archaeological sites Tell Ahmar Syria
archaeology, Syria

Archaeological Digs and Aging Knees: A Recipe for Disaster?

My knees are percussive as I walk between the rows of desks, each huddled over by a student anxiously completing the IELTS exam. My knees snap and crackle and my hips pop. They sound loud in the silence of the room. I suddenly feel old. Old and slightly stupid.

I’m off on an archaeological dig in a few weeks’ time and my joints are protesting.

Today I read a charming piece online by a young woman – let’s call her Cara - who received a stipend to spend four weeks digging at a site in Israel. It is a sweet, thoughtful response to her first dig.

Three things Cara said struck a chord with me: ‘I knew nothing and had to learn how to dig’, ‘I found my future while digging up the past’, ‘It seemed surreal that I was on an archaeological dig in Israel’.

All three sentiments resonated deeply with me.

In 1993, as a naïve twenty-three year old I went on an archaeological dig with the University of Melbourne at Tell Ahmar, North Syria. I didn’t know what to do either and learned very much as I went along.

Tell Ahmar archaeologist

I shudder to think about my field notes, written in huge scrawly childish handwriting, liberally interspersed with Arabic words the workers were trying to teach me and scrappy sketches depicting where elevations were taken from. It was such a steep learning curve.

Going on a dig teaches you all the stuff you don’t learn at uni. My degree in archaeology was along the lines of ‘kings, queens and battles’ with little theory or method in sight. Everything on the dig was exciting; being in Syria, being in a small village, being among people of a different cultural and linguistic background. Just being away from Australia. It was such a surreal experience and exhausting by the end, but at the end of each season I couldn’t wait for the next.

Like Cara I caught the digging bug and for six years I spent some portion of the year in Syria and once in Turkey on archaeological digs. There was something about field work that, in a very clichéd phrase, brings the past to light.

I loved getting up early (and I’m not a morning person), I loved walking out to the field, I loved thinking about what we would do that day and then doing it, I loved thinking about what we were finding and I loved being in Syria. I even loved cleaning the trench at the end of the day's work.

Tell Ahmar archaeological site

The experience of Syria was so momentous that it seemed not to have even happened once I returned to Australia. I lived this rather bizarre life of ten months temping in boring office jobs such as reception and sneaking in archaeological books and then two months or so in the Middle East.

I loved it so much that I wondered how I could sustain a job just digging. After all, archaeology students are a dime a dozen. Experienced field archaeologists are useful but how many jobs are there for field archaeologists? It seemed unlikely that any dig director would employ me without some kind of specialised skill. 

I played with the idea of object conservation and to that end spent a semester at uni studying chemistry and took my exam in the workroom at Tell Ahmar. Tears, frustration and a 50% grade later I gave that up as a lost cause.

I went back to research and completed my PhD on the baked clay figurines from Tell Ahmar. I quickly learned that jobs for academic archaeologists are few and far between as well. I put archaeology aside for other interests.

Cara believes archaeology is her future and I wish her all the best.

I’m off to Jordan soon.

I’m wondering if I’ll have as much fun as I did in Syria. Will it delight me in the same way?

I tripped over a rug this morning and fell heavily on my knees. Those percussive knees I mentioned earlier. It hasn’t helped them.

Will I need knee pads? Perhaps I should take one of those gardening knee cushion things. My left knee is particularly prone to jamming up. What if I trip getting into the trench? What if I just can’t get in at all?

Or worse, what if I can’t get out?  

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Arwad Island Syria
Syria, travel

Arwad Island

Leaving the Syrian coast the boat bounces over the waves to the island of Arwad. Despite the relentless heat, the dust in the creases of my elbows and my queasy stomach, I find myself riding high on a crest of previously unknown happiness. Feeling the salt spray on the back of my hand I am certain that this is bliss; a moment of pure, effortless joy.

boats Arwad Syria

Arwad is tiny, a labyrinth of alleys hemmed by whitewashed walls. I meet some children who take me to their home. Their father shows me carved stone features in their kitchen; reminiscent of medieval churches, perhaps the family’s ancestors had reused some abandoned ecclesiastical masonry.

In the main room, three aunts sit on a couch in their nightdresses, enjoying a water pipe. We share smiles and nods and cups of sweet, black coffee. I curse my lack of Arabic.

Arwad Island Syria

Through the window the Mediterranean holds a mirror to the sky and star-like sun glints glisten on the water. The island seems surrounded by ships plying their wares on this inland sea as they have done since the Phoenicians opened the trade routes to the west centuries ago. At this moment, in those kind women’s house, it seems that everything was exactly as it should be.

But the briny breeze softly beckons me on.

I wander down to the shore and watch the boat builders near the old Phoenician stone wall. A group of men are dancing to a boy beating a rhythm on a broken bucket base, their bodies arching and rolling like the waves. Nearby several hulks of wooden ships are being scraped down.

Phoenician Wall Arwad Island Syria

I move on to the Arab fort where centuries ago, guards-on-duty scanned the sea for Crusader ships. Far from the heat and clamour of the island, a bench among the hibiscus and oleander in tall terracotta pots invites me over.

I sit in that tranquil courtyard with closed eyes, utterly content.

Fort Arrow Slit Arwad Syria
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compound Tell Ahmar
Syria, travel

I am brushing my teeth at the compound wall and I am blissfully happy

The mud brick walls of the compound emit a faint heat through the soft mellow warmth of the evening. I lean my hand on the wall’s rough surface and watch the lights of the tractor in the field below moving between rows of corn.

Beyond the fields lies the Euphrates River; the jebels on the other side are silhouetted against the remaining pale glow of the sun. I spit minty foam into the rubbish which cascades down the tell outside our compound; the heat has bleached it clear of its odour. Dust fills my nostrils instead.

We came to Tell Ahmar this morning in a yellow servees taxi. We trundled through the streets of Aleppo, passing road side fresh fruit and vegetable stalls and fruit set out to dry on vast stretches of fabric and tarpaulin. Apartment buildings in dusty outer suburbs gave way to farmland, dotted with olive and orange trees. The plastered houses looked cool and clean.

The arable land became dryer and dustier and corn and cotton replaced fruit trees and mud brick ‘beehive’ villages appeared. Farmers, young men and old men in gallabiyahs, their wives and daughters in bright patterned dresses and scarves, dots of colour on the landscape.

Then suddenly we were in the desert, a pale, pebbly, flat land stretches to the horizon. Small boys encouraged flocks of fat-tailed sheep onwards in search of elusive grassy snacks. 

It seems inhabited, uninhabitable, but Bedouin men appeared on the roadside as if from nowhere, dressed in white gallabiyahs, red head scarves and suit coats. They alight from buses and head straight into the desert.

On the far distant horizon, the low range of hills grew closer. We passed between them and suddenly the river is there, the Euphrates, wide and dark. We crossed the bridge guarded on each side by bored young men sitting on mattress-less beds with guns slung over their shoulders.

compound Tell Ahmar Euphrates

We drove up a little way up the valley, green with corn and cotton. Men waved to us from their tractors. Others looked up from their work and smile.

The taxi turned off the main road onto the unmade track leading through the village to our compound. We peeled ourselves from the taxi’s upholstery and stretched our cramped legs. Small children chased us to but stop at the gate or seated themselves on the boat lying just inside, watching us with shrieks of laughter, these strange foreign people.

For we are strange; the circus has indeed come to town. 

Men’s voices shout their goodnights and a motorcycle fires up. The generator thuds, the cow tethered next to our compound moos in a rather desperate sort of way; the donkeys bray their replies. A man climbs onto the roof of his mud brick house and adjusts the TV antenna. Voices murmur around the compound as my colleagues prepare for sleep. The stars stretch over the valley.

It seems surreal to me that people have lived here for such an incomprehensibly long time.   

The cow falls silent, the tractor is heading home.  I rinse my mouth and head back to my room.

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Syria, travel

Halima and the Embroidery

It’s time for tea at the Ahmeds’.

All is quiet in the Tell Ahmar excavation compound; the others are sleeping or reading.  It is three in the afternoon and the dust-filled heat of the day envelops me.  The air is heavy and dry, oppressing everything, even sound. For a moment I don’t hear the generators hammering nor the donkeys braying in their rather desparate way.  I hesitate in the heat, tempted to retreat to the cooler darkness of my mud-brick room.

At least the Ahmeds don’t live far, just a few minutes away, slightly further up the tell, where people have lived for millennia, creating an artificial hill. Their compound is well-cared for, swept daily. Coloured flowers add brightness to the otherwise drab mud-coloured buildings. 

The door is open and I tap gently, peering inside.  Yusef and his brother Ismael are sleeping on the floor. I hover uncertainly and am just about the sneak away when Ismael shifts and opens his eyes. 

‘Er…’ I begin.

Ismael scrambles to his feet, shaking Yusef awake and calling his sisters.

‘Sorry...’ I try again. ‘I thought Yusef said I should come for tea.  I’ll come another time’.

‘No, no, Vicki.  Tfaddali, come in.  Mona!  Vicki hown! Chai!’

I step into the cool interior of the Ahmed’s reception room.  The mud brick walls are plastered and the lower half painted in cool mint green.  Leaving my shoes at the door I walk gratefully over the plastic woven mat and sink down on the strip of carpet which lines the walls, leaning on the hard cylindrical cushions in green, red and gold. 

Ismael and Yusef are washing their faces.  The twenty litre plastic container with a tap is filled each day from the stream which runs past the mosque.  The water is cold and clean, from deep underground.  Touch wood, I have not yet been ill from drinking tea in the village.

‘Keef halik, Vicki?  How are you?’ Yusef turns to me, water pouring off his face.

‘Al hamdu l’illah, well thank you’, I reply.  ‘And you?’

‘We are all well, and even better for having you in our home, welcome! Ahlan wa sahlan!’

‘Sorry to wake you up’.

‘No problem’. 

I smile at the phrase. 

Mona comes in holding a kettle and tiny glasses.  She is followed by Dina and Fatima with plates of biscuits and tiny, hard green fruits and a dish of salt.  The refreshments are set down on the floor and the girls leave.

‘Oh stay!’ I call out, glancing at the boys. 

They nod and gesture for the sisters to come and sit down with them.  Amina and Hoda, the littlest ones come tumbling in, followed by Mahmoud, the third brother.

‘What beautiful sisters you have, Yusef!’

‘Yes, they are our five stars!’ The girls giggle.  We smile and nod at each other.  They whisper behind their hands; their eyes never leaving my face.

I glance around the room.  Niches in the walls contain a small pile of books or some clothes. Windows are few and small and square.  Black and white photos of solemn young men, a calendar and a poster showing an Alpine scene adorn the walls. 


An older woman with a cheerful face enters the room emitting a torrent of Arabic.

Clumsily I leap to my feet and clasp her hand.  Halima Ahmed shakes it vigorously, then she pulls me into a bear hug and kisses me firmly on both cheeks.  She waves for me to sit down again, the stream of words and warm smile filling the room. The little girls crawl contentedly onto their mother. Fresh tea is poured.  Then I utter the fateful words.

‘Who made the embroidery?’

With Yusef as translator, Halima explains that she made the embroidery when she was very young, a new bride pregnant with her first child, Dina. Before I realize, it is taken down and pushed into my hands. 

The white cotton is cool and smells musty. The words ‘In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful’ is embroidered in tiny grey stitches.  I hold it before me.  It is a wreath of flowers, with another floral design at the centre.  The flowers are odd, crablike, with robotic stems.  The colours are even more peculiar; fluorescent orange and blue with dull greys and greens. 

I tell her how lovely it is and hold it up so that they can replace it on the wall. Halima insists I take it. I protest but Halima refuses to take it back.

Before my third season at Tell Ahmar I consulted a Muslim friend.  Could the cross-stitch be returned?  I treasured it, but felt that its rightful place was on the wall of the Ahmed family reception room. 

He advised me against trying to return it.  It was given to me because Halima wanted me to have it.  It would appear a rejection of her gift to attempt to return it.  I took a photo of the embroidery instead and took that with me.   Halima was delighted and laughed when she saw the photo.  As my friend had predicted, she insisted that the cross-stitch was mine. 

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