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January, 2001

My first job in the trenches is to knock down a Hellenistic wall using a pick. I chip away at fill to level off behind a string-line while large stones topple around my feet. Then I clear them away. After lunch I trowel out foundation fill, mainly pottery shards, but also a tiny piece of oxidised copper, and some minute pieces of flint. For the last 20 minutes I continue destroying the wall, keeping it cleanly vertical with a plum-bob.

I gradually learn that archaeology is another name for destruction. I bash away at a wall with a monkoosh and then clean up the mess I make with a hand shovel and a mustereen. I expose and smooth a silky grey surface: Electra demolishes it.

I become enamoured of my monster pit. There my job is clear: to delineate and excavate. It’s my pit, my familiar place, where I feel competent. After a Friday trip to Umm Qais I whizz back down to the dig site to look at it.

I’m not so competent when it comes to baulk-cleaning, where I have to be very sure nothing tumbles down to contaminate meticulous layering. I know I’m not good at this, so when Stephen yells “Straighten it up. It’s as round as a whore’s bum” I’m amused rather than affronted.

Sometimes I am snappy and tearful: I can’t manage the plum-bob; I crack the back of my fingers and make them bleed; and Electra calls me “Margaret”. Sometimes Maggie gives me a quick succession of jobs, none of which I have time to get stuck into. Sometimes when I clean a clump of rocks ready for photography, Steve says “Great job” and I suspect sarcasm. Sometimes it’s hard on the wrist: “scrape hard enough to make your wrist hurt” is Maggie’s standard.

But I become more agile, hopping around the trench as it becomes noticeably deeper, and gradually learn to yell “Bidi goofah” to summon a man to empty my bucket made from a recycled tyre. Try to do it myself so I don’t have to shout orders, and they glare at me. Sometimes four men line up, chanting as they pass the buckets along the chain.

On the second last day, it begins to rain. When I poke my head above the trenches at knock off time, I’m dazzled by the sudden greening of Tell Husn, till now quite barren.

Every time I look around the past is visible, and so is the meticulous task of unearthing it.

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