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...