Sampling in Kurdistan

June 13, 2012

They lied when they promised me soft sediments below the water table and temperatures in the low twenties. What I got was dessicated and compacted clays and was made to work in the midday sun and temperatures between 35-40 degrees without the protection of even the tiniest scrap of shade.

The place was a valley south of Sulaimaniyah, at the base of the Zagros Mountains in Kurdish Iraq whence apparently 95 percent of British people originate. Quite where the remaining 5 percent come from remains unclear.

The party I joined was an eclectic group of archaeologists, mainly from the University College London, and comprised 3.9 professors and specialists in different branches of the subject. My mission was to train them in the use of coring equipment which Van Walt had supplied and the idea was to drill to the interface of the Holocene and Pleistocene periods. Their interest was in the former epoch.

Sounds simple? Yeah… the clays were hard, dry and impermeable and regularly transversed by thinner or thicker layers of gravels. Yet the equipment did well and so did the people; particularly Arlene, Mark and dear Omar; the strong man of the region, notorious for having crossed the Zagros mountain range from Iran into Kurdistan with a fridge on his back. (correction: Omar carried the fridge from Kurdistan to Iran where he sold it during the time of the UN embargo against Iraq). I figured that a man who could accomplish this feat could be trusted to carry me with relative safety to his home on the back of his rickety motor bike. This, despite Karen’s prediction that I was far more likely to be killed by this activity than the snakes. He’ll never read this of course but I was very grateful to him for his strength and generosity.

Living with a dozen academics was interesting. There was much laughter and you can guess at the topics of conversation. These people live for archaeology and are fanatical in their quest for knowledge. Sleeping in a single room with four other men and in a house with just one loo and one shower gives you a good insight into people and I think we got too know each other pretty well. That the ladies in the team had sheets on their mattresses while I had to swipe the dead flies from the bed before going to sleep was only a slight disillusionment. (correction: Karen says she didn’t have a bed sheet either – or a bed, for that matter!).

I feel very lucky to have been part of this excursion and my thanks go first and foremost to Professor Karen Radner who ordered the equipment and organised the trip, to Professor Arlene Rosen for making sure that I didn’t get dehydrated, Dr Mark Altaweel who was trained so he could train others (and for showing me around the Souk), then to Dorian, David, Eleanor and Rob and last but certainly not least Kamal Rasheed Rahim, our host and Director of the Sulaimaniyah Antiquities Directorate. You were all very kind and supportive and I shall remember the episode with fondness.

Vincent van Walt

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