Category Archives: travel

Ending at Ur

After four winters of excavation, the curtain has finally fallen on the project near Ur, where I have now lived for a total of over nine cold, beige months. This project has been great. highlights, many of which have featured in this blog, include excavating a cuneiform archive from 1500 BC, finding an intact rattling Babylonian rattle, seeing the sun rise over the Iraqi marshes, achieving an almost perfect score in Ur-Rules Bananagrams and having my own toilet.

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Only let down by WE to get rid of the final E. Otherwise full marks

Excavation on site went out with more of a fizzle than a bang. The large slump in the centre of the courtyard (known on site as M’s great depression), which I’d been chasing all season, turned out to be the last known whereabouts of a substantial ancient tree rather than the lost tombs of the Sealand kings, buried with the wealth of a nation. My final roll of the dice on site was to dig a chunky-size sondage with the aim of seeing if our sub-floor vaults went any further north. In predictable fashion, the sondage failed to answer the question it was dug to address, while adding several more questions to the long list of things we don’t understand. At this point I threw my trowel down in disgust, fed the site dogs a last can of awful tuna and declared my work here done.

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It’s all over; Steve and Runt mourn the end of the tuna and boiled egg gravy train 

Of course it wasn’t done. I had to spend three days writing my report, which I unwisely chose to do while listening to Radio 1 online, meaning I’m now uncomfortably burdened by extensive knowledge of the works of Ed Sheeran and Little Mix, and a renewed certainty that the universe is meaningless and life is suffering.

Two days before we left, the end of the project was nailed down by the newest American invasion of Ur, when a team of sixteen US archaeologists finally arrived to crash our party. We’d actually been expecting them since mid February, but after the Trump travel ban was imposed they had some mysterious problems getting their Iraqi visas. Then when they finally did fly to Basra at the start of March the Iraqis gleefully deported them for having the ‘wrong’ visas. It seems that even Iraqi border control can be worn down in the end however.

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It’s a good job this is the last season as we’ve run out of idiot poses for the ziggurat steps

We packed up our cabins for the last time, posed on the ziggurat looking like ass-hats for the last time, burnt our exit visas (unflushable used toilet paper) for the last time, and finished what was left in the drinks cabinate (except that Bavarian whiskey which no one will touch – sorry Bavaria but stick to what you know eh?). Our last Sunday at Ur was a full moon and as night fell a storm was starting to blow across southern Iraq. At around midnight me and F lay on our backs on top of the ziggurat and watched the clouds racing across the moon.

“This is weird” I said.

“Yes,” said F, “very fucking weird.”

What we meant, although both of us consider the verbal expression of finer sentiments to be vulgar, was that we were sad to be leaving Ur.

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Full moon at Ur, as if there aren’t enough triggers for mental instability here already

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Meeting the meat

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

 

Back from the beyond

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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the Iraqi football shirt subs bench

*The British Museum

Grinding out the win

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

 

What is it good for?

 

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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

Happy happy hundredth post

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Terry