Tag Archives: ziggurat

Ending at Ur

After four winters of excavation, the curtain has finally fallen on the project near Ur, where I have now lived for a total of over nine cold, beige months. This project has been great. highlights, many of which have featured in this blog, include excavating a cuneiform archive from 1500 BC, finding an intact rattling Babylonian rattle, seeing the sun rise over the Iraqi marshes, achieving an almost perfect score in Ur-Rules Bananagrams and having my own toilet.


Only let down by WE to get rid of the final E. Otherwise full marks

Excavation on site went out with more of a fizzle than a bang. The large slump in the centre of the courtyard (known on site as M’s great depression), which I’d been chasing all season, turned out to be the last known whereabouts of a substantial ancient tree rather than the lost tombs of the Sealand kings, buried with the wealth of a nation. My final roll of the dice on site was to dig a chunky-size sondage with the aim of seeing if our sub-floor vaults went any further north. In predictable fashion, the sondage failed to answer the question it was dug to address, while adding several more questions to the long list of things we don’t understand. At this point I threw my trowel down in disgust, fed the site dogs a last can of awful tuna and declared my work here done.


It’s all over; Steve and Runt mourn the end of the tuna and boiled egg gravy train 

Of course it wasn’t done. I had to spend three days writing my report, which I unwisely chose to do while listening to Radio 1 online, meaning I’m now uncomfortably burdened by extensive knowledge of the works of Ed Sheeran and Little Mix, and a renewed certainty that the universe is meaningless and life is suffering.

Two days before we left, the end of the project was nailed down by the newest American invasion of Ur, when a team of sixteen US archaeologists finally arrived to crash our party. We’d actually been expecting them since mid February, but after the Trump travel ban was imposed they had some mysterious problems getting their Iraqi visas. Then when they finally did fly to Basra at the start of March the Iraqis gleefully deported them for having the ‘wrong’ visas. It seems that even Iraqi border control can be worn down in the end however.


It’s a good job this is the last season as we’ve run out of idiot poses for the ziggurat steps

We packed up our cabins for the last time, posed on the ziggurat looking like ass-hats for the last time, burnt our exit visas (unflushable used toilet paper) for the last time, and finished what was left in the drinks cabinate (except that Bavarian whiskey which no one will touch – sorry Bavaria but stick to what you know eh?). Our last Sunday at Ur was a full moon and as night fell a storm was starting to blow across southern Iraq. At around midnight me and F lay on our backs on top of the ziggurat and watched the clouds racing across the moon.

“This is weird” I said.

“Yes,” said F, “very fucking weird.”

What we meant, although both of us consider the verbal expression of finer sentiments to be vulgar, was that we were sad to be leaving Ur.


Full moon at Ur, as if there aren’t enough triggers for mental instability here already

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

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.