Meroe, Sudan (2000)

In 2000, the Royal Ontario Museum excavations at Meroe (pronounced ‘may-ro-ay’), under the directorship of Prof. Dr. K.A. Grzymski, were my first in Sudan. I was part of the staff during my doctoral studies (in 2000, 2002, 2003 and 2004), studying the temple of Amun located there. (I wrote my dissertation on Amun temples in Nubia.) It was quite the experience!

Excavations at Meroe in December 2000

6:25 am My Timex goes beep-beep. Half asleep, I grab my watch and set the timer to wake me up five minutes later. Just five more minutes…

6:30 am Beep-beep again. This time, I sit up in my bed. The sun is rising and the birds are starting to sing. Krzys (pronounced Chris), my thesis supervisor, is making tea. Putting on my glasses, I pull the mosquito net from under the mattress and I get up and stretch. The mosquito net comes down, I roll my thin mattress around my pillow and my sleeping back, and I haul my bundle inside my room. Yes, yes… you read correctly. Inside my room. See, I sleep outside in the courtyard because it is too hot inside my bedroom (we all do this). Now, I have to get the bed back inside too. Krzys happens to walk by and seeing me struggle with the angareb (metal bed frame with camel hair strings for the mattress support), he lends me a hand. What can I say? I have a great and very helpful thesis supervisor. I tidy up my room quickly.

6:40 am Bladder needs to be emptied. Better take care of that before the namiti awaken. Those tiny and very, very annoying bugs come out during the day. Their life’s goal is to get into any of your body orifices (eyes, nose, ears) and bite you all over. Indeed, better go to the outhouse now, while is still a bit dark. Afterwards, I run by the water zirs (big ceramic containers that contain our drinking water) and I brush my teeth quickly. There are a few bugs coming out and trying to bite me.

6:45 am Time to dress up. An old cotton T-shirt and a pair of cotton pants will be perfect for the hot temperature of Sudan. There’s a small tear in my pants (got too close to a sharp rock, yesterday), so I duck tape it to prevent the namiti from entering inside my pants. Next, a pair of cotton socks and a pair of wool socks. Shake the steel-toed dig boots to make sure there are no bugs inside and put the boots on. I would hate to find a scorpion in my boot by poking my big toe on its sting! As usual, I put on my blue button-down and my dig hat. Having injured my right wrist playing volleyball a year ago, I now wrap a handkerchief around it for support while I trowel or do a lot of drawings. It’s actually quite stylish… and it actually does prevent my wrist from hurting.

6:55 am With my dig bag slung over my shoulder, my thermos in hand, and two scarves hanging from my neck, I run to the dining room (also called the saloon) to eat breakfast (tea and cookies). I can hear the workmen arriving at the gate and Krzys explaining to them what needs to be done today and what tools to bring from the storage room.

7:00 am Trying to protect myself against the namiti the best I can, I tuck my T-shirt inside the waistband of my trousers and I wrap a scarf around my head and also around my neck. My button-down is buttoned all the way up to the neck, almost choking me. No namiti will get in that way! What drives you nuts about the namiti is the buzzing sound they make when they spend the day flying around you. Most of my head is covered with my scarf and I have put cotton balls in my ears to tune out the buzzing; now I put my hat back on, fold the rim over my ears and attach my other scarf around my head so it covers my face, from just under the eyes to the neck. This, I tuck inside the collar of my button-down. Needless to say, I look like a complete idiot!

7:05 am As I open the door to leave, Krzys walks in with half a palm branch tied into a Statue-of-Liberty-spiky-crown-thingy. He tells me that Abdel-Gelil brought it for me this morning. Indeed, Abdel-Gelil, one of my workmen, knows that I hate namiti and he says that wearing this palm crown on my head will prevent them from getting too close. Apparently, the namiti don’t like the smell of that particular type of palm. Although I am not fully convinced, I wear it anyway. Sometimes it does seem to work… other times, not really. Maybe I am just a very tasty meal for the blasted bugs!

7:10 am Having waved to all the workmen working in Krzys’ square on my way, I reach the Amun Temple where I will be working and greet my workmen (who started working when they saw me coming down the processional avenue of rams). We are clearing the front of the pylon, which is obstructed by spoil heaps of Garstang’s 1910 excavations. I make sure the more experience men actually do the shovelling and the younger ones carry the dirt off with the wheel-barrows. I ask Ibrahim to sift some of the soil once in a while, just to make sure there is nothing in the spoil heap.

7:20 am Abdel Gelil (who is very happy to see that I am wearing my palm crown, which appears to work fairly well this morning) and Birer have already started working inside the temple. We are simply to continue the work: clearing the contour of the wall and finding its foundation. They know what they have to do and they are really good at it. I tell them, in my very poor Arabic, that I will be supervising the other team for a while. They assure me that they will warn me if they find anything…

7:45 am Nothing has been uncovered yet and, as we are removing a spoil heap, I don’t expect anything to come up. The younger boys are singing and racing with the wheelbarrows They are having fun… maybe a bit too much. I tell them to slow down and not to go so near the ram statues… While I am writing in my journal, there is a little breeze and the namiti leave me in peace (they are so small they get carried off in the wind). Faysal comes to see me with a chunk of stone and asks me if I know the word in Arabic. He wants me to practice. Stone in Arabic is haggar.

8:30 am Krzys drops by to see how things are going in the temple. Nothing major happening. We walk around the temple discussing this and that about the architectural plan.

9:12 am Sitting on a rock, I continue making notes on the day’s operation. The boys at the front have just found one sherd of pottery. I need to put it in a labelled bag. Abdel-Gelil wanders over and asks for my trowel. He says he needs it to clear sand away from a stone because there appears to be a line carved on it. He knows it is risky to do that with a shovel or a hoe; one might make a scratch on the stone. Off he goes with my trowel… and as soon as I have finished my label, I follow him.

9:34 am Sitting in the sand (and having previously made sure there were no scorpions around), I observe my two workmen. Abdel-Gelil trowels the sand away from the stone and Birer pushes it even further with a hoe. Indeed, there is a line carved on that stone… Birer borrows one of my brushes and cleans the sand away. This definitely looks like a carved line, not a scratch. Oh, we now have two lines. Many things go through my head… I have an idea of what it might be. Getting up, I tell them to stop and I get closer. “Do you think it is something,” asks Abdel-Gelil. “Yes, I think we have something here…” They smile happily and they squat beside me, watching my every move. With a few rapid and precise movements with my trowel, I have cleared more sand. The two lines can be seen very clearly: I know what that is! I stand up and I explain to them by pointing at my lower leg that we have the carving of a leg seen from the side (in true ancient Egyptian fashion). I tell them to carefully clear the sand while I go check on the others who appear to have slowed down because I wasn’t looking.

10:03 am Back two minutes later, I am now on all fours (wearing my gardener’s knee pads) clearing the sand away so I can see the entire block of sandstone. Thankfully, the sand is really soft, so it goes rather quickly. A few minutes later, not only do I have a leg… I have a foot in front of my eyes. One of the other archaeologists happens to walk inside the temple to see how I was doing. When I tell her to come see my “big foot”, she gives me a puzzled look… However, when she saw the “big foot” she realised it was not a big and furry mythical creature.

10:22 am A few minutes later, I go off to Krzys’ square to tell him about our exciting discovery of a decorated block, which once part of a wall relief that very likely represented the king. He comes over to see it and is quite pleased. So am I. Now we go off to have a second breakfast.

10:30 am Today, our cook prepared some of my favourites: fresh bread, tuna, hard boiled eggs and a crumbled feta-like cheese. I love tuna and cheese, so I make myself some kind of sandwich. A few glasses of orange Tang and a banana finish off the meal. As you can imagine, we have tea as well. Krzys and I spend the last half hour of our break looking for mentions of “Big Foot” in articles and books written by the previous excavators of the site.

11:30 am Back to work. Back to my big foot. There still is a breeze; that makes me happy because I don’t need to cover my face with my scarf. This morning has been a really good morning, archaeologically speaking and namiti-wise. You can imagine that all the workmen all come to see our carved feet and I have to send them back to work, otherwise they will stay there and watch me all day. Eventually, I continue clearing the stone and I’m delighted to find another foot. This one, the right foot, even has the toes and the nails represented in vivid details! How exciting! There used to be a standing figure on the wall here, but now only the feet remain.

12:07 pm My workmen carefully clear and eventually find the foundations. They also widen the trench so I will be able to squeeze in there this afternoon and draw our big feet. In the meantime, I check on my other team and fill out context sheets. The breeze has died and I have to tie my scarf around my face again.

12:53 pm Abdel-Gelil and Birer have finished their work and since there is only 7 minutes left before we wrap it up, I tell them they can stop. They have worked hard today and have done a really good job, they deserve a rest. As they are about to leave, I tell them to stay inside the temple with me until 1:00pm, otherwise the younger ones will want to stop too ! They find this very funny and they tell me I am good leader. We chat in pseudo-Arabic and made-up sign language and onomatopoeia. They think I am hilarious…

1:00 pm Fieldwork is finished for the day. Finally, I can hide from the namiti by staying in the darkness of my room. We leave the temple, making sure we are bringing all the tools with us. Taking leave of my workmen, I retire to my room to rest. Sitting in an old wicker chair, which I have repaired with duct tape, I read a mystery novel to relax a bit before I go off in the field again to draw the feet.

2:00 pm Okay, it is time to return to the temple and draw the feet. I pack my draughting equipment and borrow the portable draughting table from Krzys. Oh! the namiti are back with a vengeance. They are worse then ever before! They swarm around me and buzz like crazy… I set up my rulers and my draughting table. Somehow, I must have set up my metre tapes all wrong because I can’t seem to draw. It’s not working the way I want it and I am getting frustrated. The namiti are driving me bonkers. That surely doesn’t help. Okay, let’s start again. I reorganise the metre tapes and… ah! there we go. That works better… Armed with my pencils and my scaled rulers, I start drawing.

3:00 pm Obviously, because things are working well, it is time to drop everything to go to lunch. Wow, our cook has surpassed himself again! This time we are having mashi: tomatoes, zucchinis and aubergines stuffed with rice and spices. Excellent! We also have lentil stew (I absolutely love lentils) and cucumbers. Dessert consists of home-made fruit salad (mostly bananas, grapefruits and mangoes). Evidently, we finish with sweet tea.

3:45 pm Not quite looking forward to going back to the temple to draw the feet. Those namiti will be the death of me! Do I have a choice? The drawing has to be done today because Krzys will be using the draughting table tomorrow morning. I can’t wait until the namiti are gone, I will be waiting for weeks and weeks…

Taking a deep breath and armed with all the courage I can muster, I go back out in the cloud of namiti. Jeez, it is even worse still! Those are the moments when you want to go back home even in the coldest month of winter… twelve feet of snow would be so great right now if it meant no namiti around.

My rulers and metre tapes are still in place. Quickly, I settle down in the trench with my draughting table and continue to draw. The only parts of my body that are exposed are my hands (I can’t draw with my working gloves on) and my eyes. The namiti don’t seem to like my hands very much, at least not as much as my eyes. What would I give for a pair of ski goggles right now!

And this buzzing noise… Aaaaaarrrrrgggghhhh! Yet, I keep on drawing. My ears are really itchy and my nose is starting to hurt, mostly because I have tied my scarf a little too hard. Ouch! A namiti flew right into my eye! It burns, it hurts, my eye is tearing… I manage to remove the blasted bug from my eye. Blinking furiously, I continue drawing. Hell, I am most certain, cannot possibly be worse than this.

Now, I am itching all over. My ears are burning and I bet they are beet red under that scarf. As the sun is slowing setting, it feels as if the namiti are more numerous and totally enraged. What, they haven’t reach their biting quota for today yet?

5:10 pm Swearing under my breath and now beyond frustrated, I pack my gear. I can’t stand this anymore. This is completely insane! I am being eaten alive… Who cares about the three toes I have left to draw? I will draw them tomorrow morning.

Returning to the dig house, I head straight to the saloon, where I drop everything on the floor and I remove my hat and scarves and button down frantically. Many namiti have been squashed on and in my clothes (disgusting) and some have been caught in the folds of the fabric and are still alive. While I am jumping up and down to dislodge any living namiti from my clothes, and frantically running my fingers through my hair as well, Krzys walks in asking if I was done. A bit sharply, I reply that I had three toes left to draw and I will finish tomorrow morning because the namiti were driving me insane and I was not staying out there one more second. He could have the draughting table at 10am instead of 8am (you can’t draw first thing in the morning because there is not quite enough light).

He wanders off, a bit annoyed that tomorrow’s schedule has been slightly modified, and goes to finish something in his square. A few namiti shouldn’t prevent an archaeologist from doing his or her work.

5:45 pm Not even half an hour later, he is back in the saloon cursing the namiti. Krzys is seriously annoyed that he couldn’t finish what he wanted to do in his square today…and all because of the damned namiti! Noticing that I am there with I told you so sketched all over my face, he gives me a sheepish look. All is forgiven. Hard living and working conditions often put strain on people. This was the worst day for namiti this season. We can’t do anything about it… unfortunately.

6:35 pm My ears are bright red and I was bitten all around my eyes. Yes, the namiti really love me. A shower will do me a lot of good. The sun has set completely, the namiti have finally gone. Sure, they are replaced by the malaria-carrying mosquitoes but at least the mosquitoes don’t swarm by the billions. Holding a candle, I wander off across the courtyard to the shower. The water is tepid, but does it ever feel nice. It cleanses me of all the namiti carcasses stuck to my skin… what a relief!

7:00 pm All squeaky-clean (but smelling of mosquito repellent), I return to the saloon with my diary and locus sheets to finish up the day’s paperwork. I draw a few objects and list them in our books, drinking tea at the same time.

7:30 pm Totally exhausted, I call it quits. Returning to my room, I drag my bed outside in the courtyard and I have barely touched the mattress that I am fast asleep.

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