Tag Archives: ancient near east

Pinning the tail on the donkey

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We receive a visit from the Basra Parthian Cavalry Reenactment Group, otherwise known as Yusef’s annoying brother Ibrahim with a pink blanket on his dad’s horse

Life is like an evaluation trench; you never know what you’re going to get, and then when you do get it you usually don’t understand it. So things go at the new site where the geophysicists have gone home leaving us with lovely magnetometry images of several hectares of apparently well preserved ancient city and three weeks to put some rather small holes in it. Obviously, we put the first ones (ten by twos, go big or go home) in the fanciest, most palatial things we could see. The magnetometry had nigh-on promised me a beautiful Parthian temple, and F a nice big baked brick boundary wall. I found some shallow moth-eaten architecture all chopped about by late intrusive graves and F found the torpedo magazine of a long-sunken pottery submarine.

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Sunk without firing a shot

It all goes to reinforce my long-held conviction that you really don’t know shit until you dig a site up, and sometimes not even then. Survey data is always wishful thinking. The site I was just working on before this one, up near Ur, was sold to the directors as a Jemdet Nasr site (3100-2900 BC) based on survey results, then we were promised it was an Old Babylonian (1830-1550 BC) temple by several knowledgeable people based on the satellite photos. On excavation, our convenient cuneiform archive reveals us to have an administrative building of the Sealand Dynasty (1730-1460 BC). Survey really can’t tell you anything more than where to start digging, all the rest is pure speculation (apologies (but not really) to all those archaeologists who have based their careers on survey data).

On Friday our friendly local antiquities official unlocked Saddam Hussein’s Basra riverside palace so that we could take a look around what’s going to be the Basra Museum. It was a bit disappointingly tasteful actually, and I had to grudgingly admit that Saddam might have been a passable interior designer if he hadn’t been a horrible genocidal maniac (he did manage to incorporate 1,200 renderings of his own name into the wall decorations). After, we took a boat up and down the river, passing Saddam’s small cruise ship Basra Breeze, which I am assured is a nauseating abomination in gold and ivory on the inside so perhaps that restores some balance to the force. In a properly ordered universe terrible people only make terrible things.

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Saddam Hussein: on the one hand, total fucknut, and on the other, rather nice ceilings

Speaking of terrible things, this week we gained possession of a number of cans of Iraqi made Mr Louis whiskey. Surely a typo, I hear you cry, but no, it comes in cans, like Sprite, except with a 40% alcohol content and a shittier ring-pull. We’re living on the roof of a police station and they were given to us by the cops, who said they’d confiscated the stuff while raiding houses for illegal antiquities. It smells of Watsits and tastes of Dettol and should never ever be consumed.

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Mr. Louis Original Whiskey, possible side effects include nausea, vomiting, combustion, demonic possession and cancer of the soulIMGP1403small

 

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What is it good for?

 

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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

Happy happy hundredth post

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Terry

 

Wax on, wax off

I’m on to my second tube of toothpaste in Erbil, which means I must be past the six week point. It’s curious how Iraqi Colgate Max Fresh tastes faintly of chewing gum and yeast, compared to UK-bought Colgate Max Fresh which only tasted of toothpaste. I suspect I might be straying onto dangerously existential territory there.

Mohammed No.1 gazes down at Mr Kazam, who gazes down at Mohammed No.2, who gazes down into darkness

Mohammed No.1 gazes down at Mr Kazam, who gazes down at Mohammed No.2, who gazes down into the abyss

As I’ve only got three weeks left I’ve decided to crack on down in the deep sounding outside the fortification wall. A part of me realises that working on this site for three years has now warped my sense of proper health and safety procedures beyond all the bounds of sweet reason, but another part realises that no one in their right mind is ever going to let me dig a hole as ridiculous as this again so I should make the most of it and hope no one dies before I’m safely out of the country. We are finally now reaching our limits, at the maximum reach of the ladders and the level staff, and it’s getting uncomfortably hot down there now we’re that much closer to hell.

Visibility has also become an issue in the stygian gloom pervading at the bottom of Area E. I’ve taken this as an opportunity to move my assistants to the next stage of enlightenment on the path of Zen mudbrick archaeology. I tried to get them to listen to the different sounds a trowel makes when it hits wall, wall plaster and general deposit. ‘You must hear the wall’ is the best I could render it in Kurdish, but luckily it was too dark to see the pity in their faces. They’ll have a different look when I tell them to paint that fence again.

The little clay people of clay Ankawa dance a little clay dance outside the clay church

The little clay people of clay Ankawa dance a little clay dance outside the clay church

Off site I had a somewhat harrowing experience over the weekend. Our neighbour two doors down invited me and my housemate B over to hers, which she does fairly regularly for reasons beyond adequate expression or comprehension. On this occasion she told us to take our clothes off while she started to dress us in garments extracted from a pile of plastic bags. I get through a lot of things in the Middle East by letting it happen while I send my brain off to think about something else. I thought about the necessarily fatalistic attitude towards death displayed by 18th Century naval officers for ten minutes and came back to find that I was expressing admiration for an enormous print of Jesus with a flaming, bloody heart, and that I was dressed as a Kurdish princess. It was all mighty confusing. The next day our neighbour invited us to the Syriac Culture Museum, where she works, for the grand opening of a huge model of the old village of Ankawa, which the museum director had fashioned out of clay and wasted life span. On our tour of the museum it was curious to note that all the clothing we’d been forced into the previous night was now on the mannequins used to illustrate examples of Kurdish village wear from the last century.

This one was a particularly bad look for me, but at least I didn't have to try the men's costume. Maybe this was for a Eurovision entry

This one was a particularly bad look for me, but at least I didn’t have to try the men’s costume. Maybe this was for a Eurovision entry

Trying not to explode

It's just a bomb, what harm can it do, right?

It’s just a bomb, what harm can it do, right?

I’m still on my Eid holidays, the length of which is one of the few benefits of being employed by the Kurdish Regional Government. The holiday cut last week down to just three working days but we managed to fit a lot in, one way or another. On Sunday morning the workmen continued to clear the rubbish where last week’s awkward Qurans were lurking. Going through a particularly rich vein of plastic shoes, chicken wire and fire extinguishers, I notice a largish rusty bit of iron coming up so I jumped down to give it a scrape with a trowel. What I uncovered were the sinister rusted tail fins of a fairly large mortar round. “It’s a fucking bomb!” I exclaimed, removing myself from the trench with much speed and little dignity. I turned back to see one of the workman, with to my mind a maniacal grin on his face, stick the shovel under the mortar and flip it out of the ground. I just about managed to stop him from chucking it over the wall down the five metre drop to the spoil heap. Then it was time for everyone to laugh at the funny foreign lady who thinks bombs sometimes explode if you hit them with a shovel or drop them five metres onto concrete. It was really hilarious, I’m still laughing inside.

Area F - precious few places to stand, nowhere to hide

Area F – precious few places to stand, nowhere to hide

The second trial of the week came with the arrival of a reporter from BBC Arabic along with a swarm of camera crew and producers. I have long experience of safely handling this sort of situation by walking quickly in the opposite direction and finding somewhere to hide until they go away. In the past I’ve successfully hidden from Reuters, National Geographic, Al Iraqiya, Rudaw, Hezbolah TV and Alastair Sooke, but this time there was no way out – literally; this part of site is tiny and there’s only one exit. I told the reporter that cameras make me unhappy, so he said he’d just take some quotes down, but within ten minutes there was a sound guy shoving a microphone up my shirt. I tried to think of intelligent things to say but it was hard when 90% of my brain was trying to work out what the hell to do with my arms. Luckily they only used two tiny clips and dubbed me over in Arabic:

http://www.bbc.com/arabic/multimedia/2015/09/150925_iraq_arbil_castle

The only exciting thing I’ve done with my holiday is to visit a German dig up in the mountains. I went with my housemate and her driver and a fine gift of beer and biscuits. It was nice to talk about archaeology for a change – all we talk about at the Citadel is food and when can we reasonably go home. The journey there and back was probably the real highlight as I was entertained/terrified by our progress down a endless dreadful road in a Nissan Sunny with no rear brakes and no discernible suspension. My housemate’s antics were of particular interest as she attempted to incite our driver to violence by constantly telling him to slow down, maintain two car lengths between us and the car in front, activating and deactivating the hazard lights seemingly at random and lecturing checkpoint guards on how they should paint lines across the speed bumps. We mysteriously survived the journey.

The mountains near Rania

The mountains near Rania

Slow start in Erbil

I’m finally back in the game after a long boring summer of weary write-up and digitisation work. I’ve taken on about five hundred hours of plan digitisation for a British Museum project, which involves me drawing over lines on a graphics tablet with my mouth hanging open, listening to the less mind-numbing bits of Radio 4 or watching Come Dine With Me. A trained monkey could do it if you could get it grasp how layers work in Adobe Illustrator. Anyway, it was a relief to be heading off to the more mentally stimulating environments provided by attempting archaeology in Iraq.

We always think Safety First here at the citadel

We always think Safety First here at the citadel

So, I’m back in Erbil, dodging fatal road traffic accidents and trying to keep a straight face in archaeological committee meetings. I find that half my Kurdish trainees have permanently migrated to Europe, which is helpful. We won’t start digging until Sunday, but there’s an ambitious plan to wrap up the project here in style by killing a member of staff – they’ve found the most lethal possible section to clean and record. It’s right on the precipitous edge of the Citadel, four or five meters high, topped with a crumbling brick wall and standing on top of a four meter sheer drop onto concrete. Death may come from above or below. I’ve demanded scaffolding and put hard hats on the shopping list. As there’s little do be done in the meantime, I’ve told the staff I’ll work from home today so at least I can do nothing in peace.

My last look at the Temple of Bel. It was fine when I left it (which is the line I'm also taking on my landlady's sun awning)

My last look at the Temple of Bel. It was fine when I left it (which is the line I’m also taking on my landlady’s sun awning)

It’s been a hot, grey, windy day in Erbil, during which I’ve investigated the various available Nespresso flavours and watched my landlady’s sun awning get torn to pieces by the wind. Today has also brought news that the shitbags of Daash have tried and failed to blow up the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, which has put me in a dark mood, although also confirms my view that most archaeology is harder than it looks and can generally take care of itself in a fight. I looked through all my photos of last time I was in Palmyra and reflected on better, less mad times in Syria, and on how much older and fatter I’ve got since 2008. It seems a long lifetime ago that feckless western girls could swan around Aleppo bars smoking and swilling industrial quantities of Arak. It’s unclear if I will ever again go to the pancake house at Palmyra or pose for photos in front of the Temple of Bel looking dirty and hungover. Sad times in the Middle East.

Empty stools at my favourite bar in Aleppo

A hazy memory of my favourite bar in Aleppo

Islamic State vs The Archaeology

I got back from Iraq last weekend and immediately came down with a stinking cold. I’m going to have to face facts; that I’ve developed an allergy to Istanbul Ataturk Airport, possibly due to the price of beer there.

The delicate job of getting the site portaloo over our irrigation canal foot bridge

The delicate job of getting the site portaloo over our irrigation canal foot bridge

As people keep bothering me about all the nasty smashy things Islamic State (or Daash as we call them in Iraq) are doing to antiquities in the north, I thought it might be time for politics to poke its fat, wet nose into my blog (which sounds really horrible now I’ve written it down). As regular readers are aware, I do like to keep things light; partly because I think there’s probably enough earnest, hand-ringing misery being written about the Middle East already, and partly because I’m very stupid and incapable of forming reasoned arguments.

Of course I agree with all the statements of outrage expressed by my fellow archaeologists, and would like to add my own, albeit with a great deal more swearing and less good grammar. However, I’d like to take a quick look at things from a slightly less bleak perspective.

Nineveh

“That’s for the infidels, and that’s for that girl who laughed at my tiny penis, and that’s for the hipster who stole my beard, and, ..and… …(sob)”

Austin Henry Layard. There was a man who really knew how to destroy an archaeological site, and how to carry off facial hair. I think I'm in love

Austin Henry Layard, excavator of Nineveh. Now there was a man who really knew how to destroy an archaeological site, and how to carry off facial hair. I think I’m in love

Firstly, although the destruction in Mosul Museum and at Nineveh and Nimrud is certainly a cultural heritage disaster, it hardly affects the sites in terms of archaeology and is small potatoes compared to the damage done by the jolly old 19th century archaeologists like Layard. The loss of archaeological information is minimal. Most of the unexcavated deposits are safe and sound below the surface and all that gaudy statuary above ground is fully recorded, so in archaeological terms it was ready to go anyway. The problem with trying to destroy the archaeological past is that you always just find something older underneath, and on and on it goes like in my nightmares. Archaeologically they might have done us a favour. I’m writing a funding proposal in my head right now called ‘Discovering the pre-Assyrian origins of Nimrud’, which is all going to be much more financially feasible now that the Islamic State have removed the late period overburden for me. And after all, I’ve been destroying archaeological deposits professionally for over a decade, these pricks are just amateurs.

In archaeological terms, it is also pleasing to reflect that Daash will be virtually unrecoverable archaeologically. There may, in places, be a Daash horizon consisting of the rubble of nice things, but there will be no Daash layers or structures as they don’t make anything or build anything because they’re too busy being mad and masturbating over footage of themselves on Youtube. In general the archaeological record is bigger and uglier than most things, including Islamic State, and can look after itself. IS won’t be around for long in any case with their high staff turnover and crippling sexual insecurities; the archaeological record will barely notice them.

Well, so much for Daash, now back to the usual shite.

The strange performance art of the photography pole

The strange performance art of the photography pole

The last week of the project went off reasonably smoothly. When we dismantled the women’s toilet, the cess pool was found to have a drowned mole floating in it which had swelled to the point of being entirely spherical. On Monday I was coerced into giving a lecture on climate and architecture to a hundred sixteen-year-old boys at the Nasiriyah Institute of Fine Art, after which one of the boys took his shirt off and performed the epic of Gilgamesh via the medium of interpretive dance. Sat in the front row things were pretty grim; trying avoiding eye contact and keeping a neutral face. Those were thirty long minutes.

On Wednesday our finds assistant Nasralah shot a dog. It was an excellent single shot kill from about 150m with an old rifle. We’re still not sure exactly why the dog needed shooting, I hope it wasn’t just the barking. On Thursday, in a heroic effort of will, we finished the last half litre of vodka and on Friday me and F watched all six hours of the BBC’s 1995 series of Pride and Prejudice. We ate a lot of crisps and heckled Mr Darcy constantly about his trousers.

The last of my private stores

The last of my private stores

I now have one week in the warm bosom of my parent’s television before I have to go and dig up dead people in Egypt again. The war against the old stuff never ends