Tag Archives: ancient egypt

Party pain

The hop-step-point familiar from Morris dancing

The hop-step-point familiar from Morris dancing

I had a dream last night that I was lying in my grave and someone was trying to bash my head in with the butt of a levelling rod. Then I woke up with the most appalling hangover. We had a bit of a party here at the dig house last night for a special anniversary and some of us got a little carried away. Or in fact, literally carried away.

We had a famous band down from Cairo for some traditional dance music. They used to play for President Mubarak when that was an acceptable thing to do, but now they’re reduced to playing in the middle of nowhere for drunk archaeologists. Vive la revolution. We also invited our workmen, and a fearsome number of antiquities inspectors invited themselves, forcing me to consume most of my alcohol covertly in the office.

And then there was the dancing; oh dear. I have a powerful memory of dancing the Egyptian stick dance using a ranging rod from the equipment store while wearing a cardboard Nefertiti hat. My grace and elegance, honed through careful practice on the floors of low-end clubs and my six month experiment with morris dancing, was of course captured for posterity on the mobile phones of numerous Egyptian men. I’m sure a productive day was spent in the village swapping files and laughing.

Pimp my dervish: dancing at the next level

Pimp my dervish: dancing at the next level

In consequence, I’ve spent today on a diet of water, ibuprofen and shame. I’ve watched a lot of DVDs and done a fair amount of shaking, punctuated by ignominiously vomiting out of the living room window half way through Howl’s Moving Castle.

I’ve learned several things in the last twenty-four hours: 1) all traditional Egyptian tunes sound exactly the same, 2) foreign women trying to dance is a class of saleable pornography here, 3) gin – there are attainable limits, 4) Egyptian sparkling wine is not fit for human consumption.

I am going back to bed, it seems I may live after all.

A hard rain

Wet Egypt

Wet Egypt

I’m writing this post at 7am as we are stuck in the dig house waiting for it to stop raining. If this was what I was after I would have stuck with British archaeology. I estimate we’re about an hour from someone suggesting we play charades.

Archaeology is best done either completely wet or completely dry, but it can go particularly horrible when moisture is introduced to something which has been very dry for the last three thousand years (I am painfully aware that the sheet I put over my new burial yesterday afternoon did not reach the feet). In many ways, the same principle is true at a larger scale in that the entire Middle East becomes unpleasant when it gets wet, as large quantities of rubbish which were relatively benign in their desiccated forms regain their vitality. Often you can smell rain coming in the desert as a faint odour of landfill and wet sheep.

All you need is a cardboard box, some sticky-backed plastic and a sufficient lack of sense. You too can have a Nerfertiti crown.

All you need is a cardboard box, some sticky-backed plastic and a sufficient lack of sense. You too can have a Nerfertiti crown.

In the meantime we are employing ourselves usefully in the construction of Nefertiti hats out of cardboard boxes.

An ill wind

A dear friend after a Turkish dust storm, and Sting in Dune

A dear friend after a Turkish dust storm, and Sting in Dune

In general, I like windy days, such as today. It keeps the flies down, keeps you cool, and everyone starts wearing natty scarves and hairdos like Sting in Dune. There’s also the endless fun of watching fellow archaeologists get smacked in the face when their planning board catches the wind as they turn around. Cemetery digging, however, is not so fun in 30 knots; hair and soft tissue go sailing off over the sand and whole babies have been known to simply blow away. Being constantly sat in the same place often leads to your windward ear filling slowly with sand.

A colleague receives the planning board slap

A colleague receives the planning board slap

Today did not go to plan in other ways, in that I managed to lose two of my six workmen in one day. First went Hussein. Being only three foot six, Hussein necessarily has the temperament of a Yorkshire terrier in a hot car, and most days can be found seething with rage over one thing or another while neglecting to move buckets of sand. The root source of most of his anger is his optimistic attempt to work a day job and a night job and not to sleep. He’s been largely getting round this by turning up (eventually) to site, announcing he is sick and then proceeding to sleep behind the spoil heap for an hour. Today Hussein, looking completely deranged, finally admitted defeat, announced he was leaving and shuffled off home to catch up on four weeks of sleep.

The second departure was more dramatic. Abdel Malek has been irritating me for weeks with his comedy voice, which to me sounds most like a man talking while straining very very hard to go to the toilet. I was just directing some particularly malevolent thoughts in his direction when he fainted just like they do in the movies. I have no formal first aid training, but calling on my fifteen years of rugby experience I directed that cold water be poured liberally over the affected area. Taking no notice, the remaining workmen proceeded with their own tried and tested method, which involves dragging the casualty out of the trench by one of his arms and both of his legs, then shaking him violently while kneading the back of his head and shouting at him to wake up. This eventually bore fruit and Abdul Malek was assisted from the field towards the doctor.

Meanwhile, I am left to face accusative stares from the dig director about how I treat my workmen, as I have to all appearances forced one of them to resign and worked another to death in the same day.

Life on the excavation pay role is brutal and short

Life on the excavation pay role is brutal and short

You are what you eat (and sometimes vice versa)

With dinner just a short hour away, I thought I’d describe some of the culinary delights of the this excavation. Breakfast here has descended into farce since the arrival of extra team members from another site, none of whom know where anything is or how to fine more if something has run out. If one takes an early seat, there is an entertaining procession of tired people arriving, trying to pour themselves coffee from the empty pot and then looking mournfully at everyone else in the hope that someone will make them more. This is good entertainment while I finish my coffee. I generally have bread covered in ‘feta’ cheese, which is in fact about 70% palm oil.

yum

yum

On site I mainly eat the dead people. This is especially true today when I was removing a pair of semi mummified legs and their coffin soaked in body fluids. The disturbance of the coffin sticks causes clouds of thick, dark brown dust to erupt into the air, which is impossible to avoid inhaling even with a scarf round nose and mouth. There then follows a process of intense coughing and swallowing over the next hour or so, today meaning that by the time second breakfast came around I was feeling pretty full.

Egg fantasies

Egg fantasies

Second breakfast is my favourite meal of the day; it is eaten on site in a small reed hut. The main reason I like it is that it tastes less like Egypt than the other meals, as it consists mostly of crisps and instant noodles, the monosodium glutamate in which makes me feel a bit funny. Of course, there is no escaping the ubiquitous cold, hard-boiled eggs, which tend to make up the bulk of calorie consumption in Middle Eastern archaeology. I used to dream of an end to the endless eggs, but now my imagination has been worn down to the point where I can only dream of hot hard boiled eggs, or hard boiled eggs made into entertaining food models. I can no longer conceive of a world where I don’t have to eat them.

Today's lunch: Dr Atkin's doom

Today’s lunch: Dr Atkin’s doom

Lunch is usually deep-fried or last night’s dinner with added tinned tomatoes. Today’s lunch is an excellent example of a general problem with Middle Eastern excavation cuisine, which is an unhealthy obsession with carbohydrates. This afternoon’s offering was pasta, spaghetti with rice, chips and bread. I spend the afternoon feeling very heavy. In general, however, the food here is pretty good and has vastly improved over the years I’ve been coming. Only 85% of dishes now involve tinned tomatoes and it is almost always possible to tell the dessert course from the soup. There are still some things which just can’t be replaced, and I have a large Sainsbury’s chorizo hidden in the fridge for the dark days ahead. And a great deal of alcohol.

Pork and gin: Egypt travel essentials

Pork and gin: Egypt travel essentials

I must leave this here as dinner is about to be called (or at least I profoundly hope it is as one of my new colleagues from the other site is playing Celine Dion on the flute and this seems the only (non-violent) way to stop her), I must go and see what delights await this evening…

Finding a good man

You're a handsome devil, what's your name?

You’re a handsome devil, what’s your name?

 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young(ish) archaeologist, in possession of nothing but dirty clothes and vast student debt must be in want of a husband – preferably one that owns a car and can be useful when bailiffs call. I was musing on this truth today as I excavated Individual 288; a large, smelly, bearded man; which is generally what I think of as my type.

The tragedy is that in the pursuit of such a dream, the lands of Egyptology are barren wastes where the few flowers which bloom tend to be stunted and peculiar. As a non-Egyptologist, chasing (remunerative) historic science where ever it leads, the case of Egyptology stands distinctly out for its lack of romantic potential. First there is the crushing gender bias, which tends to see around four women for every man on most digs, but there is in addition a tendency for the field to attract unsuitable candidates, with every male Egyptologist I know being either married, homosexual or French.

Napoleon camping in Egypt

Napoleon camping in Egypt

Things don’t always seem to have been so bad. Egyptology used to attract sturdy adventurers, men who weren’t afraid to run about Egypt with a trowel, a wide hat and very little intention of writing anything down. But those days are gone, and frankly I blame Napoleon.

John Pendlebury is a good example of what a girl wants out of an Egyptologist. John worked at Tell el-Amarna in the 1930s. He could walk forty miles a day, ride about in the desert shooting animals, and excavate a small town in under a week. Despite losing an eye in a pencil-related incident, the details of which remain obscure, John still managed to become an Olympic-class high jumper and get himself shot as a spy by the Nazis. That’s what I call a man.

Pendlebury made his Egyptian workmen have sports day; egg, spoon and all.

Pendlebury made his Egyptian workmen have sports day; egg, spoon and all.

You have my pity, frustrated, single, female Egyptological community (usually just referred to as the Egyptological community, the rest being implied). I suggest some sort of out-reach programme aimed at attractive (bearded) heterosexual eccentrics.

IND.288: nice arse.

IND.288: nice arse.

Grave digging dirges

Who killed Cock Robin? Even a cheery new advent calendar can be turned to darkness by a sufficiently morbid mind set

Who killed Cock Robin? Even a cheery new advent calendar can be turned to darkness by a sufficiently morbid mind set.

It’s an occupational hazard of archaeology that songs can get awkwardly stuck in your slightly under-employed head. I struggled with this today as I shovelled away weary bucket loads of sand, trying to dig one end of my latest gentleman out of a metre-high baulk. The dead show tiresome little respect for the site grid.

In the normal run of things I don’t mind a jolly digging tune to make the day go faster (unless it is the endless nasal whining which passes for music on the workmen’s favourite radio station). However, when it comes to digging up the dead my subconscious can throw up some pretty morbid stuff, sending me into horrible reflections on mortality and my wasted life.

Today’s pre-second-breakfast pep-talk was provided by the looped last verse of an old Isla Cameron song I didn’t realise I knew:

“Dig me my grave long, wide and deep,

                Put a marble stone at my head and feet,

                And a turtle-white dove set over above,

                For to let the world know that I died for love.”

Thank you, dark little soul.

After second breakfast things perked up for a while when I found a fully articulated pelvis in the east end of the grave, complete with some well preserved pubic hair and a highly unpleasant smell. This was a happily accompanied by Foster the People’s Pumped up Kicks.

By the time the hairy skull appeared at around 12:30pm, the darkness within was reasserting itself and the rest of the working day dragged to its end backed with the chorus to a Bonny Prince Billy song, the name of which escapes me, going round and round and generally down:

“How long? Not so long,

                ‘til death knocks at your door.

                As the rain falls over everyone,

                So the reaper keeps his score.”

I left my half-excavated grave for tomorrow with a heavy, death-filled heart, in the sure and certain knowledge that the one metre baulk will collapse into it over night.

All of these songs were in fact more enjoyable than the one I had going on on Thursday, which was about incest (currently a sensitive issue among the dig house cat community, alas).

Today's noisome gentleman (artist's impression).

Today’s noisome gentleman (artist’s impression).

I’m currently in Middle Egypt digging up dead people. This is no bad thing; there isn’t much heavy lifting with grave digging and the dead don’t tend to accumulate paperwork like other archaeological subjects. It’s Friday today, which is our day off. The house is lovely and quiet as almost everyone has gone to look at some tombs. So far I’ve spent the day sleeping, watching X-Men First Class on DVD and drinking an unhealthy amount of coffee.

I dug up an old man yesterday who had this peculiar egg-shaped bony object mixed up with his bits and pieces:

man egg

man egg

At second breakfast, while I was still mulling over this peculiar article as I ate my boiled egg, a co-worker asked us all if some burials ever gave us a bad feeling. It seems her current customer was causing unquiet thoughts. In general, I had to confess that ripping the dead from their eternal peace causes me no bad feelings at all, which on reflection makes me a little sad, as well as raising interesting questions over personal mental health. But then, what’s not to like?

Things don’t always go smoothly when working with the dead. I recall on my first cemetery excavation in Egypt I came down with a nasty fever and dreamed that all the walls of my room were made of dried corpses. It was the same digging season that we were unable to find air puffers for blowing sand off the burials and had to physically blow on them instead; I would spend every afternoon coughing up brown gritty stuff I knew to be people. Cemetery excavation can often entail an uncomfortable element of cannibalism.

As a matter of personal taste, I don’t really hold with colleagues who choose to name their customers. It implies a level of familiarity unwarranted by the social circumstances; desecrating a person’s grave should not put you on friendly terms. I once worked with an archaeologist who insisted on naming the skeletons after characters from Dickens. It did not fill me with joy to find that the badly disturbed infant burial on which I was working was referred to in our notes as ‘Little Nell’, nor on being asked to box up The Ghost of Christmas Past for storage.

I once found this pair of children’s legs standing up in a grave:

I don’t especially like excavating burials with nice hair, firstly because the sensation of stuffing handfuls of three thousand year old sand-filled hair into a plastic bag is slightly unpleasant (particularly around breakfast), but also because in any partnership with the ancient dead I like to feel like the better turned out party.

'nice hair'

‘nice hair’

The only thing that I really don’t like about digging up dead people is the terrible smell.