Tag Archives: uruk

Welcome and unwelcome mice

We drag ourselves up the tell for a sunset can of beer

We drag ourselves up the tell for a sunset can of beer

I was awoken at five o’clock this morning by the merry sound of a mouse attempting to eat my mattress. Finding ourselves in a moment of mutual surprise, he proved the more fully conscious and vaulted my enormous pile of general mess to escape under the door of The Dungeon (this has a clearance at the bottom of several inches, presumably for the delivery of plates of porridge to inmates as well as to facilitate the passage of vermin). The remaining twenty minutes before my alarm went off were wasted in the detection of imaginary scratching noises in all corners of the room.

Sleepy pocket mouse

Sleepy pocket mouse

Work on site has been held up by several delays, chief among which is our entanglement with a two and a half metre long oven just below the plough zone, probably dating to the Uruk (4th Millennium BC). It’s turning out to be horribly deep and difficult, and today it spat out a complete bovine mandible in a final act of defiance. I sincerely cannot wait to smash it up with a hammer when this is all over. A more welcome and less time-consuming delay occurred at the end of last week involving mice. In a reversal of this morning’s incident, I rudely awoke a family of dormouse-like objects asleep in their own home by having one of my workmen cut a section through it, liberally distributing sleepy baby mice over trench G. Suppressing the workmen’s natural instinct to beat wildlife with shovels, L and I scooped up as many as we could find and put them in our pockets and then stored them in my hat for the rest of the day. Unsure of their future, we speculated about taking a couple back to the dig house to keep as pets (perhaps they could be trained to sort floatation heavy residue with their little hands?) but in the end we put them back in the hole in the section and the next day they were gone (optimistically retrieved by their mother, or less optimistically by a crow/cat/dog). I found that one of them had pissed in my hat.

Last week's baby mice: much preferable to this week's baby snakes

Last week’s baby mice: much preferable to this week’s baby snakes

In other news we had a fairly brown-trouser-inducing thunderstorm, which we spent sitting on the patio drinking beer. Yesterday we went to Sulaimanyah for residency cards and essential shopping. We bought beer, tonic water for all the gin and a shisha pipe to smoke at the house. I bought ten cans of diet coke and a bar of soap. Everyone was very happy.

We anger the gods with our heathen ways and constant complaining about the state of the shower

We anger the gods with our idolatrous hording of pottery and constant complaining about the state of the shower

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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

Wild goat chasing

Relieved: we finally locate the wretched article.

Relieved: we finally locate the wretched beast.

I’ve always suspected that a vast quantity of suffering in the world can be put down to good intentions allied with dreadful forward planning. Yesterday was a fine illustration. We went to stay in Suliemaniya for the weekend, partly so we could stock up on gin and kitkats, and partially because we wanted to go to see a famous ancient rock relief in the mountains. Part one went fine (except of course, that I drank too much) then we got on a bus and drove round and round in the Zagros foothills for two hours while the driver asked a series of confused strangers where this thing the foreigners want to see is. Eventually he deposited us at the end of a dirt track and set about investigating why the bus had started to produce a high pitched wailing noise when it went round corners.

After ten minutes walking, it was discovered that no one in fact had the faintest idea where this thing was. We called the museum who advised us to follow the iron water pipe up the valley so this is what we did. Over an hour later I slumped to the ground in a small swamp crawling with ticks and mosquitoes and declared my ever-lasting disinterest in ancient rock reliefs. I watched the poor stragglers crawling the last few yards to the top of the mountain, drenched in sweat, weeping, scratched and bitten. As most of us thought we were getting out of the bus for ten minutes to look at a pretty picture, it hadn’t occurred to bring proper shoes, or water. As I began to drag my sleep-deprived, hung-over and desiccated remains back down the mountain, I faintly recalled saying that my main aim for the weekend was to be less tired after it than I was before.

The Iraqi army, marvelling at the ineptitude of foreign archaeologists

The Iraqi army, marvelling at the ineptitude of foreign archaeologists

I arrived back at the bus to find that our driver had informed the Iraqi army of our failure to return and a jeep full of soldiers were waiting to see if they’d have to start a search and rescue mission. We begged half a cup of water from their officer, who looked on us with great pity for our physical exhaustion and grave mental deficiencies. The rock relief was of course just ten minutes down the track but none of us had thought to look up.

Bearded goat (c. 3500 BC) bestriding my photographic register

Bearded goat (c. 3500 BC) bestriding my photographic register

Excavation is winding down now for the end of the season. I finished digging today by finding a nice goat figurine complete with a little beard. This is by far our most attractive find, the only other figurines being a remarkably ugly woman(?) and the rear end of a horse. My personal favourite find however is the set of nesting bevel-rimmed bowls I got out of Trench F. BRBs are noted for their regularity in size, about which many books and papers have been written in the past – were they for a standardised grain ration? Perhaps they were army issue bread moulds? – in the context of which I consider my collection to be the best joke I’ve heard in ages.

I found the porridge in the small bowl to be just right

I found the porridge in the small bowl to be just right

A pot to piss in

BRBs: ceramic fungi blooming in Trench F

BRBs: ceramic fungi blooming in Trench F

I just hauled four big sacks and five crates of pottery back to the dig house from one of my trenches. I dumped them in the office and left for lunch before the registrar could start crying properly. The vast majority of the stuff is made up of bevel-rimmed bowls (or BRBs, for those who are sick to death of them) – a type of pot found in Iraq from the Uruk period, which has nothing to do with those really mean orcs from Lord of the Rings (alas). Bevel-rimmed bowls are very ugly and badly made, unlike the preceding Halaf period pretty pretty girly painted pottery, which G. finds over at the other site and flashes about like bonbons.

The sort of gaudy prehistoric rubbish which makes people all giggly during pot washing

The sort of gaudy prehistoric rubbish which makes people all giggly during pot washing

I actually consider the crappiness of bevel-rimmed bowls as a flower of hope in the desert of the prehistoric; it represents the point when people found out that there were better things to do with their time than sit around painting their tableware. I know it floats some people’s boats but the prehistoric was clearly very dull; all people were doing was subsistence farming, bit of hunting, building very small, very boring houses and making up religions that never caught on. Conversation must have been turgid throughout the late Neolithic, and people probably turned to painting pottery because it was that or discussing the right way to knap flint for the eight-hundredth time.

 

Then the Uruk period comes along, people invent cities, writing, beer and discos, and suddenly everyone wants pots you can hand round at a party and leave out for the bin men with the other empties. Life becomes less about how fine you can make the cross hatching on your tea cup and more about shopping and going to the pub, which is my definition of civilisation.

Small figurine nestled in a bed of Egyptian sand, bag fluff and pencil shavings

Small figurine nestled in a bed of Egyptian sand, bag fluff and pencil shavings

Archaeological rants aside, by the end of the day I’ll be roundly hating bevel-rimmed bowls and all they stand for, and everyone else on the team is going to be hating me for digging them up. It’s going to take at least three hours and a lot of ill-feeling to get it washed. Thankfully, I curried favour with the registrar yesterday by shaking enough Egyptian sand out of my pencil case to nestle a find in for drawing, otherwise I’d be keeping my back to the wall and preparing my own meals.

In other news, the dig director has stolen the chair from my room, which means he’s also seen The Mess…