Tag Archives: ancient near east

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.

Şeker Bayramı (sugar holiday)

On top of the high mound the Germans make plans

On top of the high mound the Germans make plans

6am this morning found me sitting in the dig house listening to BBC 6 Music (which the Turkish education ministry server will let me access as the station name does not contain the dangerous word ‘radio’). I am attempting to write up an area of the site which someone else dug up six years ago, discovering more or less nothing. The big red circle on the geo-physics in fact turned out to be where the farmer drives his tractor round and round during threshing; a salutary lesson to all those who put too much faith in machines that go ping.

The chain gang giving me attitude

The chain gang giving me attitude


The reason I’m not on site today sweating away over my own expanse of nothing is that today is Şeker Bayramı; the holiday at the end of Ramadan when every man, woman and child in Turkey attempts to eat their body-weight in refined sugar. In furtherance of this noble goal, yesterday we bought our workmen thirty kilos of assorted revoltingly sugary brightly coloured sweets to share between them. They are currently sleeping off their biggest meal of the year.

The enormous gluttony all around us is sadly contrasted by our own state. Our cook and kitchen staff have all gone home to cook obscenely large quantities of oily Turkish food for other people and left us to fend for ourselves in the deserted school building for the next three days. I’ve already faced the horrors of the school’s basement kitchen(/dungeon/bacterial laboratory) having unwisely volunteered to help wash up from breakfast. There’s an all-pervading smell of rancid dairy substances and the cupboards are full of flies and dirty kittens. I bitterly regret not bringing my usual back-up supplies of beef jerky and instant noodles. I’m so hungry.

A group of academics attempting to feed themselves

A group of academics attempting to feed themselves


Things on site are also a bit grim. All I want is architecture and all I find is pits, big ugly pointless pits; if I was interested in those I would have become a prehistorian. The tedium has been somewhat relieved by my trench assistant who is the seventeen year old son of the British ambassador. On Tuesday we had a dirty joke-off, which I was pretty confident about having played on many rugby teams, but it turns out that rugby humour simply doesn’t have the depth and variety current in English boy’s boarding schools. We have our little japes – one day he said he’d found an important artefact and when I put my hand out he deposited a large white maggot in it. I threw this forcefully at his head, sadly missing his face and instead it adhered itself to the brim of his hat. He obligingly provided further entertainment by drinking some of the workmen’s water and being spectacularly sick for two days. Oh what laughs we have.

I’m going to drag myself upstairs and lie on my bed and think about bacon sandwiches for an hour.

Turkish word of the week: it appears at the bottom of all the many school notices and means 'they will be punished'.

Turkish word of the week: it appears at the bottom of all the many school notices and means ‘they will be punished’.

Time lag

I find myself inexplicably in the executive lounge at Birmingham airport. I hide in the corner in my cheap clothes and dirty trainers

I find myself inexplicably in the executive lounge at Birmingham airport. I hide in the corner in my cheap clothes and dirty trainers

Here I am once more in the baking southeast of Turkey sweating my poor life away in a room full of hot laptops and fans. It’s actually my ten year anniversary on this project which makes me feel unspeakably old. This wasn’t particularly helped today by my workmen, who during tea break broached the traditional second topic of international conversation after we had exhausted ‘what football team do you support’ (Arsenal, which didn’t go down at all well).

You are married?” enquired Hussein. Having been asked this on a regular basis and being familiar with the response I considered lying. I used to pretend to be married to a character from a TV programme or film; this prevents any hesitation and aids the consistency of an on-going lie as you already know all the information required. In the early 2000s I was mostly married to Dr Carter from ER (‘his name’s John, he works in a hospital, he has brown hair’), and in the late 2000s I was mostly married to Spiderman (‘his name’s Peter, he’s a newspaper photographer, he lives in New York’). I was once married to Professor Snape from Harry Potter (‘his name is Severus, he’s a teacher at a school, he has black hair’) but I became aware that Harry Potter has quite good circulation in the Middle East and the name was too recognisable.

Being old and increasingly confused I decided to stick to the truth this time.

No,” I said “I am not married.” This statement was received with a great deal of concerned murmuring.

How old are you?” asked Hussein gravely.

Otuz iki” I said, “Thirty-two”.

There were various cries of dismay. Hussein shook his head sadly. “You are very old” he said.

breaking ground on day one at the little known hour of 5am

breaking ground on day one at the little known hour of 5am

I’m two days into excavation at Operation Y, a name that implies a level of existential enquiry which would make any archaeologist uncomfortable. I’m still going through the extremely boring process of watching the workmen remove the plough zone which leaves me absolutely nothing to do except watch men shovel soil for eight hours a day. Today I dropped any pretence of working and brought a hilariously out of date book about the Plantagenet kings to read (Richard the Lion Heart, alas, ‘fell victim’ to homosexuality). This only slightly helped the main struggle of the day which is the struggle for consciousness. The day here starts with breakfast at 4am to allow us to start work when the sun comes up. Unfortunately, in UK time this is exactly the same time I usually go to bed (2am), leaving me with huge lifestyle-based jet lag. With little to occupy myself it’s a constant battle against the urge to hide behind the spoil heap and having a sleep, which is generally considered bad form when you’re supposed to be supervising seventeen workmen digging up a Neo-Assyrian city wall.

I’m trying to ignore some ominous beginnings. I’ve been assigned Room 13 in the deserted school building we’re living in, it’s only day three and I’ve already accepted a cigarette from the workmen, and I saw a crane eat a frog. On top of this, all websites of any interest, including this blog, are inaccessible on the school server, which reports that the site has been blocked by the Turkish Education Ministry due to its inappropriate content. I’ve got tomorrow off to sort myself out.

Unlucky for some: school room thirteen, in which some kind of mammal has defecated just inside the door

Unlucky for some: school room thirteen, in which some kind of mammal has defecated just inside the door