Category Archives: travel

Brass monkeys

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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.

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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.

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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.

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One of the cops guarding the spoil heap and looking mean

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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.

Summer progress

Farewell to the potted kittens of Egypt and a return to the fussy elderly cats of Cheshire

Farewell to the potted kittens of Egypt and a return to the fussy elderly cats of Cheshire

There’s been quite a lot of time since I came back from Egypt. I’m not completely sure how much time now that I’ve slithered back into my rudderless UK life where every day is the same (apparently there was a bank holiday?). I think some of my time went missing in the week I went to the Cambridge Beer festival, which has added to the confusion. I also seem to have lost quite a lot of money and some of my short term memory at about the same time. The beer festival was part of my annual Summer Progress in which I sofa-hop from friend to friend, dragging them to various pubs to bore them rigid about archaeology and my ill-considered views on Middle Eastern politics. In turn, they tell me about their homes, jobs and children. This year’s progress took in London, Windsor, Ely, Cambridge, Bounds Green and Have I Got News For You? which was disappointingly hosted by Frank Skinner.

Palmyra in 2008. I mostly seem to have used a horse back then, presumably because I was too drunk or lazy to walk

Palmyra in 2008. I mostly seem to have used a horse back then, presumably because I was too lazy to walk

But woman cannot live on scones and pork scratchings alone and I’m now solidly back at my parents’ house, camped in the living room telling my dad he can’t watch Homes Under the Hammer. Luckily he doesn’t get most of my jokes about Dignitas. Of course, this also means I’ve been keeping up to date with the summer progress of Daash (Islamic State) across Syria and Iraq. I was particularly angry about Palmyra in Syria which holds some happy memories for me, having spent a short time there serving soup to German tourists as an indentured waitress in a small restaurant during a bizarre incident in 2008. It is (was?) a more than averagely magical place. I remember the restaurant owner’s father telling me stories about when the Germans and Vichy French occupied Palmyra during the Second World War; they were apparently very rude customers but stopped short of executing unarmed prisoners in the ancient amphitheatre. It really does take Daash to make the Nazis look like an alright bunch of blokes.

Dying light over the city of Palmyra

Dying light over the city of Palmyra

The fall of Palmyra to Daash also underlined something that I’ve long suspected; that a site being designated as a UNESCO world heritage site counts for piss all. The citadel of Erbil, where I’ve been working for a couple of years now, was given World Heritage status last year. Most of the Kurds I talked to thought this was great as they assumed it would open up UN money to improve and protect the site. ‘Ha ha!’ I would reply, ‘You think UNESCO are going to give you money?’ Instead of money, UNESCO give new World Heritage Sites a big long list of things they expect done if you want to keep your World Heritage status. In theory, UNESCO should supply guidance and expertise, but in practice UNESCO tends to employ (in my limited experience) well-meaning, ineffectual incompetents (no offence), who at best achieve nothing and at worst totally bugger things up. Other than money, World Heritage status is often assumed to imply some degree of international protection from harm. As has been profoundly demonstrated over the last year, the world won’t lift a finger to save its heritage. All we get are statements of condemnation, which only encourage Daash by telling them how upset we’ll all be if they destroy heritage sites. If we could convince Daash we don’t give a shit (which in practical terms the international community doesn’t) Daash wouldn’t waste the explosives. The World is rubbish.

Up river, down river

The dead dog which reclines in the entrance to the Small Aten Temple, whose situation cannot be directly linked to the activities of the Hello Kids

The dead dog which reclines in the entrance to the Small Aten Temple, whose situation cannot be directly linked to the activities of the Hello Kids

The excavation season is flying by. The Hello Kids who chase us through the village every day have moved through their phases of ‘hallo, hallo’, on to ‘what’s your name?’ to ‘money, money’ and by this Thursday they were insulting the virtue of our mothers. I saw them testing out catapults by the small temple this morning so perhaps it’s a good thing the season isn’t longer. I’m also becoming an increasingly severe threat to the safety of myself and others; in the last week I’ve fallen down a grave, cut my foot, seriously bruised myself without noticing how and thrown a very large rock at the workmen. The latter happened at the end of a hard digging day and was the result of a very tired attempt to throw a rock out of my grave. I sort of hooked it high and it plopped down right between the sieve man and the wheel barrow guy who were playing with their phones. Work proceeded somewhat faster for the next two days.

Some local people who wanted to spend Friday on the other side of the river

Some local people who wanted to spend Friday on the other side of the river

Following up on last week’s resolution to stem the tide of ancient anatomical horror, this post will not be about the haggard human parts we’re stacking up at the back of the work room. Suffice it to say that the current theme is eyelids and arseholes (really, like a turkey at Christmas). Instead I will fall back on happier thoughts and pleasanter sights. On Friday we hired a boat to take us on a trip down the Nile to an island for lunch and back. In fact we hired the village ferry, much to the annoyance of quite a few people who wanted to cross the river. We left them disconsolate on the bank, all but one old man who hadn’t got the message and had to be returned to shore by the cops in their cop boat. We had a lovely riverine day of reeds and fishing boats and surprising people who had gone down to the river bank to go to the toilet. It was a good way of washing out the Thursday night hangover and the Thursday night movie (Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell, which is a timeless classic of the ‘movies that seem good after eight gin and tonics’ genre).

The dig house puppies getting over their Thursday night

The dig house puppies getting over their Thursday night

Today on site we said goodbye to our trainee inspectors. They surprised the project director A with a gift of an enormous portrait of herself produced by a local artist based on photos they’d found of her on Facebook. A couldn’t have looked happier if they’d baked her a cake made of shit. Excavation directorship is a heavy burden, which includes holding it together while your insides shrivel with excruciating misery. The inspector team has been good value this season, the finest moment coming when one of my colleagues, R, retired to the tent with a severely upset stomach to wait for a ride home. He found the head inspector already there and fully qualified in Egyptian medical nonsense. First the inspector fed R very sweet tea, then encouraged him to jump up and down (which R declined to do, fearing an unfortunate trouser event). The inspector finally placed his hands on R’s stomach and prayed for several minutes, at which point R was rescued by the arrival of our driver. Local wisdom here prescribes that if you are hot and thirsty you should never, ever, drink water.

River life, Middle Egypt

River life, Middle Egypt

Awkward social interactions

After last week’s slightly harrowing description of excavating dead Egyptians’ hair and feet, I had planned to do a less stomach-churning subject for this post; maybe something about the kittens or Saturday’s party or the lovely new beds at the dig house. But themes are dictated by events and this has been a week of unremitting anatomical horror so instead of being deflected onto parties and kittens I’m going to move on from hair and feet to faces and bums and hope that none of you are eating lunch.

Er, hello. And what do you do?

You looking at me?

It really doesn’t help with well-preserved people when they’ve been interfered with by (previous) grave robbers. Good tissue survival turns disarticulation into dismemberment, leaving burials that look like they died at the hands of an axe murderer or in an accident with farm machinary. On Sunday the burial I was digging had mummified forearms and hands which had been tossed across each other in an attitude of elegant supplication. The skull was face-down at the other end of the grave covered in a tangle of hair, which is fine and dandy at my current level of desensitisation, but when I turned it over it was all covered in face; like eyes and ears and noses, and I realised I’d put my thumb through the cheek. She had one eye open, I don’t like it when they can look at me back. I looked at her and she looked at me and she didn’t look very pleased. I put the head in a box and then went to find some hand sanitiser.

I lost my nerve on the ethical issues surrounding posting a picture of a dead child's mummified bum, so here's my artistic impression, which in the business we call a plan at 1:20

I lost my nerve on the ethical issues surrounding posting a picture of a dead child’s mummified bum, so here’s my artistic impression, which in the business we call a plan at 1:10

My mid-week burial was another disturbed juvenile. The first thing I found were curled, dry toes, which with my moderate foot phobia initiated a feeling of disquiet. The toes developed into feet, then legs and onwards like a grizzly slow motion strip show, climaxing in a sunken, leathery bottom. The horror ended abruptly at the second lumbar vertebra; the upper parts of the person were in fact lying disarticulated under the mummified lower half, which had been thrown on top of them. The skull had come to rest between the thighs of its owner, the face pressed eternally into its own crotch. When I removed it, the skull, although not generally mummified, had retained one rather surprised eyebrow.

After finding a long enough board, my colleague S helped me to lift the mummified section out of the grave, watched over by our Egyptian antiquities inspector. The first thing he asked was ‘This is man or woman?’ After spending several seconds wondering if there was another way, I had a half-hearted attempt at investigating this in the most direct fashion but gave it up when I noticed the workmen tittering at me from the next square.

‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘I’ll ask the anthropologist.’

As some kind of antidote, here’s a picture of this year’s crop of eye-wateringly lovely kittens:IMGP0072small

Digging deep in Egypt

Ancient city vs modern villages: a fight to the death

Ancient city vs modern villages: a fight to the death

They say six feet under is the optimum depth for burying bodies. I can positively state, however, that this is not the optimum depth from which to unbury them. Our first few graves at the new cemetery have been a bit more challenging than anticipated, due to them being deeper than we can climb out of and narrower than we can fit into.

An untidy landing means I may have to settle for the bronze

An untidy landing means I may have to settle for the bronze

My first catch of the season was a fine example, being 1.25m deep, 29cm wide and containing two well-mixed teenagers. There are interesting practical issues associated with excavating a 29cm wide grave when you have 31cm wide hips. Most solutions involve being firmly wedged and suffering a great deal of indignity and back pain. Then there’s the getting in and out. Having reasonable upper body strength I model my dismount on the parallel bars; with a hand each side of the grave cut and a good accurate jump I can get my arse over the top and then roll. Other colleagues have to have their workmen drag them out by the arms. Getting in is more like a pommel horse dismount; pushing off one side, you have to twist sideways in the air to avoid becoming wedged at the hips and land neatly in a gap between the bones. Marks are deducted for taking a step on landing, especially for stepping on a skull or get bone shards stuck through your feet.

Hairy grave horror

Hairy grave horror

The landing gap in the bones of my first burial was not in fact empty but instead full of a huge clump of plaited hair. This is not my favourite element of the graves here. I don’t know if you’ve ever pulled handfuls of three-and-a-half thousand year old dead human hair out of compacted sand and gravel, perhaps you have, but I can tell you that it’s not as lovely as you might think. On an emotional level, it’s very similar to unblocking the plug hole in someone else’s shower. At the central part of the cemetery all the bodies have mummified feet, which is about the only thing I’d like less than all the hair. I find living human feet somewhat stomach churning so papery dead feet with blackened toenails are about where I draw the line and call for a paper bag. Give me dried eyeballs and dead man’s pubes any day.

Dead Egyptian feet; enough to put me off my breakfast

Dead Egyptian feet; enough to put me off my breakfast

To add to the physical and psychological discomfort, and the corpse dust, it gets revoltingly hot and sticky down in the deep graves. This is possibly because the breeze can’t reach us, but more probably because we’re getting close to hell.