Category Archives: weather

Le cuisine d’Ur

We are off site today due to gale-force winds. Having done all my paperwork and tried and failed to make a kite, I now have little to do this afternoon except think of all the things I’d like to eat but can’t. I am not enjoying the culinary side of life at Ur:

Lunch guns: no one's taking our hardboiled eggs

Lunch guns: no one’s taking our hardboiled eggs

Hors d’oeuvres – selection of disappointments

Breakfast consists of finding something edible in the fridge in the dark. The highlight is the Iranian yoghurts, one of the ingredients of which is ‘Thermophile starter’, suggesting that it originates in the enriched uranium-producing regions. Most of the team mix this with ‘dhibis’; a black date syrup closely resembling diesel oil, except for J who uses a table spoon of instant coffee. Lunch is the usual cold hardboiled egg love/hate experience, enlivened by carbtastic boiled potato sandwiches. It is served in the site tent against a backdrop of machine guns.

Entrée – Rice and Red

Foulness: transition from the christmas regime to a bean-based diet has not been smooth

Foulness: transition from the christmas regime to a bean-based diet has not been smooth

The diet here at the Ur dig house is a classic example of archaeological dining in the Middle East, as perpetuated by the least imaginative cooks to be found between the Bosporus and the Khyber Pass. Excavation cooks are by and large not selected for their culinary skills but for their ability to put up with the astonishingly bizarre demands of foreign archaeologists (fixed mealtimes, basic hygiene, refrigeration of dairy products, vegetarians(!?)) and their familial connections to other employees of the project. This generally leads to the hiring of the driver’s/site guard’s/land owner’s brother/cousin/uncle, who in fact only knows how to cook one dish; the one he cooks when his wife’s away. This dish is invariably ‘rice and red’, referring to beans and/or vegetables cooked for an average of four hours in a tomato sauce and served over boiled rice. In nearly three weeks at Ur we have now had rice and red every day except the first Friday when we got our own takeaway kebab. Even with our now formidable range of hot sauce bottles, it’s sometimes difficult to remember there are flavours other than tomato.

Rice and red: courgette variant

Rice and red: courgette variant

Plateau de fromages

The cheeses of Ur

The cheeses of Ur

The cheese board of Ur is a thing of wonder, featuring on occasion as many as twelve different types of locally sourced processed cheese, ranging from creamy yellow Happy Cow, through the harder canned cheeses such as Kraft Cheddar and Pinky to the rubbery delights of Kiri and Boy Cheese triangles. The mystery surrounding this apparent variety is that they all taste exactly the same, and not of cheese. Served with artisanal bread in a damp plastic bag.

 Carte de vin

The ration is five cans a day for every man and boy. Some of us are not sleeping well

The ration is five cans a day for every man and boy. Some of us are not sleeping well

There is of course no vin here or biére and we are limited to the one litre each of the strongest duty free spirits available which we were able to bring through customs (currently carefully curated against the harder times to come). Most commonly drunk is an execrable local brand of instant coffee called Coffee Prince (referred to here as The Prince or The Prince of Darkness) and the usual brown 100% sugar solution that masquerades as tea. The project is in fact almost entirely fueled by industrial quantities of Diet Pepsi.

Bon appetit!

Soggy ziggurats

The curiously erotic art of Basra airport

The curiously erotic art of Basra airport

I’m in the Ur dig house wearing three jumpers and a woolly hat watching my breath fog. January in Iraq turns out to be quite cold and pretty wet (I weep inwardly over the big socks I couldn’t fit in my bag). I got here on Thursday night about ten hours later than scheduled. I made a strong start by getting quite drunk at Manchester Airport and finally getting round to watching Captain America on the plane, but then got delayed at Istanbul, where I sobered up, and then had to spend two hours circling Basra waiting for the fog to clear.

We’re living in the compound of the ancient city of Ur, which is full of dogs and rubbish. On Friday morning a few of us went to check out the ziggurat in the rain. The ziggurat of Ur is about four thousand years old and probably the greatest monument of the region I’ve been studying for the last twelve years. It featured heavily in my doctoral thesis. We trudged up to the top, decided it was horrible and went back to the dig house to make coffee and put on more clothes, which wasn’t exactly how I’d been imagining it all these years.

That wet ziggurat smell: S and D at the foot steps wanting to go home

That wet ziggurat smell: S and D at the foot steps wanting to go home

The samphire of ancient Ur: the perfect accompaniment to hard boiled eggs and processed cheese triangles

The samphire of ancient Ur: the perfect accompaniment to hard boiled eggs and processed cheese triangles

The next day the site guard gave us the full tour, together with a couple of Iraqi army officers from the local base, who spent most of the their time taking photos of each other on their smart phones. We slithered down the mud to the royal tombs of the Ur III dynasty, which remain a marvel in the world of brick vaulting fanciers despite being heavily befouled by pigeons. We admired the very large holes left by Leonard Woolley (https://oldstuffinhotplaces.com/2013/07/16/the-world-according-to-woolley/) in the 1920s, now filled with plastic bags, and I noted how well samphire grows on heavily salinated wet mudbricks.

Today we had our first full day on site; a modest Old Babylonian tell about forty minutes drive from Ur. Tomorrow we have the day off to go to the hospital and be tested for AIDS. Iraq is fun.

Ghosts of archaeology past

The deep magic of calling  down clouds using wet washing

The deep magic of calling down clouds using wet washing

The clouds are gathering over Erbil in a distressingly English way that makes me want to have a slice of cheese on toast and go to the pub. Even here autumn is on the way, in a sticky sort of 35°C manner. I’ve had my first autumn cold, probably due to the damage to my immune system wrought by two weeks of heavy drinking. As well as being snot-free once more, I’m currently enjoying my third day off thanks to the joys of the Kurdish election, so life seems good.

1911, Assur. A German archaeologist teaches a Sharqati workman how to annoy me

1911, Assur. A German archaeologist teaches a Sharqati workman how to annoy me

Work on site goes slowly onwards and downwards. Last week I started to tackle the Sharqatis. Sharqatis are men from Sharqat near Mosul who were trained by Germans a hundred years ago as excavators. This ancient knowledge has been passed down from father to son through the last century so that now they come fully trained to excavate new sites just as badly as the old ones. We have two. Don’t get me wrong, they’re very good at what they do, but we stopped doing a lot of those things fifty years ago. The main problem is that they want to find the walls and have very little interest in the stuff above and beside them like pits and late Medieval floors. As well as being very experienced in archaeology, they are very experienced in dealing with foreign archaeologists. When I ask them to please stop digging holes in things and to take the upper deposit out first they very politely say ‘yes, of course, whatever you say’. Then as soon as I walk away they laugh at my Egyptian Arabic and carry on digging big unstratigraphic trenches towards the wall face. I’ve had to start popping back after two minutes to catch them at it.

Meanwhile I’m continuing my explorations into the Erbil expat jungle. I’m amassing a large collection of business cards, including several important professors, three international consuls and the head of the Board of Intangible Cultural Heritage. I thought about getting some of my own printed but what would I put on them? ‘Homeless, penniless archaeologist, please feed me’, something like that? I’ve also extended my knowledge base in the realm of drinking establishments. I’ve found one around the corner where I can sit in the garden and the beer is reasonably priced, but because I’m a woman they set up a special table for me and whoever I’m with in the darkest corner. There is no women’s toilet. I feel like a leper. On Thursday night I went out with some other expats to try the new ‘Irish’ bar that opened last week. As it turned out it was owned by a Jordanian man and his Lebanese wife and only served German beer. A few forlorn shamrocks hid in a dark corner by the appalling DJ. When we left they tried to charge us a $50 per head cover charge and for a large meal we hadn’t eaten. We paid them for the actual things we’d drunk, told them we would never come here again and went somewhere better. I’d been hoping for Guinness and singing.

I like my archaeology with a decent view

I like my archaeology with a decent view

Things in fog

The sun burning off the fog just in time to prevent my wet shirt becoming improper

The sun burning off the fog just in time to prevent my wet shirt becoming improper

When the weather forecast said it would be cloudy I’d imagined us being under the clouds rather than in them, but then life thrives on these little misunderstandings. It’s an incentive to the process of waking up when the first thing you have to do in the morning is to find a deep hole in long grass and dense fog. Having successfully located my trench without breaking my legs I got back down to the more weighty problem of finding any archaeology in it. I’ve spent that last three days digging through a metre and a half of melted tell slush, which has led to a certain amount of ill-temper and wistful thoughts about sandy Egyptian sites. On the positive, shovelling heavy clay from depth is one of the best abdominal workouts I know, next to a good long bout of sea sickness.

The view outside my bedroom door where the stuff sits and smells of wet cardboard

The view outside my bedroom door where the stuff sits and smells of wet cardboard

The fact that all we’re finding is pottery has led to an unhealthy obsession with the stuff on the part of many of the excavation team, resulting in long and extremely tedious conversations about rim profiles and fabric types during which I nod, say ‘hmm’ a lot, and dwell on how pottery fragments always give me a craving for McVities digestive biscuits. I think it’s all hateful and wish we had a proper ceramicist so I wouldn’t have to pretend to care.

As I was walking back from taking the backsite for the dumpy today, a lone donkey came trotting down the road with an unusual air of purpose. It seemed uncertain as to who’d get off the road for who, but a frank exchange of views and a large level scale decided the matter and he went round. But I do wonder what the hurry was. I returned for breakfast to find that there was no tea left and that all our Laughing Cow cheese triangles had been replaced with Iraqi Wonder Cow, which tastes mostly of petrol.

A terrible fraud has been committed

A terrible fraud has been committed

What? Donkey of unknown provenance and destination

What? Donkey of unknown provenance and destination

All I want for christmas: pork and rain

Our conservator after trying to consolidate this coffin for six days. I shall never forget the howl of misery with which she blessed its collapse when we tried to remove it.

Our conservator after trying to consolidate this coffin for six days. I shall never forget the howl of misery with which she blessed its collapse when we tried to remove it.

Like all dutiful (single) archaeologists I have returned home to my parents for Christmas. The end of the season was pretty busy and tiring, although largely because we kept staying up late to get to the end of the dvd of Our Mutual Friend (BBC, 1998). We managed, in the end, to watch three period dramas, dig up nearly a hundred dead people, send only two team members to the doctor, and give one of our conservators a real life nervous breakdown, so a good season all round.

I’m suffering the usual amount of culture shock. It hasn’t stopped raining since the plane broke through the clouds over Manchester airport, my mother took me straight to a carol service in the local medieval church where I felt odd and then fell asleep, and I’m only now starting to remember that toilets have a flush after two months of throwing the paper down a big hole and walking away.

Dreary rain at Manchester

Dreary rain at Manchester

I’ve been at home now for a whole day during which I’ve attempted to eat my body weight in pork. I bought a quantity of large German sausages and a jar of mustard on my way through Frankfurt airport, only to find 6kg of ham at home due to my parents making a happy error in their christmas meat order. I’ve also had to engage in some highly unsuccessful Christmas shopping – my parents made me promise some years ago that I would desist from buying them any more presents in Middle Eastern souqs. Apparently my mother considers there to be a limit to the number of scarves a person can usefully own. I hope she likes tea towels. I have already presented her with my traditional christmas gift of a large bag full of dirty clothes and sand.

My last find of the season; some mashed up painted coffin bits

My last find of the season; some mashed up painted coffin bits

This may be my last post for a little bit. I was supposed to be digging in Iraq after new year but there’s been a delay over the security arrangements (quelle surprise) leaving me stuck at home for most of January, digging up nothing but a new overdraft in a very very very wet place.

Digging up old stuff in a cold place

Doodoo and Oy (who are gay lovers), discovered in the clean washing

Doodoo and Oy (who are gay lovers), discovered in the clean washing

It’s now gone very cold here and I’m wearing more socks than I can comfortably fit in my shoes. Cold doesn’t last very long in Middle Egypt and the locals seems to act as if surprised and slightly betrayed. Galibiyas are horrible drafty things. This morning I was first into the kitchen for breakfast and found two of the dig house cats sleeping in the clean washing box. The little monsters will do anything to get inside; I keep finding them hiding in the shower, to our mutual surprise. I can hear them scratching at the door from the roof as I write this.

The workmen, in the spirit of Captain Scott, accept their fate and wait for death

The workmen, in the spirit of Captain Scott, accept their fate and wait for the end.

The workmen are just as bad. In the morning they huddle together with a wild look in their eyes as if the world has gone mad and there’s nothing to do but wait for icy death. No one was laughing, however, when it was found that the thermos flasks hadn’t made it to site and we couldn’t make instant noodles. This was especially galling as we’d been down to only chicken flavour for the last week but had been re-supplied that morning with beef. I cried inwardly over my unopened beefy breakfast.

One of our many mysteries was solved today; the disappearance of all the sheets. My Australian colleague J- confessed at dinner that she has finally taken a blanket from the stores as it’s got so cold. We all gaped in astonishment (we all know D- has been under five blankets for the last week and would have taken more if the extra weight wasn’t a risk to life). It seems J- has been unwilling to take her turn in the flea-infestation-blanket-lottery and has instead been adding extra sheets to stave off hypothermia. We find, in fact, that she has fifteen sheets on her bed, not counting the one she sleeps on top of. As A- commented, “sometimes I think I’m a bit strange, and then I go and excavate with people.”

and a further mystery: how did I take this picture of my bony gloves? I now mostly use my laptop for warmth.

and a further mystery: how did I take this picture of my bony gloves? I now mostly use my laptop for warmth.

 

The mystery of dinner is also about to be solved with what appears to be potato pizza.

Wind and kids

On my 29th birthday I got this baby in a box

On my 29th birthday I got this baby in a box

We’ve had wind now for two days (in the metrological sense you understand) and everyone is very tired, and frustrated and thoroughly exfoliated. I’m digging next to my French colleague who punctuates the working day with “Uh, putain!” about once every twenty minutes as the wind sends another little avalanche of sand into the beautifully clean burial she’s trying to plan. I excavated a child today which is the most irritating sort of burial in these windy times, as there are more bones and they are extra small and easily blown away/misplaced/trodden on etc.

It’s somewhat disconcerting that I have more contact with dead children than live ones. They just aren’t the people I need to deal with on a day to day basis, and I find myself unwelcome around live children and their parents due to my foul mouth and inappropriate anecdotes. A dead-centric view of childhood is something which can be awkward around parents, for example, I pretend to remember how old my friend’s kids are by imagining how long they would be if they laid on the ground: “so Emma must be…” [about the same length as Individual 163 from last season, so] “…four now?”

My worryingly soft and hairy nephew

My worryingly un-solid (and hairy) nephew

I became an aunt very recently and all I can think of when I see my nephew is how very little of him is solid; babies are almost all flesh (and sick and compressed gasses). His pelvis is in six parts instead of two; how weird is that? Baby skeletons do nothing to dispel my association of pregnancy with the dinner table scene from Alien.

Quote of the day: “The wind blew my knee caps away.” – J on the woes of windy grave digging.