Category Archives: middle east

Wolves and walls

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Meanwhile at Ur, the sun does that thing again

I’m currently enjoying my first hangover of the excavation season. We got through an alarming amount of our vodka stock last night, and a French sausage. We sang along to the whole of Paul Simon’s Graceland album and fashioned the plastic netting from the duty free bottles into a large sculpture of a penis. I knew this stuff would come round, I just didn’t expect it this early.

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The brick storage room and its neatly stacked rows of bricks

News from the trenches is of hard fighting and slow progress. The room I’m excavating has proved to be full of structural brickwork, consisting of a series of unusual cross-walls, which caused some confusion for a while. The best explanation was provided by my head workman Haider who suggested it was a room for storing bricks in. It took me three weary days to define all the architecture and clean it up for a photo, the reward for which was a back-breaking day of planning it all. I love drawing hundreds of bricks, it’s the best thing ever. Now I’m digging out the first of what are clearly a series of sub-floor vaults in which I am finding more or less absolutely nothing. The director is hoping it’s a grave and stops by now and then to ask if I’m finding any bone – lots, is the answer, and all of it rat. At least there’s no paperwork to speak of, I haven’t registered a find in four days.

I’m hoping for a more fruitful time on site next week as the omens are good. On Tuesday an eagle was seen sitting atop my spoil heap, on Wednesday a wolf crossed our path on the way to site (I’m still mentally digesting the presence of non-fictional wolves in southern Iraq) and yesterday there was an enormous moth in my shower. They say ominous portents come in threes so I’m counting the moth, it really was very big.

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The oracular eagle of the spoil heap, which foretells the death of kings and the discovery of occupation deposits in room 301

In other animal news, only one of last year’s site dogs has showed up. We don’t know what has become of John, Limpy Lassie and Arsehole but this year the density of sleepy dogs (roadside dog corpses) seems to be at an all-time high around Nasiriyah. Our one remaining dog Steve showed up quite quickly, looking rather thin and sad but we’re feeding her up on a diet of bread, biscuits and the oil at the bottom of tuna cans. Hussein, one of the local workmen, told us that Steve has four puppies at a nearby farm so F asked the director if we can please please have a puppy if we promise to look after it and feed it and clean up its shits but he remained unmoved despite the crying.

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The old gang: Steve, John and Limpy Lassie in happier, less dead times. No pictures of Arsehole survive because we didn’t like him very much

Blood and Bogies

I’ve been back living at Ur for a week now with four days on site, during which I’ve renewed my mutually-abusive relationship with unbaked cuneiform tablets. I’ve re-nested in my tin box, hung my flags, flushed a lot of water down the dusty toilet and hidden all my food supplies where they can be out of harm’s way in the short term. I augmented my UK stores with a litre of Stoli and eight Kinder Eggs at Istanbul airport.

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The timeless beauty of Nasiriyah power station in the light of a cold January morning

It’s bastard cold in Iraq at the moment and the only way I’ve found of sleeping in the insulation-free innards of my steel shipping container is by wearing most of my clothes and piling up heaps of thick, luridly patterned Iraqi blankets on top. I’m effectively pinned to the mattress by the weight of them and I’ve been having a lot of dreams about being caught in avalanches or drowning. I think I’m treading a fine line between developing hypothermia and being murdered by my own bedding. The state of my unconscious psyche has also been coloured by reading the Osprey book of the Iran-Iraq war before bed so that I’ve spent a couple of nights fighting off human wave attacks by massed Pasdaran infantry.

Our four days on site were interrupted by the traditional heavily armed trip to the clinic in Nasiriyah to check, for residency visa purposes, that we are all human people who bleed real human blood. The blood samples are taken in one room and then registered separately in another with the owner taking care of the sample in between so at least we all had something to keep our hands warm. We passed the waiting periods by playing Bogies – for those who are unfamiliar, this is a game played in public spaces, in which each player has to say the word ‘Bogies’ slightly louder than the previous player until someone chickens out. We were surprisingly uninhibited at the hospital.

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M wonders how he can possibly beat the last Bogie without being shot in the back of the head by the cops

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Nice doggy

On the way back from the blood-letting we stopped off at the Nasiriyah Museum of Civili Zation (sic). This was not my sort of museum really, as it was lacking in the most vital areas (gift shop, café) but did provide some interest by all the dates in the prehistory gallery being out by a factor of ten, someone having added an extra zero on the end of each, and by having a statue which looked exactly like the evil stone Zool dogs from Ghostbusters.

Rucking, mauling and digging in Iraq

The best view in Erbil - from the roof of the citadel's new gate, which will hopefully open one day

The best view in Erbil – from the roof of the citadel’s new gate, which will hopefully open one day

It’s Friday in Erbil and I’m being unpleasantly reminded of why I don’t drink much wine any more. The shaking has mostly stopped now, but I’m still feeling a bit… sullied. I was out with the ‘Erbil Film Society’ last night, which turns out to be a small group of oil people with a projector and an unlimited amount of free food and booze, which is never a bad thing and yet never really a good thing either.

The teaching of section drawing becomes a fairly intimate affair when part of the section is essentially in a tunnel

The teaching of section drawing becomes a fairly intimate affair when part of the section is essentially in a tunnel

The excavation proceeds slowly, partly because it’s still very hot and there’s no shade most of the day by the south gate, but also because we’re all very lazy and my Kurdish co-workers want to go home at 2pm and who am I to argue? We had another hold up yesterday of a new and exotic kind, just when I thought I’d seen all the possible ways in which archaeology can be impeded. We’re clearing a deposit of modern rubbish that was used to fill the gap between the archaeology and a modern wall. The rubbish is of the usual Middle Eastern kind – lots of plastic bags and an inexplicable wealth of shoes and pharmaceutical packaging – but then we hit a rich seam of burnt books, which on inspection appeared to be Qurans. Turns out you can’t just chuck a Quran on the spoil heap, you have to watch for forty-five minutes while two Kurdish workmen reverentially scoop handfuls of ashy pages into plastic shopping bags, making a huge hole in your neat excavation. I asked what they were going to do with the bags of Quran ash but they just shrugged and put them under the pomegranate tree for safe-keeping. From the flakes of ash poking out from the rest of the rubbish I have a sinking feeling that this will prove to be a Quran-rich deposit and we’re going to spend a lot of next week on holy-book-disposal instead of science.

My Kurdish colleagues use a hand tape to gather pomegranates from a nearby tree in a further illustration of their extraordinary work ethic

My Kurdish colleagues use a hand tape to gather pomegranates from a nearby tree in a further illustration of their extraordinary work ethic

So spins the earth, and so eventually the Rugby World Cup comes around, in about three hours’ time in fact. Me and my housemate are off to our friend A’s house where he’s cooking a bacon-based pasta dish and putting his enormous TV at our disposal. I have an excellent night ahead of bacon, beer, rugby and explaining rugby to an American. I’ve already tried explaining the scrum to her, which elicited expressions of horror, so we’ll have to take it slowly. I’ve actually managed to find rugby to play here, which makes me think there might be hope for Iraq after all. I’m now playing touch rugby twice a week just down the road, although I am struggling a bit with the heat and the creeping advance of creeky-knee-ed age. Still, it’s good to be doing something here other than drinking, smoking and complaining.

Babylon the Great

The lion of Babylon making nice with a man

The lion of Babylon making nice with a man

It’s been a week of wind and rain in southern Iraq. This morning the truck almost got stuck in the mud on the way to site again, which would have saved us all a great deal of windy, freezing misery, but it was not to be. It finally dragged itself out by its four-wheel-drive onto the express way where it carried us wailing to site. At night I have been kept awake by the drumming of rain on the roof of my shipping container and by my possessions knocking into the furniture as they wash across the floor.

Rani, about to find out if that other button does turn the truck into a hovercraft

Rani, about to find out if that other button does turn the truck into a hovercraft

Friendly neighbourhood policing

Friendly neighbourhood policing in Diwaniyah

We had a special treat this Friday, which was to go and be cold and wet in Babylon instead of being cold and wet at Ur. At least it gave the dig directors a break from our whining, which was probably the point of the exercise. We were passed northward through the heavily armoured hands of four provincial police forces, all of whom cultivate the amateur-enthusiast aura of American bible-belt militias, mixed with a bit of official pomp and a few scarves knitted by their mums. Luckily they took off their more interesting accessories and larger guns to escort us around the site.

 

 

In the sensory vacuum of Baathist Babylon reconstruction, F falls victim to existential doubt

In the sensory vacuum of Baathist Babylon reconstruction, F falls victim to existential doubt

 

Babylon in the rain. It does have atmosphere; specifically that of an abandoned soviet holiday complex built too close to the water table. The majority of it is taken up with Saddam’s enormous empty reconstructed buildings erected in the 1980s, which remind me of a dream I once had about living in a concrete grain silo after the nuclear apocalypse. They at least have the soothing effect of minimalist visual calm due to there being absolutely nothing that catches the eye.

 

There are some original parts remaining. The raised brick reliefs of the Ishtar gate still give you an idea of the grandeur of the place, and parts of the ancient processional way have been preserved; ornamented on this occasion by the addition of a dead fox artfully arranged on the bitumen lined pavement. Overlooking the whole enterprise is Saddam’s huge palace, which would have given him an excellent view of what he was spoiling. I was hoping to buy something monstrously tacky from the gift shop but in this I was also disappointed as it seems to have been closed for at least twenty years and now had only two elderly men sleeping in it. Instead I sampled the delights of Babylon’s only ladies’ toilet, which had no lock, paper, bin or running water. Cradle of civilization, my arse.

One of our policemen admires the charming dead foxes of the Great Processional Way

One of our policemen admires the charming dead foxes of the Great Processional Way

The lunatic fringe

 

As the Blues sense victory, the Reds super-weapon stalks over the battlefield shooting lasers from its cycloptic eye!!!!!!!!!!

As the Blues sense victory, the Reds super-weapon stalks onto the battlefield shooting lasers from its cycloptic eye

It’s a regrettable truth that archaeology attracts far more than its fair share of mentally deranged people, not just within the subject as a commercial and academic pursuit, but also from society at large. Itinerant fruit cakes gather around the subject like kids round a carcass.

The first season's unfortunately shaped test trench

The first season’s unfortunately shaped test trench

We got a call this week from the British Ambassador congratulating us on discovering the world’s earliest shopping mall. The consular staff had read it in the Iraqi press; how we’d found a big building full of little shops. I suppose you could call it that, provided we assume that most shops in the Old Babylonian period sold only broken pottery and dust. This was in fact one of many colourful interpretations of our data by members of the excitable press. The very best example of the genre for this particular project dates to the first test season when two trenches were dug across each other to chase rectilinear wall lines. This produced a sensational article on Wikipedia (recently removed but still available via the Worthy Christian Forum) which claimed we had discovered a temple in the form of the earliest Christian cross, dating to 2000 BC (…).

 

The alien escape capsule is found mostly intact, but did the pilot survive the landing?

The alien escape capsule is found mostly intact, but did the pilot survive the landing?

No.

No. That’s ceramic space technology for you

Fanciful tales are by no means restricted to intellectually deficient journalists trying to rake a publishable story out of tedious old crap. There are plenty of crazies out there churning out nonsense simply because they’re window-licking simpletons. This project has acquired its own conspiracy theorist, whose name I won’t mention in case she finds my blog and starts accusing me of supressing the truth about all the alien technology we’re excavating for the US government. She’s written a book about the site, available on Amazon, which as far as I can tell claims to be an investigative piece about our secret archaeological work funded by the oil industry and shadowy government agencies. I’ve only read the sample pages free on Amazon as I refuse to pay her money (even though she claims all profits will go to the Society for Truth in Archaeological Research, which I fear may have but one member). She seems to think we’re either looking for alien technology, hiding the truth about the origins of humanity, covering up radical new evidence about biblical scripture or hunting for Nazi gold. One of those.

I’m not quite sure why she thinks we’re so secretive; the project has a website, a facebook page and a twitter account. Her in-depth research, which she claims to perform in Ohio wearing pyjamas and listening to Bach, mysteriously doesn’t seem to have found any of these. The truth is out there, if you can find it amongst all the crazy shit.

The big beige

Beige as far as the eye can see

Beige as far as the eye can see

Sometimes I wonder, as I watch my bright green holdall approach on the airport baggage carousel, why all my travelling things are strong primary colours. My laptop case and my camera are bright red, my small holdall is bright blue, my tablet cover is bright green. Sometimes I catch my reflection in the customs area two-way mirrors and I look like a dirty clown. The answer may lie in the unrelentingly colour-free environments to which I’m usually heading, southern Iraq being the example par excellence. This place is beige, so beige at times I feel like I’ve woken up in a sepia silent movie and am surprised when people speak out loud and it doesn’t cut to a dialogue frame with “Oh no! Wind has blown my bonnet off!”

Our plastic flowers used to be pink and the grass used to be green

Our plastic flowers used to be pink and the grass used to be green. This picture is in full colour

The beige is everywhere and gets everywhere. It never seems to be in quite the right place and the desert is always full of diggers and bulldozers moving the beige around a little bit, pushing a ridge here or a little pile there to see if that makes it better. From the air the beige looks like it’s been scribbled on by toddlers. This process of beige adjustment has been going on indefinitely, as we find from the archaeology. Perhaps one day the people of Iraq will get all the beige just where they want it and be happy and rejoice and live in peace.

A pauses to shake the beige out of his ears

A pauses to shake the beige out of his ears

The other major redistributor of beige is the wind, which we’ve had quite a lot of so far. Every morning F asks me what the weather forecast says about the wind today. I tell her, and watch the tears of purest beige roll down her beige encrusted cheek. On site my on-going recovery of fragmented cuneiform tablets is not enhanced by the beige howling round my head, scouring the plaster off the wall faces and dusting over the excavation surface. I’ve been wearing my beige-tight goggles and trying to keep the beige out of my ears. It blows down the collar of my shirt from where my T shirt channels it under the waistband of my trousers and into my pants. Back at the house I go to my beige steel dragon and shower it off with slightly beige water until I have a beige shower tray. As I write this J is trying to wash the beige out of our clothes but all this does is produce gallons of beige water to silt the drain up. The clothes remain beige.

The sad tank of Eridu

The sad tank of Eridu

This morning we visited Eridu and Tell Ubaid, two more large mounds of beige. At Eridu we played on a broken tank with a big warning sign in Arabic next to it. At Tell Ubaid we found some human remains eroding out of a shallow grave on top of the mound. They were wrapped in a green waterproof.

Ur fry

The wind taking the top off our site tent. This made F happy as we no longer made her go outside to smoke

The wind taking the top off our site tent. This made F happy as we no longer made her go outside to smoke

Just one week into the excavation and we’ve invented a desperate new sport for the afternoons – Zembil Ball. This involves standing on the drive throwing a football into the top of a stack of zembils (rubber buckets made from used car tyres) from increasing distances. By the end of the season perhaps the game will have developed more complexity and become fully codified, or more likely, we’ll get bored of it in a few days and find another pointless way to occupy our teeny tiny minds.

I catch another tiddler. Not much eating on that

I catch another tiddler. Not much eating on that

On site it’s been a week of occasional high winds and disappointingly tiny cuneiform tablets. I’m beginning to feel that the archive room has been overfished and the only remaining stock is below breeding size and I should probably throw them back. We’ll see how things go next week, I still have hope of catching that huge white tablet that took my leg and haunts my dreams (actually, most of my dreams are still about trying to get to an interview on time).

Yesterday we had our blood tests for our residency papers, luckily they’ve dropped the stethoscope exam and the chest x-rays. However it still involved being inexpertly punctured with a needle, being tittered at by girls in lab coats and having to have my photo taken with the blood doctor who, unlike me, looked like he’d never had so much fun in all his life.

antediluvian carrots

antediluvian carrots

It’s Friday which is the cook’s day off. Me and F have been volunteered to cook dinner, which everyone else may or may not live to regret. We’ve decided to do stir fry as we managed to find soy sauce and packets of instant noodles in Nasiriyah yesterday (along with the pure and brilliant gold of three packets of real Lurpak lightly salted butter). We weren’t so lucky at the vegetable shop where we had our pick of a carefully curated historical collection of vegetables dating back to at least Christmas. We bought some sad-looking green peppers, some mysteriously slimy-looking mushrooms and some rubbery purple carrots, which I sincerely hope are the sort that are supposed to be that colour. We got back to the house to find that the cook’s last act of cruelty before going home for the weekend had been to cook the chicken we were going to use for the stir fry (or more accurately, he’d put it in a saucepan of water and lovingly boiled it for about four hours until he was sure it was completely flavourless). We will now be having tinned tuna stir-fry with a possible sprinkling of left-over spam. In deference to the Ur dig house kitchen misery generator we have resolved to call it Ur-fry.

Ur fry. Not nearly as bad as it could have been considering it mostly consists of elderly courgettes and three tins of Iranian tuna

Ur fry. Not nearly as bad as it could have been considering it mostly consists of elderly courgettes and three tins of Iranian tuna

In the end, we did not poison anyone.