge of reason, I reflected on how very much I hate archaeology.

DSC00084ac

Pedigree Iraqi racing pigeon (lost)

However, there are many positives to be found in the vast beigeness of archaeology if you dig deep enough. This week I learned that pigeon racing is massive in southern Iraq after we saw a man throw a box of pigeons out of the boot of his car on the road out of Nasiriyah. We’ve invented a new set of euphemisms to describe the endemic flatulence produced by the project’s bean-heavy diet: A sufferer proclaims that he or she is ‘Master of the Trumpington Hunt’ and every time they blow their horn they must call ‘View halloo!’ This is only funny because we’re all state school kids. The very best thing that has happened in the last two weeks is that I found Terry the Slag Beast under the floor of one of my ever expanding brick vaults. He’s a piece of green ceramic kiln waste, clinging to a lump of overfired pottery but he’s mine and I love him. I named him for the late Sir Terry Wogan who died the same week.

IMGP1077small

Terry

 

Brass monkeys

20160129_083256

8:31am, F records zero degrees in Steel Dragon no. 72

I’m finding it very difficult to write my blog today as I think my brain might have frozen itself to the top of my skull in the night. I was woken this morning by my neck brushing the freezing wet edge of the blanket where my breath had been condensing, and then by realising that the dream I’d been having about living in a meat freezer was inspired by a true story. It’s gone bastard cold over the last couple of days in southern Iraq. Yesterday we drove to site, opened the door of the heated truck and decided to just pay the workmen and go home. We’ve all been making a lot of bad jokes about that explorer who died in the Antarctic earlier in the week, mostly involving references to going to bed to ‘shoot my bolt’. I haven’t had a shower for two days now as I can’t stand the idea of taking off either pair of trousers.

DSC00071small

Thursday morning. M and I try to look on the bright side while the director pays the workmen to go home before we all perish.

I’ve become slightly obsessed with the temperature around the Ur dig house. A particular source of consternation is that it often seems to be warmer outside my steel shipping container than inside, leading me to wonder if I might be better off sleeping under it than inside it. Another anomaly was pointed out to us by G the conservator who has discovered that on cold days the fickle gods of thermodynamics converge on a patch of air just outside the front gate where it is for some reason several degrees warmer than anywhere else for a radius of about three feet. We’ve all trudged out to experience the phenomena accompanied by dark mutterings about geothermal springs, doorways to hell and Saddam’s missing nuclear weapons programme.

Here’s the token bit of archaeology which maintains my tenuous claim that this is an archaeological blog and not just a massive moan: I dug out all of the previously mentioned sub-floor vaults this week, confirming the initial findings that they contain absolutely sod all. This was rendered substantially more annoying by the hive of noisy activity in the adjacent area where F was shovelling out cuneiform tablets by the bucket-load to the sound of merry laughter. Most of the tablets are of the very small sort which we refer to as USB sticks. F’s new theory is that she’s digging a waiting room where everyone had to take a number and all the tablets are going to say ‘Please wait, you are number 74 in the queue’ or similar. I hope it’s a bookies.

DSC00056crop

I post Haider in the most recently dug vault with orders to repel the press and permission to use the small pick if necessary

The week’s work was punctuated by several official visits, the last and most disruptive of which came with a large herd of cops and press, who only managed to do moderate damage to the site. My one effort at shooing a cameraman out of one of my vaults only resulted in him scampering into the next room where he tripped spectacularly over the string dividing up my sampling spatials, pulling out several nails. I gave up at this point and F and I went off to hide in the tent until it was over.

DSC00059crop

One of the cops guarding the spoil heap and looking mean