Tag Archives: cuneiform

Brass monkeys

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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.

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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.

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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.

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One of the cops guarding the spoil heap and looking mean

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The big beige

Beige as far as the eye can see

Beige as far as the eye can see

Sometimes I wonder, as I watch my bright green holdall approach on the airport baggage carousel, why all my travelling things are strong primary colours. My laptop case and my camera are bright red, my small holdall is bright blue, my tablet cover is bright green. Sometimes I catch my reflection in the customs area two-way mirrors and I look like a dirty clown. The answer may lie in the unrelentingly colour-free environments to which I’m usually heading, southern Iraq being the example par excellence. This place is beige, so beige at times I feel like I’ve woken up in a sepia silent movie and am surprised when people speak out loud and it doesn’t cut to a dialogue frame with “Oh no! Wind has blown my bonnet off!”

Our plastic flowers used to be pink and the grass used to be green

Our plastic flowers used to be pink and the grass used to be green. This picture is in full colour

The beige is everywhere and gets everywhere. It never seems to be in quite the right place and the desert is always full of diggers and bulldozers moving the beige around a little bit, pushing a ridge here or a little pile there to see if that makes it better. From the air the beige looks like it’s been scribbled on by toddlers. This process of beige adjustment has been going on indefinitely, as we find from the archaeology. Perhaps one day the people of Iraq will get all the beige just where they want it and be happy and rejoice and live in peace.

A pauses to shake the beige out of his ears

A pauses to shake the beige out of his ears

The other major redistributor of beige is the wind, which we’ve had quite a lot of so far. Every morning F asks me what the weather forecast says about the wind today. I tell her, and watch the tears of purest beige roll down her beige encrusted cheek. On site my on-going recovery of fragmented cuneiform tablets is not enhanced by the beige howling round my head, scouring the plaster off the wall faces and dusting over the excavation surface. I’ve been wearing my beige-tight goggles and trying to keep the beige out of my ears. It blows down the collar of my shirt from where my T shirt channels it under the waistband of my trousers and into my pants. Back at the house I go to my beige steel dragon and shower it off with slightly beige water until I have a beige shower tray. As I write this J is trying to wash the beige out of our clothes but all this does is produce gallons of beige water to silt the drain up. The clothes remain beige.

The sad tank of Eridu

The sad tank of Eridu

This morning we visited Eridu and Tell Ubaid, two more large mounds of beige. At Eridu we played on a broken tank with a big warning sign in Arabic next to it. At Tell Ubaid we found some human remains eroding out of a shallow grave on top of the mound. They were wrapped in a green waterproof.

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The wind taking the top off our site tent. This made F happy as we no longer made her go outside to smoke

The wind taking the top off our site tent. This made F happy as we no longer made her go outside to smoke

Just one week into the excavation and we’ve invented a desperate new sport for the afternoons – Zembil Ball. This involves standing on the drive throwing a football into the top of a stack of zembils (rubber buckets made from used car tyres) from increasing distances. By the end of the season perhaps the game will have developed more complexity and become fully codified, or more likely, we’ll get bored of it in a few days and find another pointless way to occupy our teeny tiny minds.

I catch another tiddler. Not much eating on that

I catch another tiddler. Not much eating on that

On site it’s been a week of occasional high winds and disappointingly tiny cuneiform tablets. I’m beginning to feel that the archive room has been overfished and the only remaining stock is below breeding size and I should probably throw them back. We’ll see how things go next week, I still have hope of catching that huge white tablet that took my leg and haunts my dreams (actually, most of my dreams are still about trying to get to an interview on time).

Yesterday we had our blood tests for our residency papers, luckily they’ve dropped the stethoscope exam and the chest x-rays. However it still involved being inexpertly punctured with a needle, being tittered at by girls in lab coats and having to have my photo taken with the blood doctor who, unlike me, looked like he’d never had so much fun in all his life.

antediluvian carrots

antediluvian carrots

It’s Friday which is the cook’s day off. Me and F have been volunteered to cook dinner, which everyone else may or may not live to regret. We’ve decided to do stir fry as we managed to find soy sauce and packets of instant noodles in Nasiriyah yesterday (along with the pure and brilliant gold of three packets of real Lurpak lightly salted butter). We weren’t so lucky at the vegetable shop where we had our pick of a carefully curated historical collection of vegetables dating back to at least Christmas. We bought some sad-looking green peppers, some mysteriously slimy-looking mushrooms and some rubbery purple carrots, which I sincerely hope are the sort that are supposed to be that colour. We got back to the house to find that the cook’s last act of cruelty before going home for the weekend had been to cook the chicken we were going to use for the stir fry (or more accurately, he’d put it in a saucepan of water and lovingly boiled it for about four hours until he was sure it was completely flavourless). We will now be having tinned tuna stir-fry with a possible sprinkling of left-over spam. In deference to the Ur dig house kitchen misery generator we have resolved to call it Ur-fry.

Ur fry. Not nearly as bad as it could have been considering it mostly consists of elderly courgettes and three tins of Iranian tuna

Ur fry. Not nearly as bad as it could have been considering it mostly consists of elderly courgettes and three tins of Iranian tuna

In the end, we did not poison anyone.

Rules of engagement

Abayas are very on-trend at the Imam Hussein mosque

Abayas are very on-trend at the Imam Hussein mosque

My blogging activities have been seriously curtailed due to an internet drought at Ur over the past week. Hopefully I can now restore my flow of attention seeking drivel to previous levels. I’m reclining in my steel dragon, trying to digest another round of J’s bread and butter pudding. It’s been in the fridge for over two days now and has matured in unusual ways. There’s about 6lbs of it left, maybe more by now as it seems to be increasing in both mass and density. This is just one of the main events of the last week, which started with a difficult and heavily armed trip to visit the major Shia shrines at Karbala. This involved everyone getting very cross, and an unnecessary number of puns in very poor taste concerning the word Shiite. I also particularly enjoyed my first experience of wearing an abaya – one of those full-length black robes that cover everything but the face. Some of the best things about wearing an abaya are tripping on it going up stairs, tripping on it going down stairs, sitting on it so you can’t lean forward, standing on it when you want to get up, not being able to reach for things more than a foot away, getting caught on furniture, knocking drinks over with the sleeves, continual readjustment, being too hot and being told off for not wearing it correctly. F got told off for smoking in hers. I excelled myself by falling asleep during our meeting with the head imam.

The nice men at the shrine gave me this commemorative plaque, a flag and some islamic instructional literature. And a real kitkat, which was much appreciated

The nice men at the shrine gave me this commemorative plaque, a flag and some islamic instructional literature. And a real kitkat, which was much appreciated

A's offer to help me with the tablet hunt is rewarded by having his eyes scoured out in a dust storm

A’s offer to help me with the tablet hunt is rewarded with having his eyes scoured out by a dust storm

On site things have also been trying. A few days ago I started finding cuneiform tablets in the main room I’m excavating, meaning that everything has slowed to almost a standstill. The tablets, which are made of unbaked mud, are lurking about in a layer of dense mud brick rubble; this makes it extremely hard to sort the boring, useless, everyday lumps of mud which need to go to the spoil heap to die from the fantastically interesting, extremely important lumps of mud which need to go to the museum to be studied. There are several difficult skills to be honed, such as not finding tablets by cutting them in half with a trowel, not spending too long painstakingly excavating alluringly shaped pieces of brick, and not screaming and throwing your tools across the trench in frustration more than once a day. I hope there’s something interesting written on them and not tax returns or a teenage diary.

Sieving under pressure: the distinctly military flavour of digging in Iraq

Sieving under pressure: the distinctly military flavour of digging in Iraq

In the evening we’ve taken to watching Generation Kill which follows a group of US marines through the American invasion in 2003. In last night’s episode the marines rolled through Nasiriyah, which was a bit weird as it’s only ten minutes down the road. Life on the excavation now incorporates a regrettable amount of military jargon and more than the previous amount of colourful swearing. I found a sticker on the armchair in my steel dragon saying ‘property of the US government’.