Category Archives: pottery

Grinding out the win


F and I wonder if we might have been here too long

Three months in Iraq is probably as much as is good for a person of sound mind. There’s been a profound air of counting-the-days over the last two weeks, with strong undertones of seeing-it-through and hanging-on-in-there. We’ve invented a new dig game which involves hitting nabok (a small local fruit like a tiny apple but tasting vaguely of parmesan cheese) off the roof using a wooden survey steak wielded like a rounders bat. It’s good for working off the frustration of trying to explain detailed and barely reconcilable magnetometry, aerial photography and archaeology data, although it does leave a bit of a mess.


mmm, Iraqi birthday cake. I’m pretty sure the pink rose in the middle was actually a bar of soap

We’re all finished on site, we’ve completed our reports into how we don’t really understand anything, and I’ve survived my 35th birthday without publically crying over my wasted youth. Luckily my birthday fell on a Friday so I didn’t have to get up at 5:45am and work all day, which was a bonus. I spent much of the day in the traditional modern manner – replying to birthday messages on social media – but also managed to treat myself to an extra long smoke, a tiny bottle of wine and season 3 of The Thick of It. The local antiquities inspector really pulled it out of the bag however by getting me a luridly coloured soap flavoured cake, a paper hat depicting a range of Disney princesses and a small selection of fireworks. I’m sure everyone remembers firework safety talks from school; the ones about burying the end firmly in damp ground, lighting the fuse and then retiring at least 15m? I don’t think they do those lessons in Iraq. The cook held the end of the rockets in his hand, lit the fuse and pointed it vaguely at the sky. Still, no one died eh?

There was a slightly sour end on site. F came back to her trench one morning to find that someone had come along and smashed up all her pottery torpedoes with a shovel. It was a great pity as I know how much F had been looking forward to doing that herself. At least it was all recorded so no real harm done and there are plenty more where those came from (hell). No one messed with my trenches as even looters can tell there’s nothing even remotely interesting in them.


A direct hit to the torpedo bay, didn’t stand a chance

We also managed to fit in a bit of sightseeing in our last week by visiting Basra souk, where I bought a replacement laptop power cable which didn’t work and as much popcorn as I could carry, and an old Ottoman period serai at Shuayba out by the main gas plant. On entering the central courtyard of the building we discovered that it is now used as the village’s five-a-side football pitch.


The away team’s here. Confusion all round

It’s back to the UK for me on Thursday for a summer of desk work, beer festivals and sponging off my parents. Hooray.

Pinning the tail on the donkey


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.


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.


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.

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


Staggering on

The Irish drunk - philosopher, poet, knee-squeezer

The traditional Irish drunk – philosopher, poet and knee-squeezer

Against my better judgement I found myself at the ‘Irish Bar’ again last night, drinking a strange beer from the British Virgin Islands and being slowly lobotomised by the mind-buggeringly awful music. I did, however, manage to find something authentically Irish this time in the shape of Paul; a drunk elderly man from County Down. He bought me a beer while slurring incoherently about the Mountains of Mourne and being way too free with his hands. If I could have had a pint of stout and ended the night under a table roaring Whisky in the Jar the experience would have been complete. When I asked what his job was he said ‘Ah work wit m’shovel’.

living on the crumbly edge

living on the crumbly edge

On the excavation, things have achieved a healthy sort of monotony, except for the occasional hangover and deadly car bombing. I was on site when the bombings happened last week; it was quite a bang which scared all the birds off the citadel and made me drop my plumb bob. Everything got back to normal pretty quickly though and we didn’t even get the afternoon off. The main dangers that I’m actually experiencing, other than suicidal Kurdish driving habits, are to do with cleaning off the top of the enormous fortification wall prior to planning it. This involves balancing on crumbling ancient mud brick with a five metre drop on one side and a strong cross wind. I feel my experience working aloft up the masts of tall ships has helped with the emotional background to this process. One of my Kurdish colleagues won’t even go up the step ladder to take site photographs.

Same old, same old. Erbil weather is not the most exciting

Same old, same old. Erbil weather is not exciting

Nice green pot, alas full of encrusted shit as it had been used as a drain

Nice green pot, alas full of encrusted shit as it had been used as a drain

I’m finding that excavating in the middle of a big city is a bit different to the digs I work on out in the middle of nowhere. One issue is that I’m just so dirty. Urban Kurds are a pretty well-groomed lot, overlooking their rather excessive use of powerful aftershaves, and I do get some rather concerned looks walking through town in my best old clothes covered in filth. Taxi drivers in particular seem filled with doubt about my right to be in any such state, being female, alone, very foreign and very dirty. Many seem unprepared for such an exotic beast. On Wednesday the taxi driver who drove me home offered me some of his perfume. I was unsure if he was making a pass or making a point about sweaty, smelly foreigners.

Wild goat chasing

Relieved: we finally locate the wretched article.

Relieved: we finally locate the wretched beast.

I’ve always suspected that a vast quantity of suffering in the world can be put down to good intentions allied with dreadful forward planning. Yesterday was a fine illustration. We went to stay in Suliemaniya for the weekend, partly so we could stock up on gin and kitkats, and partially because we wanted to go to see a famous ancient rock relief in the mountains. Part one went fine (except of course, that I drank too much) then we got on a bus and drove round and round in the Zagros foothills for two hours while the driver asked a series of confused strangers where this thing the foreigners want to see is. Eventually he deposited us at the end of a dirt track and set about investigating why the bus had started to produce a high pitched wailing noise when it went round corners.

After ten minutes walking, it was discovered that no one in fact had the faintest idea where this thing was. We called the museum who advised us to follow the iron water pipe up the valley so this is what we did. Over an hour later I slumped to the ground in a small swamp crawling with ticks and mosquitoes and declared my ever-lasting disinterest in ancient rock reliefs. I watched the poor stragglers crawling the last few yards to the top of the mountain, drenched in sweat, weeping, scratched and bitten. As most of us thought we were getting out of the bus for ten minutes to look at a pretty picture, it hadn’t occurred to bring proper shoes, or water. As I began to drag my sleep-deprived, hung-over and desiccated remains back down the mountain, I faintly recalled saying that my main aim for the weekend was to be less tired after it than I was before.

The Iraqi army, marvelling at the ineptitude of foreign archaeologists

The Iraqi army, marvelling at the ineptitude of foreign archaeologists

I arrived back at the bus to find that our driver had informed the Iraqi army of our failure to return and a jeep full of soldiers were waiting to see if they’d have to start a search and rescue mission. We begged half a cup of water from their officer, who looked on us with great pity for our physical exhaustion and grave mental deficiencies. The rock relief was of course just ten minutes down the track but none of us had thought to look up.

Bearded goat (c. 3500 BC) bestriding my photographic register

Bearded goat (c. 3500 BC) bestriding my photographic register

Excavation is winding down now for the end of the season. I finished digging today by finding a nice goat figurine complete with a little beard. This is by far our most attractive find, the only other figurines being a remarkably ugly woman(?) and the rear end of a horse. My personal favourite find however is the set of nesting bevel-rimmed bowls I got out of Trench F. BRBs are noted for their regularity in size, about which many books and papers have been written in the past – were they for a standardised grain ration? Perhaps they were army issue bread moulds? – in the context of which I consider my collection to be the best joke I’ve heard in ages.

I found the porridge in the small bowl to be just right

I found the porridge in the small bowl to be just right

A pot to piss in

BRBs: ceramic fungi blooming in Trench F

BRBs: ceramic fungi blooming in Trench F

I just hauled four big sacks and five crates of pottery back to the dig house from one of my trenches. I dumped them in the office and left for lunch before the registrar could start crying properly. The vast majority of the stuff is made up of bevel-rimmed bowls (or BRBs, for those who are sick to death of them) – a type of pot found in Iraq from the Uruk period, which has nothing to do with those really mean orcs from Lord of the Rings (alas). Bevel-rimmed bowls are very ugly and badly made, unlike the preceding Halaf period pretty pretty girly painted pottery, which G. finds over at the other site and flashes about like bonbons.

The sort of gaudy prehistoric rubbish which makes people all giggly during pot washing

The sort of gaudy prehistoric rubbish which makes people all giggly during pot washing

I actually consider the crappiness of bevel-rimmed bowls as a flower of hope in the desert of the prehistoric; it represents the point when people found out that there were better things to do with their time than sit around painting their tableware. I know it floats some people’s boats but the prehistoric was clearly very dull; all people were doing was subsistence farming, bit of hunting, building very small, very boring houses and making up religions that never caught on. Conversation must have been turgid throughout the late Neolithic, and people probably turned to painting pottery because it was that or discussing the right way to knap flint for the eight-hundredth time.


Then the Uruk period comes along, people invent cities, writing, beer and discos, and suddenly everyone wants pots you can hand round at a party and leave out for the bin men with the other empties. Life becomes less about how fine you can make the cross hatching on your tea cup and more about shopping and going to the pub, which is my definition of civilisation.

Small figurine nestled in a bed of Egyptian sand, bag fluff and pencil shavings

Small figurine nestled in a bed of Egyptian sand, bag fluff and pencil shavings

Archaeological rants aside, by the end of the day I’ll be roundly hating bevel-rimmed bowls and all they stand for, and everyone else on the team is going to be hating me for digging them up. It’s going to take at least three hours and a lot of ill-feeling to get it washed. Thankfully, I curried favour with the registrar yesterday by shaking enough Egyptian sand out of my pencil case to nestle a find in for drawing, otherwise I’d be keeping my back to the wall and preparing my own meals.

In other news, the dig director has stolen the chair from my room, which means he’s also seen The Mess…