Category Archives: weather

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

 

Babylon the Great

The lion of Babylon making nice with a man

The lion of Babylon making nice with a man

It’s been a week of wind and rain in southern Iraq. This morning the truck almost got stuck in the mud on the way to site again, which would have saved us all a great deal of windy, freezing misery, but it was not to be. It finally dragged itself out by its four-wheel-drive onto the express way where it carried us wailing to site. At night I have been kept awake by the drumming of rain on the roof of my shipping container and by my possessions knocking into the furniture as they wash across the floor.

Rani, about to find out if that other button does turn the truck into a hovercraft

Rani, about to find out if that other button does turn the truck into a hovercraft

Friendly neighbourhood policing

Friendly neighbourhood policing in Diwaniyah

We had a special treat this Friday, which was to go and be cold and wet in Babylon instead of being cold and wet at Ur. At least it gave the dig directors a break from our whining, which was probably the point of the exercise. We were passed northward through the heavily armoured hands of four provincial police forces, all of whom cultivate the amateur-enthusiast aura of American bible-belt militias, mixed with a bit of official pomp and a few scarves knitted by their mums. Luckily they took off their more interesting accessories and larger guns to escort us around the site.

 

 

In the sensory vacuum of Baathist Babylon reconstruction, F falls victim to existential doubt

In the sensory vacuum of Baathist Babylon reconstruction, F falls victim to existential doubt

 

Babylon in the rain. It does have atmosphere; specifically that of an abandoned soviet holiday complex built too close to the water table. The majority of it is taken up with Saddam’s enormous empty reconstructed buildings erected in the 1980s, which remind me of a dream I once had about living in a concrete grain silo after the nuclear apocalypse. They at least have the soothing effect of minimalist visual calm due to there being absolutely nothing that catches the eye.

 

There are some original parts remaining. The raised brick reliefs of the Ishtar gate still give you an idea of the grandeur of the place, and parts of the ancient processional way have been preserved; ornamented on this occasion by the addition of a dead fox artfully arranged on the bitumen lined pavement. Overlooking the whole enterprise is Saddam’s huge palace, which would have given him an excellent view of what he was spoiling. I was hoping to buy something monstrously tacky from the gift shop but in this I was also disappointed as it seems to have been closed for at least twenty years and now had only two elderly men sleeping in it. Instead I sampled the delights of Babylon’s only ladies’ toilet, which had no lock, paper, bin or running water. Cradle of civilization, my arse.

One of our policemen admires the charming dead foxes of the Great Processional Way

One of our policemen admires the charming dead foxes of the Great Processional Way

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.

Drowning in nonsense

A brief break in the weather leaves a happy rainbow over soggy erbil

A brief break in the weather leaves a happy rainbow over soggy Erbil

Over the last two days I’ve been having a passionate affair with a Nespresso machine. My housemate picked one up in yet another looting incident after some oil people had to leave the country. It came with about 300 little coffee capsules in about twenty flavours; I’ve tried most of them in the last forty-eight hours but have decided to leave the last six flavours until tomorrow after having a dream about my eyeballs popping out of my head and trying to squash them back in with my thumbs.

The voyage back to the office

Swimming back to the office

The sun has finally come out today after a week of dreary rain punctuated by thunder storms. The refugees living in the unfinished shopping mall around the corner (in a manner reminiscent of zombie apocalypse movies) have hung everything out to dry from the incomplete rooftop. The citadel turns out to drain surprisingly poorly for high ground, and what does drain drains into the site, cutting gullies into the ancient walls and pooling in the deep trenches. The alleyways between the office and site are now of a semi-aquatic nature, sometimes requiring careful sounding to avoid sinking up to the knees and occasional scrabbling over the ruins of fallen walls brought down by the weight of their water soaked bricks. My two female trainees have mysteriously stopped coming to site, which I’m sure is wholly unconnected with their choice of ballet flats as excavation footwear.

I hear it was an excellent year for brick crocuses

I hear it was an excellent year for brick crocuses

I’ve escaped by throwing myself into the paperwork, examining the ‘records’ of the first season of excavation when no international adviser was present. Scant enough already, they bear testament to the perils of the unsupervised use of English by under-qualified persons. Of greatest interest is the collection of enigmatic sentences entered into the ‘Detailed description’ section of the context sheets, attesting to such diabolical objects as an ‘Angle iron, cercal, coration on serf black color’ and mysterious allusions to ‘Days of mud brick, clay and chipson’. The horrors of season one are made plain by references to a ‘Will maid bar backed brick’ and a ‘Flow bottom 044- mad by nore’. If anyone can translate nonsense please get in touch, there’s a publication credit and a packet of bacon in it for you if you can tell me what a ‘tow loin’ is.

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The archaeology office cat, who I refer to variously as ‘Bag of Bones’ or ‘Sack of Shit’ depending on what and how much it has eaten

As almost all of my posts from Erbil have so far featured a cat photo, here is a photo of the office cat. When it has turned over all the bins it sits in the office door and cries continuously in tones of great malevolence. It bites anyone approaching within two feet. At the start of the season it was deathly thin and appeared to have been hit in the face with a car, but has since grown fat and demanding on a diet of powdered milk and instant coffee fed to it by the girls in the office. I scowl daily upon the nourishing of this monster.

Rules of engagement

Abayas are very on-trend at the Imam Hussein mosque

Abayas are very on-trend at the Imam Hussein mosque

My blogging activities have been seriously curtailed due to an internet drought at Ur over the past week. Hopefully I can now restore my flow of attention seeking drivel to previous levels. I’m reclining in my steel dragon, trying to digest another round of J’s bread and butter pudding. It’s been in the fridge for over two days now and has matured in unusual ways. There’s about 6lbs of it left, maybe more by now as it seems to be increasing in both mass and density. This is just one of the main events of the last week, which started with a difficult and heavily armed trip to visit the major Shia shrines at Karbala. This involved everyone getting very cross, and an unnecessary number of puns in very poor taste concerning the word Shiite. I also particularly enjoyed my first experience of wearing an abaya – one of those full-length black robes that cover everything but the face. Some of the best things about wearing an abaya are tripping on it going up stairs, tripping on it going down stairs, sitting on it so you can’t lean forward, standing on it when you want to get up, not being able to reach for things more than a foot away, getting caught on furniture, knocking drinks over with the sleeves, continual readjustment, being too hot and being told off for not wearing it correctly. F got told off for smoking in hers. I excelled myself by falling asleep during our meeting with the head imam.

The nice men at the shrine gave me this commemorative plaque, a flag and some islamic instructional literature. And a real kitkat, which was much appreciated

The nice men at the shrine gave me this commemorative plaque, a flag and some islamic instructional literature. And a real kitkat, which was much appreciated

A's offer to help me with the tablet hunt is rewarded by having his eyes scoured out in a dust storm

A’s offer to help me with the tablet hunt is rewarded with having his eyes scoured out by a dust storm

On site things have also been trying. A few days ago I started finding cuneiform tablets in the main room I’m excavating, meaning that everything has slowed to almost a standstill. The tablets, which are made of unbaked mud, are lurking about in a layer of dense mud brick rubble; this makes it extremely hard to sort the boring, useless, everyday lumps of mud which need to go to the spoil heap to die from the fantastically interesting, extremely important lumps of mud which need to go to the museum to be studied. There are several difficult skills to be honed, such as not finding tablets by cutting them in half with a trowel, not spending too long painstakingly excavating alluringly shaped pieces of brick, and not screaming and throwing your tools across the trench in frustration more than once a day. I hope there’s something interesting written on them and not tax returns or a teenage diary.

Sieving under pressure: the distinctly military flavour of digging in Iraq

Sieving under pressure: the distinctly military flavour of digging in Iraq

In the evening we’ve taken to watching Generation Kill which follows a group of US marines through the American invasion in 2003. In last night’s episode the marines rolled through Nasiriyah, which was a bit weird as it’s only ten minutes down the road. Life on the excavation now incorporates a regrettable amount of military jargon and more than the previous amount of colourful swearing. I found a sticker on the armchair in my steel dragon saying ‘property of the US government’.

Steel Dragon

Thursday afternoon: The police polish their guns ready for a big weekend

Thursday afternoon: The police polish their guns ready for a big weekend

Peace reigns at the Ur dig house. It is Thursday afternoon, the day off ahead of us and the power is already out. I can hear the merry, distant sounds of my colleagues trying to play ping pong on the dining room table. In the last week we have been joined by a new team member (N), who, other than the fact that he didn’t make full use of his customs allowance of alcohol, seems to be a perfectly reasonable human man (which has now been verified by his Iraqi health checks).  I spent the last two days digging up what appears to be an Early Dynastic vaulted tomb, amid wild speculation about gold and princesses, only to discover this afternoon that it’s completely empty. I took it fairly philosophically; you have to take the rough with the smooth in the grave digging line. Anyway, everything seemed better back at the house after a cup of tea and a Cornetto.

We have inherited the four survivors of Steel Dragon Camp D2.

We have inherited the four survivors of Steel Dragon Camp D2.

My biggest news of the week is that I finally escaped the doleful presence of my humourless, dirt-bothering roommate (who is a good person, on paper) and moved into a steel dragon. We have four steel dragons in the yard behind the house. They’re essentially those metal shipping containers that skulk about on cargo ships, roughly adapted for habitation by, I suspect, the military. Our steel dragons have certainly seen service, possibly in the Crimea. I inherited mine from one of the co-directors who had to return to the UK to his teaching post, leaving a half built floatation machine in the garden and half of his beard in my sink. After some fairly half-hearted housework it is now mostly de-professored.

Hut 47: my own dear dragon

Hut 47: my own dear dragon. Hut 39 next door is the escape committee.

There’s something of an art to living in a steel box with all the insulating properties of a coke can. The cold weather persists, making the dragon much like one of those walk-in meat freezers. F claims to have recorded 3˚C one morning in dragon 72. The solution, other than wearing eight layers of clothes and a hat, comes in the form of a huge dust-filled AC unit strapped to the front of the container, which when activated makes a brain-rattling thrumming noise and causes enough vibration to make my tin trunk creep across the floor. All in all, it’s a lot like being in a helicopter at high altitude. I suspect once the hot weather comes around it’ll be like being a dog locked in a hot car. Freedom always comes with a price.

In the belly of the beast: you can never have too many polyester leopard print blankets in a steel dragon, so long as you can handle the static.

In the belly of the beast: you can never have too many polyester leopard print blankets in a steel dragon, so long as you can handle the static.

Double bagging

We attempt to survive morning tea break

We attempt to survive morning tea break

I woke up at 4:30am this morning freezing. I cast about for any extra clothing in reach but found only a microfiber travel towel, which I wrapped round my knees. The temperature at Ur has gone down ten degrees in the last two days which has made everyone very unhappy, especially those of us who are living in metal boxes in the garden. I made a critical decision ten minutes before leaving the house to put a pair of skinny jeans on under my site trousers. This may have saved my life. Two pairs of trousers was indeed the order of the day all round, though I still had a fair amount of trouble with the touchscreen on my Toughbook due to the unintentional double click effect of shivering. There was also the issue of dripping snot onto the keyboard. I thought at one point that my smallest workman Ali (who claims to be fifteen but can’t be more than eleven) might die.

S tends his flag garden; the harvest will be good this year

S tends his flag garden; the harvest will be good this year

On site the average mental age is about fourteen

On site the average mental age is about fourteen

The site is shaping up nicely, if you like sites to be Old Babylonian temple shaped, which I do. It’s still looking a bit two dimensional as we’ve done a lot of surface clearance to get the main walls, but we’ll be heading down as soon as we can all agree on a sampling strategy (or hell freezes over, which looks more likely). It’s all quite colourful as the surface erosion has cut holes through layers of plaster floors and burnt fills producing concentric bands of grey and white and red with lumps of pottery, making it look as if someone has been spectacularly sick in the trench. F has found a pair of bread ovens that look like breasts.

Iraqi orange flavour custard has a half life of 10,000 years

Iraqi orange flavour custard has a half life of 10,000 years

I returned to the house after work to find that my roommate, whom I live to vex, had finally cracked and tidied up my stuff. Instead of the mound of mixed clothes, electricals and snack foods I’d been carefully curating at the foot of my bed, I found my clothes folded and stacked on top of my bag, and my shirts, which have never known such things, on clothes hangers on the back of the door. My clean and dirty underwear bags had been hung on the bed post and all my cosmetics hidden behind the curtains. Everything had been swept. I kicked my dirty boots off into the corner and slouched off to think up more elaborate ways to be filthy. For dinner one of the dig directors made cake served with florescent yellow custard which tasted like Fanta.