Tag Archives: Basra

Grinding out the win

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F and I wonder if we might have been here too long

Three months in Iraq is probably as much as is good for a person of sound mind. There’s been a profound air of counting-the-days over the last two weeks, with strong undertones of seeing-it-through and hanging-on-in-there. We’ve invented a new dig game which involves hitting nabok (a small local fruit like a tiny apple but tasting vaguely of parmesan cheese) off the roof using a wooden survey steak wielded like a rounders bat. It’s good for working off the frustration of trying to explain detailed and barely reconcilable magnetometry, aerial photography and archaeology data, although it does leave a bit of a mess.

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mmm, Iraqi birthday cake. I’m pretty sure the pink rose in the middle was actually a bar of soap

We’re all finished on site, we’ve completed our reports into how we don’t really understand anything, and I’ve survived my 35th birthday without publically crying over my wasted youth. Luckily my birthday fell on a Friday so I didn’t have to get up at 5:45am and work all day, which was a bonus. I spent much of the day in the traditional modern manner – replying to birthday messages on social media – but also managed to treat myself to an extra long smoke, a tiny bottle of wine and season 3 of The Thick of It. The local antiquities inspector really pulled it out of the bag however by getting me a luridly coloured soap flavoured cake, a paper hat depicting a range of Disney princesses and a small selection of fireworks. I’m sure everyone remembers firework safety talks from school; the ones about burying the end firmly in damp ground, lighting the fuse and then retiring at least 15m? I don’t think they do those lessons in Iraq. The cook held the end of the rockets in his hand, lit the fuse and pointed it vaguely at the sky. Still, no one died eh?

There was a slightly sour end on site. F came back to her trench one morning to find that someone had come along and smashed up all her pottery torpedoes with a shovel. It was a great pity as I know how much F had been looking forward to doing that herself. At least it was all recorded so no real harm done and there are plenty more where those came from (hell). No one messed with my trenches as even looters can tell there’s nothing even remotely interesting in them.

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A direct hit to the torpedo bay, didn’t stand a chance

We also managed to fit in a bit of sightseeing in our last week by visiting Basra souk, where I bought a replacement laptop power cable which didn’t work and as much popcorn as I could carry, and an old Ottoman period serai at Shuayba out by the main gas plant. On entering the central courtyard of the building we discovered that it is now used as the village’s five-a-side football pitch.

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The away team’s here. Confusion all round

It’s back to the UK for me on Thursday for a summer of desk work, beer festivals and sponging off my parents. Hooray.

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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

 

Keep on running

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We took another visit to the Iraqi marshes, they looked a lot like this

I was running across the ancient ruins of Ur the other day, not in the joyful manner of someone who finds pleasure in such things but as one driven by the fear of prematurely losing physical competences through disuse. I was listening to Kids with Guns by the Gorillas and had started to think the bass beat was sounding a bit out, when I was hit by an unexpected wind from above and behind. On investigation, there were two large helicopter gunships hovering right over me, covered in those pointy bits that drop off and explode. I didn’t quite know what the best thing to do was in this social situation, so I gave the nearer one a friendly wave. There was a brief pause and then they thundered off towards the Ur airbase in the knowledge of a job well done. It’s this sort of thing that reminds me I work in a ridiculous place, but it did give me an excellent excuse to stop running for a few blissful minutes while I found something calming to listen to on my ipod.

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The bad pottery. It has been released back into the wild

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Steve’s gravy train is about to derail

The weeks have flown, we’ve taken a lot of earth out of the trenches and then put most of it back in again, we’ve dug up a lot of pottery, numbered it, loved it and then dumped most of it back on site in a big heap. We’ve found a lot of things, most of them horrible things, and we’ve given them all numbers. We have waved farewell to Steve, queen among slightly stand-offish Iraqi site dogs, to whom we gave a whole can of sardines and received little in return. I spent far longer on the pictures for my report than on the words because the pictures are always the best bit. Our final task was to burn the accumulated rubbish including all the empties. We piled them in the centre so they’d receive maximum fire and created a raging inferno fed by strong winds. One of them exploded with an ear-splitting bang, but when the flames had died down the nature of the bottles was still painfully clear. So it came about that F and I spent twenty minutes throwing lumps of ancient baked bricks at a fire in order to smash burning empty bottles of Famous Grouse. It was only five minutes after we finished that a policeman showed up to investigate the explosion and the sounds of breaking glass. We said we’d just been burning some rubbish, officer.

Our eight weeks at Ur are up but this is not the end, oh no. One site is just not enough when you’re as red-hot keen on archaeology as we are. We’re in the middle of moving operations to Basra to start a whole new site between the oil fields out by the Iranian border. We went for a first look today and found it charming – flat and bleak and covered in debris from the Iran-Iraq war – it’s all I ever dreamed of. Near the western end of the fortification walls we found the eroded remains of an anti-personnel mine.

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The rotting husk of a land mine at our lovely new site

By the way, thanks for all the concern about my mental health after the last post, though that’s not really how I meant it to read.

And repeat

In Norfolk I discover the exciting range of jam available in the village church of Burnham Thorpe (where Lord Nelson was born)

In Norfolk I discover the exciting range of jam available in the village church of Burnham Thorpe (where Lord Nelson was born)

With 2013 finally tied in a sack and left out for the bin men, I now have only one more episode of The One Show to endure before I can escape to Basra on Wednesday. I can reflect on a reasonably nice festive period, which included watching Cambridge lose to Oxford at rugby (and getting very drunk), spending a weekend in Norfolk visited English Heritage castles (and getting very drunk), smoking a pipe (and getting very drunk), organising a pub crawl through all the village pubs between Banbury and Oxford (…) and being very drunk in Chester Cathedral. In between the other usual Christmas pass times of eating, missing trains, and annoying people at parties I also managed to do a large amount of work for a small amount of money, most of which I lost on a series of poorly-motivated horses at the New Year’s day races at Cheltenham. For Christmas I got DVDs and a lecture about life trajectory and alcohol consumption (thanks mum and dad).

Ye Olde Reindeer; appropriately festive starting point for the intercalary Banbury to Oxford village pub crawl, during which I drank ten pints of beer  and was kind to a small dog. As I remember.

Ye Olde Reindeer; appropriately festive starting point for the intercalary Banbury to Oxford village pub crawl, during which I drank ten pints of beer and was kind to a small dog. As I remember.

The DVDs are aimed at keeping me reasonably sane over the next three months, which I’ll be spending in Iraq, down in Nasiriyah, excavating an Old Babylonian city while drinking very little and not getting out much except when accompanied by an unwieldy quantity of policemen. I feel a healthy supply of box sets may be the difference between a happy workplace environment and ugly social disintegration. So far I’ve selected Elementary series 1, Being Human 1-3 and Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa. This will definitely be the most dangerous place I’ve ever gone to dig; an issue which I’ve been furiously ignoring up til now. Today in Sainsburys mum asked me where Fallujah is, which constitutes her first expression of near-concern. Ignorance, as they say, is bliss, so I’m attempting to keep my parents as blissful as possible. My New Year’s resolution for 2014 is not to get dead.

Cheltenham: Lady Buttons returns from losing my last tenner by thirteen lengths.

Cheltenham: Lady Buttons returns from losing my last tenner by thirteen lengths.

In general, I’m not at all unhappy to see the back of 2013. Although I’ve dug a great many holes in a great many places, most of my longer term goals, such as getting a permanent job, moving out of my parents’, learning to drive, forming a romantic relationship with a (tall, mysterious, bearded) man, and paying tax, continue to elude me. On the positive, 2013 was the first year since 1996 in which I did not sustain a black eye. We’ll see if 2014 can see me escape the homeless, itinerant, poverty which only dedication and ten years at university can properly equip you for.