Category Archives: Turkey

Keep on running

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We took another visit to the Iraqi marshes, they looked a lot like this

I was running across the ancient ruins of Ur the other day, not in the joyful manner of someone who finds pleasure in such things but as one driven by the fear of prematurely losing physical competences through disuse. I was listening to Kids with Guns by the Gorillas and had started to think the bass beat was sounding a bit out, when I was hit by an unexpected wind from above and behind. On investigation, there were two large helicopter gunships hovering right over me, covered in those pointy bits that drop off and explode. I didn’t quite know what the best thing to do was in this social situation, so I gave the nearer one a friendly wave. There was a brief pause and then they thundered off towards the Ur airbase in the knowledge of a job well done. It’s this sort of thing that reminds me I work in a ridiculous place, but it did give me an excellent excuse to stop running for a few blissful minutes while I found something calming to listen to on my ipod.

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The bad pottery. It has been released back into the wild

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Steve’s gravy train is about to derail

The weeks have flown, we’ve taken a lot of earth out of the trenches and then put most of it back in again, we’ve dug up a lot of pottery, numbered it, loved it and then dumped most of it back on site in a big heap. We’ve found a lot of things, most of them horrible things, and we’ve given them all numbers. We have waved farewell to Steve, queen among slightly stand-offish Iraqi site dogs, to whom we gave a whole can of sardines and received little in return. I spent far longer on the pictures for my report than on the words because the pictures are always the best bit. Our final task was to burn the accumulated rubbish including all the empties. We piled them in the centre so they’d receive maximum fire and created a raging inferno fed by strong winds. One of them exploded with an ear-splitting bang, but when the flames had died down the nature of the bottles was still painfully clear. So it came about that F and I spent twenty minutes throwing lumps of ancient baked bricks at a fire in order to smash burning empty bottles of Famous Grouse. It was only five minutes after we finished that a policeman showed up to investigate the explosion and the sounds of breaking glass. We said we’d just been burning some rubbish, officer.

Our eight weeks at Ur are up but this is not the end, oh no. One site is just not enough when you’re as red-hot keen on archaeology as we are. We’re in the middle of moving operations to Basra to start a whole new site between the oil fields out by the Iranian border. We went for a first look today and found it charming – flat and bleak and covered in debris from the Iran-Iraq war – it’s all I ever dreamed of. Near the western end of the fortification walls we found the eroded remains of an anti-personnel mine.

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The rotting husk of a land mine at our lovely new site

By the way, thanks for all the concern about my mental health after the last post, though that’s not really how I meant it to read.

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Reconstructing

Movember: Another surly Assyrian gnome

Movember: Another surly Assyrian gnome

It’s been a whole month since I got back from Iraq and what have I been up to? Well, I’ve been very busy in fact as I’ve taken on far too much freelance work for the time available, and for my limited capacity for self-motivation. The biggest job is a series of reconstruction illustrations for a museum in Turkey detailing parts of the Neo-Assyrian town I was digging up back in August. I started off doing the first one on Adobe Illustrator but this turned out looking a bit too much like a poorly rendered computer game and encouraged other members of the project to demand an irritating number of artistically unattractive changes in the name of scientific accuracy. In an attempt to put an end to this sort of rubbish I have now reverted to the more intractable oil-on-canvas format. This has a few downsides, including getting paint on my parents’ curtains, not being able to work in the same room as the television, and accidentally washing my brush in my cup of tea instead of the paint thinner (three times now). Large architectural pieces are not coming particularly easily, probably because my artistic specialisms are dogs, horses and giant Japanese anime-style robots. I have learned that Neo-Assyrian soldiers dressed almost exactly like gnomes and any attempt to make them look un-gnomish will fail. House-based archaeology is hard.

My more usual subject matter: boy meets girl, girl meets boy, boy leaves on giant robot to save world from ill-defined evil

My more usual subject matter: boy meets girl, girl meets boy, boy leaves on giant robot to save world from ill-defined evil

Wino: I tell Lilly to drink a glass of water and go to bed

Wino: I tell Lilly to drink a glass of water and go to bed

My punishing work regime demands that I get up first thing in the afternoon and start work straight after The Daily Politics, and the one o’clock news. Work then progresses through the day uninterrupted except for the couple of hours either side of dinner, any film that gets four stars or more in the Radio Times and a bit of clandestine wine drinking when the cat is feeling down. Remarkably similar to my PhD years really. I’ve had to take a few breaks, of course, to visit friends and to escape my parents’ commentary on the mess, the disappearances from the fridge and the state of the curtains. The large amount of time (and money) I’ve been spending on the train has at least allowed me to indulge my renewed passion for dystopian British comics of the late 1980s, resulting in an unnecessarily bleak mental attitude for the festive period. Still, there’s those Roman pot sherds I agreed to illustrate to look forward to. For Christmas I have mostly asked for hijabs.

John Constantine battles to save the town of Thursdyke from committing suicide after Thatcher's Britain becomes too grim to bear

John Constantine battles to save the town of Thursdyke from committing suicide after Thatcher’s Britain becomes too grim to bear

Sleep is for the weak

 

Archaeology by iphone

Archaeology by iphone

Sunrise over the last day on site

Sunrise over the last day on site

I’m on my parent’s sofa drinking milky tea and watching The Dark Knight Rises (where did Bane get his Royal Shakespeare Company accent growing up in that big well?). The end of things in Turkey was a bit of a struggle; planning my huge curving lump of Assyrian city wall took considerably longer than I expected, partially because it was hard to see the bricks under all the dead frogs. Then we ran out of drawing film before I could plan my sections. I ended up having to use a HB pencil on some strange semi-transparent paper we found in the back of a cupboard – the result was similar to that achievable with a child’s crayon on cheap toilet paper.

Recep on frog duty

Recep on frog duty

By the time that was done with I was short of writing-up time and had to work until nearly midnight on Thursday; I came to some fairly bold conclusions, possibly enhanced by the application of sherry to the writing process. By the time I was finished it seemed a bit pointless to go to bed before going to the airport at 2am so I just got drunk with the director instead. We drank neat Stolichnaya and talked about all the awful people who’ve worked on the project over the last fifteen years.

I was almost sober again and not feeling very clever by the time I landed at Istanbul. I then endured a miserable flight to Birmingham, spent thinking about plane crashes and watching Snow White and the Huntsman (which can’t realistically have been as dreadful as I now recall?).

After my parents had picked me up from the station and we’d got the first argument out of the way I passed out on the floor in front of the television and woke up at a beer festival in Crewe Railway Heritage Centre. After all, there’s nothing that gets you over a hangover, jetlag and 48 hours without sleep like staying up to midnight and drinking seven pints of real ale. Today I have been mostly rehydrating.

Outside it's raining outside the train shed. I drink a pint of mild and go into culture shock

Outside it’s raining. I drink a pint of mild and go into culture shock

Gin boat diplomacy

His excellency, the British ambassador to Turkey, helps J to make industrial quantities of double strength gin and tonic

His excellency, the British ambassador, lends a hand making industrial quantities of double strength gin and tonic so we can all fall over by dinner time

I’m enjoying a wholesome breakfast here at the dig house of coffee, paracetamol and Buckingham Palace mint chocolates. I managed to sleep for almost ten hours, waking to find I’d only managed to put half my pyjamas on, and that half was inside out. The British ambassador to Turkey has come to stay and oh my, he can drink. He arrived on Thursday and brought one car (armoured landrover) full of body guards and another car full of alcohol. It took all of us to carry it in – fifty cans of export larger, twenty-four bottles of French wine, two bottles of Johnny Walker Red, twelve litres of Gordon’s London Dry Gin and thirty-six litres of tonic water. It’s good to know you can rely on Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service for this sort of thing. The dig director expressed his doubts that we could drink it all in the remaining week, but you never know what you can achieve until you try. I think I might have sorted out the gin surplus last night.

At stupid o'clock we brush the trench by moonlight

At stupid o’clock we brush the trench by moonlight

The ambassador had the site tour yesterday, prompting the entire local military police force to turn out with their M-16s, making the short walk to the loo highly intimidating and none too private. I brushed up my last remaining dead person and persuaded my workmen to stop playing Rihanna on their mobile phones. Sir David did a very good job of appearing to be interested in my mudbrick walls but I supposed that’s why the diplomatic service pays him the big bucks. He wished me luck in working out what’s going on (my trench is a bit complicated at the moment) and asked me why I have an enormous lump on my head.

I have an enormous lump on my head because a big wooden pole fell on my face on Wednesday. I was having a little power nap in the site tent during tea break when the wind got under the canvas and knocked the tent pole down, the end of which landed smack on my forehead. As ways of getting woken up go, it’s easily in the same league as when I fell asleep with my phone under my ear last week, or the time my mum told me to put my life jacket on because the ship was sinking. “Are you all right?” asked D in a shocked voice. “No” I said, trying to sort truth from fiction and sleepiness from mild concussion, “I’m not sure, but I think something just hit me on the head.” One more failure in my efforts to get through an excavation season without a major head injury.

The end is nigh: work starts on Operation Z. This will be our last trench at the site as we have run out of letters

The end is nigh: work starts on Operation Z. This will be our last trench at the site as we have run out of letters

Caves, frogs, unwanted dead

Wading up the Tigris Tunnel following a german

Wading up the Tigris Tunnel following a german

Last Friday, at the risk of not learning from my mistakes, I went on a trip to the mountains in search of some Assyrian rock inscriptions. Some of you may recall that last time I went looking for Assyrian rock inscriptions we nearly had to be rescued by the Iraqi army (https://oldstuffinhotplaces.wordpress.com/05/26/wild-goat-chasing/) which is not really the way I like my day off to end. This time was better; there was a cave, a tunnel and a river to play in and no survival situations with their associated acrimony and recriminations. My enjoyment was in no way diminished by the rock inscriptions themselves being rubbish.

D points out the total nothing we can't see

D points out that there is absolutely nothing to see

Selfish dead git

Selfish dead git

In terms of excavation things have been a bit slow but are finally picking up. An annoying hold up early in the week was my discovery that someone had thoughtlessly buried half a dozen dead people in the southern half of my trench. There are some situations in which finding dead people is splendid, like when you’re looking for a cemetery, and yet others, like this one, in which it’s a total pain in the arse. These later (probably Medieval) burials are cut down into the Neo-Assyrian building I’m trying to excavate, meaning that not only are they taking hours of fiddly excavating and recording to clear, but they’re leaving unsightly person-shaped holes in my pretty Assyrian walls. J over in Operation W has unwanted visitors of a different kind. He has a huge pithos embedded in the room he’s excavating which every morning he finds filled with tiny frogs. These have to be rescued and deported to the nearby irrigation swamp before they die in the sun and become a jar full of dreadful, mouldering frog corpses.

Yesterday's crop of tiny frogs. Having been stuck in there all night, none of them seem to be talking to each other any more

Yesterday’s crop of tiny frogs. Having been stuck in there all night, none of them seem to be talking to each other any more

In other news, it’s been a dire sporting week for me here. I got dumped out of the excavation ping pong tournament in the first round (I’ve never played ping pong before, I thought it would be easier) and then getting beaten for the first time ever in a sprint race up the city mound (by a 17 year old army cadet). I have resolved to be more selective in who I challenge to scratch races now that I’m in my thirties, and to accept fewer cigarettes from the workmen. At least England are doing well in the cricket, which I’m now able to listen to on the radio having found a way round the school server’s veto on all the world’s joys, including Test Match Special.

Şeker Bayramı (sugar holiday)

On top of the high mound the Germans make plans

On top of the high mound the Germans make plans

6am this morning found me sitting in the dig house listening to BBC 6 Music (which the Turkish education ministry server will let me access as the station name does not contain the dangerous word ‘radio’). I am attempting to write up an area of the site which someone else dug up six years ago, discovering more or less nothing. The big red circle on the geo-physics in fact turned out to be where the farmer drives his tractor round and round during threshing; a salutary lesson to all those who put too much faith in machines that go ping.

The chain gang giving me attitude

The chain gang giving me attitude


The reason I’m not on site today sweating away over my own expanse of nothing is that today is Şeker Bayramı; the holiday at the end of Ramadan when every man, woman and child in Turkey attempts to eat their body-weight in refined sugar. In furtherance of this noble goal, yesterday we bought our workmen thirty kilos of assorted revoltingly sugary brightly coloured sweets to share between them. They are currently sleeping off their biggest meal of the year.

The enormous gluttony all around us is sadly contrasted by our own state. Our cook and kitchen staff have all gone home to cook obscenely large quantities of oily Turkish food for other people and left us to fend for ourselves in the deserted school building for the next three days. I’ve already faced the horrors of the school’s basement kitchen(/dungeon/bacterial laboratory) having unwisely volunteered to help wash up from breakfast. There’s an all-pervading smell of rancid dairy substances and the cupboards are full of flies and dirty kittens. I bitterly regret not bringing my usual back-up supplies of beef jerky and instant noodles. I’m so hungry.

A group of academics attempting to feed themselves

A group of academics attempting to feed themselves


Things on site are also a bit grim. All I want is architecture and all I find is pits, big ugly pointless pits; if I was interested in those I would have become a prehistorian. The tedium has been somewhat relieved by my trench assistant who is the seventeen year old son of the British ambassador. On Tuesday we had a dirty joke-off, which I was pretty confident about having played on many rugby teams, but it turns out that rugby humour simply doesn’t have the depth and variety current in English boy’s boarding schools. We have our little japes – one day he said he’d found an important artefact and when I put my hand out he deposited a large white maggot in it. I threw this forcefully at his head, sadly missing his face and instead it adhered itself to the brim of his hat. He obligingly provided further entertainment by drinking some of the workmen’s water and being spectacularly sick for two days. Oh what laughs we have.

I’m going to drag myself upstairs and lie on my bed and think about bacon sandwiches for an hour.

Turkish word of the week: it appears at the bottom of all the many school notices and means 'they will be punished'.

Turkish word of the week: it appears at the bottom of all the many school notices and means ‘they will be punished’.

Time lag

I find myself inexplicably in the executive lounge at Birmingham airport. I hide in the corner in my cheap clothes and dirty trainers

I find myself inexplicably in the executive lounge at Birmingham airport. I hide in the corner in my cheap clothes and dirty trainers

Here I am once more in the baking southeast of Turkey sweating my poor life away in a room full of hot laptops and fans. It’s actually my ten year anniversary on this project which makes me feel unspeakably old. This wasn’t particularly helped today by my workmen, who during tea break broached the traditional second topic of international conversation after we had exhausted ‘what football team do you support’ (Arsenal, which didn’t go down at all well).

You are married?” enquired Hussein. Having been asked this on a regular basis and being familiar with the response I considered lying. I used to pretend to be married to a character from a TV programme or film; this prevents any hesitation and aids the consistency of an on-going lie as you already know all the information required. In the early 2000s I was mostly married to Dr Carter from ER (‘his name’s John, he works in a hospital, he has brown hair’), and in the late 2000s I was mostly married to Spiderman (‘his name’s Peter, he’s a newspaper photographer, he lives in New York’). I was once married to Professor Snape from Harry Potter (‘his name is Severus, he’s a teacher at a school, he has black hair’) but I became aware that Harry Potter has quite good circulation in the Middle East and the name was too recognisable.

Being old and increasingly confused I decided to stick to the truth this time.

No,” I said “I am not married.” This statement was received with a great deal of concerned murmuring.

How old are you?” asked Hussein gravely.

Otuz iki” I said, “Thirty-two”.

There were various cries of dismay. Hussein shook his head sadly. “You are very old” he said.

breaking ground on day one at the little known hour of 5am

breaking ground on day one at the little known hour of 5am

I’m two days into excavation at Operation Y, a name that implies a level of existential enquiry which would make any archaeologist uncomfortable. I’m still going through the extremely boring process of watching the workmen remove the plough zone which leaves me absolutely nothing to do except watch men shovel soil for eight hours a day. Today I dropped any pretence of working and brought a hilariously out of date book about the Plantagenet kings to read (Richard the Lion Heart, alas, ‘fell victim’ to homosexuality). This only slightly helped the main struggle of the day which is the struggle for consciousness. The day here starts with breakfast at 4am to allow us to start work when the sun comes up. Unfortunately, in UK time this is exactly the same time I usually go to bed (2am), leaving me with huge lifestyle-based jet lag. With little to occupy myself it’s a constant battle against the urge to hide behind the spoil heap and having a sleep, which is generally considered bad form when you’re supposed to be supervising seventeen workmen digging up a Neo-Assyrian city wall.

I’m trying to ignore some ominous beginnings. I’ve been assigned Room 13 in the deserted school building we’re living in, it’s only day three and I’ve already accepted a cigarette from the workmen, and I saw a crane eat a frog. On top of this, all websites of any interest, including this blog, are inaccessible on the school server, which reports that the site has been blocked by the Turkish Education Ministry due to its inappropriate content. I’ve got tomorrow off to sort myself out.

Unlucky for some: school room thirteen, in which some kind of mammal has defecated just inside the door

Unlucky for some: school room thirteen, in which some kind of mammal has defecated just inside the door