Tag Archives: Mesopotamia

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.

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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

The lunatic fringe

 

As the Blues sense victory, the Reds super-weapon stalks over the battlefield shooting lasers from its cycloptic eye!!!!!!!!!!

As the Blues sense victory, the Reds super-weapon stalks onto the battlefield shooting lasers from its cycloptic eye

It’s a regrettable truth that archaeology attracts far more than its fair share of mentally deranged people, not just within the subject as a commercial and academic pursuit, but also from society at large. Itinerant fruit cakes gather around the subject like kids round a carcass.

The first season's unfortunately shaped test trench

The first season’s unfortunately shaped test trench

We got a call this week from the British Ambassador congratulating us on discovering the world’s earliest shopping mall. The consular staff had read it in the Iraqi press; how we’d found a big building full of little shops. I suppose you could call it that, provided we assume that most shops in the Old Babylonian period sold only broken pottery and dust. This was in fact one of many colourful interpretations of our data by members of the excitable press. The very best example of the genre for this particular project dates to the first test season when two trenches were dug across each other to chase rectilinear wall lines. This produced a sensational article on Wikipedia (recently removed but still available via the Worthy Christian Forum) which claimed we had discovered a temple in the form of the earliest Christian cross, dating to 2000 BC (…).

 

The alien escape capsule is found mostly intact, but did the pilot survive the landing?

The alien escape capsule is found mostly intact, but did the pilot survive the landing?

No.

No. That’s ceramic space technology for you

Fanciful tales are by no means restricted to intellectually deficient journalists trying to rake a publishable story out of tedious old crap. There are plenty of crazies out there churning out nonsense simply because they’re window-licking simpletons. This project has acquired its own conspiracy theorist, whose name I won’t mention in case she finds my blog and starts accusing me of supressing the truth about all the alien technology we’re excavating for the US government. She’s written a book about the site, available on Amazon, which as far as I can tell claims to be an investigative piece about our secret archaeological work funded by the oil industry and shadowy government agencies. I’ve only read the sample pages free on Amazon as I refuse to pay her money (even though she claims all profits will go to the Society for Truth in Archaeological Research, which I fear may have but one member). She seems to think we’re either looking for alien technology, hiding the truth about the origins of humanity, covering up radical new evidence about biblical scripture or hunting for Nazi gold. One of those.

I’m not quite sure why she thinks we’re so secretive; the project has a website, a facebook page and a twitter account. Her in-depth research, which she claims to perform in Ohio wearing pyjamas and listening to Bach, mysteriously doesn’t seem to have found any of these. The truth is out there, if you can find it amongst all the crazy shit.