Monday, 21 January 2013

Archaeo-newswatch: Spitfires, Mummies and Killer Horses from Hell

It's interesting (well at least it is to me) to see how a news story develops over the course of a single day, especially if, as with today, I appear to have a lot of time on my hands given, in this instance, the light covering of snow that has forced the transport infrastructure of Britain to a halt. Inbetween the increasingly hysterical news reports, showing various hysterical reporters in front of various bits of motorway "STILL COVERED IN SNOW!" and the ever mounting mass of snow and ice (calculated by one intrepid reporter to be "NEARLY 10cm deep!"), two stories in particular caught my eye.

The first dealt with the apparent climax of a 17 year search for a lost squadron of partially assembled Spitfires thought to have been buried after the Second World War in Burma. The fighter aircraft, hidden in order to prevent them "falling into the wrong hands" (no one has yet explained to me whose hands prescisely were "the wrong ones" nor, indeed, why the Spitfires couldn't simply have been assembled and flown home), were discarded in a series of pits, the locations of which were then lost in the mists of time.

At least one of the potential pits had been tentatively identified at Rangoon International Airport (formerly RAF Mingaladon). Unfortunately for the news reporters, geophysical survey and excavation has not (yet) located the missing Spitfires (or Spitfire pieces) whether in packing crates or not.

A reporter for Fox News managed to interview the director of archaeological operations in Rangoon, David Cundall, who, when prompted as to the significance of the potential find, enthused that for him "the discovery would be as significant as Howard Carter finding Tutankhamun's tomb in Egypt".

Fair enough, for him I can see that this is probably true; it has, after all, been his passion for nearly two decades. 

Later on, however, the BBC News Channel reported that "Archaeologists are comparing the lost Spitfires of Burma as a find that would rival that of Tutankhamun's grave", which isn't quite what anyone (to my knowledge) had actually said. This had, by 10.00 that evening become "an archaeological find as important as Tutankhamun", which, of course, it blatantly is not.

If found, the packaged aircraft pieces would certainly prove an interesting discovery, especially to WWII historians and enthusiasts of mid 20th century flight, but I don't think anyone would seriously compare the find to the lost tomb of the boy pharaoh.

Hyperbole is a dangerous thing in an archaeological context, especially if taken literally, cranking expectation up to ridiculous levels (just watch any 'documentary' set up with the premise that "this could be the most incredible archaeological find" which "will change the way we view our ancestors forever", when you know that, in reality, you are about to watch 50 minutes of someone driving up and down a desert before concluding "it's out there somewhere and one day I will find it"). I can understand why Fox and the BBC were keen to make the search sound far more exciting than a "machine digs hole by side of airport runway and finds not very much", but Tutankhamun's tomb was, at the time of its discovery, something unrivalled in the history of archaeological exploration, the wave of "Tut-mania" that followed having an immense impact upon art, architecture, the movies, fiction and fashion of the 1920s and early 30s.

The Spitfires. however, although being Mk XIV variations of the prototype (haven't quite discovered what makes a Mk XIV different from, say, a Mk XIII or Mk XII, though no doubt someone will tell me) and intriguing artefacts in their own right, are at least known, there being some significant record as to their nature, form, shape and manoeuvrability. Here, after all is a photo of one:

and here's another:

So, quite unlike Tutankhamun's tomb then, for which Howard Carter had no pictures, records or indication of size, wealth and status prior to shifting large quantities of sand in the Valley of the Kings.

Another curious news item today was more of the "Shock, Horror" variety with the report that beefburgers found in a number of British Supermarkets contained, not just beef, but apparently also horse and pig meat.

This perhaps didn't sound quite 'science-y' enough for ITV news, who later reported that "horse DNA" had been found contaminating the burger samples. By midday, this was sounding rather more sensational, one reporter stating the beef had been liberally peppered with "the DNA of a horse". Not just any old horse mind (or indeed any number of horses), the implication was that this DNA belonged to one horse in particular.

This worried me (and I seriously considered calling our Forensic lab) for, if the ITV News report was correct, it could mean only one thing: somewhere in Ireland (where the meat was supposed to have derived), there was a killer horse on the loose....

...a killer horse with a grudge against cows.


  1. The thing with Archaeology is that until you have something tangible in terms of evidence, it's quite a lot of unknown and speculation - the later being the Media's little play ground.

    The science is, almost, the embodiment of Schrodingers Cat. A cat in a sealed box with some poison. Until you open the box, you don't know what state the cat is in. In fact you only think there is a cat and some poison as some implied that there might be.

    It's much the same with these spitfires. Until we open the box and see, we are at the will of modern media. Just wait for the stories that the UK government secretly retro fitted the spitfires with time travel capabilities and sent them back to transport the Mayans to the Asia continent along with their calendar.

    The only thing you can count on, is that if you open the box, and if there is in fact a cat in there, it's going to be livid!

    Any for anyone who may have eaten a 'horse DNA' burger - I hope it doesn't give them the trots!


  2. I hear that those who got the trots are now in a stable condition.....


    1. Oh Miles. I'm surprised the collective groan at these puns isn't loud enough to be heard by you from across the land...

      Although, maybe a book or archaeology related puns could be your next big hit. Perfect for the Christmas gift market!

      (Is signing off with initials now the done thing? But then, you may learn my secret identity! I'll just pick a suitably mysterious initial and stick with it...)


    2. v for vendetta.....? No wait, that's a film

  3. I saw someone eating a horse burger the other day and asked him 'why the long face?'

  4. I was so hungry tonight, I could have eaten a Tesco's burger!


  5. I hear that, due to the bad publicity, TESCO are selling all their burgers at hoof price.....sorry

  6. I see this is turning into the mane topic of conversation

  7. Its not just tesco, other supermarkets are getting in on the deal, check out 'My Lidl Pony'

  8. Before it gets out of hand, I'm afraid I'm going to have to rein in this particular conversation.