Tag Archives: Iraq

The arse end of the year

Ah January, lovely January; land of fatness and poverty and self-recrimination about another year wasted. Lo! See the rolling hills of thwarted plans, take a stroll along the shingle beach of advancing age, peer over the jagged cliff of approaching sobriety. The world certainly looks like a bleaker place now that I’m not allowed to drink a bottle of wine a day. I’ll be beginning to reverse my post-Christmas alcohol dependency by flying to Basra on Thursday where I’ll be able to enjoy three uninterrupted months of booze withdrawal back on the excavation near Ur. It feels a bit daunting right now and the next sanctimonious arse who tells me they’re doing Dry January is risking a punch in the mouth.

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The current state of my packing for Iraq. I definitely need more pain killers, but I’m probably okay for cupasoups

It’s been a wet weary winter since I got back from Erbil, which only slightly excuses my neglect of blog-writing duties. A major factor has been another protracted job-seeking tragedy with the British Museum, which seems to be becoming an awful annual fixture. I made it to the interview on time, which represents progress, and I even managed to string some words together in the right language and the right order but they gave it to someone else all the same. A Frenchman, as if it wasn’t bad enough already. On the one hand I railed against an unjust universe and the pointlessness of it all, and on the other hand I was relieved that I still don’t have to grow up and take some responsibility.

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I take an oil lamp up to the attic so I can have a wash in my cold jug of water. Happy New Year!

Although I haven’t done any archaeology since Erbil (unless you count the mind-buggeringly boring plan digitisation I’m doing for the British Museum) I did try my hand at a little living history over the New Year. I concocted a last minute plan to escape from Crewe and rent a house in Shropshire with a few people and a dog for five days, and I thought it would be funny if it was the house from Victorian Farm which doesn’t have any gas, electricity or running water. What larks! Living like a Victorian involves dark narrow spaces and lots and lots of fire, which is the perfect environment for drinking heavily over the New Year period (what else to do during the three hours it takes for the range to get hot enough to make tea?). We spent our time playing board games, heaving coal, talking shite, fetching water, reading ghost stories in funny voices, making stew, singing and burning ourselves on everything. All my clothes smell of paraffin, it was the best New Year ever.

My next post will be from Iraq and might involve some proper archaeology if I can remember what that is.

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In the cold Victorian light of morning, A- cooks bacon and eggs on the range

Getting over the finish line

In the deepest part of the deepest trench, fortification wall Phase 1a (Neo-Assyrian?) continues on down

In the deepest part of the deepest trench, fortification wall Phase 1a (Neo-Assyrian?) continues on down

I got paid today with the usual stack of grubby hundred dollar notes tied up with an elastic band. However satisfactory this may be in terms of being able to throw it up in the air while jumping on my bed, it presents me with problems; security issues, the means to make poor spending choices, and an ethical dilemma concerning tax declaration. The movement of abstract numbers from one column to another is not quite as emotionally involving as dirty green pieces of paper in a plastic bag.

The view from the bottom, up two and a half thousand years of wall

The view from the bottom, up two and a half thousand years of wall

A co-worker delicately balances her laptop on pottery context [209]

A co-worker delicately balances her laptop on pottery context [209]

Winter has come to Erbil; it’s dark and rainy and I have to wear my coat in the office. The clocks have gone back in Britain and I’m making excellent progress in building up my winter fat reserves via a high diet of beer, kebab and office biscuits. It’s almost time to go home. Unfortunately there are some things I have to do first, chief among which is to write up the site by Saturday. This is a mighty task given the amount of this and that we’ve dug up over the last three years. I’m running out of tasteful pastel shades to colour all the architectural phases for a start, eventually something’s going to have to be magenta. We’ve also run out of space in the tiny plastic office now that most of the table surfaces are being used for laying out pottery. The floor is ankle-deep in biscuit packets and I have to lay the plans out over whichever pot sherds our stand-in ceramicist isn’t currently studying.

I picked up my official kit on the way home from work. White - not the best colour for a new digging t shirt...

I picked up my official kit on the way home from work. White – not the best colour for a new digging t shirt…

I’m not holding out too much hope of finding a lot of writing time on Friday and Saturday. Somehow I’ve found myself running in the Erbil International Marathon on Friday, although only in the 5km ‘family fun race’ for the old and the lame and the smokers. I assume this state of affairs is ultimately my fault although I can’t actually recall how it came about. All I know is that it’s going to make me deeply unhappy, probably at about the 1.5km point. I’ve always thought there’s enough pain and tedious repetitive toil in the world without taking up endurance sports. Now I’m older I understand that some people enjoy performing the same physical action over and over again for a very long time until they feel sick, but I still view these individuals with vast suspicion. My housemate has declined to take part in the Erbil Marathon as she considers it to be a potential terrorist target. When she announced this my very first thought was that if Daesh kill me at the marathon on Friday I won’t have to hand in the excavation report on Saturday, which is a measure of how things are in the report writing department. Should I survive, I plan to drink myself to death during the Rugby World Cup final on Saturday night.

Wax on, wax off

I’m on to my second tube of toothpaste in Erbil, which means I must be past the six week point. It’s curious how Iraqi Colgate Max Fresh tastes faintly of chewing gum and yeast, compared to UK-bought Colgate Max Fresh which only tasted of toothpaste. I suspect I might be straying onto dangerously existential territory there.

Mohammed No.1 gazes down at Mr Kazam, who gazes down at Mohammed No.2, who gazes down into darkness

Mohammed No.1 gazes down at Mr Kazam, who gazes down at Mohammed No.2, who gazes down into the abyss

As I’ve only got three weeks left I’ve decided to crack on down in the deep sounding outside the fortification wall. A part of me realises that working on this site for three years has now warped my sense of proper health and safety procedures beyond all the bounds of sweet reason, but another part realises that no one in their right mind is ever going to let me dig a hole as ridiculous as this again so I should make the most of it and hope no one dies before I’m safely out of the country. We are finally now reaching our limits, at the maximum reach of the ladders and the level staff, and it’s getting uncomfortably hot down there now we’re that much closer to hell.

Visibility has also become an issue in the stygian gloom pervading at the bottom of Area E. I’ve taken this as an opportunity to move my assistants to the next stage of enlightenment on the path of Zen mudbrick archaeology. I tried to get them to listen to the different sounds a trowel makes when it hits wall, wall plaster and general deposit. ‘You must hear the wall’ is the best I could render it in Kurdish, but luckily it was too dark to see the pity in their faces. They’ll have a different look when I tell them to paint that fence again.

The little clay people of clay Ankawa dance a little clay dance outside the clay church

The little clay people of clay Ankawa dance a little clay dance outside the clay church

Off site I had a somewhat harrowing experience over the weekend. Our neighbour two doors down invited me and my housemate B over to hers, which she does fairly regularly for reasons beyond adequate expression or comprehension. On this occasion she told us to take our clothes off while she started to dress us in garments extracted from a pile of plastic bags. I get through a lot of things in the Middle East by letting it happen while I send my brain off to think about something else. I thought about the necessarily fatalistic attitude towards death displayed by 18th Century naval officers for ten minutes and came back to find that I was expressing admiration for an enormous print of Jesus with a flaming, bloody heart, and that I was dressed as a Kurdish princess. It was all mighty confusing. The next day our neighbour invited us to the Syriac Culture Museum, where she works, for the grand opening of a huge model of the old village of Ankawa, which the museum director had fashioned out of clay and wasted life span. On our tour of the museum it was curious to note that all the clothing we’d been forced into the previous night was now on the mannequins used to illustrate examples of Kurdish village wear from the last century.

This one was a particularly bad look for me, but at least I didn't have to try the men's costume. Maybe this was for a Eurovision entry

This one was a particularly bad look for me, but at least I didn’t have to try the men’s costume. Maybe this was for a Eurovision entry

Trying not to explode

It's just a bomb, what harm can it do, right?

It’s just a bomb, what harm can it do, right?

I’m still on my Eid holidays, the length of which is one of the few benefits of being employed by the Kurdish Regional Government. The holiday cut last week down to just three working days but we managed to fit a lot in, one way or another. On Sunday morning the workmen continued to clear the rubbish where last week’s awkward Qurans were lurking. Going through a particularly rich vein of plastic shoes, chicken wire and fire extinguishers, I notice a largish rusty bit of iron coming up so I jumped down to give it a scrape with a trowel. What I uncovered were the sinister rusted tail fins of a fairly large mortar round. “It’s a fucking bomb!” I exclaimed, removing myself from the trench with much speed and little dignity. I turned back to see one of the workman, with to my mind a maniacal grin on his face, stick the shovel under the mortar and flip it out of the ground. I just about managed to stop him from chucking it over the wall down the five metre drop to the spoil heap. Then it was time for everyone to laugh at the funny foreign lady who thinks bombs sometimes explode if you hit them with a shovel or drop them five metres onto concrete. It was really hilarious, I’m still laughing inside.

Area F - precious few places to stand, nowhere to hide

Area F – precious few places to stand, nowhere to hide

The second trial of the week came with the arrival of a reporter from BBC Arabic along with a swarm of camera crew and producers. I have long experience of safely handling this sort of situation by walking quickly in the opposite direction and finding somewhere to hide until they go away. In the past I’ve successfully hidden from Reuters, National Geographic, Al Iraqiya, Rudaw, Hezbolah TV and Alastair Sooke, but this time there was no way out – literally; this part of site is tiny and there’s only one exit. I told the reporter that cameras make me unhappy, so he said he’d just take some quotes down, but within ten minutes there was a sound guy shoving a microphone up my shirt. I tried to think of intelligent things to say but it was hard when 90% of my brain was trying to work out what the hell to do with my arms. Luckily they only used two tiny clips and dubbed me over in Arabic:

http://www.bbc.com/arabic/multimedia/2015/09/150925_iraq_arbil_castle

The only exciting thing I’ve done with my holiday is to visit a German dig up in the mountains. I went with my housemate and her driver and a fine gift of beer and biscuits. It was nice to talk about archaeology for a change – all we talk about at the Citadel is food and when can we reasonably go home. The journey there and back was probably the real highlight as I was entertained/terrified by our progress down a endless dreadful road in a Nissan Sunny with no rear brakes and no discernible suspension. My housemate’s antics were of particular interest as she attempted to incite our driver to violence by constantly telling him to slow down, maintain two car lengths between us and the car in front, activating and deactivating the hazard lights seemingly at random and lecturing checkpoint guards on how they should paint lines across the speed bumps. We mysteriously survived the journey.

The mountains near Rania

The mountains near Rania

Rucking, mauling and digging in Iraq

The best view in Erbil - from the roof of the citadel's new gate, which will hopefully open one day

The best view in Erbil – from the roof of the citadel’s new gate, which will hopefully open one day

It’s Friday in Erbil and I’m being unpleasantly reminded of why I don’t drink much wine any more. The shaking has mostly stopped now, but I’m still feeling a bit… sullied. I was out with the ‘Erbil Film Society’ last night, which turns out to be a small group of oil people with a projector and an unlimited amount of free food and booze, which is never a bad thing and yet never really a good thing either.

The teaching of section drawing becomes a fairly intimate affair when part of the section is essentially in a tunnel

The teaching of section drawing becomes a fairly intimate affair when part of the section is essentially in a tunnel

The excavation proceeds slowly, partly because it’s still very hot and there’s no shade most of the day by the south gate, but also because we’re all very lazy and my Kurdish co-workers want to go home at 2pm and who am I to argue? We had another hold up yesterday of a new and exotic kind, just when I thought I’d seen all the possible ways in which archaeology can be impeded. We’re clearing a deposit of modern rubbish that was used to fill the gap between the archaeology and a modern wall. The rubbish is of the usual Middle Eastern kind – lots of plastic bags and an inexplicable wealth of shoes and pharmaceutical packaging – but then we hit a rich seam of burnt books, which on inspection appeared to be Qurans. Turns out you can’t just chuck a Quran on the spoil heap, you have to watch for forty-five minutes while two Kurdish workmen reverentially scoop handfuls of ashy pages into plastic shopping bags, making a huge hole in your neat excavation. I asked what they were going to do with the bags of Quran ash but they just shrugged and put them under the pomegranate tree for safe-keeping. From the flakes of ash poking out from the rest of the rubbish I have a sinking feeling that this will prove to be a Quran-rich deposit and we’re going to spend a lot of next week on holy-book-disposal instead of science.

My Kurdish colleagues use a hand tape to gather pomegranates from a nearby tree in a further illustration of their extraordinary work ethic

My Kurdish colleagues use a hand tape to gather pomegranates from a nearby tree in a further illustration of their extraordinary work ethic

So spins the earth, and so eventually the Rugby World Cup comes around, in about three hours’ time in fact. Me and my housemate are off to our friend A’s house where he’s cooking a bacon-based pasta dish and putting his enormous TV at our disposal. I have an excellent night ahead of bacon, beer, rugby and explaining rugby to an American. I’ve already tried explaining the scrum to her, which elicited expressions of horror, so we’ll have to take it slowly. I’ve actually managed to find rugby to play here, which makes me think there might be hope for Iraq after all. I’m now playing touch rugby twice a week just down the road, although I am struggling a bit with the heat and the creeping advance of creeky-knee-ed age. Still, it’s good to be doing something here other than drinking, smoking and complaining.

The storm before the calm

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The dreary view through the office window of the citadel flag

Erbil hosted a major lightning exhibition all last night, with a sort of End of Days wind theme running through it. Personally, I spent the evening watching it all from the garden of the Chaldean Club with a shisha and a few beers while the wind slowly gathered up all the litter in the neighbourhood and deposited in the sheltered corner where L and me were sitting. We were well over ankle deep in napkins and plastic bags by eleven o’clock and surrounded by an accumulation of all the restaurant’s plastic rubbish bins, which were one-per-table at the start of the night. It did dawn on me, in hindsight, that I’d spent three and a half hours in a serious electrical storm smoking from a three foot tall metal pipe, but you live and learn. Or you get struck by lightning and die.

The bit of the citadel which is currently the most likely to kill us all. Now with the added weight of a day and a night of rain water

The bit of the citadel which is currently the most likely to kill us all. Now with the added weight of a day and a night of rain water

Sleep was not all that easy between the lightning, thunder, the banging of the many wind-borne objects and the fiery explosions of electrical things in the street outside. I have a mind to get some thicker curtains. None the less, I arrived on site this morning more or less eager and more or less on time (the good fortune of getting one of those taxi drivers who think nothing of wheel-spin and the odd dead pedestrian), keen to finally start some digging after last week’s endless pointless meetings. Alas, after just forty minutes of joyful section cleaning, during which I tried to demonstrate how to get as dirty as possible in the shortest possible time to my immaculately dressed Kurdish trainee, the rain arrived. I spent almost the whole day in the site office trying to look busy, but mostly trying to get into the Hornblower books, which on first impressions are dreadful. I kept trying to take advantage of the dry spells but every time I went back to the site it started bucketing down after five minutes. As one of my assistants said, ‘The rain, it like you’ before going back to checking facebook on his phone.

Sack-of-shit. Same old cheery disposition. Same smell

Sack-of-shit. Same old cheery disposition. Same smell

Everyone else went home at 2pm and I was left in the company of Sack-of-shit, the malevolent office cat who has disappointingly failed to die in the last ten months. He lay under the cabin for half an hour keeping up his constant angry meow, at which point I decided to drown him, failed, and went home. I was pleased to hear at the weekend that the enormous orange cat (tiger?) who I had a fight with last year on Halloween was run over by an SUV while I was away. I enjoy the satisfaction which is natural at the death of an enemy, but I will still carry the scars to my grave.

As a post script, here is another picture from a now lost Palmyra:

The view down from one of the now destroyed funerary towers, as I check to see if my horse has run off yet

The view down from one of the recently destroyed funerary towers, as I checked to see if my horse had run off yet

Slow start in Erbil

I’m finally back in the game after a long boring summer of weary write-up and digitisation work. I’ve taken on about five hundred hours of plan digitisation for a British Museum project, which involves me drawing over lines on a graphics tablet with my mouth hanging open, listening to the less mind-numbing bits of Radio 4 or watching Come Dine With Me. A trained monkey could do it if you could get it grasp how layers work in Adobe Illustrator. Anyway, it was a relief to be heading off to the more mentally stimulating environments provided by attempting archaeology in Iraq.

We always think Safety First here at the citadel

We always think Safety First here at the citadel

So, I’m back in Erbil, dodging fatal road traffic accidents and trying to keep a straight face in archaeological committee meetings. I find that half my Kurdish trainees have permanently migrated to Europe, which is helpful. We won’t start digging until Sunday, but there’s an ambitious plan to wrap up the project here in style by killing a member of staff – they’ve found the most lethal possible section to clean and record. It’s right on the precipitous edge of the Citadel, four or five meters high, topped with a crumbling brick wall and standing on top of a four meter sheer drop onto concrete. Death may come from above or below. I’ve demanded scaffolding and put hard hats on the shopping list. As there’s little do be done in the meantime, I’ve told the staff I’ll work from home today so at least I can do nothing in peace.

My last look at the Temple of Bel. It was fine when I left it (which is the line I'm also taking on my landlady's sun awning)

My last look at the Temple of Bel. It was fine when I left it (which is the line I’m also taking on my landlady’s sun awning)

It’s been a hot, grey, windy day in Erbil, during which I’ve investigated the various available Nespresso flavours and watched my landlady’s sun awning get torn to pieces by the wind. Today has also brought news that the shitbags of Daash have tried and failed to blow up the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, which has put me in a dark mood, although also confirms my view that most archaeology is harder than it looks and can generally take care of itself in a fight. I looked through all my photos of last time I was in Palmyra and reflected on better, less mad times in Syria, and on how much older and fatter I’ve got since 2008. It seems a long lifetime ago that feckless western girls could swan around Aleppo bars smoking and swilling industrial quantities of Arak. It’s unclear if I will ever again go to the pancake house at Palmyra or pose for photos in front of the Temple of Bel looking dirty and hungover. Sad times in the Middle East.

Empty stools at my favourite bar in Aleppo

A hazy memory of my favourite bar in Aleppo

Summer progress

Farewell to the potted kittens of Egypt and a return to the fussy elderly cats of Cheshire

Farewell to the potted kittens of Egypt and a return to the fussy elderly cats of Cheshire

There’s been quite a lot of time since I came back from Egypt. I’m not completely sure how much time now that I’ve slithered back into my rudderless UK life where every day is the same (apparently there was a bank holiday?). I think some of my time went missing in the week I went to the Cambridge Beer festival, which has added to the confusion. I also seem to have lost quite a lot of money and some of my short term memory at about the same time. The beer festival was part of my annual Summer Progress in which I sofa-hop from friend to friend, dragging them to various pubs to bore them rigid about archaeology and my ill-considered views on Middle Eastern politics. In turn, they tell me about their homes, jobs and children. This year’s progress took in London, Windsor, Ely, Cambridge, Bounds Green and Have I Got News For You? which was disappointingly hosted by Frank Skinner.

Palmyra in 2008. I mostly seem to have used a horse back then, presumably because I was too drunk or lazy to walk

Palmyra in 2008. I mostly seem to have used a horse back then, presumably because I was too lazy to walk

But woman cannot live on scones and pork scratchings alone and I’m now solidly back at my parents’ house, camped in the living room telling my dad he can’t watch Homes Under the Hammer. Luckily he doesn’t get most of my jokes about Dignitas. Of course, this also means I’ve been keeping up to date with the summer progress of Daash (Islamic State) across Syria and Iraq. I was particularly angry about Palmyra in Syria which holds some happy memories for me, having spent a short time there serving soup to German tourists as an indentured waitress in a small restaurant during a bizarre incident in 2008. It is (was?) a more than averagely magical place. I remember the restaurant owner’s father telling me stories about when the Germans and Vichy French occupied Palmyra during the Second World War; they were apparently very rude customers but stopped short of executing unarmed prisoners in the ancient amphitheatre. It really does take Daash to make the Nazis look like an alright bunch of blokes.

Dying light over the city of Palmyra

Dying light over the city of Palmyra

The fall of Palmyra to Daash also underlined something that I’ve long suspected; that a site being designated as a UNESCO world heritage site counts for piss all. The citadel of Erbil, where I’ve been working for a couple of years now, was given World Heritage status last year. Most of the Kurds I talked to thought this was great as they assumed it would open up UN money to improve and protect the site. ‘Ha ha!’ I would reply, ‘You think UNESCO are going to give you money?’ Instead of money, UNESCO give new World Heritage Sites a big long list of things they expect done if you want to keep your World Heritage status. In theory, UNESCO should supply guidance and expertise, but in practice UNESCO tends to employ (in my limited experience) well-meaning, ineffectual incompetents (no offence), who at best achieve nothing and at worst totally bugger things up. Other than money, World Heritage status is often assumed to imply some degree of international protection from harm. As has been profoundly demonstrated over the last year, the world won’t lift a finger to save its heritage. All we get are statements of condemnation, which only encourage Daash by telling them how upset we’ll all be if they destroy heritage sites. If we could convince Daash we don’t give a shit (which in practical terms the international community doesn’t) Daash wouldn’t waste the explosives. The World is rubbish.

Islamic State vs The Archaeology

I got back from Iraq last weekend and immediately came down with a stinking cold. I’m going to have to face facts; that I’ve developed an allergy to Istanbul Ataturk Airport, possibly due to the price of beer there.

The delicate job of getting the site portaloo over our irrigation canal foot bridge

The delicate job of getting the site portaloo over our irrigation canal foot bridge

As people keep bothering me about all the nasty smashy things Islamic State (or Daash as we call them in Iraq) are doing to antiquities in the north, I thought it might be time for politics to poke its fat, wet nose into my blog (which sounds really horrible now I’ve written it down). As regular readers are aware, I do like to keep things light; partly because I think there’s probably enough earnest, hand-ringing misery being written about the Middle East already, and partly because I’m very stupid and incapable of forming reasoned arguments.

Of course I agree with all the statements of outrage expressed by my fellow archaeologists, and would like to add my own, albeit with a great deal more swearing and less good grammar. However, I’d like to take a quick look at things from a slightly less bleak perspective.

Nineveh

“That’s for the infidels, and that’s for that girl who laughed at my tiny penis, and that’s for the hipster who stole my beard, and, ..and… …(sob)”

Austin Henry Layard. There was a man who really knew how to destroy an archaeological site, and how to carry off facial hair. I think I'm in love

Austin Henry Layard, excavator of Nineveh. Now there was a man who really knew how to destroy an archaeological site, and how to carry off facial hair. I think I’m in love

Firstly, although the destruction in Mosul Museum and at Nineveh and Nimrud is certainly a cultural heritage disaster, it hardly affects the sites in terms of archaeology and is small potatoes compared to the damage done by the jolly old 19th century archaeologists like Layard. The loss of archaeological information is minimal. Most of the unexcavated deposits are safe and sound below the surface and all that gaudy statuary above ground is fully recorded, so in archaeological terms it was ready to go anyway. The problem with trying to destroy the archaeological past is that you always just find something older underneath, and on and on it goes like in my nightmares. Archaeologically they might have done us a favour. I’m writing a funding proposal in my head right now called ‘Discovering the pre-Assyrian origins of Nimrud’, which is all going to be much more financially feasible now that the Islamic State have removed the late period overburden for me. And after all, I’ve been destroying archaeological deposits professionally for over a decade, these pricks are just amateurs.

In archaeological terms, it is also pleasing to reflect that Daash will be virtually unrecoverable archaeologically. There may, in places, be a Daash horizon consisting of the rubble of nice things, but there will be no Daash layers or structures as they don’t make anything or build anything because they’re too busy being mad and masturbating over footage of themselves on Youtube. In general the archaeological record is bigger and uglier than most things, including Islamic State, and can look after itself. IS won’t be around for long in any case with their high staff turnover and crippling sexual insecurities; the archaeological record will barely notice them.

Well, so much for Daash, now back to the usual shite.

The strange performance art of the photography pole

The strange performance art of the photography pole

The last week of the project went off reasonably smoothly. When we dismantled the women’s toilet, the cess pool was found to have a drowned mole floating in it which had swelled to the point of being entirely spherical. On Monday I was coerced into giving a lecture on climate and architecture to a hundred sixteen-year-old boys at the Nasiriyah Institute of Fine Art, after which one of the boys took his shirt off and performed the epic of Gilgamesh via the medium of interpretive dance. Sat in the front row things were pretty grim; trying avoiding eye contact and keeping a neutral face. Those were thirty long minutes.

On Wednesday our finds assistant Nasralah shot a dog. It was an excellent single shot kill from about 150m with an old rifle. We’re still not sure exactly why the dog needed shooting, I hope it wasn’t just the barking. On Thursday, in a heroic effort of will, we finished the last half litre of vodka and on Friday me and F watched all six hours of the BBC’s 1995 series of Pride and Prejudice. We ate a lot of crisps and heckled Mr Darcy constantly about his trousers.

The last of my private stores

The last of my private stores

I now have one week in the warm bosom of my parent’s television before I have to go and dig up dead people in Egypt again. The war against the old stuff never ends

In the nursery

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

End of another long day. It's a slice of Iraqi tea and then up the mudbrick hill to bedfordshire

End of another long day. It’s a slice of Iraqi tea and then up the mudbrick hill to bedfordshire for me

Once upon a time there was a dirty, tired, bitter old woman who desperately wanted to finish digging holes in an ancient palace so she could write it up and go home and live happily ever after (or at least watch tv in her pyjamas for a week). But this couldn’t happen because every time she got close to finishing excavating her last room some old crap would turn up and she would tear her hair and curse the gods and clean and photograph and plan it. Today it was a dead baby in a pot.

Kinder surprise

Kinder surprise

We’d excavated a couple of these external buttress chambers before and they just have a bit of dumping material inside and unsurfaced mud brick at the bottom; this one should have been quick. I’ve been digging room 304 out for nearly three weeks now and difficult things keep coming up to make me unhappy. Strangely childlike things. First there was the farmyard activity play set. This featured a range of animal figurines, vehicle parts and little farmers, all lovingly modeled in soggy unbaked clay and then mashed up. They presented themselves as a mass of sturdy bases from man figurines, the back ends of large-testicled bulls, and beaten up horse torsos with their heads knocked off (I also used to knock the heads off my toys if I didn’t like the way they were looking at me).

 

Fully functional pottery rattle; all the cool kids have got them this year

Fully functional pottery rattle; all the cool kids have got them this year

The next thing to turn up was a rattle. A real Old Babylonian, 3700 year old rattle, made of pottery and still rattling. I flipped it intact out of the deposit with my trowel with a merry little rattle and then I gave it a good rattle next to my head and danced a little rattle discovery dance. It’s now been rattled by everyone on the project, by all three Iraqi antiquities reps, by our driver, by the UK Chargé d’Affaires to Iraq and by half her security entourage. On Saturday it will be rattled by the Minister of Antiquities for Iraq. It’s just been x-rayed at Nasiriyah hospital to see what makes it quite so rattley.

 

The mud brick playpen. Perfect for all bronze age toddlers

The mud brick playpen. Perfect for all bronze age toddlers

The rattle turned out to be from a partitioned-off corner of the room which is now referred to in all my notes as the ‘playpen’. It’s enclosed by a thin mud brick wall at about waist height with a raised floor and no doorway (in fact the whole room has no doorway; I initially thought the playpen might be the lift shaft). I suppose all things considered I should have been expecting the kinder surprise this afternoon. At the dig house I found a potato which looks exactly like a 5-6 week old human embryo, and no good can come of that sort of omen.

Ill-omened potato foetus

Ill-omened potato foetus