Tag Archives: ancient egypt

People packing

The dog helps by eating my shoes

The dog helps by eating my shoes

Blog writing time is getting seriously hard to come by at this end of the season. We’ve all become caught in a circle of paperwork hell; the one reserved for banking fraud and mildly hazardous school field trips. This is mostly due to the unusual number of multiple burials we’re finding, which multiplies the paperwork by a factor of however many dead people there are. A five-man stack is no longer considered unusual, triggering a formageddon of unit sheets, skeleton sheets, burial description sheets and textile and matting sheets. We’re sheeting ourselves to death right now (you see what I did there). Today I broke my toe jumping up the stairs going back to the office for yet another form; it’s a dangerous business.

We’re all finding different ways of coping with the pressure. C has started skipping site breakfast, M and A get up at 5am to fit in some early morning sheets. Gin. Personally I’ve started packing my dead people into the bread trays in elaborate and artistic ways as a gratuitous waste of time I don’t have. I like the way the ribs make sort of wings and the way shoulder blades look like pig’s ears. I think I might be getting a bit peculiar.

I call this one Boy in Box

I call this one Boy in Box

Teenager in Tray

Teenager in Tray

Asymmetric Adolescent

Asymmetric Adolescent

The others might be cracking too; the excavation team is troubled by fretful archaeological dreams. M had a very standard cemetery excavation dream in which the sides of her improbably deep grave collapsed on top of her, pressing her against the withered flesh at the bottom in a powdery embrace. S had another form of paranoia dream in which a tsunami of water poured off the high desert into the cemetery wadi, forcing us to all climb the cliffs to try and save ourselves. I put this one down to the fact that the workmen play the theme to Titanic by Celine Dion on their phones all the time. They love Titanic in Egypt, as there is no cultural concept of repulsive soppiness. G’s dream was probably the most telling – she dreamed that if only M could dig deep enough, she could pull the plug and all the sand would drain out through the enormous sieve which underlies the cemetery. All the bodies would be left in the bottom of the sieve and we’d just have to go along and collect them up. I dreamed that we were all replaced by cheaper, more efficient Chinese archaeologists.

The embarrassment of losing one's pants

The embarrassment of losing one’s underclothes

The other crisis in my archaeological life is my unsustainable loss of underwear in the communal wash. I came with ten pairs of pants, I’m now down to three; the pair I put in the wash today, the pair I hope to find in the clean wash tomorrow and the pair I’m wearing about my person. I’m one pair of pants away from commando archaeology and not in the good sense. I’m dogged by the question of who’s wearing my pants?

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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.

Places of burial

Another unnecessarily picturesque spot in which ancient Egyptians buried their dead people

Another unnecessarily picturesque spot in which ancient Egyptians buried their dead people

I’m out in Middle Egypt and back to looking for dead people to disturb. I had a weary time getting to Cairo via three delayed flights and an unplanned visit to Geneva, which looked very nice from what I could see as I ran through the airport. I also suffered the most invasive and thorough pat-down I’ve ever experienced (and I’ve had some crackers) from an expressionless German security woman in Frankfurt. They lost my bags, natürlich. Thanks Lufthansa, you’re on a roll.

We’ve started excavation at a brand spanking new cemetery, untouched by the hands of archaeologists, although thoroughly pawed by the hands of 3000 years’ worth of Egyptian looters. After three days of digging I’ve found absolutely nothing but gravel, but the view is lovely. I’ve been assigned my old crew of elderly workmen who have now been moving very small amounts of sand for me as inefficiently as possible for almost ten years, on and off. When I ask my head trowel man if we can go a little faster he smiles at me and lights another cigarette.

IMGP9871edit

The extraordinary dynamism of the Near Site excavation team

In my ten days between coming back from Iraq and flying out here I sewed a regency period dress and had a rubbish birthday. As all my birthday plans fell through, and my twin sister was in Chile posting smug facebook status updates, I ended up going to Chester with my mother and then drinking six pints at the pub. I consoled myself a little two days later by going to Leicester to meet up with an old friend, drink, gossip and see Richard III’s new tomb in the cathedral.

Richard III's tomb. Just the right height for a nice little sit down

Richard III’s tomb. Just the right height for a nice little sit down

Poor old Richard III. I know that on the balance of evidence he probably wasn’t a very nice man, and he probably did kill those kids, but I don’t think he deserved to be buried in Britain’s most underwhelming cathedral in a tomb that looks like a bench. But Leicester council are clearly keen to make the most of what they see as a tourist attraction and have invested in a shiny visitor’s centre and covered the town with ‘Welcome home Richard III’ banners; by which I assume that Leicester council considers ‘home’ to be a place to which one is dragged by one’s enemies, horribly mutilated and buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. Richard might be fuming away in whatever afterlife is reserved for mediocre, slightly evil English kings, and looking longingly through brochures for York Minster and Westminster Abbey, but Leicester city council are doing a roaring trade in fridge magnets and commemorative mugs so at least someone’s happy. As we tell archaeology undergraduates in their introduction to burial practices, funerals are for the living not the dead.

I'm sure Richard III would be delighted that the high street shoe shops of Leicester welcome him to his new home

I’m sure Richard III would be delighted that the shoe shops of Leicester welcome him to his new home

The works of man

Ancient Egyptian bling: 3,400 years old and good as new

Ancient Egyptian bling: 3,400 years old and good as new

Yesterday I found this faience ring. Isn’t it nice. The previous owner had been very badly messed about but his two femurs were thrown over each other and happily hid the ring between his thighs, still stuck on a finger bone.

I’ve been having a great deal of trouble with watches recently. They just keep stopping on me with no obvious reason that watch repairers can find. This has coincided with an increase in the number of static shocks I’ve been receiving from objects, persons and animals, and a new found ability to trigger the security alarms in shops. I wish I had better superpowers. Anyway, after only four weeks my most recent watch stopped on Monday so I put in an order for a replacement from the closest Egyptian town. This arrived yesterday.

My nice new watch: chocolate teapot

My new watch: breaking new ground in the field of shit

The simultaneous acquisition of the ancient ring and my new watch started me thinking about the progress (or otherwise) of mankind and his arts. The ring is a beautiful object, made with care and skill, and has so far survived for three and a half thousand years in almost pristine condition. My new watch is one of the ugliest objects conceived by the minds of men, made from plastic and misery by a Chinese sweatshop worker in between suicide attempts. In terms of size, weight and functionality it’s a considerable step backwards from Fred’s stone sundial wristwatch in The Flintstones. The dig director, between fits of laughter, took it out of the packaging and tried to show me how nice it was by putting it on, prompting the strap to instantly fall off. Experimental pressing of the buttons failed to make it do anything as useful as telling the time, and after five minutes it ceased to do anything whatsoever. I think I will nail it to the office wall as a warning to the future about where we are heading.

I am left to marvel at the lost knowledge of the ancients, and learn to tell the time by counting in my head. We live in a base age. One elephant, two elephants, three elephants…

Still working: checking the ring for continued functionality

Still working: checking the ring for continued functionality

Beasts

Today's advent donkey

Today’s advent donkey

My Norwegian colleague had an exciting adventure today while endeavouring to go for a quiet piss in the desert. We work in a little valley (or wadi to the purists) and by common consent the men take their lonely walks on the east side while the women have a reed hut on the west side (or a convenient small New Kingdom quarry if one can’t be bothered to walk so far – future excavators here may have a surprise).

My colleague found he had a dog following him, but pressed on, attempting to ignore the dog’s invasive presence and unhelpful manner. Then there were two dogs, then three, and by the time he had reached his usual spot, a considerable number. It seems the local populous had taken exception to a well-groomed Norwegian man coming out every day for three weeks and marking their territory as his own. By the time the Norwegian had undone his flies, he was beginning to think better of his immediate plans and more toward the preservation of his person.

We were all disturbed in our morning work by a tremendous barking and a swiftly moving Norwegian pursued by ten angry dogs.

Some of the dig house pack still live on the roof

Some of the dig house pack still live on the roof

We used to have a friendly pack of dogs at the dig house, which were useful for keeping off the less friendly dogs, and for howling at you when you tried to visit the toilets at night. Alas, a doggy plague took them all off a year or so gone.

We are now beset with cats, who scream all night, have violent sex with each other despite all being closely related, and have taken to sleeping in the oven since the weather turned cold. The most revolting and malevolent of them, Oy, has managed to burn all the whiskers off one side of his head this week; I suspect he has taken up smoking which would account for the hacking cough.

Oy's burnt whiskers are clearly visible as he eats a chicken head, on which he is sick shortly after.

Oy’s burnt right whiskers are clearly visible as he eats this chicken head, on which he is sick shortly after.

Quote of the week: “You don’t often get to see a donkey being electrocuted.” (Dig director on seeing a donkey being electrocuted.)