Sunday, 21 July 2013

Desert Island Discs

A five hour car journey stretched ahead of me. Not normally a problem, but this was going to be the hottest day of the year and my planned route took in the M25 London Orbital, a road that is always guaranteed for ‘fun’. Still, at the end of the journey lay Grimes Graves, the Neolithic flint mining site that is one of my favourite places on the planet. I also had, to paraphrase the Blues Brothers, a full tank of gas and sun glasses, as well as the two essentials of motorway life: air conditioning and a supply of Doctor Who audio books.

As I set off, the radio clicked automatically on to familiar airwaves staple Desert Island Discs, a programme in which, for the past 71 years, the famous, not so famous and utterly infamous have gathered to discuss their lives and select 8 pieces of music to take with them if they were to be suddenly abandoned on a remote island in the Caribbean. All manner of people have featured on this, the programme providing a barometer of public interest, taste and opinion for over seven decades. 

I've listened sporadically to Desert Island Discs for some considerable time now, finding individual life stories, however mundane or unusual, quite fascinating, although the musical choices often are unfathomably awful (the kind that would have you swimming away from the desert island in hope of meeting a great white shark).

As I listened this time however, it occurred to me that, of all the professions featured in the show (actors, lawyers, writers, comedians, politicians etc) I had never heard a single archaeologist being interviewed.

Not one.

Whilst I appreciate that, perhaps, archaeologists are never quite as high profile as, say, a talented sports person or corrupt politician, archaeology as a subject, is always in the news - isn't it? But then, I guess, not since the time of Howard Carter, Flinders Petrie or Mortimer Wheeler has there been a dominant 'personality' within the profession. Surely though, I reasoned, given the huge popularity of Time Team / Meet the Ancestors / insert-other-flavour-of-the-month-TV-programme in the UK, shouldn’t someone like the late great Mick Aston or Phil Harding, Carenza Lewis, Julian Richards or Francis Prior have featured at least once?

When I finally returned home, curiosity had got the better of me. Checking the BBC Radio 4 web site (proving at the same time what an exciting life I lead), I was pleased to see that there had, after all, been archaeological personalities on Desert Island Discs, but, to my consternation, there had in 70 years only ever been 5 of them. Worse, there had not been one single archaeologist featured in the last 27 years…

In fact to save you from checking for yourself, and to allay any pub-quiz style guessing, the featured archaeo-individuals were: 

Robert Marx (1965)

Barry Cunliffe (1972)

Jacquetta Hawkes (1980)

Glyn Daniel (1981)

David Wilson (1986)

 ...and, er, that's it.

Well, ok, Tony Robinson did feature in 2011,

but, as he himself would readily admit, he is an actor / writer / performer with an interest in archaeology / history, rather than a fully functioning archaeo-practitioner.

This was all rather sobering for, although I suspect that archaeology is often viewed by the mainstream as a fringe career, archaeological discoveries and the people who make them are always on TV or the radio. Are we really such an ephemeral part of modern society - a 'blink and you'll miss them' parade of forgettable non-entities?

Surely not? 

Just for the record then, knowing that as an archaeologist I am most unlikely to ever appear on Desert Island Discs, I present my chosen 8 pieces of music which will, I hope, keep me sane in my period of enforced isolation:
1) Human League - Being Boiled

One of the first, and certainly finest, industrial/synth tracks produced way back in 1978, long before the 'League' were seduced by the dark side of music industry commercialism. At the time we could only guess what frontman Phil Oakey was actually singing about: Buddha? The life-cycle of the silkworm? Genocide? Also, pop-pickers, the only song I know to have the word 'Sericulture' in it. Brilliant

2) Killing Joke - Love Like Blood

The summer of 1985 seemed so full of possibilities as I awaited my A level results, happily mattocking through the accumulated soils of Bignor Roman villa and listening to this. Possibly not one of Killing Joke's best (step up Money is not our God, Empire Song, Tension, Wardance) but certainly one of the most emotive. Don't hear so much from frontman Jaz Coleman any more, but I suspect he's still somewhere waiting for the 'Fearless' to come – an utter hero none the less. Utterly inspiring and still one of the best baselines to feature in any song (RIP Paul Vincent Raven). 

3) Rammstein - Du Hast

Impossible really to select one Rammstein track above any other - all good pounding gruff Teutonic stuff. Possibly not their heaviest track to date but a favourite to listen to on my way to work (just to get in the right frame of mind).

4) Sisters of Mercy - This Corrosion

Also hard to chose just one track from the pen of Gothic godfather Andrew Eldritch, but this 15 minute epic from the ever pale, chiselled cheek-boned wunderkind is hard to beat (despite the multiple 'Hey now, hey now nows') with a quite wonderful rant at the very end about Hired Hands. Almost makes up for the quarter of a century career break that Mr Eldritch is currently embarking upon. A fine song and easily a contender for 'our tune'.

5) Laibach - Geburt Einer Nation

Communists? Fascists? Capitalists? Marxists? Jokey weirdoes with a penchant for army surplus? (Who knows?) Laibach represent a curious musical force, often taking successful (traditional) pop/rock  hits, such as this, originally One Vision by Queen, and turning it into an insanely catchy, militaristic stomp with trumpets, drums and men with antlers. Tear-jerkingly wonderful.

6) The Godfathers - I want Everything

Surely the best guitar wall of noise intro ever, swiftly followed by the half shouty, angry-man lyrics and Mafioso imagery from what were, briefly, the most successful Indie band to kick against the Margaret Thatcher regime.

7) SPK - Inflagrante Delicto

Beautiful, haunting, evocative - not words normally associated with the extreme noise terror that were arch industrial combatants SPK (variously: SoliPsiK / SepPuKu / System Planning Korporation / Sozialistisches Patienten Kollektiv / Surgical Penis Klinik), but this marks the point where they departed from the terror, venturing into pastures new (and just before they became a hideously commercial dance-unit, disappearing up their own backsides, leaving front man Graeme Revell to eventually (and quite rightly) become one of the most successful movie composers of all time). This has, however, to be the original Side Effekts produced track recorded in 1986 and NOT the hacked up atrocity later used in the dullest film of all time, 1989’s Dead Calm.

8) Nine Inch Nails - Head Like a Hole

With the lines 'Head like a hole, black as your soul, I'd rather die than give you control' and the follow up 'Bow down before the one you serve, you're gonna get what you deserve', this is surely the soundtrack to every meeting ever convened.   

If I could squeeze a 9th track in there it would almost certainly be a choice between The Damned's New Rose (arguably the only true punk song) and the Eurovision great OPA by Giorgios Alkios (and friends) - truth be told, however, both tracks only really make sense when hurtling up a dirt track at 70 mph towards an archaeological site in a minibus full of digging equipment (and vaguely terrified staff). All things that one is unlikely to encounter on a desert island.

So, much as I'd like a call from the BBC, I think it's going to be a very, very, very long wait.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Archaeology - the drug of choice

Just over a month away from my computer must be the digging season. 

To enter an archaeological dig is to enter a fantasy world where the concerns, possessions and buildings of the ancient dead are far more important than anything available in 'Real Life' (TM). People engaged in digging / recording / sampling / surveying / finds processing are generally unconcerned with the harsh banality of mortgages, meetings and visits to the supermarket; they are, for a relatively short period of time, totally focussed upon the pottery, lithics, pits, postholes, ditches, walls, bones and abandoned floors of their distant ancestors. It is a quite wonderful world: a Narnia for the otherwise obsessive, compulsive and socially dysfunctional - I love it.

I am, rather sadly, currently moving towards the end of my annual archaeo-Narnia and must face up to the impending reappearance of 'Real Life' (TM) very soon. But, before I am dragged screaming back into the world of monstrous monotonous mindless meetings, I will leave you with a few reminders of this year's archaeological practice.

Archaeological fieldwork....the only legal high.