Tag Archives: Nasiriyah

Blood and Bogies

I’ve been back living at Ur for a week now with four days on site, during which I’ve renewed my mutually-abusive relationship with unbaked cuneiform tablets. I’ve re-nested in my tin box, hung my flags, flushed a lot of water down the dusty toilet and hidden all my food supplies where they can be out of harm’s way in the short term. I augmented my UK stores with a litre of Stoli and eight Kinder Eggs at Istanbul airport.

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The timeless beauty of Nasiriyah power station in the light of a cold January morning

It’s bastard cold in Iraq at the moment and the only way I’ve found of sleeping in the insulation-free innards of my steel shipping container is by wearing most of my clothes and piling up heaps of thick, luridly patterned Iraqi blankets on top. I’m effectively pinned to the mattress by the weight of them and I’ve been having a lot of dreams about being caught in avalanches or drowning. I think I’m treading a fine line between developing hypothermia and being murdered by my own bedding. The state of my unconscious psyche has also been coloured by reading the Osprey book of the Iran-Iraq war before bed so that I’ve spent a couple of nights fighting off human wave attacks by massed Pasdaran infantry.

Our four days on site were interrupted by the traditional heavily armed trip to the clinic in Nasiriyah to check, for residency visa purposes, that we are all human people who bleed real human blood. The blood samples are taken in one room and then registered separately in another with the owner taking care of the sample in between so at least we all had something to keep our hands warm. We passed the waiting periods by playing Bogies – for those who are unfamiliar, this is a game played in public spaces, in which each player has to say the word ‘Bogies’ slightly louder than the previous player until someone chickens out. We were surprisingly uninhibited at the hospital.

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M wonders how he can possibly beat the last Bogie without being shot in the back of the head by the cops

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Nice doggy

On the way back from the blood-letting we stopped off at the Nasiriyah Museum of Civili Zation (sic). This was not my sort of museum really, as it was lacking in the most vital areas (gift shop, café) but did provide some interest by all the dates in the prehistory gallery being out by a factor of ten, someone having added an extra zero on the end of each, and by having a statue which looked exactly like the evil stone Zool dogs from Ghostbusters.

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The big beige

Beige as far as the eye can see

Beige as far as the eye can see

Sometimes I wonder, as I watch my bright green holdall approach on the airport baggage carousel, why all my travelling things are strong primary colours. My laptop case and my camera are bright red, my small holdall is bright blue, my tablet cover is bright green. Sometimes I catch my reflection in the customs area two-way mirrors and I look like a dirty clown. The answer may lie in the unrelentingly colour-free environments to which I’m usually heading, southern Iraq being the example par excellence. This place is beige, so beige at times I feel like I’ve woken up in a sepia silent movie and am surprised when people speak out loud and it doesn’t cut to a dialogue frame with “Oh no! Wind has blown my bonnet off!”

Our plastic flowers used to be pink and the grass used to be green

Our plastic flowers used to be pink and the grass used to be green. This picture is in full colour

The beige is everywhere and gets everywhere. It never seems to be in quite the right place and the desert is always full of diggers and bulldozers moving the beige around a little bit, pushing a ridge here or a little pile there to see if that makes it better. From the air the beige looks like it’s been scribbled on by toddlers. This process of beige adjustment has been going on indefinitely, as we find from the archaeology. Perhaps one day the people of Iraq will get all the beige just where they want it and be happy and rejoice and live in peace.

A pauses to shake the beige out of his ears

A pauses to shake the beige out of his ears

The other major redistributor of beige is the wind, which we’ve had quite a lot of so far. Every morning F asks me what the weather forecast says about the wind today. I tell her, and watch the tears of purest beige roll down her beige encrusted cheek. On site my on-going recovery of fragmented cuneiform tablets is not enhanced by the beige howling round my head, scouring the plaster off the wall faces and dusting over the excavation surface. I’ve been wearing my beige-tight goggles and trying to keep the beige out of my ears. It blows down the collar of my shirt from where my T shirt channels it under the waistband of my trousers and into my pants. Back at the house I go to my beige steel dragon and shower it off with slightly beige water until I have a beige shower tray. As I write this J is trying to wash the beige out of our clothes but all this does is produce gallons of beige water to silt the drain up. The clothes remain beige.

The sad tank of Eridu

The sad tank of Eridu

This morning we visited Eridu and Tell Ubaid, two more large mounds of beige. At Eridu we played on a broken tank with a big warning sign in Arabic next to it. At Tell Ubaid we found some human remains eroding out of a shallow grave on top of the mound. They were wrapped in a green waterproof.

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The wind taking the top off our site tent. This made F happy as we no longer made her go outside to smoke

The wind taking the top off our site tent. This made F happy as we no longer made her go outside to smoke

Just one week into the excavation and we’ve invented a desperate new sport for the afternoons – Zembil Ball. This involves standing on the drive throwing a football into the top of a stack of zembils (rubber buckets made from used car tyres) from increasing distances. By the end of the season perhaps the game will have developed more complexity and become fully codified, or more likely, we’ll get bored of it in a few days and find another pointless way to occupy our teeny tiny minds.

I catch another tiddler. Not much eating on that

I catch another tiddler. Not much eating on that

On site it’s been a week of occasional high winds and disappointingly tiny cuneiform tablets. I’m beginning to feel that the archive room has been overfished and the only remaining stock is below breeding size and I should probably throw them back. We’ll see how things go next week, I still have hope of catching that huge white tablet that took my leg and haunts my dreams (actually, most of my dreams are still about trying to get to an interview on time).

Yesterday we had our blood tests for our residency papers, luckily they’ve dropped the stethoscope exam and the chest x-rays. However it still involved being inexpertly punctured with a needle, being tittered at by girls in lab coats and having to have my photo taken with the blood doctor who, unlike me, looked like he’d never had so much fun in all his life.

antediluvian carrots

antediluvian carrots

It’s Friday which is the cook’s day off. Me and F have been volunteered to cook dinner, which everyone else may or may not live to regret. We’ve decided to do stir fry as we managed to find soy sauce and packets of instant noodles in Nasiriyah yesterday (along with the pure and brilliant gold of three packets of real Lurpak lightly salted butter). We weren’t so lucky at the vegetable shop where we had our pick of a carefully curated historical collection of vegetables dating back to at least Christmas. We bought some sad-looking green peppers, some mysteriously slimy-looking mushrooms and some rubbery purple carrots, which I sincerely hope are the sort that are supposed to be that colour. We got back to the house to find that the cook’s last act of cruelty before going home for the weekend had been to cook the chicken we were going to use for the stir fry (or more accurately, he’d put it in a saucepan of water and lovingly boiled it for about four hours until he was sure it was completely flavourless). We will now be having tinned tuna stir-fry with a possible sprinkling of left-over spam. In deference to the Ur dig house kitchen misery generator we have resolved to call it Ur-fry.

Ur fry. Not nearly as bad as it could have been considering it mostly consists of elderly courgettes and three tins of Iranian tuna

Ur fry. Not nearly as bad as it could have been considering it mostly consists of elderly courgettes and three tins of Iranian tuna

In the end, we did not poison anyone.

Greater and lesser failures

Apologies for the long winter silence, I won’t make excuses; partly because they’re boring and partly because they’re not very good. At any rate, I’m back in Iraq and back on the blog.

One of the many self satisfied lizards of southern Iraq

One of the many self satisfied lizards of southern Iraq

Getting here has not been easy. The day before I was flying out I had an interview at the British Museum for a temporary curator job, which is more or less the job I’d like above all others. Given this, I’d taken extraordinary measures to make sure I was prepared and on time – I stayed closer to London at my sister’s and booked an earlier train than the one that would get me there in plenty of time. Alas, after 20 minutes my train stopped, stuck behind a broken one ahead, and didn’t move for over an hour. As I watched all hope of getting there on time slowly tick away I reflected on the universe’s certainty that I don’t need a job and wished that I could share it. I finally got there half an hour late after sprinting through the London transport network. They put me straight into the interview, which I don’t recall clearly because I was distracted by my brain screaming AHHHH! AHHHH! AHHHH! AHHHH! over all the interviewer’s questions.

Steel Dragon 47: My own little slice of heaven

Steel Dragon 47: My own little slice of heaven

I got my rejection by email the next morning as I was trying to pack for Iraq and recover from my hangover. It seems that the British Museum prefer their curators to be less late, sweaty and incoherent with rage. I’ve found some solace in engaging in a protracted exchange of sarcastic emails with Chiltern Railways customer services, but it’s a hollow sort of pleasure.

I arrived at Ur on Thursday afternoon and was almost immediately handed a bowl of rice and beans in tomato sauce (rice n red), which elicited a range of powerful emotions. I spent yesterday making myself at home in cell (shipping container) 47, in which the toilet still doesn’t flush. Today was our first day on site. We’ve borrowed an Italian team’s truck as transport, which has come complete with the Italian team’s compilation CD of driving music. Our progress today was to the accompaniment of Pink Floyd’s ‘One more brick in the wall’, ‘We are the Champions’ by Queen and the theme tune to Indiana Jones, which has given us some notion of the inner mental life of an Italian archaeological project.

Many hands making heavy work of the tablet room backfill

Many hands making heavy work of the tablet room backfill

At the site we found thirty men from the local village waiting for us. We’d asked for six. The problem was resolved in a distinctly Iraqi way by deciding that this week twelve men would work and split the wages of six and then swap in with a different twelve next week and so on, meaning that the six wages will be split among twenty-four men, thus making no one very happy but no one very unhappy. Except us that is, as we’re now stuck with far more workmen than we have work for and a weekly problem of going through what we want them to do all over again.

We managed to get all of the back fill out of the tablet room by the end of the day so tomorrow I will begin the lonely hunt.

For the dig house we receive another enigmatically mis-translated poster

For the dig house we receive another enigmatically mis-translated poster

Fishing and droning

The boys compare torsos: I am reassured that none of us are in fact androids

The boys compare torsos: I am satisfied that none of us are in fact androids

We’ve finally had two consecutive full days on site after a lot of delays. These have been mostly due to rain but there was also the many joys of the goverment medical inspection, which involved a full day in Nasiriyah being tested for AIDS and having our chests X-rayed. As one of the healthier looking expedition members (I am one of the few with working knees) I was spared the x-ray, which was lucky as I didn’t want to have a conversation about underwired bras with an Iraqi doctor. They took my blood though, after which I had the sleeve of my jumper immediately, and rather aggressively, tugged back down by a burly old woman, least the men be aroused by the sight of my naked elbow.

Visit to Eridu: Bricks, bitumen, bullets

Visit to Eridu: Bricks, bitumen, bullets

[insert phallic reference]

[insert phallic quip]

On site it was time for some photography today. As we are a highly advanced technological project this was not the usual matter of shinning up a stepladder, putting the camera on auto and hoping for the best. Instead we got out the fifteen meter long telescopic ‘quickshot’ pole (which causes much consternation at airports due to its visual similarity to a rocket launcher coupled with the fact it has ‘Quickshot’ written on the side of it). After buckling staff member A into the harness, and enduring an extraordinarily large amount of faffing, we extended the pole to its full height, giving the impression that A was going fishing for enormous salmon. Various parts of the pole then proceeded to retract into each other, necessitating adjustments with allen keys, then the laptop into which the camera was plugged had to be turned off and on, before finally the camera ran out of battery just as we were ready to take some photos. Isn’t technology marvellous.

Test flight: the photo drone soars through the sky with the grace and directionality of an angry, drunk bee

Test flight: the photo drone soars through the sky with the grace and directionality of an angry, drunk bee

There had been hope last week that even the camera-laptop-pole arrangement had had its day after the arrival on site of our new photo drone – a small sinister black rotorcraft related to the ones Amazon wants to use to deliver box sets (and the ones America uses to blow up Afghan weddings). This was successfully trialed last week, successfully taking several hundred photos of mud from various heights up to thirty metres. Alas, this brave new archaeological world is now on hold due to minor damage sustained in a heavy landing and it being discovered that we need permission from the Iraqi army to fly it. Thus our dreams are made dust.