Teaching in Cyprus

I have spent the last six weeks half in charge of a field school and set of osteological training programs in Cyprus. It has been a massive effort, particularly since I’ve had bronchitis for the past four weeks. Needless to say, I am completely burned out.

On the plus side, I have a job for this year – I’ll be a Visiting Lecturer at Glyndwr University, which is coordinating a distance MRes in Forensic Anthropology and Bioarchaeology. The program starts in January, and I’ll be coordinating classes, teaching, and supervising masters’ dissertations. Some of my students this summer will be my supervisees, so I’ll get to guide their projects.

The first week and a half were the Human Remains Training Certificate. I taught a bunch of undergrad and masters students, mostly American, about bioarchaeology and osteology, and was joined in the second week by Elzbieta, a Polish lecturer who specializes in cremains (cremated human remains). She was absolutely great, and gave me pdfs of all her cracked editions of osteology books and lectures to re-appropriate for my own teaching. She also taught me the Polish word “prowizorka”,which refers to things that shouldn’t last a long time but do, like my $2.50 flip flops that I’ve used since 2009.

The next three weeks were the field school, in which we excavated a commingled pit in Limassol’s historic cemetery. In this culture, family tombs are rented long-term. When a family leaves the area or doesn’t pay, the residents of the tomb were evicted and put in a secondary mass grave. The pit is enclosed on all sides by concrete walls and unshaded, so we had to work in shifts and take frequent breaks. Aside from the Jackson Park project in Chicago (2009), this is the closest I’ve ever worked to toilets and cafes. We woke up at 5 and took a local bus in to site, arriving by 6:30. We’d take levels, then dig with haste until 8:30, at which time the students would go to Coffee Island for snacks and air conditioning while I’d start off a map. We’d then work again until around 11, or whenever it got too hot. Napping students were frequently seen lazing over graves, often covered in cats.

We had an abundance of cats on site. Cyprus holds cats to be sacred, apparently, and there’s a legend that Constantine’s mother Helena sent a delegation of cats to conquer Cyrpus’ snake problem. There’s even a monastery dedicated to cats. The cemetery has a huge population, and people come by with kittens they’ve found (or want to abandon). A few locals feed them and provide veterinary care occasionally. We named a few – Dreamsicle the orange and white kitten, Mama the pregnant one, and Skitty the shy one. One morning, a student heard mewling and went to investigate. She found two dead kittens, less than a week old, in a flower pot and their sibling clinging to life a few feet away. She and the other students took it to the vet and got some kitten formula and a box and took it home to feed in shifts. We named it Bean. Unfortunately Bean was just too young to survive without its mother and died after two days between feeds, and we buried him in a park. I buried three kittens this summer.


It took us a week and a half to get down about 50cm, when we started seeing bones. After that, it was all bones all the time, which meant we had to proceed carefully. Fortunately, the bones were in no particular order, and seemed to be random collections of long bones and skulls. This is really exciting for the students, and also quite easy to lift compared to complete primary burials. By the end of the season we’d excavated so deep that stepping into the trench required three points of contact, and getting to the other side to work in the test pit was a mission. We developed some great bucket chains to get the dirt out. This was the first time I’d been completely in charge of a site as opposed to a grunt or a specialist, which was slightly nerve-wracking at first. I tried to balance wanting to be in control of everything to make sure it’s right, teaching techniques, and managing everyone being hot and tired. Some days scorched over 90, and the humidity made us feel sticky even in the shade. There was no breeze on site.


At noon, we’d have lunch delivered by a lady from the local church, usually a pasta or veggie stew, which we’d eat voraciously with the addition of lemon juice and salt. On days when there were bean dishes, I’d go to a cafeteria-like restaurant around the corner that offered a weird mix of Cypriot foods like bamia and lamb kleftiko alongside Asian fried noodles. In the second week, we discovered our closest bakery. Bakeries here smell completely different than French or British bakeries. Greek bread isn’t very fluffy, and for whatever reason, the baking doesn’t produce the hearthy bread smell. The bakeries are also “zacharopoleios”, or sugarworks, meaning they make cookies. These cookies were some of the more amazing I’ve had. I mostly had jam-filled biscuits or the local homemade Oreo, which I used to bribe students to complete unpleasant tasks. The bakery also had selections of hors d’oeuvres-size spanakopita and tiropita and other savory delights, a few of which would make a decent lunch.

Unfortunately, in the second week I started to cough. It started as a reaction to the dust. It got worse with the humidity, particularly at night. We didn’t have air conditioning in the flat; really, we had AC units but no remotes for them, for no particular reason. We were still waking up at 5 and digging as fast as we could before we were hit by direct sunlight, but we (I) began to get progressively more tired and grumpy. I did find that I coughed less in the café and the gym, both air conditioned spaces.

By week 3, we’d found a large number of bones and opened a subsidiary trench. We then connected that to the main trench, forming a Tetris T-shaped hole. Mapping was slow going, as there were many elements to place, and I wanted every student to get mapping experience. I continued to cough throughout. Later in the week, I approached our building manager to ask why we didn’t have AC. “It wasn’t included in your program rental agreement,” he said. “But you can pay for it separately.” At last! We had a beautifully cold night, waking up fresh and rested. We were positively glowing. My cough seemed to abate. We closed the site and backfilled Wednesday of the final week, but didn’t have enough time to process and catalog the bones, so they’ll have to wait for next year.


The final two weeks were the Advanced Paleopathology course, with a new influx of students. Our Canadian undergraduates left and were replaced by mostly British postgrads and more advanced researchers seeking professional development. I was able to teach on some of my favorite topics (epidemiology, untangling sex and gender and the interplay of socialization and biology, the history infectious disease), and gave quite a long lecture on tuberculosis while coughing. My cough continued to get worse as I had no time to rest and recover, and the students told me I needed to see a doctor. Our director told me there was basically no way to do that besides going to the hospital, so that’s what I did.

Of course, I do enjoy being a participant-observer in a medical anthropology experience. I arrived at 11:30 and struggled to figure out what to do. I followed some other people who had just entered to a triage station, where the nurse explained I should have gone to the local clinic, and I explained why I couldn’t (no local referral). I then went to the registrar, who didn’t care that I forgot my passport, and had me write down my name and address and pay 10€. It was all a bit run-down, but I’ve been in worse. Then I sat and waited. The wait was ok, as I’d brought lunch, snacks, tea, and my laptop, and there was even WiFi. Occasionally a name was called. Sometimes people would get up and go in without their name being called. At 4, I was called in. The doctor took me behind a curtain on the triage room, where other people were being seen to, and listened to my lungs. She asked if I smoke. When I said I didn’t, she made a face of grave concern, handed me a pink form, and said “go to x-ray.” I followed the signs and found the radiology department completely abandoned and shuttered. There wasn’t even anyone to ask if the radiologists were on break. I sat down and texted my supervisor, Xenia, who at that point had finished teaching, and she said she’d come see what was going on. When she arrived, it turns out there was another queue for regular x-rays and I had been in the wrong place. The radiologist took me and another woman into the x-ray room together and then sent us into individual changing rooms. I came out first, so I got the first x-ray. The radiologist asked if I was pregnant, I nodded no, and he took the shot. Five minutes later we walked into the treatment area, where the doctor looked at the chest x-ray and sent me into a cubicle to get a steroid inhaler. The trainee nurse chatted with Xenia in Greek, and we got to peek out at other people’s x-rays in a hugely HIPA-violating but fascinating glimpse into Friday’s set of injuries: a broken hip, a broken finger, a chest mass. After about 20 minutes, Xenia went out to find what was going on and called me over to the desk. The doctor wrote declared “bronchitis” and me a prescription for amoxicillin, which I filled at a local pharmacy. This was probably the easiest experience I’ve had at a foreign hospital despite not knowing what to do – in fact, I’ve had more difficult times in the UK. [However, it’s now 3 weeks later and I’m still coughing.]

The final few days both Xenia and I were totally overworked and alternated taking days off. This was the first year the Advanced course had run, so we were still figuring things out. Her lecture on medical implants was really fascinating, as my experience with human remains stops in a period long before surgery for hip replacements was possible. The final day was the exam, consisting of a multiple-choice portion and a bone portion, where students had to identify a diagnostic category for bones with pathological formations. I also got to stretch my exam-writing skills; I hate trick questions and lack of clarity, but I fear I often go overboard on this and make them too easy. One student pointed out a typo (the shame!), but to be fair the editing process was rather brief. I flew out the evening after the exam with the worst sinus pain of my life. While clutching my ears during the descent, the pilot announced over the intercom “There is a state of emergency…” and everyone looked up in panic and I struggled to clear my ears to hear more. I feared we were going to be flying into a new war zone or terrorist incident. We were already over Britain! “Excuse me, a state of emergency has been declared in Greece due to the wildfires, and the flight attendants will be collecting donations.” We all breathed a collective sigh of relief and the usual British silence between seatmates was broken as we all agreed the pilot’s phrasing was particularly poor.

I’m going back next year to teach the field school again, but hoping to not get sick again!



A History of Legs in 5 Objects

Originally posted April 11, 2017 on the Student Engager blog.

My research focuses on the tibia, the largest bone in the lower leg. You probably know it as the shin bone, or the one that makes frequent contact with your coffee table resulting in lots of yelling and hopping around; that’s why footballers often wear shinguards. The intense pain is because the front of the tibia is a sharp crest that sits directly beneath the skin. There are a lot of leg-related objects in UCL Museums, so here’s a whirlwind tour of a few of them!

One of the few places you can see a human tibia is the Petrie’s pot burial. This skeleton from the site of Badari in Egypt has rather long tibiae, indicating that the individual was quite tall. The last estimation of his height was made in 1985, probably using regression equations based on the lengths of the tibia and femur (thigh bone): these indicated that he was almost 2 meters tall. However, the equations used in the 80s were based on a paper from 1958, which used bone lengths from Americans who died in the Korean War. There are two problems that we now know of with this calculation: height is related to genetics and diet, and different populations have differing limb length ratios.

Pot burial from Hemamieh, near the village of Badari UC14856-8

Pot burial from Hemamieh, near the village of Badari (UC4856-8).

The Americans born in the 1930s-40s had a vastly different diet from predynastic Egyptians, and the formulae were developed for (and thus work best when testing) white Americans. This is where limb length ratios come into play. Some people have short torsos and long legs, while others have long legs and short torsos. East Africans tend to have long legs and short torsos, and an equation developed for the inverse would result in a height much taller than he actually was! Another thing to notice is the cartilage around the knee joint. At this point in time, the Egyptians didn’t practice artificial mummification – but the dry conditions of the desert preserved some soft tissue in a process called natural mummification. Thus you can see the ligaments and muscles connecting the tibia to the patella (knee cap) and femur.

The Petrie also has a collection of ancient shoes and sandals. I think the sandals are fascinating because they show a design that has obviously been perfected: the flip flop. One of my favorites is an Amarna-period child’s woven reed sandal featuring two straps which meet at a toe thong. The flip flop is a utilitarian design, ideal for keeping the foot cool in the heat and protecting the sole of the foot from sharp objects and hot ground surfaces. These are actually some of the earliest attested flip flops in the world, making their appearance in the 18thDynasty (around 1300 BCE).

An Egyptian flip-flop. UC769.

An ancient Egyptian flip-flop (UC769).


Another shoe, this time from the site of Hawara, is a closed-toe right leather shoe. Dating to the Roman period, this shows that flip flops were not the only kind of shoe worn in Egypt. This shoe has evidence of wear and even has some mud on the sole from the last time it was worn.  This shoe could have been worn with knit wool socks, one of which has been preserved. However, the Petrie Collection’s sock has a separate big toe, potentially indicating that ancient Egyptians did not have a problem wearing socks and sandals together, a trend abhorrent to modern followers of fashion (except to fans of Birkenstocks).


Ancient Egyptian shoe (UC28271) and sock (UC16767.

Ancient Egyptian shoe (UC28271).


sock UC16767

Ancient Egyptian sock (UC16767).

The Grant Museum contains a huge number of legs, but only one set belonging to a human. For instructive purposes, I prefer to show visitors the tibiae of the tiger (Panthera tigris) on display in the southwest corner of the museum. These tibiae show a pronounced muscle attachment on the rear side where the soleus muscle connects to the bone. In bioarchaeology, we score this attachment on a scale of 1-5, where 5 indicates a really robust attachment. The more robust  – attachment, the bigger the muscle; this means that either the individual had more testosterone, which increases muscle size, or they performed a large amount of activity using that muscle. (We wouldn’t score this one because it doesn’t belong to a human.) In humans, this could be walking, running, jumping, or squatting. Practice doing some of these to increase your soleal line attachment site!

The posterior tibia of a tiger.

The tibia of a tiger.

Moving to the Art Museum, we can see legs from an aesthetic rather than practical perspective. A statue featuring an interesting leg posture the legs is “Spinario or Boy With Thorn”, a bronze statue produced by Sabatino de Angelis & Fils of Naples in the 19th century. It is a copy of a famous Greco-Roman bronze, one of very few that has not been lost (bronze was frequently melted down and reused). The position of the boy is rather interesting: he is seated with one foot on the ground and the opposite foot on his knee as he examines his sole to remove a thorn. This is a very human position, and shows the versatility of the joints of the hip, knee, and ankle. The hip is adducted and outwardly rotated, the knee is flexed, and the ankle is everted. It’s rare for the leg to be shown in such a bent position in art, as statues usually depict humans standing or walking.

Spinario, or Boy With Thorn.

Spinario, or Boy With Thorn.

Bipedalism, or walking on two legs, is one of the traits we associate with being human. It’s rare in the animal world. Hopefully next time you look at a statue, slip on your flip flops, or go for a jog, you’ll think of all the work your tibiae are doing for you – and keep them out of the way of the coffee table.

(OK, I know that was six objects… but imagine the sock inside the shoe!)


Sports in the Ancient World

Originally published on Student Engagers on January 24, 2017.

I’ve written previously here about the antiquity of running, which was one of the original sports at the ancient Greek Olympics, along with javelin, archery, and jumping. These games started around 776 BC in the town of Olympia. What came before, though? What other evidence do we have of ancient sports?

Running is probably the most ancient sport; it requires no gear (no matter how much shoe companies make you think you need it) and the distances are easily set: to that tree and back, to that mountain and back. Research into the origins of human locomotion focus on changes to the foot, which needed to change from arboreal gripping to bipedal running and bearing the full weight of the body. A fossil foot of Ardipithecus ramidus, a hominin which lived 4.4 million years ago, features a stiffened midfoot and flexible toes capable of being extended to help push off at the end of a stance, but has the short big toe typical of great apes. Australopithecus sediba, which lived only 2 million years ago, had an arched foot like modern humans (at least not the flat-footed ones) but an ankle that turned inwards like apes. Clearly our feet didn’t evolve all the features of bipedal running at once, but rather at various intervals over the past 4-5 millennia. Evidence of ancient humans’ distance running is equally ancient, as I wrote about previously. Researchers Bramble & Lieberman have posed the question “Why would early Homo run long distances when walking is easier, safer and less costly?” They posit that endurance running was key to obtaining the fatty tissue from meat, marrow, and brain necessary to fuel our absurdly large brains – thus linking long-distance running with improved cognition. In a similar vein, research into the neuroscience of running has found that it boosts mood, clarifies thinking, and decreases stress.

Feats of athleticism in ancient times were frequently dedicated to gods. Long before the Greek games, the Egyptians were running races at the sed-festival dedicated to the fertility god Min. A limestone wall block at the Petrie depicts King Senusret (1971 BCE) racing with an oar and hepet-tool. The Olympic Games, too, were originally dedicated to the gods of Olympus, but it appears that as time went on, they became corrupted by emphasizing the individual heroic athletes and even allowed commoners to compete. There were four races in the original Olympics: the stade (192m), 2 stades, 7-24 stades, and 2-4 stades in full hoplite armor. It should be mentioned that serious long-distance running, like the modern marathon, was not a part of the ancient games. The story of Pheidippides running from the battlefield at Marathon to announce the Greek victory in Athens is most likely fictional, although the first modern marathon in 1896 traced that 25-mile route. The modern distance of just over 26 miles was set at the 1908 London Olympics, when the route was lengthened to go past Buckingham Palace.


Limestone wall-block showing King Senusret I running the sed-festival race before the god Min. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Wrestling might be equally ancient. It’s basically a form of play-fighting with rules (or without rules, depending on the type – compare judo to Greco-Roman to WWF), and play-fighting can be seen not only in human children but in a variety of mammal species. In Olympic wrestling, the goal was to get one’s opponent to the ground without biting or grabbing genitals, but breaking their fingers and dislocating bones were valid. Some archaeologists have tried to attribute Nubian bone shape – the basis of my thesis – on wrestling, for which they were famed. Another limestone relief in the Petrie shows two men wrestling in loincloths. Boxing is a similar fighting contest; original Olympic boxing required two men to fight until one was unconscious. Pankration brutally combined wrestling and boxing, but helpfully forbid eye-gouging. It may be possible to identify ancient boxers bioarchaeologically by examining patterns of nonlethal injuries. Some of these are depressions in the cranial vault (particularly towards the front and the left, presuming mostly right-handed opponents), facial fractures, nasal fractures, traumatic tooth loss, and fractures of the bones of the hand.


Crude limestone group depicting two men wrestling. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Spear or javelin throwing has also been attested in antiquity. Although we have evidence of predynastic flint points and dynastic iron spear tips, it’s unclear whether these were used for sport (how far one can throw) or for hunting. Actually, it’s unclear how the two became separate. Hunting was (and continues to be) a major sport – although not one with a clear winner as in racing or wrestling – and the only difference is that in javelin the target isn’t moving (or alive). In the past few years, research has been conducted into the antiquity of spear throwing. One study argues that Neanderthals had asymmetrical upper arm bones – the right was larger due to the muscular activity involved in repeatedly throwing a spear. Another study used electromyography of various activities to reject the spear-thrusting hypothesis, arguing that that the right arm was larger in the specific dimensions more associated with scraping hides. Spear throwing is attested bioarchaeologically in much later periods. A particular pathological pattern called “atlatl elbow”: use of a tool to increase spear velocity caused osteoarthritic degeneration of the elbow, but protected the shoulder.


Fragment of a Roman-period copper alloy spearhead. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

A final Olympic sport is chariot racing and riding. Horses were probably only domesticated around 5500 years ago in Eurasia, so horse sports are really quite new compared to running and throwing! It’s likely that horses were originally captured and domesticated for meat at least 1000 years before humans realized they could use them for transportation. The Olympic races were 4.5 miles around the track (without saddles or stirrups, as these developments had not yet reached Greece), and the chariot races were 9 miles with either 2 or 4 horses. Bioarchaeologists have noted signs of horseback riding around the ancient world – signs include degenerative changes to the vertebrae and pelvis from bouncing as well as enlargement of the hip socket (acetabulum) and increased contact area between the femur and pelvis from when they rub together. In all cases, more males than females had these changes, indicating that it was more common for men to ride horses.

Of course, there are many more sports that existed in the ancient world – other fighting games including gladiatorial combat, ritualized warfare, and games with balls and sticks (including the Mayan basketball-esque game purportedly played with human skulls). Often games were dedicated to gods, or resulted in the death of the loser(s). However, many of these, explored bioarchaeologically, would result in similar musculoskeletal changes and injury patterns discussed above. Many games have probably been lost to history. Considering the vast span of human activity, it’s likely sports of some kind have always existed, from the earliest foot races to the modern Olympic spectacle.


Limestone ball from a game. Courtesy Petrie Museum.


Bramble, D.M. and Lieberman, D.E. 2004. Endurance running and the evolution of Homo. Nature 432(7015), pp. 345–352.

Carroll, S.C. 1988. Wrestling in Ancient Nubia. Journal of sport history 15(2), pp. 121–137. Available at:

Larsen, C.S. 2015. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behavior from the Human Skeleton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lieberman, D.E. 2012. Those feet in ancient times. Nature 483, pp. 550–551.

Martin, D.L. and Frayer, D.W. eds. 1997. Troubled Times: Violence and Warfare in the Past. illustrated. Psychology Press.

Perrottet, T. 2004. The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games. Random House Publishing Group.



December 16 Link Roundup

This post explores the ubiquitous BRAAAM sound heard on soundtracks everywhere since Inception. I particularly like that the author asks my favorite question about the change in movie soundtracks from the classical model to the Hans Zimmer model – “Is it a good thing or a bad thing?” – realizing that there isn’t really an answer, at least not a nostalgia-filled pretentious one.

Kennewick Man/the Ancient One is going to be returned to the Washington State Dept of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, which has plans to return him to the Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Perce, and Colville tribes for reburial. The case of who has the right to use Kennewick Man’s bones has been going on since 1996.

Nike has launched a project to get top athletes to run a sub-2 hour marathon. Currently the world record (for men) is 2:02:57 (it’s 2:15:25 for women, FYI). My record is 4:29:15. I’m rather jealous of the author’s time at his first half-marathon attempt (1:41). As my best after three is 1:58, I completely blame it on height; I need to move my tiny legs much faster than the author at 6’5.

Last week, Digging For Britain Series 5 (featuring Alice Roberts) aired on BBC4. I was the osteology consultant, responsible for laying out the skeletons brought in by archaeologists from around the country. Here are some screenshots of my work with a skeleton from the Merlin’s Cave site, Wye Valley, Herefordshire:

November 25 Link Roundup

I wrote a post for the QMUL History of Emotions blog for #NormativityNovember on archaeological racism.

Bess Lovejoy explores the history of medical cannibalism in Europe. (Note that it’s cannibalism and not cannabis.) I’m interested in learning more about this, because as far as I know, the idea of bodily integrity and the soul in medieval/early modern Europe was such that the strongest argument against blood transfusions was that the recipient would inherit the soul of the donor, and autopsies/dissections were not acceptable as they were desecrating the body. Thoughts?

Today is Buy Nothing Day! Traditionally know as Black Friday, Buy Nothing day is a time to opt out of consumerism. Consider giving homemade gifts, items from local shops or artists, or (gasp) no gifts at all. Even better, why not send a donation to any number of charitable organizations? Turns out (as expected) they don’t need your leftovers or used toys, they just need money.

In fact, why not donate to the Standing Rock pipeline protesters?


Normativity November: Defining the Archaeological Normal

This post is part of QMUL’s Normativity November, a month exploring the concept of the normal in preparation for the exciting Being Human events ‘Emotions and Cancer’ on 22 November and ‘The Museum of the Normal’ on 24 November, and originally appeared on the QMUL History of Emotions Blog on 22 November 2016.

The history of archaeology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries can be read as the history of European men attempting to prove their perceived place in the world. At the time, western Europe had colonized much of the world, dividing up Africa, South America, and Oceania from which they could extract resources to further fund empires. Alongside this global spread was a sincere belief in the superiority of the rule of white men, which had grown from the Darwinian theory of evolution and the subsequent ideas of eugenics advanced by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton: not only were white men the height of evolutionary and cultural progress, they were the epitome of thousands of years of cultural development which was superior to any other world culture. According to their belief, it was inevitable that Europeans should colonize the rest of the world. This was not only the normal way of life, but the only one that made sense.

In modern archaeology, we let the data speak for itself, trying not to impose our own ideas of normality and society onto ancient cultures. One hundred years ago, however, archaeology was used as a tool to prove European superiority and cultural manifest and without the benefit of radiocarbon dating (invented in the 1940s) to identify which culture developed at what time, Victorian and Edwardian archaeologists were free to stratify ancient cultures in a way that supported their framework that most European=most advanced. “European-ness” was defined through craniometry, or the measurement and appearance of skulls, and similar measurements of the limbs. Normality was defined as the average British measurement, and any deviation from this normal immediately identified that individual as part of a lesser race (a term which modern anthropologists find highly problematic, as so much of what was previously called “race” is culture).

In my research into sites in Egypt and Sudan, I’ve encountered two sites that typify this shoehorning of archaeology to fit a Victorian ideal of European superiority. The first is an ancient Egyptian site called Naqada, excavated by Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie in the 1890s. Petrie is considered the founder of modern, methodological archaeology because he invented typology – categorizing objects based on their similarity to each other. As an associate and friend of Galton and others in the eugenics circle, he applied the same principle to categorizing people (it’s likely that his excavations of human remains were requested by Galton to diversify his anthropometric collection). Naqada featured two main types of burials: one where the deceased were laid on their backs (supine) and one where the deceased were curled up on their side (flexed). Petrie called these “Egyptian” and “foreign” types, respectively. The grave goods (hand-made pottery, hairpins, fish-shaped slate palettes) found in the foreign tombs did not resemble any from his previous Egyptian excavations. The skeletons were so markedly different from the Egyptians – round, high skulls of the “Algerian” type, and tall and rugged – that he called them the “New Race”. Similarities, such as the burnt animal offerings found in the New Race tombs, present in Egyptian tombs as symbolic wall paintings, were obviously naïve imitations made by the immigrants. However, the progression of New Race pottery styles pointed to a lengthy stay in Egypt, which confused Petrie. Any protracted stay among the Egyptians must surely have led to trade: why then was there an absence of Egyptian trade goods? His conclusion was that the New Race were invading cannibals from a hot climate who had completely obliterated the local, peaceful Egyptian community between the Old and Middle Kingdoms.

Of course, with the advent of radiocarbon dating and a more discerning approach to cultural change, we now know that Petrie had it backwards. The New Race are actually a pre-Dynastic Egyptian culture (4800-3100 BC), who created permanent urban agricultural settlements after presumably thousands of years of being semi-nomadic alongside smaller agricultural centres. Petrie’s accusation of cannibalism is derived from remarks from Juvenal, a Roman poet writing centuries later. It also shows Petrie’s racism – of course these people from a “hot climate” erased the peaceful Egyptians, whose skulls bear more resemblance to Europeans. In actuality, Egyptian culture as we know it, with pyramids and chariots and mummification, developed from pre-Dynastic culture through very uninteresting centuries-long cultural change. Petrie’s own beliefs about the superiority of Europeans, typified by the Egyptians, allowed him to create a scientific-sounding argument that associated Africans with warlike-invasion halting cultural progression.

The second site in my research is Jebel Moya, located 250 km south of the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, excavated by Sir Henry Wellcome from 1911-1914. The site is a cemetery that appears to be of a nomadic group, dating to the Meroitic period (3rd century BC-4th century AD). The site lacks the pottery indicative of the predominant Meroitic culture, therefore the skulls were used to determine racial affiliation. Meroe was seen as part of the lineage of ancient Egypt – despite being Sudanese, the Meroitic people adopted pyramid-building and other cultural markers inspired by the now-defunct Egyptian civilization. Because many more female skeletons were discovered at this site than male, one early hypothesis was that Jebel Moya was a pagan and “predatory” group that absorbed women from southern Sudanese tribes either by marriage or slavery and that, as Petrie put it, it was “not a source from which anything sprang, whether culture or tribes or customs”. Yet, the skulls don’t show evidence of interbreeding, implying that they weren’t importing women, and later studies showed that many of the supposed female skeletons were actually those of young males. This is another instance of British anthropologists drawing conclusions about the ancient world using their framework of the British normal. If the Jebel Moyans weren’t associating themselves with the majority Egyptianized culture, they must be pagan (never mind that the Egyptians were pagan too!), polygamous, and lacking in any kind of transferrable culture; in addition, they must have come from the south – that is, Africa.

M0019726 Sir Henry Wellcome at the Jebel Moya excavations

Sir Henry Wellcome at the Jebel Moya excavations. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

These sites were prominent excavations at the time, and the skeletons went on to be used in a number of arguments about race and relatedness. We now know – as the Victorian researchers reluctantly admitted – that ruggedness of the limbs is due to activity, and that a better way to examine relatedness is by examining teeth rather than skulls. However, the idea of Europeans as superior, following millennia of culture that sprung from the Egyptians and continued by the Greeks and Romans, was read into every archaeological discovery, bolstering the argument that European superiority was normal. Despite our focus on the scientific method and attempting to keep our beliefs out of our research, I wonder what future archaeologists will find problematic about current archaeology.

Movement Taster – Movement in Premodern Societies

Originally published on Student Engagers on May 14, 2014, to advertise our event Movement.

The following is a taster for the Student Engagers’ Movement event taking place at UCL on Friday 23 May. Stacy, a researcher in Archaeology, will be discussing movement through the lens of biomechanics.

Imagine you’re in the grocery store. You start in the produce section, taking small steps between items. You hover by the bananas, decide you won’t take them, and walk a few steps further for apples, carrots, and cabbage. You then take a longer walk, carefully avoiding the ice cream on your way to the dairy fridge for some milk. You hover, picking out the semi-skimmed and some yogurt, before taking another long walk to the bakery. This pattern repeats until you’re at the checkout.

What you may not realize is that this pattern of stops and starts with long strides in between may be intrinsic to human movement, if not common to many foraging animals. A recent study of the Hadza, a hunting and gathering group in Tanzania, shows that they practice this type of movement known as the Lévy walk (or Lévy flight in birds and bumblebees). It makes sense on a gathering level: you’ve exhausted all your resources in one area, so you move to another locale further afield, then another, before returning to your base. When the Hadza have finished all the resources in an area, they’ll move camp, allowing them to regrow (for us, this is the shelves being restocked). This study links us with the Hadza, and the Hadza with what we can loosely term “ancient humans and their ancestors”.

Diagram of a Levy walk.

Diagram of a Levy walk. Credit Leif Svalgaard.

It’s unsurprising that the Hadza were used to examine the Lévy walk and probabilistic foraging strategies. As they are one of the few remaining hunter-gatherer groups on the planet, they are often used in scientific studies aiming to find out how humans lived, ate, and moved thousands of years ago, before the invention of agriculture. The Hadza have been remarkably amenable to being studied by researchers investigating concepts including female waist-to-hip ratios, the gut microbiome, botanical surveys, and body fat percentage. Tracking their movement around the landscape using GPS units is one of the most ingenious!

Much of the theoretical background to my work is based on human movement around the landscape. The more an individual moves, the more his or her leg bones will adapt to that type of movement. Thus it is important to examine how much movement cultures practicing different subsistence strategies perform. The oft-cited hypothesis is that hunter-gatherers perform the most walking or running activity, and the transition to agriculture decreased movement. An implicit assumption in this is that males, no matter the society, always performed more work requiring mobility than females. This has been upheld in a number of archaeological studies: between the Italian Late Upper Paleolithic and the Italian Neolithic, individuals’ overall femoral strength decreased, but the males decreased more; over the course of the Classical Maya period (350-900 AD), the difference in leg strength between males and females decreased, solely due a reduction in strength of the males. The authors posit that this is due to an economic shift allowing the males to be free from hard physical labour.

However, I take issue with the hypothesis that females always performed less work. The prevailing idea of a hunting man settling down to farm work while the gathering woman retains her adherence to household chores and finding local vegetables is not borne out by the Hadza. First, both Hadza men and women gather. Their resources and methods differ – men gather alone and hunt small game while women and children gather in groups – but another GPS study found that Hadza women walk up to 15 km per day on a gathering excursion (men get up to 18 km). 15 km is not exactly sitting around the camp peeling tubers. Another discrepancy from bone research is the effect of testosterone: given similar levels of activity, a man is likely to build more bone than a woman, leading archaeologists to believe he did more work. Finally, hunting for big game – at least for the Hadza – occurs rarely (about once every 30 hunter-days, according to one researcher) and may be of more social significance than biomechanical, and berries gathered account for as many calories as meat; perhaps we should rethink our nomenclature and call pre-agricultural groups gatherer-gatherers or just foragers.

For a video of Hadza foraging techniques, click here.

For a National Geographic photo article, click here.


Marchi, D. 2008. Relationships between lower limb cross-sectional geometry and mobility: the case of a Neolithic sample from Italy. AJPA 137, 188-200.

Marlowe, FW. 2010. The Hadza: Hunter-Gatherers of Tanzania. Berkeley: Univ. California Press.

O’Connell, J and Hawkes, K. 1998. Grandmothers, gathering, and the evolution of human diets. 14th International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences.

Raichlen, DA, Gordon, AD, AZP Mabulla, FW Marlowe, and H Pontzer. 2014. Evidence of Lévy walk foraging patterns in human hunter–gatherers. PNAS 111:2, 728-733.

Wanner, IS, T Sierra Sosa, KW Alt, and VT Blos. 2007. Lifestyle, occupation, and whole bone morphology of the pre-Hispanic Maya coastal population from Xcambó, Yucatan, Mexico. IJO17, 253-268.

February 19, 2012

Sudan: Update on the dig

After scraping the mound with mattocks numerous times, we have
determined that there are “no more graves”. Well, one more that’s been
cleaned and needs to be recorded and excavated, which will result in
Anna or my going to site and spending two hours working and then six
hours sitting around “looking busy”. But don’t take the lack of
evident graves as an indication that we have exhaustively (however
exhaustingly) excavated the entire cemetery mound: Just because we
don’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not just a little bit deeper, a
little bit more covered by 4000 years of sand. The only way to find
guaranteed 100% of the graves would be to bulldoze the entire thing
and then check what turns up; however, we don’t have the time or
resources to do this, and it’s pretty destructive and thus a poor
archaeological method (although the British show “Time Team” would beg
to differ). As it is, there’s only a couple woman-hours left for the
physical anthropology work, which means most of this week will be
spent in the house, out of the wind, analyzing skeletons. We have 97
total, and a bunch of commingled remains we need to spend the better
part of a day sorting en mass.

Anna and I have done some preliminary analyses with about 2/3 of the
assemblage. (We use the word “assemblage” to describe an
archaeological collection from one site rather than “population”,
which implies a complete and coherent group. We don’t know if these 97
individuals are representative of the population from which they came,
and they definitely aren’t the totality.) While sitting in my tent one
day, hiding from the wind, I made a mortality profile in my notebook –
the way people did it before Excel made things terribly easy – which
shows the amount of dead individuals from each age group. Age is
difficult to estimate from skeletal remains, but there are some
methods we use that are easy to explain. The first is the appearance
of the pubic symphysis, the point where your pubic bones join. As
individuals age, the outline and texture of the join change. Some
researchers claim they can also use this to tell if a female has given
birth, but this is highly questionable. Another method is analyzing
the auricular surface, which is where your sacrum meets your pelvis.
This, too, experiences often-predictable changes with age. We can also
look for certain age-related diseases like osteoarthritis, the
prevalence of which increases with age. For children, we use dental
development, which is a lot more accurate than the methods used for
adults. Teeth form and erupt on a highly predictable schedule, from
milk teeth emerging at 9 months to wisdom teeth at 15-18. We can also
look at fusion of long bones: the middle of the bone grows separately
from the ends and fuses in the early or late teens (growing pains are
the result of the massive growth that takes place in early puberty
before they finally fuse). Since children experience so many changes
over a relatively short time, they are much easier to age, often to
within 12 or 24 months, and teenagers to within 3-4 years. As adults
are more difficult, we assign them to one of three categories: Young
Adult (20-35 years), Middle Adult (35-50 years), and Older Adult

We found that most people in our cemetery assemblage were in the
“Child” and “Young Adult” categories – that is, most people in Kerma
times in this area died when they were 3-7 years old or 20-35. Fewer
people died in the range of 8-16, which is expected since that’s a
pretty healthy time: your immune system is fully developed and you’re
no longer susceptible to fatal childhood illnesses, and girls aren’t
exposed to the dangers of childbirth nor boys to hunting/farming/war
accidents. There were few people dying in the 35-50 group, probably
because they barely squeaked to 35; only one female was over 50, and
she was decked out in over 600 beads. When we analyzed the children
separately, we found that 0-5 was the most dangerous time, with over
half of child deaths occurring then. A mortality curve I made shows
that 83% of infants born into this assemblage could expect to survive
to their first birthday, then 50% to their second, 20% to their third,
down to 4% to their fifth. (However, it should be noted that we often
give ages like “2-3” or “3-5” and have only found two infants under 1
year, so the curve might be overestimating.) These figures fit
perfectly with what one should expect to see in any cemetery anywhere
in the world before 1850, which pleases me and Anna because it implies
we’ve done a pretty good job at determining age. (Sanitation,
pasteurization, and improvements in medicine in the early 19th century
drastically reduced child mortality. With antibiotics in the mid-20th
century, young adult mortality declined as well.) So, if your Kerma
kid made it to 5 years old, he or she could expect to live another 30
years or so, unless they were very lucky. That’s just the way it was.


Anyway, back to modern times. Yesterday we started packing up the
skeletons into boxes for transport. We pad the boxes with cotton from
old mattresses and then put in the bags of skeletons, with more
padding on the top and sides. We also try to leave air in the bags so
they’re a little cushioned, and always pack them with heavy legs on
the bottom and fragile skulls and teeth at the top. These will be
driven down to the Khartoum National Museum, where we will pack them
into metal trunks and send them air freight back to London. We are
also keeping lists of which skeleton goes into which box so we’ll know
if any disappear en route. Our final week here will be spent packing
up artifacts, counting beads, and closing up the house; we will
probably drive to Khartoum next Monday so we can have a day to unpack
and repack and another day to go to the souk (market) and the museum.
I’m saying now that nobody reading this is receiving any presents from
Sudan as there’s really nothing to buy, but you can will see the
wonderful pictures that my friends have taken, since I lost my
American adapter and my battery died. C’est la vie.

February 12, 2012

Sudan: Everybody’s got something to hide ‘cept for me and my donkey

Like in Cairo, the streets here are disproportionately filled with the
same type of car. In this region of Sudan, there are three forms of
transportation that make up 90% of the private vehicles on the road.
The first is the Toyota Hilux, a white pickup truck with orange and
yellow stripes along each side. I don’t know if these models are
actually from the 1980s or if they have just been casting the same
1980s design for the last 30 years, but they all look like something
from Footloose. The Toyota Hilux can be rigged up in a number of ways:
I’ve seen it loaded with crops, filled with people sitting in the bed,
and tricked out with benches and a cover for use as a professional
minibus. (Apparently it’s mildly inappropriate for strange men and
women to sit together, so men take one side and women take the other –
but I’ve seen exceptions.) The Hilux is mainly used on back roads and
out in the desert, generally for farm work. The second vehicle, more
for family use, is the Kia Vista. It’s a small, roundish sedan from
the 2000s available in many metallic colors – green, silver, pink,
blue – and generally filled with all the family’s children. The Vista
is not as common in the village as the Hilux, but Dongola is
absolutely filled with them. It’s also trendy to attach window decals
all over. These tend to be the kind that you get from gumball vending
machines in the US, with winking smiley faces and flags and hip
slogans, except that none of them make sense. The car owned by the
house katty-corner to us has “YOU CAN SEE ME” stuck underneath a hand
in an OK sign. Looney Tunes characters – in full color or in outline –
are incredibly popular.

But the main method of transport around here is (duh duh duh) the donkey.

That’s right.

The donkey.

I bet most people reading this have never seen a donkey up close. Let
me tell you a midrash (a Jewish explanatory tale) about the creation
of the donkey. So, God is handing out features to all the animals in
Eden, right? And he has a few sets of hoofed legs. “The skinny ones go
to the cow,” he says, “because they need all their fat up top. And the
muscular ones go to the horse, so they can run beautifully. And the
short ones go to the goat, so they can scrabble across rocks. And… I
guess I have these kinda knobbly guys left. Donkey, I guess.”
And God is handing out tails: “This long and elegant one goes to the
horse… the prehensile striped one to the lemur… the waggly one to the
dog… and hey, here’s one that’s a combination of a cat and a horse, I
guess donkey can have it.”
And God is handing out noises: “The hyena has to scare people away at
night, so I’ll give them a cackle. The cat needs a bunch of noises, to
signal happiness and contentment and displeasure. And I have this one,
a combination of an asthma attack, a choke, and someone standing on
your toe… donkey’s all that’s left.”
And when Adam was called to review all his animals, he figured the donkey was enough like a horse that he could ride it. Except that its
back was slightly too wide to ride comfortably, so he had to sit
sidesaddle, and when it walked it bounced too much, and when it ran it
didn’t bounce enough. And God had forgotten to tell Adam that he had
had too much stubbornness left over after creation and he just dumped
it all on the donkey. “Aw, man,” said Adam. “AUUUUUgghhuuUUUUUggghh,”
said the donkey.
I hope I have fully conveyed that the donkey is the most awkward,
weird, annoying animal ever. Every night a donkey across the street
(whom we’ve named Bernie) has some sort of fit that sounds like an
asthmatic kid on a roller coaster. It’s awkward to see someone riding
a donkey, because they have to sit not-quite-sidesaddle, but just kind
of hanging off. The donkeys come in two colors: a nice silver coat
that hides the dirt, and a white coat that shows the dirt. When
donkeys aren’t being ridden directly, they are used to pull
two-wheeled carts. These can be loaded up with produce or boxes or
used to seat up to eight people. They go very slowly and have a wide
turning radius, so it’s annoying to get stuck behind them on the road.
They also park at odd angles, taking up valuable pedestrian space.

Our inspector grew up on a farm in the Nuba mountains, and he told us
a story about his childhood: one day, he was asked to go out with the
donkey cart to fetch something. Halfway through, the donkey just
stopped. He yelled and pleaded and hit and it just refused. So he sat
down and started to cry. I don’t know how much this impacted his
decision to become a geologist, but it sounds like a good enough
reason to say, “I’m choosing a career with no donkeys in it.”

I actually got to pet a donkey today, and they have one thing going
for them: incredibly soft ears. However, seeing the ears makes me
think of the scary part in the Disney version of Pinocchio. So there.
All bad.

There are also camels, but these aren’t used for human transport.
People often walk alongside camels loaded with crops, or lead them
while riding a donkey. Apparently there are nomads out in the desert,
but they drive Hiluxes rather than ride camels; I’ve heard that they
still raise camels, though, and often transport them in the bed of the

Between private and public transport are hired cars, used exclusively
by tourists (yup! There are tourists in Sudan); this is a big
Mitsubishi pickup truck, also with yellow and orange stripes. I have
often stated that it’s a Western misconception that one needs a big
car made specifically for off-roading in order to go off-road. I’ve
seen Peruvian bus drivers make turns on dirt roads you wouldn’t
believe, and we certainly went off-road at the pyramids in an old
taxi. While the locals seem to have no trouble crossing the desert in
a Hilux, tourists with hired drivers prefer the souped-up Mitsubishis
with raised wheels and tinted windows. Some excavation teams use these.

As with private vehicles, there are three types of public transport.
First, the taxis. They are all Hyundai Ataz, a car that looks
strikingly similar to the Kia Vista, all painted green. I have not
been in a taxi yet, but I doubt they exceed the quality I experienced
in Cairo (fuzzy dashboard cover included). The taxi drivers are
particularly fond of window decals.

Second, there are the large inter-city buses. Drivers in Sudan usually
go very slowly, which makes up for their overall lack of skill; the
buses are the sole exception, as they speed along at over 100 km/h,
leaving trails of dust to blind anyone following too closely. The
buses are European-style (puppy-dog mirrors instead of elbow mirrors),
but – once again – covered in window decals. We stopped for gas once,
and I was able to observe a bus up close that was covered in Tweety
Bird and tribal design stickers. I’ve heard the buses are quite
comfortable, offering tea and a little cake at least once per journey;
they stop at little shacks in the desert for toilet breaks, which are
only appropriate for men to take. Apparently the Dongola-Khartoum bus
stops in a town with a “not terribly disgusting” women’s toilet. Good
thing I’m not taking the bus.

Third, there are moto-rickshaws. These are absolutely everywhere. The
driver sits in front with a scooter-style steering wheel, and the back
takes up to three passengers; however, the driver may compromise and
take a fourth in the front. They have no doors or windows on the sides
(only on the back, so they can put stickers on them). Today I was the
fourth, and rode about three kilometers half hanging out the side,
clinging on for dear life. They are also by far the most tricked out
of all vehicles here, with decals out the wazoo, foot straps and
handlebars hanging off the sides, tassels everywhere, and – best of
all – some have spikes coming out of each wheel. That’s right: spikes
coming out of each wheel. Clearly there is some late-night rickshaw
drag racing we are not privy to as tourists.

What do we drive, you ask? Well, to accommodate all of us, fourteen
workers, and the equipment, we have two white Land Rovers. The Land
Rover, I’m told, is a “good British car” invented just for this
purpose. I mean driving on uneven and rough terrain, not administering
colonies (although at one point these activities were one and the
same). They were bought new in England but couldn’t be shipped to
Sudan due to the embargo on shipping new cars that can be used for
military purposes, so they were dismantled, fitted an old chassis that
can support a tank, and rebuilt from the ground up: hence, no longer
new Land Rovers. The interior is a car stripped to its bare minimum:
instead of air conditioning, a lever opens a flap to the outside, and
I believe the interiors can be hosed out. They have enormous tires
that still burst quite frequently, and so I have learned to change a
tire here. It’s easier than I expected, but really annoying when you’re smack in the middle of the desert with no shade.

Speaking of the desert, I haven’t mentioned yet that people often get
around in humanity’s oldest way – on foot. I was once on a beach in Crete
when a Pakistani man started chatting up our gang. I asked how he came
to Greece, and he said that he had walked. “You walked?” I asked
incredulously. “Yes,” he said, “I walked to Turkey and then I took a
boat.” That was one of those  moments of incredible realization for
me. When people want things badly enough (in this case, to get out of
Pakistan), they just do it. Walk to Turkey? Sure. There was a big
debate in December about African illegal immigrants to Israel, mostly
from Sudan. How did they get to Israel? They walked. Across the big
desert. Compare that to my recent situation, when I was about 800
meters from the car, across a big plain of sand, and thought I was
going to pass out 300 meters in. Or walking back from the toilet bush
to the site, which is a short 200m, but I found that it’s so hot and
desolate that if I don’t keep my eyes on the site the entire time, I
end up going the wrong way, or in a circle, and when I get there I
take a long sip of water. There are also mirages, which are an awesome
trick of the light in which the sand ahead appears to be a
constantly-receding pool of water, reflecting anything behind it: a
lone palm becomes a beautiful grove.

People walk like this every day.

I am so spoiled by a civilization with cars.

We were driving home one day when we came across a hitchhiker. It’s
quite common and safe to hitchhike here, at least for men (women have
less need to go long distances without accompaniment), and we stopped
and offered him a ride. He looked in the backseat and saw it was full,
looked in the back of the car and saw it was almost full, and asked
where we were going. Here we are, in the middle of the desert, with
only one set of tracks, at least 2 km from anything green, and he
wants to know where we’re going? We all pointed to the tracks ahead.
He shook his head – no, I’m going the other way. I’ll wait for another
car. Since then, we’ve actually seen more people walking across the
desert, the best being two women in a pink and an orange tobe, with
all the extra cloth fanning out behind them.

Now a short update: we have excavated 83 burials, and only have two
more to go! However, this doesn’t mean I’ll get to come home early, as
we still have to process and pack all the bones, and then help finish
up all the other work. This means that I’ll probably be helping Ruth
count beads into the next millennium. I can’t believe how many there
are. One burial I excavated had 268 beads just from a necklace. If
anybody wants to do an experiment, buy some seed beads from Michael’s
and string 268 together. Then tell me how long it is, as we’re anxious
to see! (These are too delicate to restring.) I also found a big, chunky bead carved from red carnelian and a lip plug made of wood or
ivory. The best, though, is to find beads in situ around the wrists or
ankles, so you can imagine how the string would have looked. It’s
lovely to be reminded that these are real people we’re digging up,
individuals who wore beautiful jewelry into the grave.

January 11, 2012

Sudan: the workmen (and others)

UPDATE: We have now excavated 50 graves!

At the beginning of the season (three weeks ago), the director hired
14 workmen. Every day 14 workmen arrive. These are not, however, the
same ones we started with. Workers here look at a job as sort of a
family post – if you can’t come, send your younger brother. This is
completely antithetical to Western work habits: you might be perfectly
qualified for your job as a  Digging Technician, but no way would your
financial analyst brother be qualified to tell a human
bone from a rock. But that’s not how it works in Sudan, at least in
the villages. If you can’t plow your field because you have to take
your donkey to market, of course your brother can do it! Although they
were told not to send substitutes more than one or two times in the
season, they already have done so many times – all you have to do is
dig holes, right? I have more important things to do!

This is not to say that they’re just slacking off for the sake of it.
Nasser and Salla haven’t been in all week because they’re helping
Salla’s brother Ezu build an addition to his shop. I learned since
writing the last entry that although some of them do go to the mosque
on Fridays, some do catch-up work on their farms. We were also told
that they “take unnecessary breaks, spend too long in the toilet [that
is, behind a bush], and take too long carrying sand away.” I haven’t
found these to be true; when your job is to dig holes 8 hours a day,
it’s nice to walk eeeeeextra slowly to the toilet, enjoying standing
upright for a bit. I know I do it after being crouched in a hole. They
are actually very conscientious and friendly and enjoy being helpful –
they don’t treat the job as a drudgery. (Maybe it helps that it’s
different what they do the rest of the year, and also get a nice
salary – there isn’t really a “salary” in farm work, so it’s a bunch
of extra cash.)

I don’t know everyone’s names since they keep switching out, but here are a few:
Omda – everyone’s favorite since he’s really patient and excellent at
cleaning bones. Really, I wish I had his skills. He’s pretty young,
maybe early 20s, and has been on site every day; it’s likely he’s the
youngest in his family. He listens to music on his cellphone with a
shared pair of headphones, which inspired me to bring my ipod out. He
also has ridiculously prehensile toes, managing to grab things out of
deep trenches without using the ladder. Everyone knows he’s the
favorite and the other men sometimes call him Omda Habibi.

Said – Omda-in-training. He told us he was twenty, but can’t be more
than 17. He’s quite good at cleaning bones and often gets his own tent
to work in. We pointed out all the skeleton parts, and he corrected me
the other day. In my defense, he was right in the hole and I was six
feet away.

Walid – This is actually his second income; his other job is as one of
the “tourist police” at Kawa, the biggest archaeological site in the
area. I’m not sure who guards it while he’s with us.Since he’s sort of
in charge of things, he’s the only one allowed to answer his cellphone
on site. He’s 26 and very sweet: he sees that we don’t get paid every
Thursday, and actually offers us his salary. We tried to explain that
we are paid at the end, but he still tries since we just sit around
while everyone else is counting their bills. To site, he wears
trousers and a collared shirt under a blue wool overcoat and faux
snakeskin loafers. Walid is very loud, and likes to sing and listen to
Akon on his phone in the car; he can often be heard shouting across
the site, typically “aybu igri!” which is Nubian for “I am weeping!” –
sarcastically, of course, since he’s usually lying on the ground
helping Anna move handfuls of dirt from the deep pit or relaxing in an
empty wheelbarrow.

Abdul Azim – Possibly the oldest of the lot, he may be in his 60s. He
was clearly very handsome in his youth, and commands the respect of
the younger guys. He always gets the window seat in the car.

Nasser – A lovely gentleman in his 30s. He speaks English shyly and
apparently reads English books. I was told that everyone learns
English in school (and everyone goes to school from age 6-13) but that
he really works at it. He wears a talit as a scarf, which I’ve been
told people here like because of the pattern (and are unaware of its
significance). He is kind and helpful and quiet but unfortunately has
been off building Ezu’s store for the last week.

Yasser – I wish I could write a Goofus & Gallant about Nasser and
Yasser. Yasser is without a doubt the most annoying human being on
earth. While everyone else wears white galabiyas or men’s work
clothes, he wears pink women’s sweatpants and a towel as a scarf. He
never works when told, and when he decides to work he messes things
up. He is incredibly loud and will sing off-key all day. When we asked
the director why he hires him year after year despite his obvious
ineptitude, he answered, “Well, he’s consistent, and he plays the
drums at the party. You can’t fire the drummer.” All bands ever beg to

Saddam – A young guy who speaks a little English. He’s one of the
substitutes, and is only interesting because he comes on the same days

Gaddafi – To complete the Arab Leaders quad. He speaks English a
little bit, but manages to effectively communicate considering our poor Arabic skills. When I was in the
tent he was emptying my bags of sand, and he said, “In here I not see
you. If need me, telephone,” indicating that I should call for him.

Shekadin – The village’s mechanic. Appropriately, he wears his
mechanic’s jumpsuit every day and helped with the numerous punctures (flat tires)
we’ve had.

Back at the house, we have a few women who come to wash dishes twice
daily. I know one is Safa, who is looking for a foreign husband and is
consistently disappointed by our all-female troupe, and one is her
mother; I haven’t caught the names of the other two. They come dressed
in bright floral tobes and sit on a low stool to scrub the plates and
pots (with soap! I found the soap! It exists!)

Mohammed, our cook, owns a restaurant in Karima, which is south of
here. Cooking is usually the role of women, but I guess it’s ok since
he’s paid. He’s quite good, although the food here is generally
would-you-like-some-oil-with-your-oil? Since yesterday we’ve had
pumpkin stew, rigla (lentils with local untranslatable herbs), lentil
soup, and potato and pea curry. He also makes really good falafel,
which are called tami’a here.

Next time: Speaking Arabic, mostly in hand gestures