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.
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.
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”.
One of our cops about to gift me the tail end of a mortar
Whats that K? Individual 1026 has shortly onset? was sleep covered? There are warbirds decloaking off the starboard bow? What ?!?
Wimbledon’s over, we’re between ashes tests, and Sharpe’s Battle is stuck in the post, so what is there to live for? The Tour de France is okay I suppose, if you like men who look a bit like insects, but watching Chris Froome’s withered little arms clinging to his handlebars isn’t the best accompaniment to a happy buttery lunch. What else am I supposed to stare at with my mouth open while jabbing listlessly at my laptop keyboard with a single index finger?
I’m not making brilliant progress with my summer desk work but it’s not all my fault, I’ve spent the last week writing a description of each of the burials excavated at my part of the Egyptian cemetery in the spring and each burial description requires me to cross-reference half a dozen forms, some of which have been written by one of my site assistants, in 6H pencil, in Klingon (you know who you are, K; at least your photos were alright). My parents are not helping. While I’m trying to work my mum sits down next to me and starts telling me about her friend’s daughter’s boyfriend’s trouble with his sister’s friend’s dogs, or worse, about my brother’s children who won’t do anything genuinely interesting for at least another twenty years if ever. I’ve tried to block out the long pointless arguments conducted from opposite ends of the house by using my last pair of earplugs and wrapping a thick scarf round my head but it doesn’t even take the edge off. I’ve tried sticking a note on my forehead pointing out that I’m at work now, but it’s just an invitation for my mum to start a conversation about ‘how it’s going’.
Trying to set boundaries for my parents
This is of course the problem of the freelancer working from home and living with others. That and the problems of being lazy and easily distracted. The other major problem of the freelancer is cash flow. I haven’t been paid now since March and when I last checked I had £29 in the bank. It’s not that I haven’t been working, just that people have been very slow in paying. I finally got my cheque for the Egyptian dig after waiting eight weeks for it; I took it to the bank last Thursday, but apparently it can take up to two weeks to process “funny foreign cheques from funny foreign banks” and so I wait. It’s now been over a month since Museum of London Archaeology said that the cheque for the job I did in Crewe would go “straight in the post”, and after many emails the British Museum has told me I can expect my expense claim from that interview disaster in January to go into my account on 20th of July. “Oh good” I replied, “that’ll be the six month anniversary of the train ride I’m claiming for”, but it’s hard to convey the appropriate degree of sarcasm in the email format.
I care not for tawdry money of course, the soul can be rich in the depths of worldly poverty, but it’s embarrassing to ask my dad if I can borrow a tenner when I want to go to the pub. And I have holes in all my socks.
The dead dog which reclines in the entrance to the Small Aten Temple, whose situation cannot be directly linked to the activities of the Hello Kids
The excavation season is flying by. The Hello Kids who chase us through the village every day have moved through their phases of ‘hallo, hallo’, on to ‘what’s your name?’ to ‘money, money’ and by this Thursday they were insulting the virtue of our mothers. I saw them testing out catapults by the small temple this morning so perhaps it’s a good thing the season isn’t longer. I’m also becoming an increasingly severe threat to the safety of myself and others; in the last week I’ve fallen down a grave, cut my foot, seriously bruised myself without noticing how and thrown a very large rock at the workmen. The latter happened at the end of a hard digging day and was the result of a very tired attempt to throw a rock out of my grave. I sort of hooked it high and it plopped down right between the sieve man and the wheel barrow guy who were playing with their phones. Work proceeded somewhat faster for the next two days.
Some local people who wanted to spend Friday on the other side of the river
Following up on last week’s resolution to stem the tide of ancient anatomical horror, this post will not be about the haggard human parts we’re stacking up at the back of the work room. Suffice it to say that the current theme is eyelids and arseholes (really, like a turkey at Christmas). Instead I will fall back on happier thoughts and pleasanter sights. On Friday we hired a boat to take us on a trip down the Nile to an island for lunch and back. In fact we hired the village ferry, much to the annoyance of quite a few people who wanted to cross the river. We left them disconsolate on the bank, all but one old man who hadn’t got the message and had to be returned to shore by the cops in their cop boat. We had a lovely riverine day of reeds and fishing boats and surprising people who had gone down to the river bank to go to the toilet. It was a good way of washing out the Thursday night hangover and the Thursday night movie (Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell, which is a timeless classic of the ‘movies that seem good after eight gin and tonics’ genre).
The dig house puppies getting over their Thursday night
Today on site we said goodbye to our trainee inspectors. They surprised the project director A with a gift of an enormous portrait of herself produced by a local artist based on photos they’d found of her on Facebook. A couldn’t have looked happier if they’d baked her a cake made of shit. Excavation directorship is a heavy burden, which includes holding it together while your insides shrivel with excruciating misery. The inspector team has been good value this season, the finest moment coming when one of my colleagues, R, retired to the tent with a severely upset stomach to wait for a ride home. He found the head inspector already there and fully qualified in Egyptian medical nonsense. First the inspector fed R very sweet tea, then encouraged him to jump up and down (which R declined to do, fearing an unfortunate trouser event). The inspector finally placed his hands on R’s stomach and prayed for several minutes, at which point R was rescued by the arrival of our driver. Local wisdom here prescribes that if you are hot and thirsty you should never, ever, drink water.
Ancient city vs modern villages: a fight to the death
They say six feet under is the optimum depth for burying bodies. I can positively state, however, that this is not the optimum depth from which to unbury them. Our first few graves at the new cemetery have been a bit more challenging than anticipated, due to them being deeper than we can climb out of and narrower than we can fit into.
An untidy landing means I may have to settle for the bronze
My first catch of the season was a fine example, being 1.25m deep, 29cm wide and containing two well-mixed teenagers. There are interesting practical issues associated with excavating a 29cm wide grave when you have 31cm wide hips. Most solutions involve being firmly wedged and suffering a great deal of indignity and back pain. Then there’s the getting in and out. Having reasonable upper body strength I model my dismount on the parallel bars; with a hand each side of the grave cut and a good accurate jump I can get my arse over the top and then roll. Other colleagues have to have their workmen drag them out by the arms. Getting in is more like a pommel horse dismount; pushing off one side, you have to twist sideways in the air to avoid becoming wedged at the hips and land neatly in a gap between the bones. Marks are deducted for taking a step on landing, especially for stepping on a skull or get bone shards stuck through your feet.
Hairy grave horror
The landing gap in the bones of my first burial was not in fact empty but instead full of a huge clump of plaited hair. This is not my favourite element of the graves here. I don’t know if you’ve ever pulled handfuls of three-and-a-half thousand year old dead human hair out of compacted sand and gravel, perhaps you have, but I can tell you that it’s not as lovely as you might think. On an emotional level, it’s very similar to unblocking the plug hole in someone else’s shower. At the central part of the cemetery all the bodies have mummified feet, which is about the only thing I’d like less than all the hair. I find living human feet somewhat stomach churning so papery dead feet with blackened toenails are about where I draw the line and call for a paper bag. Give me dried eyeballs and dead man’s pubes any day.
Dead Egyptian feet; enough to put me off my breakfast
To add to the physical and psychological discomfort, and the corpse dust, it gets revoltingly hot and sticky down in the deep graves. This is possibly because the breeze can’t reach us, but more probably because we’re getting close to hell.
Last Friday, at the risk of not learning from my mistakes, I went on a trip to the mountains in search of some Assyrian rock inscriptions. Some of you may recall that last time I went looking for Assyrian rock inscriptions we nearly had to be rescued by the Iraqi army (https://oldstuffinhotplaces.wordpress.com/05/26/wild-goat-chasing/) which is not really the way I like my day off to end. This time was better; there was a cave, a tunnel and a river to play in and no survival situations with their associated acrimony and recriminations. My enjoyment was in no way diminished by the rock inscriptions themselves being rubbish.
D points out that there is absolutely nothing to see
Selfish dead git
In terms of excavation things have been a bit slow but are finally picking up. An annoying hold up early in the week was my discovery that someone had thoughtlessly buried half a dozen dead people in the southern half of my trench. There are some situations in which finding dead people is splendid, like when you’re looking for a cemetery, and yet others, like this one, in which it’s a total pain in the arse. These later (probably Medieval) burials are cut down into the Neo-Assyrian building I’m trying to excavate, meaning that not only are they taking hours of fiddly excavating and recording to clear, but they’re leaving unsightly person-shaped holes in my pretty Assyrian walls. J over in Operation W has unwanted visitors of a different kind. He has a huge pithos embedded in the room he’s excavating which every morning he finds filled with tiny frogs. These have to be rescued and deported to the nearby irrigation swamp before they die in the sun and become a jar full of dreadful, mouldering frog corpses.
Yesterday’s crop of tiny frogs. Having been stuck in there all night, none of them seem to be talking to each other any more
In other news, it’s been a dire sporting week for me here. I got dumped out of the excavation ping pong tournament in the first round (I’ve never played ping pong before, I thought it would be easier) and then getting beaten for the first time ever in a sprint race up the city mound (by a 17 year old army cadet). I have resolved to be more selective in who I challenge to scratch races now that I’m in my thirties, and to accept fewer cigarettes from the workmen. At least England are doing well in the cricket, which I’m now able to listen to on the radio having found a way round the school server’s veto on all the world’s joys, including Test Match Special.