Tag Archives: human remains

What is it good for?



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

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

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

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.

Caves, frogs, unwanted dead

Wading up the Tigris Tunnel following a german

Wading up the Tigris Tunnel following a german

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 the total nothing we can't see

D points out that there is absolutely nothing to see

Selfish dead git

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

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.

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.

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.

Finding a good man

You're a handsome devil, what's your name?

You’re a handsome devil, what’s your name?


It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young(ish) archaeologist, in possession of nothing but dirty clothes and vast student debt must be in want of a husband – preferably one that owns a car and can be useful when bailiffs call. I was musing on this truth today as I excavated Individual 288; a large, smelly, bearded man; which is generally what I think of as my type.

The tragedy is that in the pursuit of such a dream, the lands of Egyptology are barren wastes where the few flowers which bloom tend to be stunted and peculiar. As a non-Egyptologist, chasing (remunerative) historic science where ever it leads, the case of Egyptology stands distinctly out for its lack of romantic potential. First there is the crushing gender bias, which tends to see around four women for every man on most digs, but there is in addition a tendency for the field to attract unsuitable candidates, with every male Egyptologist I know being either married, homosexual or French.

Napoleon camping in Egypt

Napoleon camping in Egypt

Things don’t always seem to have been so bad. Egyptology used to attract sturdy adventurers, men who weren’t afraid to run about Egypt with a trowel, a wide hat and very little intention of writing anything down. But those days are gone, and frankly I blame Napoleon.

John Pendlebury is a good example of what a girl wants out of an Egyptologist. John worked at Tell el-Amarna in the 1930s. He could walk forty miles a day, ride about in the desert shooting animals, and excavate a small town in under a week. Despite losing an eye in a pencil-related incident, the details of which remain obscure, John still managed to become an Olympic-class high jumper and get himself shot as a spy by the Nazis. That’s what I call a man.

Pendlebury made his Egyptian workmen have sports day; egg, spoon and all.

Pendlebury made his Egyptian workmen have sports day; egg, spoon and all.

You have my pity, frustrated, single, female Egyptological community (usually just referred to as the Egyptological community, the rest being implied). I suggest some sort of out-reach programme aimed at attractive (bearded) heterosexual eccentrics.

IND.288: nice arse.

IND.288: nice arse.

Grave digging dirges

Who killed Cock Robin? Even a cheery new advent calendar can be turned to darkness by a sufficiently morbid mind set

Who killed Cock Robin? Even a cheery new advent calendar can be turned to darkness by a sufficiently morbid mind set.

It’s an occupational hazard of archaeology that songs can get awkwardly stuck in your slightly under-employed head. I struggled with this today as I shovelled away weary bucket loads of sand, trying to dig one end of my latest gentleman out of a metre-high baulk. The dead show tiresome little respect for the site grid.

In the normal run of things I don’t mind a jolly digging tune to make the day go faster (unless it is the endless nasal whining which passes for music on the workmen’s favourite radio station). However, when it comes to digging up the dead my subconscious can throw up some pretty morbid stuff, sending me into horrible reflections on mortality and my wasted life.

Today’s pre-second-breakfast pep-talk was provided by the looped last verse of an old Isla Cameron song I didn’t realise I knew:

“Dig me my grave long, wide and deep,

                Put a marble stone at my head and feet,

                And a turtle-white dove set over above,

                For to let the world know that I died for love.”

Thank you, dark little soul.

After second breakfast things perked up for a while when I found a fully articulated pelvis in the east end of the grave, complete with some well preserved pubic hair and a highly unpleasant smell. This was a happily accompanied by Foster the People’s Pumped up Kicks.

By the time the hairy skull appeared at around 12:30pm, the darkness within was reasserting itself and the rest of the working day dragged to its end backed with the chorus to a Bonny Prince Billy song, the name of which escapes me, going round and round and generally down:

“How long? Not so long,

                ‘til death knocks at your door.

                As the rain falls over everyone,

                So the reaper keeps his score.”

I left my half-excavated grave for tomorrow with a heavy, death-filled heart, in the sure and certain knowledge that the one metre baulk will collapse into it over night.

All of these songs were in fact more enjoyable than the one I had going on on Thursday, which was about incest (currently a sensitive issue among the dig house cat community, alas).

Today's noisome gentleman (artist's impression).

Today’s noisome gentleman (artist’s impression).

I’m currently in Middle Egypt digging up dead people. This is no bad thing; there isn’t much heavy lifting with grave digging and the dead don’t tend to accumulate paperwork like other archaeological subjects. It’s Friday today, which is our day off. The house is lovely and quiet as almost everyone has gone to look at some tombs. So far I’ve spent the day sleeping, watching X-Men First Class on DVD and drinking an unhealthy amount of coffee.

I dug up an old man yesterday who had this peculiar egg-shaped bony object mixed up with his bits and pieces:

man egg

man egg

At second breakfast, while I was still mulling over this peculiar article as I ate my boiled egg, a co-worker asked us all if some burials ever gave us a bad feeling. It seems her current customer was causing unquiet thoughts. In general, I had to confess that ripping the dead from their eternal peace causes me no bad feelings at all, which on reflection makes me a little sad, as well as raising interesting questions over personal mental health. But then, what’s not to like?

Things don’t always go smoothly when working with the dead. I recall on my first cemetery excavation in Egypt I came down with a nasty fever and dreamed that all the walls of my room were made of dried corpses. It was the same digging season that we were unable to find air puffers for blowing sand off the burials and had to physically blow on them instead; I would spend every afternoon coughing up brown gritty stuff I knew to be people. Cemetery excavation can often entail an uncomfortable element of cannibalism.

As a matter of personal taste, I don’t really hold with colleagues who choose to name their customers. It implies a level of familiarity unwarranted by the social circumstances; desecrating a person’s grave should not put you on friendly terms. I once worked with an archaeologist who insisted on naming the skeletons after characters from Dickens. It did not fill me with joy to find that the badly disturbed infant burial on which I was working was referred to in our notes as ‘Little Nell’, nor on being asked to box up The Ghost of Christmas Past for storage.

I once found this pair of children’s legs standing up in a grave:

I don’t especially like excavating burials with nice hair, firstly because the sensation of stuffing handfuls of three thousand year old sand-filled hair into a plastic bag is slightly unpleasant (particularly around breakfast), but also because in any partnership with the ancient dead I like to feel like the better turned out party.

'nice hair'

‘nice hair’

The only thing that I really don’t like about digging up dead people is the terrible smell.