Thursday, 28 March 2013

Never Mind the Monarchs

"What do you think about Alfred the Great?"

The question was so unexpected that I found I had no response to it other than a rather flaccid: "" I had, after all, only come in for a pint of milk; I hadn't expected to be grilled on long dead English monarchs. 

Now the question was out there, I wasn't exactly sure what I did think about Alfred the Great. Had I actually given him any thought at any point in the last 20 or so years? Did he have a nice beard.....? Didn't he live in Wessex where he may (or may not) have once burnt a cake.....?

"Have you heard they've found him?" 

This new line of questioning was even more disconcerting as, to be honest, I didn't even know he'd been lost. 

I was keenly aware that the shop keeper was now waiting for a response. This was Alfred the Great (Saxon King) we were talking about, was it, and not, say, "Alfred-the-Great", a cat whose status had moved from 'missing' to 'found' after an urgent and heartfelt poster appeal, or, perhaps, someone's husband / father / relative who had disappeared after a night on the town only to be found, alive and well, without their trousers in a bottle bank?


The shopkeeper, apparently unsatisfied with my response so far, left his strongly defended position (behind a solid wall of chocolate and sugary drink), to emerge by the papers. Picking up a copy of the Daily Mail, he began to flick his way through muttering "where are you?" and "here somewhere". 

I shot a swift glance to my left. Four quick steps to the door and freedom; I wondered if I could make it (I could, after all, get milk from another, less threatening shop, on my way to work).

"Here we go".

Now triumphantly holding a battered section of the paper aloft, he began thrusting it in my general direction.

"Alfred the Great!"

"Have we now found Alfred the Great?" ran the headline. "Archaeologists exhume unmarked grave in what could be one of the most significant finds ever"

I sighed inwardly....most significant find since what exactly?

"It could be the year for discovering notorious monarchs" the Mail went on. "Just weeks after remains found under a car park were confirmed as Richard III, archaeologists now believe they may just have stumbled on Alfred the Great".

Interesting choice of words. How exactly does one 'stumble on' an English King?

"Amid great secrecy", the paper continued, adding a touch of the X-Files to the account "a team exhumed an unmarked grave...after a delicate 10-hour operation, human skeletal remains were unearthed in the churchyard of St Bartholomew’s in the Hyde area of Winchester, and taken for storage at an undisclosed location."

So far, so mysterious.

"No-one from Winchester university would comment on the latest developments" the paper confided, as if it were annoyed that a legion of reporters hammering at the university gates had met with a defiant and stony silence "as the exhumation was carried out behind metal screens in total secrecy". Just in case anyone was worried as to the legality of what appeared to be a blatant example of grave robbing, the paper helpfully added that "Permission to dig at the churchyard was granted by the Diocese of Winchester for security reasons following recent publicity about King Alfred - to prevent people attempting to dig him up"

So, according to the Mail, Alfred had been dug up in order to prevent anyone from digging him up....good. I wasn't entirely convinced by the logic of all this but then it was early morning and I felt as if I were only now emerging from a state of deep hibernation 

"Very nice"

I flashed the shopkeeper what I hoped was my most interested-looking smile and carefully folded the paper back up.

"Do you have any bread?"

Monday, 25 March 2013

Time Team: au revoir

[with apologies to Monty Python]:


Who'd have thought twenty year ago we'd all be sittin' here digging our 250th site with JCB, geophysics, computer graphics and an 'elicopter, drinking Ch√Ęteau de Chasselas and eating risotto from the back of a catering van eh?


In them days we was glad to have the price of a cup o' tea.


A cup o' cold tea.


Without milk or sugar.


Or tea.


Sat on a broken chair, an' all.


Oh, we never had a chair. We used to sit in a wheelbarrow


Wheelbarrow full of soil


And stones


Oh we used to dream of having a wheelbarrow! Wheelbarrow would have seemed like a chaise longue to us. We used to sit in a damp 'ole in the ground with only a tarpaulin for cover.


Tarpaulin? You were lucky to have a tarpaulin. We used to have only a spade for cover between twenty-six of us and it were broken.


Eh, you were lucky to have a spade. We had nothing to dig with but our own ‘ands.


‘ands? Luxury! We used to dream of being able to use our 'ands! We had to dig with bloodied stumps


But you know, we were happy in those days, though we were poor.


Because we were poor. My old site director used to say to me, "Money doesn't buy you happiness, son".


Aye, 'e was right.


Aye, 'e was....


And you try and tell the young people of today what life was like before Time Team and they won't believe you.


They won't!

So, for the moment, farewell dear Time Team. I won't add "R.I.P." for the impact that you have had (and will undoubtedly continue to have) upon the profession of archaeology is immense, and neither will I say adieu, for thankfully you are not really leaving us (I expect that one day you will return in some shape or form and, in the meantime, the repeats on More 4, Yesterday and other digital TV channels will suffice). Think of this not as 'goodbye' then, but as au revoir.

See you next Saturday morning on More 4 at 11.00 (and 12.00 and 1.00 and 2.00).

Tuesday, 19 March 2013


So, the mystery of Stonehenge (who built it, when, why and how) has been solved. 


All archaeologists are in agreement, everyone is happy and we can all return to our homes, leaving the monument to quietly grass over, safe in the knowledge that it will never be probed, prodded or otherwise investigated again.

This, at least, is the impression that British newspapers and news programmes have been giving for the past seven days, following the press release that preceded the Channel 4 documentary "Secrets of the Stonehenge Skeletons".

The release was suitably modest. "One man believes he has found the vital clues to solve this puzzle" it observed, "and this programme follows him through a series of discoveries that completely rewrite the story of Stonehenge." Just in case we, the audience, were in any doubt as to the earth-shattering significance of all this, the release concluded that "the results completely overturn the accepted view on when Stonehenge was built and what it was built for, providing compelling evidence that it once united the people of Britain". 

It used to be said that every generation gets the Stonehenge it deserves. Now, it seems that, every year, everyone, whether they want it or not, gets the Stonehenge that they were not previously aware of (or didn't actually know they needed). Documentaries, articles, theories and counter-theories concerning the site now emerge with such regularity, that it seems odd if, for one month in any given year, Stonehenge isn't in the news. I've lost count of the recent TV programmes that have stated, with some confidence, that the 'mystery of the stones' has at last 'been solved'. In fact it's all getting just a bit confusing. Is it "a place commemorating the ancestral dead"?; "a place of healing"?; "a solisticial computer"?; "a communal meeting space"?; "a lunar observatory"?, "a burial ground"?; "a house of the gods"?; "a UFO landing site"?; or all of the above (and more besides)

...erm....can I phone a friend?

The problem is, of course, Stonehenge is a pre-historic monument and, in the absence of any contemporary written account outlining function and use, we have to rely purely on archaeological evidence to provide interpretation and, annoyingly, archaeology is never, in itself, all that helpful, for it rarely provides definitive answers (more often than not it simply generates more questions). 

Don't get me wrong; I entirely support the new work being conducted by a variety of British Universities at, in and around Stonehenge (as per my 2011 posting 'Dig For Victory') and I do honestly believe that the results, when finally revealed, will shine a fascinating new light on this, our most famous of ancient monuments. Television, however, is an impatient bedfellow demanding results NOW, with an immediacy that cannot be satisfied by the slow and steady trickle of complex scientific analysis.

The current (TV sponsored) interpretation of Stonehenge is, of course, bolstered by hyperbole in order that Channel 4 can generate higher viewing figures for the programme. Fair enough, we all have to make a living. What worries me is that the new theory, however plausible it may or may not actually be, is presented, not as the latest in a long line of nice (but ultimately unsupportable) theories, but as FACT: solid, immutable and utterly definitive. It isn't (of course it isn't), and I look forward to the next Stonehenge documentary in a year or two that either a) overturns the new conclusions or b) provides a new ‘definitive’ model before which we must all bow down.

After reading the press release, media reports and seeing the TV programme for myself, I can, dear reader, safely conclude, if you were wondering, that Stonehenge, in one of its earlier phases, contained the cremated remains of men, women and, quite possibly, children (as previously established and as found at other sites of the same broad period) and was built a bit earlier than we thought (200 or so years), whilst down the road at Durrington Walls (in a completely different and possibly unassociated monument), some cows, possibly derived from northern Britain, were killed and eaten by some people over a relatively long period of time, during which one of the key phases of monument construction at nearby Stonehenge was completed, the whole monument building complex itself probably coming to an end in what used to be called the 'Beaker period' (as first suggested in the 1920s and 30s).

Glad we got that sorted.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013


The taxi driver eyed me suspiciously through his rear view mirror. "Archaeologist eh?" He played with the word in his mouth for a moment as if it were somehow distasteful, then he grinned: "doya know Baldrick?"

I get this a lot (although I suspect Tony Robinson gets it rather more), for archaeology (the profession) and Time Team (the TV phenomenon) are (and will probably be forever more) inextricably linked in the public mind. Funny that, whenever I say I'm an archaeologist, no one ever asks me if I know Harrison Ford or if I've recently looted an Egyptian tomb or battled with Nazis in a desert environment - probably, and I'm only guessing here, because they suspect the answer to these questions would all be in the negative.

"Tony Robinson yes, I've met him. Nice chap"

The driver grunted appreciatively. "Liked him in Blackadder. Funny man"

There was an uncomfortable silence. I looked out of the window at the rain, trying to work out how far we were from the railway station.

"And that bloke with the hat and the voice" (the voice? Any voice in particular?) "doya know him an all?"

"You mean Phil Harding?; yeah I've dug with him"

"He really speak like that?"

"His accent? Yes - what you see is what you get with Phil"

Silence again. I wasn't sure if the driver was happy with this particular response (or whether he had secretly been hoping to hear that it was all an act and Phil Harding was actually an Eton educated actor putting on a west country accent) or whether he was casting around for another character in this rapidly developing game of archaeological-guess-who?

"And the bloke in the jumper?" He was now clearly revelling in his chosen area of expertise; his major specialist subject. I smiled. A successful and distinguished career in archaeology distilled to a single colourful jumper - that's the impact of TV for you.

"Professor Mick Aston? Yes. Very good archaeologist - nice bloke too"


"And the one with the beard?" (this wasn't particularly helpful as, in archaeological terms, it didn't narrow things down much) 

"Stewart Ainsworth or John Gater?

Silence, then:

"The one that does geofizz"

"John. Yes I've met and worked with him and Stewart for that matter and Carenza, Helen, Matt, Raksha, Victor, Guy, Henry, Brigid. All solid dependable types. A good team of people"

The driver was scrutinising me more carefully now in his mirror. I shifted in my seat and pretended not to notice for I could see there was an important question brewing in his mind. He cleared his throat and, had we been standing in the middle of a field (and not sat in a Taxi waiting for the traffic lights to change), I'm sure he would have spat on the ground for dramatic emphasis.

"Why don't I know you then?"

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Titanoraknophobia 2: the fear of the titanic anorak continues

Last year, as the centenary of the sinking of RMS Titanic approached, I was struck by the increased (and increasingly bizarre) production and consumption of wholly inappropriate toys / souvenirs / products deriving from, or inspired by, the real life disaster. At the time I felt I was suffering from Titanoraknophobia (a fear of Titanic anoraks) and tried to coin the word 'Titanorakotat' (the manufacture / sales / purchase collection of ghoulish paraphernalia by and for the Titanic anorak).

The list of novelty tie-in products to the Titanic, including coffee mugs / moulded plastic kits / ship-in-a-bottle (complete with iceberg in a bottle as accompaniment) / tea towels / commemorative key fobs / ice-cube makers dispensing novelty icebergs and miniature liners (for those who wanted to relive the tragedy in their own gin-and-tonic), all seemed tasteless enough, but I have since discovered that there is more.

Much, much more.

Last week I visited the rather excellent new Sea City Museum in Southampton, which combines collections taken from the now closed City Archaeology and Maritime Museums. I liked it a lot. I especially enjoyed the Titanic exhibition which set out, not only what the liner was and represented, but what it meant to the people of Southampton (in terms of employment) and the devastating impact that the catastrophic loss of life in 1912 had upon the city. 

It was a very sobering experience.

Downstairs in the Museum was the 'Legends of the Titanic' exhibition, showcasing some of the more bizarre and surreal associations with the Titanic, demonstrating how, thanks mostly to the movie industry, the loss of the liner has resonated down through popular culture. Much of this collection was cleverly presented without comment, allowing the visitor to make their own mind up about the relationship between tragedy and income generation.

Ladies and Gentlemen let me present the following gems for your consideration:

1) 'Sinking of the Titanic' the board game:

Proof, if it were needed, that tasteless enterprises are not new (this dates from the 1970s) and that literally any event, however tragic, can be turned into a game. Note especially the tag line "The game you play as the ship goes down...then face the peril of the open sea!" - yes it's all fun fun fun in the North Atlantic!

2) Titanic-opoly:

Really? No doubt it has Chance or Community Chest cards with the witty commands: "You drown in icy waters with your entire family - miss two goes" or "Engines explode taking all those working below decks with them - do not pass go, do not collect £200". Terrifyingly crass.

3) Titanic Barbie:

Well I guess this shows the impact of the movie more than anything else (and thank you James Cameron for that), but I'm not convinced that facing your doom with a vacant expression and a heavily lip-sticked smile was what it was all about (or am I missing something?).

4) Tubtanic:

Seriously? All the fun of the disaster in your own bath....what could be better?

5) Inflato-Titanic:

Experience the life or death struggle on board the stricken ship in the luxurious surroundings of an aircraft hanger (and with no icy water) on this inflatable slide. What other great disasters / natural catastrophes / terrorist atrocities could be made more fun by the simple addition of rubber, plastic and air?

Collecting genuine artefacts from the Titanic disaster is one thing (and I'm still not convinced that the seeking of possessions that once belonged to someone who died of hypothermia in the North Atlantic, or who was blown apart during the compression of air pockets in a sinking ship, or whose lungs filled with water, or who was crushed, smashed or who died horribly in a multitude of other ways or committed grief-stricken suicide afterwards is a) ethical and b) something that I'm all that comfortable with), but turning the catastrophe into something bright, colourful and jolly good fun (and financially exploitable) seems, at least to me, misguided.   

Last year I asked whether, if news programmes reported that people were queuing in order to buy novelty tankards, games or commemorative T-towels that celebrated the Lockerbie disaster, the twin towers inferno of 9/11, the Ladbroke Grove rail-crash, the Indian Ocean Tsunami, the Chernobyl disaster or the Kings Cross underground rail fire, we would all, as human beings, feel just a little bit uneasy? Wouldn't the press, in such circumstances, feel justified to ask "what the ruddy heck is wrong with people?"

Apparently the answer is they wouldn't.