Thursday, 19 May 2011

Prehistoric hysteria

The man on the ladder gave me a curious look. I was already beginning to regret mentioning that I was an archaeologist. He cleared his throat. "So", he paused for dramatic emphasis, "when did it all begin then?" I grinned. "How long have you got?" He didn't appear impressed at my rather feeble attempt at humour. This was proving tricky. How to explain the distant human past in 5 minutes (the time I estimated his interest would wane significantly)?

Popular understanding of prehistory is murky to say the least. The absence of anything pre-Roman from the school syllabus, and the general misconceptions that exist surrounding this particular period of the human past do not improve the situation. Most people’s view on the period is moulded by popular culture, especially that transmitted by television, cinema and the internet, where pre-Roman communities are often depicted as hairy, club-wielding savages, wandering around a landscape littered with bizarre megaliths and improbable dinosaurs. Neanderthals, woolly mammoths, dinosaurs, standing stones, druids and Celts all inhabit that strange, incomprehensible world before civilisation, often with no clear idea of how, if at all, they originally related.

The view that Britain before the Romans was ‘deeply primitive’, especially when compared with the ‘civilised super states’ of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome, is endlessly recycled within modern fiction, daily news programmes, cartoon strips and documentaries. The image of the poor, ignorant, mud-splattered, fur-wearing prehistoric primitive (often with enlarged brow ridges and fearsome drool), hunting hairy animals, eating raw meat and patiently waiting for the civilised world to bring technological advances such as clothes, agriculture, the bow and arrow, pottery, towns, roads, aqueducts, coins and orgies, is undeniably potent.

The fact that it is also totally incorrect does not seem to bother anyone very much.

Even state organisations can often succumb to the stereotype, as a visit to the Stonehenge Shoppe, set deep in a Salisbury Plain-style fuhrer-bunker, will amply testify. Here you can buy postcards, novelty tankards, pencil erasers, ties and other tourist paraphernalia depicting fur-wearing cave men building Stonehenge with the aid of large dinosaurs and overseen by sickle-carrying, beard-wearing druids, .

Against this it is often difficult, if not impossible, to explain how and where particular artefacts (such as the stone axe or iron sword), or sites (such as Avebury, Skara Brae or Maiden Castle), fit in, especially if there is no understanding of the chronology or sequence of human development.

This point was brought home to me recently during an excavation of a Bronze Age ditched enclosure. A worryingly large percentage of visitors to the site seemed reluctant to believe that it could be three or four thousand years old. One visitor asked, in due seriousness, whether it had been created by carbon- or silicon-based lifeforms; another wondered out loud whether the whole thing had been designed to keep out predatory dinosaurs. It's disconcerting to realise that the human past can at times be so misunderstood, for it reflects badly on archaeology as a profession as well as the ability of archaeologists to communicate their ideas to the wider public.

Anyway, I outlined the breadth of human history in Britain to the man on the ladder, emphasising how little we really knew and how archaeology has helped further our understanding in crucial areas such as settlement, religion and burial. At the end he seemed genuinely baffled and I could see that something was clearly bothering him. "No" he shook his head and started to descend. "I mean the tiles....when did they start falling off the roof?"

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

What does Europe mean to you?: 2

I love being right, it happens so rarely (well, hardly ever at all if I'm really honest) but with Eurovision, one can seem like a master fortune teller; the most successful of soothsayers. 

If only I'd put money on the outcome - but then it wouldn't work would it?

Macedonia gives maximum points to Bosnia (as do Serbia and Slovenia); Bosnia and Herzegovina award max points to Slovenia; Russia and Turkey to Azerbaijan; Iceland to Denmark; Belarus and the Ukraine to Georgia; Armenia and Azerbaijan to the Ukraine; Poland to Lithuania; Moldova to Romania; Romania to Moldova; Portugal to Spain; Germany to Austria; Norway to Finland; Cyprus to Greece etc. Even the UK got in on the act awarding 12 points to its neighbour Ireland (and oh the anger from the UK media when Ireland failed to reciprocate, awarding full points to Denmark). The only real surprise of the night was 'who would Greece award maximum points given that Cyprus got knocked out in the Semi Finals?' (France as it happened) and Bulgaria giving the UK 12 points.....don't they like Romania any more?

By far and away the best bit was the winner of the unofficial 'Pick a theme song for the 2011 Bournemouth University excavation'. No Moldova, viva Zdob si Zdub, viva the teletubbies on Europe!!

Monday, 9 May 2011

What does Europe mean to you?

So, what does Europe mean to you (well, apart from a dodgy-uberpermed soft rock band from the 80s)? Culture? Democracy? Art? Sport? A faintly surreal music competition? Which Europeans have had the greatest impact upon the world today: Aristotle? Alexander? Marcus Aurelius? Constantine? Bucks Fizz? Abba?

OK, so I'm a fan of Eurovision (or should I say 'the Eurovision Song Contest'). There, I said it. Perhaps it doesn't quite fit with my 'normal' take on music (see Listening section opposite) for the contest is unapologetically colourful, brash and cheesy. But, to be fair, nothing else gives such a clear idea of the state of Europe today; nothing else so restores my utter faith in the wonderful, beautiful ridiculousness of humanity and the human condition; to be honest, nothing else makes me laugh quite so much. Someone (can't remember who) said that to travel the world successfully, you need only to pack an open mind and a sense of humour. With Eurovision you need never need leave the house.

If you want to understand the diverse nature of Europe, its conflicts and commonality; its culture and criminality...then nothing, absolutely nothing, beats the Eurovision Song Contest.

This time next week and it will all be over (bar the shouting and recriminations); the 2011 contest will leave the British press in a state of bewilderment and remorse spouting headlines such as: 'Why does Europe hate us?'; 'Why does the UK have no allies in Europe'; 'Why the UK entry fail AGAIN when it had so much promise”…well it didn’t. Of course it didn’t.

OK so I'm getting ahead of's Monday evening and there's still 4 hours worth of semi-finals to go before the Grand Finale on Saturday; just under five days before the last vote is cast, the result announced and the winner crowned. All to play for then; so how can I be sure that the UK is going to fail to hit the giddy heights of the top 10. How can I be so sure that the British entry will return home to rejection, dejection and ridicule (especially when bookmakers are tipping it to do so well)? Why do I know that there will be another year of agonised soul-searching within the British Press? How do I know that another career is about to hit poop central?

Four reasons stand out:

1) On Saturday 14th May, the UK entry (Blue) will appear in the finals without having to go through all the tedious business of the semi’s.

Why? Well because the UK, together with Spain, Germany, France pay the lion’s share for the competition, wherever it is ultimately held (this year Germany), but it looks as if all four are using Cash for Privilege – Elite Business Class and flaunting it. No one likes someone whom they think is ‘playing the system’. Resentment is not a good way to start a so-called 'friendly' competition.

2) Not playing the semi finals means that few Euro observers have heard the UK song by the time the final commences (well all except us in the UK - we've had to live with the diabolical-Blue-abomination for some significant time). Big disadvantage. The days of playing the song cold for the first time in the final is over. If the song isn’t instantly memorable then it’s lost. Last year Germany's Lena missed the semi’s too, but had a song that was on general release across Europe for a short while before. It had been heard. It was known.

3) Geopolitics – my favourite bit. Of course despite bleatings to the contrary, politics has always played a major factor in the competition. Neighbours vote for Neighbours, friends for friends. Throughout the 70s and 80s Greece always gave the maximum 12 points to Cyprus, and Cyprus for Greece (it will be so again - probably to a chorus of boos and wolf-whistles). Germany always used to award 12 points to Turkey and Turkey used to reciprocate. In case you feel that's underhand, Malta always gave at least 6 points to the UK (even if they were the only voting nation in the entire competition to do so), Portugal to Spain, Norway to Sweden and so on and so on.

The issue has only become MORE obvious with the break-up of the Soviet Union and more prominent political alliances (made more explicit of course by the “you can vote for your favourite BEFORE you’ve heard the song tactic). Now there's not only the 'Scandinavian bloc' (Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark) and Aegean mini-block (Greece / Cyprus) but the old-Soviet-bloc (Russia / the Ukraine / Moldova / Georgia etc) the 'Balkan (but NON Greek voting) bloc (Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, FYR Macedonia, Bosnia etc) and the unpredictable Baltic bloc (Estonia / Latvia / Lithuania). This is of course not as negative at it sounds (Serbia and Bosnia voting for each other a mere 20 years after trying to ethnically cleanse one another has to be fairly good news doesn't it?) but it graphically highlights the way in which the simple 'EU/NATO against the East' divide has fragmented into wholly discreet (but no less powerful) sub groups.

The UK is severely disadvantaged of course, as many have noted for years, for it has no neighbours (who like it) and is not part of a close-knit geographical block. Yes it may be different if England, Wales, Scotland, N Ireland etc were in the competition separately, but they aren't and it isn't.

4) The UK song is NOT an event. It's 4 near middle aged blokes (a man-band?) heaving and singing themselves through a tepid (largely out of tune) dirge.

It doesn’t really matter how popular / unpopular a country is if the song is NOT an 'event', it will get nowhere. Israel memorably won, countering the view that it too has relatively few friends in Europe - and, to be fair, isn't even geographically part of Europe (but then is there an equivalent 'Asian Song Contest?) - in 1998 with the glamorous transsexual Dana International

whilst the Ukraine won in 2004 with Ruslana's sub Xena-Warrior-Princess routine (skins, drums, flames and swords) and so on.

Flashy costumes are no guarantee of success of course (look at Spain's record) and obviously contrived attempts to recreate Eurovision of old (as per last years sub-smurf wackiness of Sieneke from Netherlands) will, perhaps sadly, always fail.

Ultimately you need to create something special. In 2010 the UK sent a 1980s style dance ballad regurgitated from corporateturdpolisher (sorry 'music guru') Pete Waterman. This was music by numbers. A thumpingly unmemorable work out from the bottom of the Hit Factory barrel. A forgotten B side from over 20 years ago. However ‘nice’ and presentable the singer, however polished the performance, it was not an EVENT. Last year's German winner (Lena) was different (at least from a Eurovision perspective). OK she sounded a bit Lilly Allen, but do we not have a Lilly Allen in the UK? Second place went to Turkey's maNga who, instead of the usual belly dance workout, presented a pop industrial / metal combo (are there no industrial metal acts in the UK?).

Had Germany put on Rammstein, they would won easily. Had Slovenia let Laibach (rather than a head-ache inducing folk/rock hybrid), they would have walked it. The 2009 winner from Norway had a jolly face, a set of fiddles and an irritating sing-a-long chorus. The year before Russia was victorious with a singer attempting to avoid a grisly death at the hands of a mad ice skater. A few years before, Finland mopped up with grizzled-mask-wearing-death-metal-combo Lordi.

Nothing surprising here perhaps, but it all worked. Anyone remember the UK singer / song / chorus / costume from the last three years?

No. Thought not.

Go into the semi finals (instead of queue jumping into the final) with an EVENT song, one that stands out from the crowd (but doesn’t mock it – Europe is wary of anything it feels is mocking them) and the UK stands a decent chance. No one thought Germany would ever win again, given it has few political allies in Europe, is not part of a geographical voting block and, like the UK, paid its way straight to the final, but it did just that precisely because it staged a memorable stand-out-from-the-crowd EVENT. Send in Blue, Pete Waterman or any music-by-numbers dance-dirge currently in the UK charts and you will always fail.

Now, where did I put my Killing Joke CDs.....?

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Dig for Victory

There's too much swearing and general rudeness out there on the web and in the blogosphere (I know this because a nice man from the BBC has just said so). It is a symptom, so I'm told, of indiscipline, poor education and general lack of courtesy in society today. With this in mind, I must apologise for I too am about to use an expletive; a word that for many years, certain within archaeological circles, was considered rude, offensive and thoroughly objectionable (those of a quiet disposition should look away now).


Funny, but like all swear words of the past, this particular example now seems rather tame. Take it from me though, had you used this in polite archaeological society 20 years ago, you would have encountered outrage, shocked looks and, fair to say, some considerable disgust.

Throughout the 1980s, the true (and presumably rather shocking), nature of archaeological excavation was disguised through the use of Archaeospeak (double-speak), verbal camouflage of the highest order which included such gems as: “field evaluation”, “heritage mitigation”, “limited ground intervention” and (my personal favourite) “preservation by record”. Any attempt to “dig a hole” was met with frowns and general disapproval. The maxim that “all excavation is destruction” was repeated by all those in the archaeological profession like a mantra.

All this may now seem rather extreme, but, as with all things archaeological, one must be aware of the context. By the late 1980s, Britain’s urban boom had ripped the heart out of many cities, whilst large numbers of rural sites had been obliterated in the drive to increase food production. So severe was the damage, that many were rightly moved to consider the blanket preservation of our buried past, the worry being that if nothing was done that there would be little heritage left for future generations to enjoy. Excavation, in hindsight, appeared to be destructive, outdated, misguided and downright wrong.

All well and good, and, it is fair to say, that Britain’s heritage has benefited enormously from the enlightened attitudes of bodies such as English Heritage, Cadw, Historic Scotland and the National Trust, but, one must ask, whether the pendulum swung too far. Non-intrusive forms of examination, such as geophysics, aerial photography and surface collection survey ('fieldwalking' to you and me), have all significantly aided the discovery and interpretation of new sites, that is true, but only “limited ground investigation” can answer the intractable issues of dating, phasing and chronology. Only “preservation by record” can reveal the buried evidence and help us truly understand our protected past.

There is now a slight but detectable shift in policy emphasis, something recently demonstrated at Britain’s most famous archaeological monument: Stonehenge. Twenty years ago the thought of an excavation here was inconceivable, and yet under the guidance of first Bournemouth and then Manchester and Sheffield Universities, and with the full support of English Heritage, the National Trust, local druids and other interested parties, that is exactly what has happened.


A whole new series of trenches have been excavated through the hallowed turf of this sacred monument and down into both previously examined and undisturbed features.

So what’s going on?

Well, despite all previous work at Stonehenge, we still have no clear idea of when the primary phases of the structure (such as the bluestone circle) were conceived, nor indeed when they were dismantled nor what form they originally took. Well-targeted excavation is the only real and sensible way to resolve issues as fundamental as these.

The new trenches are by no means huge (the first cut in 2008 was only 3.5 by 2.5m), but as pieces of key-hole surgery they are ideally placed and the preliminary results of all the new projects here have already revolutionised our understanding of this iconic monument. 

Many other sites of National and International Importance around the UK could also benefit from this more enlightened stance concerning conservation status, for large numbers of monuments remain undated and poorly understood. Ultimately, doesn’t preservation seem rather pointless without understanding what, exactly, it is that we are preserving?