Tag Archives: Turkey

Gin boat diplomacy

His excellency, the British ambassador to Turkey, helps J to make industrial quantities of double strength gin and tonic

His excellency, the British ambassador, lends a hand making industrial quantities of double strength gin and tonic so we can all fall over by dinner time

I’m enjoying a wholesome breakfast here at the dig house of coffee, paracetamol and Buckingham Palace mint chocolates. I managed to sleep for almost ten hours, waking to find I’d only managed to put half my pyjamas on, and that half was inside out. The British ambassador to Turkey has come to stay and oh my, he can drink. He arrived on Thursday and brought one car (armoured landrover) full of body guards and another car full of alcohol. It took all of us to carry it in – fifty cans of export larger, twenty-four bottles of French wine, two bottles of Johnny Walker Red, twelve litres of Gordon’s London Dry Gin and thirty-six litres of tonic water. It’s good to know you can rely on Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service for this sort of thing. The dig director expressed his doubts that we could drink it all in the remaining week, but you never know what you can achieve until you try. I think I might have sorted out the gin surplus last night.

At stupid o'clock we brush the trench by moonlight

At stupid o’clock we brush the trench by moonlight

The ambassador had the site tour yesterday, prompting the entire local military police force to turn out with their M-16s, making the short walk to the loo highly intimidating and none too private. I brushed up my last remaining dead person and persuaded my workmen to stop playing Rihanna on their mobile phones. Sir David did a very good job of appearing to be interested in my mudbrick walls but I supposed that’s why the diplomatic service pays him the big bucks. He wished me luck in working out what’s going on (my trench is a bit complicated at the moment) and asked me why I have an enormous lump on my head.

I have an enormous lump on my head because a big wooden pole fell on my face on Wednesday. I was having a little power nap in the site tent during tea break when the wind got under the canvas and knocked the tent pole down, the end of which landed smack on my forehead. As ways of getting woken up go, it’s easily in the same league as when I fell asleep with my phone under my ear last week, or the time my mum told me to put my life jacket on because the ship was sinking. “Are you all right?” asked D in a shocked voice. “No” I said, trying to sort truth from fiction and sleepiness from mild concussion, “I’m not sure, but I think something just hit me on the head.” One more failure in my efforts to get through an excavation season without a major head injury.

The end is nigh: work starts on Operation Z. This will be our last trench at the site as we have run out of letters

The end is nigh: work starts on Operation Z. This will be our last trench at the site as we have run out of letters

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Caves, frogs, unwanted dead

Wading up the Tigris Tunnel following a german

Wading up the Tigris Tunnel following a german

Last Friday, at the risk of not learning from my mistakes, I went on a trip to the mountains in search of some Assyrian rock inscriptions. Some of you may recall that last time I went looking for Assyrian rock inscriptions we nearly had to be rescued by the Iraqi army (https://oldstuffinhotplaces.wordpress.com/05/26/wild-goat-chasing/) which is not really the way I like my day off to end. This time was better; there was a cave, a tunnel and a river to play in and no survival situations with their associated acrimony and recriminations. My enjoyment was in no way diminished by the rock inscriptions themselves being rubbish.

D points out the total nothing we can't see

D points out that there is absolutely nothing to see

Selfish dead git

Selfish dead git

In terms of excavation things have been a bit slow but are finally picking up. An annoying hold up early in the week was my discovery that someone had thoughtlessly buried half a dozen dead people in the southern half of my trench. There are some situations in which finding dead people is splendid, like when you’re looking for a cemetery, and yet others, like this one, in which it’s a total pain in the arse. These later (probably Medieval) burials are cut down into the Neo-Assyrian building I’m trying to excavate, meaning that not only are they taking hours of fiddly excavating and recording to clear, but they’re leaving unsightly person-shaped holes in my pretty Assyrian walls. J over in Operation W has unwanted visitors of a different kind. He has a huge pithos embedded in the room he’s excavating which every morning he finds filled with tiny frogs. These have to be rescued and deported to the nearby irrigation swamp before they die in the sun and become a jar full of dreadful, mouldering frog corpses.

Yesterday's crop of tiny frogs. Having been stuck in there all night, none of them seem to be talking to each other any more

Yesterday’s crop of tiny frogs. Having been stuck in there all night, none of them seem to be talking to each other any more

In other news, it’s been a dire sporting week for me here. I got dumped out of the excavation ping pong tournament in the first round (I’ve never played ping pong before, I thought it would be easier) and then getting beaten for the first time ever in a sprint race up the city mound (by a 17 year old army cadet). I have resolved to be more selective in who I challenge to scratch races now that I’m in my thirties, and to accept fewer cigarettes from the workmen. At least England are doing well in the cricket, which I’m now able to listen to on the radio having found a way round the school server’s veto on all the world’s joys, including Test Match Special.

Şeker Bayramı (sugar holiday)

On top of the high mound the Germans make plans

On top of the high mound the Germans make plans

6am this morning found me sitting in the dig house listening to BBC 6 Music (which the Turkish education ministry server will let me access as the station name does not contain the dangerous word ‘radio’). I am attempting to write up an area of the site which someone else dug up six years ago, discovering more or less nothing. The big red circle on the geo-physics in fact turned out to be where the farmer drives his tractor round and round during threshing; a salutary lesson to all those who put too much faith in machines that go ping.

The chain gang giving me attitude

The chain gang giving me attitude


The reason I’m not on site today sweating away over my own expanse of nothing is that today is Şeker Bayramı; the holiday at the end of Ramadan when every man, woman and child in Turkey attempts to eat their body-weight in refined sugar. In furtherance of this noble goal, yesterday we bought our workmen thirty kilos of assorted revoltingly sugary brightly coloured sweets to share between them. They are currently sleeping off their biggest meal of the year.

The enormous gluttony all around us is sadly contrasted by our own state. Our cook and kitchen staff have all gone home to cook obscenely large quantities of oily Turkish food for other people and left us to fend for ourselves in the deserted school building for the next three days. I’ve already faced the horrors of the school’s basement kitchen(/dungeon/bacterial laboratory) having unwisely volunteered to help wash up from breakfast. There’s an all-pervading smell of rancid dairy substances and the cupboards are full of flies and dirty kittens. I bitterly regret not bringing my usual back-up supplies of beef jerky and instant noodles. I’m so hungry.

A group of academics attempting to feed themselves

A group of academics attempting to feed themselves


Things on site are also a bit grim. All I want is architecture and all I find is pits, big ugly pointless pits; if I was interested in those I would have become a prehistorian. The tedium has been somewhat relieved by my trench assistant who is the seventeen year old son of the British ambassador. On Tuesday we had a dirty joke-off, which I was pretty confident about having played on many rugby teams, but it turns out that rugby humour simply doesn’t have the depth and variety current in English boy’s boarding schools. We have our little japes – one day he said he’d found an important artefact and when I put my hand out he deposited a large white maggot in it. I threw this forcefully at his head, sadly missing his face and instead it adhered itself to the brim of his hat. He obligingly provided further entertainment by drinking some of the workmen’s water and being spectacularly sick for two days. Oh what laughs we have.

I’m going to drag myself upstairs and lie on my bed and think about bacon sandwiches for an hour.

Turkish word of the week: it appears at the bottom of all the many school notices and means 'they will be punished'.

Turkish word of the week: it appears at the bottom of all the many school notices and means ‘they will be punished’.

Time lag

I find myself inexplicably in the executive lounge at Birmingham airport. I hide in the corner in my cheap clothes and dirty trainers

I find myself inexplicably in the executive lounge at Birmingham airport. I hide in the corner in my cheap clothes and dirty trainers

Here I am once more in the baking southeast of Turkey sweating my poor life away in a room full of hot laptops and fans. It’s actually my ten year anniversary on this project which makes me feel unspeakably old. This wasn’t particularly helped today by my workmen, who during tea break broached the traditional second topic of international conversation after we had exhausted ‘what football team do you support’ (Arsenal, which didn’t go down at all well).

You are married?” enquired Hussein. Having been asked this on a regular basis and being familiar with the response I considered lying. I used to pretend to be married to a character from a TV programme or film; this prevents any hesitation and aids the consistency of an on-going lie as you already know all the information required. In the early 2000s I was mostly married to Dr Carter from ER (‘his name’s John, he works in a hospital, he has brown hair’), and in the late 2000s I was mostly married to Spiderman (‘his name’s Peter, he’s a newspaper photographer, he lives in New York’). I was once married to Professor Snape from Harry Potter (‘his name is Severus, he’s a teacher at a school, he has black hair’) but I became aware that Harry Potter has quite good circulation in the Middle East and the name was too recognisable.

Being old and increasingly confused I decided to stick to the truth this time.

No,” I said “I am not married.” This statement was received with a great deal of concerned murmuring.

How old are you?” asked Hussein gravely.

Otuz iki” I said, “Thirty-two”.

There were various cries of dismay. Hussein shook his head sadly. “You are very old” he said.

breaking ground on day one at the little known hour of 5am

breaking ground on day one at the little known hour of 5am

I’m two days into excavation at Operation Y, a name that implies a level of existential enquiry which would make any archaeologist uncomfortable. I’m still going through the extremely boring process of watching the workmen remove the plough zone which leaves me absolutely nothing to do except watch men shovel soil for eight hours a day. Today I dropped any pretence of working and brought a hilariously out of date book about the Plantagenet kings to read (Richard the Lion Heart, alas, ‘fell victim’ to homosexuality). This only slightly helped the main struggle of the day which is the struggle for consciousness. The day here starts with breakfast at 4am to allow us to start work when the sun comes up. Unfortunately, in UK time this is exactly the same time I usually go to bed (2am), leaving me with huge lifestyle-based jet lag. With little to occupy myself it’s a constant battle against the urge to hide behind the spoil heap and having a sleep, which is generally considered bad form when you’re supposed to be supervising seventeen workmen digging up a Neo-Assyrian city wall.

I’m trying to ignore some ominous beginnings. I’ve been assigned Room 13 in the deserted school building we’re living in, it’s only day three and I’ve already accepted a cigarette from the workmen, and I saw a crane eat a frog. On top of this, all websites of any interest, including this blog, are inaccessible on the school server, which reports that the site has been blocked by the Turkish Education Ministry due to its inappropriate content. I’ve got tomorrow off to sort myself out.

Unlucky for some: school room thirteen, in which some kind of mammal has defecated just inside the door

Unlucky for some: school room thirteen, in which some kind of mammal has defecated just inside the door

The world according to Woolley

I’ve been giving the blog a bit of a rest, firstly because I haven’t been digging, but mostly because I’ve been trying to avoid going back to my parents’ because I don’t really like it there. I’ve spent the last week or so in a cabin in the woods in southern Sweden where I woke up shouting twice and ate a lot of fish. The week before that I spent drunk in a 13th Century priory on the Somerset coast, taking remarkably long baths and drinking tea with this horse:

The horse at the bottom of the garden, who had a lot of free time and an interesting perspective on the dissolution of the monestaries

The horse at the bottom of the garden, who had a lot of free time and an interesting perspective on the dissolution of the monasteries

Delightful though all this has been, this itinerary has adversely affected my access to reliable internet.

My one vaguely archaeological activity has been reading ‘Dead Towns and Living Men’; a book written in 1918 by the young Leonard Woolley while he was a prisoner of The Turk (he never specifies which one) having been caught spying (like all respectable archaeologists https://oldstuffinhotplaces.wordpress.com/2012/12/02/finding-a-good-man/) during the Great War. The book isn’t so much about the archaeology as the hilarious local shenanigans (deadly tribal warfare) that went on in the background. In this, it’s very much like Digging Up Old Stuff in Hot Places, except with better grammar and a huge amount of racism.

Woolley and his chum Lawrence of Arabia totally pulling off a bit of Edwardian sports casual

Woolley and his chum Lawrence of Arabia totally pulling off a bit of Edwardian sports casual

Things were certainly a bit different back when Britain had an empire and archaeologists wore pith helmets in a non-ironic way. Over the last month or so the project I’m about to go and work for in Turkey has been hanging on and on for our permit to be signed in Ankara. Woolley’s standard approach to any such bureaucratic difficulty was to take out his revolver and threaten to shoot the official in question (an approach which I understand is now frowned upon by the British Museum). The universal success of this tactic seems to have hinged partly on Woolley’s supreme confidence that no oriental would dare to shoot an English gentleman and partly on the supreme inefficiency of the Ottoman Empire at shooting people who deserved it. These barriers apparently did not extend to the German railway engineers across the valley, who could be shot with impunity.

‘Dead Towns and Living Men’ is also punctuated with Woolley’s insightful descriptions of the various peoples he worked with, which consist of a series of sweeping derogatory statements covering the Egyptians, Sudanese, Italians, Bulgarians, Arabs, Kurds, Turks and Germans. Woolley describes the Egyptians as being unable to understand the concept of truth. The Germans are basically evil. He tells several lengthy anecdotes about the ‘child-like simplicity’ of the Sudanese, including one in which he explains to a Sudanese workman how there was nothing disrespectful at all about a British officer addressing him as ‘Sambo’. The N-word occurs. Despite describing the Kurds as thieves, drunks, atheists, money-grabbers and undergraduates, he seems to like them best as they are also sportsmen.

I will leave you with this short extract showing Woolley’s diplomatic skills, in which he attempts to talk the local Kurdish sheikhs out of attacking the French garrison, and thereby disrupting his digging of unimaginably large holes in ancient Carchemish:

“Tell me, oh sheikhs, for whom do you do this thing?”

“For the Turks.”

“I serve the British Museum, and work for archaeology, which is knowledge. Which is greater, the British Museum or the empire of the Turks?”

“W’Allah, the British Museum!”  replied the sheikhs.

“And which is greater, liberty or knowledge?”

“Knowledge is greater.”

“Therefore my work must go on and yours must stop.”

I sometimes wonder if Leonard Woolley wasn’t just a massive liar.

In other news, I’ve managed to bruise both my shins on a helicopter, and hit my head on an aeroplane in unrelated incidents. It’s late July, there’s a heat-wave in England, I’m booking my flights to the 45°C oven of south-eastern Turkey, and grandma has made me mittens. Thanks gran.

Winter is coming (eventually I guess). Elderly Swedish women are unstoppable knitting machines.

Winter is coming (eventually I guess). Elderly Swedish women are unstoppable knitting machines.

Suffering in Belgium

What? What do you want from me?

What?? What do you want from me?

I’m currently in the thrilling metropolis of Brussels but instead of doing what comes naturally – eating chocolate and waffles and drinking beer out of silly little glasses – I’m doing my familial duty. My brother, in collaboration with his wife I believe, succeeded in producing a second baby in the autumn which I’ve so far managed to avoid meeting through constraints of time, poverty and enthusiasm about children. I find that identifying conversational topics of mutual interest is a challenge with the under-threes; I’m not really comfortable with kids until they’re about, say, twenty-eight or twenty-nine.

Things got off to an unpromising start. I spent a night in London on the way down, where I went drinking with the department of Egypt and Sudan from the British Museum which is always a recipe for messy endings. I then watched a woman in the uniform of the Household Cavalry sing the theme to Skyfall to her horse (later I was unsure if this really happened, but have since been assured that it did), saw the queen, ate a kebab and slept (for about forty minutes) on a friend’s floor before getting the 6:50am Eurostar. I tried to use the journey to catch up on some sleep but only succeeded in waking up miserable and hungover in three different countries in the same morning.

Retreat beating on Horseguard's Parade; so much better on four pints, I wonder if that's how the queen manages

Retreat beating on Horseguard’s Parade; so much better on four pints, I wonder if that’s how the queen copes?

Against expectations, my brother has generated two children who look and behave almost precisely like all other human children, although like almost all other human parents he can’t be convinced they don’t possess special traits and abilities worthy of constant comment. I’ve spent most of the weekend trying to change the subject and not to use too many swear words. I was unsuccessful in both these efforts, my only achievement being to give myself a headache by gritting my teeth for three days.

I brought a miniature tent from Cairo. If only it could be properly sound-proofed. And locked.

I brought a miniature tent from Cairo. If only it could be properly sound-proofed. And locked.

Back in the land of archaeology, my summer digging plans in Turkey are becoming increasingly jeopardised by all the protests. Demanding basic political rights is all very well but no one thinks of the foreign freelance archaeologists whose livelihoods are threatened as a result. The Egyptian revolution left me stuck for two weeks freezing my arse off in a one-star Cairo hotel ordering in from Subway, running out of DVDs and watching the tanks go round and round and who needs that again? Fortunately I’ve been offered eight weeks work digging a big hole in the middle of London instead if Turkey gets silly, which has the advantages of better access to sushi, pubs and West End theatre than is available in Turkish Kurdistan.