8:31am, F records zero degrees in Steel Dragon no. 72
I’m finding it very difficult to write my blog today as I think my brain might have frozen itself to the top of my skull in the night. I was woken this morning by my neck brushing the freezing wet edge of the blanket where my breath had been condensing, and then by realising that the dream I’d been having about living in a meat freezer was inspired by a true story. It’s gone bastard cold over the last couple of days in southern Iraq. Yesterday we drove to site, opened the door of the heated truck and decided to just pay the workmen and go home. We’ve all been making a lot of bad jokes about that explorer who died in the Antarctic earlier in the week, mostly involving references to going to bed to ‘shoot my bolt’. I haven’t had a shower for two days now as I can’t stand the idea of taking off either pair of trousers.
Thursday morning. M and I try to look on the bright side while the director pays the workmen to go home before we all perish.
I’ve become slightly obsessed with the temperature around the Ur dig house. A particular source of consternation is that it often seems to be warmer outside my steel shipping container than inside, leading me to wonder if I might be better off sleeping under it than inside it. Another anomaly was pointed out to us by G the conservator who has discovered that on cold days the fickle gods of thermodynamics converge on a patch of air just outside the front gate where it is for some reason several degrees warmer than anywhere else for a radius of about three feet. We’ve all trudged out to experience the phenomena accompanied by dark mutterings about geothermal springs, doorways to hell and Saddam’s missing nuclear weapons programme.
Here’s the token bit of archaeology which maintains my tenuous claim that this is an archaeological blog and not just a massive moan: I dug out all of the previously mentioned sub-floor vaults this week, confirming the initial findings that they contain absolutely sod all. This was rendered substantially more annoying by the hive of noisy activity in the adjacent area where F was shovelling out cuneiform tablets by the bucket-load to the sound of merry laughter. Most of the tablets are of the very small sort which we refer to as USB sticks. F’s new theory is that she’s digging a waiting room where everyone had to take a number and all the tablets are going to say ‘Please wait, you are number 74 in the queue’ or similar. I hope it’s a bookies.
I post Haider in the most recently dug vault with orders to repel the press and permission to use the small pick if necessary
The week’s work was punctuated by several official visits, the last and most disruptive of which came with a large herd of cops and press, who only managed to do moderate damage to the site. My one effort at shooing a cameraman out of one of my vaults only resulted in him scampering into the next room where he tripped spectacularly over the string dividing up my sampling spatials, pulling out several nails. I gave up at this point and F and I went off to hide in the tent until it was over.
One of the cops guarding the spoil heap and looking mean
I’ve been back living at Ur for a week now with four days on site, during which I’ve renewed my mutually-abusive relationship with unbaked cuneiform tablets. I’ve re-nested in my tin box, hung my flags, flushed a lot of water down the dusty toilet and hidden all my food supplies where they can be out of harm’s way in the short term. I augmented my UK stores with a litre of Stoli and eight Kinder Eggs at Istanbul airport.
The timeless beauty of Nasiriyah power station in the light of a cold January morning
It’s bastard cold in Iraq at the moment and the only way I’ve found of sleeping in the insulation-free innards of my steel shipping container is by wearing most of my clothes and piling up heaps of thick, luridly patterned Iraqi blankets on top. I’m effectively pinned to the mattress by the weight of them and I’ve been having a lot of dreams about being caught in avalanches or drowning. I think I’m treading a fine line between developing hypothermia and being murdered by my own bedding. The state of my unconscious psyche has also been coloured by reading the Osprey book of the Iran-Iraq war before bed so that I’ve spent a couple of nights fighting off human wave attacks by massed Pasdaran infantry.
Our four days on site were interrupted by the traditional heavily armed trip to the clinic in Nasiriyah to check, for residency visa purposes, that we are all human people who bleed real human blood. The blood samples are taken in one room and then registered separately in another with the owner taking care of the sample in between so at least we all had something to keep our hands warm. We passed the waiting periods by playing Bogies – for those who are unfamiliar, this is a game played in public spaces, in which each player has to say the word ‘Bogies’ slightly louder than the previous player until someone chickens out. We were surprisingly uninhibited at the hospital.
M wonders how he can possibly beat the last Bogie without being shot in the back of the head by the cops
On the way back from the blood-letting we stopped off at the Nasiriyah Museum of Civili Zation (sic). This was not my sort of museum really, as it was lacking in the most vital areas (gift shop, café) but did provide some interest by all the dates in the prehistory gallery being out by a factor of ten, someone having added an extra zero on the end of each, and by having a statue which looked exactly like the evil stone Zool dogs from Ghostbusters.
I woke up at 4:30am this morning freezing. I cast about for any extra clothing in reach but found only a microfiber travel towel, which I wrapped round my knees. The temperature at Ur has gone down ten degrees in the last two days which has made everyone very unhappy, especially those of us who are living in metal boxes in the garden. I made a critical decision ten minutes before leaving the house to put a pair of skinny jeans on under my site trousers. This may have saved my life. Two pairs of trousers was indeed the order of the day all round, though I still had a fair amount of trouble with the touchscreen on my Toughbook due to the unintentional double click effect of shivering. There was also the issue of dripping snot onto the keyboard. I thought at one point that my smallest workman Ali (who claims to be fifteen but can’t be more than eleven) might die.
S tends his flag garden; the harvest will be good this year
On site the average mental age is about fourteen
The site is shaping up nicely, if you like sites to be Old Babylonian temple shaped, which I do. It’s still looking a bit two dimensional as we’ve done a lot of surface clearance to get the main walls, but we’ll be heading down as soon as we can all agree on a sampling strategy (or hell freezes over, which looks more likely). It’s all quite colourful as the surface erosion has cut holes through layers of plaster floors and burnt fills producing concentric bands of grey and white and red with lumps of pottery, making it look as if someone has been spectacularly sick in the trench. F has found a pair of bread ovens that look like breasts.
Iraqi orange flavour custard has a half life of 10,000 years
I returned to the house after work to find that my roommate, whom I live to vex, had finally cracked and tidied up my stuff. Instead of the mound of mixed clothes, electricals and snack foods I’d been carefully curating at the foot of my bed, I found my clothes folded and stacked on top of my bag, and my shirts, which have never known such things, on clothes hangers on the back of the door. My clean and dirty underwear bags had been hung on the bed post and all my cosmetics hidden behind the curtains. Everything had been swept. I kicked my dirty boots off into the corner and slouched off to think up more elaborate ways to be filthy. For dinner one of the dig directors made cake served with florescent yellow custard which tasted like Fanta.
Doodoo and Oy (who are gay lovers), discovered in the clean washing
It’s now gone very cold here and I’m wearing more socks than I can comfortably fit in my shoes. Cold doesn’t last very long in Middle Egypt and the locals seems to act as if surprised and slightly betrayed. Galibiyas are horrible drafty things. This morning I was first into the kitchen for breakfast and found two of the dig house cats sleeping in the clean washing box. The little monsters will do anything to get inside; I keep finding them hiding in the shower, to our mutual surprise. I can hear them scratching at the door from the roof as I write this.
The workmen, in the spirit of Captain Scott, accept their fate and wait for the end.
The workmen are just as bad. In the morning they huddle together with a wild look in their eyes as if the world has gone mad and there’s nothing to do but wait for icy death. No one was laughing, however, when it was found that the thermos flasks hadn’t made it to site and we couldn’t make instant noodles. This was especially galling as we’d been down to only chicken flavour for the last week but had been re-supplied that morning with beef. I cried inwardly over my unopened beefy breakfast.
One of our many mysteries was solved today; the disappearance of all the sheets. My Australian colleague J- confessed at dinner that she has finally taken a blanket from the stores as it’s got so cold. We all gaped in astonishment (we all know D- has been under five blankets for the last week and would have taken more if the extra weight wasn’t a risk to life). It seems J- has been unwilling to take her turn in the flea-infestation-blanket-lottery and has instead been adding extra sheets to stave off hypothermia. We find, in fact, that she has fifteen sheets on her bed, not counting the one she sleeps on top of. As A- commented, “sometimes I think I’m a bit strange, and then I go and excavate with people.”
and a further mystery: how did I take this picture of my bony gloves? I now mostly use my laptop for warmth.
The mystery of dinner is also about to be solved with what appears to be potato pizza.