Tag Archives: egyptology

Awkward social interactions

After last week’s slightly harrowing description of excavating dead Egyptians’ hair and feet, I had planned to do a less stomach-churning subject for this post; maybe something about the kittens or Saturday’s party or the lovely new beds at the dig house. But themes are dictated by events and this has been a week of unremitting anatomical horror so instead of being deflected onto parties and kittens I’m going to move on from hair and feet to faces and bums and hope that none of you are eating lunch.

Er, hello. And what do you do?

You looking at me?

It really doesn’t help with well-preserved people when they’ve been interfered with by (previous) grave robbers. Good tissue survival turns disarticulation into dismemberment, leaving burials that look like they died at the hands of an axe murderer or in an accident with farm machinary. On Sunday the burial I was digging had mummified forearms and hands which had been tossed across each other in an attitude of elegant supplication. The skull was face-down at the other end of the grave covered in a tangle of hair, which is fine and dandy at my current level of desensitisation, but when I turned it over it was all covered in face; like eyes and ears and noses, and I realised I’d put my thumb through the cheek. She had one eye open, I don’t like it when they can look at me back. I looked at her and she looked at me and she didn’t look very pleased. I put the head in a box and then went to find some hand sanitiser.

I lost my nerve on the ethical issues surrounding posting a picture of a dead child's mummified bum, so here's my artistic impression, which in the business we call a plan at 1:20

I lost my nerve on the ethical issues surrounding posting a picture of a dead child’s mummified bum, so here’s my artistic impression, which in the business we call a plan at 1:10

My mid-week burial was another disturbed juvenile. The first thing I found were curled, dry toes, which with my moderate foot phobia initiated a feeling of disquiet. The toes developed into feet, then legs and onwards like a grizzly slow motion strip show, climaxing in a sunken, leathery bottom. The horror ended abruptly at the second lumbar vertebra; the upper parts of the person were in fact lying disarticulated under the mummified lower half, which had been thrown on top of them. The skull had come to rest between the thighs of its owner, the face pressed eternally into its own crotch. When I removed it, the skull, although not generally mummified, had retained one rather surprised eyebrow.

After finding a long enough board, my colleague S helped me to lift the mummified section out of the grave, watched over by our Egyptian antiquities inspector. The first thing he asked was ‘This is man or woman?’ After spending several seconds wondering if there was another way, I had a half-hearted attempt at investigating this in the most direct fashion but gave it up when I noticed the workmen tittering at me from the next square.

‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘I’ll ask the anthropologist.’

As some kind of antidote, here’s a picture of this year’s crop of eye-wateringly lovely kittens:IMGP0072small

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.

Sanity and sanitation

Those of you who this evening will sink into a warm bath, or who will go to the toilet and flush (or at least have the option), spare a thought for we poor souls who have left such a life behind and are forced to wander in insanitary places.

The offending article, nesting in the northwest corner of grave 15156

The offending article, nesting in the northwest corner of grave 15156

As I was drawing a churned up triple adult burial today, a little bundle of tissue paper came dancing towards us on the wind. It tumbled through our dig equipment and work bags, bounced along the trench edge catching at the planning strings, before falling through the lines of my planning frame and coming to rest against skull 316. On peering down into the grave it became dreadfully apparent that this particular object had been used to wipe someone’s bottom (someone with less than healthy digestion, I might add). It was with great difficulty that this nomadic disease vector was persuaded to continue its journey downwind, having found such a perfect niche for itself.

IMG_6092Sanitation and the proper disposal of rubbish are always difficult on excavation. I’ve worked on projects where I’ve had to fetch freezing water from a well to wash, or to bathe in a fast-flowing river (in which I almost drowned), or out of a bucket of Nile water in a pitch black room full of spiders. I may now have seen it all in terms of toilets, although I will spare you the details in this department; it suffices to say that the use of a long stick has often been necessary. Our current toilets here are wooden seats with a good long drop underneath. They emit a surprising amount of heat, among other things. Life on excavation isn’t always biologically sound, but it does change your perspective on filth and encourages a robust immune system. When the next plague comes, the archaeologists will ride it out.

Death in the family

Our dead lady with a baby was buried with this necklace of happy little fish

The dead lady with a baby was buried with this necklace of happy little fish

Work in my area of the cemetery is acquiring a distinctly tragic aura as the season goes on. I’m currently excavating yet another multiple burial, this time containing two adolescents and a toddler; the last one had two young adults and a baby, and the one before was a woman and a new-born. “This is family?” asked our Egyptian inspector today, constituting her first ever insightful question (yesterday’s question was ‘what is a pottery?’, which was a bit too existential for my unorthodox grasp of Arabic to cover in the fullest sense). Indeed, is my pit-full-of-children the product of a single awful family tragedy? Well, personally I chose not to think about that sort of thing because it brings me down. I’ve instituted accent day at the Upper Site to keep things light; today we did Yorkshire (is tha’ a bairn in’t pit lass?), tomorrow we’re doing ridiculous French. Life goes on.

On the night of Margaret Thatchers death, the men of the village dance

On the night of Margaret Thatchers death, the men of the village dance

We have our own family ties at the excavation and last night we were invited to a party at the house of our driver; his father having been our driver before him. We took the precaution of strategic gin drinking before the event, so we were all properly disposed to entertain with our outrageous foreignness and willingness to hold people’s children and take photographs of strangers. There was a power cut during dinner, forcing us to eat our Nile fish in the dark, which, all Nilotic factors considered, is almost certainly the best way. I enjoyed the sufi dancing, even though the band’s sound system seemed to be vibrating the teeth out of my head. ‘Larger, brighter, louder’ is the cultural mantra of rural Egypt.

The works of man

Ancient Egyptian bling: 3,400 years old and good as new

Ancient Egyptian bling: 3,400 years old and good as new

Yesterday I found this faience ring. Isn’t it nice. The previous owner had been very badly messed about but his two femurs were thrown over each other and happily hid the ring between his thighs, still stuck on a finger bone.

I’ve been having a great deal of trouble with watches recently. They just keep stopping on me with no obvious reason that watch repairers can find. This has coincided with an increase in the number of static shocks I’ve been receiving from objects, persons and animals, and a new found ability to trigger the security alarms in shops. I wish I had better superpowers. Anyway, after only four weeks my most recent watch stopped on Monday so I put in an order for a replacement from the closest Egyptian town. This arrived yesterday.

My nice new watch: chocolate teapot

My new watch: breaking new ground in the field of shit

The simultaneous acquisition of the ancient ring and my new watch started me thinking about the progress (or otherwise) of mankind and his arts. The ring is a beautiful object, made with care and skill, and has so far survived for three and a half thousand years in almost pristine condition. My new watch is one of the ugliest objects conceived by the minds of men, made from plastic and misery by a Chinese sweatshop worker in between suicide attempts. In terms of size, weight and functionality it’s a considerable step backwards from Fred’s stone sundial wristwatch in The Flintstones. The dig director, between fits of laughter, took it out of the packaging and tried to show me how nice it was by putting it on, prompting the strap to instantly fall off. Experimental pressing of the buttons failed to make it do anything as useful as telling the time, and after five minutes it ceased to do anything whatsoever. I think I will nail it to the office wall as a warning to the future about where we are heading.

I am left to marvel at the lost knowledge of the ancients, and learn to tell the time by counting in my head. We live in a base age. One elephant, two elephants, three elephants…

Still working: checking the ring for continued functionality

Still working: checking the ring for continued functionality

All I want for christmas: pork and rain

Our conservator after trying to consolidate this coffin for six days. I shall never forget the howl of misery with which she blessed its collapse when we tried to remove it.

Our conservator after trying to consolidate this coffin for six days. I shall never forget the howl of misery with which she blessed its collapse when we tried to remove it.

Like all dutiful (single) archaeologists I have returned home to my parents for Christmas. The end of the season was pretty busy and tiring, although largely because we kept staying up late to get to the end of the dvd of Our Mutual Friend (BBC, 1998). We managed, in the end, to watch three period dramas, dig up nearly a hundred dead people, send only two team members to the doctor, and give one of our conservators a real life nervous breakdown, so a good season all round.

I’m suffering the usual amount of culture shock. It hasn’t stopped raining since the plane broke through the clouds over Manchester airport, my mother took me straight to a carol service in the local medieval church where I felt odd and then fell asleep, and I’m only now starting to remember that toilets have a flush after two months of throwing the paper down a big hole and walking away.

Dreary rain at Manchester

Dreary rain at Manchester

I’ve been at home now for a whole day during which I’ve attempted to eat my body weight in pork. I bought a quantity of large German sausages and a jar of mustard on my way through Frankfurt airport, only to find 6kg of ham at home due to my parents making a happy error in their christmas meat order. I’ve also had to engage in some highly unsuccessful Christmas shopping – my parents made me promise some years ago that I would desist from buying them any more presents in Middle Eastern souqs. Apparently my mother considers there to be a limit to the number of scarves a person can usefully own. I hope she likes tea towels. I have already presented her with my traditional christmas gift of a large bag full of dirty clothes and sand.

My last find of the season; some mashed up painted coffin bits

My last find of the season; some mashed up painted coffin bits

This may be my last post for a little bit. I was supposed to be digging in Iraq after new year but there’s been a delay over the security arrangements (quelle surprise) leaving me stuck at home for most of January, digging up nothing but a new overdraft in a very very very wet place.

Digging up old stuff in a cold place

Doodoo and Oy (who are gay lovers), discovered in the clean washing

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 death

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.

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.

Wind and kids

On my 29th birthday I got this baby in a box

On my 29th birthday I got this baby in a box

We’ve had wind now for two days (in the metrological sense you understand) and everyone is very tired, and frustrated and thoroughly exfoliated. I’m digging next to my French colleague who punctuates the working day with “Uh, putain!” about once every twenty minutes as the wind sends another little avalanche of sand into the beautifully clean burial she’s trying to plan. I excavated a child today which is the most irritating sort of burial in these windy times, as there are more bones and they are extra small and easily blown away/misplaced/trodden on etc.

It’s somewhat disconcerting that I have more contact with dead children than live ones. They just aren’t the people I need to deal with on a day to day basis, and I find myself unwelcome around live children and their parents due to my foul mouth and inappropriate anecdotes. A dead-centric view of childhood is something which can be awkward around parents, for example, I pretend to remember how old my friend’s kids are by imagining how long they would be if they laid on the ground: “so Emma must be…” [about the same length as Individual 163 from last season, so] “…four now?”

My worryingly soft and hairy nephew

My worryingly un-solid (and hairy) nephew

I became an aunt very recently and all I can think of when I see my nephew is how very little of him is solid; babies are almost all flesh (and sick and compressed gasses). His pelvis is in six parts instead of two; how weird is that? Baby skeletons do nothing to dispel my association of pregnancy with the dinner table scene from Alien.

Quote of the day: “The wind blew my knee caps away.” – J on the woes of windy grave digging.

Dig chic

Excavatus! My workmen making sand disappear very very slowly.

Excavatus! My workmen making sand disappear very very slowly.

For the last two days I’ve had an additional team of workmen on top of my usual lot. This set me off wondering about questions of style. My workmen, who are of the older persuasion, are what you might call steady (as in still and unmoving) and they wear galibiyas. These are the long flowing robes that are seen everywhere in the Egyptian countryside in various shades of dirt. I have a personal preference for galibiyas as they appeal to my grubby orientalist fantasies of which I have to be ashamed. I also own several, made for me by the village tailor, which I use as nightshirts and to pretend I go to Hogwarts school of witchcraft and wizardry.

The other team of workmen do not wear galibiyas but the sort of polyester-based sports-casual look that fails to flatter the young and poor all over the world. I’ve noticed that, unlike the galibiya-wearing community, few of the sports casual crowd dare to smoke. I think the difference generally comes down to attitude and the problem that galibiyas are dreadful things to play football in.

shabby chic: the state of J's socks

shabby chic: the state of J’s socks

There are also questions of style where archaeologists are concerned. I hold it to be true that no good can come of anyone who shows up in a Bear Grills branded shirt or a cowboy hat. Walking sandals are the lowest form of shoe (bar Crocs (no offence L, I’m sure they’re very comfortable)). In general, I dig in my old clothes until the holes get to the point where I can no longer identify the correct one to get in.

Of course, sometimes the requirements of the service can lead to brave fashion choices. A site I work on in Sudan requires us all to button our shirts to the top and our sleeves to the bottom and tuck in everything which can be tucked to prevent the infiltration of tiny biting flies. This leads to all of us looking a bit like the prisoners in The Shawshank Redemption.

A very eminent egyptologist looking a fool

A very eminent egyptologist looking like a fool


Archaeologists, for the most part, look a terrible mess. I was once walking to the bus stop with a colleague while on a commercial job in the UK. I was waiting while my co-worker tied his shoelace in a shop doorway when a man gave him £5 because he thought we were homeless.


Today's advent donkey

Today’s advent donkey

My Norwegian colleague had an exciting adventure today while endeavouring to go for a quiet piss in the desert. We work in a little valley (or wadi to the purists) and by common consent the men take their lonely walks on the east side while the women have a reed hut on the west side (or a convenient small New Kingdom quarry if one can’t be bothered to walk so far – future excavators here may have a surprise).

My colleague found he had a dog following him, but pressed on, attempting to ignore the dog’s invasive presence and unhelpful manner. Then there were two dogs, then three, and by the time he had reached his usual spot, a considerable number. It seems the local populous had taken exception to a well-groomed Norwegian man coming out every day for three weeks and marking their territory as his own. By the time the Norwegian had undone his flies, he was beginning to think better of his immediate plans and more toward the preservation of his person.

We were all disturbed in our morning work by a tremendous barking and a swiftly moving Norwegian pursued by ten angry dogs.

Some of the dig house pack still live on the roof

Some of the dig house pack still live on the roof

We used to have a friendly pack of dogs at the dig house, which were useful for keeping off the less friendly dogs, and for howling at you when you tried to visit the toilets at night. Alas, a doggy plague took them all off a year or so gone.

We are now beset with cats, who scream all night, have violent sex with each other despite all being closely related, and have taken to sleeping in the oven since the weather turned cold. The most revolting and malevolent of them, Oy, has managed to burn all the whiskers off one side of his head this week; I suspect he has taken up smoking which would account for the hacking cough.

Oy's burnt whiskers are clearly visible as he eats a chicken head, on which he is sick shortly after.

Oy’s burnt right whiskers are clearly visible as he eats this chicken head, on which he is sick shortly after.

Quote of the week: “You don’t often get to see a donkey being electrocuted.” (Dig director on seeing a donkey being electrocuted.)