Tag Archives: Egypt

The long dry summer

Whats that K? Individual 1026 has shortly onset? was sleep covered? There are warbirds decloaking off the starboard bow? What !?

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

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.

Advertisements

People packing

The dog helps by eating my shoes

The dog helps by eating my shoes

Blog writing time is getting seriously hard to come by at this end of the season. We’ve all become caught in a circle of paperwork hell; the one reserved for banking fraud and mildly hazardous school field trips. This is mostly due to the unusual number of multiple burials we’re finding, which multiplies the paperwork by a factor of however many dead people there are. A five-man stack is no longer considered unusual, triggering a formageddon of unit sheets, skeleton sheets, burial description sheets and textile and matting sheets. We’re sheeting ourselves to death right now (you see what I did there). Today I broke my toe jumping up the stairs going back to the office for yet another form; it’s a dangerous business.

We’re all finding different ways of coping with the pressure. C has started skipping site breakfast, M and A get up at 5am to fit in some early morning sheets. Gin. Personally I’ve started packing my dead people into the bread trays in elaborate and artistic ways as a gratuitous waste of time I don’t have. I like the way the ribs make sort of wings and the way shoulder blades look like pig’s ears. I think I might be getting a bit peculiar.

I call this one Boy in Box

I call this one Boy in Box

Teenager in Tray

Teenager in Tray

Asymmetric Adolescent

Asymmetric Adolescent

The others might be cracking too; the excavation team is troubled by fretful archaeological dreams. M had a very standard cemetery excavation dream in which the sides of her improbably deep grave collapsed on top of her, pressing her against the withered flesh at the bottom in a powdery embrace. S had another form of paranoia dream in which a tsunami of water poured off the high desert into the cemetery wadi, forcing us to all climb the cliffs to try and save ourselves. I put this one down to the fact that the workmen play the theme to Titanic by Celine Dion on their phones all the time. They love Titanic in Egypt, as there is no cultural concept of repulsive soppiness. G’s dream was probably the most telling – she dreamed that if only M could dig deep enough, she could pull the plug and all the sand would drain out through the enormous sieve which underlies the cemetery. All the bodies would be left in the bottom of the sieve and we’d just have to go along and collect them up. I dreamed that we were all replaced by cheaper, more efficient Chinese archaeologists.

The embarrassment of losing one's pants

The embarrassment of losing one’s underclothes

The other crisis in my archaeological life is my unsustainable loss of underwear in the communal wash. I came with ten pairs of pants, I’m now down to three; the pair I put in the wash today, the pair I hope to find in the clean wash tomorrow and the pair I’m wearing about my person. I’m one pair of pants away from commando archaeology and not in the good sense. I’m dogged by the question of who’s wearing my pants?

Up river, down river

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 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

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

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.

River life, Middle Egypt

River life, Middle Egypt

Digging deep in Egypt

Ancient city vs modern villages: a fight to the death

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

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

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

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.

Places of burial

Another unnecessarily picturesque spot in which ancient Egyptians buried their dead people

Another unnecessarily picturesque spot in which ancient Egyptians buried their dead people

I’m out in Middle Egypt and back to looking for dead people to disturb. I had a weary time getting to Cairo via three delayed flights and an unplanned visit to Geneva, which looked very nice from what I could see as I ran through the airport. I also suffered the most invasive and thorough pat-down I’ve ever experienced (and I’ve had some crackers) from an expressionless German security woman in Frankfurt. They lost my bags, natürlich. Thanks Lufthansa, you’re on a roll.

We’ve started excavation at a brand spanking new cemetery, untouched by the hands of archaeologists, although thoroughly pawed by the hands of 3000 years’ worth of Egyptian looters. After three days of digging I’ve found absolutely nothing but gravel, but the view is lovely. I’ve been assigned my old crew of elderly workmen who have now been moving very small amounts of sand for me as inefficiently as possible for almost ten years, on and off. When I ask my head trowel man if we can go a little faster he smiles at me and lights another cigarette.

IMGP9871edit

The extraordinary dynamism of the Near Site excavation team

In my ten days between coming back from Iraq and flying out here I sewed a regency period dress and had a rubbish birthday. As all my birthday plans fell through, and my twin sister was in Chile posting smug facebook status updates, I ended up going to Chester with my mother and then drinking six pints at the pub. I consoled myself a little two days later by going to Leicester to meet up with an old friend, drink, gossip and see Richard III’s new tomb in the cathedral.

Richard III's tomb. Just the right height for a nice little sit down

Richard III’s tomb. Just the right height for a nice little sit down

Poor old Richard III. I know that on the balance of evidence he probably wasn’t a very nice man, and he probably did kill those kids, but I don’t think he deserved to be buried in Britain’s most underwhelming cathedral in a tomb that looks like a bench. But Leicester council are clearly keen to make the most of what they see as a tourist attraction and have invested in a shiny visitor’s centre and covered the town with ‘Welcome home Richard III’ banners; by which I assume that Leicester council considers ‘home’ to be a place to which one is dragged by one’s enemies, horribly mutilated and buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. Richard might be fuming away in whatever afterlife is reserved for mediocre, slightly evil English kings, and looking longingly through brochures for York Minster and Westminster Abbey, but Leicester city council are doing a roaring trade in fridge magnets and commemorative mugs so at least someone’s happy. As we tell archaeology undergraduates in their introduction to burial practices, funerals are for the living not the dead.

I'm sure Richard III would be delighted that the high street shoe shops of Leicester welcome him to his new home

I’m sure Richard III would be delighted that the shoe shops of Leicester welcome him to his new home

The nail in the coffin

Bandits: not as much fun as I'd been led to believe.

Bandits: not as much fun as I’d been led to believe.

I’ve just arrived back in Crewe, where me and dad are watching the snooker while I work my way through all the pork products in the fridge. I left site yesterday morning, although that feels like quite an abstract statement as there hasn’t really been any sleeping since then. The dig director tells me that work at the site was disrupted today by banditry, which goes to show how quickly things fall apart once I’m gone. This particular bit of banditry was the work of Omar The Bandit, who is a famous local ‘character’ (violent armed criminal) who, as well as stealing things, killing people and building his own village, also blew up one of our ancient boundary stelae with dynamite a few years ago. I have no real thoughts on the crime, but I wish he’d leave the antiquities alone.

Taking a (not quite) solitary moment

Taking a (not quite) solitary moment

It was with a heavy heart I quitted the cemetery this time because, as things stand, this is our final season of excavation. It was a younger, less grizzled me, with higher ideals and better liver function, who started the cemetery site way back in 2006, and many human bodies and bottles of Bombay Sapphire have passed through my hands in the intervening years. On my last day I took a little walk up above the site, sat down in the sand and listened to some sad music on my ipod. Then I realised one of the workmen was going to the toilet in the next gully which slightly spoiled the moment.

I had a pretty good evening in Cairo, involving burger, pizza, smoking, shopping and watching Egyptians fighting. I bought a little tent. I had a frankly terrifying late night taxi ride to the airport, for which an hour is usually allowed; my driver Mohammed did it in under twenty minutes, hitting 125kph down the Heliopolis road and managing to scrape at least one bumper. I thought about saying something but realised my British fear of social confrontation is greater than my fear of a messy, pointless death. At the airport I found a human finger bone in my rucksack – there must have been a hole in one of the finds bags. Not wishing to illegally export ancient remains, I put it in the bin.

Quote of the season:

“I thought it meant ‘I’m fine’ in Arabic, then I realised it was a word from Avatar.”         –          J– the conservator 

The thieving BBC

Treasure: Scaraboid indicating

Treasure: Scaraboid commemorating an attack of lizards and giant mosquitoes on the people of Egypt. There’s a movie in there somewhere.

As the site is moderately famous is the world of archaeology, we have TV crews coming to film here on a fairly regular basis. Yesterday the BBC came to film on site for a new series about ancient Egyptian art. I had a terrible fear that the presenter might be Dan Cruikshank, who I would have struggled to not punch in the face, but it turned out to be that nice boy who did that Treasures of Ancient Rome series. I put the violence on hold, wiped the bits of dead person off my face and tried to check my hair was okay in the shiny side of the sieve. I happened to have a lovely triple burial just ready for them, and I even managed to find some treasure I could pretend to find again when they showed up. I watched them all striding around at the Middle Site for two hours, but the end of the day came without them making the two minute walk up to us.

 

 

Three's a crowd.

Three’s a crowd.

This isn’t the first time; the last film crew we had at the cemetery back in 2010 filmed for two days at the mouth of the wadi without ever bothering to come and see my end of the site. I can only assume media types are lazy (selfish bastards, not that I’m bitter). At least the 2010 crew had a ruggedly handsome German director who bought me flowers from Cairo on my birthday, which makes up for neglect in other matters. All Alastair Sooke from the BBC did was complain about our toilets and steal our best mugs after I graciously made him some coffee he didn’t deserve. I suppose I should expect that sort of sense of entitlement from someone who works for the Telegraph. Alastair Sooke; don’t trust him with your crockery.

So, I suppose I’ll have to wait again for my fifteen minutes of fame, which I still think is most likely to come by being found dead in a ditch outside a pub. Or by punching a television presenter.

Our best giraffe-shaped mug (artist's impression), stolen by a lying BBC presenter.

Our best giraffe-shaped mug (artist’s impression), stolen by a lying BBC presenter.