Tag Archives: palmyra

The oldest sins in the newest ways


The new Institute of Digital Archaeology erection

It seems appropriate I should title this with a Shakespeare misquote as it’s the 400th anniversary of his death on Saturday and everyone is doing it. What I’m actually alluding to is the ‘digitally produced’ copy of the Palmyra arch which was erected in Trafalgar Square yesterday by the Institute of Digital Archaeology (involuntary snigger). They’ve made an exact scaled-down replica of an arch destroyed by Daesh, using a digital 3D model created from photos. How new! how sophisticated, how 21st century! cooed the papers. But of course it isn’t a new concept at all, in fact it’s very old school, only the tools have changed (now they work at the Institute of Digital Archaeology, nghh).

They loved their perfect architectural replicas back in the mid-19th century and there was a huge industry turning them out for museums. Moulds were made from the originals and used to produce as many plaster casts as necessary, brilliant. The only downside being that eventually everyone came to the conclusion that casts of ancient monuments were a bit pointless and unsatisfying. They lacked authenticity and, rather critically, age. To everyone’s surprise it turned out that old things were interesting and valued because they were old. New facsimiles just didn’t really interest people no matter how close to the original they were. The cast craze died away by the early 20th century and museums had their cast collections destroyed, sold off or put into permanent storage. One of the few museums to retain some of their casts on display is the Victoria and Albert in London, which I suspect found it hard to back down after they’d invested in a Cast Court specially built to house a life-size cast of the façade of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.


Michaelangelo’s original David which attracts 1.3 million visitors per year, and the V&A’s Victorian cast which mysteriously doesn’t

It’s fascinating to learn from the IDA that reproductions are back on the cutting edge of cultural heritage, so long as they’re produced from a digital model and carved by robots at £100,000 a pop rather than boring old Victorian casts (and I’m so glad we’re spending the money on something that really helps to protect and conserve endangered archaeology in the Middle East and not on some token publicity stunt). Alas, like most digital archaeology, it’s an old and pointless concept in a new and shiny package.


Bunking off Quiddich at Alnwick Castle

In personal news, I survived my 8 hour wait in Istanbul airport by paying to spend it in a lounge with an infinite supply of beer. I also survived a brief National-Trust-athon in Northumberland with my sister, during which we managed to take in four castles, three churches, one priory, Hadrian’s wall, the Lindisfarne mead shop and an unrecorded number of pubs. My sister talked incessantly about her wedding but amply compensated by sending me a whole Spanish ham in the post. Twins are great, they’re the only people really get gifts right.


One week in, the gift of ham just keeps on giving


The storm before the calm


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