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What is it good for?



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.


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.


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”.


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

Keep on running


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.


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


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.


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.

Happy happy hundredth post


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.


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.


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.




Brass monkeys


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.


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.


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.


One of the cops guarding the spoil heap and looking mean

Wolves and walls


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


M wonders how he can possibly beat the last Bogie without being shot in the back of the head by the cops


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.

The arse end of the year

Ah January, lovely January; land of fatness and poverty and self-recrimination about another year wasted. Lo! See the rolling hills of thwarted plans, take a stroll along the shingle beach of advancing age, peer over the jagged cliff of approaching sobriety. The world certainly looks like a bleaker place now that I’m not allowed to drink a bottle of wine a day. I’ll be beginning to reverse my post-Christmas alcohol dependency by flying to Basra on Thursday where I’ll be able to enjoy three uninterrupted months of booze withdrawal back on the excavation near Ur. It feels a bit daunting right now and the next sanctimonious arse who tells me they’re doing Dry January is risking a punch in the mouth.


The current state of my packing for Iraq. I definitely need more pain killers, but I’m probably okay for cupasoups

It’s been a wet weary winter since I got back from Erbil, which only slightly excuses my neglect of blog-writing duties. A major factor has been another protracted job-seeking tragedy with the British Museum, which seems to be becoming an awful annual fixture. I made it to the interview on time, which represents progress, and I even managed to string some words together in the right language and the right order but they gave it to someone else all the same. A Frenchman, as if it wasn’t bad enough already. On the one hand I railed against an unjust universe and the pointlessness of it all, and on the other hand I was relieved that I still don’t have to grow up and take some responsibility.


I take an oil lamp up to the attic so I can have a wash in my cold jug of water. Happy New Year!

Although I haven’t done any archaeology since Erbil (unless you count the mind-buggeringly boring plan digitisation I’m doing for the British Museum) I did try my hand at a little living history over the New Year. I concocted a last minute plan to escape from Crewe and rent a house in Shropshire with a few people and a dog for five days, and I thought it would be funny if it was the house from Victorian Farm which doesn’t have any gas, electricity or running water. What larks! Living like a Victorian involves dark narrow spaces and lots and lots of fire, which is the perfect environment for drinking heavily over the New Year period (what else to do during the three hours it takes for the range to get hot enough to make tea?). We spent our time playing board games, heaving coal, talking shite, fetching water, reading ghost stories in funny voices, making stew, singing and burning ourselves on everything. All my clothes smell of paraffin, it was the best New Year ever.

My next post will be from Iraq and might involve some proper archaeology if I can remember what that is.


In the cold Victorian light of morning, A- cooks bacon and eggs on the range

In the nursery

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

End of another long day. It's a slice of Iraqi tea and then up the mudbrick hill to bedfordshire

End of another long day. It’s a slice of Iraqi tea and then up the mudbrick hill to bedfordshire for me

Once upon a time there was a dirty, tired, bitter old woman who desperately wanted to finish digging holes in an ancient palace so she could write it up and go home and live happily ever after (or at least watch tv in her pyjamas for a week). But this couldn’t happen because every time she got close to finishing excavating her last room some old crap would turn up and she would tear her hair and curse the gods and clean and photograph and plan it. Today it was a dead baby in a pot.

Kinder surprise

Kinder surprise

We’d excavated a couple of these external buttress chambers before and they just have a bit of dumping material inside and unsurfaced mud brick at the bottom; this one should have been quick. I’ve been digging room 304 out for nearly three weeks now and difficult things keep coming up to make me unhappy. Strangely childlike things. First there was the farmyard activity play set. This featured a range of animal figurines, vehicle parts and little farmers, all lovingly modeled in soggy unbaked clay and then mashed up. They presented themselves as a mass of sturdy bases from man figurines, the back ends of large-testicled bulls, and beaten up horse torsos with their heads knocked off (I also used to knock the heads off my toys if I didn’t like the way they were looking at me).


Fully functional pottery rattle; all the cool kids have got them this year

Fully functional pottery rattle; all the cool kids have got them this year

The next thing to turn up was a rattle. A real Old Babylonian, 3700 year old rattle, made of pottery and still rattling. I flipped it intact out of the deposit with my trowel with a merry little rattle and then I gave it a good rattle next to my head and danced a little rattle discovery dance. It’s now been rattled by everyone on the project, by all three Iraqi antiquities reps, by our driver, by the UK Chargé d’Affaires to Iraq and by half her security entourage. On Saturday it will be rattled by the Minister of Antiquities for Iraq. It’s just been x-rayed at Nasiriyah hospital to see what makes it quite so rattley.


The mud brick playpen. Perfect for all bronze age toddlers

The mud brick playpen. Perfect for all bronze age toddlers

The rattle turned out to be from a partitioned-off corner of the room which is now referred to in all my notes as the ‘playpen’. It’s enclosed by a thin mud brick wall at about waist height with a raised floor and no doorway (in fact the whole room has no doorway; I initially thought the playpen might be the lift shaft). I suppose all things considered I should have been expecting the kinder surprise this afternoon. At the dig house I found a potato which looks exactly like a 5-6 week old human embryo, and no good can come of that sort of omen.

Ill-omened potato foetus

Ill-omened potato foetus

The lunatic fringe


As the Blues sense victory, the Reds super-weapon stalks over the battlefield shooting lasers from its cycloptic eye!!!!!!!!!!

As the Blues sense victory, the Reds super-weapon stalks onto the battlefield shooting lasers from its cycloptic eye

It’s a regrettable truth that archaeology attracts far more than its fair share of mentally deranged people, not just within the subject as a commercial and academic pursuit, but also from society at large. Itinerant fruit cakes gather around the subject like kids round a carcass.

The first season's unfortunately shaped test trench

The first season’s unfortunately shaped test trench

We got a call this week from the British Ambassador congratulating us on discovering the world’s earliest shopping mall. The consular staff had read it in the Iraqi press; how we’d found a big building full of little shops. I suppose you could call it that, provided we assume that most shops in the Old Babylonian period sold only broken pottery and dust. This was in fact one of many colourful interpretations of our data by members of the excitable press. The very best example of the genre for this particular project dates to the first test season when two trenches were dug across each other to chase rectilinear wall lines. This produced a sensational article on Wikipedia (recently removed but still available via the Worthy Christian Forum) which claimed we had discovered a temple in the form of the earliest Christian cross, dating to 2000 BC (…).


The alien escape capsule is found mostly intact, but did the pilot survive the landing?

The alien escape capsule is found mostly intact, but did the pilot survive the landing?


No. That’s ceramic space technology for you

Fanciful tales are by no means restricted to intellectually deficient journalists trying to rake a publishable story out of tedious old crap. There are plenty of crazies out there churning out nonsense simply because they’re window-licking simpletons. This project has acquired its own conspiracy theorist, whose name I won’t mention in case she finds my blog and starts accusing me of supressing the truth about all the alien technology we’re excavating for the US government. She’s written a book about the site, available on Amazon, which as far as I can tell claims to be an investigative piece about our secret archaeological work funded by the oil industry and shadowy government agencies. I’ve only read the sample pages free on Amazon as I refuse to pay her money (even though she claims all profits will go to the Society for Truth in Archaeological Research, which I fear may have but one member). She seems to think we’re either looking for alien technology, hiding the truth about the origins of humanity, covering up radical new evidence about biblical scripture or hunting for Nazi gold. One of those.

I’m not quite sure why she thinks we’re so secretive; the project has a website, a facebook page and a twitter account. Her in-depth research, which she claims to perform in Ohio wearing pyjamas and listening to Bach, mysteriously doesn’t seem to have found any of these. The truth is out there, if you can find it amongst all the crazy shit.

The big beige

Beige as far as the eye can see

Beige as far as the eye can see

Sometimes I wonder, as I watch my bright green holdall approach on the airport baggage carousel, why all my travelling things are strong primary colours. My laptop case and my camera are bright red, my small holdall is bright blue, my tablet cover is bright green. Sometimes I catch my reflection in the customs area two-way mirrors and I look like a dirty clown. The answer may lie in the unrelentingly colour-free environments to which I’m usually heading, southern Iraq being the example par excellence. This place is beige, so beige at times I feel like I’ve woken up in a sepia silent movie and am surprised when people speak out loud and it doesn’t cut to a dialogue frame with “Oh no! Wind has blown my bonnet off!”

Our plastic flowers used to be pink and the grass used to be green

Our plastic flowers used to be pink and the grass used to be green. This picture is in full colour

The beige is everywhere and gets everywhere. It never seems to be in quite the right place and the desert is always full of diggers and bulldozers moving the beige around a little bit, pushing a ridge here or a little pile there to see if that makes it better. From the air the beige looks like it’s been scribbled on by toddlers. This process of beige adjustment has been going on indefinitely, as we find from the archaeology. Perhaps one day the people of Iraq will get all the beige just where they want it and be happy and rejoice and live in peace.

A pauses to shake the beige out of his ears

A pauses to shake the beige out of his ears

The other major redistributor of beige is the wind, which we’ve had quite a lot of so far. Every morning F asks me what the weather forecast says about the wind today. I tell her, and watch the tears of purest beige roll down her beige encrusted cheek. On site my on-going recovery of fragmented cuneiform tablets is not enhanced by the beige howling round my head, scouring the plaster off the wall faces and dusting over the excavation surface. I’ve been wearing my beige-tight goggles and trying to keep the beige out of my ears. It blows down the collar of my shirt from where my T shirt channels it under the waistband of my trousers and into my pants. Back at the house I go to my beige steel dragon and shower it off with slightly beige water until I have a beige shower tray. As I write this J is trying to wash the beige out of our clothes but all this does is produce gallons of beige water to silt the drain up. The clothes remain beige.

The sad tank of Eridu

The sad tank of Eridu

This morning we visited Eridu and Tell Ubaid, two more large mounds of beige. At Eridu we played on a broken tank with a big warning sign in Arabic next to it. At Tell Ubaid we found some human remains eroding out of a shallow grave on top of the mound. They were wrapped in a green waterproof.