Tag Archives: ancient near east

Road kill

Final photography: L promises that she will catch me if I fall off the photography ladder from on top of the 2.5m section

Final photography: L promises that she will catch me if I fall off the photography ladder balanced on top of the 2.5m section

After two days of solid plan drawing, intersected by a rather drunken party, I’m now held together by only my dwindling supply of acceptable instant coffee. My trenches have turned out to be really pretty nice in the end, featuring architecture you can walk through and use as planning tables. It’s always good in archaeology when something looks like what it is. The best looking feature is a pebble paved roadway running most of the length of the trench. My initial enthusiasm for the road has waned somewhat over the last few days due to a number of factors. Firstly, in defiance of Health and Safety directives, L and I abandoned our shoes a few weeks ago after the archaeology became a precious flower not to be trampled, and a pavement of sharp little stones, as it turns out, is not a friend to those who dig in their socks. The second source of my resentment towards the road is its concealment of a dead baby until the second to last day of excavation. The last thing I need when I’m running out of time is an infant smeared over a cobbled surface; it took half a day to get it cleaned and recorded and shoveled into a bucket.

Baby digging in my christmas socks

Baby digging in my christmas socks

The final nail was naturally the back-breaking planning of hundreds of tiny stones. This was made more than usually challenging by the visual distortions produced by sleep deprivation causing the pebbles to sporadically dance about like excited puppies or engage in cellular mitosis. My ruler has also become suspiciously bendy and is occasionally numbered non-sequentially. All in all, I find great pleasure in the idea of taking a very large pick to the road next year. In the meantime L and I found some small satisfaction in smashing up a six thousand year old kiln, which I think might be the oldest standing structure I’ve so far destroyed.

During the week some excitement was caused by one of our drivers doing away with some more wildlife. He was sitting on the decrepit sofa outside the front door (much favoured by the goats) when he was bitten on the hand by a large black snake. He did what any sensible person would do and shot it with his revolver (which none of us knew he carried) and then proceeded to pummel it into the seat with the butt of the gun. He received minor first aid from N for the snake bite and a strong rebuke from Mohammed the cook for what he’d done to the sofa.

Shot snake

Shot snake

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Poison

The Halabjah genocide: a true thing of horror

The Halabjah genocide: a true object of horror

On Thursday night I stayed up late and drank quite a lot of gin – L’s brothers had resupplied us with tonic water from Erbil in return for being allowed to sleep on the roof. On Friday morning, wearing my darkest sunglasses, we went to Halabjah to see the genocide memorial museum. This is my third season at this site and up until now Halabjah has figured only as a distant twinkling of lights on the hillside and as the nearest place from which it is possible to purchase (slightly over-priced) beer. The world knows Halabjah for other reasons; the worst ever chemical weapons attack directed against civilians was conducted here in 1988 by Saddam Hussein’s government. Up to 5,000 people died from a combination of mustard gas and nerve agents. After the town was retaken, the Iraqi army razed Halabjah to the ground with bulldozers and explosives.

Dead sheep diorama

Dead sheep diorama

The genocide memorial is an exceptionally ugly monument to an exceptionally ugly crime. Due to the destruction of the town, very few physical objects remain for the museum which is instead filled with the highly graphic photos taken by Iranian and international journalists in the days after the attack. Some of these are reconstructed in manikin dioramas, which are harrowing on several levels. People just dropped dead where they were, the animals died in the fields and birds fell dead from the sky. Many of the photographs showed children. Those with large families found it hardest to get out; they died together in heaps. When they hanged Saddam Hussein they sent a piece of the rope to Halabjah.

Some of the chemical shells dropped by the Iraqi airforce with a truck which was found full of bodies

Some of the chemical shells dropped by the Iraqi airforce with a truck which was found full of bodies

 

Lentil soup at the bottom of my trench

Lentil soup at the bottom of my trench

The week on site has been characterised by lentils. I’ve been digging out the first decent room fill we’ve found here; a good burnt one which all the specialists are disgustingly interested in, and the deeper I go the more lentily it gets. I’ve now reached a seam of almost pure, unadulterated lentils about a foot below the tops of the walls. In some ways it’s odd because there’s a similar lentil plague going on back at the house where we’ve now had lentil soup for lunch for six of the last seven days. This is beginning to seriously upset several team members’ state of mind, not to mention the state of the toilets. I began to wonder today whether I might have fallen into some sort of lentil-induced delirium and was self-generating lentils with the power of thought. Whether these are true lentils or just lentils of the mind, only the floatation residue results can tell. My current running hypothesis for this building is that someone burned down a Late Chalcolithic lentil soup shop; an act with which I entirely sympathise.

The sinister beings living in the house drains have finally been identified as Mole Crickets: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwu3CDmFg00

In the dungeon

The view from the dungeon

Captivity: the view from the dungeon

I’m back in Iraq after an all too brief reunion with pork pies and proper tea. In the last two weeks at home I had three very unpleasant trips to the gym, made some money selling paintings and lost considerably more money gambling at Newbury races. I threw away a lot of broken clothes.

Corpse carpet: what did your last site supervisor die of?

Corpse carpet: what did your last site supervisor die of?

Conditions on this project are grim. I’m sleeping on the concrete floor of a half built house in a Kurdish village near Halabjah. My room, which I share with two other women, has a steel door and a single tiny window just below ceiling height adorned with heavy iron bars. The concrete floor appears to suck up ground water and redeposit it to the interior, meaning that any item left on the floor (such as our clothes and mattresses) are rendered damp and clammy within an hour or so. The light does not work. I keep waking up thinking I’m being held hostage in someone’s basement. This impression is not helped by the feeble foam mattress making me feel like I’ve been the victim of a severe beating, and the rolled up carpet laid outside the door which looks uncannily like it contains a corpse. It’s almost exactly how I imagine a particularly brutal Iraqi women’s prison.

The post-apocalyptic living conditions are somewhat compensated for by Kurdistan in springtime which is truly lovely, with snow still on the mountain tops and all the foothills covered with wild flowers. Everything is bursting with life – the turkeys are engaged in aggressive sexual behaviour and the next building over is full of puppies and the animals they’ve killed. Yesterday there was a frog in the shower. Under the influence of moderate gin consumption, one colleague drew unsound parallels between the excavation and The Sound of Music, leading to speculation as to which of the co-directors was Christopher Plummer and which was Julie Andrews. I certainly hope there won’t be any nuns, Nazis or singing.

Springtime in the Kurdish mountains: these are a few of my favourite things

Springtime in the Kurdish mountains: these are a few of my favourite things

Brittain's best ice cream van, discovered unexpectedly near the Iranian border with a valid UK tax disc and all

Brittain’s best ice cream van, discovered unexpectedly near the Iranian border with a valid UK tax disc and all

Work on site has so far been limited to the removal of backfill from last year’s trenches and mine and L’s heroic mastering of the total station in the absence of a competent surveyor. So far all the food has been yellow, which I find to be a refreshing change.

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