Category Archives: middle east

Keeping calm in Erbil

More or less my first archaeological action this season was the satisfying destruction of a nice big wall

More or less my first archaeological action this season was the satisfying destruction of a nice big wall

My first week back in Erbil has been unexpectedly like most other weeks I’ve spent in this part of the world – I’ve had many uncomfortable conversations with taxi drivers, several unpleasant interactions with animals and I’ve eaten five times the amount of bread I’d want to eat in an ideal world. The main difference is that I’ve badly strained the muscles in my face which make the appropriate expression for when someone tells you something really terrible. I usually only get to use these a couple of times a year; when friends suffer a bereavement, and at Christmas and Weddings. Now these muscles are getting a full daily workout. Kurdistan has had quite a scare and a lot of people are suffering but most seem keen to make the best of it and keep looking forward. On Thursday night I went to the German bar where the live music was against a background of ‘Keep Calm’ messages including ‘Keep calm and stay in Erbil’ and ‘Keep calm and trust the Peshmerga’, which I’d like on a T-shirt if possible.

The pant-wetting chasm outside the city wall, into which one of us will surely fall to our deaths if we be not first buried alive

The pant-wetting chasm outside the city wall, into which one of us will surely fall to our deaths if we be not first buried alive

On the excavation things have got off to a bumpy start. In my absence the strategy appears to have been to locate the deepest part of the excavations head down with a sense of urgency. Even by my low standards of health and safety the site is now a massive screaming death trap and if we all make it out alive I’ll never write sarcastic comments on risk assessments again. I’ve been recapping some of last year’s work with the local archaeologists, such as why we sometimes write things down and which side of the tape is in metres. I’m sure it will all come back to them.

This time I’m staying with a lovely lady and her lovely dog. It’s all been lovely so far except my second evening in the house when the Bichon Frisé in question spent half an hour in a concerted effort to have violent sexual intercourse with my forearm. This was accompanied by a background refrain of ‘He’s not usually like this!’ Thankfully things have cooled off and we have since developed an attitude of mutual respect for each other’s bodily parts.

Should have left him there, the little...

Should have left him there, the little…

The other major animal related incident was my heroic rescuing of a kitten stuck on a drain pipe on the exterior of a tall building. I was handsomely rewarded by being scratched and pissed on. It could have been worse in the lottery of cat emissions, as my housemate sagely pointed out.

The fighting season

I’m supposed to fly to Erbil in nine days’ time to continue excavating on the citadel which, all things considered, could have worked out better. The Foreign and Commonwealth office, as of yesterday, advises against all travel to most of Iraqi Kurdistan and the UK government has asked all British citizens to leave Erbil. That’s if I can get there at all seeing as most of the airlines that fly to Erbil are cancelling flights today. I now have to seriously consider the choice between bailing on the excavation, losing my airfare, two and a half months of pay and a certain amount of archaeological street-cred (trench-cred surely?) – we archaeologists traditionally laugh in the face of petty local deadly religious wars (see previous posts concerning Leonard Woolley) – or I could ignore the wise council of Her Majesty’s government and go out to Erbil to be butchered by angry jihadists. It’s all very difficult, on the one hand I really need the money, but on the other hand I don’t want to die and I do want to see the new series of Doctor Who. Seriously, I don’t know what to do.

The new Doctor Who says fuck the fuck off you dickless ISIS  c**ts

The new Doctor Who says fuck the fuck off you dickless ISIS c**ts

 

[On an unprecedentedly serious note, watching a region I’ve come to like very much (in spite of its lunatic minority and poorly justified policy towards bacon) disintegrate into murderous chaos has been exceptionally painful. I’ve been deeply angry and frustrated over the short-sighted inaction of the international community over both the state of Israel’s murder of almost 2000 mostly innocent civilians in Gaza and the unchecked barbarity of ISIS/ISIL/IS in Iraq and Syria, all in the name of supposed just and merciful gods. Other than shouting at the television, my only response has been to give money to the Red Cross for Gaza and to the National Secular Society as mankind’s only long term hope.]

It’s been a bad summer, mostly spent on my parent’s sofa watching the World Cup, Wimbledon, the Tour de France, the cricket, the Commonwealth Games and the Horrible Wars. As well as making this my most physically inactive summer ever, it’s been extremely disappointing; I wanted England to win the World Cup (I know) and the cricket, Roger Federer to win Wimbledon, Chris Froome to win the Tour de France, the Palestinians to win in Gaza, the government to win in Ukraine and anyone but ISIS to win in Iraq. At least we did pretty well in the Commonwealth Games.

Drunk in a pub in Abingdon I experience considerable, if somewhat questionable, pleasure

Drunk in a pub in Abingdon I experience considerable, if somewhat questionable, pleasure

I haven’t been doing much archaeology; I wrote a paper, did some reconstruction illustrations and a very boring desk based assessment for a site in Croydon. I read a vaguely archaeological book this week, written in the 1950s by a journalist travelling through the Middle East; ‘Flying to 3000 BC’ by Pierre Jeannerat. My heart sank during the introduction which was nauseatingly floral (‘The Great Pyramid is no mere bulk of freestone; it is also made of poetry’) but this soon settled down into more readable anecdotes about runaway donkeys and climbing pyramids in eveningwear after dinner parties. The coverage of the archaeology is rudimentary but it’s worth the read because Jeannerat meets some of the more famous archaeologists of the day. He gets shown around Nimrud by Max Mallowan and has lunch with Agatha Christie. He gets shouted at by Kathleen Kenyon from the bottom of her trench at Jericho. Disappointingly, Iraq is more or less skipped in favour of an extended dream sequence which involves Jeannerat reading a book from the distant future in which the world is wisely ruled over by elephants who are struggling to make sense of the archaeological remains of the barbarous human civilisation which preceded them. Going into details of the socio-religious structure of the future elephantine world and biographical details of the elephant author, professor Dermpacky, this sequence consumes around a fifth of the book and is mind-bogglingly pointless.

I find your lack of bacon disturbing

I find your lack of bacon disturbing

Outside archaeology I have amused myself by going to beer festivals and trying to adapt my sleep patterns so that my waking hours overlap as little as possible with those of my parents. My greatest triumph was going to my sister’s boyfriend’s Starwars/Game of Thrones themed birthday party as a Jedi direwolf.

Abandoning ship

up-cycled hanging baskets in a Suleimaniyah cafe

up-cycled hanging baskets in a Suleimaniyah cafe

I’ve been off the radar for a while, in a fairly literal way in fact. But first things first; the end of the Iraqi dig in Kurdistan. It all ended with an uncomfortable amount of paperwork for me as we’d found such a lot of stuff at my site – a valuable reminder to try to find less in the future, or at least to destroy a decent amount of it before anyone sees and makes me give it a number. My relentless toil was interrupted by occasionally scowling at people who were relaxing and having a nice time, and by the house being nearly hit by lightning. The latter was a good source of entertainment(/profound mortal terror). It occurred just as we were finishing lunch, announced by a pant-wetting bang and an explosion of fire and dust, before subsiding into normal general fire. We went to the equipment shed, grabbed some shovels and attempted to help our Kurdish neighbours beat the flames out. This achieved little except minor damage to my sandal-wearing colleagues (I deplore sandals as impractical and unattractive footwear and take great pleasure in observing the many varied ways in which their wearers come to harm) and the brush fire more or less put itself out. The Halabjah fire brigade arrived about fifteen minutes later and were extremely confused to find half a dozen sooty, shovel wielding foreigners (some of whom had burnt their feet) and no fire.

Our work here is done, or at least the fire brigade have told us we can go away now

Our work here is done, or at least the fire brigade have told us we can go away now

After a couple of days in Suleimaniyah drinking, smoking and eating an awful lot of ice cream I flew home for a few days, went to Alton Towers to unblock my channels, repacked and headed to charming Swansea (I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Swansea, I think you probably need to go there to understand the resulting cultural whiplash after more or less five months in Iraq. But then I wouldn’t go unless you really had to. Maybe the same goes for Iraq). I then spent two weeks sailing as a watch leader on a tall ship around the Irish Sea, stopping for extended stout-drinking sessions in Dublin, Peel (catching the end of the TT races), Belfast and Peel again. In Belfast we were moored by the Titanic slipway, next to the big studio where they’re filming Game of Thrones, while Ridley Scott had closed the nearby Titanic Experience to film something or other on the escalators, so there was plenty to watch.

The shape of things in Dublin

The shape of things in Dublin

Sitting on the bits after flaking the fore-upper-tops'l halyard

Sitting on the bits after flaking the fore-upper-tops’l halyard

We ended up in Liverpool, causing several thousand pounds worth of damage by demolishing the signal lights while crashing into the Albert Dock lock (I had a front row seat for this as I stood by with the bow mooring lines). Many things happened over the next few days in Liverpool, ending up with clubbing in Matthew Street, which was an interesting anthropological experience. Worse things happen at sea they say, though I’m yet to be convinced. In Liverpool I also found that everything in Iraq had gone very shooty while I’d been gone; I mean, it’d only been away a couple of weeks. It’s a bit disconcerting to discover one’s general place of work is mostly on fire.

Liverpool Canning Dock. View from the foremast cross-trees

Liverpool Canning Dock. View from the foremast cross-trees

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

Poison

The Halabjah genocide: a true thing of horror

The Halabjah genocide: a true object of horror

On Thursday night I stayed up late and drank quite a lot of gin – L’s brothers had resupplied us with tonic water from Erbil in return for being allowed to sleep on the roof. On Friday morning, wearing my darkest sunglasses, we went to Halabjah to see the genocide memorial museum. This is my third season at this site and up until now Halabjah has figured only as a distant twinkling of lights on the hillside and as the nearest place from which it is possible to purchase (slightly over-priced) beer. The world knows Halabjah for other reasons; the worst ever chemical weapons attack directed against civilians was conducted here in 1988 by Saddam Hussein’s government. Up to 5,000 people died from a combination of mustard gas and nerve agents. After the town was retaken, the Iraqi army razed Halabjah to the ground with bulldozers and explosives.

Dead sheep diorama

Dead sheep diorama

The genocide memorial is an exceptionally ugly monument to an exceptionally ugly crime. Due to the destruction of the town, very few physical objects remain for the museum which is instead filled with the highly graphic photos taken by Iranian and international journalists in the days after the attack. Some of these are reconstructed in manikin dioramas, which are harrowing on several levels. People just dropped dead where they were, the animals died in the fields and birds fell dead from the sky. Many of the photographs showed children. Those with large families found it hardest to get out; they died together in heaps. When they hanged Saddam Hussein they sent a piece of the rope to Halabjah.

Some of the chemical shells dropped by the Iraqi airforce with a truck which was found full of bodies

Some of the chemical shells dropped by the Iraqi airforce with a truck which was found full of bodies

 

Lentil soup at the bottom of my trench

Lentil soup at the bottom of my trench

The week on site has been characterised by lentils. I’ve been digging out the first decent room fill we’ve found here; a good burnt one which all the specialists are disgustingly interested in, and the deeper I go the more lentily it gets. I’ve now reached a seam of almost pure, unadulterated lentils about a foot below the tops of the walls. In some ways it’s odd because there’s a similar lentil plague going on back at the house where we’ve now had lentil soup for lunch for six of the last seven days. This is beginning to seriously upset several team members’ state of mind, not to mention the state of the toilets. I began to wonder today whether I might have fallen into some sort of lentil-induced delirium and was self-generating lentils with the power of thought. Whether these are true lentils or just lentils of the mind, only the floatation residue results can tell. My current running hypothesis for this building is that someone burned down a Late Chalcolithic lentil soup shop; an act with which I entirely sympathise.

The sinister beings living in the house drains have finally been identified as Mole Crickets: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwu3CDmFg00

Welcome and unwelcome mice

We drag ourselves up the tell for a sunset can of beer

We drag ourselves up the tell for a sunset can of beer

I was awoken at five o’clock this morning by the merry sound of a mouse attempting to eat my mattress. Finding ourselves in a moment of mutual surprise, he proved the more fully conscious and vaulted my enormous pile of general mess to escape under the door of The Dungeon (this has a clearance at the bottom of several inches, presumably for the delivery of plates of porridge to inmates as well as to facilitate the passage of vermin). The remaining twenty minutes before my alarm went off were wasted in the detection of imaginary scratching noises in all corners of the room.

Sleepy pocket mouse

Sleepy pocket mouse

Work on site has been held up by several delays, chief among which is our entanglement with a two and a half metre long oven just below the plough zone, probably dating to the Uruk (4th Millennium BC). It’s turning out to be horribly deep and difficult, and today it spat out a complete bovine mandible in a final act of defiance. I sincerely cannot wait to smash it up with a hammer when this is all over. A more welcome and less time-consuming delay occurred at the end of last week involving mice. In a reversal of this morning’s incident, I rudely awoke a family of dormouse-like objects asleep in their own home by having one of my workmen cut a section through it, liberally distributing sleepy baby mice over trench G. Suppressing the workmen’s natural instinct to beat wildlife with shovels, L and I scooped up as many as we could find and put them in our pockets and then stored them in my hat for the rest of the day. Unsure of their future, we speculated about taking a couple back to the dig house to keep as pets (perhaps they could be trained to sort floatation heavy residue with their little hands?) but in the end we put them back in the hole in the section and the next day they were gone (optimistically retrieved by their mother, or less optimistically by a crow/cat/dog). I found that one of them had pissed in my hat.

Last week's baby mice: much preferable to this week's baby snakes

Last week’s baby mice: much preferable to this week’s baby snakes

In other news we had a fairly brown-trouser-inducing thunderstorm, which we spent sitting on the patio drinking beer. Yesterday we went to Sulaimanyah for residency cards and essential shopping. We bought beer, tonic water for all the gin and a shisha pipe to smoke at the house. I bought ten cans of diet coke and a bar of soap. Everyone was very happy.

We anger the gods with our heathen ways and constant complaining about the state of the shower

We anger the gods with our idolatrous hording of pottery and constant complaining about the state of the shower

In the dungeon

The view from the dungeon

Captivity: the view from the dungeon

I’m back in Iraq after an all too brief reunion with pork pies and proper tea. In the last two weeks at home I had three very unpleasant trips to the gym, made some money selling paintings and lost considerably more money gambling at Newbury races. I threw away a lot of broken clothes.

Corpse carpet: what did your last site supervisor die of?

Corpse carpet: what did your last site supervisor die of?

Conditions on this project are grim. I’m sleeping on the concrete floor of a half built house in a Kurdish village near Halabjah. My room, which I share with two other women, has a steel door and a single tiny window just below ceiling height adorned with heavy iron bars. The concrete floor appears to suck up ground water and redeposit it to the interior, meaning that any item left on the floor (such as our clothes and mattresses) are rendered damp and clammy within an hour or so. The light does not work. I keep waking up thinking I’m being held hostage in someone’s basement. This impression is not helped by the feeble foam mattress making me feel like I’ve been the victim of a severe beating, and the rolled up carpet laid outside the door which looks uncannily like it contains a corpse. It’s almost exactly how I imagine a particularly brutal Iraqi women’s prison.

The post-apocalyptic living conditions are somewhat compensated for by Kurdistan in springtime which is truly lovely, with snow still on the mountain tops and all the foothills covered with wild flowers. Everything is bursting with life – the turkeys are engaged in aggressive sexual behaviour and the next building over is full of puppies and the animals they’ve killed. Yesterday there was a frog in the shower. Under the influence of moderate gin consumption, one colleague drew unsound parallels between the excavation and The Sound of Music, leading to speculation as to which of the co-directors was Christopher Plummer and which was Julie Andrews. I certainly hope there won’t be any nuns, Nazis or singing.

Springtime in the Kurdish mountains: these are a few of my favourite things

Springtime in the Kurdish mountains: these are a few of my favourite things

Brittain's best ice cream van, discovered unexpectedly near the Iranian border with a valid UK tax disc and all

Brittain’s best ice cream van, discovered unexpectedly near the Iranian border with a valid UK tax disc and all

Work on site has so far been limited to the removal of backfill from last year’s trenches and mine and L’s heroic mastering of the total station in the absence of a competent surveyor. So far all the food has been yellow, which I find to be a refreshing change.

Taking the cure

Look! the end: a farewell to Ur

Look! the end: a farewell to Ur

It’s about a week and a half since I got back from Iraq and I’m quite bored. Getting home wasn’t too bad all things considered. We spent our last night in a secure compound next to Basra airport where we ate non-tomato flavoured food, played pool, ran around in the air raid shelters and generally enjoyed being somewhere other than the dig house. I had a long, loving reunion with television, on which I watched Kung Fu Panda and the Welsh Open snooker final. The accommodation was in cabins reassuringly similar to my steel dragon back at Ur, although less reassuringly full of detailed instructions about what to do should the compound come under fire.

The highlight of Basra airport is a truly excellent souvenir shop which sells an extraordinary range of ugly plastic things at very reasonable prices for a captive environment. I bought my mother the traditional gift of a fridge magnet. The rest of the trip home was dominated by my attempts to fit maximum alcohol consumption into small windows of opportunity.

The wonders of Blast Shelter 2

The wonders of Blast Shelter 2

 

Return to the civilized world of cake and cathedrals and gin

Return to the civilized world of cake and cathedrals and gin

At my parent’s house I had a few hours sleep, put some of my clothes in a smaller bag and the rest in the washing machine and got a very slow train to Bath via much of Wales. Back in the dark, sober days of February I rented a Georgian house by Bath abbey in the middle of town for the weekend after Iraq in the interests of getting really quite drunk with some friends. This plan generally worked out very well and followed the rough course of drinking, eating, drinking, adventure golf, drinking, shopping, drinking, the theatre, drinking, going to the spa, drinking, taking the waters, drinking, drinking, crying, and drinking. I managed to break my friend T’s clay pipe by shutting the window on it, and I have sketchy memories of offering a bottle of beer to a confused busker.

Things since Bath have gone noticeably downhill; I spent this weekend losing £15 on the Grand National and watching the wrong university win the boat race. I watched Cross of Iron last night which put some of this into perspective. Besides, I’m going to the races at Newbury next weekend and I’m due some luck (that’s how it works right?).

Happy returns

Another year spend in folly

Another year spend in folly

It’s my birthday. I have mixed feelings about this. I’m celebrating with a Kinders Surprise, lying resplendent in my ‘abba. My colleagues have gifted me the sort of treasure that only the last days of a three month field project can make you truly appreciate – real chocolate from England, one of the very few remaining hidden cans of diet coke and a small pack of US military-issue toilet paper. There’s also a bottle of dubious Iraqi whiskey for this evening. It was brought to the dig house yesterday by one of our contacts in Nasiriyah, who delivered it in a black leather bag along with the cryptic announcement that he had found ‘the medicine for Mr John’. This utterance was for some time a little too cryptic as Mr John had left two days earlier and not informed everyone of his outstanding order.

Progress in Iraq: our last weekend outing to the ancient city of Uruk

Progress in Iraq: our last weekend outing to the ancient city of Uruk

It’s our last day in Ur before we drive down to Basra tomorrow and the project has drawn to a gentle close. Yesterday most of us had run out of work and we spent the afternoon playing cricket in the front garden and watching our pottery washer Nasrala chase his escaped horse very slowly round the compound. I think the horse had a lovely day. One of the directors took all the finds to the museum in Baghdad and got our permission letters to export samples out of the country. She had to sign a declaration promising to return the little bags of soil to Iraq or be liable for their value, leading to speculation as to the actual monetary worth of dirt.

One of my tamer Bananagrams wins

One of my tamer Bananagrams wins

The final weeks of the project have been generally marked by a slow descent into wrongness. Our regular games of Bananagrams (a sort of free-form scrabble) has blossomed into a workshop on creative obscenities, most of which I cannot repeat here. Last night one of my winning racks incorporated the words foamy, dyke and slit, which I’m pretty sure wouldn’t have happened a couple of months ago. Queef has become the go-to word for getting rid of troublesome Qs and Fs – at the start of January I thought this was a type of medieval lady’s bonnet. Other signs of troubled mental health include D and N’s new game of throwing dishcloths, food and other items into the kitchen fan to see what happens, and the use by some team members of the silted-up floatation tanks as hot tubs. The proliferation of in-jokes and evolving misuse of vocabulary has now rendered our conversation almost incomprehensible to other English speakers. I think it’s very much for the best that we’re all going home while we can still be re-integrated into polite society.

The equinox sun setting inn a satisfactory manner behind the ziggurat at Ur

The equinox sun setting in a satisfactory manner behind the ziggurat at Ur

Enough of a good thing

The modest amount of pottery emerging from my room fill

The modest amount of pottery emerging from my room fill

With nearly three weeks left of the project here in Iraq we stopped digging today. It seems that the three of us digging on site are finding too much archaeology for the people back at the house to handle and we’ve been cut off. It all started with the tablets when a week ago I got my best day’s catch of four monsters, which I presented to the conservator, only to find that she didn’t want any more. Apparently four nice big cuneiform tablets is a week’s conservation work. So instead I had to move on to a juicy looking buttress room which seemed to have a decent quantity of pottery sticking out of this. After the removal of less than a third of the room fill, which produced a healthy eight or nine sacks full of pottery, I was again asked to stop; F and S in the other trenches had been producing similar quantities of the stuff and the poor young ceramicist was now washing our pottery with his human tears. He likes pots, you’d have thought he’d be happy. In any case, we are now sullenly back-filling and completing our records.

Fiery danger fish

Fiery danger fish

As everyone seems to be getting a bit flaky after two and a half months (last week we invented potato rugby, which was all fun and games until J caught a hefty one right on the ear), we made this weekend a long one and accepted an invitation to the marshes. I made this as horrible as possible for myself by vigourously attacking my remaining whiskey the night before, drunkenly annoying people I like and then having to spend a very hung-over day in a moving boat. Things almost came to a head on an island in the middle of the marsh when our hosts cooked us some large fish for lunch. Luckily the salty, fatty fish had a curative effect rather than the reverse and a cross-cultural incident was averted. I came close to a relapse later when we encountered an especially buoyant cat.

Bloaty puss

Bloaty Puss

After not sleeping at all in a very lovely reed-built house, we got up early to watch the sun rise and have breakfast in the marshes. After the sun had run through the usual old routine, we moored up on a section of Sadam’s marsh road and spread our breakfast mat on the tarmac. Sadam Hussein built the road to move his tanks through the area after he had had the marshes drained. Now they’re reflooded, the road is mostly submerged and is slowly dissolving away. I kicked a little chunk off into the water and watched it sink.

Sadam's marsh road, now thoroughly shat on by water buffalo and gnawed at by dogs

Sadam’s marsh road, now thoroughly shat on by water buffalo and gnawed at by dogs

The watery world of the marsh arabs

The watery world of the marsh arabs