Tag Archives: Ur

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.

Ur fry

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.

Taking the cure

Look! the end: a farewell to Ur

Look! the end: a farewell to Ur

It’s about a week and a half since I got back from Iraq and I’m quite bored. Getting home wasn’t too bad all things considered. We spent our last night in a secure compound next to Basra airport where we ate non-tomato flavoured food, played pool, ran around in the air raid shelters and generally enjoyed being somewhere other than the dig house. I had a long, loving reunion with television, on which I watched Kung Fu Panda and the Welsh Open snooker final. The accommodation was in cabins reassuringly similar to my steel dragon back at Ur, although less reassuringly full of detailed instructions about what to do should the compound come under fire.

The highlight of Basra airport is a truly excellent souvenir shop which sells an extraordinary range of ugly plastic things at very reasonable prices for a captive environment. I bought my mother the traditional gift of a fridge magnet. The rest of the trip home was dominated by my attempts to fit maximum alcohol consumption into small windows of opportunity.

The wonders of Blast Shelter 2

The wonders of Blast Shelter 2

 

Return to the civilized world of cake and cathedrals and gin

Return to the civilized world of cake and cathedrals and gin

At my parent’s house I had a few hours sleep, put some of my clothes in a smaller bag and the rest in the washing machine and got a very slow train to Bath via much of Wales. Back in the dark, sober days of February I rented a Georgian house by Bath abbey in the middle of town for the weekend after Iraq in the interests of getting really quite drunk with some friends. This plan generally worked out very well and followed the rough course of drinking, eating, drinking, adventure golf, drinking, shopping, drinking, the theatre, drinking, going to the spa, drinking, taking the waters, drinking, drinking, crying, and drinking. I managed to break my friend T’s clay pipe by shutting the window on it, and I have sketchy memories of offering a bottle of beer to a confused busker.

Things since Bath have gone noticeably downhill; I spent this weekend losing £15 on the Grand National and watching the wrong university win the boat race. I watched Cross of Iron last night which put some of this into perspective. Besides, I’m going to the races at Newbury next weekend and I’m due some luck (that’s how it works right?).

Happy returns

Another year spend in folly

Another year spend in folly

It’s my birthday. I have mixed feelings about this. I’m celebrating with a Kinders Surprise, lying resplendent in my ‘abba. My colleagues have gifted me the sort of treasure that only the last days of a three month field project can make you truly appreciate – real chocolate from England, one of the very few remaining hidden cans of diet coke and a small pack of US military-issue toilet paper. There’s also a bottle of dubious Iraqi whiskey for this evening. It was brought to the dig house yesterday by one of our contacts in Nasiriyah, who delivered it in a black leather bag along with the cryptic announcement that he had found ‘the medicine for Mr John’. This utterance was for some time a little too cryptic as Mr John had left two days earlier and not informed everyone of his outstanding order.

Progress in Iraq: our last weekend outing to the ancient city of Uruk

Progress in Iraq: our last weekend outing to the ancient city of Uruk

It’s our last day in Ur before we drive down to Basra tomorrow and the project has drawn to a gentle close. Yesterday most of us had run out of work and we spent the afternoon playing cricket in the front garden and watching our pottery washer Nasrala chase his escaped horse very slowly round the compound. I think the horse had a lovely day. One of the directors took all the finds to the museum in Baghdad and got our permission letters to export samples out of the country. She had to sign a declaration promising to return the little bags of soil to Iraq or be liable for their value, leading to speculation as to the actual monetary worth of dirt.

One of my tamer Bananagrams wins

One of my tamer Bananagrams wins

The final weeks of the project have been generally marked by a slow descent into wrongness. Our regular games of Bananagrams (a sort of free-form scrabble) has blossomed into a workshop on creative obscenities, most of which I cannot repeat here. Last night one of my winning racks incorporated the words foamy, dyke and slit, which I’m pretty sure wouldn’t have happened a couple of months ago. Queef has become the go-to word for getting rid of troublesome Qs and Fs – at the start of January I thought this was a type of medieval lady’s bonnet. Other signs of troubled mental health include D and N’s new game of throwing dishcloths, food and other items into the kitchen fan to see what happens, and the use by some team members of the silted-up floatation tanks as hot tubs. The proliferation of in-jokes and evolving misuse of vocabulary has now rendered our conversation almost incomprehensible to other English speakers. I think it’s very much for the best that we’re all going home while we can still be re-integrated into polite society.

The equinox sun setting inn a satisfactory manner behind the ziggurat at Ur

The equinox sun setting in a satisfactory manner behind the ziggurat at Ur

Enough of a good thing

The modest amount of pottery emerging from my room fill

The modest amount of pottery emerging from my room fill

With nearly three weeks left of the project here in Iraq we stopped digging today. It seems that the three of us digging on site are finding too much archaeology for the people back at the house to handle and we’ve been cut off. It all started with the tablets when a week ago I got my best day’s catch of four monsters, which I presented to the conservator, only to find that she didn’t want any more. Apparently four nice big cuneiform tablets is a week’s conservation work. So instead I had to move on to a juicy looking buttress room which seemed to have a decent quantity of pottery sticking out of this. After the removal of less than a third of the room fill, which produced a healthy eight or nine sacks full of pottery, I was again asked to stop; F and S in the other trenches had been producing similar quantities of the stuff and the poor young ceramicist was now washing our pottery with his human tears. He likes pots, you’d have thought he’d be happy. In any case, we are now sullenly back-filling and completing our records.

Fiery danger fish

Fiery danger fish

As everyone seems to be getting a bit flaky after two and a half months (last week we invented potato rugby, which was all fun and games until J caught a hefty one right on the ear), we made this weekend a long one and accepted an invitation to the marshes. I made this as horrible as possible for myself by vigourously attacking my remaining whiskey the night before, drunkenly annoying people I like and then having to spend a very hung-over day in a moving boat. Things almost came to a head on an island in the middle of the marsh when our hosts cooked us some large fish for lunch. Luckily the salty, fatty fish had a curative effect rather than the reverse and a cross-cultural incident was averted. I came close to a relapse later when we encountered an especially buoyant cat.

Bloaty puss

Bloaty Puss

After not sleeping at all in a very lovely reed-built house, we got up early to watch the sun rise and have breakfast in the marshes. After the sun had run through the usual old routine, we moored up on a section of Sadam’s marsh road and spread our breakfast mat on the tarmac. Sadam Hussein built the road to move his tanks through the area after he had had the marshes drained. Now they’re reflooded, the road is mostly submerged and is slowly dissolving away. I kicked a little chunk off into the water and watched it sink.

Sadam's marsh road, now thoroughly shat on by water buffalo and gnawed at by dogs

Sadam’s marsh road, now thoroughly shat on by water buffalo and gnawed at by dogs

The watery world of the marsh arabs

The watery world of the marsh arabs

 

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’.

Steel Dragon

Thursday afternoon: The police polish their guns ready for a big weekend

Thursday afternoon: The police polish their guns ready for a big weekend

Peace reigns at the Ur dig house. It is Thursday afternoon, the day off ahead of us and the power is already out. I can hear the merry, distant sounds of my colleagues trying to play ping pong on the dining room table. In the last week we have been joined by a new team member (N), who, other than the fact that he didn’t make full use of his customs allowance of alcohol, seems to be a perfectly reasonable human man (which has now been verified by his Iraqi health checks).  I spent the last two days digging up what appears to be an Early Dynastic vaulted tomb, amid wild speculation about gold and princesses, only to discover this afternoon that it’s completely empty. I took it fairly philosophically; you have to take the rough with the smooth in the grave digging line. Anyway, everything seemed better back at the house after a cup of tea and a Cornetto.

We have inherited the four survivors of Steel Dragon Camp D2.

We have inherited the four survivors of Steel Dragon Camp D2.

My biggest news of the week is that I finally escaped the doleful presence of my humourless, dirt-bothering roommate (who is a good person, on paper) and moved into a steel dragon. We have four steel dragons in the yard behind the house. They’re essentially those metal shipping containers that skulk about on cargo ships, roughly adapted for habitation by, I suspect, the military. Our steel dragons have certainly seen service, possibly in the Crimea. I inherited mine from one of the co-directors who had to return to the UK to his teaching post, leaving a half built floatation machine in the garden and half of his beard in my sink. After some fairly half-hearted housework it is now mostly de-professored.

Hut 47: my own dear dragon

Hut 47: my own dear dragon. Hut 39 next door is the escape committee.

There’s something of an art to living in a steel box with all the insulating properties of a coke can. The cold weather persists, making the dragon much like one of those walk-in meat freezers. F claims to have recorded 3˚C one morning in dragon 72. The solution, other than wearing eight layers of clothes and a hat, comes in the form of a huge dust-filled AC unit strapped to the front of the container, which when activated makes a brain-rattling thrumming noise and causes enough vibration to make my tin trunk creep across the floor. All in all, it’s a lot like being in a helicopter at high altitude. I suspect once the hot weather comes around it’ll be like being a dog locked in a hot car. Freedom always comes with a price.

In the belly of the beast: you can never have too many polyester leopard print blankets in a steel dragon, so long as you can handle the static.

In the belly of the beast: you can never have too many polyester leopard print blankets in a steel dragon, so long as you can handle the static.

Double bagging

We attempt to survive morning tea break

We attempt to survive morning tea break

I woke up at 4:30am this morning freezing. I cast about for any extra clothing in reach but found only a microfiber travel towel, which I wrapped round my knees. The temperature at Ur has gone down ten degrees in the last two days which has made everyone very unhappy, especially those of us who are living in metal boxes in the garden. I made a critical decision ten minutes before leaving the house to put a pair of skinny jeans on under my site trousers. This may have saved my life. Two pairs of trousers was indeed the order of the day all round, though I still had a fair amount of trouble with the touchscreen on my Toughbook due to the unintentional double click effect of shivering. There was also the issue of dripping snot onto the keyboard. I thought at one point that my smallest workman Ali (who claims to be fifteen but can’t be more than eleven) might die.

S tends his flag garden; the harvest will be good this year

S tends his flag garden; the harvest will be good this year

On site the average mental age is about fourteen

On site the average mental age is about fourteen

The site is shaping up nicely, if you like sites to be Old Babylonian temple shaped, which I do. It’s still looking a bit two dimensional as we’ve done a lot of surface clearance to get the main walls, but we’ll be heading down as soon as we can all agree on a sampling strategy (or hell freezes over, which looks more likely). It’s all quite colourful as the surface erosion has cut holes through layers of plaster floors and burnt fills producing concentric bands of grey and white and red with lumps of pottery, making it look as if someone has been spectacularly sick in the trench. F has found a pair of bread ovens that look like breasts.

Iraqi orange flavour custard has a half life of 10,000 years

Iraqi orange flavour custard has a half life of 10,000 years

I returned to the house after work to find that my roommate, whom I live to vex, had finally cracked and tidied up my stuff. Instead of the mound of mixed clothes, electricals and snack foods I’d been carefully curating at the foot of my bed, I found my clothes folded and stacked on top of my bag, and my shirts, which have never known such things, on clothes hangers on the back of the door. My clean and dirty underwear bags had been hung on the bed post and all my cosmetics hidden behind the curtains. Everything had been swept. I kicked my dirty boots off into the corner and slouched off to think up more elaborate ways to be filthy. For dinner one of the dig directors made cake served with florescent yellow custard which tasted like Fanta.

Le cuisine d’Ur

We are off site today due to gale-force winds. Having done all my paperwork and tried and failed to make a kite, I now have little to do this afternoon except think of all the things I’d like to eat but can’t. I am not enjoying the culinary side of life at Ur:

Lunch guns: no one's taking our hardboiled eggs

Lunch guns: no one’s taking our hardboiled eggs

Hors d’oeuvres – selection of disappointments

Breakfast consists of finding something edible in the fridge in the dark. The highlight is the Iranian yoghurts, one of the ingredients of which is ‘Thermophile starter’, suggesting that it originates in the enriched uranium-producing regions. Most of the team mix this with ‘dhibis’; a black date syrup closely resembling diesel oil, except for J who uses a table spoon of instant coffee. Lunch is the usual cold hardboiled egg love/hate experience, enlivened by carbtastic boiled potato sandwiches. It is served in the site tent against a backdrop of machine guns.

Entrée – Rice and Red

Foulness: transition from the christmas regime to a bean-based diet has not been smooth

Foulness: transition from the christmas regime to a bean-based diet has not been smooth

The diet here at the Ur dig house is a classic example of archaeological dining in the Middle East, as perpetuated by the least imaginative cooks to be found between the Bosporus and the Khyber Pass. Excavation cooks are by and large not selected for their culinary skills but for their ability to put up with the astonishingly bizarre demands of foreign archaeologists (fixed mealtimes, basic hygiene, refrigeration of dairy products, vegetarians(!?)) and their familial connections to other employees of the project. This generally leads to the hiring of the driver’s/site guard’s/land owner’s brother/cousin/uncle, who in fact only knows how to cook one dish; the one he cooks when his wife’s away. This dish is invariably ‘rice and red’, referring to beans and/or vegetables cooked for an average of four hours in a tomato sauce and served over boiled rice. In nearly three weeks at Ur we have now had rice and red every day except the first Friday when we got our own takeaway kebab. Even with our now formidable range of hot sauce bottles, it’s sometimes difficult to remember there are flavours other than tomato.

Rice and red: courgette variant

Rice and red: courgette variant

Plateau de fromages

The cheeses of Ur

The cheeses of Ur

The cheese board of Ur is a thing of wonder, featuring on occasion as many as twelve different types of locally sourced processed cheese, ranging from creamy yellow Happy Cow, through the harder canned cheeses such as Kraft Cheddar and Pinky to the rubbery delights of Kiri and Boy Cheese triangles. The mystery surrounding this apparent variety is that they all taste exactly the same, and not of cheese. Served with artisanal bread in a damp plastic bag.

 Carte de vin

The ration is five cans a day for every man and boy. Some of us are not sleeping well

The ration is five cans a day for every man and boy. Some of us are not sleeping well

There is of course no vin here or biére and we are limited to the one litre each of the strongest duty free spirits available which we were able to bring through customs (currently carefully curated against the harder times to come). Most commonly drunk is an execrable local brand of instant coffee called Coffee Prince (referred to here as The Prince or The Prince of Darkness) and the usual brown 100% sugar solution that masquerades as tea. The project is in fact almost entirely fueled by industrial quantities of Diet Pepsi.

Bon appetit!

Soggy ziggurats

The curiously erotic art of Basra airport

The curiously erotic art of Basra airport

I’m in the Ur dig house wearing three jumpers and a woolly hat watching my breath fog. January in Iraq turns out to be quite cold and pretty wet (I weep inwardly over the big socks I couldn’t fit in my bag). I got here on Thursday night about ten hours later than scheduled. I made a strong start by getting quite drunk at Manchester Airport and finally getting round to watching Captain America on the plane, but then got delayed at Istanbul, where I sobered up, and then had to spend two hours circling Basra waiting for the fog to clear.

We’re living in the compound of the ancient city of Ur, which is full of dogs and rubbish. On Friday morning a few of us went to check out the ziggurat in the rain. The ziggurat of Ur is about four thousand years old and probably the greatest monument of the region I’ve been studying for the last twelve years. It featured heavily in my doctoral thesis. We trudged up to the top, decided it was horrible and went back to the dig house to make coffee and put on more clothes, which wasn’t exactly how I’d been imagining it all these years.

That wet ziggurat smell: S and D at the foot steps wanting to go home

That wet ziggurat smell: S and D at the foot steps wanting to go home

The samphire of ancient Ur: the perfect accompaniment to hard boiled eggs and processed cheese triangles

The samphire of ancient Ur: the perfect accompaniment to hard boiled eggs and processed cheese triangles

The next day the site guard gave us the full tour, together with a couple of Iraqi army officers from the local base, who spent most of the their time taking photos of each other on their smart phones. We slithered down the mud to the royal tombs of the Ur III dynasty, which remain a marvel in the world of brick vaulting fanciers despite being heavily befouled by pigeons. We admired the very large holes left by Leonard Woolley (https://oldstuffinhotplaces.com/2013/07/16/the-world-according-to-woolley/) in the 1920s, now filled with plastic bags, and I noted how well samphire grows on heavily salinated wet mudbricks.

Today we had our first full day on site; a modest Old Babylonian tell about forty minutes drive from Ur. Tomorrow we have the day off to go to the hospital and be tested for AIDS. Iraq is fun.