Black Pellets of Doom

In honor of Little Man starting potty training today, I thought I would share this story from Turkey…

 Flying Black Pellets of Doom or The Sheep Are Out… Turkish Style

 Third archaeological field season at Kenan Tepe, Turkey

My mom pointed out that I haven’t told many sheep and goat stories this year, and that their absence has been noted.  So I thought I would tell you a little about the herds here in southeastern Turkey.  If you have a strong attachment to a romanticized notion of clean shepherds gently herding their cute flocks, stop reading now…

Every day a couple of different herds are taken across the tepe where we are excavating, and in the evenings they are often “parked” there as well.  By way of quick Turkish lesson, “tepe” is the word for “hill.”  It’s the same as “tell” or “höyük” or “chagar” depending on which Middle Eastern country you are in.  We work at Kenan Tepe; the hill of Kenan.  “Kenan” is the same as “Canaan,” so the name of our site means the Hill of Canaan or Canaan’s Hill.  We do not know what the village or town was called in the ancient past, since much of our excavation has focused on the prehistoric portions, and the historic parts haven’t given us any writing as of yet.

Here the shepherds tend to be men, but I have seen two young women caring for a small herd of cattle.  I have never seen sheep and goats herded separately, but they are always in a mixed, motley group.  Herd size can range from as few as five to as many as 50+ beasties.  There is always one donkey amongst the group, laden down with food, water, etc. and sometimes being ridden by a small boy.  Every now and then there is a shepherd that goes by my trench, singing to his flock.  It’s a beautiful tone that just sort of floats on the wind.  With the birdsong and frogs in the background it’s really nice.  Most shepherds make a sort of shushing noise to their sheep to help steer them… as well as throwing rocks.  Their aim is amazing.  They don’t do it to hurt the animals, but when you have that many not-so-bright-beasties roaming the hillside you need to steer them somehow.

Now to describe the sheep themselves…  These are not what you picture as the cute, little, white, fuzzy lambs skipping across the tepe.  These sheep have been especially bred for their wool and have very large… shall we say… gluteus maximi… that hang over the backs of their legs and flap in the breeze.  This is not their tail; that is there too.  Apparently these… bottoms… are full of fat and are considered a delicacy; one that I must admit I haven’t developed a taste for yet.  Too gamey.  The fleece, however, taken from this particular region of the sheep is supposedly the softest and highest quality.  Makes you think of cashmere in an entirely different way.

The first time I saw one of these sheep up close I thought it had a huge, cancerous deformity flapping along behind it.  Then I noticed that all of them are the same.  In some strange way the goats actually end up being the cuter of the two.

Now to the crux of my tale, but first let me remind you that my trench is more then two meters deep.  That means that when I’m in my trench, standing on tip toe, I can just peek over the edge and be eye level with the ground.

Last Saturday (we get one day off a week, and that is Friday for the Muslim holyday), when I hiked up the side of the tepe to my trench to get working, the entire side of the hill looked like someone had upended a massive pepper shaker.  The flocks must have been “parked” on my side of the tepe the whole time we were off.  That means that they were “doing their business” all over the hillside, and it was absolutely covered with small black pellets, and those would be swarming with flies in the heat… thank you sheep!

We had gotten to the tepe at our normal 5am, but rather than the clear blue sky we are used to, it was hazy and overcast.  We could just see a white glowing space where the sun was.  This is unusual for Turkey at this time of year, but we foreigners just thought it was a nice cool morning and we enjoyed the respite from the heat.  Our workers kept eyeing the horizon suspiciously.  The morning turned a little blustery, and we thought it weird that the horizon stayed looking so blurry, like rain but without any moisture in the air or lightening.  What we were actually seeing but not comprehending was a sandstorm.  We were just too ignorant to know it.

Around 11am the wind really started to pick up.  A huge blast hit my trench, sending a very large dust devil right through.  It literally knocked us over and sounded like our sun cover was being ripped to shreds.  Just before this happened, my workmen and I had been noses to the ground, completely oblivious to the upper world around us.  Now that we were upended by the wind and so being curious souls, we all crept to the edge of the trench, stood on tip toe and peered out at a world gone mad.  Everything was airborne, including all those little black pellets.  I opened my mouth to exclaim and then clamped it shut immediately before any black pellets of doom could come flying in.  A little herd of cows were all standing diagonally into the wind.  This couldn’t be good…

We ended up shutting down the excavation early that day, before our tents, our trench journals, and our lovely bags of artifacts were swept up Wizard of Oz-style and dropped into the Tigris.  I’ve seen a dust devil pick up a bag of light animal bone, sweep it straight up 30 feet in the air, and then gently hover craft it over the river to deposit it in the sheep and goat herd on the opposite bank.  This wind was not gentle, so we gave up and went home for lab work.

When we finally got back to the dig house the crew all ran up the eight stories of stairs to the rooftop to see if we could rescue our bedding.  Luckily only one mattress had blown off the roof (we never did find it…), but everything else had blown across it and was now in a large dusty pile.  Sleep time was going to be a bit gritty this evening.

By 4pm the sky turned yellow.  For those of you who have seen the movie Pitch Black… Bismil had that same crazy, yellow hue that the planet did when there was sunlight.  Eerie.

Eventually the wind died down and the next day was back to normal.  That small taste of a sandstorm made us all wonder what it would have been like out in the desert, where the entire landscape is moveable.  This part of southeastern Turkey looks a lot like southern California (if you take away all the cities and freeways); lots of rolling golden hills and flat land for crops.  Our landscape had not changed by the time we got back to the tepe and our excavation trenches, but the contents of our trenches had.  The first thing my workmen and I had to deal with were the heaps of black pellets of doom piled around the bottom of my trench.  I started being disgruntled with the sheep…

Sunrise over the Tigris River from the top of Kenan Tepe.

Sunrise over the Tigris River from the top of Kenan Tepe.


6 thoughts on “Black Pellets of Doom

  1. mom

    why don’t the goats get blamed also for pellets
    ? & it puts a little different ambience on shepherd Jesus carrying home the one lost sheep.

    1. TheSheepAreOut Post author

      That is true… the pellets were deposited indiscriminately by sheep and goats alike. The sheep are getting a bit of a bad rap here. And while the ambience is a bit different, a good shepherd always goes back for a lost sheep or goat. Emotions aside, that one beastie can equal a good amount of wealth/food/fabric. Thanks for the comments! 🙂

    1. TheSheepAreOut Post author

      I have to say, I was pretty surprised by that as well. This same field season a baby goat was born in an abandoned trench just down the hill from mine. It was absolutely adorable, and I got to play with the little new born while the slacker shepherd was summoned. He was not the brightest light on the tepe, leaving a new born behind…
      Thanks for the comments!


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