Tag Archives: qatar

TAG Chicago: Simulacra and Cultural Heritage in Qatar

I just submitted an abstract for Catriona Cooper and Sara Perry’s Seeing, Thinking, Doing: Visualisation as Archaeological Research session at the Chicago Theoretical Archaeology Group meeting, 9-11 May. They haven’t accepted it yet, cross your fingers for me!

Simulacra and Cultural Heritage in Qatar
Colleen Morgan and Daniel Eddisford

“Old” is a new topic in cultural heritage and preservation in Qatar. In the past four years we have worked on projects that have investigated archaeological remains from a variety of sites in the region, and virtually reconstructed these remains, drawing on the archaeological record and standing buildings in the region. Other reconstructions in the region include a town that was reconstructed for a movie and the heart of Doha, Souq Waqif. These reconstructions did not adhere to the “truth” of the archaeological record, but elaborated on aesthetic aspects that were important markers of cultural identity. In 2012-2013, we excavated within a “heritage house”, a reconstruction performed in 2006, and documented the differences between an archaeological past and an aestheticized past. Our paper queries ideas about “truth” in archaeological reconstructions, both virtual and actual, and the conclusions we can draw from these truths.

Re-thinking “Construction” and Phasing at the Ridwani House

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During the midday lunch break, the Ridwani House becomes a gathering place, a place to eat, chat, rest and pray away from the dust and machines that completely surround it. Dan, Katie, Kirk and I usually head out to a local Indian restaurant for an absurdly inexpensive Thali for lunch. When we come back, full bellies making us slow and somnambulant, we sit in the shade of the porch, careful not to disturb the sleeping construction workers.

The Ridwani House was fully reconstructed in 2006, not even a decade ago, and it is set to be reconstructed yet again. The archaeology that we are excavating underneath the Ridwani House reveals that the singular house was probably once two houses, joined in the 1940s, and then fully made-over in 2006. It is set to become a museum with a feeling of “Old Doha” in the middle of a concrete and glass wonderland. Though it lacks furniture beyond a few woven mats, construction workers who are building the surrounding skyscrapers use the Ridwani House as a source of comfort.

A construction horizon in archaeological recording is not unique. Buildings are built, remodeled, leveled, reconstructed, and generally messed around with for all of their “lives.” A construction phase shows the general level of activity with the accompanying change and untidiness until the construction is deemed finished and life starts again. This period of disruptive flux marks the end of one phase of the building and the beginning of a new phase. But who are these mid-phase travelers, construction workers occupying the house, living there in their own way? All of their activity is reduced to a dotted line on a matrix.

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Anyone who has done any kind of construction on a house knows that the workers leave their own traces between walls, whether these are particular craftsman-like touches or graffiti (see http://www.constructiongraffiti.com/ and some particularly interesting examples inside the WTC memorial: http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/racist-sexist-slur-filled-graffiti-covers-new-wtc-article-1.1249195). The historical archaeology that we are doing is so recent that it bleeds into contemporary archaeology–rooms that we have excavated are now filled with concrete and are used as mosques and lunchrooms.

The Ridwani House will be reborn in a few years as a museum, technically in its fourth phase, depending on how you like to lump or split your archaeology. The construction horizon will be finished, and the building will enter another phase of uselife. I suppose it wouldn’t bother me as much if I didn’t know how invisible construction workers are in this whole process. Doubt me? Put on a high-viz, hardhat and a pair of boots and fade away.

…and then there are the days that you spend with your head down a toilet.

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Digging in the center of a “Heritage House” in Doha.

We got the call and three days later, we were on a plane back to Doha. So we’re back digging in Old Doha, finding remains of an older house beneath a “Heritage House” that has been preserved in the middle of an enormous construction site.

Every trench that we’ve opened has revealed either architecture or evidence of occupation, so we have a lot to work on in the next couple of weeks. There’s been a lot of “beasting”–moving lots of dirt in a rapid fashion. As most of it was construction infill, there weren’t a lot of photos or levels taken, just a lot of pick-axe and shovel handling. Exactly what I needed after being so well fed in England!

Yesterday I beasted out the rest of the construction fill from a small 4m x 3m room and so today I was rewarded with digging some archaeology, which meant a massive slow-down in pace and a lot of paperwork. I have to climb a ladder to get in and out of the trench, as the room I am digging in is about 2m below the threshold now. The whole room has been heavily invaded by the later structure and there is huge concrete, stone, and industrial epoxy mess on the east side of the trench that I try not to look at too often. It’s horrible and I don’t plan on chunking it out as it underpins the building. ugh.

Sorry about the terrible photo--I only had a single halogen light way up on the wall.

Sorry about the terrible photo–I only had a single halogen light way up on the wall.

But I have a couple of walls surviving and there was cut in the western bit of the room to poke at as well. It was sealed off with concrete, so I hacked away at it and found that it was filled with rocks. Lovely. About 30 cm down (.30m for nerds) there was a layer of concrete that had been smeared on to some other rocks–you could still see the finger impressions. There was a hole in the middle and that is when I realized that yes, I was digging out a toilet.

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The first 20 cm of the fill had a bunch of broken tile, probably the remains of the fitting out of the bathroom. Then…yep. Yellowish-brown silty stuff. Happily I was wearing gloves.

I got about a meter into the fill then stopped, as it was too deep to dig safely. As it was, I was balancing myself on my hands awkwardly in a small rectangular cut–good thing I’ve been practicing my handstands. I finished digging the toilet (hamam) and saved all the fill for our lovely paleobotanist, Mary Anne Murray.

So now I have to finish that pesky application to the R1 University. Happy digging, y’all!

The things you find down a 60 year-old toilet in Doha.

The things you find down a 60 year-old toilet in Doha.

Quintessential Rescue Archaeology: The Origins of Doha Project

The construction site where we excavated as part of the Origins of Doha Project.

At some point I decided that it would be a great idea to book a flight from San Francisco to Doha, Qatar on the day after the end of the Fall 2012 semester–my deadline to file my Ph.D. A week later, I’m mostly recovered from that last, big push to finish, cleaning out my apartment for my subletter, partying beyond all reason at Cheyla and Nico’s house, and hopping a jet to fly 8,000 miles.

As is my current pattern, I got in for the last week of work at the Origins of Doha Project’s site in central Doha. We hope to work a bit more at a different site in January, but we’ll see. The site is a giant, chaotic construction zone with 5,000 construction workers going everywhere all the time and 19 tower cranes whirling overhead.

The insides of one of the heritage houses stripped out and lined with concrete.

Most of the archaeological remains are long gone, but there were a few  “heritage” houses that are being preserved, though they’ve been heavily restored twice and are pretty disturbed. These heritage houses are becoming a museum and are being cleared out to accommodate air conditioning and other modcons, so we were brought in to record what was left of earlier builds of the houses.

The exterior of one of the heritage houses, excavation director Daniel Eddisford for scale.

I helped my friend (and former Zubarah colleague) Kirk dig and record a little bit, spending an inordinate amount of time on an isometric sketch of a blocked concrete drain setting next to a well and a bath inside of a house. The team had been digging for a couple of weeks–I was surprised to find that this was the first archaeological excavation performed in Doha. Cool. We returned to site the next day to record a couple of wells in a different heritage house.

The well. A bit difficult to record, yeah? There’s dirt over the measuring tape so I don’t trip over it and fall into the well.

This is the well I recorded. The utility of drawing is probably pretty obvious in this case, as you can’t get a good photograph of the well with all the safety scaffolding in place. I pounded a nail in the eastern wall with my trowel and strung a line across the room. The houses are on a North-South orientation, so it made drawing the multicontext plan easy. There was a later soak-away coming in from the western wall that I also recorded. A soak-away is basically a drain coming from a toilet. The well was over three meters deep and didn’t smell, thankfully.

My kit in the doorway, with my unfinished multicontext plan.

It was still really awkward to move in the room and I tried to spend as little time over the well as possible and still record it. It was urban rescue archaeology all the way–dodging bulldozers and improvising the best way to record fairly trashed stratigraphy as quickly as possible while still producing the best record we could for the archive.

 

A Good Day for Shade & Hedgehogs

It was sunny today and my workmen* were making me laugh and laugh and laugh. I was trying to learn the Arabic word for shadow–something that’s incredibly hard to mime/ask. I have to ask for shadow a lot. The desert sun throws features into incredible relief, leaving the bottoms of pits into deep shadow. To photograph these features we have to shade the entire pit, requiring a huddle of bodies with the cameraperson in the middle.

The proximity that a seamless shadow requires makes my workmen incredibly uncomfortable. My workmen are Muslims from Sudan and though I’m a white non-Muslim woman (and therefore supposed to be treated like a man) and we laugh and joke all day, taking the photograph has become a ritual that must be observed. We huddle together in a contorted mass, I frame the shot in close, our shadows coalesce around the small pit, shoot, then we break apart into our individual pieces again.

I was thinking of this as I moved in to take my very first photograph of a hedgehog. It is the first (live) hedgehog that I’ve ever seen, a fact that is astonishing to the English. I think I’ll show the photograph to my workmen tomorrow and learn what hedgehog is in Arabic.

*I call them “my workmen” with a full understanding of the colonialist possessive intonation. A lot of people treat the workmen as interchangeable hands, but I try to teach them as I’d teach students. 

Windy ol’ Qatar

Lately I’ve been finding myself in the incredible position of writing about sharing without sharing, writing about blogging without blogging, writing about photography without taking photographs, owing writing to people and being owed writing, and being surrounded by profoundly bored people without having the luxury/curse of boredom. You’d think it would all balance out, but sometimes it feels like I’m chasing my own tail.

And that’s without the wind.

The wind has several flavors in Qatar, but it’s nearly without pause, and in the calm, blessed moments, there are hoards of flies. The best is to hope for a small respite, enough to ruffle the paper on your clipboard, but not enough to snap your measuring tape–something that happened twice to our team last week. My measuring tape didn’t snap, but it did rip one of my grid pegs out of the ground.

Happily my archaeology has been good lately–I am not allowed to discuss details, but the sequence of my features and architecture has been making sense and what we call natural, which just means stratigraphy beneath the human occupation layers, is showing up in several places. Getting through to the bright whitish-yellow shelly sand is a relief, especially as we only have a couple more weeks to dig before we start shutting things down for the year. Funny ol’ job, methodically recording and removing the traces of other humans.

It also helps that I’m working with really good people, but I think we’re all getting a bit sick of each other.

And the wind. The wind.

Qatar – Happy Eid!

All my workmen were excited to have a few days off for Eid al-Adha, the festival celebrating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael. Hundreds of millions of animals were sacrificed for this event, but we’re out in the desert, far away from the festivities. I’ve spent most of the time working on my dissertation, but managed to do a little wandering in the desert and took the requisite animal photographs:

Here are a couple of the reconstructed fort at Kalet auom elmaa: