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.