Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Archaeology of Doctor Who: 2

Doctor Who: love it or love it (more) there's one thing you can't's full of archaeologists.

Ok, so I'm a Whovian (so much nicer, I think, than the alternative term 'Who-er'): a long-term fan of the TV series Doctor Who. No big surprise to anyone who has ever been in my office (and counted the Who-related toys lying around) or to the (three) people who read my PhD thesis on Neolithic Monumental Architecture (entitled 'Time and Relative Dimensions in Space').

Of course, it's easier to own up to these days. 15 years ago, well before the current TV reboot, being a Whovian was a rather solitary affair, one akin perhaps to being a Bottle-top collector / Train-spotter / stamp-collector (not that there's anything wrong with bottle-top collecting, train-spotting or stamp-collecting you understand). When anyone did ever come in to my office (usually by mistake), they gazed suspiciously at the large poster of Patrick Troughton that hung above my desk, wondering (literally) ‘who’ on earth he was. Now, of course, it's (largely) fine. Now it's considered (generally) to be ok and not an exercise in nostalgia / TV-deviancy to have a big picture of Matt Smith over your desk (which I do).

All this will change on December 25th 2013, when Matt becomes Peter and the reign of the 11th (or is it the 12th or possibly even 13th?) Doctor comes to an end.

Regeneration is a tricky time for Whovians: will we like / accept / dislike / detest the new Doctor? (I'm guessing 'like'). Ever since Jon Pertwee morphed into Tom Baker (and I spent the summer and winter of 1974 vowing that I’d never watch it again) the thought of change brings both trepidation and excitement.

What bothers me most, however, is not whether Peter Capaldi will be a good Doctor (he will) or whether the series will continue going from strength to strength (it will) but whether or not there will be any archaeologists in it.

There have been archaeologists in Dr Who ever since the early days of black and white. Mostly they've been the tomb-raiding / curse-invoking bad-hat type, such as Professor Parry, who's expedition to Telos awakened the Cybermen (in The Tomb of the Cybermen)

or Professor Horner's excavation of the Devil's Hump chambered barrow that awakened Azal and his gargoyle friend (in The Daemons),

or Dr Fendelman's tinkering with a fossil skull that awakened the Fendahl Core (in The Image of the Fendahl)

or Professor Marcus Scarman's opening of an ancient Egyptian tomb which awakened Sutekh (in the Pyramids of Mars)

Never mind their intent, motive or general attitude, archaeologists have always been there in Dr Who, and that is something that has constantly cheered me up: knowing that the profession does indeed have a future (albeit of the earth-destroying, monster awakening kind).

An archaeological presence continued on into the new series, most important of which, of course, was the wife of the Doctor, Professor River Song (who has a doctorate in the subject from the Luna University no less), an all action, gun-slinging, banana-wielding, library-looting field operative.

who’s first meeting with the good Doctor (from his perspective anyway) provoked the by now famous retort: "I'm a time-traveller. I point and laugh at archaeologists"

Don't we all luv...don't we all....

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Britain's Secret Treasures

Archaeology, as an academic discipline / hobby / subject worthy of research, appears quite regularly (and thankfully) on our TV screens in the UK. BBC 1 and 2 have their 'flagship' documentary series, BBC 4 has the more quirky (and generally more interesting) arty / academic programmes, Channel 4 has its one off specials (now that Time Team has departed), Channel 5 its rather more sensationalist / lurid documentaries (involving unpleasant or improbable things) and ITV has

Truth be told, ITV has been a bit of a cultural black hole in the last 2 decades. Yes, its got crowd-pleasing hits such as X Factor, Britain's Got Talent, I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, and Dancing on Ice, together with big soaps and other prime-time dramas such as Coronation Street, Emmerdale and Downton Abbey, but, since the loss of its 'flagship arts programme' The South Bank Show in 2010, it hasn't really felt the need to show anything that in any way could be perceived as widening the mind of the viewer, stretching their intellect or even making them think: 'wow, I never knew that!'

So, all praise to the channel for screening the series Britain's Secret Treasures, an attempt, so the accompanying publicity blurb states, to " uncover a fresh hoard of extraordinary objects found by ordinary people that have changed our understanding of British history."

In short, it's a 8 episode series examining recent archaeological discoveries made by the public, trying to understand their importance, significance, value, context and nature. It's fronted by Michael Buerk and Bettany Hughes, Buerk a well-known and award winning journalist, Hughes a well-respected and talented historian. Both are excellent presenters and broadcasters in their own right. 

BUT there is a problem...and it's nothing to do with the concept, filming (which is excellent), scripting, basic format or items chosen to examine (although plenty of people have already criticised the apparent obsession with treasure; but then, given the title of the series, that's the point surely?).

NO - it's to do with ITV itself and it's (mis) understanding of the greater British viewing public, or at least their apparent belief that we (the great British public) can't be shown anything even vaguely interesting or intellectual without either celebrity input (hence a veritable host of stars presenting individual treasure stories), endless recaps and interminable advert breaks. In effect then, although the TV listings state that the each programme is 30 minutes in duration, the reality is that the portions supplied are far less generous.

I present a typical episode for analysis, Episode 4, complete with on-screen timings:

00.00 - Introduction - a voice over to images taken from the series that plays every week
01.25 - Welcome from the hosts and a 'coming up in tonight's programme' preview
02.12 - 1st item: Elizabethan jewel (Suzannah Lipscomb travels to Brentford)
06.49 - 2nd item: Iron Age mirror (Mary-Ann Ochota travels to Pegsdon)

11.14 - 'Coming up after the break' a voice over preview with the hosts
11.39 - Advert break
15.50 - 'Welcome back' from the hosts at the British Museum
16.34 - 3rd item: Roman coins (John Prescott travels to Cardiff)
20.40 - 4th item: Jacobean silver hawking vervel (Bettany Hughes travels to Norwich)

25.39 - 'Coming up next week' preview
26.14 - Credits
26.41 - Finish

So, once you've stripped out the introductions, welcomes, series preview, episode preview, next week's episode preview AND advert break, you're left with a glittering 17 minutes of programme content (per episode) in which to examine the artefacts themselves:  an average total of around 4 and a quarter minutes per item. Clearly this is not enough to get an understanding of the context or historical importance of anything (especially when you factor in the guest celebrity 'hello, yes it's me from....etc etc'), before 'here's the next thing to look at'. This is television for the easily distracted (or for those who are doing something else - the ironing perhaps? - whilst it's on). 

All credit then to ITV for commissioning and screening this particular series; shame they felt that the viewers all have such critically short attention spans. What I suggest for next time is...

...oh…hang on a moment, what's that shiny thing over there?…..sorry, what was I talking about?

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Dinosapiens 2

OK, so a wee while ago I had a rant. Not like me at all I know, but, at the time, I was a tad peeved that (some) people still appear to confuse archaeology with palaeontology. Dinosaurs, as I think I said at the time, have nothing to do with archaeology, they are not archaeological and are not found on archaeological sites, are not uncovered by archaeologists using archaeological tools to eventually be placed in an archaeological museum with 'other' archaeological finds.

The media (of course) often forgets this and happily talks about dinosaur bones being dug up by archaeologists, being studied by archaeologists and being endlessly searched for by archaeologists.


Archaeology is the study of human material culture and dinosaurs, as far as we can tell, were not in any way human. How organised their society was, we cannot tell, but, again as I said at the time, I suspect that they did not eat dinosaur roast dinners, work in dinosaur department stores, go to dinosaur church, restaurants or cinemas, have dinosaur holidays, fight dinosaur wars with dinosaur weapons of mass destruction and were therefore NOT human in the sense that we are human. Therefore, I went on (as I often do), as an archaeologist, I possess no opinion on their life-span, diet, skin colour, mating, forms of communication, transportation or defecation habits.

It seems I was wrong.

Last week news agencies around the world were reporting on a "gigantic communal latrine created at the dawn of time" unearthed in Argentina.

"Thousands of fossilised poos left by rhino-like megaherbivores were found clustered together" the BBC stated rather soberly. Together this 240 million year old find represented "the world's oldest public toilet", the Beeb went on adding (unnecessarily I thought) that "ancient reptiles shared collective dumping grounds".

Fossilised coprolites, some "as wide as 40cm and weighing several kilograms" were found in "seven massive patches" across the Chanares Formation in La Rioja province the BBC further reported, before going into extra detail (for those eating breakfast) that "some were sausage-like, others pristine ovals, in colours ranging from whitish grey to dark brown-violet". The Daily Mail was also able to supply the irresistible detail that the poo varied "in size and shapes, ranging from tiny nuggets to long and thin".

Dr Lucas Fiorelli, who led the study, said only a large, mammal-like reptile such as a dicynodont was "capable of producing such sizeable chunks" adding that "one purpose of communal latrines would be to keep parasites in one place, on the principle that you don't poo where you eat. It's also a warning to predators. If you leave a huge pile, you are saying: 'Hey! We are a big herd. Watch out!"


Problem is, of course, all this talk of "communal toilets" and "public lavatories" is simply anthropomorphising our dino-chums, placing human social characteristics upon them and giving the press significant justification, it would appear, to use the terms 'archaeology' and 'archaeologists' in relation to the discovery (which they did a lot). Suddenly I'm being asked for my opinion on 'South American Dino-Lavs' (this threw me for a moment as I thought Dino-Lavs to be a new type of deluxe chemical toilet).

I hereby put on record that I have no opinion on the matter, other than to agree that the discovery does indeed prove that Dinosaurs pooped, a revelation that has not, as yet, got me leaping enthusiastically from foot to foot or shrieking in a high-pitched, over-excited way. Interesting as the find undoubtedly is to the palaeontologists, geologists and fossil-hunters out there, I'm afraid that this is not something that, as we say in Sussex, in any way grabs my weasel.

Friday, 29 November 2013

The Archaeology of Pies

Who ate all the pies? A question rarely put to archaeologists, which is a shame because they probably know the answer. 

Who ate all the pies? They did: each and every last one of them, the archaeologist's ate them all.

If anyone should doubt such a conclusion, they need only look at the results of Lancashire Smith's new fieldwork project in the playing fields of Beanotown School as premiered on the TV channel CBBC last night. 

Work in the playing field, apparently an “Area of Outstanding Scientific Interest” (so I have no idea how permission was granted for the school building in the first place, let alone the subsequent archaeological investigation), revealed a well preserved body of a warrior complete with the remains of a ‘Bronze Age Pie’ 

The pie was a truly amazing find: a heritage asset the like of which has never before been seen (and something which, once probed, studied, tested and analysed, would undoubtedly have changed our perception of the prehistoric past, not only of Beanotown, but also northern Europe). Within seconds of being discovered, however, the Bronze Age pie had been devoured, with no attempt to record said meat-filled pastry for posterity (as this CCTV footage of the archaeological fieldworker in question amply demonstrates):

Positively shocking.

I do hope that this appalling act of pie-based-vandalism will not be repeated and I am writing to Lancashire Smith's university department to express my outrage. 

Now what's for lunch?

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Mine all mine

There are aspects of my job that, to an outsider, can appear a little strange: eating warm pizza wedged into a narrow, 5,000 year old chalk-cut tunnel, some 12 metres below the rain-swept surface of Norfolk may well be one of them.

I was doing a small piece to camera, a discussion on flint mining in the Neolithic, whilst simultaneously crawling through the restricted space of a disused prehistoric mine gallery. It's one of the few places in Britain where you can still get a feeling of how things may have been in the Neolithic. Down here, in the claustrophobic space, cut from the chalk by the men, women and children of prehistoric East Anglia, there is no sense of the modern world intruding upon you. No planes, trains or automobiles, no mobile signal, no bird song. None of the distracting background 'chatter' of the modern world. 

Some of the galleries, where the deer antler picks still lie, abandoned by their owners a mere five millennia ago, it can feel as if the miners have only just stopped work, downed tools and popped back up to the surface for a bite to eat. You sometimes get the eerie sense that they may just return at any moment, demanding to know just what the hell you think you're doing crawling around their workspace disturbing everything. 

Empires have risen and fallen since these antler picks last saw the light of day: Egypt, Greece, Rome, Persia have all have passed into history, but the tools left by the Neolithic miners still reside deep underground, patiently waiting for their owners to return.

Down here you also get a real sense, not just of the achievement of the prehistoric communities that originally dug out the chalk and extracted the necessary flint with tools made only of antler, bone and stone, but also of the extreme difficulties they must have faced in the subterranean galleries. Elliot Curwen, writing in the early 1930s about a flint mine in Sussex (Harrow Hill), observed, when first encountering a freshly exposed gallery:

"A long dark tunnel stretches before us. Slowly and with awe, one of the excavators creeps into the gallery, candle in hand, noticing everything, and careful to disturb nothing. He is acutely conscious that he is the first human being to enter this underground workshop for some four thousand years. Suddenly he catches sight of a row of holes cleanly punched in the chalk wall while on the floor close by is a pick made from the antler of a red deer; the holes look as if they had only been made yesterday, fresh and clean-cut, with the chalk burred a little at the lip by the pressure of the pick. Progress along the gallery is far from easy. One must crawl on elbows and stomach, trailing useless legs over hard and angular pieces of chalk, one’s fingers spluttered with candle grease. It is warm, and the silence is intensified by the tiny, far-away song of the mosquitoes who have found their way through the chinks in the chalk to this subterranean place of repose."

Today, whilst facing the cameraman, sound recordist and director, I am aware that they are blocking my only exit from the tunnel, whilst behind me, disappearing back into the darkness, lurk the still-blocked galleries, filled with chalk debris, antler picks, stone tools and possibly, just possibly, the remains of the miners themselves.

We finally complete the interview and then start to pack up. I crawl, as Curwen described, on elbows and stomach, 'trailing useless legs over hard and angular pieces of chalk', past the crew to the deeper recesses of another gallery so that I may collect my abandoned kit. As I enter the space, in the hazy light of my helmet-mounted head-torch, three prehistoric picks are illuminated. Without thinking I pick one up and hold the cold, damp artefact for a moment, turning it over it my hand and feeling its weight. 

Then, for no real reason, I turn off my light.

Behind me (somewhere) I can hear the soundman locating his equipment and trying, unsuccessfully, to put it all away whilst, to my right, another member of the team is crawling slowly back towards the main shaft. Their muffled grunts and scrapes echo strangely off the walls around me and I start to feel a little disorientated. I also have a curious feeling that, when I do finally turn on my light, someone else will be in the gallery with me; some ancient figure clasping a pick and caked with chalk dust and sweat.

When I do (eventually) turn the light back on, I am somewhat relieved to find that I am alone.

I crawl back to the main shaft and the ladder that connects us to the real world above. We have only been down in the chalk for 4 hours, but it seems like days. Grimes Graves is a truly magical place.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

The Archaeology of Scooby Doo

Funny what you find yourself watching at 5am when you can't sleep.

Reruns of Scooby Doo (the popular 1960s / 70s / 80s / 90s / 00s / 10s adventure featuring an animated canine and his ever-haunted human chums) seems to be a popular choice at present for the Late Night TV channel schedulers (probably expecting a mass of insomniac children).

Collapsing before the altar of Scoob, Shaggy, Fred, Velma and Daphne, I was pleased (as I always am) to see our old friend the "Stock Archaeologist" rear his (and her) recognisable and utterly unmistakeable head(s).

I could tell straight away the that we were in the presence of pop culture bone-kickers: he (Professor Stonehack - did he possess a first name?) was resplendent in Khaki field gear, fedora, overtly masculine facial hair and square jaw

whilst she (Elina Stonehack) was also dressed in Khaki, but with a red scarf (and semi-demented stare).

Both wielded pick-axes, shovels and (rather bizarrely) what appeared to be yard brooms. Both were undoubtedly 'bad-hats'.

And so it proved to be (SPOILER ALERT), the professor dressing up as 'the Ghost of King Katazuma', Elina preferring the outfit of 'the Aztec Statue Monster', in order to scare people away from the reality of their nefarious scam: the pocketing of an ancient Aztec treasure.

I wondered, as one does at such times, whether other archaeologists had appeared in Scooby Doo, and whether the stereotype had ever shifted in the programmes’ 40 year plus history. Here the resource tool SCOOBYPEDIA (what did we do before the internet?) proved invaluable.

It would appear that, since 1969, only two types of archaeologist have appeared in this particular slice of pop culture. Unsurprisingly, given what we've already discussed in the past (and identified as the medical condition of  'Clarke Kent Syndrome'), these two extremes were: A) the seedy (nerdy), spectacle-wearing academic, ill at ease with both the real world and the meddling kids that inhabit it (cue Dr Henry Walton Jones Jnr); and B), the rugged, no-holds barred, all-guns blazing field explorer, also ill-at ease with the real world but more likely to gun down any meddling kids that they meet along the way (cue Indiana Jones).

Here, for example, is an example from type A, the ever-so-slightly seedy and totally obsessed academic: Professor Jameson Hyde White (archaeologist from the episode What a Night for a Knight)

Hyde White was (SPOILER ALERT) captured by Mr. Wickles in a Black Knight costume but was later found tied up and gagged after Mr. Wickles was arrested for covering up a series of forged paintings, having stolen and kept the originals, which the professor, as an archaeologist, would apparently have noticed ( was he 'archaeologist' of in any case?). 

Here, from the episode The Mummy of Ankha, is 'The Professor' (so dull that he doesn't even possess a name)

who works in the Department of Archaeology (of an unidentified American University) who, whilst setting up an Egyptian mummy for a display, was kidnapped (SPOILER ALERT) by the reanimated mummy

and then later found tied up, gagged, and stuffed in a sack.

Only of course the Mummy wasn't real, but was native Egyptian academic Dr Najib in disguise,

all of which raises uncomfortable issues surrounding the acquisition of Egyptian artefacts by Western / colonial powers and the repatriation of cultural remains - indeed who is the REAL villain here, the professor (colonial looter) or Dr Najib (indigenous heritage officer?). According to the storyline, the good / bad (delete as applicable) Dr Najib wanted an Egyptian coin that could release a diamond hidden within one of the artefacts on display in the university museum. Somehow dressing up and kidnapping people, such as the good / bad professor (delete as applicable), and then making a series of detailed and highly realistic stone copies of the kidnaped seemed, to Dr Najib at least, a sensible way of obtaining said coin whilst simultaneously throwing people off the scent.

It didn't work.

Here's another seedy archaeo-acadmic, Professor Brixton 

working on the excavation of the underground city of Byzantius in Turkey (no, me neither), hence his unconvincing efforts to don the clothing and attitude of a real field archaeologist. Whilst working at Byzantius, Brixton and his workers are menaced by a green-eyed (one-eyed) Tar Monster, in reality (SPOILER ALERT) Mr Stoner in disguise (who would have guessed?).

Coming a bit more up to date, Scooby Doo also has prime examples of the Type B pop culture archaeologist, the thrill-seeking, egotistical adventurer, obsessed with the importance of their own discoveries (and their own personal fame): in this case represented by Lysander Demas

and Susie Smythe.

Susie, it transpired (SPOILER ALERT) secretly dressed up as a Centaur because she wanted Atlantis to be her discovery and not that of Demas (not quite sure, in the cold light of day, how that made sense to poor Susie...possibly her brain was addled after spending too much time filling in context sheets).

Thinking about these particular examples taken from the world of pop culture archaeology, I realise that my own on site research / digging technique is particularly ghoul-free. Perhaps, next time I find an Iron Age storage pit or a Roman ditch, instead of half-sectioning the feature then drawing, photographing and otherwise recording it, I'm going to scare people away by hiding beneath a fluorescent green sheet, swathing myself in bandages and hopping about on one leg screaming ‘Arggg Argg’ at passers-by, making great claims to be the reanimated Pot Sherd Phantom of the Forbidden Purple Test Pit.

Who knows, against all the evidence provided in Scooby Doo, I might just get away with it....

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Heritage 'Heroes'

The Honourable Edward Henry Butler Vaizey, currently UK Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries and a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State with responsibilities in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, elected Conservative Member of Parliament for the constituency of Wantage in the 2005 General Election (re-elected in 2010) has this week made a bit of an a*** of himself.

A qualified barrister and regular media columnist and commentator (according to Wikipedia), Mr Vaizey has managed to insult pretty much everyone working in the archaeological and heritage profession (quite an achievement even for a standing politician).

What was his crime?

Well, it was this spectacularly ill-judged comment: “I salute all the responsible metal detectorists – true heritage heroes – whose patience and unceasing curiosity do so much to bring treasure to light”.

Now I've got nothing against responsible metal detectorists at all (many important archaeological finds and sites have only come to light following work conducted by just such people) and I have worked with many on a number of projects and always value their input BUT I would like to point out that metal detectoring is a hobby (a sometimes lucrative one if you're lucky) whilst working as an archaeologist or heritage professional is a career (and a poorly paid one at that).

So, Mr Vaizey, for a Member of Parliament whose government is currently forcing through austerity measures which are effectively closing museums, slashing arts and heritage budgets and forcing redundancy upon countless field archaeologists, university academics, local authority advisors, museum curators and other associated professionals (all of whom, I think, any right minded individual would call the true heroes of the heritage world), do you not think that such comments are thoughtless, hurtful, ill-judged and insensitive? Perhaps, in future, you should stick to discussing media and sport rather than attempting to dabble (rather unsuccessfully) in matters of culture. 

Saturday, 19 October 2013

The Archaeology of Doctor Who

It's been decided. The archaeological find of 2013 has been made and there's no chance that a better, more culturally significant discovery will be made before the end of the year.

No chance at all.

Forget your gold, your jewellery, your bog bodies, your diamond-encrusted underwear (if you have any), this find will, in my mind at least, rank amongst the greatest of all archaeological discoveries ever. "And what is it?" I hear you ask. It is quite simply this: nine, yes nine, episodes of the BBC Sci-Fi drama Doctor Who, thought to be lost forever, have been found, alive and well, in Nigeria.

I'll let that thought sink in for a moment.

Dr Who is one of the longest running and certainly one of the most successful TV series of all time, but it has a tragic past. In the late 1960s and early 70s, parent company the BBC, believing that the introduction of colour to TV screens around the world meant that no one would ever want to watch black and white again (and before they ever conceived the significance of repeats, home video and DVD sales), made a conscious and determined effort to wipe all original programmes from its archive. This meant that, not just the entire back catalogue of Dr Who, but also other dramas, classic situation comedies, sporting finals and even major historical events (such as the 1969 moon landings) were at risk, many being subsequently wiped, burnt or otherwise exterminated.

Luckily, before the cultural vandalism began, the Beeb had copied the original transmission tapes of programmes such as Dr Who onto film for sale to foreign broadcasters, some of whom, it transpired, were less determined to delete the past.

And so, earlier this year, Philip Morris, director of a company called Television International Enterprise Archive, whilst sifting through the accumulated debris of a neglected transmission relay station outside the Nigerian city of Jos, discovered television's Holy Grail.

"I remember wiping the dust off the masking tape on the canisters" Morris has said, "and my heart missed a beat as I saw the words, Doctor Who. When I read the story code I realised I'd found something pretty special."

And so he had.

Only episode three of the Patrick Troughton story "The Enemy of the World" broadcast in 1967 - 8, had survived the BBC purge, now the Nigerian discovery of episodes one, two, four, five and six means that the complete version can now be securely placed within the film archive. 

The further revelation that episodes two, four, five and six of the 1968 story "The Web of Fear" had also been found, sent (as I can confirm) shivers of excitement through the world of fandom (in fact upon hearing the news I had to have a lie down with a cold flannel). Bar episode three, which sadly still remains out in film limbo, the Web of Fear is one of the most missed (and fervently-hoped-for) of all lost Who, featuring, as it does, robotic Yeti in the London underground (and yes, I can still recall the nightmares).

The latest find means that the number episodes still missing, presumed wiped, of Dr Who has now dropped from 106 to a slightly more manageable, but still unacceptable, 97.

Somewhere out there, more discoveries are waiting to be made, but in the meantime, Mr Morris, we at Archaeospeak salute you and hope you accept the accolade of archaeological discovery of the year.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Now is the non-realistic-battlefield-depiction of our discontent

Typical isn't it: you wait five centuries for a Plantagenet to turn up, then loads of them appear all at once.

It's taken me a while to finally get to the end of the most recent BBC historico/fictiono/archaeo TV offering The White Queen

(so about 3 months behind the rest of the world as usual), but I have to say that I quite liked it. 

OK, so this particular slice of British history really isn’t my speciality, so I can’t comment on its overall accuracy (other than to note the curious appearance of zip fastened clothes, modern drain pipes, double glazing and strangely Belgian architecture) but, as a series that covered a period for which I know little, I found it a very useful clarification of the politico-structure of late Medieval England and a useful explanation of who did what to whom, with what and for how long (in much the same way that the TV series I Claudius proved a significant help in untangling the notoriously complex relationships of the Julio-Claudian family). If only the White Queen (or something like it) had been on the gogglebox when I had been doing my History A Level (at the time, I could never fathom who Elizabeth Woodville was let alone how John of Gaunt was apparently related to everyone on the planet - and where exactly is Gaunt anyway?). 

And I must, of course, applaud any attempt at making a historical drama for prime time TV, the schedules being otherwise littered with Real-life Crime documentaries, Pseudo-reality-fly-on-the-wall mockumentaries, makeovers, celebrity-makeovers, life-changers, celebrity-life-changers, talent-shows, talent-less shows, game-shows and other Z-list celebrity crapfests.

There were only a few things that I felt detracted from sense of total immersion in Medieval-land (other than the zip fastened clothing, modern drain pipes, double glazing and strangely Belgian architecture already alluded to). Many newspapers in the UK complained angrily about the youthful / healthy / freshly washed / athletic / fully-toothed actors and actresses, noting how ‘unrealistic’ and un-Medieval they all were - assuming, therefore, that everyone in 15th century England was old, gap-toothed, unhealthy, spindle-legged and covered in chicken manure. 

To be honest, this doesn’t bother me too much. No one who was alive then is around to tell us what things were really like, and I can't think of any historical film (or made-for-TV-drama) that has ever really been that accurate, all of them being a clear product of their own time.

No, the only two things that prevented me from fully suspending my disbelief were the 'spot the moody teenage brother' aspect of the Edward / George / Richard relationship....

...(clue - he's wearing black and has a face like a slapped bottom), and the 'cut-price' battlefield depictions.

Ultimately it's always the BIG epic stuff that disappoints when it is depicted in a way that is patently neither big nor epic. The White Queen's recreation of Bosworth Field, for example, arguably one of the most important battles in English history, was apparently fought by seven men in a wood...

- who knew?

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Archaeo newswatch: Finding Nero or Trajan Places?

Occasionally (just occasionally) I find myself in the news (and sometimes even in a good way).

A project I'm currently working on, together with Harry Manley, is the investigation and cataloguing of Roman portrait sculpture in Britain, looking at a series of sometimes highly battered stone artefacts and trying, if at all possible, to provide a positive indentification. Part of the process (and here's the sciencey-bit) includes 3D laser scanning in order that any trace of facial proportions, feature positioning and hairstyle (often the most distinctive part of a state-sanctioned piece of imperial portraiture) can be determined. 

Six months ago we examined a large (over twice life size) marble head held in the stone store of Fishbourne Roman palace in Sussex. The head had been discovered near Bosham, West Sussex, sometime before 1804 and had, since then, been mostly ignored by academics and classical archaeologists alike, the official view being that, given the state of the piece, positive ID would always prove impossible. 

Until a year ago the head had been set into the floor of Chichester District Museum. When the collections moved to the rather splendid ‘Novium’, the 'Bosham Head' ended up in temporary storage. Its new found freedom, in the Fishbourne stone store, meant, however, that for the first time in nearly 100 years the entire face could be seen (and freely accessed).

The 3D laser scan that followed, revealed detail that was difficult to see with the naked eye. Portraits of first and early second century Roman emperors, of which this appeared to be one, were highly realistic pieces of artwork. Find and define key features in both face and hair, and you can positively identify your man. 

Luckily (for us), the scan showed the distinctive physiognomic features and coiffure of Trajan, 13th emperor of Rome.

Trajan, although not perhaps today the most famous of emperors, oversaw the largest expansion of the Roman Empire, into areas of what is now Romania, Bulgaria, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, and was officially declared by Roman senate as "optimus princeps" (the best ruler). His successor, Hadrian (much more famous) ensured that a monumental image of Trajan was set up in the harbour area of Ostia, the port of Rome.

Perhaps Hadrian himself, who we know visited Britain in AD 121-2 (when he fixed the northern frontier with a nice new stone wall), oversaw the creation of a huge statue of Trajan in Chichester Harbour, close to modern Bosham. Much like the 'Angel of the North' today (or indeed the statue of a White Horse planned for Dover), new arrivals to the area would have been greeted with an immense sculpture: a piece of public art with a propaganda twist.

So far, so good.

Back at base, work began on the 3D scan, one of many that we've so far compiled from across the country.  Unfortunately, the story of our ‘discovery’ broke before we were quite ready, thanks to a press release emanating from the Novium Museum (which is fair enough, given that it's their artefact). The only real problem was that the release confidently asserted that:

 "A mystery huge stone object known as the Bosham Head which is part of The Novium’s collection could be that of the Roman Emperor Nero"

This, as you may expect, came as a bit of a surprise to us. 

A second press release from the Novium, followed by one compiled by the News Team of Bournemouth University, went out with a revised text, replacing the name ‘Nero’ with ‘Trajan’, but by then the press had hold of the story.

The Portsmouth News was the first to report that "Dr Miles Russell, a senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman archaeology from Bournemouth University, believes the object, known as the Bosham Head, could be a bust of the Roman Emperor Nero" adding that "depictions of him are rare as he was regarded as a cruel leader and portraits of him were destroyed". 

Websites started popping up the initial news release, Culture 24 noting: "A 26-stone head found in a flower bed in a Hampshire vicarage garden could represent Nero, the rarely-glimpsed Emperor whose first century rule over the Roman Empire began when he was a 14-year-old".

By now we could see where this was going for the process of 'down-the-line-whisper-distortion' was already starting to change key details of the initial and subsequent release (apart from the rather important one that the head was of Trajan rather than Nero) for we know that Nero was 17, not 14, when ascended the throne, whilst the portrait was found in West Sussex not Hampshire and wasn't furthermore first found in a flower bed (although that does sound rather more romantic).

Luckily the radio and TV interviews that followed managed to start the process of ‘setting the record straight’, although conflicting accounts of the ID continue to proliferate. The website Rogue Classicism (for example) noted that "the same identifier" (i.e. me) appeared to be "attributing different identifications" to the Bosham head (and I can understand their confusion). Another website (who I won’t credit - as they seem to relish 'putting the boot in') asked: “Does Dr Russell actually know what he’s talking about? Providing two definitive yet entirely separate identifications in the space of a single day makes one think that perhaps he really doesn’t understand Roman archaeology”. 


Well, for good or bad, at least the story is out there and, hopefully, the Bosham head (whatever anyone thinks of it) can at last ‘come out of the shadows’ in order to take its place as an important artefact in the history (and archaeology) of Roman Britain. 

And who knows, maybe all this publicity will also result in the unearthing of additional pieces of statuary for, somewhere in the area of modern day Bosham, I suspect that Trajan's arms, legs and torso are still awaiting discovery...