Tag Archives: tablets

Brass monkeys


8:31am, F records zero degrees in Steel Dragon no. 72

I’m finding it very difficult to write my blog today as I think my brain might have frozen itself to the top of my skull in the night. I was woken this morning by my neck brushing the freezing wet edge of the blanket where my breath had been condensing, and then by realising that the dream I’d been having about living in a meat freezer was inspired by a true story. It’s gone bastard cold over the last couple of days in southern Iraq. Yesterday we drove to site, opened the door of the heated truck and decided to just pay the workmen and go home. We’ve all been making a lot of bad jokes about that explorer who died in the Antarctic earlier in the week, mostly involving references to going to bed to ‘shoot my bolt’. I haven’t had a shower for two days now as I can’t stand the idea of taking off either pair of trousers.


Thursday morning. M and I try to look on the bright side while the director pays the workmen to go home before we all perish.

I’ve become slightly obsessed with the temperature around the Ur dig house. A particular source of consternation is that it often seems to be warmer outside my steel shipping container than inside, leading me to wonder if I might be better off sleeping under it than inside it. Another anomaly was pointed out to us by G the conservator who has discovered that on cold days the fickle gods of thermodynamics converge on a patch of air just outside the front gate where it is for some reason several degrees warmer than anywhere else for a radius of about three feet. We’ve all trudged out to experience the phenomena accompanied by dark mutterings about geothermal springs, doorways to hell and Saddam’s missing nuclear weapons programme.

Here’s the token bit of archaeology which maintains my tenuous claim that this is an archaeological blog and not just a massive moan: I dug out all of the previously mentioned sub-floor vaults this week, confirming the initial findings that they contain absolutely sod all. This was rendered substantially more annoying by the hive of noisy activity in the adjacent area where F was shovelling out cuneiform tablets by the bucket-load to the sound of merry laughter. Most of the tablets are of the very small sort which we refer to as USB sticks. F’s new theory is that she’s digging a waiting room where everyone had to take a number and all the tablets are going to say ‘Please wait, you are number 74 in the queue’ or similar. I hope it’s a bookies.


I post Haider in the most recently dug vault with orders to repel the press and permission to use the small pick if necessary

The week’s work was punctuated by several official visits, the last and most disruptive of which came with a large herd of cops and press, who only managed to do moderate damage to the site. My one effort at shooing a cameraman out of one of my vaults only resulted in him scampering into the next room where he tripped spectacularly over the string dividing up my sampling spatials, pulling out several nails. I gave up at this point and F and I went off to hide in the tent until it was over.


One of the cops guarding the spoil heap and looking mean

Rules of engagement

Abayas are very on-trend at the Imam Hussein mosque

Abayas are very on-trend at the Imam Hussein mosque

My blogging activities have been seriously curtailed due to an internet drought at Ur over the past week. Hopefully I can now restore my flow of attention seeking drivel to previous levels. I’m reclining in my steel dragon, trying to digest another round of J’s bread and butter pudding. It’s been in the fridge for over two days now and has matured in unusual ways. There’s about 6lbs of it left, maybe more by now as it seems to be increasing in both mass and density. This is just one of the main events of the last week, which started with a difficult and heavily armed trip to visit the major Shia shrines at Karbala. This involved everyone getting very cross, and an unnecessary number of puns in very poor taste concerning the word Shiite. I also particularly enjoyed my first experience of wearing an abaya – one of those full-length black robes that cover everything but the face. Some of the best things about wearing an abaya are tripping on it going up stairs, tripping on it going down stairs, sitting on it so you can’t lean forward, standing on it when you want to get up, not being able to reach for things more than a foot away, getting caught on furniture, knocking drinks over with the sleeves, continual readjustment, being too hot and being told off for not wearing it correctly. F got told off for smoking in hers. I excelled myself by falling asleep during our meeting with the head imam.

The nice men at the shrine gave me this commemorative plaque, a flag and some islamic instructional literature. And a real kitkat, which was much appreciated

The nice men at the shrine gave me this commemorative plaque, a flag and some islamic instructional literature. And a real kitkat, which was much appreciated

A's offer to help me with the tablet hunt is rewarded by having his eyes scoured out in a dust storm

A’s offer to help me with the tablet hunt is rewarded with having his eyes scoured out by a dust storm

On site things have also been trying. A few days ago I started finding cuneiform tablets in the main room I’m excavating, meaning that everything has slowed to almost a standstill. The tablets, which are made of unbaked mud, are lurking about in a layer of dense mud brick rubble; this makes it extremely hard to sort the boring, useless, everyday lumps of mud which need to go to the spoil heap to die from the fantastically interesting, extremely important lumps of mud which need to go to the museum to be studied. There are several difficult skills to be honed, such as not finding tablets by cutting them in half with a trowel, not spending too long painstakingly excavating alluringly shaped pieces of brick, and not screaming and throwing your tools across the trench in frustration more than once a day. I hope there’s something interesting written on them and not tax returns or a teenage diary.

Sieving under pressure: the distinctly military flavour of digging in Iraq

Sieving under pressure: the distinctly military flavour of digging in Iraq

In the evening we’ve taken to watching Generation Kill which follows a group of US marines through the American invasion in 2003. In last night’s episode the marines rolled through Nasiriyah, which was a bit weird as it’s only ten minutes down the road. Life on the excavation now incorporates a regrettable amount of military jargon and more than the previous amount of colourful swearing. I found a sticker on the armchair in my steel dragon saying ‘property of the US government’.